Sunday, December 18, 2011

November 2011 part 3, Tiger Safari

Tiger Safari Bandhavgarh, MP
I arrived back in Delhi on Tuesday November 15, washed some clothes, rested up, did some work in preparation for my tiger safari with Bill Carr on November 16. Bill and I had been planning this for some time and he really wanted to see s tiger before he left India, and went back to his life in Scotland. Bill had spent one year in Cameroon prior to spending one year in India. I made train reservations in September but was hesitating as I knew that BK would be in full bloom and that a major integrated sports day was happening in Delhi through Amar Jyoti school, an event that I was helping to plan. The thought of seeing a tiger in the wild, and not knowing if I would have this opportunity again, won out in the end.

I met Bill, a VSO colleague and friend, at the Nizamuddin train station, with our train being delayed a bit. This was to be an over-night train arriving in Urmari around 5:30 AM on Thursday morning. We were picked up soon after arriving and began the 20+ km journey into the wild.

Bill had made reservations at Wildhaven resorts close to the reserve and had booked us on five safaris. The resort was quite nice amidst somewhat of a makeover with new management. The room was neat and clean, although power was always off between something like 8-11 AM. The service was very good and we had use of a computer with internet. Very quiet after the hectic life that I lead in Delhi. There wasn’t even a bank or ATM in “town”.

The first safari was at 3:30 on Thursday afternoon. There were three main areas or gates for viewing tigers, one of which was more expensive due to the number of tiger sightings. We were both quite excited as we boarded the open jeep with our driver for our first safari. We headed to the gate to wait in queue where we picked up a guide. We found that in many cases the guide was just an extra expenditure, but it did help to employ the locals, who it seemed really depended on the tigers, or the hope of seeing one, for their revenue.

There were a number of jeeps that went into the park all speeding out to find the tiger. As we later came to find out the best time to see tigers is in April or May during the hot season when many animals can be seen at the water holes. The guide and driver said that in order to find a tiger we had to listen to the monkeys, lots of langurs, and other animals giving warning signals. On the first safari we actually heard some growling and warning signals and we listened hoping to spot a tiger.

Unfortunately we didn’t see one on that first sojourn. We stopped and compared notes with some of the other tourists and did see some snaps from those lucky enough to spot a tiger. There aren’t actually that many in the park, around 60+ and so to spot a tiger does take some luck. Another couple had seen a sloth bear and her cub. We saw a number of spotted and other deer, wild boar, langurs and the forest was beautiful. It was quite cool as the sun went down and we headed out of the park.

One safari down and lots of optimism as we awoke on Friday for the 6:15 AM safari. We made our way to pick up another guide and went to a different entrance where we were first in line. One of the first things that we saw was a sloth bear and again many deer, langurs, but no tiger. Riding that early in the morning was cold, but it felt good as the sun came up and I stripped off some of my clothing. We went to a fire tower which we climbed and were able to see a large part of the park which was full of green trees. November was a time of greenery, after the monsoons and of course was very different, later in the year when the grasses had shrunk to almost nothing.

Our guides and drivers told us stories of tiger spotting, of cubs with their mom on the roads and we continued to feel optimistic. We also heard stories of people attacked by tigers and then the tigers being taken to zoos. One had to be smart and not just step into the forest at dusk, but still given the open jeeps, who knew if a tiger was hungry enough just to jump in and say hello.

The third safari would be Friday afternoon, into early evening with the same results. No tigers spotted by us, although again we could hear the roars, which fueled our optimism.

Saturday morning was the last tiger safari as the afternoon, around 2, would be a tour of the fort. For Bill this was something like his 9th safari without spotting a tiger. He had been to a place called the Jim Corbett Park but “only” saw wild elephants, which is enough of a reason to go.

On Saturday we had the best guide, he really was focused on helping us to find tigers. We drove like made to favorite tiger spotting locations and waited, but nothing. As the time came closer to leaving we noticed another jeep and a woman with a large smile telling us to be quiet and to come over next to their jeep. Sure enough there was our tiger! It was just resting, but proceeded to get up, and walk across the road in front of us. We were full of smiles and congratulations for our guide and driver who had driven with us on the three previous safaris.

The tiger was magnificent and although she came close to us, hardly paid us any heed. This was her domain and we were nothing. Tigers apparently stay on their own, but we were told that this one had some cubs which the guide had seen on previous safaris. This one sighting made everything worth the wait. The afternoon safari to the Fort was also great and one other tourist showed me his tiger photos which were just incredible. They had followed the tiger for some time, which we couldn’t do because our tiger went right across the road to disappear into the forest.

On Saturday evening we left somewhat tired, but happy. On the train ride Bill was in a lot of pain. As it turned out although he was supposed to leave for Scotland on Tuesday he had to have an operation for some gall stones. He did eventually make it back, with a much larger story to tell.

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