Asia » India » Madhya Pradesh » Bandhavgarh National Park - 18th to 22nd January 2018
18.01.2018 - 22.01.2018 30 °C
...'In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry'
William Blake's original printing of his poem 'The Tyger', c.1795
With these words from the 18th-century poet William Blake ringing in our ears ('symmetry' can be made to rhyme with 'eye' - if you try!), we set forth from Rishikesh in the northern state of Uttarakhand on a journey of more than 1,000 kms (600 miles) south to Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
Our goal: to see a wild tiger (with an 'i', not a 'y'). We'd have been happy to see just one of the 2,000 or so remaining on the Indian subcontinent. It was something that had eluded us five years before, even after 20 hours of safaris in Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park, that most famous of tiger reserves.
Oh, and just in case we should be accused of giving up on the spiritual side of our trip, I should perhaps mention that, in Hindu culture, the tiger is a symbol of unlimited power. Indeed, a tiger was the chosen mode of travel for the invincible goddess Durga on her missions of war against demons!
I don’t remember which draft of our itinerary it was but, if we wanted the best chance of seeing tigers in the wild and to continue our spiritual journey in the holy cities of Allahabad and Varanasi and yet leave enough time for a week's wildlife tour in Rajasthan, we’d have to do this long journey in the shortest time possible. We had a choice of three ways:
- a 20-hour car ride from Rishikesh to Bandhavgarh, plus a night stop on the way (too long, too boring and too expensive - and too many 'too's too),
- the Kalinga Utkal Express train from Haridwar to Umaria (24 hours at least, involving a pre-dawn departure from Rishikesh by taxi to Haridwar, a full day's clickety-clack-clickety-clack, a disturbed night's sleep, an early arrival next morning at Umaria - all assuming the train wasn't delayed on the way of course), then an hour's taxi ride onwards to Bandhavgarh,
- a half-hour taxi ride at dawn from Rishikesh to Dehradun's Jolly Grant Airport, a little 72-seater turbo-prop ATR-72 aircraft for 50 minutes to Delhi, a late breakfast and doze at the airport for a few hours in the Plaza Premium Lounge, followed by lunch, another ATR-72 for two hours to Jabalpur, and finally a pre-arranged car for a four-hour drive to Bandhavgarh.
Okay, it wasn't ideal, but we opted for the last one, the most complicated but not the most expensive option and an opportunity to get it all over and done with in a day. Fortunately, the weather and St Joseph of Cupertino* were kind to us. Everything ran exactly as planned and bang on schedule. We did a fair amount of thumb-twiddling at airports, but we reached the delightful Tigergarh, just outside Bandhavgarh National Park's boundary and our home for the next four nights, in time for dinner.
Then followed a leisurely morning with a stroll around the local village and countryside. Later in our stay here, we'd venture into the park for four half-day safaris and a final bird-watching afternoon.
From the moment we were greeted on arrival until we were bid farewell four days later, much of our time was spent in the company of new-found friend Gagan Gahlot, the amiable owner of Tigergarh.
He went out of his way to ensure that whatever googlies were bowled his way they'd always be batted into the outfield. He wasn't even phased when Bandhavgarh's wildlife rangers and official jeep drivers (all of whom are required to accompany every visitor entering the park) went on an all-out strike towards the end of our stay. He simply took us in his own jeep and hired a member of the Forestry Department's office staff to accompany us. I did begin to wonder whether Gagan was actually a male incarnation of Durga. Ride that tiger, Gagan!
Readers of one of my Indian blogs from a few years ago will recall that the 'garh' in 'Bandhavgarh' means 'fort' (A 'garh' is a fort). The 'Bandhav' bit is a Sanskrit word meaning 'brother'. So now we have 'Brother's Fort'.
There's a third-century fort (among the very oldest in the entire country) on a hill here. It's believed to have been given by the god Rama to his younger brother Lakshman (he of Laksham Jhula fame - 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da...'), hence the name. The fort later became the property of various ruling dynasties as part of their hunting estates. In 1917, the most recent rulers relocated their capital an hour north to Rewa, relinquishing their land to the state government, which turned it into a national park some 50 years later. I think the fort may still belong to the erstwhile Maharaja of Rewa.
