As I waited outside the gates of Tadoba Andhari National Park on the first day of my visit, I could feel the excitement mounting. I leant back in the seat of the jeep, one arm draped nonchalantly across the seatback, trying to look like I do this every day and I’m just not that impressed. I couldn’t keep the silly grin off my face though, so I don’t suppose I fooled anyone except myself. The sights and smells of a jungle dawn made my blood fizz like champagne. The rapidly brightening sky promised the kind of light that British photographers rarely see. The sun was still below the horizon and the grey light washed the colours from leaves and the dusty dry paddy fields I could see in the distance. The dry earthy smells mixed with the aromas of wood smoke, the human tang of sweat and excrement. The Park is named after the god Taru or Tadoba who was killed in a fight with a tiger and the Andhari River which flows through the Park. In an attempt to stop myself gabbling too many silly questions, which I am apt to do when I am really thrilled about something, I read the big brown sign beside the gate.
“The Survival of Man depends upon the Survival of Wildlife”
Which would, I considered, be a controversial thing for a UK government body to pronounce, but enthusiasm and absolute certainty in even the most unlikely assertions are two things that I love about Indian culture, so perhaps it was no surprise to find the Maharashtra State Forest Service making such a bold statement.
Lohu, my driver, was chatting with the Forest Guards and Tourist Guides. Very important paperwork was being completed (India floats on a sea of forms-to-be-filled-in. They promise much, permit little and none of them seem to make any difference to how people actually behave). Suddenly it was done and the wide gates were being swung open. A Tourist Guide tumbled into the passenger seat and Bonay, my naturalist, sat up straight as Lohu started the engine and we took off into the Park.
The journey in the Park can be unexpectedly exciting. You expect to be excited by the idea of seeing amazing wildlife and the constant anticipation of a tiger round every bend, but what really excites you is the anticipation of not making it round the next bend as the jeep hurtles through the jungle and you thump up and down on the seat, clutching your camera and trying to hang onto the safety handles at the same time. Indian driving takes no account of passenger comfort; each grunt of pain, each sharp exhalation as air is driven from the passenger’s lungs is taken as a sign by the driver that he is doing a great job.
Indian safari is very different to the African original. In Africa, one motors gently around a very wide open, grassy landscape viewing game animals that are relatively easy to see. Indian National Parks tend to be forested, so driving around looking for things would be fruitless. What you need to do is go to the last place a tiger was seen, or go to a waterhole, and wait. Of course, everyone knows the same thing and is heading for the same place, so you need to get there early to bag a good place. Hence the unseemly haste as the gates open all around the tourist zone and the jeeps roar up the tracks. There is a 20kmh speed limit in the Park. When I pointed this out to the Drivers and Guides, they looked at me blankly. I told them that there were signs that charmingly informed Drivers to keep to the 20kmh limit to appreciate the bird song. They did not believe there was any such sign and we bowled along cheerfully at 40 or even 60kmh.
My first two days at Tadoba were tigerless and the whole experience became rather wearing as we went in relentless pursuit of a tigress called Maya and her three cubs. This involved patrolling two waterholes and the jungle in between. At popular waterholes, there will be between 20 and 40 jeeps, two buses, a couple of minivans and a saloon car or two. The routes between waterholes tend to be one-way systems. This means that your chances of survival are much higher as there is no on-coming traffic. Indian drivers do make way for each other, but only at the last moment: a habit that can increase the heart-rate exponentially. Having arrived at the first waterhole, all the Drivers and Guides start sharing intelligence gleaned from the Forest Guards who have been in the jungle over-night. This is done in Marathi, not Hindi. So my naturalist Bonay, who is from Rajasthan, could not understand a word of it and I had to ask for a translation. He then decided whether to tell me or not. I could always tell if it was something he didn’t want to repeat as my enquiry would be met with a good deal of sideways nodding: the head wobble that indicates that your Indian interlocutor is choosing his words carefully.
