We started off at 4 pm. The guards and our caretaker had warned us to get back by 5.30 as it was winter time and it wasn’t allowed, nor advised to be out of our electric fence- protected enclosure.
To be honest, we had no hopes of any sightings apart from the deer, which we had now become accustomed to. The initial excitement of spotting a barking deer or a sambhar had faded into us NOT reaching for the camera even when we occasionally found a these timid creatures blocking our paths ahead.
But it was not all mundane. The thick forest, all lush and green, canopied our way ahead and would sometimes open into a dried up river, with thousands of pebbles lying for miles across, cutting across the road, or whatever was left of it.
It was the occurrence of these dried river expanses or a sudden curve in the winding road that would make me hope that we find a tiger just walking up along the road ahead. I couldn’t help checking behind me occasionally as I sat at the back of the open jeep. Tigers are supposed to be masters at stealth. What if one crept behind our moving jeep and attacked me from behind? Everyone of us had our eyes open wide, scanning as much as we could, left right and center.
The other sense that aided us was hearing. When you are as deep as we were in the forest, everything is dead quiet. The hum of our jeep’s engine and the sound of its tires rolling across mud, gravel and pebbles was the only major sound we could hear. There was chirping of birds, granted but in the present setting of thick foliage, it sounded ominous too.
But nature’s voice should you listen intently, reveals a lot. Our driver had talked about the different calls of deer and even other animals, when they spotted or sensed a predator nearby.
The jungle is a wonderful place, each of the weaker species working in tandem and helping each other to stay alive. So we listened intently, as well as we could to make out sounds beyond the dull rumble of our jeep.
The road curved around yet another turn and we heard it. The unmistakable scream of a spotted deer rang through the forest, well above the engine’s sound such that each one of us heard it clearly. It was the call of alarm, enunciating the presence of the predator nearby. The driver immediately pulled the hand brake and killed the engine. Now that the jeep was silent, we realized how eerily silent the jungle was. But the scream had been a call of confirmation. Just as we were starting to think about what to do, another scream followed the first one and the direction of the sound indicated the deer’s position in the bushes on our right, barely 15–20 meters ahead of where we had come to a standstill. There was some scurrying in the undergrowth and a couple of spotted deer emerged, pacing frantically along and definitely shaking from fear. The two alarm calls had started to be echoed by other species nearby, from the sambhar and barking deer to the monkeys as if the forest had suddenly changed its ominously silent stance. The four of us had no idea how we were supposed to protect ourselves if a tiger suddenly showed up. The jeep was completely open, with just the windshield and the front doors qualifying as the bare minimum barrier between us and whatever the jungle was to throw at us. But the driver was confident of our safety as long as we stayed inside the vehicle. We spoke in whispers, each of us asking the other if we saw any whisper of the whereabouts of the creature which had created an air of mystery and fear without even showing itself yet.
The driver, to our shock started the engine of the vehicle. The otherwise normal grunt of the engine sounded like a thunder in the present circumstances and the jeep came to life. He moved the vehicle ahead very slowly and we had moved barely 10 meters when my mother pointed out to the trees on our right. Behind the green of the wild grass and the brown and dull yellow of the scattered trees and their branches, we saw a spurt of orange coat and black stripes. It was a full grown Royal Bengal tigress, the prodigal offspring of this national park, standing tense and looking ahead. We were dead scared, granted. But did we refrain from taking out our phones and cameras and clicking the beast frantically? Absolutely not. I mean, this is what we were here for. We were all whispering excitedly, pointing out the tigress to each other although each of us had seen exactly where she was. As we started capturing the beauty and the beast embodied in the same structure, it turned its head and stared at us. That moment was clearly the highlight of our visit. It wasn’t a situation unheard of. People lock eyes with lions and tigers at zoos all the time. Only this time, it wasn’t a zoo. There was no cage or a ditch separating and protecting us from the wild big cat and in that moment, we were completely in its power. If it chose to attack, we could neither have fought nor outrun the tiger. But as the driver had said, years of conditioning and experience had developed an unsaid contract between the two of our species. Anyone who spotted a tiger was to wait till it had crossed the road if it wanted to or went back its way. The driver had already killed the engine again the second my mum had spotted the tigress and pointed it out.
So the tigress turned its head and walked parallel to the road, behind the trees till it emerged on the road in front of us, around 20 meters ahead and crossed the road to the other side, which was uphill. There was a lone small tree just beside the road, before the thick undergrowth that side began. The tigress stretched behind the tree, looking to climb into the bushes beyond. We had had a full minute of encounter and a plethora of pictures clicked to commemorate our brilliant luck 20 minutes into our first safari here and were in equal measures, terrified and amazed. The tigress leapt up from the road was gone from sight into the foliage. We waited for 10 seconds and then the driver started the engine and then hurried up the road to stop at the point where the tigress had disappeared. He had hoped to watch it go away into the forest but the bushes were too thick. We were still registering the happenings of the last 10 minutes, but the driver who had been working here for the past 3 years, noted that no one he had taken for a safari had seen a tiger this early into the ride. We were happy that we had been blessed with such an experience but our expectations from Corbett had risen now. Hoping to get more sightings the next day, we returned to our guest house with an experience to cherish and a story to tell.