Friday, May 22, 2009

Bhedaghat, Kanha and Bandhavgarh

It had been just over a month since we had returned from Bandhavgarh in Dec, and once again I wanted to venture out, a longish weekend a month away seemed very alluring. Only this time it wasn’t going to be Bandhavgarh. I decided on going to Kanha, a national park at the heart of tiger conservation, and a conservation success story for the rare Hardground Barasingha which has been brought back from the brink of extinction.

More than 1000 sqkm of pristine, un spoilt, tiger habitat, peppered with grasslands, bamboo thickets and towering Sal trees, was what swung it in favour of Kanha. Located in state of Madhyapradesh, Kanha adorns itself with numerous species of birds and mammals, with Tiger and Hardground Barasingha as its flagship species. I sounded off my plans to one and all, in a bid to muster enough people which would make this trip economical and fun.

To my great surprise, this time it wasn’t difficult to “sell” a wildlife excursion over the mundane, holiday resort, to any of them. Having experienced the wild side of nature in Bandhavgarh and bitten by “Tiger bug”, every one wanted to be in thick of the action this time. Within a day of announcing the plan I was busy doing our travel and accommodation bookings.

Our Group

1) Sona – Always ready for any outing, she was the first one to extend support, and set the stone rolling

2) Jigs – Bandhavgarh, was a trip with this gurl after a long time and by the time we returned, I was sure, not to miss her out on any forthcoming ones.

3) Swaps- A true Goan, just wanted to get out of Goa, and go somewhere, anywhere, even if that meant a jungle full of wild beasts.

4) Keshu – later rechristened as “Khadoo” (during the trip) jumped at it from Bangalore.

5) Songhi – Didn’t know what to expect but was influenced enough and decided to tag along anyways.

Days passed by and with one week left for the trip, all of us were very excited, “Must carry” and “To do” lists were finding their way into mailboxes pretty regularly, with Songhi going to the extent of getting a tetanus shot in preparation for the wild adventure, others were being modest by limiting themselves to carrying “Odomos”.

All set, we met at CST station to board our train, Keshu had flown in from Bangalore and was being escorted by “Chintu” to solve mysteries of Mumbai roads. Swaps was there waiting for us at the “intersection where local trains and outbound trains are stationed”. With everyone reaching on time, we boarded the train 15 mins earlier. However we had a tall task to accomplish. Our seats were in general compartment with few of them separated by two coaches in between. Everyone who has traveled Indian railways with large groups will know the trouble and fun that ensues to maintain the cohesiveness of the group by exchanging/negotiating/bartering or otherwise, by simply stealing the seats. Putting our hard earned negotiation skills to test we managed to get 6 cohesive seats, huuuuffff!

Glad with our acheivement of sorts, we started our journey, food was provided, courtesy Swaps, who thought of us as some gluttons from godforsaken land. She had packed 10 grilled sandwiches generously topped with ketchup for 5 of us. After the meal we had settled in for a chat and a game of cards when, from like my worst nightmare the original allotee of the seat with whom I had negotiated a “win-win” deal came to reclaim his seat, the reason, our seats in the other compartment were encroached upon by some gypsies (Travelers (usually ticketless) who frequent Indian rails to travel short distances) and were making it uncomfortable. I had to oblige and soon after that we decided to hit bed.

The next morning I had to passed through arduous terrain formed by, out-of-place luggage and interspersed, gypsies, who had by now swarmed the reserved coaches, and sat blocking the pathway of two coaches in between.. But this trek hadn’t prepared me enough for what I was about to see. On reaching the rest of the guys, I saw Keshu in most precarious situation with a gypsy allowing him a share of the bed, which by now looked, as if it was paid for, by the gypsy himself. Waking Keshu out of sleep and ignorance to his state, we “requested” the gypsy to relinquish the encroached area, to which he reluctantly agreed. The rest of our journey was smooth sailing with numerous games of cards punctuated with snack break.

Day 1 :

We soon reached our first destination, Jabalpur and packed ourselves into an uncomfortable vehicle to head towards Bhedaghat. Me and Keshu celebrated completing of first leg of our journey with a chilled beer. By the time we had emptied our beer cans we were at Bhedaghat, and decided to halt for lunch at MPTDC resort there. This place has a breathtaking view of the marble gorge through which river Narmada flows. If at all one decides to stay at Bhedaghat, this is the place.

Dhuandhar waterfalls was next on our list and we were awestruck by the violent beauty of this water fall. At 50-70 meters wide, this waterfall surely humbles you with the force of the curdling white water that gushes into the gorge of Bhedaghat. After numerous exclamations and some mundane photography sessions, we moved on for the ropeway ride which gives an aerial view of the falls. A sight not to be missed we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. By now we were running late for the boat ride.

