Sabyasachi Patra

A Night in Similipal National Park


A Night in Similipal National Park

If I have to account for my earliest experience with the Tiger, I would have to go back to Similipal National Park in the state of Orissa, India. Recalling the experience, I realise how fortunate I have been to have such an experience in the midst of a carefree, fun filled trip.

It was the month of January 1997. We had finished with our MBA course in Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. Much to our collective relief, the placements were over, and we were on our way to becoming responsible adults with good jobs. Ours was deemed the best batch of graduates ever by our own professors but the placement session was chilling, to say the least. It was with a sense of relief and new-found independence that we decided to go to Similipal national Park to just chill out. And what a chilling out experience it turned out for us.

We had booked for six of us in Chahala rest house. At the last moment the number went upto seven when Sambit joined us. The forest department rules permitted one driver and one helper to accompany a group of six. So it was decided that we would hire a jeep with a driver and one of us would pose as a helper. We joked that Sambit had to pose as a helper. In the morning when we started from Baripada, Sambit turned up immaculately dressed in a formal shirt, beard carefully shaven with a liberal dose of aftershave sprinkled on his face. We couldn’t stop laughing. Satyaswarup finally volunteered to pose as a helper. He wrapped a red gamuchha (thin hand woven towel) on his head like a daily wage earner with determination writ large on his face.

And the fun had just begun….

The rear right tire of our jeep punctured just as we were entering the forest from the Jashipur side. We discovered then that the driver didn’t have a jack with him. I came forward to help with the tyre change fully expecting the others to chip in by push and tilt to the jeep till the tyre was changed. Satyaswarup, the ‘helper’, had no idea of such technicalities and conveniently hid himself behind a tree. The forest officer was screaming as to why the helper was not around to do his duty.

The fun had just about begun….

Before embarking on our journey, one of the guys had been given charge of stocking up for the duration of our stay inside the Jungle. On reaching Chahala that evening, we started preparation for dinner and for the first time took stock of the provisions that we had for the trip. One kilo of rice, half a kilo of dal (lentils), two dozen eggs, two loaves of bread, half a kilo of onions, few green chillies, six or seven small packets of biscuits and a couple of packets of Haldiram’s bhujia. This was meant to keep seven fully grown men fully fed for 3 days and 2 nights, which was to be our duration of stay at Chahala. Heated arguments followed and there was unanimous decision to leave Chahala the next morning.

And we just could not see any fun in the situation…..

The forest guard provided us with utensils for our cooking. We had to use the earthern chulha, an apparatus used in India to cook on since the great sages wrote the Mahabharata around 5000 years ago. We knew that we could cook on it…. Once we had figured out a way to light it…!!!!  We tried to burn the wood in the chulha, but realized very soon, and to our utter dismay, that thick stocky pile wood just does not burn that easily. An axe was hard to find and we tried a blunt knife to cut the wood into small pieces so that they catch fire easily. We poured rum on it, we tried to fan the non existent flames, using a newspaper. We tried to blow on the thin pencil of fire by rolling a piece of newspaper into a pipe. But Agni, the Fire God, was hard to please. We almost gave up and started joking with each other that we would have to sleep hungry. Suddenly I noticed a couple of papaya trees near by and knew that I had the solution to our problems.

As children we used to blow air bubbles using the hollow stem of the papaya leaves. Lessons learnt then proved to be the savior of the day.  I got a big stem and soon we were taking turns to blow air into the fire. Years later, one of our friends reminded me that it was perhaps one of the finest pieces of knowledge which helped us survive in the jungle. Since then, I have been making all efforts to garner as much knowledge about jungle and wildlife as possible.

At about eleven pm, after gulping down rice and watery chicken curry that was barely cooked, I planned to sit at the salt lick adjoining the forest rest house. There were loud protests on hearing my plans. Not one of the sturdy young guns was prepared to open the door to let me in when I got back from the salt lick. They were also apprehensive, and rightly so, that if the door remained open, then wild animal might enter the room. Finally, I locked them in the room and then went to the saltlick all alone.  

