Thursday, May 26, 2011

Big Cat Trail--Ranthambore Rocks!

Our next destination was Ranthambore. Just the thought of visiting any forest is enough to add bliss to my existence. But Ranthambore is extra-special. It is home to the legendary tigress, Machhli. This is the forest that Valmik Thapar and Fateh Singh Rathore wrote about exhaustively. I almost felt I knew some of the tigers there. I couldn't wait to see it.
We arrived at Jaipur in the middle of a hot summer's afternoon. The sultry, hot air physically hit us as we left the precincts of the station. From the station, it was an odd 180 km drive to Ranthambore. I won't touch upon the onward drive, which was eventful in its own way. That will just deviate from the focus of the post. Suffice it to say, we arrived at Ranthambore in time for our evening tea. We were booked into a hotel called Hammir. Made entirely of red- bricks, it was a quaint old place. Somewhat ramshackle and run-down, it had a charm just because it was not too posh and perfect. I loved it. It had a certain old world ambience that blended into the surroundings. The long, broad verandah outside our room was reminiscent of the terrace at my ancestral home where I grew up. I experienced a moment of instant affinity.

I waited for the morning with impatience, trying to imagine the forest in my head not quite successfully. Finally, it was time for the safari and we set off. On our way, we passed a couple of antelopes grazing by the roadside. I felt we had finally arrived.

Ranthambore took my breath away. A forest of contrasts, beauty and elegance, it was picture perfect. It is a forest that can inspire poets and dreamers. Sheer rock faces rise on one side, while the other side is flanked by the Ranthambore fortress. At least a 1000 years old, this majestic old fort adds to the unique charm of the place. The forest proper is a valley nestled between the cliffs and the fortress. As we wound our way in, our safari jeep tilted at impossible angles most of the time because of the rocky terrain, I mentally saluted the driver for his superb control. Clinging to my side of the jeep, I could only marvel at the spread of breathtaking beauty. It felt a bit like falling in love at first sight where the breath is knocked out of you, and you surrender to your senses. For some inexplicable reason, I was reminded of Foreter's A Passage to India...
Ranthambore Fortress
Our first drive led us towards the Rajabaug lake. This is akin to the jewel in the crown. Glimmering and glittering in the sunlight, the lake had water even in the height of summer. In patches yes, but this was enough to drive the fauna of the forest towards it. It is home to a host of birds who clustered around the edges of the lake in search of food, shade or just to slake their thirst. They were in constant motion--flying, fluttering and hopping from spot to spot. We would suddenly see a flock of Alexandrine parakeets fly off in a flutter of green... A group of Treepies would swoop down clamouring for attention. It was a magical place.

Far away, in the centre of the lake was a tiny fort kind of a structure, a quaint remnant of the past. In this lay a tiger, fast asleep. Far from the madding crowd with nary a thing to disturb him there. To be very honest, I could barely spot it with my naked eye. But my camera caught its stripes.

I could have spent days just hanging around the lake. But we had to move on. The drive around the forest gradually revealed its beauty. The flora at this time was dry and skeletal divested entirely of its foliage. This barren starkness threw the fort and the cliffs in the background into sharp focus. What would have, at other times, been covered in dense greenery, was now revealed in all its majestic glory. The sunlight cast mysterious shadows on the cliff walls that I can see in my mind's eye even now. I am too amateur a photographer to have been able to capture that beauty.

Ranthambore has a rich variety of avifauna life that thrilled us. Birds like the Rufous Treepie are so abundant and so fearless that we could photograph them in evey conceivable pose to our heart's content.
Rufous Treepie...questioning
While the first day's drive did not reveal more than a tantalizing glimpse of the tiger, I felt replete. I was unaware of the drama that would ensue the next day. It was on our final drive into the forest that we had our real tiger sighting, but oh what a sighting it was.

As we drove in for our final safari, we wound up at a spot that seemed to be buzzing with human activity. Jeeps were lined up bumper to bumper with hardly a spot to maneuver in. There must be a tiger in the vicinity, declared Saad, our guide. We had also arrived at a similar conclusion and held our breath in anticipation. Earlier Sumeet had declared that we would see a tiger in this safari, and his prediction seemed to be coming true. As we inched our way upward, we arrived at a point where we had our first glimpse. A male tiger was sitting with his back to us, resting from the heat. There is a tigress on the other side, can you see her? Asked our guide. With the uncanny understanding developed through years of driving in the forest, he knew exactly where to park our jeep so that we would get the best possible view (second best given that Priyanka Vadhra's jeep was there). Anyhow, we got a good view. And the sighting that unfolded before our eyes made me forget the presence of everyone else.

The tiger and the tigress were sitting at opposite ends of an open, grassy space. Each had appropriated a tree and was sitting under its shade. The tiger made a point to raise his head every now and then and taking a quick glance to ensure his tigress was still there. Then, he would just flop back, overcome by the effort in this sultry heat. Finally, she got tired of waiting for him to make a move and sauntered over to where he lay. What followed was an amazing display of love and affection between these two inherently solitary animals. The memory of it can give me goosebumps even now. They rubbed and nuzzled against each other, indulging in playful love bites. I watched spellbound. I think during those few moments, there was a collective withholding of breath...It was too beautiful and had a poignancy that made my throat ache...The thought that we might be driving these animals towards extinction was unbearable. 
Loveplay...nuzzling each other
Just that afternoon before coming from the safari,  I had bought a painting from a nearby store of two tigers nuzzling each other... I had wished we could see something like that in real life. The painting seemed to have come alive for me.