We began the boat ride with eloquent commentary from the guide. The guides here highlight the beauty of Marble Rocks with their poetic narration of each of the numerous spots in the course of the river. Their poetic expression is both funny and interesting. Traversing upstream we were increasingly getting into stronger currents and narrowing gorge. Marble cliffs on both side looked fabulous and with every turn round the winding river, we were experiencing artwork of nature.

By the time we ended the ride it was dark and locals were offering their prayers to river, Narmada, it was spiritual experience, similar to one I had at Haridwar where people pray to goddess Ganga. It was beautiful experience. The beauty of this place and the prayer experience had sobered us for some time and at 7.00 pm, we began with our onward journey to Kanha.

After 5 long and un eventful hours we reached our resort. Finally, there was enough room to stretch our stressed bodies. Food was ordered for tired bodies and spirits refreshed our fatigued minds. Reflecting back on an eventful day we hit the sack.

Day 2 :

This was our first park drive in Kanha National Park. Excited, we woke up early and got into the safari vehicle. “First time” is always more exciting. We were seeing Kanha for the first time ever. Unlike Bandhavgarh, the forest here is thick, meadows are huge swathes of land your sight can’t behold, and the Sal forest here is unlike any I have seen before. Trees are tall and seem to be touching the sky, one constantly keeps shuttling between meadows and woodlands to see a variety of wildlife that this ecosystem supports.

We roamed the forests for long, hoping to see a tiger, but to no avail. By noon we had dropped our hopes of seeing the big cat on our first safari and were finding, bliss in sighting lesser mammals and birds of Kanha. A peacock dancing to woo the peahens, kept us glued to a spot for long. It was fantastic to see him dance. We were glad to have had a glimpse of Barasingha in the enclosure where they are being bred, to be released in wild later. There was less hope of spotting a tiger now and we decided to visit the Interpretation centre in Kanha, its very good and informative of the park and its species. There was no “elephant show” happening that day, as all elephants were busy tracking a tigress which was going to be relocated to Panna National Park, where the tiger had gone locally extinct, due to rampant poaching and destruction of habitat by uncontrolled mining activity.

The safari ended with a close encounter with a massive hulk. A bull Gaur, a 1000 Kg bovine was busy munching on leaves and had blocked our way, It seemed very much like a traffic jam in any of our metros, only this time, no one was crazy about it. We felt miniscule in front of this muscular beast. His every action highlighted his well toned muscles. Songhi was quick to comment on the amount of protein supplement one would need to get a toned body like that.

Our driver dropped us off at the resort and told us, that he will come to pick us up at 3.00 pm for the evening safari. After lunch it was time to catch up on some sleep. Mid afternoon, some one knocked the door. There was a bad news. The locals were protesting shifting of tigress to Panna as they believed that, the government was robbing them off their livelihood. They were arguing that, it doesn’t make sense to relocate a tigress from Kanha to Panna where, nearly 25 tigers went missing (read as poached) in a span of 3 years, without establishing the cause for and remedial action for the loss. They had a valid point.

Panna another large national park in Madhyapradesh with a healthy tiger population was stripped off its tigers by a nexus of poachers and allegedly lax administration. Till a year back the park authorities had maintained that the park had a healthy population of tigers, and there was no need to raise alarm. Sadly even after Sariska, we don’t seem to have learnt much and tigers of Panna have gone the Sariska way. In an attempt to save their face, authorities have relocated two tigresses, one each from Bandhavgarh and Kanha to Panna, claiming that the lone male (They claim to be roaming in Panna) in Panna will help repopulate Panna. Alas this male was not spotted or heard for more than 30 days before the relocation, raising doubts about his wellbeing. Given the backdrop, the strike seemed justified. The future of tiger and wildlife in general in India seems precariously balanced in between few remaining wildlife strongholds on one side and lack of political will, lax administration, poaching, human pressure and vested interests of industrialists on the other. The odds right now are heavily stacked against the striped cat.

In Kanha a token strike was called earlier and I had shrugged off the worry and assured others that there will be no strike when we will be around. However the park was going to remain closed for the evening and there was a fair bit of chance of it remaining closed for days to come. That would mean a complete spoiler and with safaris only in a closed top vehicle, there was no chance for photography either. We were told that negotiations are on and the striking guides were not allowing the chopper to take off with the tigress who had been already tranquilized. A breakthrough in negotiation by night would mean that we still will be able to take 4 of our remaining safaris.

We decided to wait and see. In the evening we went on a nearby nature trail and then to the interpretation centre where a documentary was aired, after the same we went to the local provision store for tea and some snacks, here we came to know that the tigress was finally airlifted to Panna, and the guides had decided to strike work in protest, no one was sure of the outcome or the timeline. By staying put and hoping for park to open we were risking a lot. A quick call to Mukesh, a friend and tour arranger, convinced us to bid goodbye to Kanha. Options were Bandhavgarh and Pench National Park, Sona and Jigs were quick to support Bandhavgarh, and though we were sad about missing out on Kanha, somewhere in our hearts we were happy too. Bandhavgarh has been a place with wonderful memories and 3 of us, me Jigs and Sona, were super confident of tiger sightings in Bandhavgarh. It was enough to convince others.

