Having come back from one of the best summers Ive had till date, I'm suddenly at a loss for words. While on my way back here, and while I was in Ranthambhore, I'd thought of so many things I will write about once Im back.. but now, even though I can actually remember 10% of those topics, I have absolutely no will to write.. This whole withdrawal is a very terrible phase to be in. Especially, when the few people that can get you out of it, are very far away, and not around you. It's so weird because even friends (some of them) can't help in this case. Sometimes, people from the concerned field, who are close friends, are the only hope to get out of withdrawal. And that's exactly what this is about. Those weird wildlifers, are nowhere around.
I spent this summer in Ranthambhore, Rajasthan. And every single breathing moment of it, was worth the choice of going there. The moment of meeting friends again, and knowing that the next week is going to be full of fun was a brilliant feeling. A Gharial Expedition Team reunion! The Tiger Watch office, home to so many of us, the several "hang-outs" tagged as favourite spots in Maa Farm, and the anytime anywhere paths that lead into the wild patch in front of office.. Everyone was in their element.
The first 2 days, of preparing for the Conservation Leadership Course by Tiger Watch were quite enjoyable. Then came the running around. A massive sudden influx of participants happened, and right from distributing their rooms in Shani Vilas to making sure the rooms were all perfect, the air conditioning was working fine, the food, water, the course schedule... all of that, was absolute fun. Then the presentations, the frequency of crossing the road to go either into Maa Farm or into Shani Vilas was increasing by the hour. Divya kick started the course, and Rina gave it her over-rehearsed introduction very convincingly, and then, the Tiger Man himself stepped on stage, his pugmarks being followed by every individual's gaze, silence, all around, and Fateh Singh Rathore then spoke. This man is miraculous no matter how many times you hear him speak, because everytime, he's just as captivating as the last time.
The next 5 days, were, with all due respect, the craziest days. What with the park rides, the lectures, the presentations, slide shows, films, QUESTIONS!!![hint : if u dont know why this word is in capital letters, and you were there for the course, you need a new brain!] , and the fun.. it made the course one helluvan activity! The faculty was an interesting bunch of people. Right from the silent observer Jay to the ever so energetic Madhu Ma'm , and from Fatji to the man who IS the undoubted, unmatched KING of Ranthambhore - Doc. The course was more of an informal combined learning session where participants learned not only from the faculty, but also from each other! People like Hans, who have spectacular experiences, people like Ginseng and Bensen, who had come from Meghalaya with wonderful accounts of the wilderness in the North-east. It was a period of gaining knowledge and getting to know the intricate details of things that we either only hear about, or see on TV. Knowing about Anti-poaching operations hands on, from the man who leads them, is quite a blow out!
The visits to Ranthambhore National Park, on the 21st and 24th were periods of intense searching, for the striped royalty that softly walks the paths in the forest, the Tiger. The visit to National Chambal Sanctuary, on the 23rd, was my highlight, having got to spend my 20th birthday with the eyes and snout of a Gharial in the Goddess of all Rivers- the Chambal! :) I would have loved it if that Gharial had decided to surface a little.. but ah well, with all due respect to its "wild" nature and status, I'm happy she was THERE. :)
That night, the dinner that we had at the Pali farmhouse, was undoubtedly, the BEST dinner I've ever had. Scrumptious food!! All of Rajasthan in one meal!! The course, as soon as it begun, was over even sooner! All of a sudden, it was the 25th of May. And we were dropping participants to the station to board their respective trains. Suddenly, all that time spent with people from different places, different backgrounds, fields, was over! And it was bye-bye time. Luckily for the "volunteer gang" there was still that one nutcase called Hans Dalal with us. By then, we'd all become the mad core group. And then, on the 25th, everything suddenly changed.
During the ending and certificate ceremony, I got a piece of paper passed to me by someone who's name I shall not mention for her own safety. :) She had written - "Park in the afternoon?" All I had to do was look sideways and nod vigorously and my answer was pretty clear!! Smiles exchanged, no.of people confirmed, and gypsies booked! Zone 5 and Zone 4 is what we had. And since Zone 5 had been having all the Tiger sightings, everyone was rooting for Zone 5! So when Divya asked, who wants to go to Zone 5- ALL hands went up! :D [that honestly was hillarious] We got our cameras, binocs, what not, and some 5-6 of us reached the gate to find the Zone 5 gypsy packed n full! So we launched ourselves in the Zone 4 gypsy. All set. And my oh my what happened next was THEEEEEE point of NOT relying on "recorded sightings"!
