There are so many things I am grateful about as a consequence of our decision to move to India. Simply driving around the streets of Pune, doing everyday jobs allows me to see and do things that I could never do while living in the UK. It is winter, yet it is 34 degrees and I am in shorts and t-shirts – that itself is something to be eternally grateful for!
Some of those things for which I am grateful are everyday things – just part of my daily life. There are privileges however that I should never forget are privileges. The ability to join two golf clubs and learn to play a sport that is often untenable for the non well-off in the UK (same here but our companies pays for membership), is an example of just one.
The ability to travel is however another major privilege that I am eternally grateful for. Since arriving in India, we have spent 3 weeks in Australia (although that was arranged prior to moving), a week in Kerala, 3 weeks in the UK / Ireland and now a week on tiger safari in Madhya Pradesh. I am also in the process of organising a week long trek in the Himalayas for Diwali at the end of October. In addition to the trip to the Maldives in April and at least two visits to Goa between now and then. Oh what a lucky, lucky girl I am!
Having never been on a safari of any description before (does my trip to a local dam to go Flamingo watching and Chinkarra spotting – count??), I really had no idea what to expect.
After a quick flight to Nagpur from Pune and then a 2 1/2 hour drive to Pench Tiger Reserve we arrived at our hotel – Tuli Tiger Corridor. Myself and Chris and his parents who were with us have no real need for super fancy five star hotels – now don’t get me wrong, we aren’t going to turn them down (so you lovely hoteliers who would like me to write a blog about your hotel – don’t be put off asking me!). This lack of need was a good thing because although Tuli Tiger Corridor was lovely it was a little jaded and service could be described as more eccentric then perhaps silver service.
Our cottage was lovely – beautifully furnished and a bathroom to die for (although of course it was a little in need of some TLC). Food was great, perhaps a little repetitive to the non-Indian who struggles to differentiate between one curry and another.
Most of the staff were locals, trained up the MP government and the hotel itself. Their enthusiasm to serve you and to talk to you about tigers was boundless. This was really heart-warming to see. Unlike many men (boys really) of their age in the UK who perhaps might see waiting jobs as something to endure until they have a better opportunity, these boys seemed to have boundless energy for it including sprinting across the restaurant one day when I asked for a bottle of water.
One thing hit us even before we ventured out on our first safari the afternoon we arrived – it was cold, really cold. By that I mean UK winter cold!! During the day temperatures rose to over 30 degrees but once the sun began to set, temperatures plummeted to 3 degrees or so. Luckily, I had packed a pair of jeans, I literally stood in front of my bag thinking, ‘will I or won’t I?’. I threw them in in the end as I had room. I had brought a little long sleeve top for the evenings (just in case you know) but the woolly jumper I also debated about was left at home!!
Our afternoon safari started off warm but by the end we were all gibbering monkeys. A good warning perhaps that the morning drive would be even colder! Morning, proved to be even colder than we imagined – wearing literally all the clothes I had brought with me and two pairs of socks we set off at 5.45 a.m. Even wrapped in a blanket, it was freezing.
The morning safaris always proceeded in the same way – I started the day with an empty rucksack and as time progressed, it was filled with my clothes until I was left in just my jeans and a short sleeved top. Evenings were the opposite, starting off with a full bag until I was wearing all of its contents! Next time I go on safari, I can assure you, I will be more prepared!
If you go on tiger safari thinking you will definitely see a tiger you may well be disappointed. We had 10 drives (about 40 hours in total) and saw three tigers for a total time of probably15 minutes!. Worth it though I can assure you.
The rest of our drives involved driving through the forest – Pench was a mix of open teak forests and wide meadows. The drought the area was experiencing made the water holes (picie taleb in Hindi – learnt some incredibly useful Hindi while away) magnets for local wildlife – deer (spotted and sambar), wild boar, monkeys (by the million with adorable babies), herons, storks, egrets, kingfishers (more varieties than I even knew existed!), bison, wild cows, peacocks, butterflies, hawks, eagles – I could go on and on. I will let the photos do the explaining below.
Spotting a tiger is theoretically easy – you listen for alarm calls from monkeys and deer or you hear the tiger roar (chalarna – to roar in Hindi) then you drive to where you heard the noise and Bob’s your Uncle – there is a tiger. A deer will make an alarm call when the tiger (bhaag) is in sight – therefore getting to the alarm call gets you within 50 – 100m of the tiger. Easy right!
Well no, first of all deer don’t see a tiger, make an alarm call and sit patiently waiting for jeeps to turn up and then point and say – ‘hey, there he is!). No, well what would you do if you saw an animal that could run damn fast coming towards you – you would run too! So the call moves and not always in the expected direction. Plus the deer and tiger don’t co-ordinate their actions so that they stay near where there are roads. 80% of Pench Tiger Reserve has no public access so at times we got close to calls but our driver wasn’t allowed go any further or there was no access roads to get closer.