With decision made to travel overnight, we started to work out options, Kanha being a remote place it wasn’t easy to arrange for a vehicle at a short notice, and waiting another day would mean, only 3 safaris in Bandhavgarh, which we didn’t want. Mukesh once again was of great help and arranged for a vehicle for 6 of us. We had to be quick, in less than 3 hours we were heading for Bandhavgarh. Luggage was least of our worries and soon enough we were all set to roll.

Well, it was promised to be a tough journey on worst of the roads in the country, and rather than reliving our body and mind after the tiring journey we decided to proactively counter the ill effects of fatigue by preparing ourselves in advance. A bottle of Vodka, was there to our rescue, it helped us overcome the setback and we did fit ourselves in an even more uncomfortable vehicle. Reflecting back on how we traveled that night, I find it amusing. There was no carrier on this vehicle either and we crammed ourselves with all our luggage in the passenger compartment. I would like to put it on record, alcohol helps in easing pain. It surely did that fateful night. The roads were the worst I had seen in long long time. Traveling in a cramped vehicle didn’t help either.

The road passed through jungle and it was in our best interest to stay awake, and make sure that our driver wouldn’t be tempted to take a nap. Tired to bone, every one made themselves comfortable. Keshu has a knack of finding comfort at most unusual places and this turned out to his advantage. He practically molded himself according to space availability. The drive at night too wasn’t any less exciting than a safari, with many Chinkaras, spotted deer and a lone fox being spotted on the way.

Day 3 :

After starting at 11.30 pm from Kanha, we had reached Bandhavgarh in the wee hours of morning. Mukesh had made arrangements for us at one of the resorts and safari bookings were also taken care off. It felt nice to untangle ourselves when we finally stepped out of the vehicle. After reaching Bandhavgarh at 4.30 am, some of us caught up on sleep and we were ready by 6.30 am to enter Bandhavgarh. Me, Jigs and Sona had spoken so much about Bandhavgarh that the rest of group thought of it like some magical land, where all of ones wishes would come true.

Disappointment in Kanha, nor the lack of sleep had dented our spirits when we entered Bandhavgarh, We were allotted the worst of the routes, and the most bumpy one too. The next one hour passed by without anything to write about. Few hours later, we reached the center point, where there was some good news for us. We were told that a tigress was being spotted from elephants back and we dashed off to the place. The tigress being sighted was known as “Chorbehra female”. A tigress in her prime, she surely was a sight to behold.

We reached the spot of “elephant show” behind a lot of vehicles, we waited for our turn in the gypsy, elated at the thought of being so close to a wild tigress. Soon enough, a giant lumbered close to us. This tusker was going to be our next 4x4 for moments to come. 4 of us, myself, Songhi, Keshu, Swaps climbed up on to our vantage point and set off into the forest. The elephant despite its size, dexterously maneuvered us atop the hillock, with abated breath we scanned the topography for the big cat. Swaps was a bit uncomfortable at the top and was busy negotiating the foliage which was hitting us on the way. The elephant with its human load, in the mean time had climbed the incline. Through the forest the mahout pointed towards a bamboo thicket.

We took some time to spot the tigress which was well hidden in the foliage. All of us restlessly repositioned our selves to get a good glimpse of this tigress. Slowly the elephant moved closer to her. Now, we had forgotten about the bamboo stems hitting us and leaving their marks on our bodies, as the elephant inched closer to the tigress. We had attuned all our senses to capture the beauty of this magnificent cat.

Soon the elephant was right in front of the tigress, it was a little too close for our comfort. Though the elephant with its overwhelming presence was very close to the tigress, she hadn’t acknowledged our presence, as if she was oblivious to us being there. She sat there, perfectly still, silent, camouflaged, and focused. Only thing one could hear was the pounding of our hearts and camera shutters, which were merrily capturing her beauty.

We were sitting their frozen, by her overpowering presence. After some time we had stopped taking any more pictures and mesmerized by her. Soon enough it was time to move back and the elephant once again started making its way through the forest. It was only after she was completely out of sight that we erupted in excitement and started recounting our moments with the queen herself. Sona and Jigs were eagerly waiting for their turn, as by then they were the only ones left.

