Kanha cats

Kanha cats
A tigress cools off in a small pool of water, Photo Credit: Jason Mendez

A perfect place to spot tigers and enjoy the picturesque Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh

Manjula Padmanabhan
July 16 , 2014
10 Min Read

A swarm of worries buzzes inside my head as I head for the airport at 3am. I’m hoping to reach Shergarh, a tented camp in the heart of Madhya Pradesh’s tribal belt, by 5.30 p.m the same day. But the prospect of four nights with man-eating mosquitoes, flimsy canvas tents and no air-conditioning in tiger country has got my sweat glands working overtime.


My travel companion, the photographer Mr. Camera, meets me at Nagpur airport. He is as unfamiliar with our destination as I am. Our friendly, sweet-faced driver doesn’t make things easier. “I’ve been up since yesterday morning,” he tells us, his eyelids drooping. “Don’t worry, though! One cup of tea and my eyes will open again!


There are no mishaps, however, and by late afternoon we are on the highway leading towards the Kanha Tiger Reserve. Right on schedule, our air-conditioned Toyota Innova makes an abrupt left turn, passing through a tile-roofed gatehouse and continuing another couple hundred metres before coming to a final halt in a small clearing. Young fruit trees and tussocks of waist-high grass nod in the brisk evening breeze. The first stars are twinkling in a powder-blue sky and the silence hums with insect chirps and bird calls. My worries drop away like weights from a hot-air balloon: I realise I’m going to love the place.


Shergarh is the brainchild of Jehan and Katie Bhujwala, an eco-aware Parsi-British couple with two small children. In aerial photographs taken in the dry season, the 20-acre estate looks like a green lozenge embedded within a rectangular grid of ashy grey paddy fields. Within the property are six tented accommodations, spaced well apart. Meals are had in or around the Main House, a bungalow-style building raised up on a high plinth, with deep verandas and a tall, sloping, and red-tiled roof. New arrivals such as Mr. Camera and me are brought straight here, settled into comfy chairs and plied with cool drinks as we get our preliminary briefing from Jehan.


"We usually go into the forest twice a day,” he says. His khaki shorts, T-shirt and well-sprung wiry frame are a perfect advertisement for the outdoors life. We are joined by tall and handsome Rajan Gurung, the in-house wildlife expert who got his early training at Nepal’s famous Tiger Tops. “Raj will take you in both times and I’ll come with you for the morning session. We leave at 5 a.m.”


“Ouch!” I wince. Katie joins us then, fresh-faced and slender, her honey-brown hair caught up in a bouncing ponytail. She confirms that the middle of the day is best spent hiding from the heat, because that’s what all the animals will be doing. I cannot suppress the question that every guest predictably asks: what are the chances of seeing a tiger? Katie says, “We do our best ...” There is an enigmatic quality to her smile.


Guest accommodations are sturdy canvas tents lined with dainty white-on-white block-printed cotton. The entrance is a rectangular aperture in the canvas, with a zip-up flap and matching zip-up mosquito mesh. The ‘windows’ are similar, except that their mosquito screens are fixed in place. Opaque flaps can be rolled down for privacy. The back of the tent is spliced onto a stone-floored, brick-walled utility area containing the shower, toilet and twin hand-wash basins. The entire combined area, about 500 sq ft, is contained under a sloping, brick-tiled roof. All lights are fitted with CFL-bulbs, there’s a 20-litre capacity cooler unit in the room and there are plug-points to spare for laptops and cellphone chargers. All furniture is made of cane or wood. “We try to ensure that everything we use is sourced from easily available materials and made by local labour,” says Katie.


We eat dinner outdoors. There are zero mosquitoes, the air is wonderfully fresh and a golden gibbous moon has risen in the sky. The food is home-cooked and delicious: rice with two vegetables, dal and a chicken curry, light seasoning, low oil. After dessert (cake with toffee icing!), Mr. Camera and I fix our wake-up call times and return to our respective tents.


A kerosene lantern has been provided on the little sit-out in front, a discreet reminder that the power supply is erratic. I zip myself in, have a much needed hot shower and crawl into bed. An inquisitive garden shrew scampers in via the tiny gap where the tent meets the plaster-wall but I send it on its way with a good whack to its pointy nose, turn off the light and fall into a dreamless sleep.


The next morning my alarm fails to rouse me so I jump out of bed in a panic when the boy calls through the zippered doorway promptly at 4.45 a.m, with my tray of tea. I throw on my clothes, gulp down the tea and am at the steps of the Main House with two seconds to spare. Raj and Jehan are crisp-pressed in readiness, Mr. Camera hurries up a moment later and then we’re off in our open-top Jeep. Raj is at the wheel, Jehan sits beside me on the middle seat while the heavy-duty cameras and their owner have the whole backseat to themselves. Within 15 minutes we’re driving in through the gates of Kanha Tiger Reserve.