The hill on which the fort is located. You might also spot a couple of deer and a peacock in this picture!
The core area of the national park remains at its original 105 sq kms (40½ sq miles). Its boundaries have been extended over the years and, including buffer zones, it now covers some 450 sq kms (173¾ sq miles). I've seen other figures suggesting it might be even larger. Whatever, it's a huge area that provides sanctuary to an amazing quantity and variety of animals and birds - 22 species of mammals and 250 species of birds at the last count. We saw many of these and photographed some, but this park is particularly well-known for one rare species in particular. Yes, Bandhavgarh is claimed to have the highest population density of mighty tigers anywhere in India. That's what really brought us here, of course!
Much of the park is made up of sparse, dry undergrowth, but there are large wooded areas of native Sal trees interspersed with swathes of tall yellow and green bamboo. There are rocky hill ranges, some grassy swamps and forested valleys too. The core area is divided into five zones and within each of these are several specified routes that vehicles have to follow. Gagan had booked our safaris to show us a variety of terrain and wildlife in the very best zones - these took us twice into the central Tala zone and once into each of Magdhi to the south and Khitauli to the west.
Although safari vehicles, open four-wheel-drive jeeps or Gypsys, stick to the well-worn tracks within their zones, the area is so large and the number of visitors strictly limited to 20 jeeps per zone (less in Khitauli, I think) for each morning and evening safari time, that we were frequently on our own. Compared to the crowded, over-commercialized Ranthambore National Park this was positively luxurious - as, indeed, were the well-maintained, albeit rather dusty tracks.
In the chill of dawn before breakfast or after a lunchtime nap in the late-afternoon warmth, on each of our safaris we headed first to the park's main gate to collect a ranger-guide (unless they were on strike!) and then drove on to our allotted zone in 'the jungle'.
The drivers, guides and Gagan all had the eyes of eagles, spotting birds and animals we two lesser mortals might have so easily missed.
'There's a Chital among the trees over there...'
'Look, up there in the fork of that tree, it's a Scops Owl...'
'On that dead branch - there's a Coppersmith Barbet...'
'Down by the stream, that's a Lesser Adjutant...'
'Stop the jeep, that's a jackal...'
'Keep still. Stay quiet. There's a Jungle Cat coming out of the grass over there...'
On morning safaris, we'd take a break halfway in a shaded clearing surrounded by tall Sal trees with crows cawing loudly overhead in anticipation. There, we'd take a cup of hot, sweet masala chai from local villagers who'd been permitted to set up a refreshment stall. Then, our driver would spread a tablecloth on the Jeep's bonnet and open a wicker picnic-basket thoughtfully provided by Gagan for a simple but much-needed breakfast - hygienic hand gel to wipe away the dust, a carton of fruit juice, a sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a banana or two perhaps.
Afterwards, we'd continue our search for the star attraction - the largest of all Asian big cats, the apex predator, India's national animal, Rudyard Kipling's 'Shere Khan', the endangered Panthera tigris tigris - the Bengal Tiger.
These huge, beautiful, and usually solitary animals jealously guard large territories, patrolling quietly and stealthily, superbly camouflaged by their fabulous markings. As there were so few in such a vast terrain, we were unlikely to come across one by chance. They were extremely difficult to spot too, so our driver would stop from time to time to examine the dusty track for footprints or he'd switch off the engine and listen for alarm calls from deer or peacocks that might give a hint to the presence of a predator.
The best indicators were rangers mounted on elephants who set forth on patrol most mornings to seek out the elusive tigers, reporting their findings to any jeep drivers they encountered along the way. Bush telegraph then spread the word and soon a small cluster of vehicles would arrive at a likely spot and their occupants would wait patiently for a sighting.
This park ranger's t-shirt says: 'Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman'. Wise words!
Late on our very first afternoon drive, we encountered a tiger - no, we were mistaken, there were two - some distance away, concealed beneath the shade of broad-leaved trees, one on her back with a leg in the air and the other on its side farther away to the left. How they'd even been noticed by the vehicle ahead of us, we didn't know - there were no signs of movement to give them away. We jokingly decided that they were either dead or pump-up dummies placed here for the entertainment of tourists!
