Noor… Eternally Yours

THERE THERE THERE… I CAN SEE IT. LOOK THERE… OH WOW… CAN YOU NOT SEE IT… SEE THERE…THERE… JUST LOOK AT WHERE I AM POINTING MY HAND

The lady clearly could not hide her animated glee, as the rest of us desperately strained our eyes in the direction in which she pointed. Nonetheless, we could see nothing but thick trees and shrubs.

OH MY GOD… COULD YOU GUYS NOT SEE IT?!?!?

This subsequent expression undoubtedly rubbed salt in our wounds. For a moment I even thought that she might have been hallucinating.

We were in Ranthambore Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajashtan. After having arrived the previous evening by road from Jaipur, we stayed at the lovely Raj Palace Resort. After a sumptuous dinner we hit the sack pretty early, in anticipation of the early morning safari into the forest. When I reached the front desk of the hotel at about six in the morning, it was biting cold. I had never experienced such cold weather and chillness for many years now. I had asked my wife and two daughters to stay in the cottage rather than waiting at the reception. This was a prudent decision considering the fact that our canter [the vehicle that took us on the safari] arrived only at 7:30 AM. I spent the ninety odd minutes walking around the resort and experimenting with my amateur photography skills. The well-manicured lawns and picturesque gardens at the resort made this worthwhile.

All along [actually from Bangalore so-to-speak] I was worried if my tickets to the safari were truly booked. My worry was not without reason. I could not book the tickets online and hence had to resort to the good old network of agents. My travel agent gave me the reference of another agent, who, I only knew as “Nahid Ji”. He assured me that he would get the tickets. After transferring the money to his bank account, for two weeks I sparingly communicated with him only VIA phone and WhatsApp. Neither did I receive any receipt for the money that I had transferred nor did I see the tickets. “Nahid Ji” had assured me that he will meet me at the resort when I arrive there. The meeting never happened. All along “Nahid Ji” confidently assured me “Sab teek hai sir”! On the day of reckoning, four canters arrived at the resort and none of them called out my name. When I called “Nahid Ji” at about 7:15 AM, he did not answer the call. He instead sent me a terse message on WhatsApp “Vehicle is late”. I did not know what to make out of it. I then asked the folks at the resort what my recourse could be. One of them casually said “Gadi ayega sir… ayega ayega”. Finally “Nahid Ji” called and told me that the canter will arrive in five minutes and he was spot on. Trusting in this unknown man was not a bad idea after all. The four of us excitedly, albeit shivering, boarded the canter. There were about 15 people already sitting in the canter and it looked like we were the last ones. Hence we never got to choose our seats. My wife and daughters were lucky to be sitting right next to the driver with an unobstructed view of everything around them. Whereas I had to squeeze myself next to an elderly man who clearly was not in the mood for the safari.

The canter in which we were travelling was a well improvised vehicle. Someone had had the bright idea of removing the roof and windows from a mini-bus… and voila… he had invented the canter. This clearly provided a good 360 degree view of the surroundings. I was apprehensive about what would happen if a tiger were to jump into the vehicle, which was very much possible. I then assumed that such fatalities never occurred and hence the canters have continued.

We traversed a bit of Sawai Madhopur before reaching the entry point to the forest. Sawai Madhopur seemed to be a rustic town undoubtedly beaten by the extreme weather conditions. For me, it was hard to imagine, what their source of income was and I could not help contemplating how their lives might be. As we traveled, I caught a stunning view of a guard tower, clearly belonging to some historic fort, atop a hill. Once we entered the forest our guide gave us the customary instructions for a safari. Then he mentioned that we were entering Zone 6 of the forest. I was disappointed since Zone 3 had the highest probability of spotting of tiger and “Nahid Ji” had told me that he got tickets for Zone 3. The guide dampened the situation further by saying that tiger citing is difficult during winter, since the animal would usually be ensconced deep inside the forest. Finally he mentioned that only 20% of the forest was open for visitors. Having given enough disclaimers that it will be a miracle if we spotted a tiger, he then went onto to give some safety instructions.

He mentioned that they will not take any particular route through the forest. Instead they will try to track a tiger using its pug marks or “calls” from deer. Very soon we spotted some tiger pug marks and the guide and driver started following them. My adrenaline rose when the guide mentioned that the pug marks seemed to be recent. The pug marks were clear and large enough to raise our expectations that we were very close to the tiger. However after about 100 meters, disappointingly, we lost the trail as we entered some rocky terrain. I noticed that the forest itself was very different from the ones that I had seen in Nagarahole, Bandipur, Mudhumalai and Muthunga, down south. Compared to the dense and tall trees in those forests, Ranthambore was dry and its vegetation comprised largely of tropical grass and shrubs. Not sure if the vegetation was any different deep inside the forest. Moreover most of the trees seemed to be alike. I later read that almost 75% of the forest was covered by a tree called “Dhok”.

