Beyond the Migration and why i create bucketlists

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Beyond doubt, an African safari is a dream for nature lover’s worldwide. I choose the post migration season for my trip into the Maasai Mara Game Reserve – a land which holds the promise of unparalleled adventure and more. My dear friend, Tasneem said, “The land is austerely beautiful – quiet with breath taking horizon and skies that stretch forever wide and blue. And you would not be jostling with hundreds of 4×4’s.” That last sentence nailed it for me.

My city weary nerves was seeking for a pace where the quiet mornings would be with a time where one would see the million stars slowly begin to fade as the sun crept over the vibrant landscape. I was looking forward to sharing my breakfast table with jewel tone birds who, I could picture, greedily and without any hesitation come up to my table for a bite of bread.To sit around camp fire and listen to whispered stories of a time long gone by…but stories which still hold the promise of holding you in rapt attention.

Tasneem said, “This is a landscape that holds a brand new story every single day.” Armed with her wise words, I found myself welcomed by Morgan, a naturalist, who during my travel, I would discover, could give any search engine a run for their money – for the immense knowledge of the land he hails from.

After the customary hellos, Morgan asked me if I had a bucket list.

To which I answered, “Yes.To stand in Mara with the herd of zebras and wildebeest flanking me and watching the sky turn the landscape into a poetry. “Well, I thought, bucket lists are meant to be the unparalleled. His reply was merely helping me into the 4×4. And I thought…so much for bucket lists. Little did I know that someone up there ensures bucket lists are made so that they do come true.

I watched the land move from the narratives of modern civilization to a stark canvas – the constant being the azure sky. Proud of his land and its stories, Morgan peppered the drive with stories of the Maasai – the tribe that continues its proud lineage in Africa.Warning me to not take any pictures of the locals without their permission, he sped his 4×4. The drive was anything but smooth. But then, what’s an adventure without a few bumps, his words …not mine.

As I watched the landscape change, the spell of the land took me back in time. The wanderer in me was bewitched by the hypnotic cloudless sky. The colours and the earthy scent were a balm. The whispering winds cocooned me in a tranquil oblivion. The crisp air made me roll down my windows and drink it in its full glory.

I could sense Morgan’s rush…he was worried that the gates to the park would close. The blurring landscape is akin to a lullaby. Quiet descended the 4×4 …an occasional line from Morgan pointing me to a species or the way of living drew my attention away from the hori- zon.The 4×4 blazed through the landscape and screeched to a halt only at the gates of the Mara. I realized, after our brief stop for lunch, the lullaby had actually worked and I had slept through the journey because the mesmeric blue had slowly inched its way into taking on hues of molten gold.

I whispered – “So, this is Maasai Mara.”

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The writer in me struggles to thread adjectives to describe the feeling that encompasses you as you drink in the first sight of Mara. The early rains have transformed the bare earth into a carpet of green. Suddenly, I am among the wild animals. A solitary kori bustard, largest of Africa’s birds catches my attention. Through the rolling plains, a family of elephants make way to the watering hole. Two little elephants right in the middle of the dirt track. The mother, angry with the little ones, for steering away from the herd. Herds of zebras and Thomson gazelles munch their way through the red oat grass, looking up, as the 4×4 revs and makes way through the herd.  Far across the open plains, a dust devil dances its way busily drawing with it dry leaves, sticks and sand to a tune of the Mara wind.

Before I could drink it all in, the 4×4 came to a halt. Pin drop silence was broken with a quiet whisper – “Now watch…” My eyes searched. What was I missing? A finger pointed to a flick of a tail – so well camouflaged that if Morgan hadn’t pointed, I would have missed it. A lioness on a hunt. No wait, there were three of them. A mother and her cubs. Time stood still.The herd of zebras, who were part of our welcoming committee grazed, unaware of be- ing stalked. The tawny eyes didn’t waver. The zebras, suddenly reared their head up. Their eyes scanned. Morgan whispered, “They have smelt the predator.” I forgot to breathe. There was another 4×4 alongside mine.As our eyes met, we knew we were in for a treat – would we be witness to the dance of death between the agile prey and the prowling predator? Our questions were similar – Who would emerge as the winner? Would the mother teach her cubs the art behind a successful hunt? Would the zebras escape the crushing jaws of death…?

The lioness was not in a hurry. But, her hungry eyes spoke a different tale.The cubs were impatient.And before I knew it or could process any more questions, the dance began.The ground reverberated to the hooves of the ze- bras.The stealth mode gave away to a launch. The chase began.The fear was palpable. The dust clouds created a barrier to our voyeurism. I was witness to the primary law of nature – survival of the fittest.

