Sound is such an integral part of the safari experience, that if you were to count each sound you encountered as a find, you’d have more 1nds than your eyes could ever clock. But some sounds are more significant than others, for they are symptomatic of the presence of not only their maker but also that of something else that we seek with even more ardour.
If they are not readily presented, your naturalist will usually kill the engine and grind to a halt at a crossroads to seek them, for this also helps inform their choice of further course to tread. But not all sounds are what they seem.
As your naturalist tunes in to see if there’s any breaking news being relayed by the excellently populated network of herbivores, this is also the time when you’re most vulnerable to embarrassing spikes of mistaken enthusiasm.
Stirred to action at an hour unusual for it, the stomach of a fellow safari-taker in your vehicle groans in complaint, seeking an early refuelling. And because even the tiniest sounds are ampli1ed in the silence of the jungle, and because the human mind tends to suddenly see and hear everywhere the presence of that it either yearns or fears, you are convinced you’ve just heard a tiger’s roar, and before you have the chance to gather your wits, your lips part, chord vibrates, and “Tiger!” you exclaim.
This has the effect of rousing any guests whose wakefulness may have been waning from the caress of the cool breeze and the cradling undulations of the dirt paths, but the naturalist, seasoned in alarms, whether true or false, is not taken in easily. Quite literally having been there and done that, he regards your interjection with not so much a knee jerk as the slow and steady turn of his head, to regard you with a smile not patronising but entirely empathetic, and impresses on you the gastric, rather than gorgetic, roots of the sound you just heard.
Just then, almost directly overhead, you hear a cackle, which under the circumstances you interpret as one of dry derision and cold mockery of your innocent gaze. Chuck, chuck, chuck, ch, ch, ch, chuck, it goes, as though a man is chuckling in exaggerated amusement while also making a disingenuous attempt to stire it in a loud whisper, such as when you widen your mouth and utter a series of forced exhalations while keeping your tongue stuck to the sides of your lower palate.
What it is, really, as you realise to your comfort when you look up, is merely an innocent Indian roller, calling in compliance with its OEM speci1cations. With the added significance of being Karnataka’s state bird, this individual of the benghalensis race (its brethren found in northern and northeastern India, b. afinis, being endowed with darker plumage) sports striking colours, especially when in Right, which, if you are blessed with some time on your hand, you may observe by positioning yourself at a distance from it, so that it is quite free and comfortable to hunt dragonflies under your vigilance. For it is when it takes oI the perch, or is imminent to home in on it after collecting its meal, that a dark blue – Rashier than indigo, brighter than navy; shinier than Picotee and deeper than Pantone; perhaps a version of sapphire – hidden under the bonnet of turquoise and crayon-brown is revealed. And you’d realise that it’s mortals who take proteges under their wings; Indian rollers, on the other hand, take colours.
But there’s no time for that today; for there’s a sound instead – the sound, you might say – your naturalist was hoping for.
At 1rst you’re able to hear nothing, and the only way you can tell that there is indeed a sound is by the way the naturalist is cupping their ears to locate it better. Having honed in on the direction from which it is being issued, your naturalist conducts you directly there, and the next time you come to a halt, there is no more doubt about it.
A strident honk blasts through the undergrowth in what feels like underneath your nose, and permeates your brain, like someone just reached into your skull and rang a jolly bell in your head. A sambar, informs your naturalist, bellowing its call of alarm. Much larger – and plainer – than the chital deer whose plaintive shrieks you heard earlier, sambar are India’s largest deer species, weighing up to 270 kg, with males sporting antlers that can breach a metre in length.
Dhonk, it goes again, startling you out of your seat, obtaining reverb from the tree trunks all around. It appears like the gong of a great court being sounded at the imminent arrival of the emperor. Sometimes it issues at half the length, like a partly stirred sneeze, or as though the call was checked mid-syllable from the terror of the predator’s sight.
You can sense that something is about to give, but from amid the train of pulsations there emerges the realisation that there is no better theatre than Nature, where the script is unwritten, characters uncoordinated, the drama genuine, the play of life and death real, the plot undecided, and the end result altogether undetermined, changeable, spontaneous. And the theatre of a tiger reserve is the most glorious of them all.