Tyger, Tyger, sleeping tight!
(With apologies to William Blake)
After half an hour, the unconcerned duo had still failed to stir. It became clear that they were sleeping off a very heavy lunch and unlikely to wake up any time soon. So, elated at no longer being tiger-virgins, we headed home.
Next day, we'd drawn a blank on our morning safari - just deer, Spotted Owlet, occasional bulbuls and hoophoes, a group of vultures, some ibis, sandpipers, kingfishers and rollers, storks in a tree...
On our afternoon drive, however, as the sun began to dip, a large female tiger suddenly appeared among dry grass, clumps of bamboo and spindly tree trunks away to our right. Hearts racing and camera shutters chattering in burst mode, we watched entranced as she strolled gracefully through the trees and out into the long grass. There, she stood still for a moment checking us out, then walked on, lay down, looked at us again, got back up, and disappeared into the undergrowth. Wow - a truly magical sight.
'In what distant deeps or skies, Burnt the fire of thine eyes.'
(Another quote from William Blake's poem 'Tyger')
Our driver continued slowly up the wide, dusty track. Without warning, the same cat reappeared from behind a tree just a few feet from the jeep, catching us unawares and unprepared. We stopped abruptly. She stopped too, casually glanced our way, marked the tree trunk with a quick spray from her rear, sauntered across the road and quickly disappeared once again among the shaded woods. That minute was just a fleeting rendezvous with this magnificent beast, but it was one that will remain with me for years to come.
Incredibly, on our final morning safari, we saw yet another tigress ambling along among distant trees. She was aware of us, stood still and stared for a while, then turned her back and walked away.
Four safaris, four tigers. Mission accomplished.
Or was it...?
These were all females. We didn't see a single male tiger.
I'll have to come back.
As if I needed an excuse!
Tigergarh, Bandhavgarh National Park (http://www.tigergarh.com, Telephone: +91 9922820103 / 7489826868 / 9407583050)
You can stay in swanky hotels, where you'll be anonymous, just another tourist, a number - or you can stay at Tigergarh, where you'll be treated like a long-lost friend.
It's an oasis of greenery with bungalow-style cottages spread among deliberately neglected gardens - wild forest pigs keep digging everything up! Here you'll be very comfortable in one of a dozen or so simple but well-equipped rooms with chairs on their terraces to while away the few hours not spent out on safari. Among the grounds are several thatched pavilions with chairs for casual snoozing or outdoor gatherings, a plunge pool for cooling off in the hottest of weathers and even a private shrine for prayers to a variety of gods. Oh, and there's another shallow pool - for turtles and frogs - beside the restaurant door.
In the restaurant, two of the hotel's local, willing and friendly staff (the ever-smiling Ashok and Manod) will ensure you enjoy breakfast and a variety of mainly Indian meals with the cook's occasional take on 'continental' food too. There's also a lovely terrace above the characterful reception area, where you can enjoy a magnificent display of bougainvillea, relax with a beer in the shade or sometimes take dinner.
But it's not just the grounds, the rooms, food and informal service that make this such a great place to stay. It's owned and run by Gagan Gahlot, a passionate wildlife expert who's more interested in sharing his knowledge and experience with his guests than in making huge profits. Of course, he has his attentive manager Kuldeep and a few other staff to help with the hotel's everyday operation, but he's almost always on hand to offer personal help and advice. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and his presence and involvement made it particularly memorable.
It's important to note that, like most other hotels catering to safari visitors, your stay here will be organized as an inclusive package. Email or phone Gagan with your requirements (he speaks perfect English) and he'll confirm a price including accommodation, meals and safaris. He'll handle everything for you - and very efficiently too.
You should also be aware that there's no Wi-Fi, and usually, no telephone network to distract you either - it's in the middle of a tiger reserve, what do you expect?!
Everyone loves a sunset!
For my brother David's take on our adventure, take a look at his blogs here.
*St Joseph of Cupertino is one of the patron saints of airline passengers - he could fly, although without an aircraft!