It was 0515hrs on 14th April, I have lost count the number of times I have been impatient to enter the Tala gate of Bandhavgarh National Park for the morning safari. The eagerness over last 12 years has only increased, the same park, the same trails, but a new emotion every time. Don’t know what awaits my luck everytime I enter the park. This time the eagerness was a bit more as I was all set with my Image stabilizer lens and some dear Tour Operator friends. To show them Bandhavgarh anew, to explore the same tracks yet again hoping for some new action all the time. Keeping in mind that not once has this beautiful Park disappointed me.
We entered at sharp 0530hrs. Our driver Saleem with his brand new 4X4 Suzuki vehicle, looked eager as well, as always, will be more appropriate. I asked him “Where today Saleem”?, he said, “Banvai Sir”, “ There are good chances of the 3 young two and a half month old cubs with their mother. He said that the Forest department is not doing Tiger show for this Tigress and the cubs as they are too small, but the forest department can only stop us, but not the cubs if they decide to come to us.
After seeing the Tigers umpteen number of times, the thirst to see them here in Bandhavgarh has only increased.. We got Route D, all vehicles are distributed into 5 routes to avoid congestion of vehicles at one place. At times there are random checks carried out by the forest department to check if you are sticking to your assigned routes. Today was the day the check was done, and we were bang on, no stopping us, good omen. Some vehicles that were not on this route and had decided to take this route to try their luck with this particular Tigress and cubs had to make a hasty retreat before getting caught to ensure they are not fined.
So within minutes it was us, and Bandhavgarh. The cool breeze entering the nostrils, made me close my eyes and I could see the breeze go right deep in to the depths of my lung, into my stomach and down my spine. Chill.. was the mantra, peace was inhaled, and nirvana was near…
My tour operator friends could not believe their luck, Ashok said, “Sharad I envy your job”, can we exchange?? Ripan said, “It is bliss, a blessing to be here”, we all were lost, but not Saleem, his eyes were on the tracks. He braked, and said a Big male Tiger has just crossed, I said has to be B2, he said most probably it is him. We got upto Sita Mandap, and waited for any movement, no signs, no alarm calls, he perhaps lay in one of the caves below. He had entered the park after almost 5 days. I have been following B2 since 1998, when he was only about 1 year, did not imagine that he will live so long in the Wild keeping in mind the thinning Tiger populations. But he has managed very well. In last one year B2’s behavior has undergone a bit of change, till about couple of years he walked amidst Jeeps without looking at them, today perhaps due to increased tourism he sees or hears the vehicle and leaves the road. A sad development, especially when someone as majestic like B2 does it. Anyways we stopped for a few minutes at “Sita Mandap”, and then moved on, our next destinations was “Ghora Demon”. Coming down the slopes Saleem was still optimally using his eye balls, I thought at times more than a fish. He practically looks around without missing a single pugmark on the road. His enthusiasm, no doubt has got him a place in Lonely Planet.
We were still enjoying the chill and the beautiful morning, when suddenly he accelerated, and with his left hand in one direction, said “CUBS”, we looked and saw the 3 young ones running about 20 metres away, not bigger than domestic cat, we were so thrilled, when suddenly Saleem pointed in front and said “TIGRESS”, now, this was too much to handle. We had still not finished seeing the young ones when we were shown the mother of the three. The young ones moved away, but the mother was more concerned in handling what she had in her mouth, a kill of a Langur Monkey. She sat about 10 metres from us and was enjoying the Langur. All of us could not believe our luck, in flat 20 minutes after entering the park we had seen what people come to Bandhavgarh for. I positioned my Canon 350D with the Image Stabiliser 100-400mm lens, and started. After about 3-4 minutes another Jeep with a Japanese tourist also from our group reached the spot, our Resident Naturalist Jagat was on board, and he smiled looking at me. Smile said, what he wanted to, i.e. You again are before me, I just acknowledged and patted Saleem. After another couple of minutes 2 more Jeeps reached the spot. Perhaps this was enough for the Tigress to get up, pick up the kill in her mouth and move away, another 10 metres, and again sat looking at us and eating. In between she called for her cubs, they were around but on the other side of the hill, and refused to come anywhere in sight of the Jeeps.
She continued eating, blissfully ignorant to the 6 Jeeps that were close to her, and when she was almost through, got up, smelled the ground around for any leftovers, gave a 180 degree look to the spectators in front, licked her nose and walked back on the ramp, this is what I call a “Catwalk”. Perhaps this walk would have put lot of supermodels to shame, paparazzi was happening in Bandhavgarh, it was no Hollywood personality, but a lone Tigress. Truly, the Queen of the Forest. She moved on, without looking back, when slightly hidden in tall grass she decided to ease her and call for her young ones. It was time for them to move as the homo-sapiens had taken over the park for next 4 hours.
Morning, Day and the trip was successful, bagful of shots, mindful of memories, and cursing oneself as always, and every time when I leave Bandhavgarh for Delhi by the afternoon train, could I have not stayed over, can I not just stay here. Some day, surely some day, promise myself soon..