Pench Tiger Reserve isn’t the simplest terrain. After zipping around in what I imagined to be a haphazard and aimless manner across the National Park for a long time, I soon realised there was a method to the Pugdundee Safari guide’s madness. He knew just the spots to check, and was working his way through them in the order of probability of the tiger being there. The safari vehicles we’d been passing all afternoon had that almost deflated aura about them (you can always tell when a safari group has had no luck). But there came a point where there was a strange vibe in the air. We couldn’t quite place it, because they certainly didn’t have that chuffed look one does after having seen the trophy. No this was them hiding something, zipping off to a secret location, acting on a tip they’d received. Our guide picked up on it and turned the jeep around to follow them, deftly and swiftly. We soon came to a screeching halt in a dry, dusty clearing where a half dozen safari vehicles seemed to be waiting in anticipation. They all seemed to have their eyes locked to the right. I followed their line of sight. A small pond with algae coated water shimmered in the bright sunlight. But there was no animal movement around. Yet.
The thing about tiger trailing, I can now state with authority (since I like deluding myself that having gone on a dozen safari drives makes me an expert), is you have to be patient. But you also have to be quick, I told myself, thinking back to the time I was just in time to spot a pair of tall upright tails disappear into the grasses of Kanha National Park. They disappeared even before our jeep rumbled to a halt. And we never saw them again.
Suddenly the bored, listless ambience was charged with energy. A couple of people on another jeep were pointing to something to the far right. Our guide stood on tiptoe and exclaimed in a stage whisper. It’s there. I narrowed my eyes into slits, trying to peer far into dry single-toned forest. And then I saw it, a slightly brighter shade of orange, moving through the fallen branches. She padded gently, moving like a ghost, closer towards us. I stood up slowly, trying to angle my camera for a better shot. And I began clicking furiously. She took her time, moving in and out of the shadows, weaving through the slim tree trunks. She seemed like a woman on a mission. And then we understood why. She was headed to her neighbourhood watering hole. Quite literally, a shallow, personal-sized pond with moss around the edges. She lapped away at the water furiously at first. Once her thirst had been quenched, she looked up, and around. Flicking her ears. It was almost as if she was looking around to check if the coast was clear before she proceeded with her antics. If we’d had any doubts about who we were looking at, Pench’s favourite tigress – Collarwali’s young cub gave herself away. Pawing the water with the curiousity of an infant, she proceeded to play with the water’s surface, enjoying the ripples she created. She watched as her reflection danced and distorted (and I enjoyed my front row seat thanks to the 600 mm zoom lens through which I was watching the action). As if realising that she was being watched, she suddenly stopped, and rather regally tiptoed into the water, elegantly settling down, in a graceful pose, giving us the eye. This was perhaps the only time I forgot to take pictures, because I was absolutely spellbound by her beauty.
As if to undo every single thing I was feeling, she stood up, and I grimaced. The slush from her little bath had left half her body coated in wet, brown mud. They say it’s the latest style in the jungle, she seemed to say, as she sashayed across the road. The best time visit Pench National Park is the summer (because that’s when the tigers frequent the water holes), but it’s also the worst because they’ll be coated in muck, hiding their gorgeous orange-gold coat. She continued ambling, crossing from right in front of us, and disappearing into the the thick, sunlit growth.
It wasn’t the only sighting we had of her that drive. No, we were to score a double whammy that evening. A short while later, we chanced upon her mother, Pench’s legendary Collarwalli. Coming out of their den to call her little one home for dinner (my guess), Collarwali trudged the exact same path, and it was like deja vu, except this time, the creature was larger, far stronger and more majestic, and had a collar around her neck. She walked over to where her (not-so-little) little one had disappeared and called out to her. Waiting for her to appear, she then escorted her back to their den, crossing our path multiple times, giving us a long, delightful sighting. I’d been balancing the lens precariously on the railing of the jeep, my fingers gripped tight around the camera, sweat making them clammy and droplets falling from my temples to the dial on the camera. I’d been so transfixed, I hadn’t noticed any of this till they finally plodded out of sight.
That night, back at the Pench Tree Lodge, I slept with a huge contented grin on my face. So glad that I didn’t have to resort to the wildlife tourism cliche of “venture into the jungles with no expectations, and nature will not disappoint.” I was glad I’d had such a successful drive, and had no expectations from the next morning’s drive. Turns out, that cliche is true. For nature did not disappoint the next morning either.
There we were, (not really) minding our own business driving through the jungle, with no major hopes or expectations pinned on this drive. We had no agenda, except to enjoy whatever it was that the wild would offer to us that morning. We were in a very different part of the forest. It was greener, lush and fresh. Our jeep climbed over a steep incline, and what we saw ahead of us quite literally stopped us in our tracks. In the dip ahead, a line of 15 odd jeeps had queued up over a bridge, waiting in apparent anticipation. We inched closer, wondering if we were to get lucky a third time around. After swatting flies for a few minutes, there was a change in the atmosphere. The sort that only comes from the presence of a tiger. I stood up on the seat, ensuring I was well-balanced incase the driver decided to zip ahead and peered in the direction of everyone’s focus. I saw her face first. It was a very different side of Collarwali that I was seeing today. Her jaws open as she emerged from behind a bunch of leaves, the saliva dripping from her canines glistening in the morning light. Just then I saw another flash of orange behind her. Thrilled that we were to see two of them I began trying to angle my camera for a good shot. When suddenly a third flash of orange appeared. Pench was pulling out all the stops this morning. Our third time’s a charm was turning into quite the hat trick! We watched in silence as she and her two cubs weaved in and out of the foliage. They walked along the line of jeeps, overtaking them, climbing onto the main road, and disappearing into the thick forest.
While I’m equally happy observing pretty much anything that moves in the jungles of central India, I’ve exclusively stuck to describing my run-ins with the tigers in this particular post, because I just realised I haven’t really done them justice in any of the Safari posts I’ve written so far. This wasn’t my first tiger sighting, neither was it the nearest. But it was just as memorable, exciting and felt like the first time all over again. Unlike what they say about other travel, about how your first time will never be the same again, every trip to the jungle feels like the first time to me. So, until the next time I venture into the jungles for the first time, I’ll hold on to my fantastic memories of the Pench Tiger Reserve.
This post was made possible by Pugdundee Safaris. Opinions as always, are our own.