It was still early morning in the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan but just thirty minutes after leaving the hotel we had struck gold. Gold and black actually. None of us expected to see a tiger so soon, if at all, but right now I had other things on my mind. Like a nasty cut to the nose and, worse, a possibly broken camera. I paid scant attention to the first, and, heart pumping concentrated on remedying the latter. My task made all the harder by the fact that the rest of the tour group of polite, mainly middle age, Brits, had turned into a mob. All pushing, shoving and hustling to get the best camera angle of the fully grown wild tiger that had now emerged the undergrowth just feet from our open topped safari jeep.
We were totally safe of course. Safe at least from the forty big cats that live in the park, but as I had discovered, and was about to be reminded, erratic driving and overhanging foliage were the biggest dangers as far as foolish tourists were concerned. That everybody else had also stood up the instant the cat was spotted was of little consequence. I was the only one who was smacked in the face by a branch and dropped his camera.
The tiger, realising we were neither threat nor prey, coolly crossed the dirt track in front of us as the unruly scrum fought for the best position. Meanwhile I kept my cool, all attention focussed on ensuring that my basic but invaluable digital camera wasn't broken. A few test clicks of the floor established that there was no fundamental damage and I braced myself to rejoin the wildlife paparazzi. I prayed there was still time to get at least a couple of shots before the celebrity feline disappeared.
That was when my luck turned.
The tiger suddenly took a right and strode along my side of the jeep. It was right in front of me. Without having to shove any retired schoolteachers or spinster librarians I was perfectly placed. I would get that iconic shot after all, evidence of my tiger encounter. I steadied my hands and waited just a second too long. In that second the driver decided to reverse and a branch, possibly the same one that hit me before, swiped the back of my head. I fell forward, managed to steady myself, but banged my camera against the metal headrest of the seat in front. The battery flap fell open and the batteries rolled out.
I was gutted. I was never going to find all the batteries and get them in the camera in time. I was a beaten man, I could only sit and watch as the tiger strolled once more into the undergrowth, pausing dramatically, just before disappearing completely, to turn and look back over it's shoulder. Straight at me. It was beautiful sight and the picture would have been amazing. To rub it in other people's cameras clicked liked crazy all around me.
All of us had come to the park for that moment. It was little consolation that my camera hadn’t suffered any permanent damage and I knew that the dozens of pictures of monkeys, deer and various exotic birds that I took on the rest of the safari were no substitute for just one of the park's, and India's, fierce and endangered symbol .
We were leaving for Delhi first thing in the morning so later on I went to the hotel gift shop. The shop was chock full of tiger related souvenirs of the kind I would normally avoid at all cost. Not having the souvenir I really wanted I chose instead a relatively tasteful silk screen print. When I went to pay the assistant asked me the standard question in those parts - "Did you see the tiger?" I groaned, "Yes, but I didn't get a single photo." Apparently missing the significance of this he grinned and said, "You are very lucky, the last tourist sighting was weeks ago."
I still take my camera on my travels but now I always think about what the happy shop assistant said and I try to spend at least as much time looking at the sights with my own eyes as through a digital screen.