Tuesday, June 12, 2018


We are waiting for Sonam. The driver-guide duo has desired so. I am new to the game and being a slow starter, in any case, prefer to ‘wait’ and watch. My gypsy is one among several which is poised by a small waterbody awash with egrets. It is 3.30 p.m. and the mercury is rising over 40 ÂșC. A Gaur is cooling off in the shade even as a sambar peeps out from the thicket venturing towards the waterhole, cautiously. Another one follows. Sonam is snoozing amidst bamboo bushes. The scorching summer has thinned the grass, yet she remains obscured. Only the experienced guide can see the hint of stripes through the twig tracery. Sonam is oblivious of the spectators at the ringside. Everyone is hoping and wishing that she comes out for a drink. Time is ticking away even as it stands still.

Sonam is a tigress and this is her territory. This is my first jungle safari in Maharashtra’s famed Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. The waiting game has just begun. Tourists are waiting to catch a glimpse of the tiger in the wild. Meanwhile, the sambars retreat and in come the monkeys. Hanuman langurs - mothers and babies, pesky juveniles and rogue males - enliven the scene with their antics. Gaurs troop in herds, but no sign of Sonam waking up. Chips, cookies and colas pop up all around. Tourists are lulled into chatting with each other and light banter ensues between the guides. After nearly an hour, I start to get restless; minutes are ticking away and I haven’t even seen the forest yet. Half of the safari has been spent in waiting for Sonam. I finally take the reins in my hands and decide to move on to explore other bounties.

The drive through the bamboo-flanked road lures us into the jungle. Deep inside there are majestic Mahua trees, the quintessence of jungles of Central India. Unfortunately, the flowering season is behind us. The sloth bears who love to feast on the mahua flowers are, therefore, scarce too.  The tree is beginning to bear fruits though.  These are last days of summer; we are mercifully at the cusp of monsoon season. We are also at the cusp of change of tourist season. By end-June the park will close for three months of rains. We are the few straggler-tourists lucky to have beaten the rush-hour frenzy.

The showers of the previous night have lowered the temperature and the morning safari on Day 2 starts on a fresh note. The drive is suffused with the heady perfume of Parijat or wild jasmine. At Agarzari range, the brash driver, who is better ‘guide’ than the guide himself, promises to introduce us to Madhuri. As we are driving along an earthen path wondering why no other vehicle is in sight, the guide gets information of Madhuri’s movement, on his primitive cell-phone. We turn around and soon figure out where the other gypsies have been. The action is happening right next to the main gate.

Madhuri is stalking a sambar in the bamboo thicket. This time round the visibility is better. The sambar is browsing cautiously and carelessly, by turns, almost as though shrugging any sense of danger. Sambars have poor eyesight so it can’t see the tigress that is virtually within 10 metres of it. We could see Madhuri inch forward stealthily half paw (held mid-air) at a time, in a real-life slo-mo clip. Another sambar joins the first doubling the chances of Madhuri's meal. Somewhere, the brainfever bird is entreating the rain gods for some respite from the heat.

In what seemed like eternity, Madhuri would stop in her tracks assessing the situation and distance before making another silent move. The sambars were now comfortably browsing away. In a moment of weakness and haste, Madhuri over-steps and the sambars are alerted. They simply balk and jink few steps away. They don’t need to run for their lives like the impalas hunted by cheetahs in savannas. The moment the tiger’s presence is sensed or it is spotted, the game is up. We could hear the tigress growl her disappointment as she slunk away deep inside. A Grey Junglefowl crowed loudly from the forest innards as though mocking the king. The apex predator too has its failures, far too many.

For the tourists, the game was still on. The jeeps revved and lined up on the adjacent road anticipating the tigress’ next move. The guides were there exactly for that reason. Our driver had something else up his sleeve. He moved away from the gypsy ‘herd’ and asking us to hold tight, took off. The next 10 minutes or more we hurtled on the murram road at 80 kph, our gypsy a Formula one racing car. It was edge-of-the-seat excitement, alright. The adrenalin was flowing, despite myself, even as a sense of unease gripped me. We arrived at a spot of open grassland face-to-face with the entourage we left behind! We had missed Madhuri by inches; she had crossed the path minutes ago. The others were lucky… but they hadn’t had enough yet.

