4th to 8th April 2021 - Mercury Rising Series, Edition-1
This was quite a nostalgic trip and an emotional one too! It had been two years since I visited RTR but then it was hosted by my dear friend, Ashish Parmar which was nothing but an incredible one! I am sure Ashish, you must be some where here in RTR or Kabini or in Tadoba, watching me drive through the roads that you drove for me in our earlier trips! The coffee sessions, Jogi-Mahal Lunch, Tea at Bakoola and the whole lot of chit-chat sessions, jokes, banters. Chief - You have gone too soon, you have left a huge void in our hearts and life. Me and Vijay Singh Meena talked about you many a time - We miss you a lot. Every time i go the places where you took me along, I am sure your spirits are right there, smiling, and as you see me struggling with something or other, you say, in your inimitable style, Magal, let me help you...; I am sure you are in a better place than we all are.
I was about to cancel this trip because of increasing number of C-19 Cases. My biggest fear was what if I get struck in Jaipur ? Quite a lot of ifs and but’s lingered in my mind. It was now or never , so had to take that final decision. After much deliberation, I hopped into Indigo with all paperwork and yes Mercury Rising Edition -March21 was on! Watching the world from the Airplane window, I felt anxious, happy and yet had this hollow feeling all through. It was an empty flight (or almost empty) and the entire 3 seats in the first row that was for myself gave me a comfort of not to have got sandwiched between fellow passengers.
4th April 2021- 5:45pm - Jaipur was buzzing as-usual and the evening sun didn’t give much respite. After multiple checks at the Airport, I got out to an amazing welcome by my good old friend, Jeetu! As we exchanged pleasantries, I was looking at the city, people in their own world - Masks or no masks, their lives continued. One thing that this city exudes is Color! The turbans, colourful clothes donned by both Men and Women, The camel cart, houses that are scattered far from one another but oozing with a distinctive pull. I decided from my next trip, I will do some candid photography besides wildlife too. Coming back, The setting sun was cruel and far across, I saw him disappear across the horizon, slowly. I was desperately wanting to take a tea-break but somehow didn’t get the courage to stop by at the usual place. After couple of hours, Jeetu, took me to a Dhaba - The tea I had was one of the best! Clean & well maintained I slept on the cot that lay outside watching the trucks with their lights on, screaming through the darkness even as the night spread too fast. It was a rolling stone feeling, careless, not a thought about tomorrow - Just watching people chit-chat on the other cots spread across, village people gathered to talk about the day’s happenings, kids looking at me curiously while my eyes were struck on the moon that was shining bright - It had been a very long time since my mind acted like a vagabond but it was cut-short when Jeetu asked me if we could move on! We entered Sawai Madhapur at around 845pm. It was a quick check-in at Ranthambore Heritage Haveli - A huge one - true to its name, it was a palace. Amazing ambience, well maintained property. There weren’t much guests - I had a quiet dinner before calling it a day.
Ram and Ram (Driver and Naturalist) greeted me at sharp 540am while I was having masala chai in the hotel lobby. A quick greeting and getting to know one another, we were on our way! It was quite cold in the morning but I knew it was just a matter of an hour before mercury would rise. My curiosity rose as we drove into the fort, the familiarity of the surroundings made me even more anxious. Mandatory check-in and we sneaked in - on our way towards Rajbagh - She wouldn’t let us go beyond - The Queen of Lakes, Arrow Head lay there, relaxing! Rather, she showed how to relax and let go off all the worries!
This is how Arrow Head Tigress welcomed me!
From there she slid into an uphill and we took a de-tour and waited for her to come out at her usual stop. And boy-she did! The entire world rose up to greet her! Early morning light was brilliant while she enthralled all her followers to a road-show! She walked with such a grace without knowing the chaos and commotion she creates, every time, she appears!
The Legend and her followers
After a while, something diverted her attention. A herd of deer made her to change her path as she jumped into the main rajbagh area, into the tall golden grasses. An eternal wait of 30 minutes, we realised she wouldn’t come out, moved towards Mallik Talao where Riddhi, Daughter of Arrow Head and apparent heir to Rajbagh was resting. She had just got off the water-hole was in quite a serious and intense mood. Not many jeeps around, while I was looking at her, her ears twirled and basis on her behaviour I thought, she was upto something. Few minutes later, she stood up again, walked right next to my jeep - I would be lying to say if my heart skipped a beat - She is beautiful, determined, fierce and deadly! She has had few confrontations with her mother and I hear, she will be the Queen of Lakes in days to come (defeating her mother); There were few deer in a distance - She looked at them before slipping into the bushes. Our wait didn’t result any action so we moved on.
The Heir apparent to Rajbagh, Riddhi (Daughter of Arrow Head Tigress)
Date with Laadli’s Cubs!
The next few days, I would have frequent audience with Laadli’s cubs. While it was disappointing I couldn’t see the mother but had good opportunities to hang around with 3 Sub-Adult cubs and few minutes of running-around with the female sub-adult cub. Both the male sub-adult cubs are absolutely beautiful while the younger one is quite timid. With temperature soaring to 38’c - it made perfect sense for them to cool off in the water hole.
