This trip had one objective – to see Tigers in the wild. With the perilous state of the world Tiger population, and the reported tightening of the number of visitors allowed by the government to the reserves, we decided the time was right to go in search of them. Any subsequent sightings of other wildlife, such as birds or other mammals, would be as a consequence of being in the Tiger reserves. We did latch a little culture to the beginning and end of the trip, with a day in Delhi and a day in Agra (home of the Taj Mahal). Even here, some species of bird were seen only at these unlikely places, such as Brown Rock Chat and Brown-headed Barbet (the latter was only heard elsewhere).
So where to go and for how long? One fact is true about seeing Tigers, and that is they are not guaranteed. A Tiger safari bears little resemblance to its Kenyan congener, where wildlife is more or less served up on a plate. While parks can be chosen with decent (comparatively) cat populations, their habitat is usually thick forest and they do tend to favour concealment. Some of the traditional parks, such as Ranthambor and Pench, have had their populations decimated, so we went for Kanha and Bandhavgarh, which both have healthy Tiger populations. We also felt that 3 nights in both, giving a total of 11 safaris, would give enough time in the field to maximise our chances of sightings.
There were various options of how to arrange the trip. Friends have found organising the whole tour independently to be slightly cheaper and more flexible, but we were looking for some professional organisation. After comparing a few travel agencies, Trailfinders balanced a reasonable cost with a more or less ideal itinerary, and also offered a tailor made service so that we could alter any part of the tour to suit our needs, and also did not have to share the journey in a group. Both the parks are some distance from airports, so decisions on transport had to be made. For Bandhavgarh, the best option is the train, with a major station at Umaria, about 35km (1 hour) from the park. This runs directly to Delhi (a 19 hour stretch) and also Agra (14 hours, which we did to see the Taj Mahal). Kanha is a 6 hour drive from Bandhavgarh, and can also be reached by flying to Nagpur, then driving for 6 hours to the reserve. As part of the Trailfinders organisation, we were picked up and driven each time by a driver in a 4 wheel drive.
Perhaps the best time to visit is between January and April. February and March are probably ideal, since April is quieter for other wildlife, and January can be particularly cold. However, work commitments pointed towards the latter, and it proved to be an excellent choice. Despite the weather warming up during this 4 month period, the early morning starts can be very cold, and this is compounded by the wind chill on the back of the moving jeep. On the plus side, it keeps biting insects to a minimum – I saw only 1 mosquito during the trip. We had clear blue skies throughout.
Kanha is a relatively large reserve, and currently holds a population of around 90 Tigers, although only 25% of the park is open to tourists. Much of the reserve consists of thick forest, giving the Tigers ample opportunity for concealment. Safaris are for 5 hours in the morning (from first light), and 3 hours in the late afternoon. Entry seems to be from one gate. There is no radio communication between the jeeps, so any finds are passed on by word of mouth or luck. 4 mahouts on elephants search before sunrise, and radio in to a central point if they have made a find. Following permission from the park ranger, short rides on the elephants can then be made to see any resting Tigers in close up. The lodges serving the park seem to be spread out in varying distances from the entrance. We were based at Chitvan Lodge, which was a handy 10 minute drive away. The 12 rooms are very spacious, and the basis of the establishment is as an eco lodge. Due to its remote location, electricity here can be sporadic, with the management trying to guarantee it running between 6pm and midnight. Plugs are an interesting affair, since they can accept various standards. The most reliable is the Indian round pin, but all sockets seemed to accept European standards (although they didn’t always work).
This reserve is smaller in area than Kanha, but has a higher density of Tigers (around 55 currently). It is said that there is a greater chance of seeing them here, since the habitat is much less dense, and our experience certainly did not disprove this. Even so, some safaris went by without any being seen by any of the jeeps. There are 3 gates which allow entrance to the reserve, although gate #1 is the favoured one (gate #2 is used if the limit of 32 is reached at gate #1). Not all the tracks are allowed to be used these days, so jeeps are allocated out of the four available routes on any safari (imaginatively labelled A to D). As with Kanha, there is no radio communication between jeeps, and there seems to be a lot of competition between each one to get the best views (leading to mad driving at a sighting and apparent suppression of some information).
Many of the lodges are located in the village of Tala, which is more or less adjacent to gate #1, and so very close. Our choice of Tiger’s Den was one of these, and was a bit of an oasis from the main street of the village. The rooms were spacious and clean, with very tidy wall enclosed grounds. It has to be said that the food served by both of the lodges we used was of a very good and standard with plenty of variety.