In Feb, this year, I was visiting my favourite tiger reserve, the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) for the fifth time. And like always, we got chatting with the locals, the dhaba owners, the homestay owner... just about anybody who could tell us a new tale or two about the magnificient striped beast.
Taken in by my insatiable hunger for these tiger tales, the homestay owner, Mr. Puranik, also became enthu and ended up inviting me to the annual waterhole census to be held in the scorching heat of May 2015, on the full moon night of Buddha Poornima.
He may have underestimated my excitement, because I gave him no time to recant his offer and jumped at it like my life depended on it!
Come April, and I was on the phone with Puranik, confirming if the offer was still on. Apparently it was, and so I was set to go. Since Puranik had said I could get one more person along, I asked my husband, Rajesh, (verrry coyly, ’coz it could easily be turned down. You see, with 28 visits to a wild life reserve, at least half of which I have dragged Rajesh to, he has just about had it with the jungles, to put it mildly).
But this time, I didn’t need his company out of boredom or fear, I needed him for moral support, ’coz I was worried of the May heat of probably one of the hottest regions of India.
My bestest friend that he is, the reluctant reveler agreed and gave me a big thumbs up to join me.
Well, a lot of drama unfolded just before we left for Tadoba – All of a sudden, the lesser known Tadoba was becoming quite famous. More than that, a whole new breed of wildlife enthusiasts, like me, were suddenly aware of the census and had made a beeline for a place in the gallery (for a place on the Machaan is more like it ;-).
The TATR received a windfall of applications from volunteers wanting to participate in the census – for some 88 voluteers required, they got 1800 applicants! To simplify their lives, the Forest department decided to consider applicants from only Vidarbha region. And lo! Our invite to participate in the census was withdrawn at the eleventh hour.
What followed was a lot of string pulling, cajoling, and appealing to the conscience of the department heads, because we were already booked on non-refundable tickets since a month!
Something worked, we don’t know what, probably destiny, and we were offered to be accommodated on a makeshift machaan in the Buffer zone of the TATR.
Beggars can’t choose. We happily fell in line to experience the now much in demand TATR Waterhole Census, 2015!
Cut to the census day…
Tadoba is huge jungle with a core or critical tiger area and enveloping buffer zones. In the core area, the census happens over twenty four hours, starting from the morning hours, say about 8 am. In the buffer zone on the other hand, it takes place from the afternoon, around 3 pm to next day morning 8 am.
I had a different idea about how the census would take place.
One, I believed that we would be up on a Machaan for the whole duration of 15 to 16 hours (which was true), with a dart gun toted forest guide (hahhaha!)
Two, I romanticized that the tigers would come strolling by, leaving their pugmarks around, and that’s how we would count them. Maybe the forest guys would go down and take their pugprints in clay, or something. If we got lucky, we would get to see a kill. Or maybe a cute sight of the tiger cubs playing and prancing about (this was not too far fetched, as there is a whole new population of these young cubs and lots of interesting stories of them playing about, playing hokey with their mom, of how Maya, or Sonam or Madhuri, the tigresses give the naughty tiger cubs a piece of their mind for straying away too far.)
And three, I thought by census, it meant only counting tigers. Collating the prints from all the machaans and arriving at a number. In short, it would be only about tigers.
But that’s not how it was!
First off, yes, they allotted us a machaan for two (which we were to share among four) Official I-cards were made for Rajesh and me. And we were made to sign a declaration that we were in our senses and had voluntarily signed up for whatever the day and night held for us 😉 Of course they made us sign that we were solely responsible for our safety and would not hold the forest department liable for anything untoward happening to us.
With that load off their chest, they did some more last minute changes and slotted us with two other participants, two ladies, Rashmi and Ashwini, from Chandrapur. Now, from experience Rashmi, who happened to be a ‘veteran’ among us, as this was the third census she was participating in, felt that an accompanying forest guide was a nuisance, as he/she would surely doze off at night. And so, she politely refused the offer of a guide on all our behalf!!!
And that’s how it was going to be – we three women and one ghabru jawaan Rajesh for moral support on the machaan, through the day and moonlit night of the census.
