Bagging a tiger (Or, with apologies to Michael Rosen, We’re Going On A Tiger Hunt)

Well, no one expected it to be easy. These big cats are just about as rare as hens’ teeth, even if recently published statistics show a very slight increase in their numbers throughout India.

It is probably not the best time of year for tiger spotting, nor quite the best place either, and the thought of a week or two’s sunshine and lazing on a Goan beach helps push the tiger mission towards the recesses of my mind. I can imagine one of those tigers rather enjoying a bit of sun basking too, perhaps not on my beach though. But the time comes to leave the beach and head out to the boonies and to keep our eyes pealed.

Driving through the Western Ghats is exciting, a mix of countryside and forest, a lot of anticipation. I am ready to shoot at any point – you don’t want to miss the opportunity. Our driver says that there are big cats in these forests, that people he knows (or knows of, more likely) have seen them. I think we are getting a tall tale. If they are inside the forest today, they are staying there firmly and avoiding straying onto the roadside. The only wildlife that we see from the car is a rabbit and I am not going to bother shooting it. To be fair, there are a few troops of monkeys along the roadside, probably trying to look cute in the hope of being thrown a few treat bananas from a passing vehicle. Otherwise we see only domesticated animals, goats, dogs, and oxen. Where are those tigers? I know they are there. Come on, just pop your head through and make yourself known so I can shoot you quickly. We give up. Well, at least until tomorrow.

Tomorrow becomes today and we are all over Hampi, driving to every corner of the temple complex, shooting away, but keeping a serious lookout for one of these big cats. Surely there must be one here? We spend all day driving and looking and, finally, in a split second, approaching sunset, I see one, not even in hiding. In the car park no less. I get a great shot.

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Having come to India to see a tiger, it seems unlikely that there will be more. But, never one to give up too easily, we watch the road on the way back  like hawks. Nothing gets past us. But no big cats. After about 4 hours, we decide to stop for a drink and, blow me down, if the little roadside café doesn’t have exactly what we had been looking for, right by the counter, guarding the Fanta. Lean and mean, staring right at me. This really is too good to be true. Another shot.

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And so, it is off to Bombay, two tigers bagged in the space of a few days. This is really a high water mark and I do not expect any more sightings, especially in the city. An early afternoon taxi safari from The Taj Mahal Palace to The Four Seasons is a bit of adventure, jolting along in stop start traffic. Unexpectedly, a big cat. There, right in the city, looking out from the parcel shelf of a car, the driver quite possibly unaware of its presence and any danger posed. A tiger in a traffic jam. I manage to shoot it from the backseat of my safari vehicle. .

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Exhausted and overcome by the sight of three big cats, three more than I was really expecting if truth be told, I know that there can be no more. I decide to shoot other things with the Nikon instead. I think that city bus destination signs will make for an interesting set of photos, but cannot get out there and shoot these (twisted ankle, feels like it has been caught in a gin trap, turns out to be fractured) but I do get a totally unexpected bonus sighting, a tiger on the windscreen of a school van, parked just outside the hotel. A final shot.

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And then, gin and tonic in hand, the fascinating news that the tiger population in India is really on the increase, up about 30% in the last three years. Way to go. But possibly why I have seen quite so many.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/20/india-tiger-population-increases-endangered-species

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The road to Hampi

We begin in pitch black at 4am or 5am. The first shock in the land of no-time-for-health-and-safety is seeing a parade of people walking along the small back lanes just beyond Patnem, Goa, carrying torches and sticks. Apparently, people carry these when walking to work very early in the morning, but do not at other times use a torch in the dark. The stick, I was told, is to beat off attacking dogs.
Onto the highway, not exactly the biggest road in the world but the biggest road in the far south of Goa, soon crossing the border into the neighbouring state of Karnataka. The smell of salt hits us, quite refreshing and astringent, as we reach Karwar Port, still pitch black and quite nippy. I mistakenly think that the air conditioning is on, but the driver’s open window is providing the chill air. Uphill, the ghats appearing in silhouette as the black sky lightens slightly, becoming pink, then apricot, then lemon, with ethereal mists and dramatic ghat formations appearing almost from out of nowhere. We say it looks like New Zealand, not that either of us has been there. Daylight breaks gently as we hit flat land again, pure countryside that feels much more like India than Goa does. Overladen trucks, buses, scooters, bicycles, ox carts, wildly decorated tractors pulling trailers packed with people. Monkeys, pigs, dogs, rabbits, goats, bison and oxen. Endless forest and amazing trees lining the road. Churches, temples and mosques. Morning roadside ablutions, mainly people standing outside their very small village houses brushing their teeth, well away from any obvious water source.
Approaching Hubli, where the driver says we’ll stop for breakfast. Not a mammoth city by Indian standards, it feels huge compared to the rural areas we have just driven through and even boasts a couple of traffic roundabouts in the centre. Tuk tuks everywhere, railway and bus stations, a small airport, quite the metropolis in the middle of nowhere. There is even a traffic jam approaching the railway level crossing in town. We stop adjacent to a bus and all the passengers are waving to us, grinning away. A few optimistic hitchhikers try their luck at thumbing a lift too.
We never do stop for breakfast there, something about the particular restaurant being closed. Back in open country, quite different as the landscape changes, we drive past sugar cane fields, cotton fields, chillie fields and picked red chillies being sun dried, sunflowers past their sunny yellow best. Vast endless plains. We decide that this landscape is just like the southern states of the USA, not that we have been there either. As we continue through small villages, we see kids in smart school uniforms waiting for school buses or school tuk tuks, ox carts, dried up rivers, fields full of laundry drying flat on the ground. We try, unsuccessfully, to count the number of adults crammed into a tuk tuk – some in the front with the driver, at least three inside and two more sticking out of the back. And, then, in a small town called Gadag, a huge towering modern Buddha statue, quite incongruous with the area.
Against the rural landscape, scarecrows in saris, pairs of oxen, horns painted pink or blue, wearing ploughing yokes and being driven along the road, suddenly the surreal sight of modernity in the form of turbine wind farms everywhere, harnessing energy from the air. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Then back to rural village landscapes again. Stopping in a small town, we buy some coconuts for about 20 rupees each, goat herds being driven along the main road as we drink coconut water, our lives seeming about a million miles away from the people of this small town, almost as if from different planets, even though we are standing physically only feet away.
And, slowly, it becomes less rural until we hit a proper town and stop to buy fruit from a roadside fruit shop. Industrial quantities of bananas and of oranges for a ridiculously cheap price. Breakfast, eventually.
And then a wide toll road, taking us the final distance towards the cultural excesses of Hampi. About 7.5 hours of fascinating road journey before we think about the treasures still in store.

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