Sunday, April 15, 2012

Into the wild - Bandhavgarh National Park

Visiting a national park in India has been one of my dreams, especially considering that I have seen numerous pictures of Indian wildlife and caught myself longing to capture some of those animals on camera. So, we began our meticulous planning for a wildlife trip. We decided on Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh(MP) because of its high tiger density.

We live in Mumbai with no real flight options, the only direct flight from Mumbai to Jabalpur was cancelled thanks to the Kingfisher drama. So, we resorted to taking a train to Katni which is 95km by road from the park. My wife did an insane amount of research and finalized on Pugdundee Safaris' "Tree House Hideaway" for our stay. In hindsight, I realize what a wonderful decision that was.

Tree House Hideaway has been inspired by the Treehouse concept that is common in African jungles and they've done a fantastic job! They have very thoughtfully equipped luxury rooms atop trees. There are all of five treehouses ensuring that it never gets crowded and every guest receives individual attention and pampering. Their package includes station pick-up and drop, forest entry and safaris, stay and 3 delicious meals a day.

Day 1:
After a 16 hour train journey from Mumbai, we reached Katni at about 3.30 pm on a Thursday. We reached the resort at about 6pm after spotting a Nilghai and a few deer on the way. We checked into the resort and after a light tasty dinner, settled into a night of anticipation before our first safari the next morning.

Day 2:
We received the wake up call at 4.45am and were out of the room by 5.15am. Our Gypsy was waiting outside and we boarded it after grabbing some coffee and cookies. We were given blankets to cover ourselves as it was mildly chilly when we left. Our first Safari wasat the Magdhi Zone or Zone 2 of the park, which is a relatively newer zone created to accommodate the increasing crowds visiting the park every year. On our way, we picked up our permits (which had been reserved well ahead of time by fantastic folks at Pugdundee) and we were the 5th jeep at the park entrance. The drive began at 6 am sharp and the excitement started kicking in slowly. We didnt go 500m before we saw one jeep stopping ahead of us to take a picture. We caught a Jungle cat, probably hunting for an early morning snack in the grass. Apparently a Jungle cat is a rare sight and we considered ourselves lucky.

Our driver Wasim was a young guy and he knew the jungle roads like his backyard. While we looked intently for pug marks and signs of a tiger, we spotted numerous birds getting up and about at daybreak.

Our drive continued towards water holes and regular visiting spots of the tigers, but no luck yet. We saw a Sambar deer and langurs and we continued our drive for the next 1.5 hours. The gypsy drivers asked each other if they had seen a tiger and used the information to plan their routes.

Midway we made a stop for coffee, juice and fruits that the resort had sent along for us. Moving on, we drove to a watering hole where we saw a few jeeps waiting as they had just heard an alarm call. We stopped too and patiently waited for about half an hour expecting the tiger. But we weren't too lucky and the tiger never showed up. We were running out of time and started driving towards the exit gate. We drove back cracking jokes at people who were totally sullen or angry as they had not spotted a tiger. I daresay we were among the few who didn't mind it so much. After all we went there for a wilderness experience and were alright saving the tiger for another day.

We reached the resort where hot breakfast was waiting for us. This was when we met a naturalist, Saravana Kumar, who incidentally hails from Tamil Nadu like us. He works half of every year leading nature and wildlife trips in India. He was currently hosting a couple from Switzerland. We ended up chatting quite a bit with him and became friends.

After a refreshing shower and a relaxing nap, we had lunch and were ready for our evening safari. Since we had booked the evening safari in Tala zone or Zone 1 (which was in higher demand due to better chances of spotting tigers), we didnt want to be too late.

The safari gates opened at 3.30pm and we were just ahead of time. As we entered the park, the excitement kicked in again. We went to a Vishnu statue in the Tala zone right at the footsteps of the famous Bandhavgarh Fort. After a few minutes there, we continued our drive. We were driving around for about an hour with no tiger in sight. Nevertheless, we had a great time sighting deer, birds and langurs.

We then reached a spot where about 10 jeeps had parked and our driver indicated there was a tiger for sure. We stopped and looked at the direction where everyone was looking and there she was! The Banbehi female Tigress with her three cubs! I had my camera gear ready and tried to get a good angle but there were too many bushes obstructing our view. Just then, we sensed movement in the bushes and our driver did a great job by quickly driving a little off the road, passed a few jeeps and stopped ahead of all the jeeps right in the middle of a small bridge. Moments later, one of the cubs slowly walked out of the bushes into the clearing, he walked towards the road, snarled at us, crossed the road, and walked towards his kill (a sambar carcass lying under the bridge). He made sure it was still there, then went to the stream for a sip of water, and took a nice short swim in the water. He then decided to walk around the rest of the jeeps, crossed the road again and sat comfortably under a shade. All this took about 10 minutes and I would have fired close to 350 photographs. There were moments when I was standing on the open gypsy with one foot on the windsheild and the other on the driver's headrest. We watched the tiger family for the next hour or so until it was time to leave the park. We couldn't have been more satisfied and I was elated at having shot nearly 600 photographs of just one tiger!

A few pictures below:

We went back to the resort feeling triumphant and exchanged hi-fives with the resort owner (a Dutch expat who runs the 2 Pugdundee resorts at Badhavgarh with his girlfriend). After exchanging a few stories with him and fellow travelers over dinner it was time for bed before another early morning drive into the jungle.

Day 3:
We started our day at 4.45am and were thrilled to see that the resort had honored our request for the same driver who drove us the previous evening. After all, he was the one who made me climb atop his gypsy so that I could get great photographs of the tigers, and were reluctant to lose him! And before we knew it, we were entering the Magdhi zone. This time, wiser from the experience of the previous two drives, we kind of knew what to look far in the jungle and spotted a beautiful Changeable Hawk Eagle in the first 10 minutes. He was busy eating his morning breakfast and gave me ample opportunity to capture bird and prey to my heart's content!

