We have just dumped our stuff and are having a cup of tea when our attention is arrested by a high voltage screeching. Arif freezes up and listens intently. “Shhh, can you hear it? Sambhar deer.”
“Really?” I ask askance. “It sounded more like an upset bird.”
Simultaneously langurs whip up energetic activity on treetops and a flock of birds dash past with an audible whoosh. Arif drops his cup in his haste and running towards the Gypsy cries, “It’s definitely a call…a tiger has been spotted. Come on!”
We jump into the Gypsy, Arif throws it into gear and takes off at the bone rattling speed of 40 kmph (if you think I’m being hyperbolic, try doing that on kuchcha roads). We arrive at the designated spot, helped of course by pug marks along the trail, which Arif points out almost defensively. He turns off the ignition and gestures for silence. Then he only says, “A call is the only way to find out where the tiger is. Because much like dogs, tigers have designated territories which stretch to 10 sq kms each. Plus they are notoriously lazy and usually just lie down in wait in the tall elephant grass. You’ll never spot it if not for the Sambhar deer call which indicates that it is on the move.”
And we don’t. What we do see is evidence of unforgivable behaviour by Indian tourists. That is, several places, mainly spots around watch towers (picnic spots for day trippers) littered with disposable plates, empty plastic water bottles and wrappers. We spend the rest of the safari cleaning up other people’s mess.
We come back at five minutes to six, although Arif has heard another ‘call’ and wants to push his luck. But, as we drive past the FRH, he spots a top ranking forest official’s car parked outside. He swerves back towards the FRH at the last minute. He does not want to lose his license for time violation, no matter how compelling the call.
So we come back discouraged, having eaten copious amounts of dust, with only one thought in mind. A hot bath. But that proves to be a challenge. There is no electricity and no hot water. Sure, the inverter is on but that is only enough to weakly power a couple of light bulbs. Our requests to the staff to heat up some in the kitchen is met with uncertain looks. The reason – they’ve run out of cooking gas and the replacement cylinder will only arrive tomorrow. Since our food is itself being cooked on choolah, unless we want to trade our food for a bath, and unless we want to risk freezing our butts off using cold water, no bath it is.
Okay, what next? There is only one thing one can do – enjoy the great outdoors with IMFL. That’s the great part about going on these holidays. You can hit the bottle at six (p.m., not a.m., although, even a.m. won’t be sooo outrageous as it isn’t in Goa) without feeling guilty.
Glass in hand (rum with water at room temp) I step outside and breathe in the cool jungle air mixed with an appealing smell of wood smoke. All is calm save the chirping of crickets and an occasional animal howl. I look up and my word, the sky is a veritable sieve held up against light. I haven’t seen so many stars since my last mountaineering trip!
Out of respect for the jungle we make conversation amongst ourselves in soothing low-pitched voices. The conversation is pleasant, although it sounds vaguely conspiratorial because of our hushed tones.
Soon dinner is served. It is a simple meal of dal, sabzi, rice and roti but we are so hungry that it tastes like Turkish delights.
Afterwards, I try to keep my eyes open but it is a losing battle. Suddenly a panicked screech, incessant deep growling and loud crashing sounds, all in the vicinity of the FRH. I am shocked into wakefulness. Rampal, the caretaker comes running. “Do you hear that? It’s a tiger and an elephant.” I peer around in the inky blackness, thankful for the electric fence (one that vies with the inverter for precious solar power) that runs around the perimeter of the FRH.
The sounds continue for a while but we get used to them after the initial panic. I resume my tussle with sleep but it is a losing battle. So I turn in for the night. It is as late as 9.30. I don’t know it yet, but tomorrow is going to be an awesome day.