Big Man Tiger!

Warren Blake

© Copyright 2023 by Warren Blake

Photo by Vignesh at Pexels.
Photo by Vignesh at Pexels.

Tigers of the Tropic Rain Forest are very elusive beasts. A rare sighting sends a tingle down the backbone.  This particular encounter did not involve an actual sighting, but it was literally hair-raising

When my children were young we spent a week in a jungle National Park, Khao Soke, in Southern Thailand. I had offered to make a map of the jungle trails, rivers and terrain using a very early version of a hand-held GPS receiver,  so we were treated to several privileges.

We were at dinner in the rustic Lodge, the only building in the Park, with its Owner, an American lady married to a Thai man.  She had invited the Chief Ranger of the Park to dine with us for discussions about my maps.

After dinner, the Ranger announced that he was going out into the night to search for animal tracks on the dirt roads that wind through the area.  These were the remnants of logging trails from the period before the establishment of the park, and having no vehicle traffic now, and very little human imprint, they offered a splendid canvas on which various animal species could dab their brush marks.

My two children waxed enthusiastic. Mum approved of eleven year old Sula’s joining, but decreed that her Brother Philip, eight, needed early sleep after a long and adventurous day.  His mild disappointment then has grown over subsequent decades into a sense almost of  deprivation of childhood privilege.

We three ventured out, equipped with two torchlights.   Our guide was quick to see the most insignificant of Nature’s finger-prints:  those of a frog whose calls were all around, a monitor’s sinuous tail drag, a smaller lizard’s claw marks, etc.   Then more exciting stuff: a Sun Bear’s prints, and those of the Ghaur, the large jungle deer. The Ranger was obviously an Educator, because he attempted much earnest, additional detail about each animal, but was handicapped by his unsure English.

His matter-of-fact manner became more animated when we found the pug-marks of a “Big Man Tiger!”  He obviously recognized this particular Cat (the pug marks differ from one individual to another, much like Human fingerprints). The Ranger was made happy because he had not seen evidence of this individual in a year and a half, and feared the worst, since it was well-known that a Chinese storekeeper just outside the Park boundary offered $4000 for a dead Tiger.  We too were happy just to see for ourselves the recent marks of such a noble beast.  In addition, Sula was delighted by numerous FireFlies blinking in the underbrush, even though they proved very elusive targets for her cupped fingers. 

We walked further, entertained by our Guide with more tiny sightings, as far as a small lake, hitherto unknown to me but requiring GPS survey in the morning.  We turned back, as our two torch lights were becoming dim.

Several hundred metres back up the trail, the Ranger became much more excited by animal tracks than he had by those of “Big Man Tiger!”.   He still sought to educate, but chose to press us into deciphering the clues for ourselves. He demanded that we all stagger along in the undergrowth at the side of the trail to avoid spoiling evidence.  This must surely be some vital cluster of clues!

I could see some faint Tiger prints, but surmised they were the same ones we had discovered before. Our Guide continued exhorting. I imagined he was repeating the Thai equivalent of “Look closely! You can’t see the wood for the trees!”

I bent down in the dim light.  Sula struggled further into the bushes in pursuit of a great cluster of fireflies.

Eventually I discerned that some of the pug marks were smaller, so enquired whether a Male and a Female had been walking together and that therefore there could be some new Cubs later in the year?

“No, no!  Err…front foot big, back foot small!”     Ahh! 

When finally I saw what he was trying to illustrate, the Hair-on-the-Back-of-my-Head literally Stood on End…for the Tiger’s pugmarks were superimposed over many of our own footprints, obliterating parts of them!   Big Man Tiger had followed us down the trail towards the lake for something like 60 to 80 metres, as further carefull investigation showed!   And that during the last twenty minutes before we turned round to retrace our path! He must have been in sight of our party, but of course we bumbling would-be Jungle Mammals had seen nothing! 

Sula came rushing to show me an agitated firefly blinking furious inside her cupped hands, but when she was shown the startling news she released her captive and bent down with sharper eyes than mine.  She looked up in wide-eyed wonder, no fear apparent, to ask the Guide “Is he looking at us right now?”  The reply was essentially, “Probably!” 

