Nightfall brought a sigh! I had just fixed my 200-400 mm lens on my Canon body. And like a gym warrior I started to wonder whether the bag I took on my 3-week holiday was heavier or this piece of tree trunk. But the tiny sounds of the night seemed to be telling me that daybreak would melt away all the weight. After all I was in Bandhavgarh. As the whispers and callouts go, it is the forest with the highest density of tigers. Now all I needed was my exquisitely chiseled, stone studded wish box to open up and grant me tons of sightings. I said a quiet prayer to the spirits of the forest and fell asleep
MAGICAL FOREST OF BANDHAVGARH
Before I excitedly unveil my jungle moments, I must pause to tell you about a land blessed with tons of green and brown. Madhya Pradesh. It is adoringly called the ‘Heart of India’ and that wouldn’t be just because of its geographic location. I think it absolutely steals your heart with its innumerable cultural corners and more refreshingly, forest area. It has 12.5% of India’s green cover and while Kanha National Park wows you with its topography, Bandhavgarh is an all out show of ‘stripes and orange’, besides 250 odd species of birds and vibrant fauna. You have 105 sq km of core area to discover families of these carnivores and stare at the sal and tall green-yellow bamboo plants that make even the sunniest May seem cool.
Facts for the History/Geography lover:
Name: Bandhav (Brother’s) Garh (Fort). Legend goes that a hillock that was a vantage point, was given as a gift by King Rama to his brother Lakshmana. The fort is far away atop the hill but the place has many more historical structures
Zones: 3 (Tala, Magadhi, Khitauli)
Core area for tourists: 105 sq km
Safari Options: By jeep and/or on the back of an Elephant managed by a mahout from the forest department
Best time to visit: October – June (I usually pick early summers as the forest is drier, so animals get to watering holes and I get lucky in safaris)
DAY ONE I MORNING SAFARI (TALA)
So I woke up, rummaged through my collection of camouflage wear and jumped into the rear seat of the jeep with my photo buddies for the day. I’d heard time and time again that the best guides were the drivers and the jeep I was in had a high adrenalin dude called Rehman. Honestly all of them are pumped up with energy and can show you the best of the jungle, if you let them pause and park as they please. In the first safari of the day the jeep entered the zone called Tala. My first experience of it was a forest lush with bamboo, elegant trees clustered together and laced along the roadway. I imagined what it would be like with the first rains. Surely the colors of the land would light up like a paint box.
Within 15 minutes, as if on cue Rehman drove directly to the water body, almost knowing that a tiger would be there to cool off the summer strokes. Damnaar waterhole has as a backdrop a green carpet that dissolves into thick jungle vegetation. And lazing on its velvety surface was a female tiger. One of Spotty’s daughters I was told. She apparently has a habit of coming by here and I must admit, her gnarling overwhelmed me. I was particularly fascinated by her stripes that looked like kohl-lined eagle eyes airbrushed right across her belly
Soon enough the morning became all about her moods, movements and meandering. Here are a few glimpses from a ‘still happy to hang out with sis and Mom’ girl & some bird life too.
(A seemingly content White-throated Kingfisher makes its debut on my maiden safari in Bandhavgarh)
DAY ONE I EVENING SAFARI (TALA)
I was hoping the Sun would’ve got kinder by 4.00PM which it did, but we were gifted another route through the jungle. One that had several undulating narrow roads making me feel like I was in a non-stop roller coaster. Birds and the utterly noisy sikda (family of insects) showered their water waste as we drove under the dense canopy of trees in sandstone colored paths. Finally we reached closer to a bridge that was pretty much our way to the exit, when we saw a few jeeps parked with wide-eyed people. That’s when I heard it too, the light growl of a fiercely beautiful, adult tiger.
A glance to the left and I realized that the crowd ahead of us had made that stealth jungle resident change tracks. Meet Spotty, the Mom of 3 healthy daughters and a gorgeous feline with a powerful gait and purposive strides. I heard whispers that she was crossing her territory to meet the male, Mangu, also the father of her daughters. Perhaps an evening catch up for dinner?! All I remember though were her strong, stunning muscle movements. What a beauty!
(I also saw the Crested Serpent Eagle. A familiar sight once you enter the jungle)
DAY TWO I MORNING SAFARI (MAGADHI)
By now I’d got into the rhythm. Wake up and rush to the jeep by 4.45 AM. Wait with bated breath at the gates. Guide hops in and then we are on a discovery of something new. This time we got lucky and the gates to the 2nd zone Magadhi, was thrown open. Just 15 days ago, parts of this forest were burning and destroyed. The questions worrying most of us were if any animals got hurt, what happened to all the food sources and so on? We were told that once tigers mark their territory, they live there no matter what. Our eyes intently searched for alarm calls, pugmarks and even the faintest movement behind distant trees. All this while I stared in awe at the curves and turns where the forest was still thriving.
