In Nagarahole, tigers are like city buses…

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: I was with a bunch of friends in Nagarahole the other day, my favourite watering hole, a jungle I have returned to, times without number, in a period spanning a little over 25 years. But what happened to us this time should go down as one of the most improbable and impossibly hard to imagine set of events in one single evening in the Nagarahole jungle.

Like every wild lifer, I’ve always longed to see a tiger in the wild. And seen it I have, but ever so rarely and ridiculously infrequently, considering that I have trekked, camped, driven around and almost ‘lived’ in some of the densest parts of these jungles for days on end. Beastly luck in a sense.

As we started our safari into the jungle on the evening of Friday the 2nd, in a Scorpio laden with five eager men full of hope, the usual herd of chital came into view as routinely as sheep in a farm barn.

Brilliantly plumed peacocks strutted around near a giant anthill pecking grub. As I pointed out to them, there was a bit of a yawn in the jeep, a kind of bored acceptance of these all too familiar sights.

Ten minutes into the drive, we reached Doddahalla, a water hole with an immense bund, skirted by bamboo grass on one side and a green, swampy patch on the other. A tiny terrapin lay lazily on a stump of wood that jutted out of the water’s surface.

Sharath jumped out of the jeep and trained his humongous camera in its direction. No sooner had he focused than we heard the unmistakable alarm call of a chital. There was silence all around and the call echoed through the trees, sending a chill up the spine.

As we huddled together in nervous anticipation, training our eyes in the direction of the call, a flock of parakeets shot across the landscape, chirping as they went.

Suddenly Sharath hissed, “I can see him there. There he is, there, there, a tiger.”

As the rest of us shuffled and jostled around to catch his glimpse, our eyes narrowed and our brows became a slanting arc. But yet we couldn’t see him.

Sharath kept insisting that he was there. His hands were jabbing the air animatedly pointing in the direction of the bamboo clump just by the edge of the waters, hardly a couple of hundred metres away.

And, then, I saw him!

But even as I was registering his presence, he slunk away into the bamboo thicket, his back and tail, dripping water. Perhaps the tiger had just then entered the waters to cool off, when the commotion must have irritated him.

Guard Gururaja, our guide for the evening, suggested that we take the game road that circumambulated the water hole and reach the other side as quickly as we could. He felt that the tiger could be moving towards another waterhole called Peacock Kere.

We jumped into the jeep and drove as fast as we could on the bumpy game road to reach the area into which the tiger had presumably entered. Not a word was spoken in the jeep, only heavy breathing and feverish gesturing. Our collective eyes scanned the area like a microscope would a germ.

As I came up a short incline and eased down a bit, we saw him there, bang on the game road.

“Tiger, tiger tiger,” we hissed like a cobra gone crazy, obviously we couldn’t raise our voices and disturb his walk. He was half wet and his hind legs looked grimy from the mud bath he had just then taken. He walked just a few metres in front of us, completely unmindful of our presence.

This was a sight that all of us had been praying for, hoping for and wishing for, for ages. Our prayers had been answered after all. We pumped our hands like victorious school boys in a game of cricket that until then, the opposite school had always been winning!

Sharath went berserk with his camera while I tried reining in his excitement. After all, I didn’t want His Majesty to disappear! Every moment, every single nano-second on our watches meant a great deal. All of us kept staring at him as he turned a bit towards the left from where we were, went off the game road, glanced at us and entered the vegetation.

Mercifully, this being summer, the outgrowth wasn’t thick and we could see him way into his somnambulant walk, spraying urine as he went and also squatting briefly to deposit his scat.

“It was a she,” said Sharath peering closely into the pictures he had captured on his digital camera that allowed for instant reference.

Our evening had been made.

Prasanna excitedly declared, “Our lives are going to change from now on!”

Sampath sat next to the window, simply waving his hand to denote awe and respect.

Murthy kept a satiated smile on for long.

As we grudgingly left the area and drove towards the main watch tower, I said we might spot one more tiger there. My prediction born of stupidly unreasonable imagination was met simply by silence.

We clambered up the tower to see a family of elephants with a calf at the salt lick. They seemed to be in their own world as we looked around in all the four directions like sentinels at the time of war. Minutes ticked by. The jungle throbbed with amazing bird life. Scores of birds flew around alighting on branches only to take off after a moment.

The sun was beginning to set, the light was fading, and the moon in the sky was slowly assuming a pallid splendour.

Murthy jerked my shoulder. Pointing to some form in the distance he asked, “Hey, what’s that?” I indifferently said that it was piece of rock when it suddenly moved.

It was a tiger!

He had been there all along, resting leisurely after a heavy meal perhaps. We couldn’t believe our luck. We observed him for over half-an-hour as he rolled on his sides and at times stretched his hind legs to the sky like a dog in repose.

Obviously he wasn’t interested in us. Gururaja, the guard, reminded us that it was time to leave as it was beyond twilight. We left the tiger to his world and drove back to the Ranger’s office from where we had started.

As we started on our journey to Mysore through the jungle, Sampath boldly declared, “We will spot one more tiger near the Veeranahosalli gate.”

Would you believe it if I told you that’s exactly what happened? A huge male!

Three tigers in two hours in three different locations.

And to think I had seen a grand total of six in twenty-five years before this!

Verily, in Nagarahole, tigers are like city buses. One doesn’t come for ages, and then…

Photograph by Sharath Rangaswamy