I gripped the railing of the safari jeep a little tighter, as it whizzed past the villages and fields of Kabini on a crisp February morning. Sadly, it was almost the end of my trip, but I was filled with a tingling expectation. On the previous safari, an enormous tusker had made his way to ‘Tiger Tank’ for a cool respite from the summer heat. The encounter with this gentle giant was also a pleasant prelude to a surreal sighting of the Tiger Tank female and her cubs. In this safari, I was hoping to sight another bewildering beauty, the ‘black panther’.
The forest seemed almost magical as I was mesmerised by golden flecks dancing in a stream of sunlight through the trees. The sun had begun to thaw the chill of the night as we made our way through the woods. An eerie mist floated over the water’s surface as the sun rose over Tiger Tank, setting the tone for the excursion. We waited and took it all in; the sounds and smells, as refreshing as they were, delighted the senses in an almost spiritual way. The familiarity of what surrounded me quietly transported me back to another time, another safari, the memories of which now flooded my mind.
It was a chilly October morning when we had just ventured into the forest. The habitat then had a more greenish tinge, giving it a lush and abundant air. With sleepy eyes and quiet anticipation, cameras were adjusted, binoculars were slung on, and the comfort of our cottages was left behind. A little way in, before even getting off the main road, “Tiger!” exclaimed our naturalist. My head darted to my right and she emerged, a gorgeous tigress. I had seen this tigress once – earlier that year – when she was just a sub-adult, and that bold and unconventional demeanour was unmistakable. Barely an adult, she sauntered around in the open, unflinchingly. A moment later, she decided to cross the main road, coolly ignoring all the jeeps and their baffled passengers. As she crossed over, by a stroke of pure luck, she turned and gave us a piercing, undaunted look. It was only softened by the violet flowers that surrounded her and enchanted the frame – the beauty of the forest and a beast of prey. I could see the youthful ambition in her eyes, and as she trailed off into the undergrowth, I knew she was going to be a queen. Exhilarated by this encounter, I never expected the treat that lay ahead that day.
The whitish sand of the ‘Five Kilometre Road’ always offers a picturesque trail with abundant sightings, and that day was no different. We stopped abruptly and squinted to see a couple of orange specks in a clearing to our right. Two cubs of the Tiger Tank female basked and lazed in the morning sun, on their viridian carpet; the sight was a picture of tranquility, grandeur and simplicity. Alerted by our arrival, they retreated into the bushes, much to our disappointment. Our guide suspected that their mother wouldn’t be too far away, so we drove ahead and decided to wait.
It was almost as if she gave us enough time to set our cameras to capture a perfect sighting, before coming forth to put on a show. The very epitome of elegance and grace, she strutted across her beige ramp with the confidence of a monarch, leaving us speechless. Her younglings followed after her, quicker and more cautious. Their hurried manner spoke of a juvenile inexperience that would soon change into a fearless demeanor not unlike their mother’s. We went on to see a pack of Dholes with a kill, plenty of huddled herbivores, and birds that flew across the sky like streaks of paint. This was the day I realised that the wonders of these woods are countless and indescribable.
A sharp, shrill sound snapped me out of my nostalgia, and back to the emerald waters of Tiger Tank. After a brief wait, we followed the alarm calls to ‘Kaimara Junction’, where we were intimated that the black panther had quickly crossed the road with a langur kill. The information transformed the energy in the jeep from a peaceful somnolence to vigilance – we were on high alert! The alarm calls were from a herd of spotted deer that were alert, with their tails perked up – the sign of an approaching predator. The forest was still, as if frozen, waiting for just a glance of the mythical-sounding black cat. Seconds turned into minutes that seemed like hours, and the expectation only grew in that interminable period. We waited until the last possible second, after which we could stay no more. Everybody’s sighs of disappointment were pronounced, but not mine. The desire to look into those green eyes had almost become a yearning, but I loved the mystery of it all; someday, I will have a tryst with the ‘Dark Prince’.
That evening, as I settled into my chair at the lovely Wakefield Bungalow, with a cold one in hand, I smiled at the sight of two wonderful Tarantula spiders crawling up a wall. The raw earthiness of this place made it authentic, I thought. There’s a certain peace that finds you in the ubiquitous activities of the crickets and critters of this forest; something that has you always coming back for more. And sure enough, I will be back.