Hunting down the predator - a Kanha story
Kanha – even the name sounds so sweet in my ears. Before I ever visited Kanha, I always pictured it as the forest from The Jungle Book. So basically green landscapes, vast meadows, some scattered hills and shallow rivers. It’s something that is beautiful because of its simplicity. And when I finally arrived there I wasn’t disappointed. Kanha turned out to be more beautiful than I could imagine. It’s hard to describe Kanha because the forest changes with every season. During monsoon the greenery increases and thick green grasses covers the whole land, by winter the grasses turn golden brown and the trees start to blossom with colourful flowers, in the summer you see a dry forest with leaves shed from the trees and bare naked ground and by end of summer new leaves in shade of pink and red start to grow bringing a different colour to the forest. Except for the hardest part of summer, Kanha is always a pleasure to witness.
But that doesn’t completely explain why I keep going back there. First two times of my visit to Kanha, I didn’t find a tiger which is supposed to be the major attraction of this place. But finally when I had the fortune to find one, I realized what it is that keeps calling me there. It’s the thrill of pursuing the predator. It’s the chase, a thought-through and strategized chase which once in a while reward you with some wonderful result. A better day is when you get to chase a tiger than when you find one by mere luck. And the best days are the ones when you find one after chasing it down for a while. This is a story of one such rare days.
A safari at Kanha:
The alarm rings, bringing a silent dark room into an uncomfortable state of awake. With elevated heartbeat and half-closed eyes, I reach out for my phone and press the snooze button as quickly as my sleepy fingers will allow. 4:30 AM. Too early for anything. And yet it’s time to get up and get ready. It’s the month of March. Not the coldest of winter, but cold enough to make you want to stay in bed a bit longer. Not that month is very important, it’s almost always cold in forest at this wee hours of day.
I somehow manage to drag myself out and in about half an hour I am dressed and ready to start the day. I am in a green shirt and a beige cargo, colours that is considered sober for the jungle. Before venturing out, I also put on a jacket and a woollen cap, fully aware that it won’t be enough when the jeep starts soaring through the chilly morning air. But for now this will have to do.
As I open the cottage door and step into the night, a chilly wind wraps itself around me and sends a shiver down my bones. It takes a few minutes to adjust and then I start walking down the cobbled path leading towards the dining area. The path is lit with some dim lights in the shape of lantern which makes the way barely visible. The dining place is lit almost in the same manner. It’s an open area with thatched roof and no walls. At one side there’s a board detailing about tigers in general and sighting in recent times. There was a time I had my morning coffee standing in front of it. By now I have fair bit of idea about the content. So I take my coffee and join my group at the nearby table noticing my mood reflected perfectly on other faces - Sleepy, cold and excited.
The gypsys are never late. They are usually there before you get ready. They might be even there before you wake up. I have no way of knowing that though. We board the vehicle along with the driver and a resort naturalist, someone with immense knowledge and endless passion for the forest. Engine starts and we start moving through the still dark night. It’s not too fast. But still the wind blows harshly against my face. It feels colder now. Hugging myself tight and shivering slightly I move on under the fading stars.
In ten minutes or so we are at the gate and then we join the queue to wait for the gate to open. At sharp 6, the park opens. Sun hasn’t risen yet, but the night sky has faded into a greyish blue dawn. As we enter the forest a guide joins us, eager to start his day just as much as we are. Guides are usually local people employed by the forest. They probably grew up considering tigers as part of natural calamity, something to be cautious of, but not scared of. But in the ignorant tourist’s desires, they have found a new feeling towards the animal. Tigers are their source of income, tigers are their pride and somehow tigers are their love as well. And every morning it becomes their goal to find this majestic animal and take pride in showing it off to the endless bunch of tourists. It’s interesting to note that, despite doing safari twice every day, a guide is able to sight tiger on an average once a week. And that’s what makes this job interesting. It’s hard and yet not impossible.
The path goes through the gate and soon divides into two branches, both going inward. We choose to take the left one. That would be the first decision of the day. From here on every decision we take will either take us a little closer or further from our object of desire. The path runs through the forest, which is a mix of Sal, Mahua, Mango, Jamun and other unknown trees. The forest floor is covered with dying grasses which emerged during monsoon and will disappear fully by the mid of summer. The forest is still misty with mild light of dawn streaming through the leaves and brightening up every corner. We move slowly by keeping an eye on the dusty road. The paw mark of the tiger would be the first clue to finding the animal itself. And at this early morning, when deer and monkeys are not yet at their best, this could be the only clue.
We reach a point where the forest clears up slightly on the left side of road and leads downward to a small pond. We can’t reach till the pond, but by parking the jeep very close to the cliff we can glance down at it. Although there’s still no sign of tigers we still stop and look around the water hoping to find some sleeping ones. This is their favourite spot and once in a while this trick turns out to be effective in spotting them. We stop there for a bit and I listen to the sound of forest. There are frequent birds chirping, some nearby & some distant. Some sound of cricket still buzzing in the air. And once in a while a screech of a peacock. No sound of deer & monkeys yet, not at this part of forest at least.
We soon leave this behind and move on. The path opens up to a vast meadow. The land stretches on on both sides ending in a distant line of forest. There are tall grasses covering the field with termite mounds sticking out of it here and there. The fog lays evenly all over the land adding an enigma to this already beautiful landscape. By now the eastern corner is brightly shining in a shade of pink with a yellow sun in the centre of it all. We spot a group of spotted deer merrily larking about in the field doing whatever a deer does and at a small distance from them two Barasinghas are standing and chewing on the grasses as the sun reflects on their brown unkempt fur. These are endangered species of deer and they are found only at Kanha in this region. The name comes from the twelve branches of horn that are usually observed on them. We take a few quick snaps and leave the deer to their business and move ahead. The calm and peaceful posture of them only indicates that there are no sign of tiger in that vicinity.
