It’s 0500 and the knock on the door gets louder by the minute. Jhandu, fresh and beaming as ever is ready with the morning chai. Even before we take the chai, there is a question for him – ‘Kaunsa zone mila hai?’ (what zone have we got today?). ‘Zone 1’ he says – and with that answer even the piping hot cup suddenly feels like an ice cube.
Zone 1 in Ranthambhore National Park is not exactly known for bountiful tiger spottings. Among the 5 main zones, it is the shortest and has only one resident tiger who shows scant respect for lines drawn on a map by man. Dejected, we drain our cup empty and start packing the cameras and water bottles. We dress to blend in to the forest – browns, olives and greys. Even our camera lenses have camouflage covers on them to avoid unsettling the wildlife. In short, we are armed and ready.
Half an hour later, our Gypsy for the game drive has already arrived. Mercifully, the guide and driver are seasoned pros – well known to us. The buzz last evening has been that T-24, the resident male was sighted on a Sambhar kill in Zone 1. Suddenly, the prospects of sighting one of the park’s more belligerent males look bright. We are raring to go, but there is a problem.
‘Abey Goldy – kahan hai?’ No sign of the big dude, and then a minute later he comes, thundering down the stairs like a raging torrent. As usual he spent too much time on the throne after dunking too many kebabs last night and as usual he gets an earful of playful banter.
The park gate is a 10 minute drive away, our indemnity forms are already filled. The government is not responsible if a tiger decided to have us for lunch now. At the gate we urge our guide to complete the formalities quickly and we are at Singh Dwar – from where the safari formally starts. We try and gather fresh news from the guard at the gate but none is forthcoming.
Our drive will take us past exotically named spots like Tooti Ka Nala, Kala Peela Pani and Dhoop Chowk. We give the first point a cursory check before heading on. Apart from the morning chatter of birds and rutting calls of Spotted deer the forest air has little to tell us. The trail is dead too – no pugmarks that would be of any interest can be seen. We soldier on to no avail.
At Kala Peela Pani we will have to turn back as the trail ends. At this very spot the previous season, we came face to face with T-24’s mate T-39 in a memorable encounter. Kala Peela Pani is also a perennial source of water so the chances of a tiger coming this way are always high. So we wait.
At first there is silence in the Gypsy. We all listen to the jungle – A bunch of Alexandrine Parakeets on a Flame of the Forest make a racket. Unfazed, the Langoors on the nearby branches groom each other. Rufous Treepies look intently at us in hope of a meal. A Black Tail mongoose slinks hurries the trail and Sambhar graze contentedly in the distance.
The clock ticks, the sun climbs, patience wears thin. So we bully Sid – as usual. And then we turn to Goldy – as usual, who protests – as usual. Suddenly – there is deathly silence in the Gypsy. A Cheetal has called out in alarm. And the langoor are agitated too – their short, staccato cries have us reaching for our cameras. The ugly, loud brays of the peacocks make us hold our breath. A predator is on the move.
The calling and barking goes on for nearly five minutes and our hopes rise with each one of them. The sound of engines breaks our concentration – other groups have heard the commotion and have come rushing. We frown – not wanting to share our ‘catch’ with anyone else. Someone in the other Gypsy mutters something – half a dozen glares are instantly directed at him. He cowers.
Something in the bushes dead ahead moves – our fingers tense on the shutter. A bunch of peafowl emerge in alarm, wings fluttering but our quarry is still hidden. We continue to wait.
Ten minutes go by – nothing moves. The alarm calls have died down. The langoors revert to their grooming. The peacock busies himself in the pursuit of amorous females. The Sambhar get back to their grazing. Our driver signals that it is time to go. We have to leave the park by 0930 hours or the driver and guide can get suspended.
With drooping shoulders we get back to Singh Dwar. There is another Gypsy there – its plate tells us it is from Zone 2. In it are a bunch of yuppies in bright t-shirts and Armani glares, looking as out of place as a suited banker in Calangute. But their ear to ear grins have another story to tell. They’ve spotted one.
Our driver comes back after completing the formalities. ‘Noor and Sultan at Phoota Kot – 45 minute tak dikhe dono, paani mein the’ – Apparently the yuppies managed to spot T-39 ‘Noor’ with her cub Sultan in the water, and that too for 45 mins. Needless to say, the length of our faces had increased.
That afternoon, we are determined to get Zone 4 or 5 – so a barrage of requests are made and Jhandu arrives with the good news. Zone 4 it is – domain of the T-25 aka the ‘Dollar Male’, T-19 and that legend among tigers, T-16 ‘Machhli’.
This time, the right turns left from Singh Dwar and we make it a point to stop at Gullar Kui. There is a little pond there above which sits a Brown Fish Owl. A Brown Fish Owl is lucky – you see one, you see a tiger for sure (like everyone else, we too have our pet superstitions). And he is there, wondering why so many apes are pointing so many big tubes at him.
At Tamba Khan, the road turns right and climbs – steeply. There is a logjam of Gypsies and Canters which can only mean one thing. Yes there is a tiger – nay tigers. Apparently, T-25 and T-16 are hanging out together. The matriarch in the company of the young stud is like Rekha dating Hrthik Roshan for lack of a better example. No wonder there is so much commotion.
Suddenly, T-25 gets up and starts moving downhill. Vehicles jostle for position to catch a glimpse, but there is no room to maneuver on the steep slope. Tempers fray, engines rev but to no avail – he is gone. All that remains is Machhli, who has seen thousands of tourists come and go in her 15 years and more. She is least bothered and rolls over for a nap.
It doesn’t take a minute for the traffic to dissipate then. Some with happy spotters, other’s still waiting for a shot at our first tiger. But if we’ve learnt anything from the tiger – it is patience. So we head down to Tamba Khan and wait. There’s plenty of bird life around to keep us engaged.
Half an hour later, a Sambhar barks. The sound coming from the cemented waterhole’s direction. We rush, just in time to find T-25 step out of the water and vanish in to the thicket. Dang! We wait again. Soon there is another alarm call.
We spot movement in the bushes – it is a tiger indeed. But not 25, it is a female. Our guides are experienced and know where it is headed. The driver wastes no time in positioning us – the excitement makes us pant. As if we have been sprinting through the forest.
Soon there is another movement – we hold our breath. Not that we have a choice – the sight of Machhli heading right towards can have that effect. Our eyes lock, an inexplicable chill runs down our spine. A quad of camera shutters come to life in unison. The hunt, is over. The tiger has got us – again.