The Jeep takes off over a hump in the dirt path, launching our heads at the roof. In the back, the four of us sink low on the two side-facing benches, pressing our shoulders into the walls and jamming our feet under the person opposite. The gap between the seats is a bridge of interlaced legs.
My chewing gum shoots to the back of my mouth and I swallow it to avoid choking.
Narrow, horizontal windows restrict our view to a twenty metre envelope-shaped glimpse of jungle; the forest is a blur of light and shadow. Occasional brown or sandy mounds of indeterminable origin interrupt the relentless green of this one hour ‘safari’ in Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala.
“Any sign of tigers, Jamie?”
“ANY SIGN OF A TIGER?”
“Fat chance,” he shouts from the front seat, “apparently we are in a RACE."
The wheels spin over a ditch.
"No sane animal is going to come anywhere near us!” he shouts again.
I give up trying to have a conversation.
From pole position in the middle at the front, the guide calls out names of things I cannot see.
Grey blobs flash through my line of vision. Jamie puts his camera away and throws a frown over at the driver.
At the Varnam homestay our host had warned us that the twice daily Jeep safaris, each session lasting an hour, seldom revealed tigers.
“Sightings are rare there,” said Varghese. “You are more likely to see wild animals from my car. The timetable run by the sanctuary means the smart animals know when to expect the racing jeeps, and when to keep clear of the track.”
Newspaper reports of increased tiger sightings in Wayanad had prompted me to book some time there over Christmas. The locals were scared and had threatened to kill any tiger unless rangers from nearby wildlife parks didn’t immediately catch and relocate them. When we arrived Varghese told us that 'just last week' a tiger had been spotted drinking water from a stream 100 metres from his home.
“Do not go beyond the grounds on your own, and do not walk out at night. Ever,” he said.
We sipped beers on the veranda. The family’s garden was filled with coloured lights in trees. There were rabbits in hutches, and statues of animals among the flowerbeds lining the lawn. It was a fairytale setting. I looked beyond the fantasy garden at dark creepers spilling out of the nighttime forest, and wondered if any fiery eye had me in its sights.
A thirsty tiger lapping running water slinked into my imagination.
“I feel queasy,” I said, “I’m sure we’re going to see a tiger this time, my stomach keeps flipping at the possibility.”
“More likely that second helping of ginger curry you had,” said Jamie.
At bedtime, Varghese locked the high steel gates of the fence which protected his home from unwanted visitors.
Over the next few days he told us of more tiger sightings and of livestock being taken. Local farmers were angry, said Varghese, who works as an inspector in the local police force.
On Christmas Eve we trekked for 16km along the Brahmagiri Hills to the Pakshipathalam boulder caves. The area is famous for tigers, leopard, wild elephant and bison. Manny, an Adavasi tribesman, lead us in single file. He carried a machete and a staff. He wore flip flops. We carried our rucksacks and cameras and sweated in our walking boots. Asraf, Varghese’s driver, brought up the rear, shepherding us together as he kept watch over the group. He carried his phone and our lunch without breaking a sweat.
We passed through forest valleys where Manny pointed out fresh tiger prints and leopard scat. Indian giant squirrels ran along their invisible high roads in the trees above us. We filled our bottles with sweet water from mountain streams. At Pakshipathalam we climbed on top of the boulders and ate a lunch of home-made curry served on ela (banana leaves).
A low growl rumbled uphill.
"Tiger," said Asraf, munching a slice of pineapple.
I'd never felt the hair on the back of my neck actually stand up before.
We speed out of the forest back to the start point. I am surprised the driver doesn’t finish with a handbrake spin. Disappointed with the waste of money, but relieved to be out, we go in search of a cup of masala chai (spicy Indian tea) before returning to Varghese’s home.
“Varghese say it still light, we go for to drive,” says Asraf.
He sets off in a different direction to the way we came, driving across the state line into Karnataka. We pass plantations of regimented coffee trees, their trunks wound with black pepper vines laden with berries. Then we enter the ‘wildlife highway’ that cuts through the centre of Nagarhole National Park towards Mysore. Signs tell us it is illegal to drive on the road at night, not to stop, to remain in the vehicle and that elephants have the right of way.
We slow down to watch sambar, cheetal and barking deer grazing on the verges. Wild elephants cross the road in front and behind us. Chattering macaques sit around on the verge in cliques, picking fleas from each others coats. There are no tigers, but we agree that this drive has been the highlight of our day.
As the light dims, Asraf turns the car towards home.
Then, as the car creeps round a sweeping bend, Asraf breaks one of the laws of the road and stops the car. A tiger is strolling out of the undergrowth in front of us. It walks along the grass, ambles into the middle of the road, flicks its powerful tail and turns to look at us.
We all freeze. No-one but the tiger breathes.