Incredible India

 
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The memories stretch as far back as I can remember. The tales my grandfather told about the extraordinary country of his birth. A land he deeply loved and unequivocally missed. Knowing my penchant to travel he often told me that a person had not experienced much until he had experienced India. I asked him many times what he missed the most about India, to which he would simply reply, “The colorfulness, my boy, the colorfulness.” Even though my roots stem from Africa, they were cast from this great country to the east. See, the truth is, I was raised as both a South African as well as an Indian, and my upbringing was a glorious calabash of these two beautiful cultures. 

Over the years, I grew up feeling extremely connected to both cultures, and both of these equally charismatic societies formed the fundamentals of my upbringing and shaped my values as a person. I was not alone in this, historically South Africa and India have always had very close ties, and one of the largest Indian populations outside of India is in fact in South Africa. Even India’s most famous son, Mahatma Gandhi spent his formidable years as a young Indian attorney fighting for human rights in South Africa, where he ultimately developed the foundations of his belief in satyagraha (passive resistance). As Nelson Mandela once famously claimed, “India gave us Gandhi, we gave them the Mahatma”.  So maybe it was more than just my love for wildlife that drew me to this astonishing country, maybe this visit was many years in the making, maybe being a South African boy of Indian decent this was destiny, maybe India was just part of who I was and I was simply returning … for the first time. 

He watched me from beyond the blades of grass that veiled his presence. I saw him only because he allowed me this moment, a moment to peer through the key hole and get a glimpse into his secretive life. This young prince, with a legacy that could be traced back centuries was now coming into his own, ready to seize the mantle of his ancestors. The day would soon come when these jungles would no longer simply be his playground, they would become his hunting grounds, his territory, his kingdom. Like those before him, he will grow to be one of this jungle’s great rulers, royal, regal, a symbol that defines the beauty of this planet. For now, though, in this moment, he remained veiled, an enigma beyond the grasses, a mere mention between the shadows, a faint whisper in the leaves.

He watched me from beyond the blades of grass that veiled his presence. I saw him only because he allowed me this moment, a moment to peer through the key hole and get a glimpse into his secretive life. This young prince, with a legacy that could be traced back centuries was now coming into his own, ready to seize the mantle of his ancestors. The day would soon come when these jungles would no longer simply be his playground, they would become his hunting grounds, his territory, his kingdom. Like those before him, he will grow to be one of this jungle’s great rulers, royal, regal, a symbol that defines the beauty of this planet. For now, though, in this moment, he remained veiled, an enigma beyond the grasses, a mere mention between the shadows, a faint whisper in the leaves.

I don’t know why it had taken me this long to journey to India, perhaps it’s because most of my travels have been dictated by my love for wildlife in places I called home and exploring the wild spaces of Africa and North America. Perhaps I just got busy with life and kept putting this incredible adventure on the back burner. Maybe India beckoned now because I was at a crossroads as an adventurer and wildlife photographer. Or perhaps, as I would like to believe, the universe was just waiting for the right time, a time when it knew I would embrace every part of this incredible land and let into my heart. 

The anticipation had been building since the day I booked my ticket to India, and the butterflies had taken control of my entire body as I boarded my flight to Delhi. It was finally happening, after all the dreaming, then planning, then waiting…. I was finally embarking on my adventure to explore wild India. Now I have to admit that intertwined with the feelings of exuberance and excitement, were the inevitable nerves that go hand in hand with the unknown, because that’s what India was to me, the familiar unknown.

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I landed in Delhi at about 9am on the 14thof March. This was just a connecting leg of my trip with a layover of about 5 hours, which gave me enough time to purchase a sim card, grab a meal, get freshened up and basically familiarize myself with the layout of the airport. I encourage you to always give yourself enough time between connections when you are booking flights, this is especially important when you are flying through a foreign airport that you are not familiar with. It may suck to sit around the airport for a few hours, but what sucks more is missing a flight because you didn’t allow yourself enough time for the usual airport formalities like security, getting from one terminal to another or even delayed flights.

