Tadoba happened on two accounts: pretty much on an impulse and on online flight reservations from Calcutta to Nagpur working out cheap. My primary reason to say yes to it other than my wanderlust and being proximate to nature was Tadoba’s reputation for almost guaranteed sightings. One doesn’t necessarily have to be a fan of the feline; the entire experience of a safari in the wild, the drive through a forest, the wait and watch game and the final sighting of the striped lord all put together make for an addictive and thrilling experience.

Our resort was about three hours from Nagpur and the drive proved to be a delightful one, because the palash or the flame of the forest was in its fullest bloom, making the truck laden sordid highway surprisingly colourful. Quite interestingly, the palash flowers of Maharashtra were slightly different from the ones I’ve seen in Bengal: though equally bountiful, these were slightly more orange in color as compared to their redder counterparts in Bengal.

Since it was a last minute decision, we did not get a safari booking in the Core Zone of the Tadoba National Park but were told that sightings in the Buffer Zone were equally opportune.

I had booked a nature walk for myself on the first morning. Accompanied by a Garhwali guide, we started our hike just before sunrise and hiked for about three hours cutting through thick vegetation and reaching a kind of summit that gave us a great view of the sunrise. Enroute we passed through a den, which the guide suggested might be a sloth bear’s. We also saw a porcupine’s hole which let out a terrible stench. He explained that porcupines were hoarders and the stench could be coming from bones and pieces of meat that he may have gathered.

Later that afternoon, we had our first safari in the park. To my surprise, though the region was littered with palash trees, there were hardly any in the forest area. The other thing that caught my attention was how little the number of deer were; we barely saw a few sambhar deer and hardly any spotted ones. Though there were pugmarks that were only a day old, the big cats eluded us and I had to be satisfied by my closest encounter ever with a wild gaur, the great Indian bull that stomped his feet and was prepared to give our jeep a chase! Luckily, we sped away before he could take off.

Knowing that sightings were often a matter of luck and patience, we renewed our hopes and went on our second and final safari the next morning. Right from the word go I was unhappy with our vehicle, a gypsy that had clearly seen better days and whose suspension had gone for a toss. Ignoring its rattling, we tried to focus on the safari and try our luck for a tiger sighting. We spotted large beehives and many species of birds, thanks to the morning hour. After driving around for an hour, the naturalist suggested we halt at a watering hole to maximize our sighting chances as well as for birding. I agreed as that would also mean some respite from the rattling vehicle and an opportunity to soak in the chirping birds as well as the silence more clearly. We stopped at the edge of a natural water body and for the next fifteen minutes we spotted everything from drongos, egrets, kingfishers to cormorants, barbets and babblers.

I realised that I may have to be satisfied with an unadventurous Tadoba experience when the naturalist said that we should be on our way. But we had a surprise waiting for us...

When we wanted to resume our journey after spending about 25 minutes at the edge of the water body, our jeep refused to start! Moreover, we were parked in such a way that giving it any push meant the jeep would fall straight into the lake! Our driver tried to turn the engine on a few times, all in vain! Here we were, rueing our lack of adventure when we were stranded next to a watering hole in the thick of a jungle! The phone had no network and was nothing more than a camera. Most interestingly, our collective desires of spotting a tiger were now turning into our collective prayers for no predator turning up! Walking was out of question, so the only thing to be done was to wait for another jeep and offload ourselves into it.

It was only after 45 trying minutes, that a jeep whose guests were interested in birding came our way. But alas, it was packed to its fullest capacity and there was no way we could switch vehicles. But, they promised that they would stop at a check point and have an empty vehicle sent to us at the earliest. After another fifteen minutes of waiting, a jeep showed up and all four of us, the driver, the naturalist and the two of us travellers climbed into it and made our way back to civilization!

I’m not sure whether we were unlucky to have not spotted a tiger or luckier to have not encountered one!