KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We arrived at the Tuli Tiger Resort around 2:30 in the afternoon, and found we had time to eat our packed lunch before heading out on the afternoon tour of the reserve. Tourists are allowed into the park from 5:30 to 11:30 a.m. and then again from 3:00 to 5:30 p.m. (dusk). We were more than ready to see the reserve, even though we had just spent the last six hours in a vehicle. We were given a Maruti Gypsy (open jeep) along with a driver and a guide for our first venture into Kanha.
You will see from our photos that we did not take a lot of photographs of the many animals that we were lucky enough to see along the trails of the park. I have always felt that too many people make such a fuss over taking photographs of the great places in the world, that they don't really soak in the atmosphere and enjoy the experience to the fullest. There are tons of great photos of animals in library books and on the internet - most taken with sophisticated equipment by professionals. Instead, I did take a few select pictures to help set the scene for you and to remember the adventure. We saw an abundance of unusual birds; plenty of graceful spotted deer and several of the timid Sambar deer - the largest deer in the Indian subcontinent. Where there are spotted deer, one will always find langur monkeys - and we enjoyed watching their antics as they jumped from tree to tree. We even spied a mother with her days old baby clinging to her belly.
Several people had advised us to be sure to taken in the whole Kanha experience and not just measure the success of the adventure by the sighting of a tiger. I made a promise to myself that I would take this advice to heart, but always felt in the back of my mind that we would not be disappointed in seeing a tiger. Strangely, after the near miss with the stone, I was convinced that my luck would also reward me with a glimpse of the massive beast.
As we neared the Kanha Meadow, our guide said that there was an elephant off in the distance to our right - a domestic elephant. We all turned to look for it in the distance. Just then, the driver called out that we should look to the front left of the jeep. To our amazement, there was a medium-sized bear (at least by Canadian standards) digging in the dirt just off the edge of the road. The guide told us the sloth bear was digging for termites or ants, but I could see from the guide's expression that he was really excited by this sighting. He spoke in Hindi to the driver and they "high-fived" each other. They turned to explain to Anil that this is a very rare sight - in fact, the sloth bear is only spotted in the park about once a year, if that. I quickly clicked a few pictures with my camera - the third one being the best of all. We all ended up shaking hands and cheering our good luck. As each and every oncoming vehicle approached us, the guide and driver proudly passed on the news of the sighting - again and again, we were told that we were very lucky indeed.
I have taken the liberty of copying a few notes from a field guide that we had with us in order to give you a little more information about some of the animals and birds that we saw. The book is titled "Kanha Tiger Reserve: Portrait of an Indian National Park" by Carroll Moulton and Ernie J. Hulsey.
The Sloth Bear
"One of the most fascinating animals at Kanha, the pug marks can often be seen in the early morning, but the animal is almost wholly nocturnal at Kanha and is seldom observed. In nearly 10 years of visits to the national park, we have had only one sloth bear sighting when the animal was near enough to the road and the light was good enough to make photography possible. A good sloth bear sighting might be rated the equivalent to ten tiger or 5 leopard sightings."
"For many naturalists, this is the king of birds. Glossy black, it is the size of a myna but looks considerably larger because of the two long streamers of the tail, each of which is tipped with a spatula or racket. The forehead has a prominent tuft. Their ability to mimic other birds and animals is semi-legendary. Racket-tails are virtually never seen on the open meadow in Kanha, but are common in sal and mixed forest. Shady conditions and the birds black colour make the Racket-tail generally difficult to photograph." We thought that when we saw the drongo flying, it looked like it was being chased by two black butterflies.
"The size of a myna, the hoopoe is coloured brown, black and white in a vivid and unique pattern of markings. The bird's head is surmounted by a prominent, fan-shaped crest; the bill, which visually offsets the crest with a certain pleasing symmetry, is long, thin and slightly curved. There is often a note of the comic about them. Perhaps this is due to the outsized crest, which injects an amusing dose of pomposity into their otherwise stylishly elegant image." This was my favorite bird at Kanha, I loved that his colours matched the markings on the tigers.
We continued touring through the park until sunset, at which time it is necessary to leave the reserve. The guides are fined heavily if they do not depart shortly after the darkness closes in. We were amazed to find that the temperature plummeted quickly and the trip from the park gate to the resort in the open vehicle left us chilled to the bone. There were cups of hot masala chai waiting for us at the reception desk, but we hurried back to our room for a hot shower to warm us up - two ups of strong tea each were just not enough.
