This is Kipling’s Jungle.
Books increase our ability to connect. They make us laugh and cry, they help us to empathise with a destination and its people. In this case the jungle. When we connect, we can experience emotionally, which is a source of fulfilment.
I am on a safari at Pench National Park, in Central India, right in the geographical centre of the country. Pench is a forest of deciduous trees, mainly teak. It is home to tigers, leopards, wild dogs, jackals, deer and peacocks. It is very appealing to naturalists because it is practically unknown to tourists. There is an opportunity for more intimate encounters, especially with the tiger. I meet with Allwyn, a naturalist and my guide. We leave my tented camp near Jamtara, on the northern skirts of the park. Together, we enter the jungle.
The Jungle Book has enjoyed success for over a century because, like the fables of Aesop and many other stories about animals, it offers a proxy for our instincts and moral insights. Yet the power of Kipling’s narrative lies also in his descriptions of the jungle, that make it come to life in our imagination, and feel like you are in it: “The air was full of all the night noises that, taken together, make one big silence…” he writes.
We spend a couple of hours driving through the forest, looking for tracks and alarm sounds. We have one goal: the Grand Prize of all Indian safaris: the tiger.
We drive and drive and find nothing but birds, monkeys, peacocks and deer. They are all wonderful but they are not what I came here for.
Three hours have passed. I am restless, fearful of missing out. However, I also become aware that my anxiety might be making me not notice things that are worthy of attention in their own right. I look at my digital notecard system and under the keyword “Nature” I find Herman Hesse, saying:
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
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To see by feeling, that is what I want. The true naturalist looks at nature without thinking of it as a proposition. A true observer is not looking for meaning, because he would then run the risk of assigning it, as I do.
True observation is problematic for checklist-safaris. If the whole point is to get the highest number of sightings then is the experience worthless if an animal refuses to appear?
Recently, I have been working on my meditation skills. In this park, rather than on my breath, I try to shift my focus on the trees: teak, ficus, ghost tree, crocodile bark tree, ebony, flame of the forest, banyan tree.
On this clear and quiet day, as we drive through the jungle, I am aware of the insects suckling sap from the trees.
We check waterholes after waterholes. Finally, Allwyn, who has stoically stopped at the slightest noise or sign in the sands, stands up and, scouting the horizon, announces:
"There is a predator on the move"
The monkeys and the sambar have revealed its presence: the predator is here. It must be resting but it needs water, it will come out.
“You just need to be patient,” says Allwyn.
We waited for over an hour but nothing happened. Allwyn keeps scanning the horizon dutifully. As much as I try to remain patient and still, noticing each time my mind goes wandering, I am losing grasp of my meditative powers. I take out my phone and answer an email from a client.
How sad to be here and be on the phone!
The urge to keep my mind busy is too strong. My iBook collection is tempting, so I start reading a book by Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner. He writes, among many other things, about the western perception of India. He points out that we have a selective fascination with India’s mysticism and religion, rooted in the anxiety of the vacuum left behind by our own secularism. I think the same could be said about nature: we see it not for what it is but as an analgesic for the claustrophobia of the cities.
The park closes at lunchtime, so we make our way back to the camp after 6 hours of absent tigers. I am left with Mowgli, Baloo the old brown bear, and Bagheera, the black panther. They are avatars for the zoology of the imagination. The zoo of my mind is enriched by the beautiful tiger illustrations made by the Gond artists of Central India. They live close to the forest, in tiger country. Their art draws from folk tales that portray the tiger a great beast of mythic and iconic status.
Yet, I must confess it is very important for me to see a real tiger, to escape the generational amnesia that leads us to believe that bears wear pyjamas, that eagles belong in state seals and that tweets make a sound only on social media.
On our way back to the camp we go through villages that I thought were sacrificed to the modernisation of India, to fast development and IT entrepreneurship. Nothing much has changed in the quiet pastoral landscape: the water buffalo is pivotal in the household, the lady of the house brooms the patio first thing in the morning, the farmer sleeps at night on a skybed to scare animals away from his crop with drums and screams. The Mahiua fruit still yields a lovely scent and its liquor helps pass slow evenings… with Bollywood movies. The only change is that rice is no longer cultivated because of soil exhaustion and has been replaced with maize.
Next day, we left the camp before dawn.
She appeared 60 meters away, for no more than a couple of seconds. Her orange coat, patterned with broad, black stripes, like a burning fire among the high, yellow grass. She was walking towards the rising sun, and disappeared again.
I didn’t have time to reach for the camera, nor did I try. I looked, mesmerised, and then she was gone, back to the heart of the jungle.
I am glad I saw her like this, for a short glimpse, through a small clearing in the wild grass. This way, the Tiger retains all her mystery, and mystery is where the interesting experiences happen: some things are best viewed with eyes half-closed.
In a zoo, I could get a much closer look but she would not be she. Her wildness would be taken away and that changes everything. This deprivation can also happen in the wild: the voyeuristic experiences with hundreds of fast shutters making her an object without grandeur. In both experiences, we strip down the existence of the wild.
I am glad I saw her like this, minding her business, not an over-habituated showpiece, snoozing oblivious to the presence of man.
This tigress and I had just a feeble point of contact, a fleeting moment which is nevertheless a connection between the zoology of my imagination and the real zoology. She disappeared but she remains present, after all, we are both here roaming this jungle. I am present too.
That glimpse was enough.
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In the past few days, not seeing a tiger felt like such a disappointment. I tried to make sense of it but could not untangle my thoughts. Until I realised that the mistake I made was wanting to see the tiger. Now I know that the right attitude is to connect with the wild, where the presence of the tiger is a doorway for that communion. In the right state of mind, the tweeting of the birds, the trampling of baboons, and even the tiny insects on the trees might have sufficed, if instead of seeing, I was looking to feel.
This approach is particularly important for wildlife experiences in India, where observing is difficult and sightings are not a given thing. This is a stark contrast to the behavioural observation that African safaris afford.
Dear visitor to these old Maharajas’ hunting grounds, read Kipling’s Jungle Book, shadow your guide as he attentively listens to the signs of the wild… Don’t just wait to be shown the spots! Ask the guide what he’s doing, where he’s going, why, what is he trying to do, how to read the clues, how to search the jungle, how to read nature’s book.
That’s how Allwyn and I spent the next couple of hours, trying to track the tigress that allowed us but a glimpse. We did not find her again, but it did not matter. We were the jungle.
Because despite all my philosophy the desire to see a tiger is strong, I advise you to visit Ranthambore or Kanha. Check that list and then come to Pench for deeper experiences.
How to get there:
Pench is remote… really remote. Your best option is to fly from Delhi to Nagpur or Raipur. That way, you can also chain your visit to Pench with Kanha National Park.
What else to do there:
Wildlife experiences in India are very different from those in Africa. In the former you can expect to see communities in close contact with nature, coexisting with the animals. Interacting with these communities is a priceless cultural experience.
How to do it better:
We at Blueflower offer experiential safaris to Pench and other National Parks in India. We have the support of Project Tiger members and connections with luxury camps located in privileged locations near the parks. You can check out our sample itineraries here.