Since 3 years, Juhili and myself, go to Tadoba during second weekend of February. Some say we celebrate our Valentines’ day in the forest. The reality is February is the best month to visit the forest, as it is the change of season from Winter to Summer. This encounter moment is from February 2017 visit ( 10, 11 and 12 February 2017 ).
As usual we camped at Svasara Jungle Lodge, our second home, and very well taken care by Ranjit Mandal and Nandita Das. One of the best part of visiting Tadoba is meeting this evergreen couple and enjoying jungle stories with them. Normally we spend more time in their cabin than in our room.
We had 4 safaris booked ( 1 from Navegaon, 2 from Kolara and 1 from Pangdi ), out of which first 3 safaris went completely dry, not even tiger calls. Obviously we were frustrated to the core. On 11th evening Juhili made an unreasonable request to Nandita and she arranged for her favorite lucky number Gypsy for 12th morning safari. Anything and everything for Tiger sighting.
We entered at 6.30 am from Kolara gate with lots of hopes. It was a chilly morning and the sun was about to rise. In open Gypsy it gets unbearable in winters, and although it was a time when winter season was about to get over, it was still cold enough. We passed through the Jamni village, then Jamni Nalla and meadows. We were hoping to sight Choti Tara and her 2 male cubs as this territory belong to her, but there was no sign of her. The jungle was totally silent, did not sight even a deer. Only various calls of different birds were bringing life to the jungle. Our guide Sandesh was completely alert and was directing the driver as per his intuitions. At the crossroad after Jamni, Sandesh opted to go towards Pandharpauni. We checked 97 and Yenbodi waterholes for any sign of the Tiger but again nothing. As we were approaching Pandharpauni 1- PP1, we spotted waiting Gypsies in between PP1 and Pandharpauni 2 – PP2 waterholes. There were atleast 40 to 50 Gypsies. Excitement was at peak with this sight as it indicated either tiger is sighted or atleast calls are there. When we reached the spot, the waiting gypsies told us that somebody had sighted a male tiger on one fireline and that he may come on this side. It was still a good chance to take, as usual in jungle, and we parked our gypsy alongwith the waiting crowd. It was around 7.30 am by then.
It was a long wait. No movement, no calls. Only birds singing. This is a place, when you are facing towards PP2, you have a wide meadow with tall yellow grass on your right and on the left the road goes and meets the Navegaon Tadoba lake road. A big triangle is formed by these 3 roads ( PP1 to PP2, road on left and Navegaon – Tadoba lake road ). In this triangle were lots of deers and wild boars. No calls at all. I was convinced that tiger can not be in the vicinity. But hoping against false hopes is the mantra in the jungle ride. At 8.15 am we started eating breakfast in the gypsy. Sandesh was as usual scanning the surrounding for any sign or movement.
Halfway through the breakfast he suddenly said, “ Sir Tiger “. I literally jumped. He pointed towards the yellow tall grass and said “ Tiger just stood up and is standing “. I was totally clueless and I think even my wife too. I did not see anything, may be it was there may be not. One thing was sure none of the other gypsies were looking in that direction, rather they were also waiting restlessly. In one of the gypsy my good friend Rasna Vaidya and Svasara naturalist Rishin Basu Roy were there waiting next to us. I continued with my breakfast and as I was packing, again Sandesh said the tiger has started moving towards PP1 and he asked the driver to move towards PP1. We were the only gypsy to leave that place and go to PP1. Again we parked ourselves at PP1. It is around 500 to 600 meters distance. Sandesh again located the tiger and said it is approaching us. Sadly I did not see anything. Sandesh was constantly updating us about tiger movement. I was not sure if I believed him. Then finally I was convinced when he said tiger has turned around and not coming towards us. We left again for the old spot. When we reached there every person in every gypsy was looking towards right and I realized our mistake of leaving the place. When we reached there, we just saw from a great distance the tiger moving away from us and that too for just 30 seconds. The tiger was spotted at the same place which Sandesh had mentioned. I surrendered to Sandesh. Was it over ? No the fun starts now.
Rishinda said the tiger will cross the Bamangaon fireline and that we should go there. That moment our driver realized there was something wrong with our axle so he drove slowly and Rishinda went ahead. We were just 2 mins behind them. Suddenly we saw a gypsy moving very fast towards Chikhalwahi. We could not go fast due to axle issue. When we reached there Rishinda told us that Maya, Pandharpauni Queen, just crossed the road and that they could get good pictures of her from a close distance. I could only curse the axle. Maya was moving and then deer calls started. It was confusing as calls were coming from all the sides. I said to Juhili that we should wait for Maya to emerge from bushes. Suddenly behind us around 30 to 35 deers ran and crossed the road and were giving calls simultaneously. At that moment Sandesh mentioned that the tiger which we had seen from the back must have come in the triangle and he was sure that it was a male tiger. Juhili mentioned to him that we have never seen a male tiger in 3 years of our jungle tours. Sandesh said we should go and be the first to track the tiger, so we turned around while everyone waited for Maya. I had already surrendered to Sandesh.
We reached on one side of the triangle and Sandesh started screening the triangle for the tiger. All 3 of us located the tiger in the triangle almost at the same time. Cameras were out. Some people followed us and waited behind us. Again the tiger was going away from us. I asked Sandesh to follow the direction which tiger was taking. Sandesh was confident that tiger will come in our direction only as the direction he was moving towards was jam packed with gypsies. So he insisted that we stay where we were and give space to the tiger to cross on the other side of the road. As he was saying this I could see the tiger turning around and started walking in our direction. I was amazed by the knowledge and intuition of Sandesh.
Now the tiger was clearly visible from around 80 feet and it was coming towards the road we were waiting on. Both of us were excited to see the first male tiger, that too huge one, the great Matkasur. It walked and came onto the road, stood there for 2 mins, looked towards us from 80 feet. What a marvelous sight it was, beyond words. I thought it will cross to the other side of the road into the jungle. But again I was wrong. Tiger had other things in it’s mind. It was as if it knew that we were seeing the male tiger for the first time and it decided to surprise us. The tiger turned towards our gypsy and started walking towards us. We were speechless and had never encountered such an amazing movement. We were the first gypsy in the line, nothing between us and the tiger. I could get some of the best shots. It was hugely built, walked towards us until the distance between us and tiger was mere 8 feet. Stopped, gave us a parting look, turned left and disappeared into the jungle. I was stunned, speechless and did not know what to do. I think I must have thanked Sandesh atleast 100 times. Always listen to guide became my mantra going forward.
One of the greatest wild moment in my life. I will cherish this experience for lifetime, waiting for more to come.