After spending what felt like an eternity at Indira Gandhi International Airport (I blame my exploding excitement for the time dragging) I finally boarded my flight to a small regional airport in the town of Jabalpur. From Jabalpur it was still another three-hour drive to Kanha National Park, which would be my home for the next few days.

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I arrived in Jabalpur at roughly 8 pm, much later than anticipated (I had a delayed flight to thank for this), tired but still full of excitement. I now began the final part of my journey by road to Kanha. My car ride took me though some of the smaller villages and towns that lay on the outskirts of Jabalpur. I have to admit, as I passed through the incredibly busy streets which were a buzz with activity, I could instantly feel the charm of India start to wash over me. For those of you that have never been to India, let me assure you that a car ride spanning the country side proves to be an adventure unto itself. Once you become acclimated to the organized chaos that is a road trip in India, you begin to appreciate it for what it is, and that is an amalgamated mass of people, cars, motorbikes and animals all making it work in an incredible chaotic symphony of life, sharing the road, sharing each other’s space… sans any road rage. Which makes you really wonder if we, living in “first world”, “developed” countries have gotten it wrong after all. 

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It’s just a little before midnight as I arrive at my accommodation located just outside of the legendary Kanha National Park. To my surprise and delight the staff are waiting for me and have even held dinner for me (the service and welcoming nature of the people in India is something that would even put the standards of Disney to shame). After checking in and a quick bite (the cross-country labyrinth of a car ride and the late hour assured that my system was not going to survive a full meal) I head to bed. The adrenaline and excitement had finally succumbed to exhaustion, and I fell asleep the instant my head hit the pillow. I had to be ready for an early 4 am start the next day, and I wanted to be sure I got as much rest out of the few hours of sleep that remained.

Madhya Pradesh and its incredible jungles were Rudyard Kipling’s muse when he penned the iconic tale known the world over as “The Jungle Book”. It was here, where Kipling himself was introduced to Bhalu, Bagheera, Mowgli and of course Sher Khan. The Jungle Book itself may very well have been a fable but its premise is not that hard to fathom once you realize just how many countless villages are within the embrace of these unfenced, truly wild jungles. It’s easy to see how a little man cub could spend his days sauntering through these sublime wildernesses that he himself called home.

As the morning breeze makes its way through the jungle, and composes a delicate symphony of a million leaves, playing in unison, signaling the dawn of a new day, she awakens. Then almost as if on cue, a peacock’s distant falsetto can be heard echoing through the trees. It grabs her attention, the jungle is part of her, she feels it’s every sound, every call, every movement. The morning chorus of sounds are all too familiar to her, perhaps because they signal the dawn of each new day, or perhaps it’s simply because each dawn these sounds pay homage to her. After all, she is of the bloodline that has ruled these vast jungles for generations, she is its beauty but also its fear, she is its symbol yet also its greatest enigma. As she basks in the warmth of the morning sun, covered in a flawless veil of stripes, she looks to the jungle, acknowledging it as it pays homage to her… for she belongs to this vast land as it belongs to her.

As the morning breeze makes its way through the jungle, and composes a delicate symphony of a million leaves, playing in unison, signaling the dawn of a new day, she awakens. Then almost as if on cue, a peacock’s distant falsetto can be heard echoing through the trees. It grabs her attention, the jungle is part of her, she feels it’s every sound, every call, every movement. The morning chorus of sounds are all too familiar to her, perhaps because they signal the dawn of each new day, or perhaps it’s simply because each dawn these sounds pay homage to her. After all, she is of the bloodline that has ruled these vast jungles for generations, she is its beauty but also its fear, she is its symbol yet also its greatest enigma. As she basks in the warmth of the morning sun, covered in a flawless veil of stripes, she looks to the jungle, acknowledging it as it pays homage to her… for she belongs to this vast land as it belongs to her.

