Just as I heard my morning call of ‘Memsahib, chai aap ki liye,’ (memsahib, your chai) my alarm went off. It was 0430 and there was no way I was going to sleep in and miss my first safari. Having not woken up this early here before, I risked sticking a leg out from under the duvet and quickly drew it back in again as I simultaneously watched my breath condense in front of my face. It was freezing, but I was not going to be deterred. I shot out of bed and grabbed my clothes and then dived back under the duvet to scramble into them in moderate warmth. Once dressed, I attempted to look in the mirror which was futile as the light in the bathroom was too dim for me to see clearly, so, hat pulled down as far over my face as it would go, I opened my tent and found a pot of cardamom-scented, masala chai. I took a sip, JEEPERS! How much sugar? No wonder these guys all looked so energetic every morning.
The camp dogs had appeared and I walked up to the main gate with them fussing around me. The chawkidors (night watchmen) were huddled in blankets, around a small fire and sipping on their chai. Raj was by one of the jeeps, checking it over, making sure the blankets and bird books were in place. Puneeta and Krishnan appeared and we all waited in the pre-dawn dark for the guests to appear. Soon, cockerels began their morning chorus and the smell of wood smoke began to drift across to the camp as fires were lit in the adjacent village.
The guests began to arrive, armed with cameras and binoculars; some bleary eyed, some like me chomping at the bit to get going. The boys arrived with the breakfasts in cool boxes and loaded them into the back of the jeeps and handed over the hot water bottles. Buried beneath hats, scarves, gloves and fleeces, Puneeta, Krishnan and I jumped into Raj’s jeep, Krishnan in the front and Puneeta and me in the seats behind. The wind chill factor, coupled with the cold of the winter’s predawn morning in the open top jeep made for a very cold journey and I could definitely see the benefits of having hot water bottles. We all hunkered down as Raj drove us to the park gate.
Puneeta proceeded to give me my first lesson, ‘So, you know that there are different entrances to the park? You were over at Kisli side when you visited the other lodges, we are at Mukki side, it’s much quieter over here.’
‘Quieter?’ I queried.
‘Yes, there are fewer lodges over here which means fewer jeeps and therefore smaller queues and less pressure on the tiger. We prefer it.’
Just as she said this, we arrived at the gate and Raj got out to sort out the entry tickets. One of the forest guards, obviously very familiar with Puneeta and Krishnan, politely introduced himself to me as Guru and climbed onto the back seat. Raj got back in, and just as we heard Rajeev’s booming voice approaching over the noise of his jeep, we entered the park. Krishnan looked back at us and grinned, ‘Excellent timing, no?’ Raj nodded and gunned the accelerator, just to be sure.
The forest was alive with sounds, the calls of the waking birds, bright flashes of colour high in the trees. We drove through forested areas of Sal, teak and bamboo, before coming out into the open grass lands or maidans, which had once been the sites of the tribal villages, pausing at waterholes looking for any signs of the elusive tiger. These meadows were covered in mist, a herd of chital poised, ready to flee at the first sense of danger, emerged ghost like as we progressed on our journey. It was eerie yet mesmerising.
‘Tiger breakfast,’ whispered Puneeta.
A short while later, a barely perceptible rustling had Raj stop and he pointed out a wild boar scavenging along the forest floor.
As the morning began to warm up, and the chatter of monkeys added to nature’s cacophony, an elephant ambled towards us ridden by it’s mahout. ‘This is one of the mahouts,’ Puneeta explained, ‘They patrol the park in order to protect the wildlife against poachers. Tigers are also unafraid of elephants so they can get quite close to them.’
‘Wow, really?’ I paused, ‘Makes sense, but I’d never thought of it like that.’
‘Yes but unfortunately their services are being misappropriated. They set off in the mornings to see if they can find a tiger and then tell the guides which area they are in. But they also do tiger shows, where they the tourists close to the tiger to get a photo. We don’t approve of it but we can’t stop it.’
‘Why don’t you approve, surely it keeps the clients happy?’
‘Yes, but it’s not just about that. The tigers get hemmed in, disturbed, kept away from their cubs or their kill.’
‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that either.’
A quick discussion took place between Raj and the mahout. The despondent look on Raj’s face indicated that no tigers had been seen so far this morning. He turned to Puneeta and myself and shook his head.
Looking back to Krishnan he said, ‘So, where do you want to try? There was a kill yesterday at Sondar, shall we head there?’
Krishnan nodded and we were just about to set off when suddenly a piercing screech intruded over the sounds of the birdsong.
