The mist is draping the trees and everything is quiet except for the intermittent calls of jungle fowl which by sunny afternoon sound cheerful but at dawn, eerie. We’re bleary-eyed as we bump around the open-backed jeep down deeply rutted roads. It’s not been 10 minutes and my arms are already tired from holding on to the roll bar so tightly.
We stop unexpectedly. The guide leans out the window with his finger to his lips. He points to the ground. Pugmarks. A tiger has been here he whispers. We stare at each other wide-eyed and then start craning our necks, eyes scanning the shaking leaves as though every trembling branch camouflaged a tiger. The jeep slides into neutral and we quietly roll along.
Suddenly we see her. Strolling languidly down the road with her two cubs darting back and forth between the trees on either side. Our stomachs drop and mouths hang open. We can smell her. At first she pretends not to notice us. She sniffs a tree, marks her territory. The cubs disappear into the undergrowth. We follow behind her, still in neutral, our excitement crackling. Finally she deigns to look at us. A toss of her head then a steady stare.
We couldn’t believe our luck. There are guides who have worked at the Bandipur National Park for years who have yet to see a tiger. We went on four treks – two at dawn, two at dusk – and luck smiled on us the entire time. We found ourselves 15 feet away from an adult male leopard, were fake charged by a momma elephant and watched two wild dogs frolicking in the setting sun. We came to learn later that wild dogs are the most elusive of all the animals we saw and so we were extraordinarily lucky indeed.
I took the very last image of the tree at dusk. Every other image was shot by my resident wildlife photographer David Hachey who hauled our 70-200mm lens around Asia for 3 months and maintains it was worth it, just for these shots.