An open air Gypsy races across the dense landscape of the Aravali range. A horde of cows from the nearby village graze in the field surrounding the buffer region of the forest. Not far from where they graze, a leopard has been spotted a few hours ago.
We race towards the spot, gripping the edges of our seats tightly, until the knuckles turned white, doing our best to stay balanced while the Gypsy snakes its way through a dense forest filled with the sound of birds. As we near the destination the telltale lights of a small settlement twinkle in the distance. A truck honks on the highway. We are almost at the edge of the settlement. Chances of spotting a leopard here are close to nill since leopards are believed to be nocturnal, solitary animals.
We choose to halt, switching off the engine and listening to the sounds of the jungle. 15 minutes later we are still waiting for the leopard to make an appearance. The waiting feels meditative though; I take in the dusty tracks, the tall teak trees, the dense foliage, owls sleeping in bare trees, and a sunrise that leaves the sky orange, pink and golden. As the sunrise gives way to a new morning, the activity around the highway in the village picks up. There’s no way we’re seeing the leopard here. We turn around; we’ve got to get back to a familiar part of the jungle that we have been accustomed to in the last four days.
I fidget, impatient to catch sight of this animal for which I have planned this entire trip. The Gypsy makes its way through the jungle. I stand up to take a good look around at the landscape that is flying past- just in case my naked eye, catching something that our guide- trained in spotting wildlife without any binoculars- might have missed.
There are 6 of us in the Jeep, all straining our eyes to spot even the slightest movement. I am the lucky one who spots them: two full-grown leopards making their way through the jungle less than a hundred meters away, and the cub leaping around playfully. I am stunned, but mindful enough to point and whisper ‘leopards!’ As soon as the rest of my company spots the wild cats, it feels as if time has stood still. We stand transfixed looking at the 3 leopards like we have the luxury of time on our hands. A second later (or was it a minute?) the female stops and turns to look at us with a piercing stare. Even from the distance, I can make out the glint in her eyes, and as she swishes her tail I find myself shivering a little, suddenly scared because of the power of the leopard’s stance. The next second, we hear a slight disturbance and immediately know that something is out there in the dense trees. We have to make the decision quickly- head towards the source of the noise and leave the leopards or forget about the rest of the jungle and stare at this family, a rare sighting in itself.
We decided to head towards the source of the noise, but 10 seconds too late. A herd of the Indian Gaur chased the leopards across the tracks and one lucky vehicle (with 2 professional wildlife photographers) was lucky enough to watch this scene unfold. What we saw was beautiful nonetheless: She sits in a spot of sunlight, as if in the spotlight, on a large rock, watching us at a distance of hundred meters. The warm brown hue of her coat, flecked with black spots, blending perfectly with the golden hues of the rising Sun and the green-brown of the jungle.
We watch transfixed for a couple of minutes before she gets fed up of the attention and leaves with her partner. There is something meditative and addictive in watching.
We start moving out from the road back into the jungle hoping to find the leopards again. We circle around the area but our luck hasn’t accompanied us this time.
Later that night we would come to hear of stories about a family that got lucky with 5 leopard sightings, one of them of an entire family of leopards🙂 We got lucky, I guess?