They call it 'Kanha Tiger Reserve'. It goes without saying that you blaze in on your jeeps, expecting to come face to face with a tiger. One or two disappointing safaris later, your expectations come down drastically. Now you're willing to settle for a glimpse of his majesty through your binoculars; even if it's just his tail, as long as you can see the stripes. But the signboard on your way out - the one that has a tiger's impressive face on it and the telling message, 'You may not have seen me, but be rest assured, I have seen you!'- that should have tipped you off that maybe, just maybe, you're going to be one of those supremely unlucky souls who leaves the tiger state without seeing a tiger.
Take it from me, it's not fun; especially when you pass by other jeeps (even worse if they have your friends in them) and their excited denizens crowing about how they just saw a tiger for a full fifteen minutes. Your driver will momentarily offer hope, claiming that the tiger is bound to still be there, waiting just for you. And then you'll zip zap zoom in a frenzy, thundering down foresty lanes and bumps and breaking a few bones in the bargain, all in the pursuit of India's national animal in the wild. But when you arrive at the sacred spot, all you'll see are distant birds that might just be fluttering leaves and the same old chital deer that grace you with their presence every single time, on every single turn. You feel you should be grateful - it's not like you see these deer back home either, but you can't ignore that feeling of being cheated - that feeling of being singled out as the one unfortunate being whom the tiger chose to ignore.
My story is the stuff that Shakespearean tragedies are made of. I arrived at the beautiful Kings Lodge at Bandhavgarh, run by Pugdundee Safaris, starry eyed and naively certain of seeing a tiger. I was so certain that I tweeted using the hashtag #TigerswithPugdundee during my entire trip (don't go searching for it now). On the way to the lodge, my driver told me that there were around 79 tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park. Throughout the trip, the local drivers will build your expectations with umpteen tales of how they've spotted tigers everywhere from the roads to the farms to the villages to the actual forest. But on the brighter side, these stories do come in handy if you decide to convince your peskier friends back home that yes of course you spotted a tiger in all his glory, mere inches away from your jeep. I went for two morning safaris and one evening safari at Bandhavgarh National Park, accompanied by three friends and a wonderful naturalist from Kings Lodge. Everything was fine during the first two safaris. We were a group of 16 and none of the other three jeeps had any luck in spotting a tiger either.
But on that fateful morning of the third and final safari, lady bad luck delivered her first blow. One of the jeeps in our group saw a female tigress walk right past their jeep and then settle down in front of them for a while. At the very least, it convinced us that yes, tigers actually roamed about in these forests and it wasn't just a tale that cagey tourism officials had spun to net city-bred travellers like us. That's when the racing back to the spot and the agonising, fruitless weight happened for the tigress to grace us with her presence again. Every time a twig cracked or a leaf rustled, we hoped it was her footstep instead. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. But hope hadn't yet died a certain death because we had a trip to Kanha Tiger Reserve ahead of us. Surely, we would glimpse a tiger there.
We glimpsed a lot of things - gaur (Indian bison), sambhar and chital deer (again), crested serpent and hawk eagles, a Eurasian thicknee, the adjutant, jackals, vultures, wild boars, peacocks, jungle fowl, monitor lizards, rhesus macaques and even a python with a langur in its grip. But using 'we' here would be wrong because everyone except me managed to see a tiger at Kanha Tiger Reserve. I don't know which to blame - the tiger who couldn't come out to take a stroll sooner or my unavoidable decision to rush back home to fulfil work commitments. But what transpired was that while the morning safari was a tiger washout, every single jeep in the reserve spotted Munna, one of the best known tigers at Kanha, during the afternoon and evening safaris. I was waiting at Nagpur airport when I received this heartbreaking piece of news. Now, I was all alone in my "no, I didn't see a tiger and please don't ask me again" status. Then I recalled that one member of our group hadn't even made it to Kanha. Ah, I had company! That piece of knowledge, along with the warm memories of the hospitality at Kanha Earth Lodge, gave me courage to board the plane back to Mumbai.
Tigers, we aren't done yet. I'll be back. And readers, my advice to you is, don't go with a hashtag like #TigerswithPugdundee. Go with something like #SafariswithPugdundee. Subtlety does it nice and easy.