A cloud veiled the harsh sun and a breeze abducted the gentle heat radiating from the earth. Watched on by the swaying trees, fallen leaves rallied around drifting in the slow wind. No rain hung in the dry air; just a low-pitched swoosh of the wandering zephyr.
It was spring elsewhere in India but midsummer in Nagarahole.
Led by Bheemaiah, a senior naturalist at the Kabini River Lodge, we sauntered down the Sunkadakatte Road towards Bisilavadi Lake, as wide strips of charred ground flanked the narrow vehicle track as black guidelines towards the wondrous yonder.
By any standards, Bheemaiah is an expressive man. With immense enthusiasm for Kabini’s wildlife and of a fearsome-but-likeable temperament, he can seldom suppress his emotions.
So it wasn’t a surprise that I read a note of restlessness on his mind as we drove slowly on, admiring deer and boar. It seemed that he had tuned in to an intuitive broadcast about a location where some little carnivore action may unfold. Perhaps the travelling wind whispered a rumour or two to him on its tortuous path.
Before long he told Prakash, the naturalist-driver, to take the road to KV Tank, which I had heard was the haunt of a big and bold male leopard. Reaching the watchtower near the waterhole, I was still scanning the treetops for Bheemaiah’s portent to come true, when we saw a vehicle parked on the Balle Road, with its occupants staring intently at a common spot.
Taking the cue, Prakash killed the engine, and gravity took us gently rolling downhill on the undulating forest track, with the aged leaf blades of the vehicle creaking noisily through the heavy hush.
A leopard sat in the trackside clearing, glaring passively at our slowing jalopy.
Swallowing my jumping heart back to its place, I took a couple of mandatory pictures and sat down to admire him with a pair of binoculars. Then, anticipating the leopard’s intention to cross the vehicle track ahead and go on his customary route, Bheemaiah positioned us a few yards further downhill, where we waited in silence.
A few minutes later, the leopard rose, and walked straight towards us, dramatically framed by two trees:
Drawing abreast of one of the trees, he stood a moment touching us with his gleaming peach eyes.
Then, because a cat in charge likes to take complete stock of his realm, he turned back to cast a look at another vehicle.
Satisfied, he soldiered on with a winsome gait and a coat that seemed to have had creative inputs from much of the universe.
Then, he sat down right in front of us, as I squeezed my thankfully lean frame into the gap between the seats to get as low as possible, even as Bheemaiah kindly pressed himself into my logistical assistance.
Some time later, the leopard yawned, indicating an imminent stir.
And followed it up promptly with a parallel walk, even as the low sun lit up the ochre background in a flaxen hue.
And just as Bheemaiah had predicted, crossed the track before us with a hint of a quintessentially ‘pantherine’ sensuous slink, to become one with the secretive bush.
I thought the game was over but the men that mattered didn’t.
As most vehicles proceeded to the perpendicular road in anticipation of the leopard’s emergence to walk towards the KV Waterhole, Bheemaiah dared to be different. Another road runs parallel to the said track, just skirting the waterhole, towards the exit of the safari circuit, and Bheemaiah instructed Prakash to position us on it instead.
The leopard broke cover almost exactly where Bheemaiah had predicted, and walked on the parallel road, ahead of the rest of the audience. Bheemaiah’s decision to take this alternative road had put me in the perfect position to photograph the leopard as he sprayed a big tree:
Then we moved ahead to where the distance to the would-be leopard marching past would be perfect for my 300mm lens, and the background, a pleasant defocused blend of earthy pastels.
They say that fortune favours the brave; but based on the experience that unfolded, I’d have to say at least sometimes, fortune favours the prepared.
For after stepping into my frame, the leopard made a pause exactly where I had hoped to photograph him. Just then, having had enough of a persistent fly, he raised his tail and grimaced, giving me this shot:
A fraction of a second later, he looked back, assuming regal form:
And then, he moved on ahead, before stepping off the track and diving into the bush, this time not to emerge again.
“Just how did you know?” I begged Bheemaiah.
But I knew it was a rhetorical question. Men of the hamlets and the jungles just know; they can’t elucidate how. Here, intuition and instinct are still alive, and that is why we must trust and listen to them humbly, for in the bush, these virtues are much more important than the often-overvalued urban attributes of logic and deduction. But I asked out of sheer wonder. Understandably, Bheemaiah said nothing.
But as we made our way to the exit, I could see his expression had changed; this time into one of satisfaction of a midsummer day’s good work.