Me and swaps looking at each other declined to get off the elephants back and decided to go for another round with Sona and Jigs. It was only, later that we would realize how lucky we were, to have taken this decision. We reached the same spot, the tigress was still there, she hadn’t moved an inch. Her eyes fixated on the bamboo thicket. Now, there were just two elephants around her (ours and one other) instead of 4 earlier. With more freedom for movement she decided to make a move. She quickly got low to the ground, with her belly almost touching the ground and her ears pulled back, she was moving cautiously. It was then we realized that, we were in middle of a hunt. There was a herd of Sambhars in the valley and the elephants with tourists were impeding her way earlier. Now with lesser elephants around, she was making her move.

Crouching low to ground, she went around our elephant, very cautiously. She circumvented the small hillock and hid herself behind the tree. She was now right on top of ridge. I could feel the blood pumping through my veins with excitement. She once again crouched low and inched towards her prey. Were we going to witness a hunt here? Will she be able to kill the deer? We sat there in silence, only our pounding hearts were giving it away. Just then, there was an alarm call, the hunt had been spoilt, she had been spotted, with the element of surprise lost she aborted the hunt and went into the forest.

Having witnessed one of the most enthralling dramas of the jungle, the fight for survival, we returned to our vehicle. Keshu and Songhi were waiting for us there. They too had seen the tigress, making the move over the ridge, and had heard the alarm call. Elated by this wonderful sighting we exited the park.

After catching up on some sleep we, got ready for the evening round. Having spotted the tiger already and being very tired we took a little longer to get onto our feet. It was a big mistake as we would later realize. All other vehicles had entered the park and ours was the only vehicle to enter the park that late. Not more than 200 meters into the park, we saw a mad rush. All the vehicles had congregated there and were jostling to get ahead of each other. A sure sign of a predator being sighted, we too rushed to the spot. Mukesh was already waiting there and had a grin on his face, he had been trying to reach us on our cells to inform that the tigress was being sighted in the open and wanted us to reach the spot quickly. However being tired as we were, we had been sleeping. We had paid a heavy price, the tigress had crossed the road in front of 30 gypsies and all of them had a great sighting in wonderful light. Nonetheless we were able to see her walking on the fringes of the meadow and the woods, far away from the road.

This was the same tigress we had spotted in the morning and then we had realized that she wasn’t completely fit. She was seen limping, probably from an injury from a hunt or territorial fight. She seemed to be at discomfort and it was a mystery how she was able to hunt.It was good to see her fighting back and thriving against all odds. Back at the resort we started recounting the events of the day. The climate had changed all of a sudden that evening, and there was some rain with lightening and thunder. Cold wind was hitting our faces and we settled to celebrate with our glasses full to brim. What followed was a crazy night soaked in spirits and livened by dance performances from one and all .

Day 4 :

This was our last day at Bandhavgarh and we were going to make the most of it. However we were late once again, slow to get off the block, we reached the spot on our route where two fully grown cubs of the “Mirchani female” had walked in full view with nearly a dozen vehicles on their tale. They now sat resting behind a bush not too far away from the road. We were just able to get a glimpse of them through the bush. Hoping for them to move we waited there for two long hours. But they didn’t budge, after two hours when it was time for the park to close we decided to move out.

In the evening it was going to be our last safari of the trip, having missed out on earlier occasions, no one was ready to take any chances and we were at the park gate well before time. The idea was to straight away go to the place where the cubs were spotted, and get in a good position to see them if they make a move. We were sure that all the vehicles will be headed to the same spot and hence rushed to the spot.

The cubs were where we had left them in the morning, they hadn’t moved a bit, rest of the vehicles arrived pretty soon, and the place started getting crowded. With surging crowd and flaring tempers, stage was set for some fireworks and the worst of verbal bashing began. None of the quarreling homo-sapiens showed any respect for the animals and soon the place turned into a fish market. Still the cubs lay there gracefully at ease, probably smiling at the silly creatures who had come by cart loads to see them. May be it wasn’t their first time.

It was getting too discomforting for us too and Mukesh asked us whether we would like to risk missing on a sight of two tigers on move for taking a chance with “Bokha”, the second dominant male in Bandhavgarh National Park. Some guides had seen him in the morning but only a glimpse and told us about the probable place of spotting him. We decided to take our chances with the crowd building up behind us. We pushed off for the vast spread of Rajbehra meadow where Bokha has established his territory.

We had found our way through a maze of at least 40-50 vehicles. After negotiating some winding roads we reached Rajbehra meadow. All of us were discussing the previous events and how the unruly crowd had spoilt, the tranquility of the forest. There were a few chitals grazing in the meadow, and life seemed peaceful here. One chital was moving alone, away from the herd. I watched closely, it was a tiger, yes it indeed was a tiger. I exclaimed “Bokha” it had to be him. Vikas, our driver too spotted him by now and stopped the vehicle. Before others could see him the big male had vanished in the vast grassland.