I turned to Puneeta and was just about to ask what it was but she held her fingers to her lips, ‘Shhhhh,’ and then whispered, ‘that was a warning call of a langur monkey, it could mean that a tiger or leopard is on the move.’
We stayed where we were, not daring to move, straining to hear another sound above the bird chatter.
Thirty seconds later, we were rewarded by another shrill animal call, ‘Aha, that is the warning call of a spotted deer,’ whispered Krishnan. He and Raj looked at each other, with barely disguised excitement.
This was sounding promising and I was impatient to see my first tiger, ‘Why aren’t we moving?’ I mouthed to Puneeta.
She leant into me, keeping her voice as quiet as possible explained, ‘They are hoping for another warning call, it will help to determine the direction that the tiger may be moving in. It’s all about tracking and patience and a last minute mad dash.’ She smiled and patted my leg, ‘Don’t worry, if there is a tiger on the move, these two will find it.’
A silence followed which seemed to last for several minutes, only broken by my whispers to Puneeta asking more rookie questions, ‘What was that? How do you know? What are we waiting for?’ I was attracting cautionary glances from Raj.
AYEE AYEE AYEE, another warning call sounded close by. Raj and Krishnan exchanged knowing looks and Raj started up the jeep and jolting us all into each other, set off at break-neck speed in what he assured us was the right direction. Other naturalists in the surrounding area had heard the same and dust flew in frenzied clouds as jeeps careered along in the direction of the warning calls, all vying for the opportunity to reach the best position to spot the predator.
I hung onto the roll bar, as we careered along the dried mud tracks, ‘This feels familiar,’ I commented to Puneeta accompanied by a smirk ‘It’s like my arrival at the camp with Rajeev,’ Puneeta and Krishnan grinned back at me as Raj scowled in the rear view mirror. ‘He takes his work very seriously’ whispered Puneeta, ‘and thinks everyone else should too.’ Given that Raj was to be my only English speaking ally, I decided to shut up for once and just smiled over-eagerly the next time he glanced at me.
A couple of minutes later, we slammed to a halt. Raj held his hand up, Krishnan and he looked at each other as if passing telepathic messages. We all strained in an attempt to hear the slightest sound which might indicate where one of these wild cats may be hiding.
‘Oh wow,’ I exclaimed, as a flash of iridescent blue flew past the jeep, ‘what is that? It’s beautiful.’
‘That’s an Indian Roller,’ Puneeta informed me, as Raj upped his look from cautionary to scathing.
‘It was stunning!’ I enthused and then catching the look on Raj’s face whispered, ‘What’s up with him now?’
‘Don’t worry about Raj,’ said Puneeta, ‘It’s just that they are one of the most common birds in India and as you told him yesterday that you were into wildlife, he obviously thought you were more of an expert than to ask what a Roller is.’
‘Oh, what with tiger posters on my bedroom walls and asking what a Roller is, I bet he now thinks I am a complete Muppet.’
‘Don’t worry, it’s just that he is very serious about his job and feels that everyone else should be too. Quite often Krishnan or I will help out when we have several Jeeps going into the park and I guess he was hoping that you’d be a bit better informed with regards to bird species and other animals.’
‘Well, I will know a tiger when I see one,’ I said with a wink, which DID NOT GO DOWN WELL with my ‘friend’ in the front. Puneeta dug me in the ribs and ‘shhhh’d’ me as Krishnan and Raj continued with the business of ignoring us in favour of tracking the big cats. No more calls were heard and we began to trundle down the track once more, at a slower pace than before.
I turned to Puneeta,
‘So, how many species of birds are there here?’
‘280 at the last count’ replied Puneeta.
‘And how many does Raj know?’ I asked.
‘All of them,’ replied Puneeta ‘In all their permutations.’
‘All their permutations?’ I ventured.
‘Yes, well, males are different from females, adolescents can be different from adults and some species also change colours again during the mating season. Raj can recognise them all by sight and sound.’
‘You’re kidding? Bugger, and I just asked what the most common bird in India is. No wonder he thinks I am an idiot. Have I got to learn 280 species of birds? I struggle with twenty eight varieties of wine, and that is something I practise regularly.’
Puneeta laughed, ‘No no, don’t worry about that, you should get by with about sixty, just the most common ones only.’
‘Oh, just the sixty?’
‘Yes, that should do it.’ Puneeta had completely missed the sarcasm in my voice and waggled her head in what I supposed she thought was a reassuring fashion.
She continued, ‘Raj will take out the serious birders so you just need to know the most common ones that most non-birders will ask about. We have bird books and we will get you into the park as often as possible but there are a lot many birds, eighty species or so just in camp so that’s also a good place to start. Do you have binoculars?’ She asked, just as the jeep slowed down once more and Raj, who had been listening in, looked in the rear view mirror to see my response.
