"What did you do for your birthday, Nick?"
"I shot 12 tigers."
"Tigerrrrrrr!" shouted our guide, and the driver stomped on the accelerator so hard we were doing 60mph before I knew what was happening. I clung on for dear life as we rounded a 90° bend without slowing down at all, cradling my camera in my arms. After a couple of the most exciting minutes of my life, we came across two young male tigers playing at a water hole...
That was my first experience of tigers in India. Unfortunately, the two we saw were just a bit too far away to get any decent pictures, and we had no more sightings on the trip. That's why I went back a couple of weeks ago to try again.
If you're happy to travel 20 hours to be woken up at 0445 in the morning to spend eight hours in 47°C heat waiting to catch a glimpse of tigers up to 500 yards away, then this is ideal the trip for you! I went with 10 other guests on an Exodus tour called Tigers in Tadoba, led by Paul Goldstein. I'd been on a trip with Paul before, to see polar bears in Spitsbergen, so I knew that he always gives you the best possible chance of taking pictures of the animals. He describes himself as being 'like Marmite' - you either love him or you hate him! - and he's certainly not shy of swearing at you or giving you a withering putdown for getting in his way or making a fool of yourself with your camera! However, he's a great photographer, naturalist and raconteur, and that's exactly what we needed for this kind of trip, considering the rather challenging conditions. In fact, almost all of the guests had travelled with Paul at least once before, so their loyalty is the real proof of his credentials.
'House of Tards' - the place where the idiots on the trip lived
'Mincing' - faffing around (see also 'quincing', which we decided was faffing around for more than 10 minutes)
'Muppetry' - any sort of mistake, particularly faffing around or making a photographic error
'Nonsense' - hors d'oeuvres
'Spaz' - idiot
In the end, we saw around 12 tigers spread over 11 game drives in the course of five-and-a-half days at the Tiger Trails Resort in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. We also saw a sloth bear, a variety of spotted, sambar and barking deer and several smaller animals, but the tigers were the main focus. That's something you have to understand before you take this kind of trip. It's not like an African safari where there are so many iconic animals that you can just keep driving around until you see something else. In Tadoba, we were there to see the tigers, and we happily drove past herds of eminently photographable animals in the constant rush to see the star of the show. That means we did spend hours parked up at a water hole or other likely spot, sometimes surrounded by rows of other jeeps and trucks, waiting for a sighting. The roads were bumpy, there was a ton of red dust that got all over your clothes and camera equipment and there was usually very little shade, but the payoff was huge.
I love to take pictures of the big predators, such as lions, cheetahs and leopards, but all those pale by comparison with the tiger. It's the largest of the big cats, and it sits right at the top of the food chain in India. Not even the leopard comes close. There is also something about its orange and black stripes and the gorgeous power and grace of the animal. They do look a bit ungainly trying to climb out of a water hole, but that's just a tiny quibble set against everything else. Our local guide Himanshu Bagde had even written a long article with pictures about 'Maya the Enchantress' in the Indian Times. Maya was one of the tigers we saw, and the article was posted up on the wall of the dining area, so we could all learn a lot more about the animal. All the adult tigers have names, and we saw Maya, Matkasur and Madhur as well as several sub-adult males and females. These 'cubs' are only given names when they separate from their mother.
Our general routine was to have two game drives each day in Suzuki Gypsy 4WD vehicles, the first from 0500-1000 and the second from 1500-1900. We only had three guests in each jeep, but they were still a bit cramped - especially for me when I had to try and squeeze into the front seat with two cameras and an 800mm lens! In between, there was a generous buffet-style brunch from around 1100 onwards, involving omelettes and chapattis made to order, and at around 2030 we all went up to Paul's balcony for a few drinks and what he called 'nonsense' (ie nibbles) before having dinner in the open air. The local Indian food was excellent, particularly the mango lassis and some heavenly chicken satay skewers, and there were even a bowl of chips and one or two western dishes if you were nursing a touch of 'Delhi belly'. Ellie and I celebrated our birthdays on the trip, and we were both given cakes with relighting candles - a special gift from Paul! The accommodation was also very comfortable. I had a suite that was about five times the size of my studio flat in Putney, which consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom and a shower room. It also had a staircase leading up to the first-floor balcony. That was handy on the first night, when I spent half an hour before dinner taking shots of what was a gorgeous harvest moon.
The balcony was outside Andy and Eddie's room, and we all ended up taking pictures together. They needed a bit of help with their photography, so I gave them a few tips over the first few days, and we regularly ended up in the same jeep for the game drives.
