Tadoba is Maharashtra’s oldest and largest national park. I had lived on the edge of the Tadoba forest for over six years of my life. The magazine area of the ordnance factory campus where we lived, was adjacent to the jungle. We often heard of rumours of tigers and leopards trespassing through our residential campus in search of their cubs which strayed away from the forest. But I had never seen one in the wild. So while I had seen bisons and dholes in Tadoba and been on picnics and night safaris (they were allowed then), tigers eluded me.
Twenty eight years later, in June 2016, I decided to discover Tadoba again. By this time I had another blossoming hobby. I had just bought a new DSLR camera and I needed to learn the basics. So I decided to join an expert with his group. I signed up with Saravanan Sundaram’s expedition. I was going to spend four days in Tadoba and boy, wasn’t I excited! Unfortunately Subodh didn’t share my excitement, and so I went all by myself.
Tadoba National Park and Andhari Tiger Reserve (also known as TATR or Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve) lies in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. The region is one of the hottest areas in the months of April, May and June, with temperatures going above 45 degrees C. Scarcity of water often makes animals gather near water bodies and this makes it a good time for guaranteed animal sighting. The name ‘Tadoba’ is derived from the name of a God, Taru or Tadoba, who is worshipped by the tribal folk who live in the dense forests of this region. Another legend says that Tadoba was a tribal chief who was killed during an encounter with a tiger. Andhari is the river which flows in these parts.
As my driver drove through Mohurli gate to drop me off at Irai Safari Resort in Bhamdeli village, I could feel my heart thumping with excitement. Would I be lucky this time around? The forests of Tadoba are full of tall teak trees. Irai turned out to be the name of a river adjacent to the resort. The resort was beautiful and seemed something completely unlike the Chandrapur I had known. In two and a half decades, Tadoba had learnt how to exploit tourism. The sight of glossy, coffee table books on wildlife, a well stocked library with racy fiction and old issues of the National Geographic, a luxurious swimming pool and lush greenery thrilled me. Even more exciting was exploring my air-conditioned luxury tent which was built on stilts with an iron ladder leading up to it. There was a balcony outside where you could sit and enjoy the breeze in the evenings.
Two hours later, Saravanan and his group reached Irai. I said hello to them and we prepared to go for the afternoon safari after lunch. I was the only woman in the group. The entire group was really disappointed to know that I could speak Tamil. Gone was the boys’ chance of speaking in a secret lingo! I was in Saravanan’s Gypsy on the first safari as he gave me the basics on setting ISO, focal length and shutter speed.
I realized how it was the perfect time to be in Tadoba. After a long scorching summer, the forest had just received its first two showers of rain and sprigs of green were beginning to show up. The best background for tiger pictures. If only I saw one!
That afternoon we waited at Pandharpauni in the heat. After almost an hour of waiting the familiar deer calls and monkey whoops signalled that the tiger was near. Maya was coming over to quench her thirst. I was so excited that I clicked non-stop. Only to have Saravanan grimace at me and tell me to stop and click when it was necessary. “Why are you clicking a dirty tiger” was his argument as the tiger emerged from the water, its fur caked with mud. This probably worked for a man who had been on a hundred safaris. However this was my first sighting and I wasn’t listening to him. After around twenty clicks he asked me to go back and review my shots, and to my shock all of them were useless. I hadn’t changed the settings of my camera as he had told me to, and they all looked dark. Lesson no. 1. Review your shots before you waste your entire energy on clicking non-stop. Thankfully the tigers were still around and I got some decent shots.
But the best was still to come. The next morning we got dressed at dawn and hurried in our gypsies for our entry into the park. The resort kitchen had packed lots of sandwiches, fruit and hot thermos flasks of coffee for us. And then we waited in the cold. One hour passed by and I turned impatient. Thank God for the sandwiches, as we were really hungry. As an hour turned into two I was irritated. But finally the queen deigned to give us a glimpse.
Maya is the queen of Tadoba. The tigress can be identified with a stripe on her right cheek which looks like the Hindi letter म. Maya walked in with her three cubs and the people in the Gypsies went berserk. But she was unnerved. Probably used to be being photographed since she herself was a cub, she strode in and took a seat.
One of her cubs sat down right next to our Gypsy. So close that my telephoto lens didn’t work. I had to pull out my point and shoot to click that one. But it was such an exhilarating morning. You can never have too much of tigers!
I called up Subodh that evening and told him that he was losing out on a chance of a lifetime. He joined me in Tadoba the next morning. And we continued to see tigers on each safari. Matkasur, Gabbar, Sonam and her cubs, Sharmili. They all have these fascinating names, heavily inspired by Bollywood.
One of the highlights of the trip was watching Sonam, another tigress, with her cubs. Sonam can be identified with the S symbol on her neck. Sonam had killed a sambar, and since the kill was lying in a particular spot, the guides knew she would be there. For an hour we could hear the sounds of gnawing and crunching of bones. Finally she emerged from the bamboo thicket.
And having had her fill, she walked with her cubs to Telia lake to drink water. I got some nice shots there. But had to stand on my seat with my heavy camera for an hour, without the support of a beanbag or tripod. It was worth the exercise!
On the last day of the safari, I got dressed at around 4 a.m. As I descended the iron steps of the tent, with the 3.5 kilo camera in one hand, my mobile in another and a backpack on my shoulder, I slipped. I barely managed to save my camera from being smashed. But something smashed so hard that I had a momentary blackout. I knew something was terribly amiss when I couldn’t stand without help. Subodh helped me to limp to the main gate of the resort. Thankfully they had a fully equipped first aid kit and Subodh tied a crepe bandage on my ankle and I swallowed some painkillers.
I climbed on to the Gypsy with the help of a stool this time. We went to the buffer zone that morning. I got to capture a lot of birds as well as Sharmili’s cubs in my camera. I returned late that evening to Sevagram to find out that I had a fractured fibula. But the memories of seeing a tiger despite a broken leg are going to last me a lifetime!
I was extremely lucky to spot 13 tigers and tigers on each of the six safaris I went on. Tigers are extremely addictive. I hope this fascination continues!