Sula at 11 was already a keen and sympathetic observer of Mother Nature’s exquisite products and I was proud to see that she was completely Fascinated, showing no Fear. This attitude was mirrored in the Ranger’s lack of action, which supported Sula’s attitude, for while he had a small-bore rifle slung on his back, he made no attempt to unsling it.  We all were obviously aware that the Big Cats are curious, like their tiny, scaled-down domestic cousins, and that Man-Eating evokes no Feline appetite. 

In many treks in the rain forests of Thailand, Viet Nam, Sumatra and Borneo I have twice sighted Tigers, but these encounters pale in comparison to our one at Khao Soke, for there we did not see the animal, nor hear nor smell him, but He took a very close and curious interest in US, a heart-warming and laudable inversion of the conventional relationship between Homo s. and our mammalian, feline Felix cousins.


Part Two:  In decades of taking schoolkids on long, adventurous voyages in our large ocean-going Schooner to “Idyllic Remote, Uninhabited Tropic Isles set in an Azure Sea beyond the Far Horizon”, I have told many of my Stories to my captive audiences.

One time in Thai waters, not so far from Khao Soke Park and that Big Man Tiger, I told this story after dinner to a dozen 16-17 year old Students from the Singapore American School.

I stepped in on this occasion because the entire group around the deckhouse table was in chaotic, loud expostulation, with many a sentence drowned half way by someone else’s new input, with nary a person listening to anyone else it seemed. Untypically, this was more like the socializing of hundreds of 12 yr olds from United World College that sailed with me too.

I demanded attention, and received it, not only because I am “Captain, in Total Command and swearing no Higher Allegiance”, but because the Kids by now had, to their credit, recognized that my Stories have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End; even with an occasional Morale or Cautionary Tale for Young Players.

I told my Tale amid complete silence, and in the dim light I imagined that many of my audience had drifted off to sleep…this complemented by a 10-15 second absence of comment when I had finished. Finally, one boy at least said, “Wow!” evincing astonishment. 

After another quiet ten seconds a Girl from India, who as far as I knew, had not said one word so far, hesitantly started on her own Tiger Story. That most were indeed awake and interested was illustrated by the fact that many now leaned forward on their elbows to more closely catch the Girl’s soft words.

Her Tale was fascinating.  Her Father was a Land Surveyor in a Northern Indian province, and astonishingly, often used an Elephant for transport through rough terrain. He took his Daughter with him on some of these expeditions, both perched precarious in a wicker basket on the animal’s back.

On this occasion the Elephant was traversing through a wide expanse of long grass higher than his belly. Now elephants can move in cryptic grace almost as silently as a Tiger, and today they surprised a sleeping Felix when almost upon him. The startled, indeed frightened, Cat woke with a roar and rose up on hind legs, menacing fangs and claws displayed;  this witnessed at close hand by our StoryTeller from over her Father’s shoulder. 

In lightning response the Pachyderm too reared up in surprisingly agile fashion. The girl toppled back out of the basket, to be grabbed by her Father before ending down in the long grass, possibly more in danger there of a frightened elephant’s thumping feet than of being cut down by a Tiger, because when the pair shakily regained their safe perch on elephantine high, the terrorfyed Feline was long gone. 

I was delighted to see that the other wide-awake teenagers bombarded one of their own with demands for more detail;  even: “Any more Stories like that?”   And of course our StoryTeller seemed delighted to respond in a louder voice and with an air of confidence.  These Kids showed considerable maturity and empathy! 

And for my part I feel proud that my own StoryTelling “set the scene” you might say for other novice Tellers of Tales to offer a Story of their own several more times on that 12 day voyage, which actually did invoke a measure of attention by the Group. These improvements in sociability were noticed by their Teacher, and together we applied these words Empathy, Maturity and Confidence to the Group. 

And of course these Qualities are precisely included in what we aim to inculcate, by PR Blurb and by unstated Aims. when we go Sailing to Idyllic Remote Tropic Isles…etc, etc.

 Warren Blake was born into absurd privilegean average 

middle- class Pakeha Family in NZ in 1940.

 Avocation: Lifetime Imposter, who would stoop to joining a Club which would have him as a Member.

