RANTHAMBORE NATIONAL PARK
I clambered in the vehicle with pure elation. Light pink and purple hue swayed across the sky as our safari gypsy speeds up to 90 kilometers an hour in the next ten seconds. I seized the seat handle slipping from my grasp and bearing the wind hitting me to the bone, I momentarily forgot it was April, the gateway month to the great Indian summer.
Swaddled in a blanket, over a roller-coaster road hemmed by lush green fields, opening into widely spaced trees in a few miles and small craggy peaks formed the recurring backdrop, only if you could open eyes to see.
Buffeted by strong winds that made a walloping sound forced us to shut our eyes. Soon, we yelled to hear each other and from time to time our blankets loosen open until we fought it back into place. We started the process and slowly the enthusiasm faded as the jeep nudged over uneven roads. Lost in the moment, I gripped onto hot tea flasks and turned a blind eye to how cold I felt.
Listening to the wailing wind and murmur of branches we bent behind a mountain and continued on a wooded trail until the car stopped for a short haul and we saw before us the forest gate inked ‘Ranthambore Tiger Reserve’.
A gentle wind caresses our face, “ oh, the monster has passed” said our travel companion, an Australian who had flown 7,000 miles out in the Indian wilderness to spot a tiger with his wife.
I collect myself, letting my body relax and my husband getting ready veiling under the dusk mask.
My eyes popped out seeing the bazooka, NIKKOR 200–500mm f/5.6E ED VR that my Australian friend unfastened from his camera backpack.
It’s 7 in the morning and I felt a perfect stillness in the forest, a sort that you get nowhere else, but in the woods after a snowfall or in a desert after a devastating sandstorm.
We barely caught sight of the tiger limping hurriedly into the deep bushes, everything from back and in five seconds. Albeit we missed the encounter. The spot bombarded with stories from other guides of the epic duel between two tigers over territorial supremacy.
The forest trails would follow fortress gates and many historic ruins reminding you of the hunting grounds of Rajput royals of India.
Our driver Ravi started bending sideways while controlling the steering. Struck by the same impulse, we peered over the side of the vehicle to see a remarkably big pug mark next to three tiny pug marks in the dry road.
We laboured a few miles up a mountain. I can never forget passing through a narrow trail bordering right by a deep drop and on left spiky twigs sprouting out from the ridge. We scooted under the tunnel of bushes fearing of mishap and imagining a tiger can easily cloak under the golden foliage.
No trees fell nor felines, all that fell on us was the lung filling smell of chlorophyll while pushing through low branches. We reached the spot; a rectangular stretch of rocky upland bounded by an escarpment in the front and a forest in the back. Those iconic oranges and black stripes mysteriously move from the thickets.
We were way behind, there were dozens of more jeeps before us who got lucky securing vantage points. Even our cameras failed to capture the tigress and her cubs. We all held our breath and waited.
Gauging the scenario, holding the camera tight telling oneself that the tigress was out there, most likely eyeballing everybody from the bush. Adventure is not over. After an hour, we finally made peace with reality, it was not our day.
In dampened spirits, we returned for the gates. I stood for a second catching my breath to see something come into sight. My eyes widen as the thing comes closer. Our driver announced ‘ tiger, tiger sitting here’.
My eyes open wide, I couldn’t believe it! It’s a tiger, a huge sized seating on an eye-level ridge distanced by 70 meters from us. The bazooka suddenly turned nonfunctional at such a close distance.
He throws his legs over the rock base and moves his body gracefully forward. He gave me time to adjust my lens and I saw a jaw stretching move through the viewfinder. All those moves of a tiger we grew up seeing in National Geographic.
The heart-thudding stare of the tiger couldn’t make me move, next to me the water hole was the true mirror. There was no one except us. It felt magical, indescribable and within I felt ‘This moment is mine’.
Only I followed his gaze to find a procession of jeeps standing behind us. The tiger gets up soundlessly and bounds ahead gallantly into the forest.
On our way back, Ravi overstated the entire event by saying “ he could smell the tiger”. Though I couldn’t agree to his concocted stories. It truly took a while for my heart to return to its usual pace but even much longer for the grin to fade off. I thanked my lucky stars for granting me the moment and my best tiger click. They say you stand a better chance of spotting a tiger if you’re in a gypsy against a canter, near the lake, in the morning against an evening safari or during the summers when animals come near watering holes.
These are some of the telltales of our Indian jungles, but I say, you see it only if you’re destined to see it.
Satarupa Mitra Datta is a travel writer and has worked extensively in television channels (both in fiction and non-fiction genre). She has been instrumental in writing compelling scripts for travel shows in India. She aims for travel writing that communicates a strong sense of place, character and discovery. She designs her own trips and itineraries relying on local guides and community non-profits as well as individuals who conduct heritage walks or gifted chefs taking on a food tour, giving travelers the opportunity to engage in cultural exchange.