Mukesh and Vikas consulted each other to guess the tigers next move and very soon we set off for the place where, he was believed to reappear. There were only 3 more gypsies in that vast area. Not all had spotted him then. We reached the spot and Vikas choked the engine. There was complete silence now, Bokha, is known to be a very shy tiger, (unlike B2, the other dominant male who is very comfortable with tourist vehicles around him) not very tolerant of tourists and may decide to hide himself if disturbed.

We were discussing how the chitals were peaceful in spite of proximity of a predator and how they didn’t let out an alarm call. There also were no alarm calls from langurs who usually are quick at spotting tigers from their vantage points. It was mid afternoon and its unusual for tigers to move in the heat of the day. Yet, like god wanted us to see a magnificient male in his prime, Bokha was walking in sweltering heat, and we had spotted him without any help from other animals who usually would let out an alam call. It was pure luck.

We waited with heightened expectation at the spot for around 10 minutes, and then, the silence was broken with frantic alarm calls from langur monkeys and Chitals. It was as if the jungle had sprung to life. Standing on our seats we peered through the canopy to spot the big male walking our way. The alarm calls were getting closer as the tiger was coming towards us. Then someone, spotted him, through the foliage, he was coming our way. Afternoon light, filtering through the canopy were making him look mysterious and almost mythical. He stopped at some distance from our vehicles, probably to judge the situation. Soon after, being sure of no harm from us he walked out in the open, and started crossing the road. To get his attention and get that eye contact shot, someone let out a growling sound. Quick to pick up that sound, Bokha reacted with a nasty growl and bared his teeth for all of us to see. It was a warning for us to maintain safe distance. No one would dare to over rule his command and we stood still, looking at his fearful symmetry. As if overpowered and humbled by his supremacy in his domain we stood frozen.

After seeing him vanish in the jungle the way he had appeared from the woods, we heaved a sigh. Being there to witness such a graceful animal was our wish come true and all the praise that we had for Bandhavgarh as the “Land of Tiger” seemed worthy.

Satisfied with sighting Bokha, Mukesh would tease other drivers and guides on the way back by asking. “Did u hear that 4 vehicles saw Bokha today”? They would say with a sad face, “We heard some guys saw him today”. And then Mukesh would let out a big smile, almost a smirk, and say “Well, his tummy was full with an overnight meal”. It was a fun moment, a moment all of us enjoyed, and will cherish for long time.

It was now time to bid farewell to tigers of Bandhavgarh. We exited the park early, packed our bags and set off towards Jabalpur for onward train journey. The vehicle was much better this time, we had enough space and after such a wonderful trip, with spirits running high, an antakshari session was all that we wanted to relax. The train was running late by 4 hours, and next day in Mumbai, we dropped Keshu at the airport just 40 minutes before his flight took off for Bangalore. We were worried about him missing the flight altogether, but am sure he would have been glad had he missed it then.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tigers of Bandhavgarh

One fine day while i was watching television I stumbled upon a TV show which was about Indian wilderness, it was for the first time that I was witnessing the drama unfolding in Indian jungles. The theme centered on tigers of Bandhavgarh, and I was instantly captivated by raw aggression of the dominant male tiger, the legendary "Charger" and graceful tigress "Sita" who starred in this documentary.

Those piercing eyes and beautiful stripes got etched on my memory, though i straight away wanted to head towards this magical place the opportunity to visit Bandhavgarh came much later, and I finally visited Bandhavgarh for the first time on a shoestring budget in Dec 2005. Since then I remain captive to those mesmerizing eyes and beautiful stripes. “Bandhavgarh” The name evokes a mysterious excitement, I find it hard to resist, not thinking of Bandhavgarh whenever i plan my holidays. The case wasn’t any different this time too and I decided to squeeze in 3 days tour to Bandhavgarh in my week long trip to India.

The moment the decision was made, I called up Mukesh, now a friend in Bandhavgarh who quickly made all my arrangements. I alighted at Katni late in the morning after and overnight train journey from Mumbai.Much to my pleasure a vehicle arranged by Mukesh was waiting for me outside the station to ferry me to Bandhavgarh.One and half hours later I could feel the forest getting dense around me. Sal and Bamboo seemed to dominate the landscape and villages in between were far apart and few. Before I realized I had reached Tala. I was now right in heart of Tiger territory.

I was too tired from the journey and was eager to have refreshing bath at the resort.The bumpy ride and dusty road after an over night train journey had took its toll and my body seemed to be cribbing for putting it through this grind. I sure was tired and to find a smiling face at the reception was the first thing i saw. To add to my pleasure the welcome party at the resort included little little green bee eaters, Langurs, Babblers, Kingfishers , Grey hornbills amongst others.