We had a great dinner at the open-air dining room surrounded by twinkling oil lamps and bonfires. Another guest came over to ask me if I had ever seen any of the Harry Potter movies. When I said yes, he laughed and told me that his children thought I looked just like Harry Potter. Now it was my turn to laugh. I guess they have a point, my hair is short and spiky and I am wearing glasses now. I spoke to the children for a while and told them that the real Harry Potter look-alike is my nephew Hunter McColl. When he was younger, he was a dead ringer for young Harry. I think the children just wanted a chance to practice their English with a foreigner, and I was happy to oblige.
After dinner we watched a wildlife film about the dholes (India's wild dogs) and then turned in early because we had to be up at 4:30 a.m. to head out to the park once again. An early start is necessary in order to get a prime route within the park - these are assigned on a first-come/first-served basis and vehicles are only allowed to enter the park well-spaced apart in order to ensure a minimal disruption to the wildlife. It also increases the chance of seeing the illusive tigers as they finish their nocturnal wanderings and settle into sleep once the sun rises.
At dinner, the wildlife officer advised us that we should wear every article of clothing contained in our suitcases, as it would be very cold in the open gypsies in the early morning. After getting so chilled the evening before, I took his advice to heart and ended up wearing even my pajamas under my other layers. In all, I had five layers of clothing and then I wrapped the woolen blankets they provided around me too. As we hurtled through the darkness towards the Kisli gate, I couldn't believe how cold I became. Anil was pretty comfy because he had a wind-proof jacket over his layers, but the cold wind seemed to find its way through all my clothes and my teeth were chattering. We finally found a way to wrap the blankets around us that kept the wind away from the small of my back and I began to think that I might survive the experience. Who ever thought one could get so cold at this latitude?
Our guide and driver were very pleased, when after what seemed like a very long wait, we were assigned route number 8. This was a route that encompassed some of the prime areas of the park, but was concentrated over a distance of fifty kilometres. They explained that some routes take over one hundred and twenty kilometres and do not cover the prime tiger areas. As we were paying a per kilometre charge on top of the park entry fee, we were pleased again at our good fortune. Anil was able to pay the fee for an Indian, but I was charged over two hundred times as much (still a reasonable sum when converted to Canadian dollars). We also learned that the rates had just doubled on Dec 1st. The guides were a little dismayed, because they feel that there will be fewer tourists coming as a result of the higher fees and that this will impact their livelihood.
We headed off into the reserve as the sky started to lighten. This near to the equator, the periods of twilight at dawn and dusk are very short, but very enchanting. Kanha is famous for the mist hanging over the forest at this time of year and I have to say it was something special. I took a couple of photographs that I think do the setting justice - I hope you enjoy them too.
As the light improved, our guide and driver each started to spot evidence that tigers had passed along the road early that morning. As the dew forms, the tigers often use the roads to move through the parkland and their pug marks (footprints) are easily be seen in the soft soil. The roads through the park are not paved to minimize the intrusion of humans, and we were able to lean out of our vehicle and photograph the pug marks as we crept along the trails. At one spot, we even observed tiger droppings, although these did not appear to be fresh. The tigers were on the move, we just hoped to be able to spot one before the sun got too high and they found their resting place for the day.
As we were moving through the dense forest, I kept feeling water dripping on my head. The skies were clear and I finally realized that it was the dew dripping off the forest canopy that was falling on me. We kept driving along the trails, watching for signs of wildlife when an approaching motorcyclist stopped to tell us that tourists were watching a tiger on the road ahead. We hurried to the spot where we saw two jeeps stopped. Just as we arrived the tiger left the road and veered into the forest. We did not see its head, but its huge striped body was clearly visible as it slipped into the undergrowth. If we had arrived seconds later, we would have missed it entirely. The tiger's coat is so well designed that it disappeared completely into the trees - the pattern of light and shade matching perfectly with the pattern of its stripes.
We breathed a sigh, as we now knew that anything else we spied in the reserve would be a bonus. We had found the elusive tiger in its natural environment. The other tourists in the vehicles ahead of us were especially lucky as they had a chance to view the tiger for a much longer time and no doubt had taken fantastic photographs. I didn't care that I had not had enough time to get a shot, just seeing those orange and black stripes and the incredible size of the tiger, was enough.
The three vehicles started their engines and proceeded along the trail again. When we reached a fork in the road, we split up to follow our assigned routes and we were alone in the forest again. I read somewhere that for every tiger you see when touring the reserve, there are at least ten tigers that see you. What a thrilling thought!