Laadli's Cubs - Sub Adult Males
That evening didn’t bother me much as i missed few tigers here and there. Deep in my mind, I was worried about my return journey (because of C-19 cases being on rise along with speculation of lock-down); It was quite depressing for me since I was caught in between. However i was lucky enough to spot a very rare Egyptian Vulture at a water hole. They are hard to be seen and is considered as critically endangered. They are migratory species.
The Egyptian Vulture
The next morning I chanced upon T102 who is nursing 4 cubs. She came out (and I was extremely hopeful to get a glimpse of her cubs but it was not the case) alone, she sat for a while, quenched her thirst before lazily walking back to her den, up the hill. While I waited there for a while sipping coffee enjoying the morning hour, got to hear that Riddhi, Arrow Head’s daughter was resting near Malik Talao. It was near-by, so within the next few minutes we reached. She was resting on a bund, watching herd of deer at the other side of the waterhole.
Wanting to experiment on few compositions, I tried few tricks before heading to another zone where a surprise awaited in form of a Leopard that was resting with a spotted deer kill! This was the first time for me to have spotted and it was quite an achievement for me!
The most elusive cat in Ranthambore!
A late lunch, under the shade of a tree - Vegetable Biryani, Salad, Curd and a bottle of Butter Milk followed by my afternoon siesta. Watching two sub-adult tiger cubs sleep under the tree, I slept while my driver and naturalist kept an eye on the cats. Both brothers shouldn’t mistake me as their next meal! It was 3:00pm, a blazing afternoon, we decided to check one of the greenest & coolest places in Ranthambore forest - Bakola. News was T103 (female) & Jam (Male) were mating or in pre-mating rituals. There was just another Jeep when we reached the spot. Took few close up shots that came out well while framing few extreme close up ones that didn’t result any frames as out of the blue, the female walked into the frame and I didn’t have time to take my 70-200 Lens resulting in pathetic shots. I still swear and cry because those could have resulted in some out of the world frames! I still get up in the middle of nights, cry for a while and get back to sleep.
T103 Tigress, moving into the bushes.
The final day of stay in Ranthambore! I slept well the previous night since I got my C-19 Report (negative) that also meant I could safely get back home. We decided to head straight to Zone-6 to check on mother and 3 sub-adult cubs. The first hour was quite dry as we tried looking for famous Noor, her daughter Noorie but came out empty handed. Day-long safaris can be taxing at times - With the hot sun beating down, empty searches, pug marks, bumpy rides and long roads can at times make you feel a bit uncomfortable. I always end up in looking for photo opportunities ensuring my mind is occupied - Admiring the forest, mother nature’s so many surprises, checking on the trees for any movements, scanning the forest floor for any reptiles and if you have patience, lot of close-up portraits of Deer, Langur, Sambhar Deer and Blue-Bull are at your disposal.
A pit-stop, refuelling myself with break-fast, we discussed about our next move. We reached one of the check-post and got to know that mother and cubs were up on the fort (This is towards the end of Zone-6); By the time we went there, the family had dispersed. After scanning the area we could see the three cubs were sleeping under the shade of a huge tree while Mother was not to be seen. To me, I was literally in tears - Guess I missed them walking together by few minutes - On top of it, it was my last day. After consoling myself, I thought it is best to sip the last cup of morning coffee and contemplate our next step. After circling around we came to the same spot only to see the three tigers weren’t there! God! I yelled. It was around 1200 noon as we moved towards the gate and had to cross the fort. We stopped for a second just to feel the shade and to my surprise, one of the sub-adult male tiger walked into the fort and got into one of the verandah inside the ruins! Can you believe it? I couldn’t believe my own eyes! I took my 16-35mm for some unique compositions, got some close-ups. Just when I decided I had got some good frames, he went inside for his afternoon nap! And yes, it was time for me to head for lunch!
Luv, Laadli's Sub-Adult Cub - The Caretaker of the Ruins!
Back at the hotel, I was completely in distraught. The next morning I had to leave while opportunities were only getting better in the forest. I was literally torn apart. How I wish I could have extended my trip by few more days but life has to move on. A sumptuous lunch and a quick cat nap, I was in the jeep but somehow the last game drive was ordinary. I got few close up shots of Siddhi and in the end, closed my trip with Arrow Head. I began my trip with Arrow head and ended with her - That was something.
My Dream Shot of Tigress Arrow Head - The Trip Pack-up shot
Light dinner and packing up, it was the hardest thing to do. But good things come to an end with a reason that, I will be back at it once again. Early morning, 5:00am, even as the birds were still in their nest, sipping Tea, my mind raced to all the events that unfolded over the past few days. My car was there and the next few hours was filled with chit-chatting with Jeetu. As we were near the Airport, we both had a Kullad-Chai talking about my up-coming trip. A good hug, smiles and Jeetu left for his home while I walked towards Indigo Terminal, 8th April 2021