A Honeymoon in the Wilderness
Now imagine a trip into the heart of India’s wilderness in mid-December, zero degrees, waking up at 5 am for safaris, ice cold wind in your face, open gypsy, fog, mist, and not being able to feel your hands or feet or nose! Not quite a typical honeymoon, isn’t it?
‘We could’ve gone anywhere’ I screamed when my then fiancé told me he had booked a cottage in Bandhavgarh for 7 days. No TV, no internet, no restaurants, no malls, no spas, no clubs! Sure, I was pissed. ‘Trust me!’ he said, and reluctantly I did. Only to be soon drawn into the mystique and awe of an absolutely picturesque experience. It was like I landed up in Narnia!
I had truly never experienced something as powerful yet serene as the aura of the jungle. Thanks to our dear friends at Tigerwalah, we were booked at one of the most gorgeous properties in India, Mahua Kothi (Taj Safaris). Located in the heart of Bandhavgarh, Mahua Kothi has cottages built to give you a feeling of being one with nature. It wasn’t just the surrounding that awed me, it was also the people. Our dear butler, Bhola Bhaiya had endless stories about tigers and their epic feats to go with our superbly exotic lunches and dinners. Did I mention that our dinners were set up in remote corners of the property, completely personalized for us? Hell! they set up a bar and bonfire under the grand Mahua tree, which we walked to through a small path in the grassland following arrows and lanterns. You won’t get to experience this anywhere else! I did find my luxuries in the middle of this pristine wilderness.
This was just the beginning. I was yet to go on my first safari. We reached the gates of the Taala zone, and our guide hopped on and said, ‘Namaste Ma’am, Let’s go see some tigers!’ And the excitement kicked in. The drive through the forest was an eye-opener. Living in cities you get used to the rush hour traffic, pollution, and hustle-bustle of ever-growing populations that you just miss out on what beauty lies beyond these city walls. I could literally hear the wind as we drove through that fine mud path, could hear the rustle of trees and the slight rippling of the water in a pond far to the east, the sound I had only read of poems. I could feel myself lamely smiling as I took in the sights and smells of the surroundings.
Now, to see a tiger. First 3 safaris we didn’t spot one. I saw a host of other beautiful creatures including a hawk eagle flying away with bird prey, a quail with newborns the size of my thumb and a herd of wild bison! But no tigers yet. I was getting a bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the Taj folks pacified us with the best cocktails and the yummiest food on the planet, but I just couldn’t leave without spotting even one! And so, my luck turned, over the next 4 safaris we had 6 mind-blowing sightings. Let me slow down a bit here and tell you all about my first tiger in the wild.
We’re in the Magdhi zone and we suddenly hear a couple of jeeps speed past us – I was told they tend to do
that when there’s news of a tiger around and so we joined the bandwagon and started following the others. And there she was. Majestic, composed and not giving a damn about the 6 jeeps that had huddled in the distance to get a glimpse of her. Like pure royalty, Rajbhera Bachi tigress walked through the grasslands on the left of our track making her way to the track where we stood, shutterbug in full swing. Then she decided to cross over to the other side and right from in front of my gypsy. I had a host of emotions taking over me at that time and I’d be lying if I said fear wasn’t one of them. She came closer and closer and I couldn’t take my gaze away from her eyes. She exuded such charisma and such superiority that it almost wants you to drop to one knee. My driver meanwhile had turned off the engine and was happily recording her from his phone cam. I angrily and more so fearfully whispered in my driver’s ears, “Bhaiya engine on rakho…” My husband, a wildlife enthusiast and tiger lover, still laughs at me at the thought of this incident. Yes, I may be brave and independent and strong and all that but when you come face to face with a tiger in the wild, and just 10 feet away, you feel the need to bow to this magnificent creature.
We had hit a good luck streak. 5 more sightings and the fear was slowly turning into a sheer enigma. We saw the Magdhi male on the same afternoon, about 100 feet from us, taking a slow walk after his afternoon nap. The next morning, we were the only lucky ones to spot a female tiger in the wee hours of the morning, it was too dark to even take a picture but the silhouette of the tigress crossing the path right in front of us just minutes after we entered the park was surely a good sign. It was the elusive Mahaman female who is very shy and very rarely seen in the jungle.
The next sighting that afternoon was by far unmatched by any other. My husband agrees after having seen a good 25 unique tigers so far. So, we were taking the path less travelled so say, since we had circled the hot spots and not seen any much activity, we decided to explore the rest of the jungle. We took a sharp turn at a bend in the track and bam! There she was. The Patiha female. Straight up in the track staring right at us, she didn’t wink for a second but continued walking towards us. She was less than 10 feet away in front of our jeep. Our driver started reversing and she calmly kept walking ahead. She was spray-marking her territory on the trees lining the track and scratching with her claws. For a good 10 minutes, she commanded the track and we retreated obediently.
Our trip was coming to a close. It had started raining and we were on our way back from our last safari. Contented we were and taking back amazing memories, looking at the captured pictures again and again. But as they say, it isn't over till the fat lady sings. We saw the Rajbhera’s second cub sitting by a man-made water hole, relishing the raindrops above and the cool water below, just on our drive out of the forest. Surely, a most pleasant surprise.
Let me revisit what I started with. 5 am safaris, frozen hands, ice-cold wind and open gypsy and yet hands down, this was the most splendid, exciting, invigorating experience I have ever had.
I can’t wait for my next one… not the honeymoon, but the tiger adventure of course with Tigerwalah.