In search of the tiger
The pretext was Nisha’s cousin’s wedding in Bangalore. We were already high from our wonderful wildlife experience in Thailand and when the chance to travel to Bangalore came, we were in no doubt that a safari in one of Karnataka’s national parks will grace one of the weekends. It did not take us long to settle on the national park - we were going to Bandipur! I booked us in Bandipur Safari Lodge for 3 nights, which gave us 6 safaris to look for wildlife. A tiger would be amazing but I was more interested in spotting leopards and sloth bears.
We landed at the Bangalore airport early in the morning and waited for our Zoomcar to arrive. I found out at the airport that the car I had booked had an accident the previous night so I was getting a Ford Figo instead, not the start I was looking for. In any case, we picked up our car and drove on to Gundlupet. The drive was thankfully uneventful and we reached the lodge just in time for our evening safari. I informed the staff that our 2 year old would be accompanying us for the safari and he was not very happy. He warned us that if she got scared or bored or cried, there was no way to return before the end of the safari. I assured him that our kid was an angel and he let us board.
Ira was actually quite amazing on the safari, especially for a 2 year old. She excitedly looked for animals and birds (she already has the ability to spot birds somehow!) and shouted out when she saw something interesting. Therein lied the problem unfortunately. She was often too excited and that was a bit disturbing for other occupants of the jeep. She was not very disruptive though and she fell asleep for the last third of the trip.
It rained for a while during the safari and that freshened the forest up a bit. The light looked divine and I was really excited about seeing an exotic animal or bird at that point. We saw some deer, Gaur peacock and langur, a mongooseon one side, a black-naped hare on the other. No tigers, no leopards, no sloth bears. I did not miss them either, because the entire experience was just wonderful - the lighting was great, the weather was pleasant and the birds and animals that we did see looked beautiful.
For the remaining trip we decided to alternate safaris to avoid disturbing our fellow holidayers. Nisha would do the safari next morning, I would do the following evening and morning and then Nisha would do the last one in the evening. We had already decided to skip the Monday morning safari in the interest of getting to Bangalore in time on Monday.
Nisha’s morning safari was a success - she saw a big male leopard ambling across about a 100 meters or so from her jeep. In her excitement she forgot to zoom into the cat and managed to get some interesting habitat shots instead. Either way, we had our first sighting! I was excited at the prospect of seeing the leopard that evening. Something else was in store for me though.
My evening safari jeep had three families with young children and at first I did not think much of it. Once we entered the forest however, some of the children and adults were quite annoyingand were constantly making noise. There were discussions of cricket as we trudged along and a lot of the shushing from the naturalist went unheeded. The most annoying bit was when we waited for a leopard to cross our track and at that precise moment one of the kids wanted to go pee. A parent stood up and demanded that the driver take them to a place where she can pee. As it turned out, the leopard did cross that path and later that night, also brought a kill to that spot. Such was my luck that evening. Despite that, I did manage to get my first sighting of a Crested Serpent Eagle, so the evening was not completely wasted.
I requested that I be put on a different jeep the next day and that set me up for the most memorable safari yet. No, I did not see a tiger, nor a leopard nor a sloth bear.
We saw elephants, but that was not the highlight either, even though it was really exciting.
I saw the first Indian Nightjar of my life! I had never imagined seeing a nightjar in my lifetime because I consider myself an average (or maybe a bit below) birder. Thanks to the wonderful company I had in the jeep, we were able to spot the beauty just as it flew from the front of our jeep to a tree nearby. But then, even if I had not seen a nightjar, this would have been the best safari of the trip because of the company I had. In addition to a good driver (but then all of the driver/guides at the safari lodge are terrific) we had a couple of keen wildlife photographers who were great at spotting and tracking and best of all, nobody was talking, let alone about cricket. I now wanted to do the Monday morning safari too and not give it up. I spent the afternoon trying to convince Nisha.
It was again Nisha’s turn and as expected, she came back with dozens of shots of a popular male tiger called Prince. The big male was lazing in a waterhole and all of the jeeps had converged on him, everyone firing away furiously on their cameras. Since I had not seen any big cats, Nisha let me do the Monday safari.
We started the morning looking for tiger tracks. We saw tracks of a male in the area that Prince was seen the previous evening and were following it. The driver got a phone call and was told of a sighting in a different sector of the forest. He apologized to us and started speeding away to the other section of the forest. We held on to our dear lives!
After about 15 minutes of a very bumpy ride, we reached a spot where a couple of other jeeps were already waiting. After another 10 minutes or so, the big male crossed over, just beyond our sight! Our driver made a desperate last attempt to drive closer so that we could get one shot, but it was too late. He was not one to give up though and quickly guessed that the tiger was headed to the waterhole nearby. We sped to that place and waited. In no time, we saw the huge male amble down to the edge of the pond. He took a drink and then hind legs first, settled into the mossy water. The Basavanagatta male (that is what he was called, although I am sure the spelling is grossly wrong) stayed there for a long time, glancing at us now and then. He was a little over 100 meters away from us, so he did not have any reason to feel nervous. He finally got bored of sitting in there and swam over to the other end of the pool and walked off.
Our driver instantly knew which way he was going and started driving around to the other side of the huge thicket. We waited there and finally the cat stepped out from the thicket. The huge cat looked at us, gave a snarl and ambled into another thicket. This time he was not more than 20 meters away. We spent some more time waiting to see if it would come out from another side of the thicket, but he did not, or maybe he escaped from some other spot, we don’t know. What I did know was that I wanted to do another safari!
I had run out of time though, so we had to check out and drive back to Bangalore. The drive back had a hint of melancholy as both of us wanted to stay longer. The lodge itself did not exactly ooze luxury (it was quite basic) but the people were warm and the forests were enchanting. Stories of people staying there for weeks at a time did not help as I wanted to do that too. Maybe some day I will go there without prior plan to return…