It was New Year’s Day. We sat in the gypsy, shivering with cold and excitement. There were fewer people in the jungle probably because many had stayed up to bring the new year in, and could not wake up in time for a safari on the 1st of Jan.
For us, the whole point of being at Pench Tiger Reserve on New Year’s Eve was that we would end one year with a safari and begin the next one with the thrill of another. As we turned into one of the forest lanes, we saw a tiger conservationist whom we’d met earlier that day standing in his jeep. He raised two fingers. “Two cubs,” he whispered. He was still peering into the green.
Aaah! said a voice inside me. Again!
We didn’t see the cubs, but that’s hardly surprising. The tigers at Pench are famously shy. Even if they were right there, watching us, they would not emerge until we had gone away.
But that day, the forest was full of calls. Spotted deer seemed to call from all around us. Which calls were we to follow? Where should we go?
And then, the sambhar deer called. “सांभर कभी झूठ नहीं बोलता!” our driver Atul said, starting the engine. The sambhar never lies. Other creatures may panic and continue to call long after the cat is gone, but the sambhar is no gossip-monger. It calls only when it sees.
We raced away, hoping we’d made the right decision. The calls grew louder and more frequent. We went around a hill and came back. Atul and our guide Dinesh tried to predict where the cat would emerge, if it emerged at all.
“Movement!” said Atul. I saw nothing. He pointed frantically into the bushes. “Movement!”
In a few seconds, a leopard emerged. It looked at us and then climbed gracefully and swiftly out of view. That was all. It had graced us with its presence for a few precious seconds before disappearing.