“Eye of the Tiger” playing on loop, binoculars hung around my neck, camera battery fully charged, black T-shirt on camouflage pants and loads of sunblock. My gear was definitely on point but the tiger was nowhere to be seen.
A week ago, I was packing for a wildlife safari. I’d always wanted to go on a game drive, but this was a safari that did not include camping in the forest, long, rugged road trips or even the classic game-drive favourite, campfire nights. Instead, I had decided to spend seven nights aboard the luxury train The Deccan Odyssey on an itinerary called ‘The Wild Trail’ which would take me through Aurangabad to visit the magnificent Ajanta and Ellora caves along with some wine tasting in Nashik. Most importantly, it also involved passing through the Pench and Tadoba national parks to hopefully spot the majestic Bengal tiger.
Minutes before I set foot on the red carpet leading to the train at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST), I was greeted by men and women in traditional clothes, who performed the lezim dance on the platform. A dance, a garland, a selfie and a welcome drink later, I was settling down in the train. My twin-bed, air-conditioned cabin was decorated in shades of amber and the en suite bathroom came with toiletries, soft towels, bathroom slippers and a bathrobe. The large window beside the bed had blinds that could be rolled up to gaze at the starlit night. And when I got bored of counting the stars in the sky, I could watch TV in my cabin, preloaded with music and movies.
We disembarked each day, travelled to a new destination and returned by afternoon to experience the ritzy services of the train. After spending the first few days discovering different places in Aurangabad, I woke up before dawn on the fourth day and dressed in my safari gear, disembarked for a game drive to Pench National Park, a 758-square-kilometre forest of teak and white kulu trees (also known as bhutiya or ghost tree) and inhabited by diverse wildlife. It is not surprising to learn that Rudyard Kipling found inspiration in Pench while writing The Jungle Book.
During the game drive, my guide pointed out four-horned antelopes or chousingha, langur and a number of different birds. The sun was blazing, the trees were somewhat bare and not a rain cloud was in sight—the perfect conditions for tigers to come out and look for watering holes, making sightings much easier. But in spite of meandering through the dry forest for over two hours, we had not caught a glimpse of the big cat. Just as I was losing hope of a sighting, my guide’s phone rang. Soon we were speeding through the forest to reach the location the tiger had been spotted at.
On our way there, I imagined the tiger walking through the thick bush, its striped fur gleaming in the sunlight, staring intensely at a deer just before leaping in for the kill—an image I had built up thanks to movies and wildlife documentaries. In reality, the first sight to greet us was a herd of jeeps full of people eagerly bobbing their heads and with camera phones in their hands. News clearly travels fast in the jungle and we had to make our way through the maze to find a good viewing position.
‘Look, there is the tiger!’ whispered my guide as he pointed towards muddy road. Excitement filled my heart as I craned my neck to get a good glimpse. The tiger walked with the careless nonchalance of a royal, unperturbed by all the people and cameras. It scratched the bark of a tree and occasionally scent-marked its territory.
We trailed the tiger for nearly fifteen minutes before heading back. By mid-afternoon, all the passengers were back on the train for a delectable Maharashtrian lunch and exchanging notes on what we had each seen. An elderly couple from England, visiting India for the first time, had not been as lucky as me and regretted not being in my vehicle. Spotting a tiger in the wild, even with the large audience at hand, was a moment of absolute awe for me. Even better was the fact that I was about to get a chance at spotting a tiger again the next day.
Each cabin on the train has a valet to cater to early morning caffeine cravings. Mine knew I was interested in wildlife and told me the next morning that in Tadoba, the question is not whether you had seen a tiger during the safari, but rather how many had you seen. His confidence had my hopes soaring high, just like the morning sun, as another game drive drew closer.
The day started on a hopeful note as we almost immediately saw pug marks in the red soil of the forest. Telling us that a tiger was likely nearby, our guide instructed the driver to go past some thick grassland. A few detours later, he pointed to what I assumed was a long bark of wood in the distance. My untrained eyes failed to recognize the tail of a tigress. But before I could even adjust my camera lens for a better click, the tigress had moved away. I was still yearning to see a tiger, but there were no more to be spotted.
We trundled through the forest and spotted a hefty black gaur grazing and a herd of sambar deer crossing the road. We gazed at the hypnotic blue plumage on the common kingfisher, took photographs of a family of grey langurs soaking up the sun, and gawked at a dancing peacock. That’s the thing about being in the wild—big cat or not, there are so many things to amaze you. You just need a little patience—and a lot of sun block.
After all the wildlife spotting and bumpy forest rides, I decided to treat my aching body to a massage in the train’s spa. The massage-in-motion began a soothing winding down of my train adventure. Later that evening, just like at an African sundowner, I was seated in the dining car, sipping wine while watching the walnut-coloured countryside of Maharashtra pass by. As the sky turned inky, I sifted through my memories of the past week. The train, my journey and the wildlife of Maharashtra did not disappoint, and neither did the stars that night.
The Deccan Odyssey offers six itineraries highlighting different routes and regions in India: Jewels of the Deccan, Maharashtra Splendor, Indian Odyssey, Maharashtra Wild Trail, Indian Sojourn and Hidden Treasures of Gujarat.
The Maharashtra Wild Trail is a 7 night/8 day tour that begins from Mumbai and stops at Aurangabad, Pench (Ramtek), Tadoba, Ajanta and Nashik before returning to Mumbai (www.thedeccanodyssey.com).