The final safari at Ranthambore left nothing more to be desired except a deep wish to come back to this place again someday. And a fervent prayer that we will be able to check the deadly march towards extinction--of the tiger and other wildlife that are our legacy and pride.

Some of the photos are here...
Enhanced by Zemanta

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Big Cat Trail: Amazing Gir

Sumeet and I headed toward Gir in Junagadh after our Kanha trip. The contrast between the two forests couldn't have been more shocking, and I am not referring to the fauna here. Let me explain a bit.

I have experienced Kanha in November, when it is still lush from the monsoon showers. The subsequent dry months hadn't yet been able to banish the green. In comparison, Kanha in May seemed incredibly dry to me. Most of the lush, green foliage was replaced by reddish-brown leaves; nevertheless, since the deciduous sal forest is liberally interspersed with evergreens, the forest still retained a semblance of greenness. After this, Gir came as a shock.

For miles--as far as the eyes could see--we saw nothing but stretches of leafless, brown trees--rather their skeletons to be more accurate. It didn't seem possible that this barren, stark landscape could also be a thick, foliage covered forest during other seasons. Interspersed with these skeletal trees were brambles and thorny bushes. The earth was varying shades of brown--occasionally turning to a brighter yellow here and there. The dominant color of the landscape was brown. Miles of it. This kind of bone-dryness must be seen to be believed. It has a beauty all its own; the very starkness lending it an air of mystery.

Just as I was trying to accustom myself to this first sight of Gir, a peacock flew by and perched on a nearby tree trunk. The contrast couldn't have been greater. The colorless and barren background enhanced the hues and shades of the living beings manifold--bringing everything into sharp focus. The peacock shone a brilliant blue--a perfect photograph moment. I settled down for the forest to reveal its surprises.

The biggest surprise that Gir had in store for me were the trackers. While I had read a bit about them, I was completely unprepared for what I eventually saw. The trackers play a unique role in the Gir ecosystem. They keep track of the lions by walking or cycling around the forest armed with nothing more than a simple stick. Their courage will put any self-proclaimed hunter to shame. Their job is to keep a lookout for any lion who might be ill or injured; their constant patrolling also keeps miscreants at bay. I saw them stand barely five feet away from a full-grown lion, totally unperturbed. I don't think they thought of it as a display of bravery; for them it was just a part of their daily routine.

The trackers also communicate the location of lions to the guides making it easier for wildlife enthusiasts to watch these beautiful animals in their natural surroundings. Bali, our guide, had promised us that he would show us lions till we wanted to see no more. However, not wanting to see anymore being an impossibility for an animal lover, I must say that we saw lions to our hearts' content. 28 of them...

Lions are social animals unlike tigers who are solitary and secretive. This characteristic makes lions not only easier to spot but also easier to photograph. One can be within 6 feet of a lion without him or her making any move to go away. We saw prides of lions sitting, basking in the sun, drinking water or just sleeping. I was very surprised when we saw a lioness with cubs peacefully sleeping--occasionally raising her head to see if everything was fine. Not worried at all. The most memorable sighting was that of a lioness in the act of stalking and hunting a sambar deer. She was immensely graceful in the fluidity of her movements. I was spellbound. It was National Geographic in the real world. The only spoiler was a horde of tourists who seemed incapable of distinguishing between wildlife and a circus show. I fervently hope that the forest department will enforce stricter measures to bring such tourists under control by educating them and vesting the guides with the authority to drive such tourists out of the precincts of the forest should they fail to adhere to the rules.
 Lion drinking from the manmade water pools...

It must also be remembered that Gir lions are perhaps unique in their acceptance of human beings. Having lived with and among the Maldharis and Sidhi tribes, these animals are much more attuned to human beings than one would normally expect.

Apart from lions, Gir's prime attraction, it is also a bird-lovers haven. We were soon to find this out. In complete contrast to the stark summer landscape that makes up the major part Gir, there is a lush and verdant patch in the heart of the forest. This corner of the forest is seldom frequented by folks who have primarily come to see lions. However, for bird-lovers like us, this proved to be a treasure trove. I had never seen so many paradise fly- catchers fly around, flitting from branch to branch, tantalizing and luring us with glimpses till we gave in and decided to wait at that spot.
Paradise Flycatcher...surprisingly still
And not only this spot. Our drives around the forest revealed various species of avifauna that absolutely delighted me.

Crested Serpent Eagle on the verge of flight

Gir is an entirely different exeprience. While lion spotting may lack the mystery and unpredictability of seeing tigers, it is unbelievably amazing to see lions in their natural habitat. Gir brought back memories of Elsa  and Christian and seemed to proclaim the essential ties that exist between animals and humans.

The photos from the trip are here and here.

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.

Organizations as Communities — Part 2

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation with Rachel Happe regarding the need for organizations to function as communities, I wrote the follow...