I left Raigarh with a heavy heart and heavy eyes having seen the news through the night following what was on at home minute by minute. But then I had to move on.
[In the background, when I had started off, one of the places I wanted to visit was Pench National Park. I had to give it up a few days ago when the tourism officials told me the price of an overnight stay (some 4000 bucks for the night pus extra for the safari). Now its more famous cousin, Kanha National Park was on the way. Same prices.]
The ride out from Raigarh was as expected. Seriously bad. The roads in the state are pathetic. They are called national highways but should instead be called national shame. They have more potholes and bumps on them than a zebra has stripes. For more than half the way all the way to Jabalpur, the road doesn’t even have one riding line free of potholes. You just can’t escape it. The bike was bearing the brunt of the road every second. But kept going on. I fell in love with it all over again.
Strange vehicles came in my way
All the stuff I have picked up on the way and has found a place on my handlebar
At around 5 pm, I stood at an innocuous looking fork in the road. On the left was Mukki Gate, Kanha National Park. On the right was Jabalpur, 200 kilometers away. I was dreading this choice. And it was upon me. It was dark already. Mukki Gate was close to the Core Area and 55 kilometers throught the Buffer Zone. I could face tigers on the way. I will be alone. And I was not sure if I will get a place to stay. Or if I will have enough money. There is nobody to go to for those 55 kilometers if something happens. And the roads are the worst known to man. I turned left.
Now there are over 200 tigers in Kanha Tiger Reserve and most often come to the Buffer Zone. They know no boundaries. Tiger spotting on the road is not uncommon. Totally harmless, I was told. Yeah! Also, there is a maneater tigress around the area where I was entering who had already killed 5 tribals. Just a footnote. Yeah! So there I was, riding all alone in pitch dark through 2 metre high grass on a road I could walk faster than I was riding. But then none of that was on my mind. My mind was straight on the high beam of the bike scanning the horizon every 5 seconds for signs of yellow stripes coming through the high grass. Not that I would have seen anything if the yellow stripes didn’t want to be seen. Let me go on record with this. I have never been more scared in my life. Even then, half my brain was saying, Come on tiger. Let’s see you. The other half was saying, What the hell am I doing here? Shit.
About 14 kilometers ahead, I hit the Range Officer’s office (the big boss of the forest). He wasn’t around. “Out in the field” I am told. “At this friggin’ hour!”, I am thinking. Just then, my eyes wander into the dark all around me. The dark was moving. It didn’t take me more than 2 seconds to realize I was standing next to three elephants, hungry for their dinner. I froze. Thankfully, they are vegetarian. And the park rangers are damn good at their work. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay there. “No tourists here please”, I was politely told. But they could help me with the stay. 18 kilometers ahead there is a PWD Rest House. If there’ no one, they could ask the caretaker to let me in. Seeing the fear in my eyes, he asked one of his rangers to accompany me. The way the road looked for the next 18 kilometers, I was thankful to him to no end.
This is where I ended up staying. All alone. No light.
I had no contact with anyone. I spent the night wondering what was going on at home.