My fascination with tigers started during adolescence when I read my first of the dozen or so books on man-eating tigers and Indian wildlife. After that, I visited various tiger reserves around India: Bandipur, Nagarahole, Mudumalai, Thekadi, Khana, and Kaziranga. I went to over 50 reserves and took over 100 jeep and elephant safaris.
My stories of encounters and sightings increased as the years rolled by, but the top of my TTD list had not yet gotten checked off. I continued to chase my dream and visited Kabini and Nagarhole, seeing everything from pythons to panthers, but not the jungle gentleman, the Royal Bengal Tiger. All those Safaris seemed bland without a glimpse of the “Gentleman of the Indian Jungles.”
I had a rare aura and God-given gift that made wild Tigers go into hiding the moment they came within a mile’s radius. I was basically a tiger repellent.
I named this gift “Tiger Balm” since it kept tigers safely away from me. If someone wanted to avoid tigers, all they had to do was to take me with them.
I gave up all hopes of ever sighting a tiger in the wild and a few more years rolled by with another dozen safaris…and no tiger sighting.
For our 25th year together, I promised Mamatha to book twenty-five treks or adventure trips to celebrate our twenty-five years of married life.
I booked two nights at Jungle Lodges and Resorts, a resort made famous by the Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn, in the Kabini tiger reserve for the last weekend of March, which was the seventh adventure of the twenty-five. With all of my motivation and inclination for tiger sighting having been sapped, the thought of the buffet dinner after my scotch was my most exciting expectation.
We reached the resort at noon and our evening safari was to start at 3:30 p.m. Lunch was excellent with biryani and roast chicken along with chilled Kingfisher beer. After my usual afternoon nap, we waited at the entrance of our cottage for the arrival of our safari guide. The driver and the guide arrived soon.
The large Willis Jeep held the three of us along with another newly married couple from Kerala. As soon as the Jeep hit the dirt track, I held the iron frame, closed my eyes, and engaged with my inner self.
Within minutes, we saw a full-grown gaur, the largest wild cattle in India, weighing nearly 1500 pounds. The muscular gaur took a look at us and walked silently away into the bush.
As we bumped along in our Jeep, soon we saw a tusker with large tusks and excitement started to fill me.
We moved to the other side of the Kabini reserve, where tiger sightings had been reported just the previous day. Aslam parked the Jeep on the river bank just a hundred meters away from the Kabini river and took a walk along the shore of the river. Both Aslam and Ravi came hurrying running back to the Jeep. They whispered, “A Crocodile is stalking a deer!” and we turned the Jeep around to get closer to the river.
He parked the vehicle, whispered to us to be quiet, and pointed out a Sambar standing so close to a crocodile, still as a statue. It looked as if he were challenging the crocodile!
After a few minutes, the sambar turned away and went back into the thickets.
It was around five in the evening, and we left the spot to roam around the watchtower area. We were in the western part of the forest, and after about twenty minutes, Rahul, my son suddenly screamed, “Tiger, tiger!”
Aslam pressed the brake pedal, bringing the Jeep to a sudden halt. There was silence all around, and I whispered “Where?” to Rahul. He pointed out his right-hand finger towards the right side of our road ahead. I could see nothing. “I don’t see anything,” I said. Mamatha pulled me close to her and pointed towards a brown four-legged animal moving on the side of the road.
Then I saw it.
It was a large male tiger.
Aslam started the Jeep and started driving very slowly till the tiger was about twenty metres away from us. The tiger started walking in the direction of our Jeep, casually looking for something in the ground. It continued until it was just a few feet from our Jeep. Then it and stared at us for a few seconds and snarled.
I was stunned, and a euphoric chill went through my spine at the sight of a majestic striped master. All my knowledge about its power, size, strength, and its hunting skills flashed through my mind.
It was hugely built and frighteningly close to us. I could see the tiger’s five sets of whiskers.
We followed the tiger through its entire walk of about ten minutes. It was as if the beast was sent to satisfy my three decades of visual starvation and deprivation of the sight of the magnificient creature. Our presence did not make any difference to him.
It was surreal driving almost parallel to the giant tiger. At one point, it stopped and moved head-on towards our safari vehicle. The alarm calls of langur monkeys reached a crescendo, and suddenly the tiger turned and went into a small dried-up waterhole.
After a few seconds, it started moving towards a large tree. It marked its territory by urinating on the trunk with a massive forceful spray. Then it turned towards us and calmly started walking along the roadside. It was as if it wanted to tail us.
Needless to say, the thrill I experienced when I saw my first wild tiger was one of the greatest moments of my life. It was the perfect picture of magnificence. Never in my life had I seen such a picture. I had seen huge tuskers, lions, and lionesses with their cubs at dawn, leopards, and rhinos from up close. But nothing was ever so beautiful and so glorious to me as that tiger walking out of his jungle.
Perhaps the legendary descriptions from hunters like Jim Corbette weighed heavily on my mind about how a large gaur, which likely weighed more than 1,700 pounds, was dragged fifteen yards by a huge tiger and after the tiger fled, even thirteen men could not move it one yard, and it was eventually hauled out by transport elephants.
I uploaded a video on YouTube; https://youtu.be/ssBFLx6H9Rc
Suddenly my tiger balm transformed from a tiger repellent to a Tiger propellant and started propelling tigers towards more than a dozen times ever since then.
I ticked off my eighth item on my bucket list on March 25th, 2013.