Anglers love telling stories about the-one-that-got-away. Likewise, people back from a visit to a Tiger Reserve always have a story of how they almost saw the Tiger (fresh pug marks are a favourite). A tiger sighting or its absence, leads to fond reminiscing regurgitated for various occasions. These stories are the same no matter the geographical location of these Parks. There is disappointment, but instead of an air of despondency surrounding these raconteurs, what one senses is a distinct resolve to try ones luck again. Such unrequited visits only increases the desire to sight this noble beast.
But, there is a tale to be told of the process that gives one this opportunity to see the Tiger.
This tale is a rare mix of Greek heroism laced with the absurd. There are certain facts that give meat to this story. People can visit the Core Area or the Buffer Zone. The possibility of sighting a Tiger is far greater in the Core Area, but entry is limited to approximately 900 tourists daily at the Kanha National Park. There is no such restriction for the Buffer Zone. This attempt to regulate tiger tourism created an
online booking system for entry to the Core Area. With these regulation, locals play the role of guides (approximately 123) or Jeep owner cum driver who either run independently or are associated with a resort. Tourists have to hire guides and these jeeps, which run on a roster, to enter Kanha.
Now comes the clincher, online bookings for entry into the Park need to be done 2 months in advance if not earlier. Those who get to Kanha without a pass can get lucky at the ticket counter by purchasing the few tickets that are sold or wait for a ticket cancellation. Others reconcile themselves to visiting the Buffer Zone.
The entry to the Park is through three gates, Khatia, Mukhi and Kisli. Khatia, by far has the highest population of resorts and therefore tourists, jeeps and guides. 140 jeep rides and four government bus runs are split into morning and evening visits into the Core Zone through these gates.
My presence in Khatia was serendipitous. While travelling on the soon to be shut Narrow Gauge track I realised my proximity to this Tiger Reserve. So I hopped into a bus that dropped me three kilometers from the Khatia gate. The final leg of the journey was on a motorbike through some dense greenery.
This sudden diversion from my planned route made finding a place to stay difficult. The process of getting a room gave me opportunity to talk to quite a few locals including a resort owner. Their insights
opened a window of experience far richer than the attempts to play peekaboo with the Tiger.
I was intrigued by the stories of all night vigils at the ticket counter to get a pass into the Core Area. They told me that people form a queue at 8 pm the day before for a pass for the next day. So I decided to put myself through this grinder just for the experience.
After a post dinner coffee I walked to the ticket counter. There were just two people talking to a guard, it was 10 pm then. I was intrigued at the absence of crowds and so asked them, they replied that I should return at around 12 am. I walked back to my room, some distance from the ticket counter, through the silent dark looking for the glow of wild beady eyes. Tethered buffaloes loudly exhaled in bursts as I passed darkened huts. The sky was lit. Later the next day I asked the locals about the absence of dogs and goats, I got a one word answer 'Panthers'.
On returning at 12 am there was already a line of 15 people with a rudimentary tea stall to serve them. One of the tourists had taken up the task of writing down names of people serially so that their place on the line was on record. This person was a tourist too, he had come from Bhopal. Like a good hunter gatherer he stood at the ticket counter while his family slept in the warm confines of the resort room. The ticket counter had an all-male-line-up.
Tourists come in their own vehicles for a day or two. The personal vehicles are switched for a jeep that takes them into the forest for a 5 hour morning tour or a three hour afternoon tour. Tourists then return to their resort and may take another trip through the forest the following day. After which they drive back home, mission accomplished or not.
Stories of happenstance flew up and down the line - visitors catching a tiger on their first visit others who had passed through the gates 22 times without a sighting. The tea man was berated by some for putting too much sugar in his tea. He was told they have 'sugar' which he and everyone in the line understood to be Type II diabetes.
Time flew on the wings of these stories. Those who came later were directed to the scrivener so that they could put their names down, after which they got in line. The line grew and the number of tea stalls increased to three.
Some of those in line had come along with 'attendants' from the resort. I think the role of the attendants was to stand in line for the guest so that the guest could relax, but because names were being recorded this luxury met with an early death.
While sipping tea with one attendant he explained that the number of rooms were far greater than the access to the Core Area. They were not sure of the number of resorts built in close proximity to these 3 gates but estimated their number to be 55 with rooms numbering 10-90. They spoke philosophically saying that if it rained daily and there were 70 umbrellas then only 70 people would remain dry. They discussed the demeanour of the tourist. Before getting into the line the tourist was like a veritable king of the jungle, once he saw where he stood in the queue he transformed into this mass of uncertainty trying to find an easy way to get a pass.
Back in the queue I heard confidence boosters being passed up and down the line even as alternatives were provided. Those in the first 10 were assured of getting a vehicle. As newbies realised that each jeep took 6 passengers they began asking those ahead if there were spare seats. Others opted for a trip
in the two buses that carry 18 passengers each. Those at the bottom the list reconciled themselves to a visit to the buffer zone or to a hopeful wait for a cancellation from an online booking.
By 4.30 am forest personnel manning the ticket counter came and began asking those in the line to park their cars at some distance. This was to make way for the jeeps and the two open air buses that would take tourists in. With the first hint of light the jeeps began trooping in. A surge of anticipation and despondency ran through the queue as they realised that only a lucky few would get an opportunity to ride in the jeep into the Core Area.
The ticket counter opened at 5.45 am and the gates to the forest at 6 am. The line that was so orderly before the counter opened was now under threat of dissolving into chaos. However, after a few shouts and fights things settled down. Two middle aged men in queue with IIM Lucknow sweatshirts saw similarity to the US Visa line of yore when visa hopefuls would either sleep on the pavement off the US Embassy or pay others to do so. They spoke highly of the online visa service but were not happy with this system to enter Kanha. They complained, like many others, that they would have to plan their holidays months in advance which was not possible in this day and age.
The jeeps begin entering the forest, women tourists seem to be better dressed than the men. Shades of various shapes and sizes adorn well rested faces. Those in the line watch all this glumly while others who have procured a pass from the counter hurriedly call their families telling them to get ready. People at the back of the line use their voices to get ahead, but sound has no weight here. Desperation causes the line to melt into a scrum at the counter. I join in deciding to get the 'whole experience'. I shout out 'single, bus' not as a plaint of my marital status but of my status of one person inclined to take the bus tour. I get the last seat in the bus on count of me being alone.
In a few hours there will be a queue for the limited seats for 'matinee show' but till then there will be those willing to buy a pass to the Buffer Zone and take their chances there.
Read about my travels through India in my book '1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People'