Tea was ordered instantly and with menu for lunch decided, i had a bath with cold water.When i returned, pipping hot tea was served with some snacks, I was already feeling better, pepped up, probably it was the fresh air i was breathing, or the thought of entering the forest soon. All the pain and fatigue had vanished in thin air and i was now looking forward to the evening safari. Lunch was served soon.It was simple Indian vegetarian fair, yet delicious.After a sumptuous meal I decided to test my camera on fluttering butterflies in the resort gardens.

It was indeed a tough task following these small yet beautiful insects. After going after them for half an hour, I decided to rest, tired down by the relentless heat.

I still had a couple of hours before the safari and I soon resumed my activity, only this time, the subject had changed and I found myself enticed by little green bee eaters. These birds were surprisingly swift and adept at changing course of their flight midway. They would settle down on a perch, I would slowly start approaching them, very cautiously, but they always seemed one step ahead of me and would fly away leaving me fuming with despair. This drama continued for almost 30 minutes before I decided to call it a day and take some rest before entering the park.

Day One (Safari 1 - Evening)

After lunch I was eager to enter the park for a 3 hours drive through the jungle. I had never visited the park in peak summers earlier and the sights were very different. The jungle floor was covered with dry reducing grasses which improved visibility, which is not the case in winters when the fauna dominates the landscape. “Good chances to see the tigers early in the morning” I thought to myself. Knowing, that tigers are more active in the early hours. Little did I know that, Mukesh was taking me to Sehra meadow, where a young male tiger had made a habit of staging an appearance in the evenings in front of vehicles already waiting for him. Mid way I insisted on stopping to photograph a king vulture which was quenching its thirst near a rivulet. The delay did cost me dear.

We reached Sehra meadow behind 20 odd vehicles to see the young male who had crossed the road by then. Our driver Vikas was keen on allowing me some photo opportunity and rushed to get us a good spot, by now this magnificent sub adult male had crossed the road and was startled by our intrusion. He looked straight at us as, the eye contact lasted for few seconds but those piercing eye left an indelible impression, he then moved on further into the grass lands alarming the dear and peacocks. I quickly made some images as his massive paws trampled the grasses and the deer ran for their life in midst of alarm calls from Langurs and other animals.

All the eager tourists followed his movements restlessly, but in vain. He had by now settled near the pond deep inside the grasses and the deer had resumed grazing maintaining a safe distance from the predator indicating no movement from the tiger. After being out of view for some time we were able to spot him from sitting on the edge of the water hole, but the distance was too large for my 300 mm lens to leap. I decided to stand atop of the gypsy and made a wide angle frame.

It was time now to head back to the park gates as it was closing time. Satisfied on spotting a male on my first safari in perfect evening light I retired to bed.

Day Two (Safari 2 – Morning)

I woke up early in the morning, excited to venture in the forests early in the mornings. Early morning drives in central Indian forests are very beautiful. One enters the forest with a breath of fresh air and there is renewed vigor in the jungles which is palpable. Birds chirping and starting their day offers one some very good opportunities to photograph these winged beauties. I don’t remember the route which we were assigned to, as one has to strictly stick to his route allocated by the forest dept. This is done to avoid over crowding on spots with more probability of tiger sightings. We were lucky to get a good route, which passed through territories of 3 tigresses, while passing through Sidhbaba area I could smell unmistakable stench of a rotting flesh. A sure sign indicating that there may be predators around. Bandhavgarh has numerous carnivores like, Sloth bears, Leopards, Jackals and of course the mighty Tigers. I scanned the hill side intently hoping to spot either a tiger or a leopard, with no further clues we moved on our route. The morning was indeed beautiful, with soft sunlight making its way to the forest floor through dense canopy of Saal and Bamboo.

By now we had entered Chakradhara and there were no signs of tiger movement, no pugmarks, no alarm calls. We moved on with our route and after one turn we stumbled upon a muntjac/barking deer. It’s a rare sight and this beautiful red colored ungulate is a shy creature.Allowing me some photo opportunity the deer ran away into the bushes as another vehicle approached from behind. We continued our safari, and now into the territory of Mahaman female I kept my fingers crossed. However it looked like all the tigers had given us a slip and we had no option to report to the Elephant camp, where we would come to know if there were any tigers being sighted on elephants back. When we reached camp a fellow tourist told us that they had seen the Chakradhara tigress in the grasslands for more than 15 minutes in middle of the road. Hoping to get some good news from the camp I asked our guide to find out whether there was a sighting possible from the elephant. He shook his head, indicating that no tiger had been sighted by the Mahaouts on elephants back.