After we lost track of the pug marks, the excitement of seeing a different kind of forest lasted for about an hour. During this time, we saw a few spotted deer, sambar deer, antelopes, wild boars and langurs. When the driver stopped for a break, we even spotted a beautiful bird which supposedly liked tourists. This was the Rufous Treepie. All of this however could not compensate for the disappointment of not being able to spot a tiger. During the break a few other canters and jeeps gathered around us and none of them had seen a tiger that morning. The guide informed us that that only one tiger was sighted in recent days and that too at noon. If this were not enough, the early morning chill was actually unbearable. I had not anticipated such bitter weather. My fingers turned numb, I was finding it difficult to speak and my nose was constantly dripping. Fortunately everyone else in my family were adequately dressed and found it relatively easy to brave this cold. I rued this entire safari and started to wonder if I should have come here at all.

After a 10 minutes break we set off again. Very soon there were no tracks. The driver skillfully maneuvered the vehicle on a small eroded rock. We then crossed some tall dried grass and that is when we heard some weird animal sounds. The guide cautioned us to stay quiet and explained that the sound was from deer. He mentioned that the deer usually made such sounds to warn their fellow companions about any imminent danger, which could also be a tiger. The driver switched off the engine and all of us in the canter scanned the vicinity. And that is when the lady started her hyperbole about spotting a tiger.

THERE THERE THERE… I CAN SEE IT. LOOK THERE… OH WOW… CAN YOU NOT SEE IT… SEE THERE…THERE… JUST LOOK AT WHERE I AM POINTING MY HAND

She was very sure that she had seen the tiger. The rest of is in the canter, including the guide and driver could not spot it though. After she assured the guide and the driver multiple times, the two were fairly convinced that she might have seen it. I consoled myself that I could at least tell the world that my fellow traveler saw a tiger, whereas I could not.

The guide and driver discussed amongst themselves and decide to follow the trail of the mysterious tiger. They quizzed the lady about the direction in which the tiger went and drove the canter in a parallel track. In a few minutes they reached a narrow bridge and stopped the canter. The guide was confident that if there really was a tiger nearby, it should come close to the bridge. We all waited without speaking a word. The anticipation was just getting too much. And then… without a warning, the tiger emerged out of the shrubs and bushes. Obviously nonchalant about us, it walked with unparalleled gait and pride. The possibility of such a sight is what got me here all the way from Bangalore. I was so shocked and amazed at the same time at spotting my favorite wild animal. I was clearly in a trance for the few minutes when the tiger was in sight. The guide told us that this was a female and was called Noor. From a census point of view, it was called T39. It seems there were close to 60 tigers in Ranthambore. I had no choice but to believe him, since he uttered many facts about her. He said that he has been tracking tigers for 13 years now at Ranthambore and hence identifying Noor was not difficult.

Noor disappeared into the trees yet again after the brief introduction. That is when I realized that I was so lost watching Noor that I forgot to take pictures of it. I enquired and was happy that my wife and children had also seen it. The guide and driver quickly discussed themselves and drove the canter hurriedly to a small valley of sorts. The guide explained that this is where we have the highest chances of seeing Noor again, up-and-close, before it disappears into dense forests. Very soon about 8 other vehicles had also converged at the same spot. As we all waited with bated breath, Noor emerged again.

Oh wow… this was truly one of my lucky days. This time though Noor was less shy and gave us about 5 – 7 minutes to watch her. All along she walked without even bothering to glance in our direction. This time though, I managed to take pictures with my out-dated camera. I did the best I could to capture Noor. There were about 70 people gathered in various vehicles, watching Noor. Understandably there was a lot of commotion and noise. At one point, a wave of guilt swept across me. Not sure if we had invaded Noor’s privacy with this safari and hoped Noor was magnanimous enough to forgive us mere mortals. During the course, I noticed that Noor occasionally lifted her tail. The guide explained that she was marking her territory by spraying urine. It sounded yuck… but how else could she do it? At one point Noor was just about 50m away from us. It was frightening and exciting at the same time to watch this striped beauty of a beast. Very soon, just as it had appeared out of nowhere, Noor decided to venture back into the thick forest. We could not see her anymore.

Everyone in the canter thanked the guide and driver. We were all happy at spotting a tiger and collectively agreed that we were lucky. It looked like the objective of the safari was accomplished, since thereafter the driver aimlessly went around the forest and no one really complained. He took us to a small pond where another canter arrived. Disappointment was written large on the faces of the people in it. They had clearly not seen any tiger. Their angst worsened when our guide told them that we had seen Noor. We finally made our way out of the sanctuary. It was close to 11 AM when we arrived back at the resort. During the late breakfast, I could over hear many folks expressing their disappointment about their respective safari. One gentleman had come all the way from New York [along with his accent] and had failed to spot a single tiger in the last two days. I was happy to have had a different and memorable experience.

After breakfast, we visited the Ranthambore fort, which has been reasonably well maintained. The views from the vantage points of the fort were breath-taking. The only eye-sore was the army of langurs in and around the fort which was frightful to me. But looks like they had made the fort their humble home. A small hike took us to a Ganesh Temple within the fort. More than offering prayers, visitors were keen on taking a “selfie” with the idol! Very soon we bid adieu to Ranthambore and started our drive back to Jaipur, with fond memories of the frighteningly beautiful Noor!

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