Sunday, January 31, 2016

Big Cat Magnet or a Lucky Talisman?

Pinks are Links

I have been doing the wildlife circuit for more than a decade and a half now and my first close encounter with a big cat in the wild came after 5 years of tiger tracking! Even after that, the few times I crossed paths with the big cats, were few and far in between. 

Then, in the January of 2015 I broke my 300mm f2.8, the best lens that I owned broke in two and my heart with it. I had mounted it on my E-M1 and it was the first trip with a new camera. It still rankles but then it seems there is a bright side to the debacle. It seems that this nightmare ordeal in the middle of a safari was the turning point in my woodcrawling life.

On that first trip with the E-M1 I met two leopards, not something I had experienced since April of 2010. The first one walked past when I was still recovering from the previous day's experience. I had an older 50-200 mm lens I carried as back up but forgot that all zoom lenses have a long ends to them! I got some pictures but it was too late by the time I realized that I was shooting at around 125 mm!! The very next morning, we had our second leopard of the trip and I, again, forgot that I had a tele-zoom and an in-body digital teleconvertor! So much for getting used to a prime.

Meanwhile, Olympus Japan sent me the Zuiko ED 90-250mm f2.8 as a replacement. I wasn't very keen on a medium telephoto zoom even if it was fast. I would have preferred my prime. This lens wasn't ideal for birds even with a 2x teleconverter attached. However, in combination with the E-M1 it was doing a much better job than with the E-M5. In addition, I started noticing, my big cat encounters suddenly was on the upswing! 

People carry many things on themselves that are purportedly, their lucky talismans. I never believed in such things personally and so never had one on myself. The next trip was to Kabini, in April of 2015. The E-M1 was now permanently mounted to the new lens and they seemed to make a fine pair. together. On that trip, we met the spotted one up close. This one was lapping up water from a puddle not 20 meters away, and then walked towards us before cutting across the track into the forest beyond.  

It was then that I started getting the feeling that something was happening. A big cat was always a bonus on any trip but this was becoming a habit. I didn't think much about it but then the feeling got reinforced on our next Bandipur safari. In August we did a combined Bandipur-Masinagudi trip with a friend and his family. Once again, late in the evening, we got a call about a tiger sighting. Predators don't wait for us; so we went, half expecting that the beast would have taken cover from prying human eyes. When we reached the spot he was still there, the Prince of Bandipur

He was one tiger I always wanted to meet but never succeeded in any of our trips. There he was lolling about in a mud puddle looking absolutely disinterested at all the excitement he was generating.  Once again, a very close encounter! I looked at my E-M1 and the new lens with a new found respect! They were a rocking combination! Four cats in three trips never happened to me before. More like one cat in five trips!

23rd October, 2015

The pull of the wilderness never goes away and if Skanda and I had half a chance, we'd be off. So the Pooja holidays of 2015 was just another excuse! We packed our gear and drove off to Bandipur. By now I had procured another adapter for my son and we were both using OM-Ds with four-third lenses. He had the Zuiko ED 50-200 mm f2.8 SWD on his E-M5.

Morning safaris are more for the birds but as we turned a corner on Wesley road, Bomma, our driver said. "Leopard." For a few seconds we were searching around us, and then we realized that the cat was in the grass ahead of us, marking territory as cats do!

We thought he'd slink away into the bush seeing us but it seemed he was out for a purpose. He got off the grass and onto the road.

Without hesitation he kept moving straight at us. Our presence was not going to dissuade him from advancing.

At one point he moved onto the grass in the middle of the track, sprayed on it, and kept coming forward.

He wasn't taking his eyes off us. Perhaps he was curious to know what we'd do.

Then, a few meters ahead of us he crossed to the other side and continued advancing.

Some 10 meters in front of our vehicle he veered of onto the grass, maybe realizing that we were not moving.

One withering look................

...............and a purposeful turn of the head before heading off away from us.

At touching distance he moved towards the lantana...........

...........and disappeared through a gap.

It was a great morning, and again I felt that the new combination of gear seemed to be having an effect on our opportunities for meeting the big cats, striped or spotted! With that overwhelming feeling we reversed to go onto a parallel track, hoping that this beautiful creature would appear again.

As we waited, he appeared from behind us and started stalking something in the bush.

I think the noise of the camera shutters furiously clicking annoyed him. He gave a single backward glance, as if to tell us, "Buzz off! I'm hungry!"

As we moved away leaving him to his hunt he resumed his stalking, of a chital herd, once again.

Whether he caught his breakfast, we never found out, but we sat for a very satisfying breakfast at the resort. That feeling about the E-M1 and the 90-250 mm lens working as a lucky charm was intensifying!  Ever since the E-M1 came, we had not had a trip without a big cat. Big Cat Magnet is seemed to be!!