‘Errm, well, not exactly,’ I mumbled into my scarf. The edge was beginning to wear off my first safari. This was meant to be a fun sabbatical but it was starting to sound like hard work and I was feeling out of my depth, again.
Just at that moment we were distracted by a glimpse of a bird which looked pretty much like a sparrow, to me at least. The jeep screeched to a halt, ‘OMG, did you see that?’ said Krishnan, and with that we spent the next five minutes peering into the branches of the surrounding trees. Now the trees were green and brown, the bird was green and brown and I had no binoculars. With the best will in the world, I was here to see a tiger, but given the level of excitement of my compatriots, I did my best to crane my neck in the vaguely the same direction and look enthusiastic.
‘Did you see it?’ asked Krishnan ‘That was a Forest Wagtail. They are very rare. Great spot Raj. This guy is amazing. So Jo, you can tick that off your list along with the Roller.’
‘List?’ I queried.
‘Yes, we give lists to all the guests so that they can tick off birds as they spot them. We get almost as many twitcher’s in camp as we do people wanting to view tigers.’
‘Oh great, I’ll start working on mine immediately,’ I grinned and looked at Raj, like an over eager child giving an apple to teacher.
He just shook his head, rolled his eyes and we carried on. However, it was hard for me to continue to feel subdued or daunted for long as we continued through the park. The sight of the sunrise over the hills, the mists clearing, monkeys crashing around in the trees and a jackal trotting by, stopping to sniff the air before continuing on a mission known only to itself; this was one of the most beautiful and magical places I had ever been. I was captivated.
For the next couple of hours there were no more alarm calls and I tried to keep quiet so as not to incur the wrath of Raj with my ignorance. Coming across an area where several jeeps were parked and people in varying degrees of khaki and jackets with lots of pockets, were milling around, we pulled in.
‘What’s this?’ I asked
‘Breakfast time,’ said Krishnan and I noticed that table cloths were starting to be spread out on jeep bonnets and various Tupperware boxes and flasks were being opened. Raj leaped out of the jeep and headed off without a backward glance, to speak to better informed beings I guessed. As I helped Puneeta and Krishnan unpack the breakfast of ompatties (their own version of a fried egg sandwich, Indian style), cheese sandwiches, biscuits and fruit, flasks of hot water, tea bags, coffee granules and milk, I realised just how hungry I was, bed tea seemed like hours ago.
People from different lodges gravitated towards each other and started swapping stories about the morning safari so far. Some people had seen leopard, others wild dog which was rare for this time of year apparently, but as of yet, no tigers.
I was leaning against our jeep, ompatty in hand when a distinctive voice bellowed out over all the others. I almost choked as a hand clapped me on the back, ‘Settled in OK then?’ Boomed Rajeev. Brushing away at the tea he had just spilled down my front I turned and managed a smile. ‘Yes thanks Rajeev, how lovely to see you again.’
‘First safari? Seen much?’ he continued.
‘Well……’ I began. But then, true to form, he continued without even waiting for my answer,
‘No, I thought not. No one has this morning, of course my boys knew that no tigers would be seen today, we know exactly where they are, you see and……’ off he went on one of his monologues.
I was trying politely to look interested when my eyes were drawn in the direction of a tall man with a vaguely familiar swagger, sauntering over. Abishek! I felt my cheeks ignite into a ferocious shade of puce. Please God tell me this couldn’t be. I thought he had gone back to Bandhavgarh? Why hadn’t I paid more attention to my appearance? Then I caught myself. Oh this can’t be right. No, no, no. I came to the jungle to get away from attractive men, unattractive men, any men! He was meant to have gone back to another jungle. Jess will kill me. I will kill me. Somebody kill me!
There was no way to escape and before I knew it he took my hand and looked straight into my eyes and purred, ‘Hi, Joanna. Great to meet you again,’
Betrayed by my body, I started to melt and tried to convince myself it was a flu flush.
‘Err, erm, yes, hi,’ I stuttered and stood there as Puneeta looked on, a bemused expression crossing her face. I felt I should explain, ‘I err, I err met Abhishek at Rajeev’s the other night.’
Just then, Krishnan arrived back from chatting to another lodge owner and inadvertently came to my rescue.
‘Abhishek, hi. Jo, this is Abishek, he has Bandhavgarh Bagh over in Bandhavgarh, your clients must have stayed there?’
‘Yes they have, but we also met the other night at Rajeev’s,’ I repeated.