We decided not to waste any more time and see if I could make any good pictures of Sambhar deer in water near Rajbehra Dam. It was now time to exit the park, we started moving towards the gates, just as we were near Sidhbaba we saw two forest dept. elephants standing on the road. It indicated that there was tiger in that area. Accelerator pressed to the floor, we rushed to the spot, there was no other vehicle in sight and we were the only ones there. The Mahaout pointed in the hills and there she was, comfortably sitting on the rocks, was the beautiful Chorbehra female. Completely oblivious to our presence she was sitting gracefully with demeanor of a queen. She is no less beautiful than a queen and I stood mesmerized by here peaceful appearance and powerful symmetry. This part of the forest is heavily wooded and light was tricky due to the canopy of leaves above. The tigress however allowed me lots of time to take enough photographs. I was hoping for her to move in better light and give a good frame. As if, the queen had heard me and wanted to grant my wishes, she turned around to look into another direction. With light falling on her face this time and no leaves in between the tigress and my lens I made this picture.

Soon enough rest of the tourist joined in and then the scene became chaotic, the tigress decided to move on and walked away into the woods towards her cave.

Day Two (Safari 3 – Evening)

With the morning safari living up to our expectation we started our evening drive.So far Bandhavgarh had lived up to its repute of a place with highest density of tigers anywhere in the world. With two beautiful sightings we were very happy, still we wanted to see more tigers as we had seen just two individuals of the 38 odd which are believed to call this haven their home. Since their was no restrictions on the route to be chosen for the evening drive we decided to go to Rajbehra, to take our chances with a big dominant male called Bokha. Bokha was sighted by some tourists the earlier morning and was believed to be lying close to the small stream which passed through the grassland, however the stream was in a low land and wasn’t easily visible. We left the spot hoping to catch sight of some other tigers as there was no movement, nor there were any alarm calls warning us of any predators. Next we decided to wait it out for the Sehra Male (Sub adult male spotted on our first safari). We waited in anticipation fro 5.00 pm till 6.00 pm without luck. That one hour passed by in absolute silence with an occasional call from a Changeable Hawk Eagle perched in woods at some distance.

It seemed as if the male had decided not come to the water hole and had kept many others like us, waiting for one glimpse. We decided to move out of the park and as we approached the Sidhbaba area we saw lots of tourist vehicles thronging the place.Once again the tiger was being spotted. Sidhbaba was turning out to be a tiger hotspot. There was immense energy in the air as
everyone wanted to see the tigress. She was descending from her cave and was walking through the forest affording eager tourist with glimpses of her, through the annoying foliage.

We decided to move away from the crowd and leaving the tigress behind we took our position way ahead of the pack of jeeps anticipating that the tigress will walk for the stream at the base of the hill for water. Slowly she was getting closer, though we were not able to see her yet; we could see the crowd behind us jostling their way towards us. She had by now climbed the hill half way and appeared at least 50-60 meters away from us at slight angle to our left. It looked like she was moving with intent through her territory. She stood there for some time, poised on the black rock she looked enchanting with her beautiful orange coat. With hurried steps now she descended the hill. It was only then we realized that she had stashed a carcass for her to feed on. She had found it now and with a graceful lug she pulled the remains of what seemed like that of a deer. That powerful drag highlighted every muscle in her body. All present there murmured in excitement and disbelief as this beautiful creation of nature settled down for evening meal.

The light was poor for any photographs and with no intention to disturb the tigress with a flash we moved on to park gates leaving her to finish what remained of the kill.

Day Three (Safari 4- Morning)

Once again it was morning safari and with high hopes we entered the forest gates.We had got a good route which passed through Rajbehra, another tiger hotspot as this place had large grasslands with adequate water. Passing through the beautiful meadows of Chakradhara and Sidhbaba we kept an eye open for any moment on the hills where the tigress was spotted twice the earlier day. I was tempted to believe that the tigress still could be there, attributing it to plain luck which had been on my side till then. However the possibility of tigress having moved away from the spot in search of fresh food couldn’t be ruled out given the fact that she had finished her kill the earlier evening. While moving through the forests in Rajbehra area we were able to hear some alarm calls which indicated presence of predators. We scanned the area for any signs of movement, going up and down the tracks to find any pugmarks indicating tiger movement. By now most of the vehicles in the vicinity had herd the alarm calls and had rushed to the spot. Almost and hour passed by with no luck and now the vehicles had ringed the area of forest where the tiger was believed to be in. Following the alarm calls we took position at
a cross road where we thought the calls were coming from. We waited there for another 15 minutes but there was no sign of any tiger there, we decided to circle the area in search of tiger and moved away from there.

We had barely traveled for around 5 minutes when we heard frantic Sambhar and Langur calls from the direction we had just come from. We rushed back to the spot only to find elated tourists in two vehicles. They had just now witnessed the ultimate drama one can witness in the jungles. The struggle for survival between the predator and prey had unfolded in front of their eyes and they were ecstatic to have witnessed the tigress making a kill of a Chital barely 150 meters from where they were standing. I just cursed our selves for not being patient and having missed this incredible spectacle. Knowing that the female was with cubs and in fact the cubs had helped here drag the kill to bushes was the last nail in the coffin and it was now confirmed that I had shot myself in foot by not being patient. The Langur on the tree near us was still struck with fear and was calling incessantly. There was now only one Sambhar in that open area with its tail upright. The Sambhar stood there for a long time and did give out a few alarm calls before moving away.