After a while the sandy path enters forest again and moves ahead in smooth manner. The sun is getting brighter and the birds chirping is getting less frequent now. The forest is more silent, but the constant noise of engine keeps buzzing in our ears. And yet we hear it. Just like that, sudden and for an instant. A call from inside the forest. Specifically belonging to a Sambar deer. For a novice this call doesn’t sound any different from a mating call or regular call of deer. But once you have been enough in forest, you can sense it. And for regulars like the guides and gypsy drivers, they would be able to tell it in their sleep. We stop immediately with excitement. A deer’s alert call means there’s something scary nearby, and what’s scary to a deer? Actually it could be a tiger or a leopard. But either way it’s something exciting.
We stop there soaking in the silence of the forest interrupted occasionally by the very sound that has stopped us there. It’s coming from inside the forest and it’s coming consistently from the same spot. This means the tiger is not moving, possibly sitting and resting somewhere. We wait for ten minutes and see no prospect of the animal coming out very soon. And so even with the knowledge of its presence nearby we move ahead in search of another.
A little more drive through the forest, somewhere a left, somewhere right, we keep moving on. Always on the lookout for a sign – a pugmark, a call or even some information from the passing gypsys. And we keep taking a call to go which way on every corner. The forest mix changes throughout our travel. Somewhere it’s denser, somewhere too tall and sometimes its only bamboos. It’s most beautiful when we are surrounded by only Sal trees. If I look up at the Sal trees, I can see the small white flowers on top branches, which blooms mostly during winters and makes the trees look even prettier than usual. We stop many more times off course. Mostly to look at birds - some common birds like Drongo, Indian roller, Bee eater, Cormorants and also some exotic ones like Eagle, Owl and migratory Ducks. Once we get stopped by a Bison walking ahead of us on the road. We wait for it to move ahead and leave the road before we can proceed. Another time we stop to look at a group of wild boar having a feast of a dead deer while a vulture & a jackal keep staring at it greedily. It would seem that wild boars are one of the most dangerous animal in forest, even other relatively bigger animals are scared of pack of boars.
The sun is very bright now with the day getting hotter and so far we haven’t found a sign of tiger except for that one call in the morning. Then our luck makes a slight turn and we notice the pugmark on the right side of the road. It’s deep, it’s fresh and it’s going towards the direction we are heading to. Oh and also it’s a male. Our guides do some consultation and decides it must be one of the two-year old cubs, who has just started to venture around on their own. The direction too seemed promising, there is an open field ahead and we might be able to spot it clearly if it’s somewhere around there.
We start following the footsteps while keeping our ears open for any call. Sometimes the road becomes less sandy and footstep disappears, but it comes up ahead again. We follow it for some time before it disappears abruptly. This isn’t as discouraging as it sounds. We still have hope, it can still be quite nearby. We stop the engine and wait in the silence waiting for some clue on the direction. Nothing. Silence only interrupted by infrequent calls of peacock.
Our guides put their thinking hats again – where can it go! It can enter the forest on right side only since there’s no footprint crossing the road. They discuss and make a guess on where can it reach if it keeps walking. And with that we start the engine again. We go ahead on the same road, after a while we take a right and after moving a little on the road we stop again. Silence again. But no, not completely. We hear it. Quite ahead of us, muffled by the distance, a monkey’s call. Excellent. We know where to go. Engine starts again and we rush through the road. As we approach the potential location we see two other gypsys standing by the road. We stop nearby, enquire and start our wait again. Waiting is not a problem. There’s nothing like the sound of forest especially when bunch of people are deliberately trying to be silent.
The call comes from inside the forest and goes on for a while at regular interval. We don’t lose patience. We keep waiting. Another jeep joins us with few more eager faces. And then when I am about to give up the call changes. It’s a deer now further ahead. It’s moving, it’s definitely moving. And if it keeps moving in the same direction parallel to this road, it will eventually reach another road perpendicular to it. All we have to do is, be there when the tiger crosses that road. So all four gypsys start and rush through the road with dusts floating in the air. We are ahead of all four jeeps and so we take the turn first. We turn right and there it is - in the middle of the road, with its perfect black & yellow stripe, a big furry creature sitting peacefully. The king of the forest himself. All other jeeps join in and we stand there in silence (well almost silence), and enjoy looking at the tiger at his play who couldn’t care less about any of our presence. The tiger plays around for a bit, sniffs at some leaves and just like that leaves us behind and disappears inside the forest. And with smile on our faces we too head back towards the gate, thus ending a perfect safari.
A little bit about the place:
Where is Kanha? Kanha is a national park at the heart of Madhya Pradesh, India. The forest is adjacent to many other national parks and sanctuaries, making this place a wildlife paradise. There are majorly three sides, the forest can be approached by Kanha/Kisli Gate, Mukki Gate and Sarhi Gate. There are a few other lesser popular gates as well.
How to reach there? Kanha can be reached from Jabalpur or Nagpur. The distance to Mukki from these two cities are around 230 km & 250 km respectively. Kanha gate is slightly closer to Jabalpur. By road is the best possible way to reach there. You can either go for public bus or hire a car for this journey.
Where to stay? There are many options for accommodation in Kanha, budget hotel to luxurious stay. Most of the good options, including resort by Taj, are near Mukki gate which is a preferred location for stay. I have always stayed at Kanha Jungle Lodge and probably always will. They maintain a perfect balance of simplicity and comfort. And what truly sets them apart is their passion and love for the forest, which reflects in every aspect of the stay.
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