 Theology, (Failed), expelled Sunday School ‘49

 B.Sc(Physics) Auckl. U.1961. (C+) 

Like all members of Family of Sir Peter Blake, NZ Sporting Hero, built small yacht, sailed away from Auckland ’64,”to Sail around the World”. Parents encouraged this, but expected return, settle down, proper job, marry Local Lass…subject suspected something different beyond the far horizon, or even Somebody different in a distant land. At first port-of-call, (French Colony of Nouvelle Caledonie) admired sylph-like Lasses with long, glossy black hair and warm brown eyes. Author too shy to chat in Schoolboy Francais, although those warm eyes and sparkling teeth did flash, briefly. French friends informed “Elles sont Tonquinoises tres belles!” Consulted Atlas: Tonquin in Central VN. “That would be a fine place to visit!” Never dreamed that near a decade later would marry une Tonquinoise;  50th.Anniversary now imminent; Gorgeous GrandChildren in Melbourne, US Virgin Isles. 

Sailed up-river to Saigon in ’65.  Enchanted, spent near seven years there, the entire American War. In those early days, never dreamed of the Opportunity, Adventure, Femininity and Family on offer in that Gracious Old Whore of a City, one beset about with relentless, Besieging Barbarians,…many stories...(“End of an Era; Saigon before the Fall”), plus Family Epic spanning 100yrs; in progress. 

The 4 decades following VN were spent in full-time, unconstrained Exploration in own Schooner (pic) of the Seas and Jungle Rivers of SE Asia and Indian Ocean: seven years of Treasure Hunting beneath the Sea,  decades of dive charters, TV crews (BBC, Disc.Ch, Survivor), a thousand Young School and Uni Students on Adventure Voyages to Idyllic Tropic Isles hid beneath the Far Horizon, with turquoise lagoons and gleaming, white beaches where our footprints of the evening before are wiped clean by the night’s tide, leaving a pristine strand.

In between sea-going adventures, Author propped up numerous bars in obscure Eastern ports or rivers, meeting various Scoundrels, and a few Saints, whereupon the question, “Can I buy you beer” often elicited a Tale worth embellishing. 

These activities offered multifarious connections with the various and the nefarious: Scientists & Spies, Diplomats & Defectors, Paupers & Pirates, Saints & Scoundrels  Journalists & Juveniles; (the worst depict in “Lost in Asia; and other Tales of Human Frailty”; and the best (pic) through whose young eyes the Captain saw all the Magic anew, and describes in “Sailing with Youngsters”).   

These stories include one fat historical novel, “A Long Way from Home”,  set in Borneo in the ‘50’s (1850’s that is), the time of Sir James Brooke, famous “White Rajah of Sarawak”; adventures amongst the People of the Ulu, the Headwaters of the great jungle rivers, the Author’s favourite Society on the planet; rivalled admittedly by that of Wife’s folk in Viet Nam. 

Was never quite at home in 20th., refused to enter 21st. Have accepted Faustian Bargain to be born again in 1748, in Cornwall, hoping to sail with James Cook…this in exchange for what’s left of Immortal Soul. Not yet consummated. A different, unfinished Historical  ms, in progress, depicts Life of Midshipman Patrick Saunders, RN, Deserter from HMS Endeavour in futile pursuit of Tahitienne Nymph and subsequent three decades as sole Haole in various Isles of Late 18th.C. Polynesia. Need actual, real-time experience of that Era to flesh out details, but strangely reluctant to leave 21st locked-down Melbourne and three generation Family just yet.  Need a potential Publisher to encourage consummation of Faust, et alii. 

In all this time as Looter, Smuggler, Imposter, contributed not a cent to the Grossness of the National Product, ain’t never paid no Taxes. Fifty Years of undetected Bending of the Law! Avoided Tar and Feathers, Time behind Bars, the Noose, solely because of Felicitous, Undeserved Marriage. 

Now, in 2022, with his Schooner “trapped” by Covid in Bali, the Captain is in sole command of a Sofa in Melbourne, facing the horrors of premature “retirement”; and only 83! After poring through faded fotos, dusty diaries and misty memories, he seeks to publish hundreds of stories allready writ, memories of old friends, and other Scoundrels, some allready passed, and of many other adventures near forgotten...before they fade away.

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