You need to be patient to spot tigers. The jeep stopped again for the umpteenth time as we listened for alarm calls from the deer announcing that a tiger was on the move. But all we could see as we peered into the undergrowth was more of the beautiful Sal forest. You have to be patient I kept reminding myself.
We were in Bandhavgarh National Park, supposedly one of the best places in India to see tigers, on our third safari drive and yet we were still out of luck. One of the advantages of the way we travel is that we are not on a fixed schedule, so I thought no problem we can just stay another day. One of the disadvantages with the Tiger parks is they are popular and we hadn’t booked entrance permits in advance. Even so a small number of jeep tickets were sold each day on a first come first served basis. So it was just a matter of queuing. I had become quite adept over the last few days of queuing Indian style.
On the morning of our third safari we had an advantage. We were parked up in the complex where the ticket office was. Each night the watchman locked the gates. The ticket office opened at 5am but the gates we were told would open sometime after 4am. The alarm went off at 4am and I quickly dressed in as many layers as I could and stumbled out into the freezing pitch black, I rooted myself directly in front of the ticket window knowing this time, I couldn’t be elbowed out of the way as other guys had tried to do previously. With so few last minute spots available, I was determined we were going to get in. Each jeep holds 6 people and as there were two other guys travelling independently they joined us for the morning safari. I am really glad they did.
It was late morning and we were just discussing doing it all again the next day when one of the other travellers shouted “Stop, I see something, back up”. We slowly backed up and could see something moving in the distance in the forest, it was a tiger. Then the guide said look there are two of them. Excitedly we watched as they walked towards us. It was a young female followed by a massive male. She was coming into season but was not ready for the male yet. He of course just kept following her, which she was not happy about and kept snarling and roaring her displeasure. They sat down about 30metres away shaded by some bush and we watched and waited. A few other jeeps arrived at which point the female stood up, now she was annoyed both by the male and the attention of the jeeps. She walked a step towards us, then crouched, her ears went back and she roared as she leapt towards us. Our guide shot up and shouted back at her and she didn’t advance anymore. Talk about your hairs standing up on the back of your neck.
The jeeps sensibly moved back a bit to allow a corridor for the tigers to move through. As they moved across the road we could see the big difference in size between the male and the female as well as enjoy their magnificence. And then no sooner had they moved off the road and they were gone blending back into the jungle. What a sight and privilege to witness such majestic animals in their natural habitat.
Whilst the previous two game safaris had not been as exciting we still got to see an array of Indian wildlife; sambar deer, spotted deer, wild boar, langur monkeys, barking deer as well as a wide range of birds. The reserve was like a tiny island of forest in the mass of humanity that is India. It was lovely to be in such a tranquil area and just a shame so few of these areas still exist. I suppose that’s what makes them more special.
We left Bandhavgarh NP and headed to Kanha NP which was supposedly the inspiration for the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. In this part of the state of Madhya Pradesh the roads were surprisingly good. It was a very rural area and the roads were narrow but they were well tarred and traffic was light. We could enjoy the scenery as we travelled of people working in the fields and the little villages we passed through.
At Kanha NP we found a hotel which had a big parking area we could stay in. The owner was very helpful and friendly, even standing in the queue with me for tickets the following day. The next morning was bitterly cold, there was frost in the grass, but we set out hopeful of more tiger. Kanha is home to some rare Swamp Deer and is the only park they are found in and we were lucky to see some as well as jackals and some of the same species of animals we had seen before. Gilly even saw a jungle cat but I was too slow and couldn’t see or photograph it. We did get to see a tiger again but a long way in the distance. We saw it stroll across some long grass before melting back into the jungle. For some such a fleeting glance would still be fantastic but now after our previous sighting we were greedy for more so we headed onto our third park, Pench NP.
On arrival we found an agent who could sort out the bookings for us, great no queuing. There was availability for the Monday morning after the weekend rush. It’s great to see so many locals enjoying their parks but it does make getting permits harder unless you book well in advance. With a day to kill we decided to take a safari in the buffer zone next to the park. We didn’t expect to see tiger (early morning is the best time) but it was still a pleasant drive where we could enjoy the animals and birds of the forest and as it was in the afternoon it was a lot warmer. We had camped up for the night just outside the village on effectively the village common land. People here were friendly without been over intrusive, sometimes an issue in India, and we had a pleasant wander around the village.
We were up early again for our last safari. Would we get lucky? Well we again saw an array of wildlife including Indian Bison which we had not seen before. Stopping to listen to the sounds of the jungle we could hear Deer alarm calls on both sides of us, signs of tigers moving but we couldn’t see anything. It all went quiet so we continued with the drive.
A short while later our driver returned to the area where the calls had been coming and there sat by a tree was a young male tiger. We weren’t the first jeep to see it and soon a number of jeeps were lined up along the road. The tiger started to move off and the jeeps started moving too. We were at the back and worried we would not see much but as the jeeps bunched together the tiger changed course and came around the back of us, not more than 10 metres from our jeep and with us having a wonderfully unobstructed view. After he crossed the road with nonchalance the tiger paused to scent mark a bush and then to proudly walk off into the jungle off which he is no doubt, the King.