I am up long before my wake-up call, and even though I have only had a few hours of sleep, it was more than enough to replenish my adrenaline reserves. It was a day I had planned out in my mind for many years, I was about to embark on my first adventure into the jungles of wild India. I do a final check of all the gear I would need for the day, and head out to the reception area to wait for my guide/driver. Wahid, a local from the area picks me up in his gypsy (a small 4x4 safari vehicle) and we head out to the gates of the reserve. When we arrive, it’s roughly about 5am, and although the gates only open at 6am there are already a couple of gypsies waiting with other photographers. Wahid explained to me that we had arrived in good time, considering that we were the third vehicle and that the line will get much longer before the gates open. He asks for my passport and heads to the front office to register my permit for the day. 

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Safaris in India are structured much differently compared to those in Africa. Unlike in Africa, in India you do not stay on the reserve, you have to get accommodation at one of the few lodging options that are located beyond the entrance of the park. All safari vehicles and tracking services are operated by the people living in the villages that border the parks. This provides a vital source of income to these villages who (who already have a deep wealth of knowledge about the park and its inhabitants) now value these jungles as an important source of livelihood and thus work very hard to ensure that these reserves prosper (I wonder how much other parks and reserves around the work would prosper should they adopt this model.). Another important thing to note is that each reserve in India is divided into specific zones. When you apply for your permits to go on safari and traverse any of these reserves, you are granted a permit for a specific zone, and you are only allowed to explore your permitted zone, regardless of what sightings are happening elsewhere. This is a great system, because it puts lets pressure on the tigers and other wildlife who call these jungles home. Your safari itself is divided into two time slots, 6am-11am and 3pm-6:30pm. This “two session” structure is quite similar to what you experience in Africa, except here you have to leave the park after your morning safari and must return to the gate and register in time for your afternoon safari (for each safari you will be assigned a different tracker). Now even though this system seemed archaic at first, after just a few safaris it started to make perfect sense. Again, maybe India has figured something out that the rest of the world has yet to grasp.

Not long after we got our permits, Wahid’s words rang true, and there were a line of cars behind us, and the once peaceful gate was now abuzz with activity. There were photographers, tourists, trackers, guides and drivers… oh and a crowd of eager hawkers selling everything from sugar cane water to renting binoculars. I loved it all, because to me this scene of hustle and bustle at the entrance of a jungle proved to me once again, just how important our iconic species like tigers were. This proved that they were worth far more alive and deserved our protection, not just for them but for us. 

Wahid hops into the gypsy, looks back at me and simply states, “It’s time.” It sure was…

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Beyond all the photographs, beyond seeing certain animals, its these moments, these little brief moments of anticipation and euphoria that make any adventure worth all the gold and silver in the world.

As the dappled light of the sunrise filtered through the incredible Sal forests that Kanha is famous for, is was easy to see why this was Kipling’s muse. I was truly mesmerized, these incredible landscapes where some of the most beautiful scenes I had ever witnessed, proving to me once again that our planet was just so incredibly beautiful, and we do ourselves a great disservice by not making it our life’s goal to explore every corner of it. A cornerstone of our species is the desire to explore, we must do everything we can to nurture this.

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After about an hour in the forest we got news of a tiger that had been spotted nearby, so we decided to head in that direction to see what our fortunes would bring us. Upon arriving to the area, we noticed that there were already three other vehicles searching the same location. When you contemplate the sheer size of these jungles and consider the fact that you are searching for an elusive, and not to mention endangered predator, the magnitude of the task dawns upon you. This would be no easy feat. There would be countless of hours spent searching, tracking, waiting for alarm calls, and of course the invaluable cooperation of other trackers. We were all there for the same reason, to witness one of nature’s greatest beings living wild and free in its incredible home. So, success for another vehicle could potentially lead to our own success, therefore information is eagerly spread between guides and trackers.

