Tiger Safari in India: The Jungle Book IRL
A gentle knock on the door and a friendly voice calling “Good morning miss Anna,” wakes me up at five in the morning. For a moment I'm confused... where am I? Then I remember, I'm in India - on tiger Safari!
“Good morning,” I yell so he can hear me through the door. Usually I would be far from chipper this early, but jet lag is working in my favor - and I'm on safari, my favorite thing in the world. I pull on the yellow, paisley robe and go to the butler's pantry where my hot masala chai has just been placed. I notice I match the teapot cozy; the same paisley print is used for all the fabrics in the beautiful “tent” we’re glamping in. I pour a cup of tea as I draw the curtains to step out onto our balcony overlooking the river. It’s still dark outside, but not for long.
I dunk an oaty biscuits into my cup as I pull on my khaki layers. Although by ten o’clock in will be nearly one hundred degrees, I can almost see my breathe in the morning. At the main lodge where our crew gathers before heading out, a beautiful spread of pre-drive breakfast options are out: warm porridge with cashews, berries, and chocolate, muffins, bananas, coffees and teas. But there’s little time for anything but a quick sip of coffee - there are tigers to find! I grab a handful of cashews and chocolate chips for the road and take my seat in the vehicle.
Our safari jeep has totally open top and sides, so the wind is always in my hair, my view is never obstructed, and every jungle sound is heard. Climbing in I have the feeling I get when I’m in line for a roller coaster. My senses are heightened and a un-crackable smile is plastered on my face. Something incredible is coming.
Game drives are thrilling, relaxing, and full of surprises. We slowly drive through the park with our naturalist and park ranger, looking for signs of the animals. I know from past safaris that sometimes it’s sheer luck - you just happen to be in the right place at right time. Other times it’s hours of following tracks, listening for warning calls from the other animals, predicting behaviors, waiting, hoping.
You know you have no idea what’s going to happen on your game drive, or what you’ll see under what circumstances. Every corner you turn, something could be there. The jungle gives no guarantees - no minimum or maximum sightings, so you are always on alert.
In the park the sun is rising over the waterhole and the nocturnal animals are out searching for the right place to rest. A we begin our search for tigers, Josh and I are telepathically gushing over the sunburnt and cracked ground, the dusty roads lined with a million, pencil-thin trees covered in small bunches of lime-colored leaves. Grey monkeys hang on branches, observing us tourists as we roam their territory. We stop to admire a group of them, and I say to our park guide, Prim, “I bet they know where they are are hiding.” He leans over the jeep to look one in the face the demands, “Where are the tigers” as I laugh.
Fresh tracks in the dirt tell us we’re on the scent, but the only animals in view are swamp deer, wild boar, and a muster of peacocks. Breakfast on safari is served outside, in a pop-up cafe that Ash creates with a cooler from the back of the car. You spend so many hours with your naturalist on safari they become a friend, and Ash has become a dear one.
Just as magical as spotting predators, is simply experiencing the harmony of the jungle. Watching the body language of the deer change as a bird begins frantically sounding its alarm and flying at a trio of jackal, tying to protect their eggs from begin lunch. A family of swamp deer sitting under a shady tree in the same vista as a peacock practicing it’s display for mating season. He puffs his chest and slowly raises and fans his tail, and then slowly rotates 360 degrees for all to see. It’s the nature equivalent to a brightly-dressed man sitting at a bar, muscles flexed and hair greased back, pick-up line on the tip of his tongue. With only an hour left on our drive, we come upon a cluster of vehicles. A tiger is resting under the shade of a tree, barely visible, but through the binoculars I can it’s striped belly, rising and falling as it breathes.
We wait, hoping she will get up and head to the waterhole for a drink. But forty minutes go by and she hasn’t moved. The park closes during the midday hours, and we have to head to the gate now. We pick up our speed as we make our way to the main gate, and suddenly Prim shouts, “Wait” and the jeep comes to a halt. “There was something back there!” We reverse and take the other side of the fork we just passed, my heart accelerates with the vehicle, and I gasp when I see him; a male tiger cub, two years old and already the size of a lion. He’s not afraid when he sees us - top of the food chain. Instead he stares us down, and slowly crosses right next to the car, so close I could reach out and touch him. As we head I flash an enormous smile at Prim and say “good spot,” safari’s highest honor.
As the vehicle turns back to camp, the whole staff is outside to welcome us with smiles, cold towels, and drinks. I take a quick bath back in our tent to wash off the dust from the drive. Then we have a few hours in between game drives which I spend enjoying the pool, napping in sun loungers, and practicing some yoga on the balcony of the room. Lunch is prepared by the in-house chef, Nim. The many components are served on a three-tier tea tray, each dish in a little bowl made entirely of leaves and held together with toothpicks. Spicy, grilled kabobs with coconut chutney, lentil salad, chilled watermelon soup, and hot, bubbly naan fresh from the tandor.
"Nim," I ask mid-meal. "Can you please open a restaurant in New York?"
The park looks different in the magic hour. The sunset captures the dust the vehicle’s kick up and cast a hazy red glow over everything. Our drive brings us another tiger. We now have bragging rights back at the lodge, where all the guests are comparing stories from their days adventures. I settle into one of the chairs set in a semi-circle around a blazing fire, and watch as a local tribe prepares to do their traditional dance.
They move hectically around the fire while they chant, each person wrapped in a shawl adorned with silver coins and sequins that catch the light and glisten as they jump. It could appear impromptu to the unknowing tourist, but each movement is purposeful and meaningful. The whole effect is mesmerizing, and when they finish the audience applauds wildly.
After the show, Parikshit, the manager, tells us to follow him. "There's a porcupine in the grass over here, I want to show you!"
We follow him, eager to see this surprise sighting! But there's no porcupine down the path he leads us. Instead, a hundred glowing lanterns cover the trees and ground, and a beautiful table for two is set up far away from the rest of the guests; a private dinner under the stars!
We wine and dine, and head back to our tent in a haze of happiness and exhaustion! Tigers, naan, our romantic surprise dinner - the day was perfect! But Taj didn't stop there. I slide open the door to find our tent filled with candles. A path of them led from the bedroom to the free-standing tub, full of flower petals and bubbles. A bottle of wine and two glasses were next to the bath.
My hubby grinned as he turned to me and said, "I guess we won't be sleeping for a while."