I had a great weekend at Bandipur, a quick break with my family. I was not sure about going to a forest in the monsoon season but then I figured that if these national parks stayed open, then it must be ok to go there in July. Luckily, the rain kept away and we had two clear, sunny days with a gentle breeze.
The Saturday evening gave us good sightings of tuskers, one of whom kept playing hide and seek with us till we moved away. And when we got out of the forest at the end of the safari, we found this family by the side of the road – two adults and one small tusker. It was lovely seeing the male tusker having fun with the young one. Other than that, we saw several herds of chital, a couple of mongoose and few birds, of which I could identify only the green bee-eater and the magpie robin. Otherwise, the forest stayed quiet all afternoon, with not even birdsong to be heard.
It was equally silent when we drove in on Sunday morning – I love morning safaris because it is great to be in the forest when everything is just coming to life after the cold night. It is usually a loud, busy time, but not in Bandipur. Just ten minutes after we entered the forest, our driver got a call on his mobile phone and off we went, zooming over the bumpy mud tracks, holding on for dear life. A few hundred metres on, he stopped behind another jeep and waved his hand to the right, with a flourish, as if to say, “here is the treat I promised you.”
And what a treat it was! A dominant adult male was walking parallel to our path – and he gave us a show for over an hour. In fact, we spent the entire morning tracking him and watching his activities at various places in the forest. The drivers and guides knew exactly where he would emerge from, when he entered into the thickets.
We were the only two jeeps for the first many minutes and so, the sighting was extremely peaceful, without any of the annoying noise and excited chatter that we find in our national parks. Nor was there any crazy pushing and shoving among jeeps for the vantage position.
We drove alongside him for several minutes; he was so close that it felt like we could reach out and touch him (yeah, right).
He then seemed to get bored and went off into the lantana – this grows in such abundance that it is difficult to spot anything hiding inside. While driving through our national parks in search of the tiger, I have often thought that there would be many tigers that remained invisible – to us – amidst the thickets, laughing at our keenness and desperation.
At this point, we wondered for a minute if the show was over (it had lasted for many minutes, so we were not complaining), but our driver went ahead to the exact place from where came out in a few minutes and walked through the grass towards the other jeeps which had come in by then.
Now, the gait of the tiger can only be called a catwalk – graceful, elegant and haughty. As if everyone watching the show is not worthy of his attention. he walked close to our jeep again, crisscrossing on this path many times – but he knew exactly where he was headed. At one point, I spotted him yawning and then sticking his tongue out to lick his lips – that is the instant when the power of this magnificent beast becomes visible. Till then, he seems like a benign cat, which we almost expect to start purring.
In all this, the area still stayed pretty silent; no alarm calls from sambar (not sure if there were any around) or langurs (of which there were plenty). We held our breath when he started walking towards a herd of chital grazing nearby. Was it going to be the end for one of those? And were going to get to watch a kill?
The chital got on to super attentive mode, ears up and eyes keenly following his trail – this next image is my favourite from this trip. It shows the delicate and exact balance of the jungle ecosystem. The tiger was not hungry and therefore did not even look at the deer. They, in turn, did not feel threatened and therefor, just stood on alert mode.
From there, we drove on to a small water body, which the driver guides were sure he would approach. He did come, walking close to the water, but did not stop to drink there.
Back on the mud track, he walked ahead of our jeep (we were lucky enough to be the first in that long line of vehicles) – walked on and on, with us following in fascination.
What a merry dance he led us on – walking on the path, crossing here and there, marking territory everywhere, disappearing now just to reappear soon and so on. At one point, he stopped to look back, almost as if to ask us, “are you getting this?” before heading towards the jeeps waiting on the other end of that path (to bless them with darshan).
In my forays into our national parks, I have had many tiger sightings, some good and some all too brief. But this has to be one of my best experiences – the show that lasted for over an hour, and the proximity to this graceful cat. My fears about heading to Bandipur in the rainy season proved unfounded. I guess this was a really lucky sighting and I can’t wait for more and more of these to come.