The Cicada Resort sits on the edge of Rajiv Gandhi National Park. If you'll forgive a tiny history lesson, Rajiv Gandhi was the grandson of Jawarhalal Nehru (India's first prime minister) and the son of Indira Gandhi (India's first and only female prime minister who was assassinated in 1984 if memory serves). Born into such a prestigious family it was natural that he should take over as India's youngest prime minister after his mother's death but was himself assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991 just outside of Chennai where a monument now stands to his memory.
Approaching the park named in his honor you pass villages and fields full of sugar cane and rows of red earth ready for planting before the rains come but every once in a while you see little tree houses perched above the green plain. However these tree houses aren't for children. They're to protect the villagers from the most dangerous animal in the forest.
It's not the tiger. Elephants cause more damage and more deaths than tigers and after a trip through the forest I can understand why. We'd seen dozens of elephants at the river but not until that day did I understand why the villagers took so many precautions. They may not have teeth or claws but they are wild animals that are unpredictable and their size makes them a danger regardless of their diet.
We boarded the truck early Tuesday morning for our safari into the park with blankets over our laps to protect against the morning chill and full of eager anticipation to see tigers and leopards and any other carnivores India had to offer.
There were deer nibbling grass, kingfishers, bison, monkeys leaping from tree to tree, mongooses (mongeese?) stalking snakes, strange-looking squirrels far above our heads and boars rooting for food in the brush.
But we hadn't seen any tigers and that's what we'd come for. We stopped at a half-way point at a crossroads in the forest then headed deeper along the dangerously rutted and muddy road that twisted and turned up and down hills until I was sure the truck would give out. At one point after a particularly nasty smashing bump there was an odd rattling sound coming from under the chassis. The driver stopped, climbed down under the truck with a fresh piece of rope in his hand, disappeared for a moment, then emerged with a shredded piece of old rope. Apparently whatever had fallen down was now retied and was good as new. Whatever "new" might be. It didn't make me feel particularly confident that we'd make it back without destroying the car and I wondered what my chances of making my way home through tiger-infested forests might be.
Past the twists and turns the road leveled out to where clumps of bamboo stood towering along the slopes leading down to the river bank. The motor shut off as the guide stopped to listen to the birds, noting their position and calls and what it meant about where the tigers might be.
Only the day before we'd waited offshore in our boat and I'd watched those same clumps of bamboo from the water and though the birds sang and the waves lapped it suddenly became strangely quiet around me as the bamboo began to creak. The sounds grew louder until the creaking changed to the sound of breaking wood and groaning stalks and I watched the shifting clumps in front of me with a strange feeling of horror even though I was safely offshore.
The wind picked up and blew ominously and the groaning and creaking increased as it moved along towards me. Louder and louder until it was right in front of me then it continued on along the river as the elephants moved on, the sound dying away as they passed unseen behind the bamboo, tramping and foraging. It's hard to describe my excitement at hearing them approach--the scope of their strength suddenly becoming a reality--and then my nervousness as we sat there in the truck at nearly the same point the next day but without the safety of distance.
While I sat there in the forest quietly remembering the experience and wondering if an elephant was going to burst out of the brush at any moment and charge the truck, our guide continued listening to the birds and after a moment he whispered, "There is most certainly a tiger there," as he gestured to the brush along the path.
There were no sounds of peacocks now as we listened to what our guide was hearing and tried to pick up the signals ourselves. A troupe of monkeys played in the trees on the other side of the truck and a few spotted deer grazed on the grass in patches of sunlight as we waited and everything seemed so peaceful and orderly. Minutes went by and we said nothing but our guide continued to fix his stare into the brush fifty feet off, narrowing his eyes and resting his hand over his mouth as he waited.
I stared at the monkeys off to the other side, starting to think that it all had been a mistake, when in one great collective movement they scattered. At the same time the deer raised their heads and bounded into the brush as birds called off in the distance and monkeys chattered angrily.
Our guide stood up and immediately looked in the opposite direct from where the animals had run, pointing and saying, "Tiger! Tiger!"
It took us a second to understand where he was pointing and what he meant, it all happened so quickly, but then we saw it too. The cat coming out of the brush, it's stripes much lighter than I'd expected with the morning sun hitting them across his back, but with the unmistakable movement and sleekness you'd expect. It really was a tiger and before we could raise our cameras or communicate what we were seeing he turned into the bushes and disappeared.
A tiger in the wild. And I saw it right there as it stalked it prey.
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