When I awoke at 5am, it was still dark. The stars were still holding vigil over the pale blue landscape and the symphony of crickets remained undeterred by the cold. Neither was I. It was my first day in Pench National Park in India...my first day in tiger country. The prospect of seeing my first wild tiger was firmly established from the moment I opened my eyes. I thought about it as I got dressed and when I brushed my teeth. I thought about it when I packed my bag, zipped up my coat and made my way through the dark to the entrance of the resort. I thought about it as I watched the first rays of sunlight illuminate the forested horizon. Each exhaled breath lingered in the frigid air like affirmations hope taking ghostly form.
It was too early for breakfast and, despite my searching for coffee, there was none to be found. I didn’t mind too much: I was wide awake and ready to enter the realm of the tiger. The gravel and sand crackled under the tires of an oncoming jeep, which pulled up to the entrance. It was your typical safari vehicle: the front had an open top and the back had two rows of seats for passengers. However, I wouldn’t be using the seats too much during the trip – adrenaline and excitement wouldn’t permit it. Rather, the open top would allow me to stand and scan the surroundings for signs of wildlife, hopefully manifesting as tiger.
After a few moments, I climbed into the jeep. I looked at each seat and attempted to reason which would provide me the best opportunities for wildlife viewing. However, that wouldn’t matter as there were no other guests that would join, leaving me free of competition.
The engine roared to life. It was time to go.
Under fading night, the driver, two guides and myself raced toward the park gate. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a queue of less than a dozen other cars waiting for the park authorities to allow entry. The driver left the vehicle to submit entry forms while we waited. Slowly, but surely, the pale blue of the landscape gave way to a palet of violets and reds while the trees came into view through the fog. We were soon given the all-clear.
Our jeep continued along the dirt road leading into the inner reaches of the park while the wind numbed my fingers and face. I had to choose between keeping my hands warm and having my camera at the ready. Naturally, I chose the latter – it is where being a Canadian comes in handy. One thing that I noticed almost immediately was the air, which was cool, crisp and clean, with the soft, sweet, calming fragrance of the forest. It was a far cry from the stinging pollution of Bangkok and Nagpur and was quite wonderful to experience. The landscape was eerie, with trees and plants I had never seen before and peculiar rock formations jutting out from the earth, bathed in early morning mist. It was another world.
At 6:30am, I entered Pench National Park. It was the first time I had entered a forest where tigers prowled. I had been waiting for such an opportunity for 4 years and it was finally happening. However, as we sped past the trees, penetrating deeper into the forest, I found myself slightly despondent. I began to realize that I was setting myself up for disappointment. After all, some people spend days in tiger country and never even catch a glimpse of a tiger. I was being foolish to expect to see a tiger on my first trip. It was a humbling dose of reality, but one that I accepted with relative ease. It is a privilege to be able to see a wild tiger and Pench is rich in other wildlife to admire.
The other wildlife didn’t take long to appear. The jeep slowed at certain points to inspect the odd spotted deer, peacock and wild boar and I found myself still thinking about tigers, but happy to experience the creatures I have come to know only though modern media. It was okay that I may not see a tiger...I was lucky enough.
Fate, it would seem, would disagree.
I noticed the driver slowing and his demeanor changed. He turned and whispered a word that would send my heart racing: “Tiger!”
My eyes darted around where the driver had pointed 30 meters into the forest and soon a figure rose up out of the grass. At 7am on December 10th, 2008, after 4 years of waiting, months of planning and just 30 minutes after entering the park, I saw my first wild tiger.
It truly was a blur. My heart was persistently pounding against my rib cage and my eyes remained transfixed upon the tiger. I had my mouth gaping open in awe for a few seconds with a faint, barely intelligible whisper of “Oh my god”. It was far, but I just make out its stripped form in the grass. Auspiciously, it was a cub...a few months old. That would mean its mother and possible siblings would be nearby. Another cub emerged and the two danced in and out of view while playing. Eventually, it was revealed that their mother had made a kill, possibly a sambar. There was plenty for the family to munch on and the mother stayed hidden in the grass, likely sleeping. While the scene unfolded, I fumbled with my camera. Although the photos I took were less than ideal, given the low light, the camera acted as a pair of binoculars, allowing me to get a good glimpse when the tigers came into view. Eventually, the mother would materialize, though only for a few moments.
I am not sure how long we had stayed there, but eventually, the excitement became subdued. The cubs likely took cue from their mother and began napping. Ultimately, the tigers decided to stay hidden and the cars that had joined the frantic fray disappeared one by one. The driver signalled his intentions to continue with the trek. I cannot remember how I responded, but it was likely a half-hearted grunt. Part of me wanted to stay until there was more movement, but another was tempted by the prospect of further adventure. The kill would keep them in the same spot so I quickly got over the disappointment when the wheels began to turn once more.
We toured the park and saw more deer and a few unruly languor monkeys. A short break was taken at the park’s resevior, providing an incredible view. As the sun continued its ascension and the jeep meandered around the bends of the dirt road, I my mind remained with the tigers. I was humbled by the experience and amazed at just how quickly everything had happened. I was lucky...very lucky. It was then that I had felt an immense amount of relief. I could truly let go of worrying about whether I would see a tiger and I could simply enjoy what the experience had to offer. In my list of “Things to Do Before I Die”, I could cross off “seeing a wild tiger” at the age of 22.
As we left the park before noon, I felt a familiar sensation. It was the same feeling that I felt when leaving the zoo after meeting a tiger for the first time in 2004. It was the same feeling that brought me back to that zoo in subsequent days and weeks. It was the blissful intoxication of happy memories and of being with tigers. I didn’t want to leave...I wanted to stay. It felt like home and felt right. The scent, sights and sounds, rather than seeming foreign, seemed familiar and friendly. Perhaps someday, after securing a future for wild tigers, I’ll be able to find a home in tiger country and live out the rest of my days in the company of one of the greatest animals life has ever known. Should I be so lucky? Who knows? If the day had taught me anything it is to not get absorbed in what may or may not, but to make the best of our experiences.
I left the park with a smile on my face. I had experienced something incredible, but this was only the first day. There were many more adventures to be had.