I have to confess, last week’s column was not what you would call a ‘planned’ effort. Instead, it was a love-child born off a happy union between my memories and my musings. But before I meandered into that much ado about apparently nothing piece, I had tales of trysts in the dark to share… So before this introduction assumes life and makes this week’s word count all its own, let me cut to the chase and spill the beans before they climb into stalks like Jack’s.
This week’s tale spans three enigmatic encounters, two continents and one decade.
The time: August, 2004. The place: Masai Mara, Kenya
It had been a long day of stunning adventures. The open topped Toyota tourist van had taken us at the break of a nippy dawn, all stiff and bleary eyed from The Fig Tree Camp resort, or some such name, and within minutes of driving through the dewy golden savannah, we were in the midst of a lion hunt. Three lionesses had just felled a zebra. The victim’s left hind leg was still drawing circles that grew smaller and smaller until it ended in a long slow twitch when we pulled up right next to the lionesses. Their flanks were still heaving from the exertions of the chase. Then they tore into the zebra’s stomach and blood, warm and wet, trickled onto the grassland and stained it red. Cameras clicked and whirred. One of the lionesses looked up at us and glowered. The driver thought it prudent not to test her patience and though we hadn’t had our fill yet, the van rolled along towards the horizon.
We had barely caught our breath and turned a curve when the trail ran straight into the midst of an ocean of black, white and mahogany. For as far as the eye could see, there were zebras and wildebeest, thousands and thousands of them stretching from one horizon to the other. Cameras snapped and zoomed while tails flicked and the mega herd moved. Giraffes, elephants, hippos and cheetahs, we saw them all that day. Few of us had digital cameras those days and as the horizon turned crimson and a dark shade of inky blue, most of us exposed the last few frames on the roll as we tried to confine the magnificence of the African sunset in our view finder.
Right then our driver, Thomas, an intelligent Englih-speaking Kikuyu, spied a Land Cruiser with Discovery Channel stickers on it by the river. He knew these cars are never too far from where the action is and followed.
There on the bank of the river, rose an acacia tree. And on a branch overlooking the Mara river, lay the languorous form of a leopard. The last rays of the setting sun had set the sky aflame and I just had to take that picture. I took out my little point-and-shoot and composed the frame. The moment I was about to press the shutter-trigger, my fingers froze, for emerging from the shadows on that branch was another leopard, silhouetted against the burning sky. It was a frame that would have sold a thousand copies but alas, either I was too mesmerized to press the button or I had exhausted the last frame. That picture never made it out of the camera though to this day it is etched in my mind’s eye, as vivid as if it happened today.
The time: A hot summer night in 2007; The place: an estate on the outskirts of Sariska, Rajasthan
Taal Vriksh is a tiny hamlet outside the precincts of the park, surrounded by scrub forests. In the dead of night, the village looked deserted. Not a soul stirred. Some distance away, a lone fire was burning inside a small temple. At the gates of Singhji’s farm, large dogs bayed at the gates, as we waited inside the car for someone to come to our rescue. A burly individual with a handlebar moustache, in a voice to match the squeaky bell on that handlebar asked of us what we wanted. He told us that for the price of a chicken, he could show us a leopard and for the price of a goat he had shown television crews sightings long enough to film a sequence.
But there was a glitch. Singhji was going to bait the leopard with a live animal and the idea of sacrificing a life for a moment’s pleasure didn’t seem right. More significantly, the idea of baiting wild animals, even for tourists, has been condemned by experts because it modifies wild behaviour and threatens the animal’s survival in the long run. But the thought of seeing as magnificent and elusive an animal like the leopard mere metres from us was too tempting to pass up. So Singhji brought a doomed broiler out from its coop, and with his dogs and a guard for company, walked toward a clearing at the edge of the forest and tied it with a string to a bush. Then he walked back and turned on a powerful hand held search-light. The forest was quite and in the glare of the light, the chicken fluttered and clucked. Suddenly, a Sambhar barked a warning and then as we held our breath, a soundless spotted blur streaked into the field of light, plucked the poor bird, and in a whirl of feathers and muffled cries, disappeared. The camera in my hand, the beat of my heart and the breath I had begun to take, all lay frozen. In that breathless moment was encapsulated one of my greatest wildlife experiences. (For the complete story and its tragic end, refer to TSI, issue dated 01/07/2007)
The time: 1911hrs, April 07, 2012; the place: Matiana, 50 kms from Simla
It had been the drive of a lifetime. I was heading back to Simla from Shoja via the spectacular Jalori Pass, still embroidered with snow. The day’s drive over narrow slippery trails, overlooking steep but spectacular gorges carved out by the Sutlej’s quest for the sea, encountered some of the most spectacular landscape I had ever seen. The 170 odd kilometers to Simla had taken the better part of a day and it was dusk by the time I reached the orchard town of Matiana.
NH-22 was fairly busy at this hour and I must’ve been a little tired when I first saw the creature saunter across the road . The bright beams of the car’s head-lights caught the tawny low slung shape at a fair distance, but it took me a while to realise that this obviously feline shape couldn’t belong to a large dog. As I moved in closer, the creature disappeared behind the guardrail at the edge of the highway but I could see the tip of its tail flicking.
Was it…? Could it be..? But it was impossible! Here on a busy highway, mere metres away from a bustling town, could I possibly be staring at one end of a large leopard? As if to put my doubts to rest, the tail disappeared into the ravine, and then moments later, a head emerged and stared right into my eyes. Impossible but true, in the middle of a busy highway and a short leisurely walk from the town market, here I was, staring into the eyes of a surprisingly large wild male leopard, who was standing inches away from the bonnet of my car.
I reached for my camera, and the spell broke. The leopard crossed the road onto the other side and skirted the hill even as trucks and cars drove past, oblivious to the presence of the big cat. Then the leopard crossed the road again and made for the ravine while I took a U-turn in an attempt to follow the leopard and take a picture. I knew another glimpse was too much to ask for while I waited at the edge of the ravine. My wait must not have lasted five minutes when that large spotted head appeared again, right next to my window, as if to tease and bait, and then, even before I could focus on the beast, he was gone like he had never been there.
Though at the time I was very worried about the fate of the leopard and the fate of those it might chance upon, I later learnt that leopards are fairly common in Matiana’s orchards. Humans have rarely been attacked, but leopards would visit the village in the dead of night and carry away a hapless dog or goat.
What’s the point of all this rambling? Well, the shikaris of yore would tell you that the leopard is the most elusive of all the jungle’s denizens. It is a phantom, a ghost that walks. And to be blessed with three intimate sightings has been a rare privilege indeed. Yet on each occasion, this exhilaration has been tempered with regret. For on each of these three occasions, I failed to take a picture - a photograph, to help me relive and recount the adventures of that day.
So was I better off for it? Had the absence of a camera helped me absorb and internalise the ‘cerebral snapshot’, as Paul Theroux would call it, far better than if I had concentrated on taking a good picture? Or did I lose out on the opportunity of taking the photograph of a lifetime. Can these words really cut through space and time and help you experience that moment better or would a half-decent photograph have done a far better job of telling a good story ?
Next week, I will try and put this debate, and with that, either my camera or my laptop to rest, at least for a while…