Transfixed,  as the prey and the predator fought with skills that are etched in their DNA. Cut to the next scene where the lioness and her cubs feasted on the kill. I looked up and the circle of vultures awaited patiently.The smell of the blood filled the air. The scavengers made their way in, drawn by the heady scent as we slowly drove out to our camp – quiet and pensive, yet with adrenaline of the hunt coursing through the veins.

Maasai Mara

For everything untamed

Beyond doubt, the wildlife in Maasai Mara is in- credibly diverse; the National Reserve, known for the Big 5 celebrates the Small Five: the Ant Lion, Leopard Tortoise, Elephant Shrew, Buffalo Weaver Bird and Rhino Beetle.The five days in Mara brought me up close to a land which gently nudged me into the world of astonishing animal behavior without encountering cluster of vehicles.

Our day-long safaris would start with en- counters with herds of buffaloes, which I was warned, were the most ferocious mammal, and gentle giraffes.

The land is on a permanent show.

The Mara elephants put up a magnificent show. It was fascinating to watch them paw up grass with their feet, pick it up with their trunks and shake out dust before folding it into their mouths. I was able to get close enough to hear them flap their ears to cool themselves. A pride of lions would lazily watch their favorite food – buffaloes fatten themselves on the lush Savannah plains.

A single lion hunting for a pride. His roars, turning our veins to ice.

Driving up the Mara river, Morgan introduced me to the hippos and larger-than-life Nile crocodiles. I mistook them for boulders. Large,round, smooth boulders with pink ears and noses. Heaps and heaps of them.

“Both hippos and crocodiles share a sym- biotic relationship and avoid confrontation. They grudgingly co-exist. Like right now,” he says. It’s siesta time.

The crocs napping on the sides of the river, their eyes shut and drowning out the grunting the hippos were making.

Morgan took me to a spot where wildebeest milled at the edge of the Mara river – deciding where to cross and concluding that tomorrow would be a better day to cross.The sheer extent of bird life is bewildering. Ergets, Egyptian geese, sacred ibis, red tailed teals, black winged stilts… the list could go on. Red necked spur fowl and Coqui francolin serenaded the sunset. White- browed coucals bubbled away in the distance. Elands, topis, a leopard on a tree, cheetah with her cubs – hungry and weak and waiting for the prey to walk up to her…It’s all in Mara.

The bucket list of the Big Five and the Small Five was ticked marked.

The weather, in Oc-tober, was splendid. My alarm clock was the guttural roar of a lion. Dikdiks kept me com pany as I walked bare-feet on the green grass in the camp, immersing in the joy of having my toes kissed by the morning dew. Never before seen hues of birds came up to the table for a bite of bread.

The quiet hotel mornings gave me chance to talk to the gentle natives who welcomed me graciously and opened doors to their world. Ensuring that I learnt a Swahili word a day, their warm smiles and camp stories kept the phrase, “Mara always delivers” struck true. No doubt, the dust and the mayhem of the great migration is a sight to behold, but the rains bring with it Mara’s magnificent elephant herds in to the Triangle. Family units in large numbers, sometimes hundreds gather to feast on the new grass.A family of zebras took turn to dust bathe on a patch of bare ground.The wildebeest turned a lazy eye towards us. Morgan’s words – “The prey doesn’t stand a chance with so many hunters. Jungle life is hard.”

The amazing thing about safari during the non- migration season is that you are fairly alone in the vast land.The jostle of the 4x4s, the audible oooh’s and ahh’s from the tourist, the absence of the almost quiet click of the cameras don’t distract you from the drama that unleashes. The characters are the same – but everyday is a different story.As the soul drinks in theatrics the land unfurls, the 4×4 comes to a halt.

My first thought was….did I miss something? And that was when Morgan, with a twinkle in his caramel colored eyes, asked me get down and tick my bucket list of standing in the Mara amidst the herd of zebras and wildebeest. Did I hear him right? Because the next second, he was helping me down the 4×4. I stood in Mara. I kicked off my boots and walked bare-feet…. the wet earth, a tickle.

A rainbow danced to life in the azure sky.The scent of the animals played the hero. I stood in the midst of them and, they didn’t shy away. They welcomed me without walking away. I was so close I could almost touch them.

A giraffe ambled along.

I walked with it…trying to keep pace with its long legs.

Where, but in Mara, can you actually feel the trappings of modern melting away.

I stepped back in time. Standing in the midst of wild gentle beasts, under a baobab tree… drinking into the moments which etched itself rmly into my being, I realized, that, it is so easy to get carried away with superlatives to de- scribe the feeling, but then, I am going to leave the narrative here.

They say the Migration is the biggest show on earth. But I say, being in Mara…standing on the grass that comes alive under the hooves of the great beasts; drinking in the visual poetry of the iconic baobab tree which stands senti- nel against the bluer-than-blue sky; being em- braced by a land which makes you realize that this is what life is all about – uncomplicated and beautiful and knowing it is simply you and you alone who are privy to the everyday and being welcomed into this narrative – that, to me, is the biggest show.

