People and Places
I lie back on my lumpy bed to rest and escape the heat. Outside my room I can hear a cockerel, the humming of a generator, the chirping of birds and frogs. Someone is playing the sitar and children are singing and shouting in the distance. Close by, engines are revving and horns are honking. I raise my head to look out of the window, but my view is blocked by a huge mango tree and I have to get up. A bottlebrush shrub tickles my face as I lean out. Dozens of scooters are parked outside the garage pumps opposite. It must be petrol day. A young girl dressed in pink organza sits alone on a nearby doorstep as men pass by, spitting into the road. No one smiles.
My daughter and I are in New Delhi, India. We have come here to the National Parks of Rajasthan, Uttar and Madya Pradesh to find the tigers she has wanted to see all her life. It is also an excuse for me to revisit this country, which so horrified me ten years ago that I swore I would never return. Then, I was shocked by the desperation of the countless people who grabbed my arms and legs to plead for money, and who would say anything – true or false - in order to earn a few rupees. Now, I am a more experienced traveller, and have seen the effects of disease and poverty elsewhere. Our route will take us from New Delhi to the National Parks of Ranthambhore, Keoladeo Ghana, Bandhavgarh and Kanha, as well as Fatepur Sikri, Agra, and Khajuraho temples.
I watch a bus clatter past, its roof laden with belongings wrapped in string bundles. Hopeless faces gaze out of each tiny window, as if patience has long ago replaced emotion, as if all hope for the future has gone, and each day offers only survival, not life. The bus belches black smoke, the gears wrench and crunch, the wheels spin up thick soil dust. Men and boys lie on top of cardboard boxes tied with string on the roof and a ‘no smoging’ sign is sellotaped onto the driver’s door, where no one but he can see it.
Feeling hot and languid, I shamble to the bathroom, where a sign next to the toilet warns against squatting on top of the pedestal. In the humidity, condensation shimmers on the window and drips onto the rotting, swollen wooden frame below. Spider webs tremble with droplets. In the daytime sunlight a daddy-long-legs has been caught and crisped in the mesh fibres of the curtains. I struggle to open these faded scraps of cotton, tugging them along their bare wires.
The train journey from Delhi to Ranthambhore took longer than anticipated, so we have missed our first tiger safari. The train was comfortable, if slow. We watched families with small children who behaved impeccably, young couples gazing into each other’s loving eyes, and one or two careworn businessmen. It was all very civilised, especially when compared to the chaos of ten years ago, when fourteen people squashed into a compartment designed for six. As we pulled out of the city, the countryside was barren. We passed villages where sari-clad women carried baskets of local produce on their heads, accompanied by their barefoot offspring and scrapping dogs.
We arrived late at Ranthambhore and had time to kill. We spent an hour or so lazing in the garden of our lodge and getting to know each other, before a supper of lentils, chicken curry and flat naan bread. I wondered why so many people seem to be covered in bright paint, and was told that we arrived during the festival of holi -presumably where we get our word holiday- during which everyone joins in throwing coloured water and powder at each other, giggling.
Lentana trees heavy with white rhododendron-like blossom are host to gnarled, trailing orchid roots. Women carrying baskets of rocks weave between bamboo stands. It is the third day of our tour. We rose for breakfast at five and are now seated in a jeep - four of us plus driver and guide - roaring our way towards the National Park. We drive around for two and a half hours, go back to our lodge for lunch and a rest, then set off again until dusk. Plenty of optimism, but no sign of a tiger. I begin to doubt that we will see one: we had been warned that sightings are rare here. We pretend to be cheerful, glad of the opportunity to see some gorgeous kingfishers, peacocks and egrets, and try to remain positive, despite our disappointment.
The pattern is pretty much the same for the next two days, although we do enjoy a rare sighting of a jungle wild cat. Our attention is then diverted temporarily from tigers by the plethora of birds in Keoladeo Ghana Park, where we gaze open-mouthed at herons, giant storks, owls and woodpeckers galore. We are moving on towards two lesser-known National Parks where we are told we will definitely see tigers.
After a full day’s drive in larger jeeps we arrive at Bandhavgarh National Park, where a band greets us, and we are given flower garlands and juice to drink in welcome. On our first game drive the guide signals for silence. We hold our breath and wait, every sense tingling, for thirty minutes. No one dares move a muscle. In the stillness, I hear the growl of distant thunder. The air is heavy, the only sounds are the chirping of large green berber birds, flies buzzing, and the jeep driver’s erupting burps. It is perfectly calm. Suddenly our guide points into the bushes. ‘Sleeping tigress,’ he whispers. We all draw in our breath. It is only a glimpse and she is too well camouflaged to photograph, but we know our luck has changed.
The next few days are packed with anticipation and excitement as we observe another tiger, then another - a total of ten sightings from our jeep. I am stunned by the size of one young male at Kanha Park in Madhya Pradesh. His leg span is the length of the jeep track, so that when he stands still, his front legs are on one side of the track and his back legs on the other. He moves with supreme confidence: there is no other animal to challenge him, he knows he is king. Our telephoto lenses fill with close-ups of tiger faces and mesmerising bright eyes, and we hold our breath as they swagger across our track, often less than two metres away. Every muscle is visible. On another day we watch a young male attempt to catch a porcupine, his staring face curious and innocent, like a playful kitten. I feel privileged to be here on his territory.
Amidst Silk Cotton and orange and red Flame of the Forest trees we spy a jackal creeping across an open stretch of land. I breathe in the scent of thyme mingled with citrus, musk, mango, and our guide’s sweat. We mount elephants and sway into the jungle for closer tiger sightings, and we gape at multi-coloured rollers and racket-tailed drongo birds among lilac gravellia trees. I drop my lens cap; the elephant picks it up from the forest floor with his trunk and hands it back to me.
Two weeks later we boarded the overnight train back to Delhi. On the platform our guide’s family came to meet him for a brief thirty minutes before he started another two week tour cycle.
Our tour also included a visit to the sandstone city of Fatepur Sikri - which Akbar the Great had to abandon after only fifteen years due to a lack of water. Then it was on to Agra for the Taj Mahal and Red Fort, and to the erotic temples at Khajuraho, where you can buy clothes in a shop called Bum Chums after gazing at the really rude antics of the characters carved on the temple walls.
It was the tigers we came for, but the Taj Mahal was exquisite, delicate, and somehow vulnerable. It was built by Shah Jahan for the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, his adored wife, who died in 1631 after bearing him fourteen children. The love that went into its construction endures: it is breathtaking, inspiring, and humbling, and I struggled to move away.
There was one last surprise for me. I had not realised that our itinerary would take us to the sight of Ghandi’s cremation. I stood at the simple monument, alone for a while, and prayed for humility. We drove away through the streets of New Delhi and were amazed to hear parakeets singing above the noise and chaos. My second visit to India not only erased the negativity of my first, it brought me closer to god.
The Adventure Company Tour Wildlife Safari can be booked online at www.adventurecompany.co.uk