Dressed in a brand new sleeveless top and trousers, I clumsily sat in the elevated middle seat of the jeep. The husband was away with the driver to attend to the paperwork. We were about to embark on our first safari in the wilderness of Tadoba jungle. It was 2 PM and the glare of the Sun was at its worst. I was counting the number of tourists on the other jeeps. Most had 6, some 4. Our jeep would have only 2 — an easy choice for a tiger. In my mind I already pictured myself dead.
Things were not always like this. I had performed meticulous research-work, and had recruited two more friends who would accompany us and split the cost. Both of them backed out in the last moment, but not before seeding in my mind a very justified question, “How do we make sure we would come home alive and the tigers wouldn’t feast on us? They are wild animals after all!”
The open top jeep gave me jitters, but I was told that in Tadoba forest, that is the only form of vehicle.
The jeep raced along the wide asphalt road that ran straight through the forest. The forest is mostly made up of bamboo trees. The temperature within the forest was significantly lower compared to that outside. Our guide explained that the wide presence of bamboo trees is responsible for it.
“Tigers do not come out on the road during this time of the day due to the heat. They are found in watering holes,” went on Bhagwan.
A violent jerk and I was forced to grab the iron rod partitioning our seat from the driver’s. To my horror, and my husband’s delight, I found the driver has taken a left turn, wheeling on a dirt road.Weak twigs and bushy leaves of the bamboo trees caressed us from both sides. I went from uncomfortable to immobile. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out if two tigers charged at our jeep from the front and the back, how the driver planned to escape. After a few minutes, the narrow path gave way to a wider opening with a tiny water body. Our jeep waited for any feline to show up, then left the same way.
Suddenly, the guide gasped. Pointing to the ground he asked us to notice pugmarks. He conjectured the tiger must be around here somewhere, very much aware of our presence. Our jeep was the only vehicle around in the vicinity at that time. The leaves rustled and startled us. Turning around, we saw a train of sambar deer.
To my relief, we were back on the broad road again. While passing through the savannah we noticed an entire party of jeeps has gathered around a spot. For the first time, we saw a tiger in the wild. Matkasur, the dominant male tiger of the region, was lounging in a watering hole far away. His body was half submerged in water, eyes closed. On the other end of the watering hole, a deer tiptoed in. It slurped the water, keeping an alert eye on the tiger. Its baby followed in mom’s footsteps. Within minutes, an entire herd of deer had quenched its thirst.
Matkasur opened his eyes and casually moved a bit. The herd of deer ran back many steps, observed the big cat, and returned only when they felt confident that he means no harm. On the long yellow grass bed beside us monkeys were grunting.
On a different watering hole, we met spotted deer or chital in close proximity. Families of deer were grazing on dried leaves. The little ones seemed curious of the jeeps. Some of them stopped grazing, looked up at us and froze. I am not sure if it was inquisitiveness or fear. The other members of the herd came one by one and in that moment of serenity, Tadoba started growing on me.
Our jeep was break dancing on its way to Tadoba Lake, a large natural water body which never runs dry, even in summer. While passing through the dense forest cover, we came across the barking deer. We couldn’t have spotted them on our own if our guide had not helped us. The barking deer seemed to be shyer than the sambar and chitals. Like a new bride, they ran away the moment our vehicle stopped. One of them hid against a bamboo bush and, like a child playing hide-and-seek, once in a while it peeped out to check with us.
A sambar was bathing in lake Tadoba. It lay flat facing the sky and moved its head. Its branched antlers disturbed the calm water and generated ripples. A gaur,or Indian bison, was walking down to the shore of the lake. I had heard numerous tales of bison aggression. Many unanimously accept that bison are even more dangerous than tigers. Timidly, I asked the guide about his opinion on the matter. He immediately rejected it; I am not sure if he was being honest or was he just trying to comfort me.
“Where are we going now?” I asked the guide.
“To Sonam Tigress’ home”, he replied.
Sonam tigress lives with her four cubs. Bhagwan said he had once witnessed Sonam mating with Matkasur. We again left the broad road and meandered on a dirt track. All of us kept a sharp eye for the tigress and her cubs. Most of Sonam tigress’ area was featured with black, lifeless trees. On asking, we got to know a huge forest fire last year had charred this part of the forest. The wheels kept rolling; the forest ended in a large savannah with yet another sizeable water body. It was sunset time and the sky was awash with golden hue. Through the tall grasses we saw silhouettes of wildlife in Tadoba jungle. But Sonam and her children gave us a miss.
It was already 5.30PM. Our first safari had almost reached its fag end. Pointing to some leafless white trees on two sides of the road our guide exclaimed to us, “Those are ghost trees”.
Sterculia Urens is the English name for it. The birds of Tadoba National Park seemed very fond of the ghost trees. The pale white branches of the trees dangled down like tentacles of octopus. The bark of the tree changes colour throughout the year. The gum of this tree is used for medicinal purposes.
There is one spot in Tadoba with washrooms and other tourist facilities, just before you enter the gate into what used to be the previous boundary of the Reserve before it was expanded. There, our driver and guide retreated for a mini bathroom break. At that moment we heard a sound — a strange sound typically associated with the forest — the call of a barking deer. The call of a barking deer implies the presence of a feline nearby. We sat perched on top of the jeep without the guide and driver. I found the fear in my heart with which I had set out for the safari had subsided and all I could feel was excitement. Our saviours came running to us after finishing their business which was so badly timed. They took us closer to the call. We sat waiting there for the sighting of a royal Bengal Tiger.
Unfortunately for us time was up, darkness was falling and Tadoba tiger reserve was nearing its closing time. With screeching tires we raced our way back to the gate. Every travel experience changes us. I entered the gate with a weak heart and lots of misinformation; I left it with first-hand knowledge and wisdom.
Click to read my article on how to plan a trip to Tadoba to plan a do-it-yourself trip.