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The eve of the New Year: The drama unfolds with the Living Legend

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Resolutions and toasts took a backseat when it came to the New Year Eve which was a weekend in the dense jungles of Bandipur, Karnataka  – time came to a standstill like it always does in the land where every turn held a jungle lore. The cold and misty morning chilled my core whilst I loaded my gear into the 4 x 4. And as always, there was an infectious buzz in the vehicle which was crammed with expectant faces in thick sweaters and jackets to ward off the chill; cameras and binoculars to capture moments – which mirrored my feeling.

Pradeep, veteran guide/driver/friend/ – (a bit of a heavy duty package for one so young) –  of our vehicle patiently answered curious questions…mostly centred on the predators  and like always, I could hear the single question which was creeping into every mind which stepped into the 4 x 4 – will we be the lucky ones to spot the Living Legends? The tales wove around the sighting which the group had the earlier evening – a pair of fighting Leopards; Gowri, the tigress and her cubs; a herd of elephants protecting their young ones; dance of the snakes..

But, as the vehicle slid into the first gear and the thin fingers of dawn crept in through the misty morning, conversation stilled as we held our breath whilst we glimpsed at the canvas which unfurled like a song for us –  like a slow moving sensual river into the dark sky, the golden rays fought to break through into the last of the night sky.  Our breath came out in puffs of silver smoke as we drank in the beauty of the breaking dawn – a sight to behold… dollops of golden rays casting a halo around the towering trees;  dew drops twinkling like diamonds; the glades of soft brown grass touched with nature’s kiss.

I felt like a trespasser…who had walked into god’s own paradise and walked away with a  slice of it.

With a decade plus into the un – polluted terrain and numerous safaris and countless sightings, I’ve been lucky to come across exotic and common species in their element –  but as the jeep sped down the virgin territories in the dense forest, it seemed like the first time. The jungle awaited me…with her arms open.

The butterflies had begun their dance in my stomach as the jeep entered the forest gate. The tiny wooden gate opened into a world which defied all laws. Nothing seemed familiar…though this has been my home away from home.

The deer herds wandered and looked us in the eye. Squeals of delight followed as the graceful beauties preened for the shutterbugs. A majestic peacock proudly posed for us whilst he basked in the adulation of peahens; a stop at the water body where the aerial panorama captivated us – eagles, hornbills, woodpeckers, mynahs, parakeets, orioles found now and then amongst the stands of teak and bamboo thickets; a lone Tusker ambled through to quench his thirst; jungle fowl making a dash across the road; wild boars and the Great Indian Gaur stood like silent sentinels watching us with hooded eyes. Our eyes drank in the beauty but, they also searched through thick vegetation for the ‘Stripes’ which see you, even when you don’t see them.

This cold wintery morning, as we moved deeper into the heart of the jungle, I could sense stillness in the air.  Like a frozen river, it seemed as if the land had stopped breathing. The mist rolled as the jeep hurtled down the bumpy road. I held on to the edge of my seat, my camera close to me. No one spoke. Not a blade moved. Not a bird chirped. The wild stood motionless…their keen sense attuned.  The silence was deafening.  Pradeep felt it. The naturalist in him sensed the presence of a predator. He looked me in the eye, sans words…we communicated. I felt it creep into my bones.  A stillness that numbed my senses…

And in a blink of an eye, suddenly the air was rant with alarm calls. Like Houdini’s vanishing act, everything hidden and in plain sight took flight and vanished.  The scent of the predator was thick in the air.

The trick of the “jungle sense” is to look at all possible pieces of the information and tie them together. My ears were attuned to the alarm calls…my eyes peeled into the thick vegetation.  I could sense the gaze, but couldn’t see.  I could feel the beat, but couldn’t judge from where it originated. Our eyes darted into the thick vegetation willing it to part…Did we hear a rustle…was that a low roar…hushed whispers spoke the told and the untold. Clammy hands, heart beats and a hush descended in the 4 x 4.  It was like everyone had forgotten how to breathe. Cameras were raised; lenses focussed….excitement and adrenaline kicked in. In the open 4 x 4, we let the jungle swallow us.

Time ticked by … mocking us. Eternity passed in a blink of an eye.  The alarm calls… louder and closer. And before I could let the feeling drown me, out walked from the bushes, the living legend – fluid as a poem, majestic and wild – in his full glory, Agastya, the full grown tiger.  Pradeep left out a soft whoosh…for me, everything else slipped into oblivion.  The lazy gait held such a power that I forgot to blink.  So close was he that his scent made me forget about everything else… I could read his eyes. The urge to touch overpowered everything else. Hackles rose, but the beauty numbed the senses.  Was it a mirage? For a moment, science took over whilst I questioned if human mind was capable of  projecting images that we so desperately wanted to see? But the roar that followed that thought brought all my questions to a void. A well fed cat, he was on the prowl for the female whose scent was thick in the air.

