It has been almost five years since I was last in India. On that last trip, I made a film for the Natural World series called Tiger Kill.
The subject was, not surprisingly, an attempt to film a tiger making a kill, something which, though of course a common occurrence with these magnificent big cats, had not been commonly filmed. Together with local film maker, Alphonse Roy, we centred our efforts on one reserve – Bandhavgarh – in Madyha Pradesh. Though it took a while, Alphonse was eventually successful in his mission and did indeed film a tigress bringing down a spotted deer. We spent all of our time in the field, much of it overlooking one meadow area, and at the end of the trip I simply headed back to the UK.
That was the first and only time I had been to India, so I was delighted when asked by a charming couple, whom I’ve known for some time, if I would accompany and guide them on a trip to the subcontinent at the end of November. They wanted a mix of human culture and wildlife on a tour that would last 17 days, and I was more than happy to accept their offer.
I don’t pretend to have an extensive knowledge of the country or its fauna, and certainly not its human history, so we teamed up with an agency which provided some superb local knowledge in all areas.
The early part of the trip was spent in Delhi and Agra where, of course, we visited the Taj Mahal. Now, I’m not usually one to eulogise about feats of human architecture, but this is one wonder of the world that absolutely lives up to the hype! It was hugely busy with visitors, there was a well-oiled machine to capitalise on all those visitors and their wallets, but despite this, it absolutely, and quite literally rose above the crowds to dominate the skyline and one’s consciousness. It is a sublimely beautiful marble structure, made all the more impressive through the notion that it took thousands of people twenty two years to build and all for the love of a woman, since it is the final resting place of the Maharaja’s beloved queen.
We visited other fabulous forts and human features before making the journey to the first of the National Parks we were to visit, Kanha. This was my first visit to the Kanha reserve but I recalled hearing stories told to me by friend and mentor, Hugh Miles, of his time spent filming tigers there many years earlier.
We stayed in a lovely camp outside the south end of the reserve called Shergarh, which literally translated means Tiger Home.
All of the accommodation that services the park’s tourism lies outside its boundary in contrast to many of the lodges and camps in East Africa which lie within the perimeter of the reserves.
The daily routine in many of the reserves in India is a well defined system of allocated routes that you take with your vehicle and which must be booked in advance. Gates to the reserves do not open until sunrise or shortly before, and close at sunset. In Kanha, all vehicles must leave the reserve by noon and only return after lunch at about 2.30. This of course is a little frustrating for a photographer because much of the best light of the day is lost as one drives in through the gate and on to the area one hopes to search for wild creatures, and if you do find something, you have to leave it before mid day. That said, the organisation and management was significantly better in my opinion than the scenes I witnessed 5 years earlier. Then, there were many occasions when there would be a veritable scrum of 30 or more multi coloured 4x4s all jostling, and frequently crashing in to each other, to get a glimpse of a tiger! Numbers of vehicles now are restircted within each area and all vehicles must meet a standard that dictates subdued colours and limited numbers of people per car.
On our first morning, we drove gently along a route where no other vehicle had passed that morning, frequently stopping and cutting the engine to listen for alarm calls from deer, monkeys or peacocks. The first flush of excitement kicked in when we came across very fresh pugmarks of a tigress in the sandy track.
The tracks showed she had walked the route we were now driving less than an hour before our arrival, and may still be pacing ahead of us. (Fresh tracks in sand have a clean crisp-edged appearance, which rapidly degrades through the action of the breeze, other creatures and the act of gravity on granules that roll down into the depressions. Female tigers usually have narrower, more pointed toes and their feet are smaller than an adult male’s. Oh, and the word pugmark originates in India where ‘pug’ is the Hindi word for foot!)
Unfortunately her tracks veered off onto the undergrowth some 500 metres ahead and though we waited silently for some time, there were no alarm calls to suggest she was nearby. Very encouraging, but rather frustrating.
A few kilometres further on, we came across more pugmarks in the sandy road, this time made by a leopard. Once again we stopped to scrutinise the tracks and listen for voices of the forest, when almost as one, we lifted our heads to a shocking and sublimely beautiful sight. There, strolling down the track to our left directly towards us, was a tiger.
Jehan, our driver /guide and owner of Shergarh camp hissed the words “Tiger, tiger, tiger!!” as we all raised our binoculars then lowered them since she was now no more than 30 yards from the car and casually pacing closer the whole time. I had not even taken my camera out of my 5.11 backpack, and was fumbling with the lens hood as the tigress strolled up to the car. I only had time to get a few shots off as she walked within 10 metres of the us, then ambled on down a forest track, affording the opportunity for a few more images that set her rich cryptic colouring against the light and shade of the undergrowth.
What an exquisite creature, and our first tiger within a couple of hours of visiting Kanha! Little did we realise she would be the last tiger we saw in the Kanha reserve for the next few days!
Find out what happens next as my indian adventure continues in part 2.