It was approaching 8:00 a.m. and we headed to the central meeting point in the area where all vehicles congregate to await word of tigers spotted by the resident mahouts on elephant back. Kanha has a well-designed system of tracking tigers and when they settle down to rest, they are surrounded by elephants. Strangely enough, the tigers are afraid of elephants and will generally not move when they are around. The mahouts are equipped with radios and call in to announce the location of the tiger. The tourist vehicles are then dispatched one at a time so that those wishing to ride into the forest to view the tiger are able to do so. Once again, we were quick off the mark and were the first gypsy to arrive. There were two elephants waiting by the side of the road and two others deep in the forest guarding the tiger.
We quickly climbed the ladder to sit on the platform, and then with a word to the elephant, we plunged into the forest. We had to be careful of branches and overhanging leaves and the elephant had to maneuver over some difficult terrain, but at last the mahout signaled for the elephant to stop and then pointed to the undergrowth and said "tiger". Where? Where? Our eyes tried to make out the form hidden far below us. Just then the tiger shifted a little and it was the movement that helped us to spot him. Wow! Oh, wow!
Words cannot describe the feeling of looking straight into the eyes of such a magnificent animal. I thought that we would only stay a few minutes, but then the mahout ordered the elephant to move once again and I realized that he was directing him in a circle around the resting tiger. In this way, we were able to see him from all sides. I was so fascinated that I was only able to take a few pictures. I wanted to revel in the experience and not just view the tiger through the lens. He had chosen his resting place well; he was well-camouflaged and we had to stare intently so that we would not lose sight of him. The mahout did not make a move to leave until we realized that three other groups had come and gone in the time we had been there. We should give others a chance. On the way back to the road, I told the mahout that elephants were by far my favourite of all animals and he smiled knowingly. I asked the name of our elephant and was pleased to learn his name is Himalaya.
Before climbing down, we asked our driver to take a photo of us on Himalaya. I had picked up a small Santa hat in Nagpur hoping to make this our Christmas photo, but I find I don't need such a kitschy hat to make this day memorable. This experience will go down as one of the greats. We spent the balance of the morning driving through the park observing many birds and other animals. The sun rose high in the sky and warmed me through. We basked in the sun and the wonderful experiences of Kanha. We knew we had more opportunities to come to the park in the afternoon and the next morning, but felt that nothing could top what we had seen already and that we would spend the balance of our time enjoying the Tuli resort before heading back to Nagpur.
We had a hot shower at the lodge and after a lovely lunch we decided to walk into the nearby village. The afternoon temperature was perfect - around 25 degrees and there was a light breeze. As we arrived at the main road, we noticed a school on the corner. Much to my surprise, we found all the students were seated on the ground in the courtyard doing their lessons. We proved to me a great distraction, as those who noticed us turned and waved to us surreptitiously. The teacher noticed the inattention and looked up - only to greet us with a smile of her own. We waved back and then proceeded on our way - Anil is not one to interfere with another teacher's lessons!
The village is a small one and there was not much to see, but it was a pleasant walk and we purchased some pan masala at the little shop at the end of town. On our way back we found that the school had finished for the day and some of the students were still in the courtyard. We spoke to them briefly in English - they said they are in the tenth standard and I asked them if they are learning English at school. They said yes and I praised them for their efforts. English is really becoming the global language. It may even ease their way from this remote village life into the wider world, who knows.
That evening, one of the naturalists at the resort gave a slide show presentation on the animals in Kanha and stayed to have a question and answer period. We learned even more about what we had seen and I promised to email him a copy of the photograph that I had taken of the sloth bear. We sat for a long time by the bonfires that the lodge lights just near the dining room and enjoyed the crisp night air and the tons of stars overhead. We slept well that night in our cosy room, they provide electric heaters to ward off the night time chill. Around four in the morning we could hear neighbouring guests preparing to head out into the park for their first look for the tiger. We snuggled deeper under our quilts and did not regret our decision to take a pass on another cold morning in the forest. After breakfast the next morning we sat in the sun for a couple of hours chatting with Sanjay Thakur, a wildlife naturalist. We were able to learn a great deal from him, not only about the national parks in India but about his life and the sacrifices that he has made to follow his dream to work to preserve what little is left of India's great natural gifts. His wife is studying far off in Pune and the separation is difficult for both of them, but she is doing her PhD in wildlife biology so at least they share a common passion for nature. Sanjay gave us some excellent advice on places to visit in the south and also in the far north east of India. It was a morning well spent and I took his photo before saying goodbye.
Fortunately, the journey back to Nagpur was uneventful. I sat behind Anil with all the windows closed when we passed over the rocky road. I have a triangle shaped bruise on my arm and it's a little sore when I sleep on that side, but I'm really quite okay. It's not too high a price to pay for the experience of visiting such a wonderful place and viewing such magnificent wildlife.