WINTER TRAVEL TO FORESTS IN CENTRAL INDIA

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THE ROYAL BENGAL TIGER BASKING IN THE NOON SUN

Photo of WINTER TRAVEL TO FORESTS IN CENTRAL INDIA by Kritharth Pendyala

A sudden plan and immediate execution lead to this awesome trip where I had some epic memories and an amazing experience at some of the forests in Central and Western India.We left for Nagpur by a morning flight and reached by 8.30 am. Immediately we left for the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve about 150km from Nagpur. On reaching this place we headed straight for the Navegaon gate through which we had the safari booked online.

A lot of planning had gone in for booking the safaris at each of the forests. The first challenge at Navegaon was to find a gypsy,because this gate wasn't popular among the tourists. Some casual chat with the locals was enough to find a Gypsy with an excellent driver. Thus began a very awaited "FIRST SAFARI". I had been to Jaldapara and Ranthambore earlier but I don't reckon any major experience in these places. A semi dense forest with lots of trees which were moderately heighted, an open jungle and cool refreshing breeze from all sides. I felt WOW!!! After a lot of days was I feeling relaxed beyond all urban boundaries. Spotted deer was the first animal sighted and I was amazed, possibly the first time I reckon having seen these. A group of 15 deer grazing in the open meadows just after the entry into the park. These are so timid and scared all the time because of the fear of being attacked by the predators. On asking the guide I came to know that even the smallest member of the dog family,a Jackal also kills a deer and it's babies. A natural thing but felt sad for these creatures,but later I came to know that even a tiger dies the same death,I'll explain later as to why this happens. We moved on and the guide told us that there are many varieties of animals in Tadoba which are categorised into predators and non predators. Deer,Sambar Deer,Neelgay are some of the main animals in the non predator category. The predators include hyenas,jackals,wolves,sloth bears and of course the highlight of the wild, the Royal Bengal Tiger. The guide gave us information about various birds, and trees in Tadoba. He was vibrant and hopeful to sight a tiger but alas! We couldn't find one in Tadoba. The safari at Tadoba was over by 6.00 pm and all we could find was a lot of sweet chirping birds,wild boar,bison and deer.The next destination was Kanha, M.P. Immediately we started for Kanha where we had the next set of safaris. We had presumed that the drive to Kanha is a moderately short one of about 5-6 hours, but it took us 10 hours and reached the resort only at 4.00 am, we had taken a longer route. MOGLI RESORTS in Kanha, was where we had a booking. A short nap of about 2 hours and we were into the morning safari at Kanha, through the Sarhi zone (Khatia gate). We were a little drowsy and our eyes burning by the time the safari started (due to lack of sleep). I should say it is the power of nature, within 10 minutes of the safari, we were totally refreshed and active once again. This is the first time where i had no sleep throughout the night, but still was refreshed next morning. Such is the forest of Kanha, dense and full of life. Kanha had to be my favourite forest!!! Such an amazing ecology where you get to see grasslands and dense trees of sal and bamboo at the same place. On asking the guide we came to know that Munna was the most famous tiger of Kanha and our guide was excellent. I really have to say that this safari of ours had the perfect combination of a guide and the driver. Nain SinghJi was the guide and the locals of Kanha fondly called our gypsy driver as "CaptainJi". The rapport that Nain Singh and Captain maintained throughout the safari was an experience in itself to see how people can understand each other. People say safaris somewhat depend upon the guide. But the perfect combination of "Nain SinghJi" and "CaptainJi" failed to give us a sighting of The Royal Bengal Tiger. They had tried their level best to find Munna, by trailing his pugmarks but we could'nt sight him. We even had breakfast inside the forest (which is'nt allowed), not to waste a single minute in going to the resting place where people can refresh themselves. In the attempt to look for Munna we came across some more pugmarks of a tigress along with its cubs and their small cute pugmarks. We also trailed these but couldnt find her. Possibly she might have been resting in the dense jungle. Lots of other animals were seen in Kanha. All could be seen at a very close proximity here. This was the first time some smaller predators could be seen, jackals, wild dogs. But of all the forest at Kanha cannot be explained in words. It's so soothing that after the safari we could'nt even be recognised as people who had hardly slept on the previous night. After the safari we returned to the resort to catch up with some rest and later go for the afternoon safari. The booking of this safari had been done through the Kanha zone, which is said to be the premium zone in Kanha. Chandra Kumar YadavJi was the guide for our safari in this zone. I would call him as the "Over informative" guide as he had lots of statistical information. We could see a very different tree in this safari. It is called as the "Ghost Tree", having derived its name for shining with a white gleam as if it was a ghost with a white shroud, this tree changes its colour thrice in a year. White in winters, Pinkish Red in early summers and the normal brown colour during the monsoon, this tree is very different and can easily be recognised in the forest. I call this safari as an "Informative and Statistical" safari because of the facts and information by our guide. Also we tried for a sighting of Munna, who is indeed very famous in Kanha because whenever sighted it gives an experience of a lifetime to the tourists who visit Kanha. We tried our level best for seeing this "Celebrity in Kanha" but could'nt see it. By the end of the day I was atleast happy that we had excellent guides both in the morning and in the afternoon safari who tried their best to send us back delighted. We then departed for Pench after the afternoon safari concluded at 6.00 pm. A 4 hour drive from Kanha (This time we took the perfect route!!!). Our stay in Pench was at this place called as VILLAGE MACHAAN. Gypsies were booked through the hotel for the safaris at Pench. Next day morning, our safari was through the Turia gate. This gate is very popular among the tourists. Raju BharweJi was our guide and we had a driver who was equally enthusiastic as our guide. RajuJi was as good as Nain SinghJi in Kanha. We soon came to know about the well known tigers/tigress' here in Pench. "Baghinnala Wali female", "Collar Wali female", and 2 male tigers. On further questioning we found out that these were the first litter of a very bold tigress called as "Badi Maa". "Badi maa" as fondly called by the Pench locals is sadly no more now. But she has a legacy of her own and had a record territory of approximately 44 sq.km. , the largest ever by a female tigress in India. The "Collar Wali female" also had a very rare feature, it is the only tigress to have given birth to 5 cubs at a time of which all have survived and now are fully grown. Pench as a forest is very different from Tadoba or Kanha. It is an open jungle with dense overgrowth of bushes all around, and some lovely places which are very dense and could be called as a "green tunnel". A nice effort made but no sighting even after such efforts was the only disheartening thing till then. Then came the most exciting part of the entire trip, the afternoon safari. You will come to know why I'm suddenly calling this the most exciting part of the trip. We began the afternoon safari on a very positive note because even after 4 safaris we were not able to sight a single tiger. The guide for our Turia zone safari was Sukhram DhurweJi. He was a perfect example for a positive man. Right from the start of this safari DhurweJi was extremely confident of a sighting and kept saying that even he wanted to see a tiger since it was a holiday the next day, and he did not have a shift the day after that. Hearing something like this from a man who sees the Tiger everyday was indeed a surprise. He told us many stories about the tigers of that region. He told us many stories about his previous job that was of a "Khalasi" in the steep hilly meadows of the forest at Pench. By a khalasi, I mean that he is a keeper of the local power stations at that region. Also this man kept on saying that he was just speaking but words cannot be enough to satisfy a tourist and his main aim was to spot a tiger. We spotted almost all the animals at Pench except the sloth bear which is a nocturnal animal, and usually wanders only in the night. In a sequence we saw spotted deer, a group of jackals, a whole herd of wild dogs, a fully grown male sambhar deer,a female neelgaay and some bison and sambhar deer quenching their thirst at baghinnala. The only animal left was the tiger, and we wanted to see it. Just minutes after seeing the last jackal we came across a chaurasta(a place where 4 roads converge) where there were almost 11-12 vehicles waiting. Suddenly DhurweJi rose up from his seat and pointed his finger into the dense overgrowth where we could see the face off the tiger. Initially we mistook this for the famous "Collar Wali female" but later DhurweJi recognised it as a male tiger which turned out to be a 4 year old child of the "Collar Wali female". There are points about this tiger

