The time I spent in the jungles held unalloyed happiness for me, and that happiness I would now gladly share. My happiness, I believe, resulted from the fact that all wildlife is happy in its natural surroundings. In nature there is no sorrow, and no repining.

– Jim Corbett

The Big Tiger Tank Male

Its been a little more than an hour since we entered Nagarhole national park. Its been a little more than an hour since we entered Nagarhole national park and we are rattling down the muddy trail when we see a jeep waiting near a row of lantana bushes. Our driver (referred to as SD) stops and ask us to keep silent. The hush that settles around weighs down heavy on the shoulders. All I can hear is the cadenced tic-tic-tic from some mechanical part of the bus, interspersed by kir-kirrrrr-kirrrrrrr of a white throated kingfisher. Everybody is craning their necks to the right and scanning lantana, all big lenses are primed and ready to shoot.

Beautiful morning in the Forest

Bright golden sunlight is lighting up lantana bushes and words cannot describe the beauty of the moment. There is a soft breeze that is blowing and I am distracted by the mites of dust that are zigzagging around, having their fun in the sun. I am thoroughly enjoying the moment, breathing in the cold morning air, listening hard for an alarm call, but only perceiving the pregnant silence of expectation.

The collective gasp from everyone brings me back to the moment, as this big male stepped out of the bushes, right in from of our vehicle. He slowly sauntered his way across the length of the bus, sniffing, rubbing his cheeks against the tree, leaving behind his scent. To call him majestic is an understatement – his orange coat shining gold in the morning sun, his eyes looking at us with just a hint of mirth (or am I imagining things?), his huge paws stepping through the vegetation without a sound. It was a magical moment, to put it very simply.

Looking at me?

I was hanging out the window, my jaws open and he decided to stop for a fraction of a second and look right at me (not kidding!). I lowered the camera and stared at this majestic beast who had decided to grace us with his presence on this beautiful morning. This moment, this experience is something that I will never forget, and I know that I will keep coming back for more! Little did I know that there was a lot more in store for us 🙂

5 year old son of the famous tiger tank female, this big guy walked off into the bushes once again after his relaxed 3 minute cat walk and there was rejoicing. Oh what joy, everyone had big grins plastered on their face and it was absolute mayhem for a few minutes till the driver requested everyone to calm down as the tiger could step out of the bushes, if his majesty is so inclined. It was a very jittery 10 minute wait as the mood oscillated from joy to tense anticipation to joy again. Our driver decided to turn the bus around and suddenly out of nowhere a dense fog bank rolled in and within seconds, visiblity dropped.

Release the Fog!

I was rewinding and replaying the first encounter in my head, when his majesty decides to walk out of the lantana and grace us with his presence, once again. He now seemed to have a small limp but still walked across the vehicles standing in queue, across the track and again disappeared into the bushes.
What a morning it had turned out to be.

Minding my own business

The Jungle Calls

It had been a year since my last visit to any forest/tiger reserve. We did make many plans but none materialized post the 2nd wave and my wife, son and I had almost given up on a forest trip in the first half of 2022. A casual chat with another wildlife enthusiast friend over a weekend, quick plan was made and the ball was set in motion. Little did we know that this would be our best trip to the jungles till date.

2.45 am start from north Bangalore and we were at Dammankatte safari start point at 6.15 am. Heavy fog slowed me down for the last 55 odd kms and it was not a fun drive with LED fogs and headlamps. As the horizon took on orange hues of the dawning sun, off we went into the jungles of Nagarhole national park. After meandering our way through the forest trails and waterholes for the first hour, we were enraptured by the beauty of the big tiger tank male tiger.

After that, we meandered our way to old MM road and my hopes flared as this was where we had seen this beautiful feline during my last trip in 2020. We still had about 15 minutes to spare and SD, our driver, decided to quickly drive to nyanjikatte waterhole before dropping us back. As we approach the waterhole, we see another bus parked there and all our hearts are aflutter again. We are greeted by a big male tusker enjoying a mud bath. We spend 10 minutes gazing at the pachyderm and as the bus is reversing into the tracks, we hear an alarm call from chital deer standing a few fee away from the bus. Once again a blanket of silence wraps us and everyone is scanning the dense thicket of lantana, waiting for a glimpse of stripes.

Mud bath anyone? Join me OR take the last row of the Bus

The cynic in my head is laughing out loud – “you know that a tiger will not show itself when there is tusker standing near the waterhole”, but I stomp him down, and we all were hope against hope hoping. After 15 minutes of waiting, we head back to the gates with the sound of the chital deer call ringing in my ears and the memory of a golden tiger playing in my head.


She ain’t called Lady Luck

3.30 PM and off we went again, a bus full of adults hopped-up on hope. The cynic in my head is at it again – “don’t’ be a greedy bugger, your luck for the day has run its course”. But as Andy Dufresne once said “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things”.

Once again SD headed towards nyanjikatte waterhole as he believed in picking up things from where he left off 🙂 The forest was absolutely silent in the hot sun, everything was brown and baked. After 15 minutes of waiting, we decide to make our way to Taraka dam backwaters, drive through many other trails, all with no luck. We managed to spot a vey young chital fawn, a common hawk cuckoo, a serpent eagle and a very young Indian Gaur calf. The calf was sitting all alone with none of its ilk around, and many of the regulars hypothesized that there must be something wrong with the calf as its mother wouldn’t have left it behind.

We wound our way through the power line area and after that, we crossed the main road and found ourselves in the backwater zone. We hit the first few viewpoints, in the hope of sighting the leopard that the boat safari folks had seen in the morning, but we ended up seeing a few Spot billed ducks and egrets.

