It was hour 20 of a 22 hour travel day, and I was standing in the train, elbow to elbow in a thick sea of Indians as we rolled down the tracks towards, at least I hoped, my destination (I already had one incorrect train experience that day, so you never know.) Flashbacks of beach volleyball, morning yoga and eggplant/feta wraps saturated my thoughts. Why did I leave Goa, again? Please remind me. That reminder would come a day later. It would come at me full speed, a blur of muscled black and orange fur, determined eyes and stained teeth. Big, sharp, stained teeth.
I had decided to make my way to Bandhavgarh National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh to take yet another safari, this time in search of an elusive tiger. I rolled up into Tala Village, and with great luck found two other budget travelers (the only other two non resort using tourists I saw there) who had just arrived and booked a safari for that afternoon. A quick trip back down to the ticket office and I was officially signed up and ready to go. Jumping into the aged, open jeep, I was joined by Peter, a 47 year old German who spends his time leading bike tours throughout Europe and Russell, a Santa Cruz Mountain local (near where I went to high school) who has more stories than the Bible.
You must understand, seeing a tiger is relatively rare. Advice is to book six safaris in order to “guarantee” a tiger sighting, so I kept my expectations muted. Bandhavgarh provided a beautiful setting, with dense forests broken up by peacock spotted meadows. We came across jeep after jeep, each filled with frustrated tourists sitting in a haze of disappointment. No tiger sightings in the entire park on the morning safaris, and none as of yet on the afternoon, so we headed towards a fenced in area for a quick stretch. No sooner than our guide jumped out did our driver yell out “ Tiger, Tiger, Tiger”, his voice getting louder with each word. Our guide hurled himself back in and warned “ Hold on tight” as our tires began to spin and we darted off. With all of us clinging for dear life, we met each turn in the road at full speed. Branches shattered against the car frame as our momentum nearly lifted us airborne as we went over the rolling hills. We came to a sudden halt and there in the distance he stood. Right on the edge of the forest, as if patiently waiting for us, a 4 year old tiger peered off into the horizon at a herd of spotted deer. He then looked over at us as we pulled out an arsenal of cameras and the air filled with muffled excited proclamations. (This is amazing! I can’t believe we saw one! Oh shit I left my lens cap on!) He gave us a good five minutes, but soon the show was over and the tiger faded into the thick foliage behind him. It was a sweet but brief victory.
Our determined driver and guide were not done though. We found a rarely used ranger trail and looped around the backside, hoping to see our striped friend once again. Sadly we had no luck with him, but we came across some fresh tiger tracks and stopped to take a picture. Each of us huddled over the dirt track, listening to our guide explain the behaviors of a tiger. It wasn’t until we started the jeep back up did we notice the 12 foot tiger laying blissfully in the sun a mere 20 meters away. Cue the cameras. But almost immediately, our driver broke the silence with a loud, sharp whistle in order to get the attention of another jeep we had seen early. However, the only attention we received was from the tiger, who went from blissful to berserk. Quickly to his feet, he let out a guttural roar as he sprang towards us. 20 meters turned to 15 to 10 to 5. His lips curled back in rage, his eyes set on this unknown intruder.
(Above: Photo by Russell. Tiger mid-charge. Sorry it’s a little blurry. We were too busy crapping ourselves.)
I had the misfortune of being the first target in his path, and as he approached me, things began to slow. Images and sounds sharpened. Honestly, I’ve only had a few experiences in my life where I thought I might die (Morphine allergies, near car accident, and now a tiger charge.). I felt strangely calm as he was charging towards us, and I made no movement to hide or run (I’d like to say I was stoic, but I think frozen in fear is more accurate.) Once he hit about 3 meters, he turned abruptly to the side, eyes still upon us, let out another growl and circled back to where he was before. Adrenaline replaced fear and we each looked at each other with wide grins. Our guide just kept softly muttering “very dangerous…this one is very dangerous” and our driver, with trembling arms and a blank stare, had to be relieved of his duties. The rest of the safari was filled with reenactments, laughter, and disbelief. We had come for a tiger experience, and that is definitely what we got.