Another day, another tiger hunt. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that, and it will probably be the last time as well. It’s another early start, and poor Mick has greeted us with the news that he has succumbed to the dreaded Delhi belly! However, we’re now down to our last two safaris, and he refuses to be denied the opportunity to spot a tiger, and so he has gamely agreed to join us, and suffer the jolting and juddering of our transport for the day, over the rough undulating road surface, while attempting to hold on to his dignity and to last night’s dinner.
By now we’re becoming quite blasé about the more common animals in the park, and we’re ready for something a bit more exciting. As we enter the Reserve, our hopes are immediately raised. Our guide pointed out some footprints in the sand, just yards inside the entrance. They were the tracks, or spoor of a tiger and they were no more than a few hours old. The driver, unlike the tiger, is obliged to stick to the road and so we soon lost the prints. After a while, Jackie’s eagle eyes spotted a crocodile sunning itself on a river-bank and we stopped to take a closer look. The guide had missed this one and so Jackie was keen to let me know how much better her eyesight is than mine. We then saw a beautiful white throated kingfisher, some ibis and some herons, and after a while, the guide pointed out some more tiger tracks at the side of the road. By now, we were beginning to think our luck was in. On our previous two safaris we had not seen any signs of a tiger, but this morning in the space of half an hour we had come across two sets of tracks. Surely the safari gods were smiling upon us today!
We drove on for about another half an hour, and suddenly, as we approached a bend in the road, there in front of us rounding the corner and sedately walking in our direction was
Our driver immediately hit reverse gear and we eased our way back in the direction we had come. It was a truly amazing experience. The tiger was a majestic healthy looking beast. It was powerfully built, but was delicately picking its way between the sharp stones on the road as though it was wearing its best pair of expensive Jimmy Choo shoes. It turned left, descended a bank and made straight for a small river. At the edge of the stream, it stopped and dipped one paw into the water, like a child at the edge of a swimming pool might test the temperature before venturing in. Satisfied that the water was wet enough, it headed for the centre of the pool where it promptly lay down and started its bath. At this stage, we had a grandstand view and were no more than about fifteen metres away from the animal.
Our guide told us that this tiger was known as “T 24” and its proper name was “Ustad” (promptly re-named Ofsted for the benefit of our teacher friends—I know that will mean nothing to those not familiar with the UK but you can always look it up), and it was a male Bengal tiger. We were advised that it was one of the largest, if not the largest tiger in Ranthambhore, and so we were very lucky to see it. What the guide did not tell us, but what I discovered later, is that Ustad has definitely killed one human being, and is strongly suspected of being responsible for the deaths of two or possibly three other people. It is difficult to believe that this seemingly gentle creature, placidly taking his bath and relaxing in the shade could turn in an instant, into a fierce killer who knows no mercy. Luckily for us, it appeared that he was not feeling peckish, as we were all within easy range if he had decided he fancied a snack.
Once he had completed his leisurely time in the spa, Usted left the water and made his way back up to the road, where he promptly defecated in the middle of the track. It seems that Mick was not the only one with Delhi belly that day. He then moved into the long grass at the side of the road (the tiger that is, not Mick), where, his hard work done for the day, he promptly lay down and had a nap. I tried to encourage Jackie to get out and stroke him, but for some reason best known to herself, she declined my invitation. To see such a magnificent creature in its natural habitat was a real privilege, and the memories of this experience will stay with us for ever.
Eventually the clock got the better of us, and we were obliged to bid our farewells to T 24 and return to our hotel for some sustenance. We passed some monkeys and noticed that the youngsters in the troop, had also decided that it was time for a meal. Food, however, did not seem to be very high on Mick’s list of priorities, and as soon as we got back, he headed briskly in the direction of his en suite facilities, where he remained until our final safari commenced in the afternoon.
After lunch we found ourselves back in the game park where our guide informed us that there were reports of a female tiger and her two cubs, having been spotted at the far end of the section to which we had been allocated. This meant that our driver would have to put his foot down to cover the required distance, but the thought of viewing more tigers , encouraged us to suffer the additional discomfort that an increase in speed would be sure to bring. We only made two stops along the way. The first, was to watch a courting peacock trying to impress a passing peahen, by fanning out his magnificent tail feathers in a wonderful shimmering display, and doing a little dance for her benefit. We were fortunate to witness this event, because we were out-with the mating season and at this time of year it is uncommon to see such a display. The second stop was beside a large tree, where we were shown a huge colony of honey bees nesting in the upper branches. Our guide advised us that the previous week a canter had stopped close to another similar colony so that the tourists could get a good view. Moments later, a sloth bear (which evolved from the brown bear) appeared and started to climb the trunk of the tree. Apparently the majority of this animal’s diet consists of insects, although he is also partial to a spot of honey when he is able to get it. This was all very interesting for the tourists, but the closer the bear got to the nest, the more agitated the bees became. Eventually, they had enough, and the swarm headed in the direction of the open topped vehicle, where they proceeded to cause mayhem among the occupants, many of whom were seriously stung. It’s amazing how dangerous a short drive out in the country can turn out to be.
We were unlucky in our quest this time. We got to the area where the tiger sightings had been reported, but, in spite of much peering into the undergrowth, and several false alarms, we were obliged to return to our hotel without spotting our quarry. We were not disheartened, because our adrenaline was still in full flow from our morning’s adventure and we were in excellent form as we headed for a nice cold beer (or three) and a delicious barbecue. It had been a great day.