The predator was lurking for food of a different kind.

A few feet away from him, in our open 4 x 4, everyone turned into a statue.

Agastya was in a mood to ensure that our New Year chapter started off on a whole new note.  On a jungle trail, spottings are rare and usually last for a couple of minutes. But today, it seemed like the wheels of time had stopped. Seconds ticked into minutes…minutes into eons. 40 minutes, yes, 40 minutes of being in close encounter of the big male is what jungle lore is all about. And my lore was about to commence.  My camera was on a roll…900 pictures and still clicking, the moment etched itself into my wanderlust soul. Like a drug, the sighting had taken me on a whole new high. As I slowly inched up the jeep, to get closer to my nirvana – I knew all my earlier experiences had paled in front of this one.  What I was about to witness wasn’t a dance between the prey and the predator…Agastya was giving me a glimpse into the male that he was…

I inched closer on top of the jeep….so did he on the path…all the while keeping me in his radar. Curious at first, he looked me in the eye.  We stared…his tawny eyes locked into my soulful brown ones. But in the blink of an eye, I could see his expression change. Angry.  Little beads of sweat formed at my nape.  I blinked first. He continued to arrest me with his look. I wanted to move, but I was frozen. I wanted to breathe, but I couldn’t. I wanted to tell the tale through my lens but, at some point, I stopped clicking. I couldn’t. My senses clammed up on me. I was hypnotised.

He roared…the jungle froze and the sound turned my nerves into jelly. Fear found a whole new meaning…a few feet away, his scorching gaze at our jeep had us on tenterhooks. He wasn’t in a mood to pander to the camera. His searing tawny gaze spoke the same.  Hands  stilled. Invisible threads wove us together. We couldn’t budge. Something held us locked down

Angry and seemingly helpless, the scent of the female was driving him on. His roar …calling out to her. Beckoning her to come to him. A call she chose to disobey. On the prowl…the roar grew louder. His mood grew worse. The air was thick with emotions.  At that moment, we knew we had to give the dominant male…the space he needed.   Pradeep put the vehicle in gear and built a bit of a distance – which I knew, would not be enough if the wild was unleashed.

The ancient jungle lore says, “You have two lives …one before you see the Living Legend and then, the other after you’ve seen one.” My second life started on the eve of the New Year – as the drama unfolded, I was a spectator to a volatile emotions. As I captured Agastya’s various moods, searing through my soul…mocking me…challenging me – during his quest for the female who played hide and seek with him, I realised that I had barely let out a breath. I drew in my first gulp only when the cat ambled back into the wild bush…

I breathed…I breathed…I breathed.

The Jungle lore

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Yes, I admit. The jungles are my own personal brand of heroin and like an addict the lure is impossible to resist. Every man needs a drug…to some, it’s their sport, to others, it’s their play. For me, the lure of the forest is akin to a slow spreading drug…the thirst unquenchable. The need to unravel its mysteries surpasses anything ever felt before. It is impossible to not lose yourself in the harsh terrain which has a surreal stillness to it, yet alive in so many ways.
To me, a wildlife enthusiast, the forest land is a labyrinth which weaves itself with a silken thread around your wanderlust soul. The forest whispers ….the trees tell ancient lore; the soft grass hums a tune; the birds are the songs, the butterflies the poem. I hear the blue of the kingfisher; the brown of the Dhole; the stripes of the big cat; and the lone tusker.
She is a like a lover…she doesn’t let go. She, and in this case, I am partial to Bandipur, afflicts with a madness that has no cure. I tasted her, with all my senses…at the forest gate at the break of dawn, when fog and the chill; the dense lush green and the seemingly alive trees rise on the forest horizon casting a spell like none witnessed before. I may see it a million times and yet, it always seems like the first. In the twilight hours, where she spreads out her wings and reels me into tasting a bit more of her…
I sound like a poet…a lover…because she weaves a spell that I drown in…I lose consciousness.
Some liken the wild terrain to a siren – mysterious she is and magical is her spell…that she casts over virgin and seasoned wildlife lovers.
And true to her lure, every weekend would find me in the forestland drinking in the untouched beauty of the terrain. And when my weekend sojourns in the wild comes to an end, and whilst I pack my bags and head back from the awe inspiring land, philosophy threads through my core and I resort to the age old adage – – ‘The end marks a new beginning’. And true to the adage, the next five days are spent conjuring images of the coming weekend – another drive into the virgin forest in the 4 x 4 – where the slow dance between the sensual predators and the wary preys come to the fore