We were hoping to meet Spotty’s sister Dotty, but instead met 3 sub-adult cubs. They ofcourse were in a large area (Arariya enclosure) created for them by forest officials as their mother Kankati had got electrocuted. Which meant they were uninitiated and without knowledge of hunting or survival in the wild. Their father had moved on. I would’ve loved to see the entire happy family at the watering hole but was glad to meet the cubs nevertheless.
There were some lovely sights of the avian species and forest language that I learned that day. Have you heard of the strangler fig tree?
(The White-naked Woodpecker was relentless & somewhat shy too. Every time we made a sound it hid from plain sight)
(What a beauty, the Malabar pied Hornbill. To be honest it was my 1st ever time seeing a hornbill)
(Don’t miss the bloody red eyes of the Black-winged Kite. Kept me wondering)
DAY TWO I EVENING SAFARI (TALA)
It was Safari no.4 and I took a deep breath when I realized I’d been so lucky. Not one jungle tryst had ended without an encounter with a tiger. Yes there were many birds and spotted deer and Sambar deer but this trip was focused on the organge-stripey one. A longish drive through several narrow roads later we came back to the Damnaar water spot, a favorite of Spotty and her daughters. What a relaxing sight. While my camera could capture only parts of the unfolding moments my eyes feasted on 2 of the tigers doing what they do best. Spotty’s daughter ONE as we identified later was alternating between mock sleeping, perking up her ears on hearing alarm sounds and staring straight into our faces.
(The many moods of a tiger after an afternoon snooze)
Her SECOND daughter though stayed submerged in the water not moving an inch, much like a heat troubled mortal downing cubes of ice. After almost 30 mins of waiting for some sign, we saw her gingerly stepping out of the water crossing over only to start a chase for her evening meal. The only sounds were the furious clicking of the camera…she though was as quiet as a feather landing on a meadow of freshly cut grass
I particularly loved the ‘retiring for the night moves’ of daughter ONE when she finally got up from her laze mode, simply walked on the sand wall and turned to give us an incisive look. I felt it was a soul connect move but more likely it was a ‘get out of my way’ stare.
DAY THREE I MORNING SAFARI (TALA)
This was my final safari. Though I had signed up for 8 of them, I had to fulfill another commitment hence was truncating my jungle journey and hoped this was the best. I couldn’t have asked for more. Our jeep rolled into what seemed like very open grasslands and on either side trees that almost caressed each other gave tiny glimpses of what lay beyond. Our guide sensed a light movement and in seconds I saw the nimble footed, thirsty, big cat amble from behind the cluster of browns and greens towards a small water source. Then another one emerged walking towards the jeep, only to change tracks when a panic call from a deer was heard. The chase began and I realized my final show was one for the road. It was live action, jungle style. Everything I saw thereafter was life as it is. Of survival and satiation.
As if this live show wasn’t enough, I encountered two monkeys hugging and kissing for a while before they started mating. In deference to the act of love, I decided to instead breathe in the forest and soak in the sounds. Not to forget the fabulous sighting of the Sambar deer and so many other mammals who couldn’t resist the natural water bowl. I can’t even begin to tell you how awesome these 5 safari experiences were. All I know is that the sounds, sights and smells in PAW LAND inundated me and I loved every second.
The safari closed with a dash of culture when we visited Shesh Shaiya. A 10th century single stone sculpted 35-feet statue of Lord Vishnu, lying in his contemplative position over the 7-headed serpent. It was a surreal feeling to time travel in the midst of wildlife.
What a deadly package Bandhavgarh. You were one helluva eyeful.
HOW TO GET THERE
By Air: That’s what I took so will advice that you reach Jabalpur from whichever city suits best. The hotel will handle the car travel, but since I did this safari with Toehold (a travel and photography company) they took care of the transport. It’s about 3 ½ hours to the resort
WHERE TO STAY
Toehold put me up at Aranyak Resort, which I understand was a reasonably priced option and honestly very comfortable. Given we had 8 safaris in the photo tour package; the trip was totally worth it for me
WHY TOEHOLD TRAVEL & PHOTOGRAPHY CO.?
Well I am a photography newbie and while I am a culture/history/landscape lover, I have recently developed much love for meeting animals in their natural habitat. This was my 3rd jungle tryst but my first with Toehold and I really enjoyed the way they creatively explained the nuance of jungle photo captures. Special thanks to Sachin Rai & Santosh Saligram who as skippers for this trip made both the learning of the forest and photography a delight.
Toehold also does private jungle holidays for families both in Indian and International destinations, so they are just perfect to plan your wildlife experiences with. Check them out on: https://www.toehold.in/
(I hope you enjoyed my journey into the heart of India. A few years back I succumbed to the call of the wild and it has become an addiction now. Do show some love and visit my page on Instagram and Facebook to travel through many journeys of awe, to tiny lands with big hearts. Happy Sighting!)