Thursday, May 19, 2011

Big Cat Trail--Unforgettable Kanha


I am still thinking about Kanha. It will probably always be my favorite forest. I saw my first tiger there in the wild last November—close up, an unforgettable experience.  That’s when I told myself that I would come back again. Just like a first love always remains special, Kanha will always be very close to my heart. This was my second trip to Kanha. We are on our way to Gir now, and I am absolutely excited by the prospect of seeing the Asiatic lions, maybe black bucks and anything else the forest has in store for us. 

Initially, I thought of writing a blow-by-blow account of the safaris and then changed my mind. This post is my impression of Kanha—the feelings it evoked and the experience it offered. Occasionally it may seem like a Stream of Consciousness flow, but I have left it as it is making not attempt to edit the words. It is a very personal account of my interaction with this forest. I am writing this as I sit in the train, heading towards Gir.
I never cease to be amazed by the beauty of the forest…it’s beautiful at dawn when the moon is still visible, the sky turning a pale pink very gradually, the last, fading stars twinkling here and there, the forest waking up. The trees are silhouetted against this backdrop. This always reminded me of one of my childhood favorites, “When the sun shines in the morning and the night is on the run, it’s a new day, it’s a new day, and I will fly up to the sun…”

The sound of the forest waking up is indescribable. It’s a symphony of bird calls, interspersed with the calls of animals waking up to the dawn. Perfectly orchestrated. There are no jarring notes; nothing seems out of place. Everything just fits in, perfectly made for each other. We would start our morning safari at 5:30 a.m. And the wait between waking up and actually going on the safari always seemed interminable to me. This is the time when the nocturnal animals are still around and the diurnal ones beginning their day. 

We would leap onto the safari jeep as soon as it arrived. Once in the forest, I found myself straining my eyes and all my senses to catch a glimpse of a sign of life. Kanha did not disappoint me. I don’t have the skills or the power of words to describe the sheer beauty and the feeling of awe I experienced every time I caught a glimpse of an animal or a bird in its natural habitat—just where it is meant to be. I waited for these surprises with breathless anticipation as we drove through the forest, my eyes scanning and scouring the foliage for any sign of life. While we drove around following tiger pug marks, trying to read the tiger or the tigresses’ mind, following the routes they take with the hope of seeing this majestic animal, the forest revealed its other treasures in unexpected ways. Suddenly, a rustling sound here would draw our attention to a herd of sambars or a wild boar, a crack of twigs there would reveal a herd of bison feasting on the tender green shoots that popped up among the bone dry leaves in the height of summer.  Its benign, slightly dumb look always made me smile. A couple of racket tailed  drongos would swoop and tantalize us with a glimpse before flying away belying all our efforts to take photos. One thing I learned—no amount of preparedness can meet the surprises a forest has in store. It is just so much better to surrender to the forest, soak in the experience, and be grateful for those moments when it pauses long enough for us to take those photos we want in the hope of capturing some of the memories.   

Within an hour of our cruise into the forest, the sun would be high up in the sky--scorching, beating down. The pale pink and cool blue dawn turned into a sunny, scorching day. But who cared! It was still beautiful—a different kind of beauty—bolder, harsher, starker.  Everything now came into sharper focus. I loved the way the sunlight filtering in through the sal trees cast lovely shadows on the yellow-orange, sandy roads.  The road seemed to resemble the striped pattern of a tiger’s skin. The forest makes you forget the heat, the discomforts, the amenities we take for granted in our daily lives. As the sun rose, an uncanny calm would descend on the forest. Dawn’s chattering and chirping would start to die down. The forest seemed to be preparing for its siesta. A few deer would stand in the shade munching on the green grass, small sambar herds could be spotted around the water holes quenching their thirst, enjoying the coolness of the shade. But life seemed to visibly slow down. 

On such a day, as we drove around, hot on the tiger’s trail, she showed herself to us.  We had been following alarm calls of the deer and had arrived at a spot where Javed (our driver and, to me, an integral part of my Kanha experience) and our guide felt the probability of seeing the tiger was the highest.  As Javed parked our jeep, we prepared to wait. Collar-wali as she is called because of the radio-collar round her neck walked out of the forest. We were blessed to be the Gypsy she walked directly in front of. Totally oblivious to the cavalcade of jeeps and the human life that thronged to see her, she walked out with an elegance, nonchalance and grace that defy all descriptions. Her glossy fur shone golden-orange in the sunlight, the muscles rippled as she walked without hurrying, casting not a glance at anybody, focused on her mission. Her face was turned toward us, and I like to imagine that she was looking directly at us. I automatically felt my camera clicking away, the hair on my skin rising, almost forgetting to breathe. She sauntered across and vanished into the foliage on the other side of the road, leaving us feeling replete and yet wanting more. I know I will never be tired of the sight of this majestic and magnificent animal. 

Almost too soon it always seemed to me, it would be time for us to leave the forest. We had to be out by 10:30 a.m. and any inadvertent delay could cause the driver to be suspended for a week. As we hurried towards the gate, I found myself calculating the time left for the evening safari to start. This inevitably happened every day. I wish there was some way to stay in the forest till the evening safari. I wouldn’t mind sitting on a machan for the rest of the day just taking in the ambience. It is a strange thrill to know that even when we can’t see a single sign of visible life, it is there all around us—pulsating and vibrant. 

This time we visited all the three zones in the forest—Kanha, Mukki and Sarhi. At Sarhi zone, we caught our first glimpse of the chausingha and the barking deer. Both extremely shy and nervous animals, I count myself fortunate to have seen them so clearly. The chausingha did not pause long enough for us to take photos but the barking deer graced us with quite a few poses. The prominent V-shaped mark on her forehead was easy to see as she stood facing us—startled but not frightened enough to run away. 

Sarhi zone is the least tourist-visited zone in Kanha because it is not known for frequent sightings of the big cat. For this very reason, touring this zone was a pleasure. Gangaram, the guide we had for this safari, seemed to possess telescopic vision and spotted signs of life where we saw only leaves, brambles and branches. His genius for spotting brought the zone alive for us and suddenly, a rather quiet zone seemed to be teeming with life. We saw some rare birds here including the scarlet minivet. My only regret is that my lens did not have the range required to shoot birds at such distance. 

The day would end as spectacularly as it had it begun, the sunset no less picturesque than the sunrise. 

I am still trying to pen down my impressions of the other forests. Here are some of my photos from the Kanha tour.
Take a look at Sumeet’s album for some great shots. 

Next post coming in a few days: Amazing Gir.

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