Unrehearsed yet synchronised, all vehicles reversed and made to the gate. The tiger was headed outside the park on tar road to cross over to the adjoining range. Before I knew what was happening, vehicles were pulling up by the gate. Some youngsters with their ‘bazookas’ jumped out even before their gypsy pulled over and made a dash for the gate. The opportunity to shoot a tiger on the road in broad sight was unmissable. My driver urged me to get out too. That is when I put my foot down firmly, figuratively speaking. I was not going to do anything unethical in the pursuit of tiger-spotting. I am sure the driver and the guide thought I was a chicken!

Not the one to be discouraged the brash driver took us to a nullah to Maya’s territory. We could sense the cat with her cubs, see their apparitions, but none too clear. Therefore, we moved again to yet another spot, yet another gypsy congregation, yet another wait. An Indian Pitta pair was whistling nearby as it busied itself with nest-building. The pittas are local migrants who come from Ratnagiri to the safe haven of Tadoba for breeding, informs the guide. Few Jungle Babblers were blabbering about even as hush descended on the waiting parties. As we stood cameras primed and trained on the road, four cubs trooped out from the thicket, one by one. The three females gambolled across with ease and elan, the male scampered like a scaredy-cat! I managed to shoot the cubs and even watch them, even as vehicles edged each other out in a bid to secure the best spot. The collective sense of satisfaction and satiation was almost palpable in the air. I knew the tourists would go home happy today.

I pined for more diverse experiences, such as witnessing the majesty of the Ghost tree for the first time. The peeling bark of the Sterculia urens stands stark white on moonlit night, its twisted twigs and boughs appearing ghost-like, hence the sobriquet. The Crocodile Bark Tree or Indian Laurel is the other distinctive majestic presence in the forests. By my fourth safari, I was getting to be on top of the game. No more was I at the mercy of the driver or the guide, brash or otherwise. No more was the King the only focal point. And it was then that the jungle revealed itself in its glory.

In the anonymity of the forest, away from humans, a peacock was dancing, its feathers unfurled – a green bush amidst the dun, dry vetiver grass. Perhaps, it was trying to attract a female, but there wasn’t any around. More likely, it was dancing in joy at the promise of rains. The Pied Cuckoo, ever the harbinger of monsoon, wooed us with its dulcet song. The Pittas joined the musical soiree. Celebration was in the air.

The serenade was breached by the urgent and persistent call of a barking deer. A tiger was in the vicinity. This was Sharmilee’s home turf, but the cat, true to her name, proved elusive. By now the guide knew that I was averse to waiting around at the cost of exploring the jungle, so we struck a compromise. We headed for Pandarpaoni meadow where another tiger had been spotted. I could take in the sights and sounds en route. Pandharpaoni was a village in the heart of the core once but has been shifted out and rehabilitated hence. Chitals punctuated the drive. Alexandrine parakeets screeched and magpie robins trilled. A monitor lizard scurried to its hole-in-a-tree home. The fire line of fresh tendu leaves stood out in contrast to the dry bamboo forest. The guide was hopeful of another chance which was not to be. All the hotspots were exhausted, no movements were detectable; the dejected guide finally resigned.

Our last safari had come to an end and we headed back. Ironically, I hadn’t given up though, for me, a safari is not about the tiger alone. I asked the guide about the significance of the name, Tadoba. Tadu is a deity of Gond tribals with a small shrine to it by the Tadoba lake. With the villages having been shifted from inside the park core, nobody ever visited it anymore. As we raced to make it to the gate on time, there was divine intervention by Tadoba himself. Striding by the lake side was a huge hulk, the notorious Matkasur. A mad scramble of jeeps ensued as they vied for a vantage spot, almost colliding into each other.

Matkasur walked nonchalantly without so much as looking at us, unaware - or perhaps aware - of its celebrity status. He crossed the road in front of the crowd, over to the hill, marked his territory and slowly turned to face us. That one glance seemed to be mocking us lesser mortals. I silently folded my arms in prayer.

All Photographs in this blog and website are the Author's Original work/Copyright. 


  1. Wonderful narrative. Regards Jyotin

  2. Interesting musings. You have captured the typical mood of Aam Janata in national parks very well. Excellent pics!