In search of Sher Khan
|Where you can come face-to-face with a tiger, if you have the patience, says SHEILA KUMAR|
HIT THE TIGER TRAIL At Kanha
We are bowling over a horrendous road when I decide to put on record my indemnity bond. "Er," I say, "I hope you girls know that not everyone who goes to Kanha gets to see a tiger."
M ignores this nervous statement while K gives me a reassuring smile. And ruins it the very next minute by saying plaintively, "But I heard tigers ran tame at Kanha."
"At last count, there were about 150 cats at the reserve." M supplies this statistic with fell intent. I break out into a small sweat. It's going to be a loss of face for me if we don't spot at least one of the 150; after all, we are heading to Kanha on my recommendation. I've been there before and managed to see a tiger, too.
"Bandavgarh, Kanha, Pench, Panna... so many tiger trails, so much tourist traffic and look at these roads," says K, alighting from the car and rubbing her lower back gingerly. We are staying at a small, basic resort in a small, basic hamlet just a few kilometres short of Kanha. There are a handful of such places, running from almost plush resorts to plain lodges at Kisli, Mukki, Mocha villages; inside Kanha, Madhya Pradesh Tourism has its own log huts and the Baghira Lodge.
Food at our resort is plain wholesome fare: dal, roti, fresh dahi, some meat. There are two other sets of people, one a newly-wed couple who clearly don't want to mix. The other is a family of four and since the kids are under ten, we steer clear. Kids on safaris are another whole disaster wildlife story.
Later, we go for a walk around on the rutty road heading towards Kanha, attracting some attention just by virtue of being women sans male escort. Old hands at dealing with this, we aren't too bothered.
Post-dinner, M and K settle down for some Backgammon (we'd carried the board with us) while I dip into a book on tigers.
We are up before dawn the next morn, a bit groggy but enthusiastic all right.
The newly-weds have decided to join us, the family is sleeping in. The reserve was awarded a prize for Best Maintained Tourist Friendly National Park a few years ago and they don't rest on their laurels, thanks be. The jeep traverses a plotted route and soon, we have seen quite a few denizens of Kanha. Big, burly white-socked gaur, elephants, a large pack of wild boar rushing off some place, and of course, any amount of deer: chital, black buck, antelope, sambhar and quite a few barasinghas, including the hard ground barasingha, which, in all of Asia, is to be found only at Kanha.
Peacocks call raucously, cross our paths, as do a lot of wild fowl. Since K is a keen amateur ornithologist, we are duly shown kingfishers, lapwings, racket tailed drongos, green pigeons, crested serpent eagles, babblers, pintail ducks and owls galore. The newly-weds are impressed by K's knowledge of avian life.
The tiger is, of course, the Main Event. Whenever safari vehicles would draw up alongside, tiger talk would ensue. Word is that there has been a sighting. Would a cat come and save me from the ignominy of being the girl who took her friends on a wild goose chase?
We finish the jeep safari sans the glimpse of a whisker. We drive around, ears cocked, passing and absently registering magnificent bamboo woods, a large albino sal, huge termite castles. The many creeks of the Panjal river have sparkling rivulets of water streaking through them; the Shravan Tal, where the Good Son had stopped awhile with his parents, glitters, a sheet of gold.
The day is rapidly getting hot and we retire to the cool of our room, swap anecdotes, play Scrabble (what can I say, we carry them all). M pointedly talks of tigers she has seen at Ranthambor, K talks of tigers she has seen in the U.S. (she's the NRI pal) and I bite my tongue. I haven't given up yet... there is still the evening safari.
And someone up there hears me. The moment we enter the denser part of the jungle, again in a jeep (we decide to forego the elephant safari) the birdcalls and monkey chattering take on a shrill quality. Alarm frissons through the air. The kids from the family at our resort, who have been giving the monkeys severe competition all this while, fall silent.
It's so sudden, it's an anticlimax... almost. The tiger comes out into the clearing on our right, stops a few feet away from us and sniffs the air in a very feline gesture. We freeze. He's a magnificent male, hefty, his yellow and black stripes gleaming with good health.
For all that so many pairs of eyes are locked, hypnotised, on him, his tawny eyes flick over the landscape, never once looking our way. Casually he turns away, disappears into the undergrowth. The spell breaks.
The sighting would have taken all of three minutes, maximum. And of course, all three of us, K, M and me, forgot to get our cameras into position. So, no pictures.
Later that night, M has the last word: "As parks go, Kanha isn't too bad at all." My honour intact, I smile.
Kanha is about 165 km from Jabalpur, 259 km from Nagpur. Both centres are well connected by road, rail and air, though the MP roads are barely traversable.
We stayed at the privately run resort of Tigerlands. Phone: 0761-2622224.
MPTDC has its own log huts, and safari lodges inside the reserve. Tel: (07649) 277227 or (0755) 2774340/42/43. For more info, log ontowww.mptourism.com.
Jeep and elephant safaris should be booked the day before you want to take them, so fetch up at Kanha in the early evening.
October to March is the coolest time to go scout for a tiger at Kanha.