Those who have never seen a leopard under favourable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of colouring, of this the most graceful and the most beautiful of all animals in our Indian jungles”―Jim Corbett
The need to drive through the jungle and loose myself in the mysterious silence that envelops the forest during early morning hours is inexplicable. The feeling is unparalleled. Most times, you fail to realize that you are entering a wonderful world of birds and beasts, which mock you with their ability to blend into the surrounding and taunt you with a fleeting glimpse, which leaves you elated and at the same time thoroughly dissatisfied. There is probably nothing else that I have experienced which can leave you breathless with joy and at the same time make you feel it was not enough. And at the end of it all, the one thing that never leaves me is the silence. That all enveloping blanket of calm which keeps me rooted in the jungles, wanting more of that fuzzy morning sunshine that lazily filters through the branches of sentinels of the time, ever waiting, ever watching, ever lasting.
Day 1 – Balancing act
I always await eagerly for that first safari of a trip, that feeling when you wander through those rutted lanes, searching – listening – watching – waiting, is not something that words can express. So began our drive into the jungles of nagarhole with byra, yes the same one from our previous adventure, not hoping for much but still praying for a lot. We are happily chatting, talking about all the sightings and catching up with events in the forests, enveloped in the bubble of cool jungle breeze and friendly camaraderie, when the harsh note of a langur alarm call shatters the silence around us. We haven’t even reached the safari mud trails, we are still on tarmac and byra points to the right and hisses “Leopard saar!”. This sojourn into the woods just got very real very quick!
A big agitated looking male leopard walks out of the lantana to our right, saunters back into the undergrowth and weaves in and out for a few minutes. Byra quickly reverses the jeep and we give this big guy some space. Its absolute mayhem in the trees with langurs and giant squirrels raising hell and the big guy silently walks across the road, from our right to the left and marks a tree. He then vanishes behind the lantana and we wait, fingers crossed, hoping that he will come out again, or climb a tree and take a nap.
The big angry male leopard
Behind us, there is another small leopard (sub adult) that sprints out of the lantana and quickly comes in parallel with our jeep. There is just about time to take a deep breath and get a few clicks as the sub adult pauses to look behind in the lantana for a few seconds. In a flash it climbs up a tree and heads straight to the narrow end of a not so thick branch. We are still processing this sudden twist in the tale when we see the big male slowly climb up the same tree and walk onto the branch where the sub adult has taken refuge. Even In my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined what transpired next.
The frightened sub adult female leopard
While we will never know the real reason for the big male attacking the sub adult, theories swing between the need to procreate vs a territory fight. Whatever maybe the reason, I will never forget the next few minutes for a long long time. Both leopards are balancing themselves precariously and their growls reverberate through the trees and sends chills down my spine. Everyone in the jeep is whispering and the expectation around us is palpable.
Finally the big male decides to take a swipe at the sub adult, doesn’t connect, looses balance and falls down from the tree. It’s a 25-30 foot drop IMO and I cant help but wonder if the big guy is ok. Even the sub adult looks surprised with the events that transpired and it looks down, then looks at us wondering, waiting, watching. In a few seconds, the big guys saunters out of lantana and sits down in clear view, a little winded from the fall.
The balancing act
Fall from Grace
Did that happen for real?
The sub adult decides that it’s perfect time to escape, It quickly scampers down the tree while keeping an eye on big male and in less than a minute, it scampers up another taller tree. The big male slowly gets up and walks into the lantana, and settles down somewhere in the bushes near the tall tree (we assume). We can see the sub adult peep down continuously from its perch as we wait for events to unfold. After 10 minutes, the sub adult also relaxes a bit and stretches out on the tree branch, its legs dangling down. We continue to wait by the road, rewinding the last 10 odd minutes and reliving the excitement. After another 15 minutes, we decide to head towards the mud trails to begin our safari 🙂
Time to make a quick getaway
Where art thou, big guy?
Time to catch my breath
The remaining 1 hour 45 min was spent wandering trough the jungles of nagarhole, from waterhole to waterhole, barely registering what I saw as my mind was still processing through those 10 minutes, which is probably the most exhilarating experience in the jungles till date. As the shadows started to lengthen and no other mammals graced us with their presence, we decide to head back to JLR and call it a night.
Day 2 – The sound of teak
After that amazing experience yesterday evening, I assumed that today would be a relatively quiet day. I strongly believe in the law of averages. It is still dark when we reach the safari gate in the morning. As we drive towards the safari trails, a small part of me hoping for a glimpse of that big male leopard or the small sub adult leopard. When we reach the spot where we saw the leopards yesterday, we slow down to a crawl and scan all the trees and bushes. Nothing there, time to drive on. We drive through mist laden woods and watch the sky brighten with the orange hues of sunrise. Fingers of mist caress the surface of water bodies as we strain our eyes, trying to catch a hint of movement.
We wander from waterhole to waterhole, the forest a mute maze that shelters beautiful creatures from our prying eyes. The calm silence that descends makes me wonder if we were all alone in this sprawling land of trees. We rattle around in our noisy metal contraption, stopping to listen to the joints of trees creak as they wake up to a new day. Dry teak leaves lazily glide down from the branches and our jeep tires crunches on them as we continue our journey into the depths of this wonderful land.
We encounter a small herd of elephants taking mud bath and after a small stand off with a beautiful sub adult male elephant, we decide to head back to JLR and check out.
