A Mukherjee World View


The Heat is On!

In the afternoon, we were lucky enough to venture on the same route again, albeit in the opposite direction. Routing in Ranthambhore is a complicated business. Each vehicle is assigned a specific route – one of seven – and is expected to adhere to this route without deviation. The vehicles are then distributed among the tourist parties without fear or favor – and without repetition as well. So we got four different vehicles for our four safaris. But, after the first safari, we found we had the same guide for all the safaris. Presumably he had found the tip quite generous enough. He was not, in fact, a very good guide, I thought. He was a local man, who had been guide for a mere two years, and his lack of experience showed in several instances when he was corrected or contradicted in his statements by the drivers, who seemed to be better informed.

The route we had followed in the morning was 7F (forward) and now as we set off on 7R (reverse) our hopes and spirits were soaring almost as high as the mercury (which, in fact, touched 42 C).

At first, though, we didn’t see anything to get excited about: only some spotted deer and lots of sambar deer, neither of which (happily) are on the list of endangered species. Then we found ourselves back in leopard territory, close too where we had encountered the leopard that morning. And, to my unceasing amazement, just as we rounded a curve, a leopard obligingly leapt off a low branch to the right of the track and disappeared in a flash into the dense undergrowth. I and the driver were the only ones lucky enough to see this amazing act: if you happened to be looking away or if you blinked, you would have missed it.

Frantic warning calls erupted all around us. Langurs and deer were calling repeatedly and loudly and even the birds were all a-twitter. The air of excitement was unmistakable: the langurs were leaping wildly from tree to tree, causing a virtual shower of dried leaves to descend upon us.

Hearts pounding, we inched forward, peering in the direction of the leopard’s flight. I noticed the monkeys on the highest branches were concentrating in the same direction. In a moment we caught another glimpse of him, streaking through the greenery. Then he was at the foot of the cliff on our right, leaping effortlessly up the craggy face. In seconds he was silhouetted at the top, well over a hundred feet high. From this safe perch, he descended via a series of narrow ledges and surely and swiftly cut his way across the face of the cliff till he found a pleasant vantage point. Here he sat himself down, still high on the cliff, half-hidden behind a thorny cactus, and we could just see his spotted face contentedly surveying us in pauses between licking his paws.

There he stayed, for as long as we waited. Leopards are unpredictable creatures and our driver and guide had initially been wary lest he should circle around and suddenly descend upon us from an overhanging tree branch. They were happier now that he was at an observable and safe distance and proceeded to entertain us with stories of legendary (or mythical) leopard antics.

Our cameras were considerably less pleased with the distance and could only capture a tiny, tawny speck on which the characteristic spots were just visible.

At length, we left him to himself and proceeded in search of the Lady of the Lake and her family. Our driver cheerfully assured us that we had a “90%” chance of finding them where we had left them in the morning – and he was right! Approaching the area, we could see from afar a collection of jeeps gathered around a shallow stream of water. One of the tigers was at the edge of the water, its rump in the mud and its upper body on dry ground. He (or, perhaps, she – it was impossible to tell) was posing beautifully, as though well aware of the attention being lavished on him, turning his head regally first this way then that.

A few minutes later, he was joined by his sibling who had strolled out of the bushes on the far side of the narrow stream. She (assuming her to be ‘she’ for convenience’s sake) wandered over to the bath tub and lowered herself into the water backward, using her right hind leg to test the water before sinking in gracefully. For one brief moment they sat back to back; then the first cub, apparently unwilling to share his bathtub pulled himself out of the water and lay down on the grass to dry off. For a few minutes, the only action was the whirring and clicking of cameras. Then the tigress still in the bathtub arose suddenly from the water and silently padded out on to the grass on the far side, moving purposefully with an intent expression on her face. It is amazing how silently these animals move – no leaf whispers, nor does any twig snap when a tiger is on the move.

The cub reached a flat rock and half crouched on it, staring intently through the bushes. Just then, a small spotted deer, of whose existence we had so far been entirely unaware, started in the distance and took off like a shot. Young though the cub was – and our driver maintained that these two had not yet learned how to hunt – that deer had undoubtedly had a providential escape.

The tigress slunk off into the bushes, doubtless disappointed not to have garnered a trophy to show off to mama when she returned.

Her sibling continued sunning himself, unperturbed by this sequence of events.

In addition to myriad other rules and regulations, the forest authorities at Ranthambhore have strict entry and exit times for safari vehicles. Exiting late would incur a fine of Rs 500 – and exiting late began to look like a distinct possibility as time crept on and we lingered by the stream waiting to see what would happen next. Several other jeeps started up and left and finally we had to as well, bidding a fond farewell to the one cub who was still visible.

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