It was about 40 minutes until we needed to be outside of the park gates on an otherwise comparably unsuccessful game drive. This was last game drive of my two week trip and despite earlier that day having seen a flying squirrel in ‘mid-air’ and a jungle cat (which is a very rare sighting), it was coming to the end of my trip and I was secretly hoping (as we all do) for a big finale send off. I didn’t ask for too much, just a private re-enactment of the battle at Kruger starring a greedy crocodile and a determined tiger would have sufficed perfectly well.
The actual margin for error was just five minutes. Had we arrived five minutes earlier we would have been greeted with the sight of this leopard unhurriedly crossing the path directly in front of us, I would have been bowled over by my good fortune, you’d be looking at a different image and reading an entirely different blog post.
We spent the remaining 40 minutes of our game drive reversing and jockeying with another jeep to get the best very view of this reclining leopard. Only with binoculars could you see its spotted belly inflating and deflating. During the 40 minutes, it barely moved another muscle.
In reality, we were five minutes late for the main show and caught this seemingly disappointing encore. However, for me this is one of my favourite pictures because it sums up the exciting gamble of the national park experience. Just again, this is the image we are discussing:
If you want to guarantee a sighting of a big cat, simply buy a ticket and head to your nearest zoo. If you want to experience something special - go to India and find out which parks are hot for sightings right now. All you can reasonably do is put yourself in the right place, at the right time to give yourself the best possible chance of seeing these majestic big cats in action.
I had 7 game drives in my entire trip and each one stands out for a different reason: my first tiger sighting, my first elephant safari, the incredible thunderstorm that erupted during my penultimate drive in Kanha; they all brought something different to the table.
Nothing is ever guaranteed, it’s all a lottery. “Buy as many tickets as you can and prepare for failure,” advised my naturalist, “and everything else will be a bonus”. Very few tourists, if answering honestly, head to Kanha solely to photograph a mongoose, a wild boar or a skittish jungle fowl. I have nothing against these animals and apologies for sounding ill-educated and for getting bogged down in nomenclature, but you can sex-it-up all you want by adding the word ‘jungle’ to the front, it’s still to the untrained eye (i.e. mine)...just a chicken. People are here primarily for the big cats. That’s why the permits come at a premium and why fantastic naturalists are employed by the top lodges.
Nothing gets the adrenaline going as much as when your naturalist cups his hand to his ear, briefly confers with the driver in Hindi and then turns to you and says in no uncertain terms - “please hold on tight”. You know instantly that he’s detected an alarm call within the incessant jungle noise and is honing in on what may make your journey truly exceptional. This is something the certainty of a zoo fails to compete with.
One needs to arrive in India armed with patience, a sense of adventure and an acceptance of the chance of failure. The naturalists do appear to have superhuman hearing and vision, but they can only do their best and make your experience as good as possible. To stack the deck in your favour I suggest spend an extra day of game drives at either Bandhavgarh or Kanha which have recently been particularly good for sightings.
On my trip I also saw tiger, a king cobra, barking deer, swamp deer, sambhur, spotted deer, a myriad of birds, and gaur to name a few. I wish I could pass this photo off as my own, but that’s just how it goes sometimes - even NWS staff don’t get all the breaks.