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Ek tha tiger!

A tigress in Kanha. (Below) A jungle track. Pictures: Ratna Singh

Just before daybreak, Kanha National Park is colder and quieter than Pench. In the open Gypsy, our groggy-eyed little group — comprising a corporate team from Gurgaon and me — is thawing with hot water bags and blankets on our laps, the sharp morning wind whipping our faces. “No pain, no gain,” says Mr X, seated next to me, whose eyes are no bigger than slits at this point. The “gain” would be a glimpse of Kanha’s most famous resident, who also happens to be a probashi Bangali — the Bengal tiger.

Tucked in the Satpura range in MP, Kanha is a dense forest of tapering sal trees, broken with sunshine meadows, glistening pools and dry stream beds. As our Gypsy trundles through this tunnel-like green canopy and pops out on a patch of kaashphul, it feels like we have landed in Alice’s Wonderland.

The dusty tracks meander, coil and cross each other. And every bend, every fork looks like the one before. Since I am no Alice, the sameness makes me dizzy. Our naturalist Sidhraj and guide Naresh, however, talk like they are driving down some gully in their para. “Which lane was she seen roaming last evening?” “Let’s check out so-and-so point, she might come looking for her cubs.” “Oh look, pug marks! Umm… she was here barely two hours back.” She is Mahaveer Female. A new mother who shares her turf with another grown-up daughter. “And she is shy.” Really? “Count on your luck.”

Playing hide and seek with Mahaveer Female, we had almost forgotten that a forest is home to other glorious creatures too till a herd of gaurs knocked some sense into us. We found them having a breakfast of bamboo leaves. The gaur, or Indian bison, is the strongest cattle species in the world. Even a tiger thinks thrice about taking one on. This herd would shortly be leaving Kanha for their annual winter holidays in the Himalayas.

All the cameras in our jeep are out, waiting for the herd to come out of the shrubs. “Please pose!” pleads Mr Y from the rear seat. Click, click, click… The herd starts inching towards us. “One more please.” Click, click, click…. An uneasy Sidhraj revs up the engine and reverses; they are getting too close for comfort. “Just one more!” Click, click… The alpha-male gaur in the group obviously has had enough. He stops chewing and fixes us with a stare: “Don’t. Mess. With me. Now move your ass!” We disappear before he can count five.

Some way down, the langurs are screaming out their SOS calls. Mahaveer Female is holed up in a bamboo grove and there’s a good chance she will come out. “Because tigers have soft paws, they prefer to walk on tracks than get pricked by thorns,” Naresh helps. One of us has spotted something brown moving — the moment of truth is finally upon us. Before that, Mr Z from the front seat blurts out a home truth — he’s got to answer nature’s call. And it’s like now or never. A collective gasp of shock rents the air. “What?! You mean now?!” Mr X is stumped by the anticlimax, after roaming in the sun for five hours. So yes, we are leaving the spot on humanitarian grounds. And no, we don’t really expect a tiger to wait for us.

catch me if you can

We are sunning at one of the forest camps where several other jeeps have also stopped for a bite. Sidhraj has rolled out our breakfast on the bonnet. Cucumber sandwiches, paneer rolls, gobi paratha, muffins, cookies, bananas and tea or coffee as you wish…. Yum. So what? We missed watching Mahaveer Female saunter out of her hideout and stop in her tracks. The lucky jeep that drove right in front of her had two Delhi PYTs, in designer jackets and shoes, who shrieked so much in excitement that the big cat bared her incisors and let out a blood-curdling roar. The girls haven’t uttered a word since, we are told. “She roared because she got scared and felt threatened,” whispers Naresh. Now who would have thought of that.

Sidhraj tries to pep us up with peacocks and chitals, ambling along this track and that. And for the umpteenth time, we cross this middle-aged grumpy couple from Holland who have had no luck, like us. “Listen! That’s the deer’s alert call,” the two guides chorus. Off we scoot, Mr & Mrs Holland and us, in the direction of the call.

Seven other vehicles have already rolled in at that suspected spot, forming a long queue, leaving a wide gap in the middle. “Sush… Quiet everybody!” yells an angry voice. And so the wait begins. Yet again. Our urban eyes are tired from constantly scanning the shrubs at 180-degree angle. At this point, all we can see is some chitals warily wagging their tails. “Well, that’s a sure sign she’s there!”

The seconds feel like minutes. I decide to shut my eyes and rest. “Look! There….” There’s a muffled chorus all around. Five metres away from us is the gorgeous Mahaveer Female, her brown-black stripes darker than Baginalla. She takes her own sweet time to cross the track through the gap thoughtfully created by the drivers — not even glancing at the 48 pairs of eyes — and strolls towards the bushes! There are shouts of joy and high-fives in all the jeeps.

For the first time since daybreak, Mr & Mrs Holland smile at each other, and us.

Wiser after two safaris, t2 tips for you

1. The flip side of being hung up on tigers? You start behaving as if chitals and barasinghas come grazing into your backyard every day. Pay attention; they are no less fascinating. You will also miss the delicious sights, sounds and smells of the forest.

2. If you are lucky enough to spot a tiger, take in those fleeting moments instead of fiddling with your camera. “Mann mein chhavi kheench lo (Capture with your mind’s eye),” as Naresh says. Or you will rue the moment forever.

3. Talk less and listen more. You’ll soon know a deer call from a langur’s.

4. Watch your water intake. It might take 15 minutes to reach a forest camp and the law prohibits anyone from getting off a safari vehicle in the jungle, no matter what.

Banjaar Tola, the Taj Safaris Kanha lodge, is a cluster of canvas tents propped up on stilt-like structures, overlooking the Banjar river. This is the West camp. In the East camp, the tents are on the same level as the river.

Every tent opens onto a deck done up with khatiyas and a sit-out set-up. You would hate to miss stretching on these gaddis in the afternoon and watching chitals come down to the river for a drink. If the sun feels too strong, watch the river from inside, through the glass partition.

This three-tiered tripod is a speciality of Banjaar Tola. Served at lunch on sal leaves, it comes laden with salads, starters and dessert. (That Shahi Tukra sitting on top was to die for!) Main dishes and roti/rice are served on the side.

Ever tried a cold breakfast on a cold morning? This chilled yogurt, muesli and honey-dipped apricot mix sets off a luscious explosion in the mouth. Follow up with orange marmalade on multigrain bread and fresh fruit juice (above). Every item made in the Banjaar Tola kitchen, ‘fresh’ doesn’t get better than this.

The by-the-river reception area in the West camp is a great spot to have breakfast, lunch or dinner. Once a week, both Baghvan and Banjaar Tola host bush dinners. Bonfire, tribal drums and dance, food with a local touch and drinks... happy hours are made of these.

Pictures: Reshmi Sengupta


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