Ranthambore National Park. Rajasthan, India. In the heart of winter. Warm sunny days, cool starlit nights. In search of the endangered Bengal tiger. Travelling with no time frame, I was able to stay until I fulfilled a childhood dream.
Day ten arrived in a blaze of glory. The sun rising into a flame-coloured sky, lighting the bush with a shimmering rosy-gold glow. After a restful sleep I was sitting on the balcony of my old, battered bungalow sipping hot, spiced tea, immersed in the harmony of the dawn chorus. A warm breeze danced softly across my skin, whispering through the leaves on the tall trees that surrounded the house with breath that carried the memory of cardamom and cloves. Time passed with no relevance as I watched the creatures of the daytime come alive, wondering if today would be the day.
Prashad, my guide, collected me in a rusted open-top jeep that ran on a wing and a prayer rather than diesel or petrol. With excitement lighting his voice he told me he’d heard there was fresh spoor barely a couple of kilometres north of us.
We set off as the sun climbed steadily higher cutting a bright white arc across an unclouded brilliant blue sky. Baking the earth and leaching every bit of moisture from the air. Leaving us with near unquenchable thirsts. As we drove, ochre dust swirled around our heads. The scarves wound across our faces could not stop our sporadic, uncontrollable coughing.
We tracked spoor until mid-afternoon. Weaving this way and that through the bush. Returning to my bungalow with the heat at its zenith I had disappointment running through my veins. We had been close, that much we knew. So close we could smell the earthy, primal, iron-tinged scent so characteristic of big cats. But not close enough. Prashad sensed my frustration, “I will collect you again at 8pm, Madam,” he said, with that irrepressible Indian shaking of the head. “We will travel in the night. See what we see, Madam.”
How could Madam refuse? He so wanted me to realise my dream. Despite my exhaustion, I agreed. I turned indoors, walked straight into the bedroom, peeled off my sweat-soaked clothes and lay on the lumpy calico mattress that was my bed. And promptly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Only to be woken what seemed just minutes later by rapid knocking on the front door. Prashad. I had slept the afternoon and early evening away. I dressed quickly in layers of clean clothing, grabbed water and insect repellent and walked out into the night.
Back into the jeep. Cold, crisp air chasing all vestiges of sleep from me. The bush was alive with night sounds. Insects, frogs, birds. Trees rustling. We drove for fifteen minutes. After parking in a copse of trees we walked for a few minutes more deep into the moonlit darkness. Every nerve in my body was on full alert, conscious of the potential danger we were in. I looked at Prashad. I was carrying only a flashlight. He also had a rifle. Very old. I couldn’t help but wonder if it worked.
We stopped at the edge of a body of water. Too large to be a pond, to small to be a lake. Surrounded by low scrub and trees silhouetted against a sapphire-blue sky. Its surface was lightly thistled by the breeze; moonlight skipped over the ripples. Prashad led me to a small clearing at the water’s edge and motioned for me to squat.
So there we were, he and I. Together by the light of the moon in the heart of the Indian bush. In the peace that enveloped us, time slipped by without knowing. After a while the faintest of sounds came from the bushes to our right. At the edge of the water appeared a cat, glowing luminous silver. Its body quivered with awareness. Ears pricked up and feathered at the tips with long lynx-like hair; a delicately striped tail parallel to the ground. Its nose was black and wet, twitching as it scented the air. An animal totally at one with its surroundings.
Prashad slowly put his right index finger to his lips indicating the need for absolute stillness and silence. The cat, slighter and more slender than a red fox, crouched down onto its haunches, almost in the water. Into which it stared with utter intent. It slowly reached out its right foreleg and began lightly stroking the water’s surface. It did this with hypnotic rhythm. Back and forth, back and forth. With endless patience. After a moment or two I realised what it was doing. As a fisherman tickles for trout, so this cat was luring fish.
Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it dipped its paw into the water and flicked a small fish into the air. As it landed on the sandy soil the cat pounced, pinning the fish down until it stopped moving. And then, with the fish between its front paws, it began to eat. I was spellbound. Entranced by the extraordinariness of this special moment.
The cat resumed its fishing. Prashad and I watched a little longer before silently retreating to the jeep. We returned to my bungalow beneath a canopy of stars. So cold I was shivering. Although another day had ended without encountering the elusive Bengal tiger I still went to bed that night with a smile on my face, put there by my magical meeting with a cat who’d gone fishing.
To this day I still have not seen a tiger in the wild, but it matters not. We may not fulfil all our dreams in life, but, along the way the unexpected happens, chance meetings occur and in their own way they are all very special.
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© Jacqueline Le Sueur 2007
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