Eventually, I would enquire, “So. What are they saying?”
Bonay looks at me glumly, “No one is seeing tiger. No one is hearing tiger”. Head wobble. Pulls hopeless face.
I ask, “So what’s the plan then? Where else can we try?”
Sad Face. Head wobble followed by serious head-shake. “No. No. No. Not moving. This is the best place.”
“But if the tiger is not here, why do we stay?” I reply, searching for the logic in the plan.
Disgruntled face. “This is Maya’s Place!” Which seemed to be justification enough and an end to the discussion.
So we continued to wait for alarm calls. Waiting for langur monkey, sambar or chital to see the tiger move and warn the jungle, and us, that Maya was up and going somewhere. The trouble with that was the fact that not all alarm calls are reliable. Chital will alarm call whenever they get a bit worried; which is a lot of the time as they are easily scared. Sambar are much more reliable and langurs will retreat to the trees and bark repeatedly for as long as they can see the tiger, leopard, dhole or snake that is causing the upset.
While we waited, I amused myself by watching my fellow tourists and the photographers especially. Indian visitors to National Parks follow certain fashions and most of these revolve around camouflage clothes. At one waterhole, I counted 16 different patterns of camouflaged clothing. As it is hot, there is not the same opportunity for clothing as there is in Europe. No need for a thermal gilet or four season top coat when the temperature is in the forties Celsius. So the cammo patterns are worn on scarves that keep the dust out of your mouth, caps, hats, gloves, t-shirts and trousers. I tried to add in the different patterns on all the camera gear, but I lost count: cammo tape on tripods, cammo covers on lenses and camera bodies, cammo style bean bags to rest on and cammo camera bags. This would all completely understandable for wildlife photographers if we were not sitting in a huge jeep-jam full of gesticulating and shouting Drivers, Guides and tourists with two huge busloads of locals who are all talking on their phones. The last thing that anyone is doing is making any attempt at concealment. The cammo is being worn on the body and the kit of the photographers as an adornment. It is meant to be seen. So it is now the very antithesis of camouflage.
Once you have settled in, an alarm call sounds. The Guides and Drivers immediately call for silence while talking loudly about where the call originates and what it means. If it is decided that it is best to get to the next waterhole, then engines are started and all the Suzuki Mahindra jeeps rev up, drowning out the chatter. I had to hang on tight and sit down fast as the call for movement comes swiftly and the clutch is let in with a bang regardless of my state of readiness, position or opinion. It’s like the start of the 1970s cartoon The Wacky Races. “And they’re off!” always went through my mind as the jeeps disentangled themselves from each other and headed off round the race track to the next waterhole.
When there is certainty about where the next sighting will occur, most of the jeeps in the Park are in one place.
The worst thing for a driver is to get caught between the two waterholes when a tiger walks out at one or the other place. That means that whatever he tries to do, his client will be the last to arrive and be unsighted. Unhappy client equates to low or no tip. Hence the race for pole position as the client is thrown side to side and up and down, clinging on for dear life to the seat in front and the camera on the lap. Keeping the camera wrapped up at this point is crucial as fine red dust rises in a cloud as soon as a jeep moves an inch, let alone racing the quarter mile. You arrive at the next waterhole in a cloud of red dust that rolls across the water’s surface like smoke from a battery of cannon. The late arrivals shudder to a halt behind you, releasing their own wall of dust that covers you and your precious camera is a thin coating of red grime. All the guides stand up as soon as their jeeps come to a halt, they turn this way and that, rocking the jeeps, calling out to one another and pointing at … nothing.
So I waited patiently (well, maybe not so patiently all the time) for three days, getting a few nice shots of things that were not tigers and worrying that my coccyx was doing the job of the jeep’s suspension. I tried to relax, take it easy and not worry.
Then a tiger appeared and all hell let loose.
The next instalment of Ten Days in Tadoba will be out soon!
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