The highlight of the whole trip for me was the first sighting of Maya in the water hole, mainly because of the pictures I was able to take. I happened to overhear Paul suggest underexposing the image by a full stop, so I experimented with one and then two stops of exposure compensation and then played around with the images in Lightroom. I was delighted with the results.
I should perhaps explain that this looks nothing like what we actually saw in real life, but then that's the point, isn't it? Photography is art, and every artist's challenge is to come up with something new, challenging and dramatic. Paul called it 'top work, and it's the first time I've taken a photograph that might be classed as a 'fine art' print. My whole reason for going to Tadoba was to get a five-star picture of a tiger, so job done!
If you prefer a more 'realistic' shot of what the tigers actually looked like, here's one I took at the same water hole under the same conditions, but this time without underexposing the image.
You can see that the images are completely different. I like the low-key portrait, but it depends what you prefer. The second shot is just a different way of approaching the same problem. Paul actually saw me playing around with it on my laptop one lunchtime and was kind enough to help out. He's exceptionally good at knowing how to improve an image in Lightroom, and with this one he completely changed the crop to show the tiger in the corner of the image with the 'wake' in the background. I had originally left the subject smack bang in the middle of the frame, but people generally don't like that, so this is a much more appealing image. Paul also helped optimise all the other settings in Lightroom to make subtle changes to the colour of the water and the tiger and get the most out of the picture. I've only been a photographer for four years, so I guess it might take another 20 for me to reach his level of confidence and expertise! Here's another of the pictures he helped me edit.
The joy of this image is that it shows a tiger walking straight towards the camera. It's very rare to get that perspective in wildlife photography, as the animals naturally want to run from danger, but I just happened to be in a jeep that parked only five yards from the pile of branches where a tiger was sleeping, and - after a good hour's wait! - it finally emerged.
We were lucky in seeing so many tigers, but one of the other highlights was seeing a sloth bear. They're very shy, and sightings are very rare, but we were lucky enough to see one digging out a termite mound just by the side of the road. The sloth bear is the animal on which Kipling based Baloo in The Jungle Book, and it's a small, black omnivore weighing around 300lbs.
The sighting lasted around 20 minutes, and the shot I really wanted was this one of the animal digging with a puff of earth shooting backwards. I thought I'd missed out, but I found out when I was looking through my images back at the lodge. The face is not quite sharp, but I'm trying to take more 'action shots' than simple portraits these days, so I was pretty pleased - especially considering that both Paul and Charlie said it was the best sighting of a sloth bear they'd ever had.
I guess the obvious question is, "What did you do when there weren't any animals around?" Well, if you happened to be travelling with Paul, he'd probably be playing the lyric game or challenging you to work out four or five cryptic clues to the names of Tube stations, but there was still wildlife to see, particularly at a local lake. We went on a couple of game drives to the 'buffer zone' between the national park and the neighbouring farmland, and we managed to find a rather picturesque lake with a relatively large number of birds. While we were waiting for reports of a tiger, we simply took pictures of the birds. There were lots of different kinds of egrets, storks and pond herons, and I took the opportunity to play around with the kind of underexposed settings that had worked so well with the tiger in the water hole.
The other chance we had to take pictures was during the break in the middle of the day. Indian bureaucracy is a nightmare, and we weren't allowed to enter the park between 1000 and 1500, so this was a chance to catch up on sleep, work on my photos or take more pictures, this time of the sunbirds at a tap in the garden. Paul told us about them when he presented his 'shot of the day' one evening, and, for the rest of the trip, there was a regular posse of snappers trying to capture the perfect mid-air close-up.
In sum, then, we were lucky to have so many sightings of the tigers, but I thoroughly recommend the trip if you don't mind a little hardship. If you can stand the heat, the dust, the exhaustion, the illness, the boredom and the insults, you'll have a wonderful time!
1 x sunglasses (scratched irreparably)
1 x cuddly toy tiger (left in overhead locker on flight home)
Bengal tiger (Maya, Matkasur, Madhuri and Chati-Tara plus several cubs)
Indian gaur (bison)
Birds & insects
Asian open-billed stork
Asian paradise flycatcher
Crested hawk eagle
Eurasian collared dove
Grey jungle fowl
Lesser adjutant stork
Lesser whistling duck
Little ringed plover
Paddy field pippet
Red wattled lapwing
White-breasted water hen