As we continued our drive, we learned from one of the forest rangers that a tiger has been spotted in the other end of the zone and we decided to head there. The driver cautioned that it was going to be a bumpy ride and a little far away. Without hesitation, we signaled to him that we were up for it. when we reached the spot, we saw a few other jeeps waiting and joined them in excitement. We were alert for alarm calls, but all we got to hear was an annoying kid in the next jeep.

Thinking the tiger will never even approach the area thanks to the noisy kid, we moved a few 100 meters away and waited there. No luck there either and as we decided to drive away, we heard an alarm call from a Sambar. We instantly rushed towards the nearest water hole (where the alarm call was coming from according to our guide) and where we saw Spotted deer with huge antlers. We waited hoping the tiger would come in for a drink. In seconds, the deer let out a few more calls and took off. The guide told us it could be a false alarm probably from the scent of tiger in the water hole from the morning. No luck yet.

After driving around for some more time, we spotted a kingfisher, a few Indian Rollers (Blue Jay) and some storks. We even spotted some sambar and spotted deer a ubiquitous sight in the jungle). During our breakfast stop, I spotted a bird atop a tree almost half a kilometer away. I used my telephoto lens to identify the bird while guide casually identified it as a Red Headed Vulture. As we were talking about the bird, it graced us by flying towards us and doing a few circles right above us. After a couple of great pictures we moved on.

On our way back, we spotted Bison which were recently brought in from Kanha and hence kept inside a fenced area for protection. However, there was one wild bison roaming around freely. Here was one fat animal grazing peacefully occasionally letting out a low moo, probably to attract the femal bison inside the fence.

After a few more photographs, we continued our drive and spotted a jackal and a few peacocks.

By then, it was time to bid adieu to the forest and head back to the resort.

We had the entire morning and afternoon to while away as we didn't have to leave for our train until 6:30pm. As the Treehouse Hideaway was booked for the day, we were given a complimentary room and lunch at the other Pugdundee property- King's Lodge, a few kilometers away from Treehouse. That's what I call top notch customer service! So we showered and checked out of Treehouse and were driven to King's Lodge where we dropped off our luggage.

Saravana Kumar (aforementioned Naturalist) had invited us to visit a Conservation Farm along with his Swiss clients. We readily agreed because we'd never seen an Indian farm before. The little farm called "The Farm", perched at the edge of Bandhavgarh, is one of a kind. It is run by Mr. Dhruv Singh and his wife, who in their previous Avtars, have built and run a couple of the luxury resorts at Bandhavgarh. The Farm, the couple's new baby, promises to be a completely different way to experience the wilderness.

The primary goal of The Farm is to regenerate part of the barren land surrounding the park, and to do so in a manner in which the local village communities can benefit from the effort. The Farm is designed to allow its guests to engage closely with members of local community, of which at best a select few work as (largely "invisible") English speaking staff in the high-end resorts in the area. At The Farm, the villagers play the numerous roles involved in running a farm- gardeners, chefs, caretakers, waiters, you name it. They also display and sell artwork by the local artists. What the owner likes to call a Nature Walk makes one realize that "Local, sustainable and ecologically balanced" runs through the DNA of the farm. The small but ambitious organic garden, containing only species of plants, herbs, vegetables etc. that are indigenous to the area. All food is cooked to order on a non-commercial scale, in a very thoughtfully built kitchen equipped for a variety of cuisines, both Indian and international. I suspect that after an afternoon at The Farm, one would leave with a wonderful taste of minimalist living, a whirlwind education in eco-tourism, and maybe even a newfound appreciation of Indian village life.
On our drive back to King's Lodge, we realized how well we'd escaped the scorching morning sun at the farm. The better and lady half of the Dutch couple welcomed us at King's Lodge and showed us to our room. This resort was again a beautifully executed project, albeit with more rooms to make it more pocket friendly. We retired to the cool comfort of our air-conditioned room after lunch. I slumbered all afternoon while Kavitha, predictably, tucked into a book. We left the resort with the setting sun, after conveying our gushing appreciation to the Dutch couple and the other staff who worked so hard to make our stay at both resorts truly wonderful.

A much delayed 24 hour train journey and a long week of work later, here we are in good ol' Mumbai, reminiscing on our near-perfect wildlife experience, which I suspect we'll do many a time in the months to come!

PS: I'm sure you can spot which parts of this post I had no hand in writing !


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Awesome post and equally awesome pics ... worth calling images!!

  3. Arun,

    Ganesh updated me on this trip from FB.

    Photos are fantastic and well written narration.

  4. Hello Arun,
    Fantastic narration ... it made us to feel the experience on a live stage...


  5. Hello Arun,
    Fantastic narration ... it made us to feel the experience on a live stage...


  6. Hi Kavitha, nice narration.. anjana got excited seeing the pics too... photos are really good.

  7. Kavitha & Arun, thank you for the detailed and very well written travel chronicle. This is one of those undiscovered gems, it sounds like. I'm going to make this trip the next time I'm in India. I love the pictures!

  8. It was very nice to meet you both at Tree House/Bandhavgarh and really enjoyed reading your tour report.

  9. Good description of your trip and nice photograph , specially the Face of Tiger and tree house.
    only missing part in your travel to this part of India is "Khajuraho" Temples. you didn't planed or don't know the proximity from Badhavgarh ?

    Anyways thanks for Description, this will surely help me planning my next trip. thanks Dr.Mousam

  10. Nice pics, Thanks for sharing the valuable information.

    Read India Travel Guide