It was around 8.30 pm on a nippy February evening. There was a small gathering around the bar. There were two bottles of whiskey and one of rum. We had reached the Tuli Tiger Corridor in Pench, a wildlife reserve that spreads across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, a few hours ago. Many of our fellow travellers were still getting settled into their rooms, but Abhishek, my assigned roommate, and I headed straight to the makeshift bar. There was reason for our haste: The organisers, for reasons we are still unclear about, had assigned us a honeymoon tent. Abhishek and I, while cordial, had met only that morning. We were, as you can surmise, at least hoping for separate beds. (Tuli did later grant us individual beds, phew.)
Ah well, the bar beckoned as did—we hoped—the elusive tiger. It was the start of a five-day excursion organised by Mahindra Adventure to the Pench and Kanha National Parks, and there was little that could dampen our spirits. Quite literally.
I poured myself a drink and joined Sapna and Chandan Gurukar, a couple from Sakleshpur, a town near Bangalore. Sapna is the winner of the women’s category Mahindra off-roading competition that took place only a week ago in Igatpuri, Maharashtra.
“There are hardly any women participating in this sport. Off-roading is something where you have to get your hands and legs dirty. Most women don’t want to their dress to get spoilt,” Sapna says. She had no such problem; and that competition done, the couple had taken a flight to Nagpur to participate in the Mahindra Adventure Wild Escape 2015 excursion—a 250-km drive to Kanha Tiger reserve with a stop at Pench and then back to Nagpur. There were 34 participants driving 18 vehicles made up of XUVs, Scorpios or Thars. Four service vehicles carried the supplies.
Since the vehicles were driven in convoy formation, the participants were expected to maintain discipline. They had to keep a safe distance from the car ahead of them and have the following vehicle in their rear view mirror. Critically, they were not to disturb other traffic on the road and yet maintain the speed needed to reach the day’s destination on time. All the vehicles had a walkie-talkie to keep the convoy in constant communication. In the lead car was Dr Vinod Thakur, a veterinary doctor from the Army, who runs an NGO called Himalayan Explorers with wife Avril. They had organised many trips across India, especially around Nagpur, for those seeking a drive on the wild side. Himalayan Explorers was the official partner of Mahindra Adventure for this trip.
I also met the Shetty family which owned a restaurant in Mumbai, Ramchandran from Chennai, the Mehtas from Baroda and the Pais from Bangalore. But the stars of the evening were the three professional drivers—Ashwin Naik, Musa Sharif and PVS Murthy—who race under the Mahindra banner in the Indian National Rally Championship. They drive the sweep vehicle, which they said “is like riding a chariot”. “We have to keep each and every horse from veering away and that becomes tough because we don’t know the driving skills of many of the participants. If there is a rough driver, we have to gently get him back into the convoy,” Naik said. He had never been on a wildlife expedition to Kanha and he had just one hope from the trip: To see the tiger.
But everybody missed the 5.30 am wake-up call. By the time we entered the forest, it was around 8.30 am. We knew it would be tough to spot a tiger. We were all packed into Maruti Gypsys that belonged to the resort; they had also given us a guide. The guides are typically locals with a keen sense of hearing and a sharp eye. In most cases, they are excellent trackers. Our guide immediately spotted some tiger pugmarks.
Would we get lucky?
We drove deeper into the Pench jungle where the most common sights were langurs and spotted deer. We came to an open space and, on the far side, saw 14 vultures. There are around 40 vultures in the Pench jungle; they are now considered to be endangered species. They were pecking away at a carcass and did not fly away even when we approached them. They merely jumped away from us. We spent some time observing them and then, while returning, saw a jackal relieving himself in the morning sun. The guide said it was a rare sight. But our fortune did not extend to a tiger sighting.
Safari sightings: The Pench and Kanha National Parks are a delight for nature and bird lovers. (Right) There are around 40 vultures in the Pench jungle, but they are now considered an endangered species. “They did not fly away even when we approached them. They merely jumped away from us.”
By the time we entered Kanha National Park, our optimism had started growing. There was a tiger in the horizon, we convinced ourselves. We reached the Tuli Tiger Resort in Kanha by 8 pm. It was already cold. We prepared for an early morning safari, but it turned out to be another wet start. Our hope for a vision in stripes was dissolving.
The jungle was dense, exactly how Rudyard Kipling had described it in The Jungle Book, but then, it was easier to spot Sher Khan in the movie. Consider the scale of the jungle at 940 square km. Of this, only around 10 percent is accessible to regular tourists. The tiger, an elusive creature, can easily avoid adventure seekers and big cat enthusiasts, as a foreign tourist staying at the resort had discovered. There for the last 15 days, he was still waiting for his sighting. He had been visiting Kanha for the last 11 years and this was the first time that he could not spot the tiger, he told us. The onslaught of tourists had put the tiger on the defence, he said. Perhaps the reason it was not coming out in the open.
Two safaris the next day yielded no results either. Some people started talking about the Tadoba National Park again. “The Arya family from Delhi and I are going to Tadoba. I am sending my kids back home. I’m not going home till I see the tiger,” Contractor told me. His passion amazed me. Many of the participants had given up, and were enjoying the trip for what it was—an incredible drive.