“You will have to give Rs 100 tip, no bill.” I thought it ridiculous to be overcharged for a safari — that, too, in a remote outpost of Telangana where there were no other tourists. But, at the age of 24, I had never been to a wildlife sanctuary and was eager for the experience.
Stumbling upon the safari was completely fortuitous. I was looking for a place to stay in the heavily forested Adilabad district in northern Telangana. At Jannaram, I saw Haritha, the government-run chain of hotels. As I entered, I was gobsmacked to find two gleaming pickups. They seemed more at home in a Texan town than rural Telangana and piqued my curiosity.
And that is how I met the naturalist who demanded a tip before service, perhaps because I had waylaid his siesta plans on a pleasant afternoon. I tried to make polite conversation, but he even refused to tell me his name, possibly afraid that I would rat on his penchant for tip-seeking. We bundled off in the back of the pickup. A short drive later, we came across a barricade, which the guide pushed aside to enter the reserve.
A profusion of spindly teak trees and the occasional bamboo grove set against the diffused afternoon light lent the landscape a dreamy golden hue. There was no path as such, but the verdure wasn’t dense, so we managed to snake through. As we navigated a bend, I heard a rustling and noticed some movement in a thicket. Engine switched off and breath baited, I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of my very first wild encounter.
Within a few seconds, the creatures came out — a pair of grunting Homo sapiens! Behind them stood an ox, straining against a cartload of wood. “Thieves,” muttered the guide as he dismounted. After a furious exchange and threats of life sentences, we all got down from the car and helped push the cart.
After the brief misadventure, the guide explained that people often cut wood in the forest despite it being officially off limits. “But they are not like the smuggler Veerappan,” he said, trying to allay any fears I might have, “just village people looking for firewood.” Well, it was not quite the sighting I had been hoping for, but meeting wood smugglers in a sanctuary was still a first.
After an hour of fruitless driving, the guide became edgy and began reassuring me. I asked him about what animals inhabited the forest, only to be met with a rant about how all the tourists wanted to see were tigers. Which they never did here, he added as an afterthought. Interestingly, the Kawal Tiger Reserve is largely tigerless. Every now and then, the big cat strays into the reserve from forests in Maharashtra, prompting calls for conservation of the habitat. While the wildlife sanctuary was established in 1972, it was declared a tiger reserve only in 2012. There are adivasi villages in its core zone and the anthropogenic pressure on biodiversity is significant.
If not tigers, then bears, perhaps? “No guarantee,” he grunted. I tried to placate him saying I wasn’t demanding a sighting, just inquiring if they were there, but he was in quite a foul mood by then. Suddenly, I felt a tingling sensation creep across my face. I was about to shriek until I realised that the feeling was familiar — we must have driven through a spider web. I brushed off the tatters, only to see that we were about to barge into another web. It was more than a metre wide and harboured a palm-sized wood spider in the centre. “Stop, stop,” I yelled and jumped down to take photos. A male spider, a fraction of the female’s size and often her food, cautiously lurked on the fringes.
On seeing my impromptu photoshoot go on for 10 minutes, he remarked, “Oh, you want to look at spiders, too. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” And that is how he regained his composure. After this newfound knowledge, he kept stopping every few metres to point out yet another wood spider, when he didn’t heedlessly drive through their webs, that is.
The spider spree was interrupted by the sighting of a woman carrying a headload of wood as huge as her. He began yelling in Telugu at the perplexed lady, who seemed ready to fling her bundle and dart away. After a relentless invective, he let her go. “I told her you were a sahib from Delhi and were taking photos of people stealing from the forest. She was very scared,” he boasted in Hindi. This was prime Maoist territory — certainly not the best place to emphasise my Delhi “sahibness”. And the last thing I wanted to do was explain to insurgents why I was on a joyride through the forest in a fancy car, yelling at people en route.
As the sun slid behind the hills on the horizon, we began heading out of the sanctuary. And then, suddenly, as if preparing for a finale, fate presented yet another spotting: an adolescent girl and boy sitting hand in hand by a stream. Hollering ensued and after he shooed them away, I asked for a translation. “They said they were doing ‘timepass’. Who does timepass in the forest!” he moralised. For someone who made a living out of spotting mammals, he certainly wasn’t happy about the multiple homo sapiens sightings!
Syed is a Delhi-based writer. This article appeared in print with the headline ‘The Spotless Safari’