At the Visitor’s Centre, where all incomings and outgoings must be registered, we pick up the mandatory park guide and proceed into the green shade of the sal trees soaring on either side. A moment later, Raj says, “Greater racket-tailed drongo on your left.” A moment later, “Painted francolin,” says the guide. “Red jungle fowl,” counters Raj. Their voices are low and neutral in the way of naturalists who are trained to avoid startling the wildlife. They seem to have a friendly rivalry going, but Raj is easily the winner. “Greater coucal,” he says, “Common teal, white-breasted kingfisher and there, high on the tree, the Black-shouldered kite.”


Two hours pass in a dream-like profusion of wild creatures — spotted deer, wild pig, gaur, barasingha and gamboling troupes of black-faced langurs — all apparently indifferent to the vehicle and our presence. I am reminded of the comic strip Phantom’s mythical island of Eden where all manner of animals, predator and prey, live in harmony. But it is only after we stop to have our picnic breakfast at a forest outpost that we hear the news: tiger sighting up ahead!


We snatch up an aluminium ladder and race towards the spot. Right until the moment when we see a pair of park elephants who, with their mahouts are marking the location, I can’t believe I am really going to see a wild tiger. And there she is. Under the shade of a mango tree, her belly distended from gorging on the remains of sambar she killed one day earlier and panting like a diesel engine, a glorious tigress. The next half hour is surreal: Jehan and I clamber up onto the back of an elephant called Poornima and her mahout urges her down into the nearby nalla. She minces forward on huge feet, towards the great striped cat reclining on the opposite bank, until we are less than 10 feet from her. Ten feet! She’s at my eye-level and with the binoculars borrowed from Jehan I can literally count her whiskers. “She’s  12 years old,” whispers Jehan, “three litters of cubs. Can you see that she’s lost her lower left canine?” Her remaining teeth, long and curved, are amber yellow in colour, as if she’s been licking turmeric. Combined with the baby pink of her nose and tongue, the bright black-and-white contrasts on her face and the tawny orange of her body, she’s ablaze with colour.


And so utterly relaxed! Jehan points out the half-shut eyes and the tail lying silent. By contrast, I’m the one fighting for breath, feeling strangely embarrassed and overcome to be in the presence of this radiant creature, while surrounded by elephants, mahouts and a little further away, another tourist edging forward on her pachyderm. I really want nothing more than to get away from the place, to leave the beautiful predator at peace in her boudoir.


The next day, in the company of a British couple who are the new guests at Shergarh, we see another tiger, the young resident male of that sector of Kanha. There are even more gawking visitors this time, maybe 20 or 25 elephant loads, while the handsome superstar lounges in a shallow pocket of water, his bearded white chin resting on a powerful forearm. Only the tiniest movement in the water betrays his inner feelings: the tip of his tail is twitching very slightly.


Talking it over with Katie and Jehan at tea, I remember her smile that first day. Nothing can be guaranteed, of course, but tiger sightings are quite common in Kanha. The British couple, for instance, returns from both their outings on Saturday with spectacular footage. In the morning, the resident male walked alongside their elephant for several minutes and in the evening they witnessed a young female’s botched attempt at hunting spotted deer!


But I’d had my fill with the first sighting. On our second afternoon, instead of going back to the park, I choose the option of visiting the Friday market in one of the nearby villages. Just as Jehan had promised, it is a true delight. The village is perhaps the first I have ever seen that is clean and genuinely picturesque. The villagers appear to be friendly and unaffected. On Saturday morning, Jehan and Katie take Mr. Camera and me on a walk to the dry bed of the Banjar river. Two of their staff follow with a picnic breakfast of homemade muesli, ‘cheese-patis’ — chapati sandwiches with cheese fillings, explains Katie, an in-house invention! — regular chutney sandwiches and hot coffee/tea.


Giant formations of ancient rock rear up from the river bed, sculpted into fantastic shapes by the water that periodically floods through. A brainfever bird calls in the distance and a pair of red wattled lapwings shrieks with monotonous frenzy didn’t-do-it!...didn’t-do-it!...d-d-d-didn’t-do-it! as Jehan tells us about a morning some years ago, a little further up on this same dry river bed.

 

“The resident male tiger must have been lounging in a rock pool,” he said, but neither party knew the other was there until Jehan made a sudden noise and the startled tiger leapt up and onto a rock. “He was just there,” said Jehan, indicating a distance of maybe four metres. “There was nowhere to run or hide. We all just froze. Very slowly, never taking his eyes off us, he began backing away, till he reached the trees. Then he turned and vanished into the forest.”

 

It’s a wonderful story and the perfect ending to a magical stay.


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