Our jeep arrived at six-thirty this morning, as we had requested the previous evening. The early start was, for once, enthusiastically embarked upon on my part, although I couldn’t vouch for Alec’s enthusiasm. There was one very simple reason for our efforts to be the first visitors into the park and it was large, orange and notoriously elusive. India has, it is predicted, only a few thousand tigers left in the wild, many of which live in such national parks as the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Living in alone or in tiny groups, they are most active at dusk, at night and in the early morning, so that after the first few jeeps have roared through the undergrowth and the sun has risen high in the sky, the chances of catching a glimpse are all but gone.
As our jeep rattled and bounced up the driveway and along the smooth road across the park to the entrance lodge, the wind whipped around us and through the door-less jeep. The exhilaration of the ride through the cool early morning, however, was rapidly halted at the bureaucracy of the front entrance. Once again, the same ubiquitous, dusty, red book was creaked open on the park warden’s lap as we were invited to sit down outside his lodge. In his own, painstakingly slow time, he diligently documented each of our entrances into the park, pausing for his cup of tea and conversing with every warden that passed by his lodge. The excruciating experience was exacerbated by the sight of various jeeps spluttering in and out of the fenced gate next to us as more visitors arrived and milled around in noisy groups. I fidgeted and bit my nails as I watched the sun climb higher and higher as each minute passed, dispersing our chances of spotting a tiger like a morning mist.
But after fifteen long minutes, we were in, having hired a jeep for ourselves and- we were assured- securing the first entry to the park. On the recommendation of our driver, we opted not to sit face-to-face and under cover in the back of the flaking white jeep; instead, we mounted the back of the vehicle and, perched somewhat unsafely on the back chassis, held onto the roof-rack, giving us a 360-degree view of the park around us as it bumped along the rutted track through the forest.
There certainly appears to be something worth protecting here. The imaginary border that we crossed when we entered protected territory saw a return of the open woodland that is so often interrupted by logging, ramshackle housing or agriculture in rural South India. The rolling green hills and virgin woodland in this area enjoys extensive protection laws that greatly restrict construction, pollution, mass agriculture, hunting and other potentially destructive symptoms of human settlement. Along with all manner of bright, the fragrant and rare plant-life, such varied creatures as deer, bears, birds, elephants and tigers are the various reasons for the extent of the protection enacted here. In somewhere as seemingly unregulated and- unfortunately- polluted as India, this is no small feat.
Instead, the road we embarked upon snaked through miles and miles of unbroken forest and grassland, devoid even of litter. We buffeted and jolted down the rutted track, through the patches of cool shade and golden, slanted sunlight and deeper into the park. Craning our necks around us to make the first sighting of the day, we caught the soft morning air that rushed past us and felt the warm glow as we entered the bright clearings between the tall trees around us. Every so often, our driver would slow as we entered a clearing, so that the engine would calm and we could almost feel the silence and the still air being breached by our presence.
Suddenly, he signalled to us with a soft tap of his finger on the ceiling and a pull of the breaks. Amidst the waist-height undergrowth that peppered the forest floor, there lurked a dark round shape twenty yards away to our right. We hushed our excited voices to whispers. Reaching up to shield my eyes from the sunlight as we strained for a better view, I suddenly craved a pair of binoculars to close the distance between us.
But instead of stopping to observe the animal or positioning ourselves for a photograph, the driver hit the accelerator and the engine roared back to life with a hefty jolt and we sped down the bumpy road towards our target. With a crash of leaves, the bushes parted ways before us and out tumbled a young black bear, its silky body rippling and dancing as it galloped through the undergrowth. Kicking up dust and stones all around us, we quickly pulled up beside the animal as it careered through the undergrowth only ten feet from my right leg. At two or three feet high and more from its pale muzzle and lolling tongue to the thunderous hind legs, the stocky animal looked young but heavy. Black pristine fur caught the sunlight in a beautiful golden brown as it tumbled in and out of the undergrowth alongside the jeep, before peeling off to one side, kicking it’s padded feet behind it as it disappeared into the bushes.
Before too long, we settled back into a steady pace as the forest quietened around us.
Presently, as the forest began to thin out and open up around, we approached one of the low ranger’s lodges that dot the park. The lodge was sat atop stilts and surrounded by a deep, wide moat, so that it was protected against both animals and floods, of which the former danger appeared to be the most pertinent. The rifles that were carried by many of the rangers was the best weapon against animal intruders, although the danger appeared to be only relative; whilst three of the un-armed rangers squatted around a camp fire cooking breakfast in their underclothes, there strolled an elephant and its young only a few yards from us. Although periodically turning a wary eye to us just as we turned a wary eye to them, they continued their slow stroll past us, pausing occasionally to pull at the tufts of grass around them. Slowly, as we enjoyed a steaming round of chai teas, they ambled away into the yellow and orange mist, fading to a dark pair of shapes amongst the silhouetted pencil-thin trees.