At 3 pm, the four of us to-be co-habitants of machaan no. 167 were driven deep into the buffer zone of the jungle. The Gypsy four wheel drive halted at a somewhat huge clearing, a kind of ditchy area, which probably in the rains and afterwards would fill up to make a small pond. However right now it only held two, muddy water puddles which bore the responsibility of living up to their function of being waterholes! There was a solar panel and a borewell pump at the edge, and we wondered why on earth wasn’t the waterhole filled with water in spite of there being water supply?!
Our first sighting
Just as we arrived at our machaan, we were rewarded by an easy sighting of a big built male Indian Gaur (Bison) and three females! Not just them, there was even a tall and handsome Sambar deer with his rugged antlers! A great start to our census duty!
Spotting us there, the animals slowly disappeared into the surrounding tall grass.
Pointing out to a dry naked tree (not a single leaf remained on the tree) the driver showed us our machaan. One look at it and the four of us had our mouths open in disbelief. Three or maybe four super thin trunks of dried up trees rested against the support of our dry tree post held up a woven mat of cane or maybe bamboo flooring. And that’s it. That was our Machaan no. 167.
In terms of size, it was only about 10 to 11 ft high, and just about 8ft X 8 ft floor space! So, with our bags and water kegs taking up about 2/8th of the space, it was only big enough for the four of us to sleep side by side, one touching the other, no margins or buffers between one another. And we did spend an hour resting like this some time later in the day, so we know!
The instructions for our machaan stay – First thing on all our minds, including yours while reading this, what about washroom facilities?? What if our own nature calls beckon? We were strictly told to be done with all peeing and pooping before we reached the machaan. Once up, only in case of an urgent nature’s call, and only if the forest officials are on rounds and arrive at your machaan can you come down for the needful!
Food and water – We had to carry whatever food and water we would need through the day and night. The catch was, we could only carry some dry food that would survive the heat of May. Thank god for Gujju theplas; we carried a whole lot of them and my mami’s homemade poha chivda and some dry snacks.
To beat the heat, we filled up a water keg with ice which melted through the day ensuring a steady supply of cold water. And, we carried a bottle of aam pannha (raw mango juice) which is a super coolant and works wonders in preventing sun strokes. The other two ladies from Chandrapur too had a bag full of food supplies, including yummy sabudana khichdi.
Climbing up the machaan using a makeshift ladder with the most widely spaced steps I have seen, finally the four of us were perched atop. We took a good 360 degree view from our new home. We were supposedly at one of the larger and prominent waterholes in the area. That it was quite popular with the wild life around was already demonstrated by the presence of the bisons and the sambar.
Just as we were soaking in the surroundings, a gliding serpent eagle swooped down in front of us and disappeared in the trees around us. Facing us, surrounding the waterhole was a huge thicket of tall grass and tall trees. To our right and beyond the waterhole was a small jungle pathway and beyond it, tall bamboos and trees. Behind us, we could see drying and dried up tall grass that reached as high as 10 feet.
We were soon settled in, and minutes turned to quarters of an hour. Between evesdropping on the two girl friends’ gossip and getting acquainted with them, we tried to keep a sharp eye on the waterhole in front of us.
With absolutely nothing happening for over 45 minutes, except for an owl continuously hovering around us in circles, Rajesh got comfortable, resting against the tree support and reading through the magazines and newspapers he had brought along. At one point he even rued that we didn’t have mobile network range else he would have called the forest people to pick him up as I had good yapping company.
Best sighting EVER!
And then at 4.30, things started getting exciting. And how! Though the three of us ladies were facing across the waterhole, it was sharp eyed Rajesh who noticed a brief movement beyond the edge of the ditch. He said, “I think there’s a small animal there. It just crossed across from that tree to the other. It seemed more like a jungle cat.” He said this in such a matter of fact tone that none of us thought it would be an animal of big repute. But then, the ‘small animal’ crossed back to the nearer tree and disappeared into the foliage. This, we all saw. And Rashmi screamed under hushed breath, “It’s not a jungle cat, it’s a leopard!!!”
And with that, the four of us, with our eyes popping out of the sockets pored through the foliage trying to spot the leopard. But try as we may, we did not see anything. We must have stared at the grass and bushes for fifteen minutes straight, with naked eyes, popping eyes and with binoculars. But zilch! Finally, we lost hope and agreed that the leopard had probably disappeared into the thicket of jungle behind.