· This is the first time that the tiger which we saw was to be sighted alone and in the territory of its mother.

· This tiger was sighted for the first time after it had seperated from its mother.

· It gave us an excellent sighting and an experience of a lifetime, I will reveal the reason soon.

There was a forest ranger and some forest officials on two motorcycles and about 12 gypsies enjoying the lovely sighting of this beauty. To be very honest a we saw a tiger royally resting in its habitat. We loved the tiger and were by its side in proximity for about 45 minutes before all the vehicles started reversing and making their way towards the exit point as the clock was inching towards 6.00 pm (The vehicles and the guide are fined if they dont make it to the exit checkpost before 6.00 pm) . At half past 5, we were not yet ready to make the move out of this place and wanted to wait for the tiger to cross the road and go into the dense jungle. By then we were the only vehicle near the animal. No forest ranger was close by and we could stay on. At exactly 5.35 pm, the tiger rose up and started moving towards the other side of the road, but coming as a surprise it settled at the boundary of the road towards our right side. We were really worried as we cannot speed past the animal when it is just at the boundary of the road (It is a risk of the animal attacking). We waited, but the tiger was totally unaware of its surroundings and what was happening around it as it continued to peacefully rest just beside the road. After another 5 minutes it started crossing the road, and we felt relieved as the tiger was advancing towards the denser part of the forest, but the twist in the tale comes now, this tiger just crossed the road and now settled at the left boundary of the road. DhurweJi's reaction to this scene is epic and I have recorded the same on video. After a couple of minutes the tiger rose again and this time to our relief it really started moving towards the jungle. Now the most awaited part of my entire purpose of this excerpt starts, and indeed it is the most memorable experience that I will remember throughout my life. As the tiger royally walked towards the jungle, our driver Pawan JaiswalJi revved up the accelerator and to our sudden surprise the tiger stopped its movement and turned back. It was staring and looking into our eyes, it was clearly disturbed. DhurweJi asked the driver to slow down the vehicle to avert any attack by the tiger as it seemed very fierce and scared. The dangerous thing about it was that it was only 4-5 years old and still not fully mature. So he could attack anytime and I doubted he had an intention to attack. And my doubt turned into a reality, he slowly advanced towards the vehicle. At this time he was precisely about 4-5 metres away from the vehicle, which is randomly a pounce away in a tiger's terms. He quickly paced his steps and moved towards the vehicle, there was no movement either from the guide and driver or from us. We were glued to the seat and holding the handle tightly. In about 2-3 seconds time, he had stopped moving and continued his way into the jungle. Things were back to normal and we had just experienced something that no one might have even thought of. We were in a state of surprise for about 10 minutes and the driver had already consistently clocked a speed of 60 kmph, as compared to the permitted 20 kmph to reach the exit checkpost faster. At exactly 6.01 pm we had reached the exit point and had just experienced a very unique sighting of "THE ROYAL BENGAL TIGER". The ferocious look of the tiger still hovers in my mind whenever i think of it. This still gives me goosebumps and indeed it was a lifetime experience.

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