I'm absolutely bowled over by my first experience of photographic tutoring in India - I designed the trip to include both wildlife and culture, as well as some staggeringly beautiful landscapes, and we've exceeded expectations in all of those aspects. But I imagine most interest will be in our tiger experiences, so let's start there...and what a start it was!
Day 1, minute 1: we drive through the entrance to zone 6 of Ranthambore reserve; the sun has yet to rise, the light is low, we are all fiddling with first morning settings.
Day 1, minute 2: "Tiger!" hisses our guide and we reel in disbelief as around the first dusty corner a huge male lifts his head to eyeball us from a throne of rocks. The remains of his night time kill rot gently in a gully below.
This is Kumbha, tiger T34, as handsome as they come. We scramble with our settings to make the most of the meagre light, and are rewarded by a series of yawns, stretches and stares. Elated we joke that we can go home happy already. One member of our group, Veronica Congleton has been on 10 previous safaris and not seen a tiger, so is absolutely thrilled, knowing how unusual it is to be so lucky, let alone so soon!
But Kumbha has more in store for us. A feral cow wanders the path, completely unphased by the dozen or so jeeps parked up, and unaware of the tiger presence. We have a sense of doom for the poor creature as it lumbers past, but having seen how full Kumbha is, and the size of the remaining carcass at his feet, presume that it will be safe.
Wrong! As it wanders up the path Kumbha half heartedly stretches and peers after it. Then in a second his whole demeanour alters and he's up, slinking down from his rocky heights, stalking the undergrowth and silently shadowing his prey. We simply can't take in what's happening. It's too unlikely to be true. But it is actually happening right in front of us.
The crowd of jeeps erupts in a roar of engines, burning clutches and yells from guides and drivers as they rush to follow the action, vying to get the front spot and no doubt a bonus from satisfied clients.
The tiger now seems fluid as he speeds towards the cow, who is still blissfully ignorant of his presence. She only realises the peril she's in as she turns and he launches at her throat. The look on her face transcends language and even species. She knows she's about to die.
The struggle is monumental, the tiger trying to wrestle her to the ground, giant paws splayed across her flanks and neck. She flails back and forth dragging him across the dusty track. Finally he drags her off, crashing through the undergrowth beyond our sight so we can only follow the action by the grunts and smashing branches as the struggle continues. Finally silence returns.
I sit in shocked awe. I know that many people wait a lifetime to witness tiger action like this, and I have been treated to this spectacle from the second minute of my first ever tiger safari. I know that even if we don't see another tiger on the whole trip my guests will go home happy.
We are left reflecting on the issues of unproductive cows being released into national parks, and the consequences for conservation and communities, but I'm smitten with India, with all its issues, from this moment.
PS - these shots were taken in near dark conditions, so are not representative of the quality of our tiger shots on the trip as a whole - more of which to come soon!