Why our Nagarahole scores over Ranthambore

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: A regal looking crested serpent eagle with its beautiful yellow ringed eyes flies silently, almost in stealth, and perches itself on an overhanging branch of a mathi tree, its gaze intent as ever.

A giant Malabar squirrel, with its handsome bushy tail made of glorious russet and brown moves around on the long intertwined branches up on a large canopy of green, high up from the lush green grass covered ground, making a range of metallic calls that seem to carry into the distance.

A family of babblers flit around with their brown tails acting like little aerilons, slowly moving up and down in complete synchronization with their short bursts of take off and landing in the vicinity of a roadside lantana bush with its tiny flowers made of pink.

The swoosh of the bamboo and the swaying of the branches; the wind-swept woods and their rain-swept luxuriance; little flowers of red, blue and yellow glistening in pure freshness at the tip of tender, lithe stalks that grow around a roadside water hole; the grey-black asphalt of the road that snakes through this halo of natural magnificence, a wonderful contrast to a million shades of green.

As I drive past the Murkal area of the Nagarahole National Park, the drone of my jeep intermingles with the sudden trumpeting of a massive tusker, chained to a tree in a state of serious musth.

I recognize him as one of the camp elephants.

Past the famous ‘Chirathe Bande’, a huge outcrop of black dolorite, on which a lucky few have seen a leopard stretched out at various times of the day; and past  Kolangere haadi (a tribal settlement), my jeep moves at a steady, slow 20 kmph clip.

My eyes dart to the right and left of the narrow road, in the hope of spotting something interesting. But then, drama is far off the agenda, as nothing, not even the regulation chital come into view.

Where have the elephants gone I wonder; at least they had to be around. Especially with the juicy grass swaying so temptingly by the roadside at this time of the year, soon after the rains. If not a big herd, at least a family of three; the mother, the calf and the aunt. Or a lone tusker. Foraging by the road. But on this day, nothing, no such usual life forms as I have come to bear witness on my innumerable drives into these jungles seem to exist.

I turn towards the Karmad road which eventually takes you into Kodagu, past the tiny village of Balele. The Karmad section of the Kalhalla range is flush with dense green bamboo jungle on either side of the gloriously isolated road, where not too many people venture, not necessarily out of a sense of fear but more because not too many people travel to Coorg from this end, save for those who happen to be resident planters in Balele.

Even on this road, or around it, on this day, not a creature seems to be around.

I’m lost in my solitude; slowly lowered into the depths of my thoughts, in complete isolation from all known forms of civilization; soaking in the sheer sense of seclusion.

I stop by a small bridge in the area as I have a done for so many years; the same bridge on which a big black bear had approached my jeep so closely, that it sniffed at the registration plate in front, a few months ago! I sit inside my vehicle, remembering the excitement that particular incident had created in my heart.

Soon, it is time to head back home. The time on my watch shows a little past six in the evening. As I engage my gear and began to move my jeep slowly, the birds have begun to chirp around. It is roosting time for them. And they are going through the moves, of finding their places to stretch out for the night.

As I touch the Murkal road which will eventually take me to the Veeranahosalli gate and out onto the Hunsur road, some 20 kms away, the jungle around me begins to close in. It is not really dark but grey. As I travel the stretch, I tell myself that this was one of those completely eventless days as far as wildlife sighting went. But then, to be in the jungle was a joy by itself, a bliss. Sightings or not.

And then it happened.

As I turned a regulation bend, I heard a soft thud.

A tiger landed right onto the road, just a few metres in front of my jeep’s grill!

Hugely built and immense, with paws that seemed so densely padded; and an imperial head that stamped a sense of unmistakable authority.

His handsome features glowed magically in the fast ensuing darkness, his tail twitched up and down, as he looked slightly startled by the suddenness of my arrival into his domain.

And then, he composed himself and gave me a look.

A kind of look that only the surest, the most confident, the most unperturbed and one of the greatest of living creatures can gather! “Oh, you’re one of those…mortally inadequate ones,” his expression seemed to convey!

I didn’t mind at all!

In fact I wanted to call out to him; to almost reach out; to want to make contact of the surrealistic kind; to somehow convey to him that I was one of those humans who held him in the highest honour; for the sheer phantasmagoric symmetry of his being as perhaps one of the most intuitive and inspired creations of god!

And then he began to move slowly into a thicket.

I almost said, ‘hey wait… a little while longer’. Moments later he was gone, the slight parting of the leafy undergrowth and its ever so slight stirring, the only indication that he had taken that route.

This is the magic of Nagarahole. The impossible improbability and the million possibilities. Complete hopelessness and a sense of ennui on a drive giving way to sheer heart stopping drama. All in an infinitesimal moment. Leaving you with the memory of a lifetime.

Unlike the more famous Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh, and Kanha national parks in the north of India where foresters talk in terms of zones with names like B1, B2 and B3, with a ridiculous piece of paper that you have to pick determining which route you’ll take for the day; and where tigers have names like ‘Charger’ and ‘Chameli’s daughter’; and where tiger watching has been reduced to a pathetic, orchestrated ‘tamasha’ with hordes of well-heeled men and women and children paying through their up turned noses, and awaiting their turn in a convoy of jeeps in the midst of noxious diesel fumes to be finally presented with a pre-meditated ritual of seeing the big cat.

Photograph: courtesy The Hindu (used for representation purposes only)

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