‘Oh great, great,’ said Krishnan, and turning to Abhishek, asked ‘So, what brings you to Kanha? It’s not your usual hunting ground.’
‘Just getting a feel of the tiger situation. Trying to get a sense of how many might have been lost since the parks closed at the end of last season and checking on news of the ones that were collared. We have been trying to establish the situation in Bandhavgarh and I thought I would come and see what was happening here too. I heard there’d been some bad poaching in the monsoon season and thought I’d find out for myself rather than go on the jungle drums and hearsay’, and then looking at me added, ‘and I thought I might hang around for a couple of days to see what else was new.’
‘It has been bad,’ said Krishnan ‘As far as we know we lost seven tigers this monsoon.’
‘Seriously, poaching is that bad?’ I asked, ‘Seven tigers poached just from Kanha this summer?’
‘It’s a terrible situation,’ said Krishnan, shaking his head and kicking the tire of the jeep, ‘downright tragic.’
‘Yes, all we can do is plug away and do our bit, anyway we can meet up and chat about it properly one of these days,’ said Abhishek, and turning his attention from Krishnan graced me with a lazy smile, ‘So, are you feeling better, all settled in?’
I felt the beginnings of flic flaks in my stomach and I looked self-consciously from Puneeta to Krishnan. ‘Fine, actually, great thanks, loving it. I still feel a bit under the weather but Puneeta and Krishnan have been really kind. It is all a bit daunting, but a morning in the jungle makes up for it. It is absolutely stunning, I had no idea.’
‘Weaving its magic eh?’ he said winking at me. ‘I am glad. I didn’t get the chance to ask you the other night, how come you didn’t come via Bandhavgarh on your way? We missed you.’
Was I imagining it or was this guy hitting on me? He couldn’t be, he was far too gorgeous.
‘Just time really, it all happened so quickly, me coming out here, and I wanted to get to grips with things as much as I could before Puneeta and Krishnan leave, there is quite a lot, I mean, the birds, and names of the camp staff and how to shop and……’ Oh God, SHUT UP Jo, you are babbling on like a nervous teenager.
‘Yes, there is a lot to learn, but I am sure you will be fine.’
I nodded dumbly.
Puneeta and Krishnan started packing up the picnic.
‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘if you get some time off during the season, pop over to Bandhavgarh, it would be great to have you over at The Bagh.’
I looked nervously at Puneeta and Krishnan, not sure that time off was on the agenda. ‘Err, thanks,’ I replied.
‘And if things don’t work out at Tiger Lodge, I can always find you a job with me.’
‘Jo,’ called Puneeta, ‘do you want to just?’ and indicated that I should follow her.
I muttered a shocked ‘Thanks’ to Abhishek and set off to follow Puneeta.
‘Thought I’d rescue you,’ she said ‘what cheek, did I hear him just offer you a job if things don’t work out?’
‘Yes, that was a bit cheeky.’
‘Ooohooo, the nerve of the man!’
I changed the subject, ‘So, where are we going?’
‘Oh, thought you might want to head to the toilet before we get back in the jeep, we have at least another two hours before heading back.’
‘Good thinking’, I concurred, but wondered where the ‘toilets’ could be, there were no buildings around. ‘This way,’ she said as she led me over towards some bamboo fencing, planted in a spiral, and handing me a couple of tissues said ‘In you go.’
I entered and gave it 10/10 for ingenuity and privacy, simple yet effective. Hygiene and cleanliness left a little to be desired, it was just a patch of well used grass but hey, this was the jungle.
‘You need to watch out for Abishek’, said Puneeta as we headed back to the jeep, ‘he is a lovely guy but has a bit of a reputation, especially with foreigners.’
‘Oh, don’t worry’ I replied, ‘I’m sure he wouldn’t even look at me and in any case, he lives miles away.’
‘Don’t bank on that!’
By the time we got back to the jeeps, Rajeev had gathered up his troops and they were ready to be on their way, binoculars at the ready, but Abhishek was waiting for our return so that he could say goodbye.
‘Unbelievable,’ muttered Puneeta. I looked down at my feet, feeling rather disconcerted when I noticed a piece of toilet paper stuck to my walking boot – oh ground swallow me up. I surreptitiously tried to remove the offending item, just as he came over, took my hand, looked me directly in the eye and with a definite twinkle said ‘It’s been great to see you again, and I meant it about visiting Bandhavgarh, I’d love to have you over there.’
Puneeta coughed theatrically and Raj was revving the jeep impatiently. I needed no further prompting, to beat a hasty retreat. I scampered in and we set off through the park once more but my concentration had been broken, ‘Have me over in Bandhavgarh? Have me?’ Just what did he mean by that?