Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum yoonhee saath-saath chalate…"
I recently met up with my college friends and as the evening progressed and the Gin & Tonic went down the oesophagus, irrigating it and reached our guts, quenching our thirst and calming our brains, nostalgia started to flow freely. We got talking about the good old days and experiences we had; our first drink, first boyfriends, first proposals, first jobs. Then, someone mentioned our very first safari.
Almost a decade ago, when I found out that this college friend of mine and me had very similar interests in wildlife and bird watching, we planned to take a safari together to Jim Corbett. My friend had done safaris before, but it was my first time. She roped in Sarika, another friend of hers, and the three of us managed to book ourselves a room for 3 nights at the Dhikala guest house inside Jim Corbett National Park in the peak of winters. It was Sarika’s first time too and like little kids on their first school picnic, Sarika & I started to prepare and shop for our first safari. We had it all, camera, binoculars, gloves, sleeves, caps, safari goggles, water bottles, jackets, and shoes from the best in the adventure industry. We went a step forward and carried an empty thermos for tea. I even got enough dinner rolls made to last the whole trip.
The drive to Corbett was very picturesque and everything from the national park’s gate to the guest house inside was even more mesmerising. Since the time I had left home, nothing had escaped my camera, whether it was a nadi, naala, field, crops, tree, waterfall, skies, a beautiful rock, the zigzag road…I captured it all. When we reached the guest house, our learned friend briefed us like a stern headmistress on the do’s & don’t of a safari. She also informed us that the bookings had been done with great difficulty through a friend who owns the Tanhau resort near Corbette Tiger Reserve and that they would be accompanying us and staying in the adjoining room. Sarika and I were thrilled, more the merrier, as our party were getting bigger. We were immediately snubbed by our irritated head mistress friend and condemned for our immature, childish, witless behaviour. We were reminded that we were not mere tourists, but aspiring wildlife photographers and if we wanted to be assured of some great sightings a certain sense of conduct was expected out of us.
Our safaris were starting early morning the next day and we were asked to be ready and report to the gate at 6:00 am sharp, and by 6:15 am we should be sitting in our jeeps so that we would be the first ones out of the gate. This was essential to experience and unfold the untouched wilderness after the calm of the night and to avoid any noisy tourists. My friend forgot that she was talking to two juvenile delinquents and becasue "Kutte ki Dum Kabhi Seedhi Nahi Hoti", we were just there to enjoy every bit of this experience, and to tell the generations to come, stories from our first safari. It was extremely cold and even though we did get up and get ready on time, instead of the gate, we went to the cafeteria. Sarika filled the thermos with tea while I ran back to the room to get the dinner rolls. We reached the jeep by 6:30 am with our fuming headmistress almost ready to boil us in hot oil (which we may have actually enjoyed given the weather conditions). Most of the jeeps had already left for their safaris. We both blurted out, almost in unison, that we were delayed as we desperately had to use the washroom, and if looks could kill, this story would have never reached you. Without another word, we quickly and sheepishly got into the jeep and were headed off for the first safari of my life!
The forests were enchanting and magical, and we were smitten by their charm like we were in a fairy tale. We had the best 4 days of our lives, and had some great sightings, but we were also asked a thousand times to be quite and well behaved, to respect the sanctity of nature by not getting excited every time we saw an animal, managed to get a good flying shot, or miss it entirely. Before every safari we would run to fill our thermos with hot tea and get the dinner roll tiffin in the pretext of going to the washroom. We learnt to take turns so as to not anger our friend, who looked like she had given up on us by that point. The phone connection inside the forest was very poor, except for a certain patch where our guide would stop the jeep for us to make our mandatory phone calls informing our relatives that we were alive and not yet eaten by the wild. This spot was also used by us to gorge on the tea & dinner rolls that we had managed to sneak in without our friend shouting at us. It was an enriching experience where I had a sneak peek into the life of notorious otters, learnt about migratory birds, tuskers, tigers marking their territory, how to differentiate between a male and female tiger, forest fires and the very basic difference between a tourist and wildlife photographer. Today I may be perceived as a confident & independent nature person, but I’ve not always been this poised, self-assured, and mature wildlife enthusiast. Whenever I come across a new aspiring bird watcher or first-time safari goer and see how excited they get on spotting a common bird like a drongo or a treepie or start ask trivial questions out of curiosity and sheer enthusiasm like, ‘how do you know if the tiger is a male or a female?’ I laugh at their ignorance and foolishness, conveniently forgetting that we have all been through the same cycle of curiosities. Been there done that… we’ve all had our embarrassing moments that have taught and evolved us over time.
We have all started from scratch, irrespective of our age. We all dive into a new hobby as a naïve, immature, eager and excited person, ready to take up anything. We make our own silly mistakes and based upon our exposure, we either quickly or eventually learn from them, thereby transforming into experts from clueless amateurs. We emerge as the superheroes who have finally got a hang of and learnt to master their superpowers and are out there to change the world. The company and the trip taught me a lot and once I was home I realised how much I began craving another safari. I would do anything to go back to that time, to that holiday, to that first safari, but it will never be the same for I’ve come a long way. I learnt that to experience the true meaning of nature and wildlife, you need to blend into their environment effortlessly, with least disturbance, and be a part of them.
Have I transformed from a clueless amateur into an expert wildlife photographer? Absolutely NOT. But that is not my goal. However, I have certainly transformed from a clueless amateur into a more knowledgeable professional who respects and appreciates nature, craves wildlife and is always open to learn.