CATCHING TIGERS BY THE 'TALE'
"Roko! Roko!" (Stop! Stop!) our guide hisses urgently to the driver of our Jeep. Moving shadowlike through a bamboo thicket by the forest road is the animal I've traveled half way around the globe to see: a magnificent tigress. She is trailed by four half-grown cubs.
We are in Bandhavgarh, a 437 sq. km. tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh at the very heart of India. According to our Lonely Planet guide book, this is the one Indian jungle park where visitors are almost guaranteed to see a tiger. 'Almost', but not necessarily 'always'.
For two successive mornings, our group of three have boarded a waiting jeep at the Nature Heritage Resort in the dawn-blushed morning, and set off on safari. Bandhavgarh in the early morning is alive with activity. The rising sun shafts through the Sal forests and bamboo clumps; families of spotted deer graze unperturbed by our presence; near a mud hole fringed by tall grasses a group of fat, hairy wild boars trot off snorting. We bump over rough jungle pathways, pausing to watch a nilgai (blue bull) antelope casually strolling along a dry stream bed, and are surveyed with great curiosity by a tribe of black-faced Langur monkeys.
The forest is filled with chirping, cooing birdsong, even the hoot of a white owl as he looks thoughtfully down at us. Camera shutters click as we come upon a peacock, tail feathers fanned out in stately display, dancing to woo a female who pecks around in the dust unimpressed by his ardour.
But there's been no sign of our main quarry, Rudyard Kipling's "Sher Khan" of the Jungle Book-the elusive and rarely glimpsed Indian tiger. Two days and four safaris have gone by and my hopes have begun to dim.
Today is our last chance.
The driver steers the jeep in reverse, keeping the tigress and her cubs in sight. Then…at the edge of an open field, a dramatic scene unfolds. The tigress, muscles rippling, bursts out of the forest cover, and shoots like a raging tawny streak towards a cluster of vultures. Feathers a-flutter the birds take wing, and the tigress halts over the remains of her (earlier) kill. She pauses, sniffs the carcass and then looks around the field, taking stock of her surroundings. I almost stop breathing as she stares intently at us…and then, as though shrugging us off as inconsequential, she walks back to her cubs standing half hidden on the fringe of the forest, pausing only to spray a bush to mark her territory en route.
"Wow!" I whisper. Awestruck, my companions nod dumbly.
For the next hour we continue driving through the jungle. We pass by strangler vines which like enormous pythons twine themselves around sal tree trunks, when suddenly from the leafy canopy above comes the urgent whoop of a langur. "Baag" (tiger!) mutters our guide. "That's a warning call!" We stiffen.
Sure enough, at a fork in the trail ahead, we spot a second tigress strolling with her two small cubs, cute little balls of yellow and black striped wool, at her heels. We are no more than twenty yards away, and she bares her teeth in a growl as she glares at us. We halt. She halts too while her cubs, unfazed, frolic around her. She hesitates and then crosses the pathway and with the cubs in tow, strides into a copse of spindly bamboo shoots. We trail them for about a hundred yards before they disappear into a thicket of tangled jungle.
Two sightings! We exchange excited hi-fives. But the morning isn't over yet.
Half an hour later, we round a bend and there, blending into the striped sunlight filtering across the pathway, is a tigress sitting nonchalantly in the middle of the road; her two small cubs play among the trees fringing the road, barely a stone's throw away from us. Our driver daringly edges closer. There's a heart-thumping moment as she tenses and stands up, tail twitching, ears flicking and begins to stride towards us, a menacing low growl in her throat.
"Peechay, peechay!" (back up! back up!) barks our guide. We are uncomfortably aware that our jeep is an open vehicle and vulnerable to the big cat's pounce. We reverse and the tigress halts. She snarls once more for effect, and then goes in search of her cubs. They emerge from the trees, and the three of them cross the road and disappear into the jungle; but not before one of the cubs peeks curiously at us through the fork of a tree trunk, and I capture it on camera!
In the space of two hours we'd seen three adult tigers and eight little cubs - eleven animals in all. Such unbelievable luck! A matter of being in the right place at the right time. And for me, the thrill of a lifetime!
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IF YOU GO:
The Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve is accessible only by car. Most of the jungle lodges will, as part of their tourist package, provide a car and driver to pick up guests from the most convenient railway station. Jabalpur (4 hour drive) is the most accessible junction; others, closer to the park are Satna and Katni.
Warning: The final ten kilometres leading to the resort lodges and to the Reserve's entry gates is unpaved and spine-jarringly pot-holed. Also, the pre-dawn temperatures are chilly enough to warrant woollen jackets and toques. The Nature Heritage Resort offers blankets to their guests as they set off for their morning safaris.
Where to Stay
While there are several jungle lodges in the vicinity of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, the Nature Heritage Resort offers comfortably furnished and impeccably clean cottages set in a pleasant garden. Their meals are hearty and they offer a choice of Continental and Indian cuisine. The courteous and very helpful staff provide excellent service.
See http://www.natureheritageresort.com/ for more details as to accommodation, tariffs etc.
Best Time to Visit
Between November and March
General Information: www.bandhavgarh-national-park.com/index.html
Photos by Margaret Deefholts
1. Our first tigress
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