No one knew what would be the next move of this family and we decided to wait for it to come out in the open, having learnt from our earlier mistake. We waited for over 30 minutes. By now there were only a few vehicles left in the area. Every one had expected the tigers to hide in the bushes till late afternoon as there were cubs and most believed that the tigress won’t come out with cubs to take care of. Just then a wild boar unaware of the tiger’s presence walked towards the bushes where the family was having their meal. Every one around waited with abated breath. Will the tigress charge the boar? Will there be another kill? Well, all the excitement died
when the Boar spotted the tigers and ran for its life.

I sat back watching the Langur now comfortably sitting on the tree. Just then some one from the neighboring jeep shouted, “Tiger”. And sure it was. The tigress had come out of the bushes and had started waking on the fringes of the forest and the open area just behind the bushes. The tigress was on the move, we rushed towards the spot to get a better view, she had stopped in her tracks and we waited for a good spot to see her. Every vehicle around was jostling for space and one in the mean time had got off road to find itself stuck in a ditch.

With tigress with cubs at close proximity it was dangerous to get out of the vehicle to help those unlucky souls. The tigress by now had moved on and all vehicles except one were in hot pursuit of this tigress. We were at the helm of the pack and hoped the tigress to cross the path right in front of us. However the tigress decided to cross the road at the far end. She passed through the open grassland far away from us just giving us fleeting glimpses. Vikas and our guide soon realized that she was moving for water and the only place she could find water in this area was at the Rajbehra dam. We rushed to get the best spot leaving others to follow in dust. Soon there were other vehicles following us to the dam. We positioned ourselves close to the waters edge with the dam wall in front of us.

Within 5 minutes of us reaching there, this beautiful lady known as the Jhorjhora female walked in to the dam’s water right in front of us. She was grace personified as she slowly tested the waters and then slowly entered the dam. It was the moment I was waiting for.

She had by now progressed towards the dam wall. She laid one of her paw on the dam wall and then with flexing those immensely powerful shoulder muscles, she pulled herself out of water in one lunge.Water drops trickling from her wet coat I made a few images.

She sat in the water for more thanten minutes providing ample opportunity for photographs. She looked very beautiful in those shimmering waters. After having cooled down and a drink she decided to swim through the water to the dam wall.

She then walked on the wall to get off on the other side of the wall to go up in the
dense forest. The safari ended with the best sighting ever of my life.

Day Three (Safari 5 – Evening)

That evening we decided to track the same tigress we had seen earlier in the day. We went to the patch of forest behind the dam where she had disappeared in the afternoon, and to our surprise, she was there, near the water hole sleeping peacefully. The evening light was tracing its way to lighten up her radiant orange coat, as if god had decided to cast a spotlight on one of its supreme creations. I observed this captivating sight for over fifteen minutes and with no hopes of the tigress getting up, we moved away to see if Bokha the dominant male had moved from the stream he was seen entering.

We had reached there just in time as we could see a lot of camera flashes indicating this big dominant male was on the move and offering a photo opportunity for the tourist. However there was a large patch of grass and he was moving on the opposite bank of the stream. I just saw him entering the grasses and the then he disappeared. He moved secretively through the grasses and we had no clue of where he would emerge. Hoping that this huge male will emerge right in front I
waited with my camera. Just then a peacock flew from grasses from the far end of the grasses.

Bokha was moving away from us, with no hopes of getting him on camera I quickly turned to the fleeing peacock. Bokha exited the grassland far away from us and passed just a few meters from the waiting vehicles. With mixed feelings of sighting the Jhorjhora female and having missed out on Bokha I returned to the resort with sun setting on the picturesque Bandhavgarh Fort in the background.

Day Four (Safari 6 – Morning)

The last safari of my tour was staring in my face and I was indeed sad on it being my last safari. We decided to go in pursuit of Bokha who we had just missed in the morning. We reached a small dam called "Anicut", which was close to the area where Bokha was spotted. To our surprise Bokha was sitting inside the water trying to ward of intense heat and pesky flies. Only his massive head was visible over the water's surface with binoculars and with the tiger far away I couldn’t get any photographs. We continued with our safari which was fast nearing its end. At last when there were no hopes of spotting any tigers we decided to check out the elephant camp site where most of the forest dept elephants come to rest. In particular I was more excited to see a playful young elephant, I had seen 6 months back. This playful bundle of joy was the cuddliest of all creatures.

After having spent enough time with this young fellow, it was now time to head back to park gates. As dusk descended on the forest floor I exited the park gates, determined to return to Bandhavgarh to see its elusive, almost mystical tigers.