We had almost decided not to do the morning Safari after the evening one failed to yield anything. The mini-bus had been crammed with people and almost everyone barring me and Anand was part of a family that included little kids who just wouldn’t keep quiet. There were grandmas and grandpas and we couldn’t understand what they’d be doing in the safari. It is usually a bumpy ride, not easy on the bones, and out of two hours, you just drive around amidst the trees for more than 75% of the time. Kids meant that every monkey and deer needed some stopping.
And then, out of nowhere there was the sighting of a herd of elephants. 15 minutes of beauty as they first went and hid in some bushes, keeping a wary eye out on us and then slowly came out and went back to grazing. This was preceded by a herd of Gaurs or socks-wearing Buffaloes. A lone shikra fluttered above, staying in one place by flapping its wings. The Sun looked ready to set. We figured we might have more luck the next morning and decided to take the morning safari. At least we did enjoy the experience of being driven through the forest.
Morning came and we were greeted by a Tata Sierra converted to have 3 rows of seats. Better than the mini-bus. We promptly took up the front row and hoped no one else would get in. At the main forest office though, 2 families, kids in tow got in. The drive began as usual, and the driver found pug-marks soon enough which seemed fresh. Considering that it was headed towards the road and might have crossed it, we went back the same way and crossed that path. After a while, there was still nothing to see. This continued for a while – driving around, finding some pug-marks, turning around and then heading in some other direction. And then, another jeep came along and said there had been a leopard sighting.
We turned around and sped to what was the spot. After three years and 9 safaris in all, this usually meant you’d be late and would likely see smug tourists who’d been lucky to spot a wild-cat. This time we instead ran into a massive bull, a tusker who was in Musth. I was a bit worried as these usually are pretty belligerent, and are known to charge at and attack safari jeeps. This one, though, held his peace and kept grazing. After quiet a bit of fun, clicking great pics of the bull, we moved along and spotted more pug-marks. These were on top of tyre marks which meant they were pretty recent. We sped back and waited at one spot. The driver reckoned the leopard had crossed us when we were shooting the elephant and was now in the bushes behind the elephant.
We waited. And waited. The engine had been killed and the parents had shushed their kids and were sitting around excited while the kids were oblivious to what was happening. After close to 5 minutes of silent waiting, which had started to feel like eternity, the guy in the back got excited – “Its there, below the tree! It’s there, below the tree!” He shouted in a whisper. I turned around, looking for it all over. This might just be the one like Kaziranga; some in the same vehicle see it, but eludes me.
But then as the vehicle was being reversed a bit, I saw it. A big cat sitting under the tree. A leopard. Two other jeeps had come in and were now standing by it. It made its move. I zoomed in and clicked pics while keeping an eye out for the real naked-eye experience. I got one out-of-focus one, one which seemed to lock in perfectly and then as it crossed the road, I had a clear shot. I messed it up. It crossed the road and disappeared into some bushes. We drove along to the other side where a herd of deer was on high alert. We waited there for another 15 minutes, in absolute silence, but there was no sign of it. We were dealing with the master of ambush who could out-wait us for the rest of the day if the need be.
The driver then headed along and we reversed the vehicle. This time, the people in the lone gypsy standing there were looking in the opposite direction. The leopard had crossed while we had headed off. “Two hops” he said. The cat had just bounded out, taken a few hops and disappeared into the bushes and woods on the other side. We headed back, ran into the tusker again, grazing peacefully and headed back to camp.
And three years later, I had my first Big Cat sighting.
Rest of the pics here: