Mumbai to Tadoba: On Maya’s trail

A vibrant ecosystem, jungle trails and magnificent tiger sightings


Maya and her cubs. Photographs: Patanjali Somayaji
Maya and her cubs. Photographs: Patanjali Somayaji

Maya had been the star of the show over the last few months, attracting thousands of fans hoping for a mere glimpse of her. Maya is no film star or sportsperson, but she is a celebrity in her own right.

She is, in fact, the most popular tigress at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve since she gave birth to three cubs last year.

From the moment my husband and I checked into the Svasara Jungle Lodge, located right next to the Kolara Gate of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR), all we heard were tales of Maya’s exploits. Regular guests waxed eloquent about how big the cubs had grown since they last saw them, and photographs of wildlife sightings were passed around with the same sense of uncontrolled pride and smugness seen among travellers at jungle lodges.

Over the years, the Tadoba reserve, established as a sanctuary in 1994-95 and brought under Project Tiger soon after, has gained a reputation as one of the country’s best wildlife destinations, with frequent tiger sightings. It’s also home to leopards, sloth bears, the Indian bison, dholes, hyenas, spotted deer, barking deer and sambar.

An easy weekend getaway from Mumbai, it’s one of the few reserves that stays open during the monsoon. It’s also a personal favourite.

During an earlier trip, I hadn’t been lucky enough to sight a tiger, so I was keeping my fingers crossed. Sadly, the afternoon safari proved to be a disappointment yet again. Perhaps it was Maya’s weekly day off.

We spent the evening at The Teakhouse, a garden pavilion at the lodge that screens a documentary every evening. We saw one on the Tadoba reserve.

In the dining area, the table was abuzz with conversations about regional cuisines. The local Varadi menu served at the lodge sparked a lively conversation about the lesser-known Bohri food.

The next morning, we began bright and early, as is the norm for forest safaris. Energized by strong coffee and some encouraging words from Ranjit and Nandita Mandal, the couple who manage the lodge, we set off on the morning safari, hoping to catch a glimpse of Maya.

Within minutes of entering the reserve, we had our first sighting of the day: a leopard. As usual, signs of the big cat’s presence were visible from a distance—a line of Jeeps parked in the middle of the road, the buzz of eager anticipation in the air.

Just as we pulled up at the spot, the leopard emerged from the thicket, stopped for a brief moment, and then crossed the road to disappear into the forest once again.

We had barely turned the corner when we spotted a sloth bear through the bushes, but it scrambled away before we could grab our cameras.

A leopard and a sloth bear within minutes of each other. We were ready to look for Maya. Our tour guide suggested, with the confidence of someone who knows the forest like the back of his hand, that we move towards Panderpauni lake, in the middle of the forest.

By the time we reached, a dozen Jeeps were already lined up in haphazard fashion. Every neck was craning in the direction of the lake, and every hand held a camera.

Sure enough, Maya soon ambled into view on the other side of the lake, followed by her three cubs. For the first few minutes, we were treated to a veritable catwalk as she sauntered up and down the banks, supervising the antics of her cubs frolicking in the water.

She soon sat down, half immersed in the water, cooling off on a hot summer morning. Twenty minutes on, all four of them were still in full view of their eager fans. Four tigers at the same time, sometimes playful, sometimes indolent—it felt like a celebrity had not just given an audience, but had mingled with her fans.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The writer tweets at @charukesi

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