Khajuraho to Tala – 284 km (car)
& 62060 Fit Bit steps
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?…(William Blake)
Our driver, Ashok, was careful and knew where to stop for chai/Nescafé and clean bathrooms. On the road to Tala, we noticed winter wheat planted in the rice fields. Water is available to villagers and for irrigation, but we suspect indoor toilets and plumbing is still generally lacking. We encountered large herds of goats and cattle on the road, and women (and an occasional man) carrying bundles of firewood or dried cattle dung, both important sources of fuel. We also saw an ox-cart, but, like the bicycle, this now seems to be a rarity.
We arrived at Tigergarh resort feeling quite hopeful about seeing our first tiger in the wild. Paul’s desire to see tigers has become a bit of family lore. We had read that, of all the tiger reserves in India, the likelihood of a sighting at Bandhavgarh was greatest, especially at this (dry) time of year. Bandhavgarh has one of the highest densities of Bengal tigers known in the world. We were informed that guests currently at the lodge had all had sightings in the past few days. As we had prepaid for four safaris, 2 morning and 2 afternoon, it looked good!
We were quite pumped, therefore, when the alarm went off at 5:45 the next morning. Dressed in all our layers, hats and mitts against the morning chill and the prospect of an open jeep ride, we headed to the dining room for a cup of masala tea and biscuits. However, we soon learned from the owner, Gagan, that the park guides and Gypsy Jeep drivers had just gone on strike. They were demanding the removal of the park director. Gagan proposed that we go in the hotel Jeep, driven and guided by Kuldeep, the lodge’s new wildlife expert. As the safari is with the park authorities, this required some negotiation, but we were soon off. We shared the jeep with another couple, PK and Wendy, Sri Lankans living in Australia and travelling around the world. Both IT consultants, TK is hoping to convert a serious hobby of wildlife photography into a second career. They had booked a large number of specific photography safaris, which normally would have provided them with their own jeep to accommodate camera equipment, so they were not pleased with the sudden strike.
Unfortunately, although we saw fresh tiger prints and heard the alarm calls of Chital (spotted deer), which herald that a tiger is on the move, our first safari netted no sightings. We did see Chital, Barking deer, Sambar, jackals, Langurs, wild pigs, Bison and peacocks and other birds, including a Spotted Owlet.
Things then got worse in terms of the strike. The afternoon safaris were all cancelled, as unrest was increasing. The next morning we were informed that no private jeeps or guides would be allowed in the park. It seems that each morning and afternoon the assignment of park vehicles and trackers is normally not a calm process, but the apparent lack of organization was exaggerated by the union action. The park officials were scrambling to find alternative drivers and vehicles to take people into the park (but no guides). Our next morning safari was in a closed vehicle, being driven by someone who didn’t know the park and with whom we could not communicate. Just after entering the park, the driver stopped at a tea stand for chai and then sent someone over to the car to ask if we would pay for the driver’s tea! Our afternoon safari was better, in that we had demanded an open jeep and a more knowledgeable driver, which Gagan was able to negotiate. But, without a tracker, the driver could only rely on known watering holes and other crossing points. We ended up buying two more safaris, in spite of these restrictions and against our better judgment. Sadly, the tigers continued to elude us. But worse, the conflict infected the atmosphere and the frantic efforts of inexperienced drivers racing around the park with the single objective of trying to find us a tiger became ultimately demoralizing. There was not much oppirtunity to enjoy the early morning mist or gathering dusk out in the beautiful jungle amidst the Bandhavgarh hills that we could easy imagine would be home to Shere Khan. In some ways, we were relieved not to see the majestic tiger surrounded by a posse of determined vehicles and onlookers.
We were pleased to see Indian Vultures* in the park. The numbers of vultures in India has declined precipitously in recent years due to poisoning by diclofanac , an anti-inflammatory used in cattle. Its use is now banned so hopefully the population of this important scavenger will rebound.
We also appreciated the helpful and friendly staff and atmosphere at Tigergarh resort. Thanks to Gagan, Kuldeep and the staff!
*The Parsis traditionally left their dead to be consumed by vultures (according to Mark Twain this took only a couple of hours although he did not see this first hand as very few can enter the towers of silence where the dead are laid to rest) but now they are having to resort to cremation.