It did make for an exciting time. You felt you were the police detecting clues and then on a car chase to find the culprit! Drivers / guides would excitedly share news of calls or if they were lucky sights. Other times they would drive expectantly towards each other, shake their heads and drive on. It seemed in Pench all the guides and drivers worked together – they wanted to make sure that all visitors saw a tiger. Kahna on the other hand seemed more competitive. Drivers and guides would share information but when it came to possible sightings they would jostle each other for position and as consequence often block the view of others.
5 drives almost passed with no tiger sightings, our naturalist – Umi, was clearly getting frustrated as he was desperate to ensure that we had a sighting before we left! 10 minutes from the end we saw a tiger! I didn’t expect to be so moved by the experience. They are truly majestic awe-inspiring animals. This one was a little shy and slunk away quickly. The experienced guides however knew where he was headed (his name was Chota Charger by the way) – to the water hole! Only problem is that if we went, we would be late back to the gate. Umi hesitated but when others decided to go, he decided there was safety in numbers and off we flew! For another 10 minutes we sat and watched him walk through the meadows to the water hole – incredible! We did arrive 20 minutes late to the gate but we think we got away with it – I would happily have paid any fine Umi had to pay – it would have been worth it!
The next day we ate breakfast (at 8 a.m. – so, so late!) and drove for 5 hours to Kanha Tiger Reserve. Stopping en-route, I bought a fleece and some leggings for under my jeans from a local market. At the end of negotiations, I looked around to find myself surrounded by gawking men astounded at this white woman speaking Hindi! It was the first time I had used my Hindi for practical reasons and it felt amazing!
Chitvan Lodge in Kanha was definitely less ostentatious than Tuli Tiger Corridor but it also seemed more real. The staff were much better trained but still in a rustic enthusiastic fashion that felt comfortable and not forced in any way. Again the place was a little jaded but that wasn’t an issue at all. All of the food came from the local villages or from their own organic garden. It was yummy! Again perhaps for the foreign taste a little repetitive but for those who know Indian food it wasn’t.
There was a gorgeous pool that unfortunately at this time of year was freezing. As the afternoons were glorious, to sit out in the sun between drives was ideal – often of course accompanied by a little snooze. The difference here however was while in Tuli there were lovely soft cushions, here there was nothing but hard wooden sun beds, not at all conducive to an afternoon snooze. My snoozing instead had to happen on the charpoy outside our room or in bed.
Again it was bitterly cold in the mornings but this time we got in addition to our blankets, hot water bottles – genius!!
Our drives continued in the same format as Pench but this time we drove through thick Sal forests – a tree only found in India.
This was harder to see through, which in its own way took away from the experience but this time there was no water shortage and water bodies abounded, the meadows were larger and vibrant with wild life. So pluses and minuses to both locations but Pench probably would have won over Kanha slightly if it were not for our two tiger sightings!
Yes, two! One late in our fourth drive and one early in our last and final drive. Umeerpane appeared on the edge of the forest briefly and then disappeared down a gully and wasn’t seen again.
Bema, on the other hand, was seen down a gully and then came up onto to the road and wandered towards us with absolute confidence. This however is where the lack of team work between the guides became a problem. They jostled for position, cut each others view off so that the clients in their car could get a better view. This resulted in our jeep and another effectively blocking each other so no one could move. Consequently, neither jeep could keep reversing up the road, the tiger had no where to go but off the road and so we lost sight of him! A little frustrating to say the least. However, to see a tiger no more than 15m from you was amazing. I felt like I could get out of the car and rub his head as you would a domestic cat – clearly this would have been incredibly stupid.
What an experience though! Wow! Those three sightings were worth every minute (sometimes gibbering minute) of the 40 hours we spent in those jeeps. The cross-country bumpy ride was worth it – anything would have been worth it! Incredible.
Our drive from Kanha to the airport in Nagpur was a little painful – 6 hours: on rough roads for at least the first 3 hours. Nagpur airport was completely chaos and so so loud; you couldn’t help but know you were in India! Our flight was delayed and I must be honest after a 5.30 a.m. get up by midnight when we returned home there was a bit of a grumpathon going on. Somehow all marriages emerged intact – somehow!
After Kerala, I said that I would happily share details of our travels agents with you if you contact me. This was because I didn’t like our travel agents but the driver was so amazing that I would use the agents again in order to have Manoj as my driver. This time however I can only say that Sharad Vets of Nature Safari India was amazing. Without hesitation I would use them again. They will certainly be my first call when it comes to booking any sort of safari in India. Amazing! I should say I have not been paid for this endorsement in any way shape or form but sometimes good people and good companies should be recognised for being great!
All pictures except for that of me were taken by Chris Ironside. My picture was taken by Deborah Clearwater from Embracing India.