Ranthambhore, India 2009.
Ranthambhore National Park was once the hunting ground of the maharajas of Jaipur and is one of the last few habitats capable of supporting viable populations of ‘Panthera Tigris” – the Royal Bengal Tiger. The guide tells us, ‘a tiger knows when a jeep enters the forest. Whether he chooses to show himself or not is his decision’. Seeing a tiger needs patience, and is purely a matter of chance’. We knew it, but the excitement and sense of anticipation was palpable.
The park sprawls across approx. 400 sq. km. of forest where the rolling Vindhya and craggy Aravalli Hills meet. Vegetation is lush and varied. Dhok, ber, sal, pipal and banyan trees, a few scattered palms, the odd mango grove, and three lakes support more than three hundred species of birdlife and a profusion of wildlife. Every trip to the forest was rewarded. Sambar stags with magnificent antlers chewing lazily; a tiny chittal (spotted deer fawn) lying almost hidden in the long grass; wild boar snuffling in the earth, owls staring glassily eyed from holes in trees; and troupes of langur monkeys, always comical, swinging from each other’s tails amongst high branches and carrying small ones as they leaped spectacularly through the air. One morning we saw a large white egret hitching a ride on the back of a half submerged sambal deer, picking ticks off it’s back. Mirror images displayed in the clear blue waters of the lake – a real highlight.
There is also a fort – the second largest in Rajasthan – over one thousand years old; and the park is dotted with ruins of hunting lodges, cenotaphs and temples. But we wanted to see a tiger.
On our fourth safari we went out in the afternoon – sick of the rumour that early morning is the best time to spot game. A tiger had been sighted earlier in the day with a kill. We honed in on the spot – six other vehicles were before us and hovered ominously. Nothing. Just long grass blowing in the breeze. Everyone looked at each other. An air of expectancy prevailed. The guide stood on his seat, and then on the frame of the jeep, holding gingerly onto the twig of a nearby tree for balance. He asked Jim if he could borrow his binoculars. He must’ve decided there was little chance – “later, later”, he said, and we pulled off.
Nearing the same spot on the return journey, we saw something move in the trees. The shout went up. “Tiger, tiger”. The guide pointed. I couldn’t see anything at first, – it was so beautifully camoflagued. But then, there he was, padding stealthily through the trees – a totally fluid motion, completely unperturbed by all the tourist pandemonium. Our guide realised the tiger would cross the track behind us and motioned to the driver to reverse. The driver shouted at the jeep behind us to go to the left – noise, excitement, wheels spinning, tourists craning necks and standing on seats. The tiger ignored it all. Just kept on going. Turned his back on us. At the crest of a small ridge he seemed to relent, sat down, stretched out, displayed his best side and stared haughtily into the distance. He seemed to be saying ‘this is such a bore, but OK – if you must have a photo…’ Then silently he stood and moved out of view.
The whole sighting lasted only two or three minutes. But time stretched, reshaped itself, became elastic. Totally concentrated on the tiger, on the moment, we seemed to hang in suspension. With the disappearance of the tiger, time snapped back to it’s normal frame. The lady from Alaska in the back seat decided this was the moment for high-fives all round. Sheer euphoria. Everyone asking “did you see it”? and the guide shouting “Everybody happy”? You bet.