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There was no sign of her and after about thirty minutes a number of vehicles left the area to continue searching other parts of the zone. This was something familiar to me, people getting impatient and leaving an area if a sighting doesn’t happen within the first few minutes, I had experienced this in many of the wildernesses I have explored. We decided to stay put, you see, patience is a virtue, and more often than not it pays off. So, we settled in and patiently waited.

TIGER! TIGER! My tracker excitedly calls out in his loudest whisper! 

I couldn’t believe my ears, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There she was, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Like the enigma that she was, she appeared out of nowhere, silently, just like the dappled light that sublimely illuminated the forest. I took a minute, just to be part of this moment before I considered picking up my camera. This was a boyhood dream realized, and before I captured an image of it, I wanted to feel it, I wanted to pay homage to this incredible being who was allowing me the privilege of sharing a moment with her. I was awestruck… I was once more lost in natures incredible embrace. She spent a few minutes with us before disappearing back into the forest, into the shadows that veiled her before, leaving no trace… an enigma as always. This moment would live with me forever. 

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Filled with what can only be described as a feeling of sheer bliss, we made our way back to the park gate to make sure we met the 11am deadline. Park rules are very strictly enforced in India, which is a great thing. 

We got back to the lodge in time to freshen up and sit down for lunch, which was indescribable to say the least. I could actually write an entire blog just on the cuisine I was able to indulge in during this adventure.

Our afternoon safari was just as incredible; this very same Sal forest that just a few hours ago was illuminated with the sublime tones of the beautiful dawn, was now showered in a spectacular gold that stemmed from the evenings warm light that draped this wonderous place. Completely contrasting, yet completely flawless. My first day in the wilds of this incredible country had completely entranced me. 

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A monumental task! Going back to what I said earlier, and that when you spend time in these incredible jungles the magnitude of finding a tiger quickly dawns on you. My next few days in this incredible wilderness tested my resolve. Simply because we were hitting a dead end and these incredible creatures were proving more elusive than even I had anticipated. A glimpse here, a murmur there, but not a true sighting. I think what made it hard to bear is that we had a few missed opportunities, and no one was to blame for this, sometimes in nature the cards just don’t fall the way you want them to. Maybe these jungles were teaching me a valuable lesson, one that I so often preach myself, and that is to embrace the moments between sightings, to be part of the moment and let nature embrace you completely and not to be so single minded. During my time in Kanha, I witnessed many incredible things, and experienced scenes that I had only ever dreamt off. This was a special place, and it wasn’t just because of the tigers.

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After 4 incredible days in Kanha, we packed our bags and grabbed a quick lunch and began the journey to our next destination, Pench National Park. The three-hour car drive to Pench was another incredible opportunity to take in the marvelous sights of this astounding country. India is just such a melting pot of life; it takes you out of your comfort zone but in a very good way. It honestly makes you a better traveler, and better version of yourself.

We arrived in Pench just in time for our afternoon safari, and even though we had a trying few days in Kanha, our new destination opened up new possibilities and thus renewed our spirits. 

We were no more than thirty minutes into our first drive before we got news of a tiger sighting nearby. Judging by the number of cars parked in the area, it was clear that we were in the right place. 

Even though just a few hours from Kanha, the landscapes of Pench seemed a world away from the ever-green Sal forests that I had become accustomed to over the last few days. This was just another testament to the incredible diversity of the fauna and flora that India boasts. 

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The scene was perfect, a sandy river bed, hidden in a small opening in the forest, and there she sat, enjoying the relief of a huge overhanging tree that clung to the last remnants of an eroding river bank. Her every move stirred gasps’ in the eager crowd that had gathered to see her. Just this scene alone proved the power that these magnificent cats commanded and the awe that they evoked. Her name was Baras and she had us on the edge of a string, in this moment, nothing else mattered to anyone in the crowed, we were there for her, to be part of this moment in her life. The next hour was unforgettable. We spent every minute of it with her, and in that time Baras gave us an incredible look into her secretive life, as she left the riverbed and gently basked in the golden light of the late afternoon sun, making her way through the forest she ruled. I don’t know if I could ever truly describe this moment, the moment when a tiger called Baras walked toward me, but I do know that it’s in these moments, these moments of pure magic, in sharing the company of beings far greater than yourself that you discover feelings that are indescribable, and you quickly realize that these feelings are the embers that you so desperately need to set your soul on fire. You come to the realization that creatures like Baras add a beauty and wonder to this world in a way we never could.  