Winding Trails

Time was running out and SD turned us back towards old MM road. All of us are looking everywhere, searching every shadow and shade. We are now very close to the gate and suddenly the bus is accelerating. All of us are asked to keep quite as the bus turns towards nyanjikatte waterhole and there she is!

Striped Beauty

At first sight, I thought it was an adult male tiger but turns out she is called Magge female. She quenches her thirst and then walks up to the mud bank to a grassy area near the waterhole and settles down. We watch her sniff the air, clean her paws and face and settle down for a quiet evening. We spend 15 minutes with the gracious Magge tigress and then head back to the gates. Take that you little cynic!

Enjoying the evening

All fogged out

Well there is not much to write about the safari from next morning. We woke up to see heavy fog blanketing our room. Visiblity on the road to Dammankatte safari point was very low and I could see suspended particles in the air with my naked eye. Even at 8 am, there was hardly any sunlight and the ride though the forest was eerie. That should have been the highlights, but we saw 2 tigers 🙂

Saturday morning, 7.30 am and SD once again greets us with a big smile and the good news that the 6.00 am trip had seen the Magge tigress on old MM road. Expectations were high despite the heavy fog, there were not many of us in the bus and off we went, down the rabbithole, hunting elusive wildlife. We slowly crawl up old MM road, my eyes peeled to the windshield, scanning for a flash of orange. Fog had ensured that the windshield in front of me was layered with fine water droplets, very irritating as it blurred what I was seeing. I had half a mind to whip out the mircofibre cloth and wipe down the windshield, and in hindsight, that would have been the best thing to do! Nothing on MM road and SD decides to drive down another road that circles around old MM road. We wait, watch, drive up again, wait watch, almost going around in circles. Still nothing. We drive down another narrow trail that has lantana running very close to the track. In many places I see dried bushes and branches stacked together in large piles, and over the course of 10 minutes, my mind has learned to ignore them.

SD is focused on driving up a bad patch and I am in the process of ignoring the dried stacks of lantana when I register a flash of Orange and white.
Here is what happened in the the next few seconds:

  • S1-3: I turn 90 degrees to my left and stare right into the eyes of the beautiful magge female
  • S4-6: I register that she is sitting right in middle of two stack of dried lantana, her head still, neck upright, eye looking at me, her front legs are stretched out as she is resting on her haunches with her back inclined at 45 degrees from head to tail.
  • S7-8: I hiss tiger tiger
  • S9-12: I switch on my camera (rookie mistake!) and realize that she is just 15 feet away from me
  • By now the tigress is staring at the center of the bus, as it is coming to a halt.
  • S5: 13-20: She moves towards the bus, circles around the back and runs straight into the bushes.
Sprinting away
Pic Credits – Karthik, a gentleman on the bus who managed to capture her

I have played out these 20 seconds in my head many times and realized that the culprit was the fine mist on the windshield. It prevented SD and me from spotting the tigress that was sitting right there, almost on the edge of the road. While I don’t have a photograph of her, what I do have is a beautiful memory of a big cat in motion. She was like a streak of orange & black and I will never forget her moving at full stretch, her muscles extended, lithely gliding across the trail and vanishing into the bushes.

Heart pounding, mouth agape, we all looked at each other and asked the same question – did you see it?
Once again we were scanning the thickets, hoping to get a glimpse of the tigress. SD decides to reverse and head to a waterhole that is on the other side of the thicket, hoping that she comes out to drink some water. We wait at the waterhole for 30 minutes, see a lot of golden orioles, doves and peacocks but the tigress eludes us.

Finally we drive down the road, and in a few meters, we see pug marks on the mud, heading towards another waterhole that is down the road. SD speeds up and we are about a 100 feet from the waterhole when he whispers tiger tiger.

Vanishing act
Watch my back mate

My eyes scan the banks of the waterhole and I spot movement. A flash of orange heads into the bushes and all I can capture is its body and tail vanishing into the lantana. We wait for 10 more minutes for it to come out, but our time and luck had finally run out. SD slowly drives up the road, all eyes scanning the bushes for a hint of orange. SD comments that the second one if definetly not the magge female as she is not sot so shy, and this other tiger was much smaller than the magge female. Hence the shy tiger could be a sub adult tiger that is moving across territories, trying to find a spot for itself. We make our way out the gate, happy to have seen 2 tigers on a foggy morning.


Epilogue

A wild animal in motion is a thing of beauty. When it walks, it commands respect and when it runs, it send a jolt of fear up your spine. We might be safe in our metal cocoons but our basic instinct is still to run and hide from this predator. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to have such an amazing experience and it further strengthens the resolve to protect these animal and their shrinking habitats. This trip strengthened my desire to regularly visit the forests around Mysore. There is something about morning sunlight, fresh green air and beautiful silence that wraps up, when waiting in the middle of the forest.

While I have been very lucky to have seen big cats in the forests and hope to see them on everytrip, I do wish the forest department would put in a little more effort to provide visitors with a well rounded safari experience. Its not just the cats and elephants that are important. I have always enjoyed spotting all kinds of animals and birds, when in the jungles. I truly believe that even if I do not spot a cat on a safari, I would be happy driving through those twisting trails, wathcing and learning about the less important citizens of the forest. Amature/professional photographers are so focused on talking/sharing pics of big cats/mammals that everybody believes that a safari has to be about the cat.

Closing out this T-log with a couple of pics of Nagarhole national park.

Magical Kabini
Perfect Mornings
Perfect end to an asweome day