For me the fun was about to begin…..  

The Chahala forest rest house complex is surrounded by a deep trench. The trench however does not deter the Cheetal, Sambar, Barking deer, Jackals etc from entering the compound. I could see the bright eyes flashing on my torch beam. The salt lick was created outside the compound. A room built below ground level allows wild life enthusiasts to observe the rich wild life around the salt lick without either disturbing the game or putting themselves at any kind of risk. A wooden platform on the floor, allows one to sit or sleep. Standing on the wooden platform, one can see the salt lick through a viewing window.  

It was a moonless night. An hour or more had passed without any sign of an animal, small or large, visiting the salt lick. The bone chilling January cold pierced my jacket and sweater and made me seriously contemplate going back to the rest house and sleep, as my other sensible friends were doing at that very moment. Sudden breaking of branches and trumpeting swept any such idea from my mind. This was a sure sign of the arrival of a herd of elephants. The dark moonless night did not allow any sighting of the elephants and manual focusing was difficult with my torch light. I gave up the thought of photographing them. The wild elephants trumpeted and cavorted in the mud, giving each other mud baths. After a thorough mud cleansing, they retreated into the jungle and silence prevailed. I had not been able to take pictures of the elephants. But the very thought that I had been within touching distance of these magnificient creatures made the effort worth every moment.

And I thought, this was all the fun for this trip…..  

I had been standing and watching through the viewing window for about three hours. My legs felt leaden and the biting cold forced me to sit down on the wooden platform and listen to the sounds of the jungle. Minutes dragged into hours. I felt sleepy and before long I was in deep slumber. I woke up all of a sudden without really knowing what woke me up. I looked at my watch, it was 3 am. Suddenly a small pebble came rolling down and fell near the saltlick. It happened all of a sudden and I was afraid, as I knew there was something big in very close proximity. My mouth was dry and I tried to take slow soft breaths and swallow the saliva to moisten my throat, and to stop my heart from thumping loud. The jungle was ominously silent. The crickets had stopped chirping, and all other night sounds of the Jungle had stopped.  Suddenly the oppressive silence was broken by the sound of urination. It was from very close quarters and the distinct smell of the tiger told me that the King of the jungle is on the prowl and is very close to where I was at the moment. I had been squatting on the wooden platform and tried to stand from my squatting position softly, without making any sound or creak. I tried to lift my frame inch by inch, making every effort not to rustle the jacket or make any sound. It seemed ages before my eyes were leveled to the viewing slot. At this moment my knuckles creaked bringing all my effort to naught. The tiger jumped away dislodging a few pebbles. I flashed my torch in the general direction but it was a wasted effort. The Tiger had vanished into the dense Jungle and the crickets started chirping again. The oppressive stillness of the jungle had vanished… The tiger had beaten a retreat. The pugmarks were silent proof of God’s most magnificient creation having visited the place.

Tiger Pug Mark

Tiger Pug Mark

  

And I knew nothing could possibly be more fun ever………

At around five thirty in the morning, I got back to the rest house, tired but happy, to get some well deserved sleep. I must have slept for barely half an hour, when I was shaken from my sleep by Satyadarshi. One of our friends had realised our precarious food position and had crept up to the kitchen and was helping himself to the boiled eggs. A lot of shouting and cursing followed and finally all of us were awake and helping ourselves to the remaining eggs and bread.

Who cares to brush the teeth when food is at such a premium? In any case, who ever heard of a Tiger brushing his teeth before a meal…….!!!!!

If you have any questions on Similipal National Park, then please ask below in the comments.

 

Sabyasachi Patra

Sabyasachi is an award winning Cinematographer and shoots for international broadcasters, feature films and corporates to make a living. He is a passionate wildlife filmmaker and photographer and has won awards and accolades for his documentary “A Call in the Rainforest”. He has been striving to make his films and photographs full of life and emotion and write articles to educate and evangelise the need for conserving the last tracts of vanishing wilderness and wildlife in our country. He hopes that his wildlife films, photographs and writings force people to pause, look, ponder and ultimately take action.

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