It was incredible to see how many villagers lived in such close proximity to these incredible wildernesses, sharing the land with the many creatures who also used the bounty of these fertile lands to sustain themselves. This was coexistence at its most visceral core. The people who lived on the fringes of these jungles knew this land better than anyone else, these jungles were part of who they were. Seeing the relationship that these people held ever so dear with these wild spaces and the animals who were in fact their neighbors, humbled me. They were living proof that preserving wild areas like these could provide a sustainable long-term income for countless people. India was teaching me first hand, that preserving our planets great wildernesses was in essence the preservation of our own humanity.

Tracking these incredible cats in Pench proved to be just as hard, but as fortune would have it, we were treated to some incredible sightings of a number of tigers in this sublime wilderness. Some of our encounters were brief, while others were simply intimate, but they were all spellbinding nonetheless. I owe any good fortune to the hard work of my guides and trackers, for if it were not for them, all I would have would be memories of tracks in the dust and silhouettes in the shadows.

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My time in Pench was definitely too short and seemed to fly by in the blink of an eye. I definitely plan to spend more time in this incredible reserve when I return to India after the monsoons.

I have to say, as if to bid me au revoir, India seemed to save something special for the last. 

During my final morning in Pench, not only did we share an incredible moment with two sub adult tigers but were also fortunate enough to have an incredible sighting of one of the elusive leopards that rule the canopies of Pench. Even in these last few moments, this incredible place was leaving me spellbound. 

India simply stole my heart, and I find it hard to believe that any amount of time is enough to truly experience all that this country has to offer. Everything about India was simply beautiful, including its incredible people. They welcomed me like I was a son simply returning home. They showed me what it truly meant to “pay it forward”. At a time when humanity has seemed to have lost its way, these people gave me hope. They were a shining example of what it truly meant to be human, to me, they were a beacon, a guiding light for us all. These people were the best of us, and it is because of them I became a better me.

I sat there at the departure terminal, taking in the bittersweet moment that is commonplace at the end of any adventure, but this time it was different, I was different. My time in India was simply incredible, it was an adventure in every sense, it took me out of my comfort zone on many occasions and transported me to someplace better each time.  This incredible country with its beautiful people and awe-inspiring wildlife completely captivates you, it charms you and leaves you with a feeling that can only be described euphoric. See, India is just such a surreal place, it completely transforms you, it makes you a better traveler, it makes you a better person. I came to India in search of its famous tigers, but I found so much more. I found my adventure but more importantly, I found a part of myself that I didn’t realize was missing.  

Finally, after all these years I understood what my grandfather meant, “colorfulness” indeed.

I went to India in search of the Royal Bengal Tiger, but returned finding so much more… most of all I found another piece to the puzzle of my soul. I found it in the moments shared with a tiger whose beauty brought me to tears, I found it with the people who embraced me like a son returning home, I found it in the cries of the peacock that haunt the jungle and the alarm calls that payed homage to the Royal ones as they made their way through forest… I found it in Incredible India

I went to India in search of the Royal Bengal Tiger, but returned finding so much more… most of all I found another piece to the puzzle of my soul. I found it in the moments shared with a tiger whose beauty brought me to tears, I found it with the people who embraced me like a son returning home, I found it in the cries of the peacock that haunt the jungle and the alarm calls that payed homage to the Royal ones as they made their way through forest… I found it in Incredible India


















 
Faizel Ismail