But Rajesh was somehow not convinced. He reasoned that after the leopard crossed back there was no movement or rustle behind the tree, so probably the leopard was still there behind the grass or the tree. We kept returning our gaze to the spot hoping we would get lucky. An hour passed, but the leopard didn’t return.
At about 5.30 then, the shy and sly one resurfaced from behind the same tree!! Imagine, what patience!! It was right there all this time. Checking us out, tracking our movements! Evaluating the threat value we posed. Once it was somewhat convinced that it was ok to take the risk, only then did it expose itself again.
This time it came down the ditch in slow strides and immediately took cover behind a small mound of mud. It ducked under it in a way that only its head was visible to us. And for the next 30 minutes or so, that was its vantage point. We had the binoculars and would take turns to gaze at him. And each time a chill ran through our spines – because, the leopard was staring right into our eyes. It did not flinch, it did not stir, like a statue, it had taken a staring stance. God knows what it must be thinking? At one point I even joked, that it’s probably thinking it’s his/her lucky day – Water and dinner buffet, dono available!
This staring game went on for a good 30 minutes. A few times it would crane its neck a bit higher to take stock of the entire surrounding. But it was still not ready to come forward to drink the water. This made us a bit nervous.
Water, it definitely wants, if not now, it will probably return in the dark. And who knows, how frustrating it must be for him to be so close to water and not be able to quench its thirst. And what if we have hurt its ego, after all a leopard is very much high up there on the food chain 😉 It is used to having things its way. And well, it’s known to spend a lot of time on trees, so would we have it as company during the dark of the night?
This and many thoughts each of us voiced. Jokingly, but not in fear.
But fortune favours the brave, the leopard overcame any fears it had of us 😉 and started striding towards the water in unhurried steps. At the edge of the puddle, it again started its stare game. After giving us a long hard stare, it finally lowered itself to gulp in the water. What a beautiful sight that was! The most unforgettable scene etched in each of our minds. With its random spots and dusty skin tone, it was so well camouflaged, it was completely blended in with the background.
We were at the other end, clicking away from the distance. And taking turns to peer through the binoculars. And guess what! Even while thirstily downing gulps of water, its eyes were fixed on us!
SO in toto, for the whole two hours, the leopard did not let us out of its sight! Now that’s a scary thought when we think about it today, but back then, we were just so thrilled to be in its company. Because, while sighting tigers or trailing tigers through the jungles for an hour, each of us had experienced, but this was the very first time that I had not only sighted a leopard, but ‘stayed’ with it for soo long. That’s a rare event for any jungle aficionado.
Anyway, to add to the excitement, a silly peacock, completely blissful of the presence of the leopard, was jumping about and heading toward the puddle. Very soon it was just a couple of feet from the leopard, but still he had not seen the wild cat. We, at the machaan, thought, gaya bechaara! The poor peacock’s had it. One leap, and the leopard will be at his neck. And we will get to see a kill in action.
The leopard sensing his presence had already stopped drinking. It was waiting! And then in the nick of time, the peacock saw the leopard. And boy!! Did he make a run for it! In a flash the bird was running into the jungle, putting a deer’s super speed to shame. The peacock was so scared, that we joked that the poor thing had forgotten to fly!
But interestingly, the leopard, probably because it was so thirsty and had waited so long for water, didn’t bother chasing the peacock and continued gulping up the water. It drank and drank for almost 15 minutes! So much water, like a camel! And when it was done, gave us one last look and slowly headed back into the thickness of the jungle, this time not looking back even once, not even to bid adieu.
Well, the leopard show was over, but picture abhi baaki hai!!
Bears pay us a visit
While we ladies were still gushing at the amazing leopard sighting we just had, sharp eye Rajesh happened to look behind the machaan. There among the tall dry grass he, and then all of us saw a big sloth bear with two bear cubs! This was our lucky day for sure!!
We assumed that the big bear was probably the momma bear, because of the cubs. They made such a pretty sight, but not for long. The bear family saw us on the machaan and soon disappeared into the woods.
Now that put the germ of a fear in my mind. The momma must have brought her babies to the waterhole for water but couldn’t get past us. Not yet. At least They will, without fail, return in the dark! And bears are supposed to be very unpredictable. If the momma thought that we were of any threat to her babies, wouldn’t she climb up the tree to deal with the ‘threat’ head on? In that minute, I missed having a forest guy with us. Come on, they had not provided us with any orientation on how to deal with the various scenarios that could unfold during the census! Just then I realized that we didn’t even have a damn stick to shake at the bear, if we were attacked. Of course this was my imagination running wild. Or not! We will never know.