Zone 5 people (as we now call them) , we were hoping, get to see what they're all so excited about. And meanwhile, our cool gypsy (hahahah.. had to do this!), was going through a brilliant patch of forest and I simply love that part of Ranthambhore. Zone 4!! No Tiger was ok.. but that patch is beautiful! And we looked left, and saw the sky in sepia tone. Literally, ALL brown. Sand storm. Huge sand storm was headed our way. And within 5 minutes, we were BANG in the middle of it. Dust coming from literally everywhere!!! I was frantically trying to keep the camera away from it, and honestly dont know or care about what anyone else in the gypsy was upto!
12-13minutes into that mad rush of dust and all of a sudden, we were out of it! Ok now here the background is important. There is an article further down in this blog, about Ranthambhore National Park, which has photos of a Tigress and her cubs. She is the Berda female, and those are her cubs. This Berda female, who was with me when I turned 19 last year at the exact same place, died in April 2009. I am obviously still not over that. But being in Ranthambhore, on Zone 4, brought back all those 45 minutes of memories. And we were headed exactly there! Berda. I wanted to see the cubs. We checked the first cave, zinch. Approached 2nd cave, and the driver n I say simultaneously- Tigers in cave!
The mood changes, and everyone is up n about, not literally obviously. Scampering and moving here and there to catch a glimpse of the striped beauty. And that's it! My two Berda babies! Sleeping away to glory. nose to nose. The female on the left and male on the right. They didnt even budge when we reached and we were the only gypsy there. After about 3-4minutes, the male woke up, yawned, licked his paw, went off to sleep again. The female woke up, did the same thing. Again the male woke up, and then he moved his head sideways and looked at us. The female got up, stretched, actually nudges the male, who also got up and then he climbed down from the cave, and came down, VERY close to us. [Im not mentioning the distance for obvious reasons]. And then, when he reached down, he went up to a tree, put his front paws on it and stretched! then turned around, and plonked down. Just sat! Cute kitty pose. Within seconds, the female was up, who by then, had been sitting at the edge of the cave watching us and the male cub. She climbed down too. And came to the male, they acknowledged each others' presence by rubbing their heads against each others'. And then the female decided to play Sherlock Holmes!
But before her investigations could begin, the male decided we were too close for comfort and snarled at us and once we backed off respectfully, he went n sat down again. The female cub then came up very very close, and there was fallen tree that was blocking her line of sight, so the curious cat that she is, she ducked under the log and looked to see if we're still there. She was so close we could see her eyes ever so clearly!! Those eyes!!! Oh my god!! I can keep looking into them endlessly! These cubs, both of them, have the most enigmatic eyes. So expressive!! Will never forget that stare. And just as luck would have it, my camera, decided that the battery wasnt charged enough to continue taking photos. So all the photos that I could have got from literally 6feet away, I didnt get. What I did get, is the damn experience!! Of BEING there, with those two precious cats, and watch them.. and feel so privileged to be there and witness their behaviour! Chuck the camera I told myself. Just see what you're getting to see!
And in a flash of an eyelid, days kept running past us. 25th was over like that. 26th onwards, we were just the core group left .. back to the usual. A Nilgai had been killed in the "backyard" of Maa farm.. so we'd go check that out once a while.. and on one such visit, our man Ruchik called me and said in a hushed voice "there's a python here!" .. without bothering about what he meant by "here" , Suyash and I took off. Camera in hand, floaters hanging on to feet, we were rushing there! Once located, we saw the python had caught a crow pheasant and was constricting it. Lens cap off, and camera rolling..
Another snake experience was in Jhoomar Bawri when we were all in the jeep and Doc suddenly breaked coz a snake was crossing the road. Arjun and I jumped out. Doc said Saw-scaled Viper. And he kept the lights on the snake while I tried getting it on a stick. And whoa!! Russell's Viper!! [Sorry Doc... but we're pretty sure that's what it was!! Blotches present and no arrow shaped head marking] And then Doc made us feel like nitwits by saying, he's only once seen a Russell's Viper in Ranthambhore!! Well anyway, a bike was coming and we had to get in the jeep... by which time the snake had obviously gone off into the darkness..!
Thats what it takes to be a hard core wildlifer! [Anyone taking that seriously, please re-consider being a wildlifer]!!
, our Gharial team learned a lot from him and our hopes got all refreshed and spirits re-lighted..And again, all to soon, we approached the 3rd of June. It was the morning of our departure. Just like that, we were gone too. And somewhere, in the back of my head, I know that one fine day, soon enough, I will be back there to annoy the life out of Doc, and to add more such experiences to my already 20 year old life.