The restaurant was located deep in the forest. It was quite busy, even at 8 pm in the night. About three families were finishing their dinner. We were one of them. The crew of seven were finishing serving one of the most scrumptious dishes – a curry of Matar paneer, chicken roast, two judicious servings of plain pulao, and tomato chutney.
The sound of the cutlery and the muted undertone of the voices were slowly pulling the curtain down of a delightful day. The memories of Kanha’s incredibly stunning landscape lingered on in our minds.
Question was… Had the day really ended ?
We came out of the restaurant and climbed down the steps. A very different Kanha was in front of us. The sky was a blend of black and purple. The stars looked bright as ever and hung like sparkling diamonds. Few strands of floating white cloud covered the brightness and stars flashed on and off like a far away beacon. We looked down and examined the road in front.Barring the radius of thirty feet from where the electric lamps glowed, it was dark. Darkness was so dense, nothing could be seen.
The beautiful trees looked like gigantic tentacled daemons. The world looked like it had come to an end beyond the arc of the lighted ground. The same sound of the forest which was so vivid in the morning sounded fearsome. No one had any clue what caused these sounds. However, the pitch and decibels of each sound or a mix of them were far less reassuring. It was in fact frightening.A man was standing at the base of the stairs. I have never seen such a disfigured individual before. His right eye was gone and in its place was a void, somehow covered with a grafted piece of muscle. The right side of his face for slightly longer than the left. The mouth was pulled downwards. His head had few loose hairs that just about covered it.
He was dressed in the brown official clothes and looked almost like an alien. When our eyes met, his normal left eye was able to catch my astonishment. When he started to move, he did it with a limp. He was our guard who would be escorting us to our lodge. He held a five feet bamboo pole. I had grave doubts about the effectiveness of a single bamboo pole and how much safety it would have brought to us. He asked us to keep our son, who was five years old when we had visited Kanha, between my wife and me and not to keep him on the side. There were instances in the past where predators had tried dragging humans away. We had to cover a three hundred feet of dirt path with the forest all around us. As we walked amidst the crunch of small stones under our feet, we heard shuffling movements on one side of the dirt road in the blackness.
We walked on praying that the sounds were that of spotted deer running around in the grass. We reached the lodge and got inside. The room lit up. His face looked awkwardly pleasant and I asked what had happened to him. He narrated the story of his present condition. About ten years back, on an evening when he was carrying the meals for few guests, out of the kitchen, he crossed the parking area and found a couple of deer roaming around the parked cars.
When he had reached one of the parked cars, his world changed. For a fraction of a second, he remembered the face of a tiger. The tiger lay hidden behind the car and was waiting to snatch one of the loitering deer and he came in between. the tiger and the unsuspecting deer. The tiger had lashed at him as he shouted. On its exit jump, the tiger had mauled him severely. For three months he fought with death and multiple operations gave him back his life but not his face. We thanked him for his help and told him that we were delighted to meet a brave man like him. He smiled and asked us to lock the main door. He checked the bathroom and the windows before leaving. He asked us not to venture out under any condition till the first early morning whistle is heard from the park rangers. He took leave.
A Gypsy had stopped in front which whisked him away. The night had deepened. The sound of animals or birds could be heard. It was a shriek, a howling or a roar. Nothing was distinct. The constant buzz of the cricket made all of us strangely sleepy. I had changed into the night gear and had opened the window about six inches, to take the fresh air. I was confident of the thick iron grills and bars that the window had in front. I saw a movement and heard squeaks. It took me few seconds as I squinted my eyes and saw one or two wild boar babies loitering outside. It happened then. A ‘thud’ on the roof. Gut numbing fear gripped us. The ceiling creaked; something was walking on the lodge roof for sure. We had switched off the light to see outside.
What I witnessed will remain with me forever. The event that took place was over within five to six seconds. I saw a feeding frenzy. A blur in which a deep gray or black four-legged four or five feet mammal, something that looked like an overgrown cat descended at a furious speed. It landed on the clearing, pinned one of the little boars, took it by its neck, a death cry from the boar echoed through the area around the lodge. The bigger animal lifted itself with the screaming and struggling prey in its jaws on to the nearest tree or perhaps a wall and vanished into thin air. I was motionless for several moments. Beads of sweat lined my eyebrows and my armpits when the temperature had plummeted to four or five degrees centigrade. We had seen a kill and nature’s way of dealing it.
We, humans, stand fragile and hopelessly incompetent in front of these striking animals. I could not sleep a wink for the next one hour or so and waited for the whistle to sound and to see the first light of dawn.
The second day’s Gypsy was manned by two different crew. They looked quite sure of what they were doing. The chill had increased. We later learned from the restaurant manager before we got into the car that a leopard had come last night. I guessed we were the only one who had seen the pinnacle of the wild visit.
The Mukki area seemed more undulating and the Gypsy negotiated hairpin bends over the flatlands with multiple water holes on either side.
We traveled this time from Mukki and planned to head towards the Kanha forest museum when the walkie-talkie held by the forest guide crackled in front. The forest official exchanged communication and murmured something to the driver. The driver slowed down and looked at us. He told us that the forest ranger had sited a tiger early morning and we will be driving there.
If at all the tiger is still present, we will be moved to a different mode of transportation – a ride on an elephant.
We were fortunate to be among the first six Gypsies after an arduous thirty minutes drive to reach the tiger sighting area. Huge trees had formed a corridor and thick undergrowth where all around a typical forest road. Three elephants about ten to eleven feet tall stood under a command with their rectangle basket on top with a metal rod securely fastened with thick ropes. A couple of aluminum ladders rested on them as people climbed them.
Elation was written all over us with subdued anticipation. A chance to see the tiger, riding an elephant through the jungles. What more can a visitor ask for?
Controlling an elephant seemed a herculean task. They were extremely moody can change their stance and stories of elephant tiger encounter can sometimes go wild and out of control. With a deep sigh, we got a chance finally to prove ourselves to be well-behaved passengers to a pachyderm vehicle.An elephant ride is most rewarding. We swayed on top from side to side as the big animal made its way into the forest. Large trees and branches brushed our heads as we ducked underneath them.
Our eyes scanned the sides and front to see the tigers. About seven minutes passed by and then that moment of truth came. We stopped for a maximum of two minutes and the ‘mahout‘ or the elephant rider used his two feet long stick to point.
We ran our eyesight along the extended short pole, into the undergrowth. It took another minute or so, to figure out what we saw in the forest shadows. Camouflaging at its best. Two huge tigers one sitting and the other sleeping on the forest floor.
They looked relaxed and very friendly from twelve feet above the ground. None of them looked at us even for a moment.
We had forgotten to speak. Disbelieve, incredulity raged high as we saw the king and queen of a forest. Tiger sighting has no equal. It is singular and supreme. The entire drive and the trip seemed worthwhile.
We fear tigers and love them equally to get such enormous fulfillment.
It was well past two in the afternoon when we reached the zenith of our trip. We had forgotten whether we were hungry or tired. We retraced our jungle ride on the elephant and came to the temporary Gypsy parking ground.
We got into the car and the driver headed his coordinates for the Kanha museum. The knowledge session was next on the agenda for us to glean and explore the wild and magnificent Kanha.