Just as the elephants slowly disappeared into the park, so did our chances of spotting a tiger. Soon enough, we began to pass other jeeps that had come around the loop in the opposite direction, thereby having ensured that any big orange cats had very likely been scared off already. As each jeep passed, the drivers traded stories of the morning’s sighting so far while we marvelled at how lucky we had been hiring out our own jeep; out of the jeep opposite us, there squeezed perhaps ten faces, all eyeing our empty seats below us with envy.
Our host at the guesthouse shared our disappointment at having missed the tiger sighting. He was equally affronted that we were planning on moving on after only one attempt, and gamely offered to drive us over to one of the neighbouring nature reserves for another safari that afternoon. The Nagarhole National Park was a short drive over the state border into Karnataka. In contrast to the windy experience of riding in the open-doored range rover earlier that morning, we glided across the smooth tarmac of the Keralan roads in his air-conditioned sedan right up until the state line.
‘Kerala roads,’ he reminded us with a wave of his finger ‘veeeeery good. Karnataka roads’, he added with a wrinkle of his nose, ‘not good.’ As if to emphasis the point, he knew exactly where the state line lay:
He held this final syllable right until the hum of the tyres on the smooth tarmac was suddenly interrupted by the sharp jolt and rough shaking that accompanied the return to rutted, unkempt track.
The Nagarhole National Park experience was somewhat different to that of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. We left the visitor centre on a crowded, rickety bus amongst families of day-trippers, screaming children and young couples. Perhaps the noise of the young girl in the seat in front of us was enough to scare off any wildlife as the rattling engine beneath our feet, but we did see more of the wonderful surroundings that have been protected here. I think the cleanliness of the air and the lack of rubbish and pollution is as striking as the wildlife that benefit from it. It is hard to overstate how…well…dirty India can be. Looking through the woodland around us, the rubbish that collects like flurries of snow by the roadside is absent, even if some of those in the bus still poke food wrappers through the cracks in the window like they were there. The noise and the traffic are noticeably absent. The cool shade and the soft scent of wood is a sharp contrast to the burning rubbish and sewers that blights any urban setting.
Instead, large squirrels scurry and leap from the branches above us. Birdsong twitches around in between the roar of the bus. Shafts of late afternoon sunlight beam down through the branches of the trees. Off into the distance, a field of termite hills stands undisturbed like grey-brown mountains, merging with the shells of dead tree-trunks and blending into their surroundings.
Through a gap in the woodland, we paused to observe a herd of elephants bathing in a small lake. There were perhaps six of them slowly sloping through the green water, washing themselves and each other with jets from their trunks, which they used to prod and stroke each other like us humans would an arm.
A trunk would occasionally disappear beneath the water, before emerging to emit an arc of water behind them, catching anyone behind them and sending a soft mist off against the slanting evening sun behind them.
Back in the guesthouse owner’s sedan, we passed by a large mob of deer by the roadside. The soft, elegant creatures seemed to move in large groups, darting out of the road as we slowed on our approach. Thankfully, our driver showed greater subtlety than during a previous natural encounter: he had earlier spotted a collection of small foxes sitting in the undergrowth, a collection of orange ears just visible over the vegetation. After a few seconds’ waiting and little to see, he issues a couple of sharp blasts on his car horn, from which the foxes bolted into away into the bushes in an instant. He had shrugged and continued driving.
This time however, he kept his hands firmly on the steering wheel while Alec and I admired the Deer. While both males and females have the white dappled spots against the smooth brown fur all along their flank, males are adorned with the spectacular, ubiquitous antlers that, if the cliche is to be believed, reside more on the wall of the hunter’s lodge that atop the head of a male deer. Indeed, the delicate, elegant form of these slender animals appears to give them the air of being out of place amongst a natural world of hunger, death and survival of the fittest. They moved in graceful packs through the trees, silently tiptoeing through the undergrowth and gazing off into the distance, as if contemplating some otherworldly conundrum that the wild boar and elephants simply have not recognised.
Of course, the serenity that these deer bring can always be relied upon to be interrupted in a tourist attraction such as this. Not long after we had persuaded our hotelier to turn the engine off and sit in silent observance, another car full of Indian holidaymakers drew up ahead of us. They had also spotted the herd only a few meters to our left through the low undergrowth and all begun to pile out. This already turned the heads of the herd, although did not move them quite yet. Seizing this opportunity, the father of the family wasted no time and, box-camera in hand, gamely strode through the undergrowth towards the herd in the hope of getting a picture. Unsurprisingly, the deer at the edge of the herd begun to scatter into the undergrowth, causing others next to them follow. Undeterred, the father quickened his pace to a crash through the undergrowth towards the centre of the herd, camera held up in readiness, head darting from one side to another as if looking for the perfect picture. The entire flock of deer is in flight by this point, scattering off in all directions and away into the forest, so that all we are left with is the sight of an Indian gentleman with his polo shirt tucked into his trousers, careering off into the forest with his camera held up in front of him like a reckless David Attenborough imitator. We left the bemused family by the car and continued driving.