Because soon after, we were occupied with other disturbing and urgent potential dangers. The weather decided to act up. While we had been hearing rumblings in the distant skies from early evening, now the rumblings became thunders, the evening was giving way to twilight and the skies were becoming dark. In just twenty minutes, it was pitch dark. The full moon that was supposed to light up our census was prisoner of the dark clouds that had suddenly formed up. “Its going to rain!!”, someone had to state the obvious, and so I did. And my three partners in crime yelled at me, ”Hey chhup! Don’t say that please. Pray it does not rain”, Rashmi pleaded.
Ashwini said, “We are in Waghdoh’s area, I don’t want to go back without seeing him. Pray that he comes for the water.” Waghdoh is Asia’s biggest tiger and we were fortunate to be in his territory.
If it rained we would have no chance to see him. The census may be called off midway.
And as if to mock us, lightning strobes began their disco dance!! But still, the lightning and thundering were felt very far in the distance. We were full of optimism. Our census was not done, just yet.
And then began the calls! Anxious, urgent and collective calls. The monkeys were shrieking, picked up by the peacocks’s screaming, the sambars wailed, all in unison, warning the jungle of the presence of the mighty striped one!! Imagine our excitement!! It’s got to be a tiger! And very close! Are our prayers being answered? Is Waghdoh visiting us? The calls had reached a crescendo and were nearing us by the minute. We fervently prayed to the clouds to let the red moon out of its grip for just a few minutes. But, no luck! We went for our sad torches with such a limited beam range. No luck, the light was not enough to see anything happening below.
That’s when we decided to not waste the time in trying to SEE the tiger. Instead we would enjoy HEARing him amidst us. With the intensified warning calls guiding us, we could imagine the mighty one taking mouthfuls of water at our very own waterhole. Giving us immense satisfaction and sense of completion – mission accomplished.
And just as suddenly as they had started, the calls stopped!! Only the buzzing of the crickets broke the silence in the air. And once again we were all alone in the jungle.
With the cruelly beautiful weather.
Angry weather in utmost beauty
By now the angry dance of thunder and lightning was reaching frenzy. We had front row seats of the most beautifully choreographed show staged by Mother Nature. Background sound and acoustics provided by Dolby Thunder. Psychedelic disco lights by the bolts of lightning. And mood lighting by the skies that lit up just before and after the lightnings. It was amazing how the skies would be LED bright for a second and then go pitch black to provide the best backdrop for the dozens of lightning bolts zapping all over the space above and around us. Of course, it was a very dangerous weather. Perched on our machaan, we were sitting ducks for natural electrocution. But funnily, we had not even considered the outcome back then. We were busy being enthralled.
And then came the wind! We were now surely in the middle of a thunderstorm. Nowhere to go, we could not even climb down to run for cover. Just then Rajesh asked, “am I imagining it or is the machaan swaying?!” The huge drafts of wind were rocking the flimsy machaan from side to side. With things happening at a speed we could not keep pace with, all we could do was laugh throatily. This is the ultimate adventure! It surely can’t get better than this. In our combined lifetimes.
With the whole star cast of nature’s blockbuster present, how can the rains be far behind? For the first time, the four of us ‘heard’ the rain pouring in batches. We could hear huge downpours to the far left and right and then ahead of us, and the downpours advancing step by step to where we were, till the clouds above us burst open. And like a dam breached, the huge deluge drenched us in just a few minutes. We tried to take protection under the cotton bedsheets we were carrying with us, but that was like carrying an umbrella under the Niagara falls.
We were getting showered for about thirty minutes, when we saw a sharp beam of headlights approaching us. It was an Innova car coming to our machaan to rescue us!
And that’s when all of us despaired, this means that now there’s no scope of staying any longer on the machaan. The census was called off owing to bad weather.
Our rescuers must have thought we would be all ‘thank you for saving us’ but we were an excited foursome, ready for more! In the car, we exchanged bonded glances and unspokenly agreed that this has been the ultimate adventure! In our combined lifetimes!!