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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A taxi or two in Bombay (or Mumbai if you must), January 2015

Well, another visit to Bombay is over and done with for the next year. The taxi drivers are quite something, creating an impression whether good or bad. 

A proposed overnight trip on arrival morphed into just a few hours (thanks to an 18 hour flight delay) at the hotel to save spending quite as long waiting at the airport. Went with someone I had met on the flight who had missed his onward connection the previous day so had booked a replacement domestic flight about the same time as mine. 

A prepaid taxi from outside the international arrivals hall, fairly unmemorable, probably more down to tiredness on my part than the journey or the driving. Used the Sealink for 55 rupees, noticed the early morning power walkers along Worli sea face, then spent a few hours at the Four Seasons Hotel, leaving bags in room, sitting by the pool still in travelling clothes, followed by breakfast. 

The hotel called us a meter taxi back to the airport. I think it cost about 340 rupees back to the domestic airport plus the Sealink toll charge. The driver was quite a character and asked if we had heard of The Guardian newspaper, pulling from behind the sun visor a copy of an article from the Guardian Online edition from November 2014 in which he had been interviewed about his life as a Bombay cabby. He spoke quite good English, was a happy chatty soul who was doing his best to offer us trips to all the sights in Bombay notwithstanding we were on our way to catch flights elsewhere. I read the article later and it seemed that he was quite probably the chap in the article, even if he looked older in real life than the 28 years he was said to be in the article. The Guardian is quite famous for copy mistakes! 

Then, 2 weeks later, I was back in Bombay at the domestic airport. The prepaid counter just inside the arrivals hall had a paper bag stuck on the wall with the manuscript legend ‘Lady taxi drivers available’. I have previously used Viira Cabs, a fleet of female drivers, but had got no reply to an email request a few weeks earlier. I asked whether I could book a lady driver to be told that they had not bothered to turn up that day! I paid my money for the taxi to Worli and asked whether there was a seatbelt: cue loads of laughter from the drivers and other hangers on out at the rank. I decided to sit in the front as there was a working passenger seatbelt there. Put my wheelie bag on the back seat. Just as we were about to leave, someone dressed in a security guard uniform who I assumed was security on the taxi rank jumped into the back seat, either hugging or guarding my suitcase throughout. He took off his uniform shirt during the journey so I was not sure whether he had quit life as a taxi rank security operative or whether he just blags a cab home at the end of each of his shifts and changes into mufti en route.

Another taxi soon after arrival to Colaba Causeway. An interesting journey as the traffic was quite busy as everyone was probably heading off to work. Got out at the petrol station just beyond Theobroma Patisserie for the grand sum of 148 rupees on the meter.

After shopping, I was quite impressed to find a choice of meter taxis close to the Taj Hotel, just by Bombay Electric. Perhaps I just look less like a green behind the ears tourist in Bombay than on previous trips. Last year, we were just unable to get a meter taxi in this area. Of course, the driver could not find the hotel  as we approached Worli and I noticed that we had shot right past it and were heading towards the Sealink. I think the situation was remedied by what seemed like a highly illegal u-turn. About 165 rupees on the meter, probably because of the slightly extended route back.

And an evening trip to the Phoenix High Street Mall, the meter cab called by the hotel. Not far at all. 21 rupees on the meter. Possibly the cheapest taxi journey in the city. I upped the fare myself as I was impressed that he had take such a short journey on a meter. No such luck on the way back – the cowboys outside all wanted 200 rupees back to my hotel. I nipped back through the mall and picked up a cab in front of the Palladium Hotel (in fact, their lovely doorman even called it for me), no meter but the doorman agreed 50 rupees with the driver.

And the journey back to the airport was very jolly indeed. The doormen at my hotel put my bags inside the car, showed me that the meter was switched on and started at zero. A youngish driver, said he was Bombay born, married one year, baby due in February, showed me a picture of his wife on his smartphone, said he loved her, phoning her and saying over and over again ‘I love you’,  saying in a mix of English and Hindi that he was driving the madam to the airport and that she was going to London. He asked me if he could get a job as a driver in London. He also said he was going to work in Dubai in the construction industry. When we arrived at the BA drop off area at the international airport, I noticed the meter had been switched off. He played dumb and said it was not working and must have broken on the way. I asked how much and he said I should pay whatever I wanted. I think that the previous meter journey from The Four Seasons to the domestic airport had been about 340-ish rupees on the meter so I said I would pay 350 plus 50 tip. I had a 500 rupee note. He had no change. I said I would get change and a family on their way back to Switzerland kindly changed the 500 rupee note and Mr Switch Off The Meter looked a bit miffed that I had actually managed to get some change! I am not sure who the winner was overall in this one – I expect I got fleeced rather than the other way around. 

Now back in the land of the working taxi meter, the land of the seat belts, the land of the cold .