TADOBA ANDHARI TIGER RESERVE, India — This was my fifth hour of riding in an open jeep along the rugged paths cut through the jungle in search of tigers.
By now, the early-morning chill had long faded. My long-sleeved T-shirt stuck to my back as a blistering sun pounded. I shoved aside my scratchy wool blanket and tugged at the stiff camouflage-print kerchief across my mouth and nose, tied bank-robber style. It was intended to filter out the dust, but the red powder still managed to find its way into every crevice. The jeep jolted along the cratered road, and my back ached.
I was tired. I was hungry. And I hadn’t seen a single of the many dozens of tigers that roam the park — or much of anything else.
Not exactly what I had expected on my journey to rural, central India. Our group of 14 had set out from the rustic Irai Safari Retreat before dawn in several jeeps. It was now past 11 a.m., and I was ready to give up. But the guide ignored my whining. Onward! he insisted.
As we rumbled through a cloud of red dust from the wake of another jeep, I kept coming back to one nagging question: Is an Indian safari worth the trouble?
I had traveled to the Serengeti and Botswana, and this experience was proving to be nothing like that. There, safari was through open grasslands that delivered a plenitude of clear sightings. In India’s jungles, it was much more a Where’s Waldo/Tiger/Leopard/Anything Interesting experience, if one was even that lucky. Often, hours were spent seeing absolutely nothing more exciting than spotted deer, which are basically as common as crows at India’s various reserves. Guides know that, because they barely slow down. One was furious that I wanted to linger over a troop of monkeys playing in the trees. “You’ll miss the tigers,” he chided. It was big game or nothing.
On this morning, it was the latter. The guide conceded, finally, that the trek was not going to produce any felines. Back at the lodge, I scarfed down lunch and contemplated whether to try again during the scheduled late-afternoon sojourn. My husband and son opted for R&R. I’m more of an if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed type. I had to try again.
It was even hotter — and still dusty and bumpy. But the walkie-talkie crackled. Even though I didn’t know the local language, I knew something was up. We approached a bevy of other jeeps and edged our way to the front.
“Leopard,” the guide said. I scanned the tan grass and picked out the spots of a solitary big cat craning its neck. The guide pointed to the right, and my gaze shifted. A carcass of white bones, mostly picked clean, was on the ground. The smell of meat turning rancid hung in the air. It looked like the remains of one of those spotted deer.
After a while, the leopard ambled over to a stone wall, part of the remnants of a dwelling once inhabited by the tribal people who lived there. When the land became a national park, they were relocated. The leopard stretched out, and the jeeps — now a mob scene — closed in. It was noisy, more carnival than the library-quiet I was used to on safari. I was surprised the leopard wasn’t spooked. But perhaps it was used to the fanfare.
Despite the commotion, I would have been happy to watch this beauty hang out. But our guide was eager to get on our way. Tigers awaited.
Or so I thought. Over the next couple of days, no luck. The only tigers our group saw were three clay ones on the lodge grounds. My family and I did see an impressive buck in shallow waters. And a crocodile. Others in our group, including my husband, came upon a sloth bear inching its way along the roadside. That sounded very cool. There were birds caught in glimpses as the jeep paused (kind of) on the search for tigers. But mostly, all of us drove around with trees for company.
On the last safari, the jeep I was in raced through the jungle. Of course, it was hot, dusty and bumpy. After a couple of hours, we headed for a lake. Dozens of jeeps had already staked out the spot, as though we were at an outdoor movie lot waiting for the flick to start.
Word had it that some of those who had arrived an hour earlier had seen a tigress and cubs emerge from the long grass on the far bank of the lake. We waited. And waited.
A peacock pecked at the ground. Some theorized that given the peacock’s calm demeanor, it was unlikely any tigers still lurked.
And then, when hope was slim, a tiger mom appeared, walked a few paces, and settled on the bank. Most of the jeeps erupted in shouts and wild gesticulations. Mom rolled around in the grass. After several more minutes, an adolescent joined her. The tiger nuzzled with mom for a while and then retreated to the grasses.
After four days and too many hours to count, I saw Tadoba’s famed tiger. I was awed. Once again, I considered that question: Is an Indian safari worth it?
The answer, it turned out, was sometimes.
Sometimes, you see a sated leopard lounging on an old stone wall. Sometimes, you see a sloth bear slowly making its way.
And sometimes, if you’re very lucky and very patient, you see a tiger or two.
Email at Lkadaba@gmail.com. Follow @exinkygal