Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spot booking at Tadoba

It's half hour past midnight in Tadoba National Park, Maharashtra. CM, RN and I are at the Mohurli gate of the Park. RN is sleeping on the granite counter of the forest office's registration window curling up and trying to fit himself on a surface that's barely 3 feet across and 2 feet wide. He has covered himself in a white sheet, “borrowed” from the hotel, to keep off the plus-sized mosquitoes that are buzzing about. CN is taking refuge in the car. When he shuts the windows he fogs up the car and suffocates himself, and when he rolls down the glass he becomes victim to the savagery of the mosquitos. I'm sitting on an uneven bench made of bamboo shoots holding a kindle in one hand and fanning the bugs away with the other. At a distance a temple plays a rendition of a mythological story narrated in sing-song style. Every now and then the narration stops, apparently due to a powercut, and that unique sound characteristic to the night forest - din of the cicadas mixed with an all-enveloping silence- takes over the atmosphere, only to be abruptly chased away again by the cacophonous temple story teller. We are here in this odd setting at this odd hour to ensure that we get hold of one of limited spot-booking slots that the forest office gives away if places set aside for VIPs are not claimed.

At three in the morning we are joined by two other guys from Nagpur, who are rather disappointed not to be at the head of the line. Another stretched-out hour later a family shows up and can’t believe that there is a queue built up in front of the window. The booking counter finally opens at a quarter past five, when a lady clerk tells the crowd that this morning they will have only two spot booking slots, chases the remaining folks, and cuts us a ticket, all with an efficiency that is commendable for such an early hour. We are happy we get the ticket but we are too tired now to go on the safari.

To understand why we had to go through the struggle in the morning you have to be familiar with the barriers that the forest department has put up recently. Firstly, they've closed down 80% of the forests to tourists. They've carved out clear zones in the remaining area and introduced a permit system that limits the activities of the tourists to within the zone for which they obtain the pass. The process to obtain a pass is through an amateurishly designed website that makes IRCTC look like a trendsetter in rich internet experiences. We had done all the hard work getting the passes but had realized the previous evening that our entry gate was nearly 70 kms away from our hotel. The other available option was to do what we did that morning. Even with the "tatkal" permit they've set up barriers to ensure that you don't pay your way into the park by getting guides or locals to stand in the queue as proxies for you. We were temporarily dissuaded by these hurdles and we questioned if all this was worth the hassle, but we had driven 2200 kms for the chance to see some of the best parks in Central India. We had driven all the way from Bangalore, visited Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench national parks and had been moderately lucky with the sighting of the big cats. Tadoba was our last stop and the opportunity to see another tiger or two was too hard to resist.

After that episode we didn’t see the tigers on that safari after all, but the forests had so much more to offer. We caught a marsh crocodile basking in the sun, a barking deer scooting across our path, a jackal, with no intent to kill, chasing a herd of chital, several fantastic birds, and so many other sights that we would have hated to miss. CN, RM and I sat through the safari with droopy eyes, but I’m sure we didn’t regret having another story to tell in our long friendship together.