Wait for me!
Our next 2 safaris are from the other gate and we had booked a room at gateway home stay for the night. Once again we enter the forest, this time in my own car, hoping that I get a glimpse of something beautiful. A few kms from the gate and I see this big female elephant walking on the road, heading my way. Right next to it is the smallest baby elephant that I have seen. I reverse and keep my distance from the mother and child, waiting for them to give way. A tempo traveler approaches from the other side and the elephant paid decide to take refuge in the thicket of lantana. I quickly move ahead and drive on to Nanchi gate.
The really little one that I saw while driving thought the forest in my car
The evening safari from Nanchi gate was another 2.5 hrs of wandering through the bumpy tracks and trails of nagarhole forest. Our driver muthu had spotted a adult male tiger in the morning and we were hoping that we can track him again. Cheetal alarm calls did raise the level of excitement in the jeep, but it turned out to be false alarm. Apart from a bison herd and a few elephants, we didn’t see much, but we did spend time regaling muthu and other passengers with our leopard story from the previous day.
Day 3 – Ghost of the Grasslands
Our driver for the morning was from dubbare camp as the regular driver was taking some personal time off. Right from the start, it was clear that our driver was not very sure of what he was doing and with a sinking feeling, I realized that this last trip into the jungles would mostly be just a drive through the woods.
I was riding shotgun and hence decided to call out birds that I was able to spot and name, not that I know a lot. We wandered through the teak forests of nagarhole, waiting – watching- listening – hoping. After 2 hours of driving through the trails, our driver decided to take one last shot and check Kunthur waterhole before heading back to Nanchi gate. We drive though kunthur and its all silent around there. Dejected, we decide to head back to the gate and call it a day.
Before we head to the tarmac, there is a section of open land where on my right is a dense mass of trees and lantana. The ground gently rolls down to the trail from this dense section of trees and continues to rolls down into a short stretch of open grassland before it gains elevation and is engulfed by thickets of lantana and dense trees.
We make our way through this section of the forest, a herd of cheetal deer grazing peacefully, which we have encountered in every drive through this stretch. Up ahead is another jeep and everyone is gazing into the grassland. We see a big Indian gaur standing on the edge of the grassland, having his morning breakfast. We roll up to the other jeep and the driver hisses “Tiger..Tiger!”
Spot me if you can?
Suddenly everyone in my jeep is standing up and trying to get a glimpse of orange in the bright green grass. Yashwant, the driver of the other jeep, confirms that they saw the tiger crouch and head towards the Indian gaur and there is a sudden buzz of excitement. We spend 10 minutes trying to spot the tiger, all in vain. Even the Gaur did not seem very alarmed and it continued to eat its breakfast in peace.
Suddenly the Gaur stops eating, turns its head towards us, sniffs the air and gives a very audible snort. We see the grass move and this magnificent adult male tiger slowly emerges from the grass and graces us with his presence. The gaur takes a few steps towards the tiger and snorts again and this time the tiger lets out a throaty growl that we clearly hear.
Do you see me?
The next 15 minutes, this male tiger plays hide and seek with us as it weaves in and out of lantana, occasionally stopping to stare at us, while continuing his journey through the open grassland. The other jeep starts to reverse down the trail, driving closer to a dense woodland that separates the grasslands from a small lake. We follow and to our surprise, we see movement in the dense woodland and hear a growl. We realize that there is another tiger which was resting in that dense thicket of trees by the waterbody and it can see/smell the male tiger approaching.
Ghost of the grasslands
The next 30 minutes was chaotic, to say the least. The adult male attacks the tiger in the woods, which is assumed to be a female based on past history of sightings and we also get a glimpse of a third tiger. The third tiger is supposedly the sub adult cub that is frequently seen wandering around that specific part of the forest along with its mother. We can hear the growls of the tigers and for a few seconds, we can see two of them swiping at each other, standing up on their hind legs. Suddenly the male tiger decides that it has had enough and heads back into the grasslands from where he came and we lose sight of him.
Now the female starts walking around the thicket of trees, scent marking and rubbing her neck. Patrolling the small island of trees that is surrounded by water on one side, grassland on another and thick lantana ringed forests on the third side. On the fourth side is brown open land that leads to the mud trail, on which stand 2 jeeps, filled with people who only want to get another glimpse of these majestic creatures.
The elusive female tiger
We drive back and forth on the trail, tracking the tigress (assumed) and her sub adult cub (assumed) as they circle the thicket of tress for abut 20 minutes, before deciding to head towards water. We follow them towards water but our view is obstructed by tress and dense undergrowth that is shrouded in shadows. We don’t have a clear view and we quickly lose them in the undergrowth that borders the banks of the waterhole. We wait another 10 minutes before heading back to the gate, elated – overjoyed and abuzz with excitement.
Two beautiful experiences in the wild in a span of 36 hours only goes to show how lucky I have been. Most wildlife enthusiasts prefer Kabini over Nagarhole as the number of tigers that are present in the tourism zone are much higher in Kabini, 17 in Kabini AFAIK vs. 5 in Nagarhole. For some reason, I prefer the teak forests of nagarhole over kabini, even though the chances of spotting a big cat is much lower in nagarhole. Eagerly awating the next trip to this beautiful land of trees and wild beasts!