The jungle was quiet that evening.
As I stepped out of the shower and toweled off, the only sounds I heard were the occasional distant call of a “barking” deer and the tapping of moths against the glowing lantern outside my room.
I was staying near the Nepal-India border at a jungle lodge called Tiger Tops. Forty years ago, the lodge, now closed, was iconic. The epitome of rustic romance. Its walls were of woven rattan; you sipped drinks on a verandah lit by kerosene lamps.
When it was time to safari, you stepped off your bedroom balcony onto the back of an elephant. It was visited by British royalty and People Magazine royalty like Mick Jagger and Robert Redford.
Kapok and acacia trees and 30-foot-high elephant grass covered the low-lying countryside, which was alive with rhinos, crocodiles, jackals, cobras, thousands of birds and, most importantly, the beautiful, majestic, endangered. . .
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!
My quiet evening was shattered.
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG!
For a moment I froze, disoriented. And then I realized what the clanging meant.
I’ve never dressed so quickly. In two minutes, I was running downstairs.
I already knew what to expect. Everybody at the lodge had been briefed. By the time I reached the center of the compound, a dozen other guests, carrying flashlights and binoculars, were already at the rendezvous point.
The bell had summoned us to meet a Bengal tiger.
A few miles into the forest, Tiger Tops had built a wooden tiger blind whose windows looked down on a small, well-lit clearing about 30 yards away.
Each night, a water buffalo calf was tethered in the spotlighted clearing to draw a tiger by sound and smell.
On some nights a tiger would come to investigate this new thing in its predatory world. The tiger would always be alone, a territorial hunter who tolerated no competition. As soon as one arrived, a Tiger Tops scout, hidden at the blind, would rush back to the lodge, ring the “tiger bell,” and galvanize everyone to action>
This was such a night. We jumped into a caravan of jeeps and sped off down a dirt road. Overhead the full moon sped along with us, making the branches of the acacia trees look like black archipelagos in a starry sea.
When the jeeps jammed to a stop, we got out into the night. “Walk in single file; make no sound,” said a Tiger Tops guide.
We climbed a steep path, each of us following the flashlight in front of him or her. On either side was the deep and secretive jungle.
I had lost all track of time and distance when we came to a low wooden bench.
“Take your shoes off and put them here,” the guide whispered. “We are very close; make no sound.”
The ground was cool; the path smooth and swept clear of leaves. The guide flashed his light once. Ahead was the blind.
Through the blind’s tiny windows came the glow of the spotlight. It turns out that tigers are indifferent to the light, but any suspicious sound scares them off.
I pressed up to a window. There below, sitting by its half-eaten prey, was a 500-pound Bengal tiger. Enormous, powerful, deadly. It looked up and opened its mouth. The vivid yellow-and-black markings on its face were daubed with blood.
A voice inside me cried “Run!” But I couldn’t move. I watched the magnificent animal for as long as I could until finally the guide shooed us back out onto the dark jungle path.
Over dinner that night, we relived our meeting with the tiger. Words like “amazing,” “massive,” and “frightening” bounced from guest to guest like pinballs. By the time our conversation drifted to other subjects, our tiger had become a legend.
Later, after I had turned down the lantern light in my room and lay in bed, I tried to recall the dark forest and the great spotlighted cat. But already the scenes had become hazy and dreamlike. Could I really have seen such a thing?
And then I heard a sound. Far off. A low, chilling, animal moan.
It may have been a monkey call or an elephant cough. I don’t know. But I like to think that it was the tiger, making sure that its territory — including that part of my mind holding memories — was truly secure.