Tiger, tiger burning bright.
That’s how the poem starts…
My guests and I are here in Ranthambore National Park on our tiger photography tour, in North-West Indian state of Rajasthan, and this striped beauty that we are photographing is not burning bright; but rather, burning up.
It’s April, one of the driest “Warmest” months in the Rajasthan calendar, and consequently, the streams and rivers here have all run dry. The lakes have shrunk, the springs have been reduced to trickles, and the natural water holes have all but vanished.
Its the best time of year to go on a tiger safari tour to see and photograph these big cats because most of the trees here are now leafless, and what little water remains in the park, by necessity, attracts all sorts of wildlife. After all, everyone needs to drink!
And it is here, next to the few remaining pools, that Rathambore’s tigers lie in wait.
Arrow Head, as she is known (because of the pattern of stripes on her face) is lying beneath the scant shade of a bush, panting hard and flicking her tail idly at flies. She is beautiful, as are all tigers, her eyes piercing, her coat a patterned sheen of orange and black. She is royalty in these parts, and she knows it. She ignores the equally beautiful peacocks who squawk at her from the crown of a leafless tree. She refuses to acknowledge the constant barks and shouts from the spotted chital deer and regal looking sambar who are staring and chastising her from what they have deemed a respectably safe distance. She even ignores the loud and rambunctious chatter from the photo safari jeep drivers, and the revving engines as they compete to get their vehicles and clients into an optimum viewing position.
We don’t need to worry though. We drove to this waterhole in the very early hours, whilst the other tiger safari jeeps went about the roads like scurrying ants in a fruitless attempt to catch a tiger on the move. We staked our claim in the very best spot, and as predicted, the tiger came to us.
After all, we all need to drink. Even Royalty!
But Royalty does have standards, and the brown muddy water in the pool is not up to this tiger’s exacting requirements.
A multitude of birds, less fussy than she, fly in and out of the margins, sipping at the life-giving water, too small or agile to be of interest to the panting cat. She is however thirsty. She’s also very hot. She really needs to cool down. But she is royalty, and royalty will only accept the best.
And the best is yet to come.
Above the sound of monkey alarm calls, bird songs and Indian photo safari jeep drivers shouting at each other to make space. The low rumble of an approaching tractor can be heard.
Arrow Head perks up at this. She peers down the forested jeep track intently, and expectantly as the lumbering vehicle arrives and positions itself next to her pond. It’s pulling a big water tank, and before long, the driver has clambered out of his seat and has draped a large hose pipe into the pool. Its daily service provided by the Indian national parks to help the area ‘s wildlife make it through the driest of months.
The tiger could pounce if she so chose, but she knows this tractor, she knows this man, and she knows what’s good for her. He turns a spigot, and cool, clear fresh liquid gushes into the pond, displacing the old muddy water. It takes five minutes to fill the royal drinking pool, and as soon as the tractor departs, the tiger emerges from beneath her shrub and takes a long, long draft of sweet, sweet water.
Deer and monkeys look on, no doubt dry of mouths and lustful for the taste of cool fresh water. They dare not approach though. To do so would be folly.
Once the tigress has quenched her thirst, she gingerly backs into the pool. It is time for the royal bath. There are no rose petals afloat on the surface, and there are no scented candles for regal ambiance. But there are Peacocks, their iridescent fan tales adding a spark of grandeur to the scene. She stays there for a while, submerged up to her neck, and one can almost see her smile at the glorious cooling and cleansing effect of her ablutions.
And then it’s time for her to leave. A royal tour of her kingdom is in order. After all, one must show face to the peasantry lest they get the idea to revolt. The peasantry, in this case deer, monkeys, antelope and pheasants, scatter at her magnificence, calling her name in alarm. There are also usurpers to keep at bay, after all, Ranthambore is home to many, many tigers, all of whom seek to extend their territories. We follow her for a while in our jeep, joining the other vehicles who jostle and joust for a premium viewing of her highness. And then she vanishes into the forests and towering cliffs, like a shadow into the night.
The other vehicles race off in the hopes of an additional glimpse or two. But we elect to stay behind at the pool. Peace descends upon the area. The jeeps and their noisy drivers are gone, and the other animals of the forests have calmed their shouts of alarm, and instead turn their attention to the water. They come and go in droves to quench their thirst. The elegant spotted chital deer, the elk like sambar deer, the scruffy urchin like wild boar and the bulky cow like nilgai antelope.
They drink, nervously, for who knows where a tiger may be hiding. The scent of Arrow Head is no doubt still present in the water and on the dusty soil. They gulp and they slurp and then they themselves melt back into the forests to find shade and respite from the glare of the rising sun.
It’s also time for us to melt away, lest we melt like candles as the mid morning sun is rising ever hotter into the cloudless sky above. We too require shade and cool liquids and so we drive away and exit the park through the main gate and return to the comfort of our air-conditioned hotel room, the blue waters of our swimming pool and the life-giving liquids from the hotel bar.
Just another day on our tiger photography tour!