I badly needed my tiger fix, an addiction. I had about seven days to spare, and looked at a few options – Corbett (clubbing my trip with official work in Gurgaon), Ranthambore (tagging along with a photo tour), Bandhavgarh etc. Finally narrowed down on Kanha and Tadoba. Kanha, because safaris were still available, and Kanha is beautiful even without the tigers. Tadoba, because I like going there at least once every year.
Had kept the bags packed the night before. I was supposed to wake up at 4 AM and be out by 4.30. But snoozing led to one hour delay. Was finally out of the house at 5:30 AM. I had a 1200km drive ahead, but decided to take it easy. I needed to reach Kanha around noon the next day. There were no other deadlines.
Bangalore – Pench – Kanha
Crossed Bangalore airport by 6:30, while keeping below the speed limits. Then started cruising, maintaining a stead speed. There was more traffic on NH7 than I had expected. Had ‘breakfast’ while driving – juice, bananas, biscuits, some chocolate. Years back I used to be a lot more serious about food/snacks for long drives – Red Bull, energy bars etc. Then I realized that it is best to keep things simple. Main thing is to stay hydrated, have fruits if possible, and avoid anything heavy. Reached Hyderabad after noon. I took it easy on the Hyderabad ORR since I realized that I was getting 1-1.5 km less mileage on the new Pirelli Scorpion A/T tyres, compared to the old Dunlops. The ‘lower than ideal’ tyre pressure was also to blame – I had kept 30.5-31 PSI instead of 32 PSI.
Decided not to stop for lunch, but finish all the food items I had bought. Got down after every 2-2.5 hours, to stretch a bit. The temperature forecast for Nagpur/Chandrapur wasn’t encouraging – it was around 44 degrees, and in the next few days Chandrapur was supposed to reach 48 degrees. The drive wasn’t very uncomfortable, with the AC going at full blast. In any case, I needed to get used to the heat – I would be out in the sun for 8 hours every day, for the next few days.
Before crossing Adilabad, I called up MPTDC Rukhad, and booked a room. The AP-MH border stretch was bad as usual. But not as bad as last year, when I had crossed the stretch after monsoons, in the night, when it was raining. In spite of cruising sedately (relatively speaking), I reached Nagpur bypass around 7 pm. It started raining a bit. I had mixed feelings about the rain. It would bring down the temperature a bit. But I was more worried about the impact on animal sightings. Anyway, the rain stopped after a while. When I was going through a narrow railway crossing (it was dark, and it was drizzling), a bike – coming from the other side – skidded on the tracks and fell right in front of me. My speed was slow, so I was able to stop and swerve in time.
The drive through Pench was nice. I rolled down the windows from time to time, to enjoy the smell of the forest after the rains. I was hoping to come across a cat or two (perhaps out to mark their territory after the rain), but they didn’t oblige. Truck traffic is heavy through Pench, at least till 10 pm, so the animals stay away from the highway.
Reached Rukhad a little after 9 pm. The MPTDC tourist lodge is in the middle of a forest stretch, and given that the room was economical, it was ideal for a stopover. The food was pretty good – I recommend the place for a breakfast or night halt. The manager was surprised to hear that hear that I drove from Bangalore. Met a local guy, who told me that it was possible to take my vehicle inside the forest for a safari. Good. If I didn’t feel tired, and could wake up before 6, then inside the forest I would go, before I headed for Kanha.
The room was ok. Didn’t have an AC, but the cooler was functioning. When I am traveling alone, I am not very fussy, and can put up with some frogs, insects etc. inside the room, as long as they don’t climb on the bed. I sat outside, trying to listen to forest sounds (I had heard that some animals come inside once in a while), but the cooler was too loud. So I went to bed around 11.30 or so. I had driven 1200+ km today, but it had been a relaxing drive. (if one can call a 15.5 hour drive relaxing) Last time I had driven throughout the night to reach Nagpur, and I had felt a lot more tired the next day.
Managed to wake up and get ready by 6. Went to the forest entry gate, which was a few hundred metres from the resort. There was no one there. Inquired with a forest guard, and then went to a shack nearby and woke up a guide. Told him to get the necessary permission for forest entry. I had to pay extra to take my own vehicle inside, but I couldn’t resist the allure of driving within the forest.
Once the guide finished the paperwork, we went inside the forest. The trail was doable in almost any vehicle. After a while, we reached a small lake. The guide said that tigers had been sighted there the previous week. I told him that instead of driving around, maybe we should wait near the lake. That is what we did, for more than an hour.
Sat down behind some bushes, so that we were not directly visible from the lake, but still had an open line of sight for the camera. A few green pigeons and peacocks came down to drink. Followed by a herd of cheetal, and then some gaurs. Clicked a King vulture from far away – it was sitting somewhere, and swooped towards the lake and went away fast. I had been daydreaming, and could only take a couple of record shots before it vanished.
Got back to the resort around 9:30AM. Had a nice shower, and headed out around 10:30. No breakfast, to save time. Had a few chocolate pieces left – that and water would have to suffice. The road condition was better than I expected (about 10x better than what it usually is after the monsoons), so I reached the Seoni turning pretty fast. Took help of Google Maps to bypass Seoni and head towards Nainpur. There were a few sudden dips in the road. MP state roads can lull you into a sense of complacency. Straight road, fantastic surface quality. Then suddenly an acute angle turn – and you narrowly escape falling into a valley. Or 3-4 inescapable potholes on a fantastic stretch. Or sudden dips filled with broken rocks and water.
After Nainpur, stretches of Sal forests began. I have fond memories of Sal forest. When in school, I used to go camping in the forests of Bihar and Orissa, in the Chhotonagpur Plateau. Reached Khatia gate a little after noon, and then, after entering my details, went inside the core area. If you are staying at Bagheera Lodge or the Kisli Tourist Lodge, you can go inside anytime during the day. I was staying at Kisli Tourist Lodge (decided to stay at a dorm after many years – the first time after school/college days). I had a tight budget for this trip, and as long as I could stay inside the forest, I was ready to put up with some discomfort. If the cooler was working, and water was available 24 hours, then I was happy.
Well, the cooler wasn’t very effective, but the shower was. Had a quick veg lunch (part of the daily package), and got ready for the first safari. Suncreen, hat, sunglass (since I wear contacts), a water bottle, a plastic packet that would protect the camera + lens from dust, camera settings checked and tested (on a jackal that was running along the road in front of the lodge – maybe 100m away).
My first safari was in Mukki zone. We had to pass Kisli gate. Brought back memories from earlier trips. Went pass that famous tree of Kanha, where 3-4 owls were always visible. This time, there were no owls. I asked the guide, who said that the owls had moved somewhere else. Pity. I had been looking forward to click them.
It took a while to get used to the burning sun. Encountered a few herbivores – cheetals, a few sambars, and an alpha gaur. The forest seemed dead otherwise. No alarm calls. No fresh tracks. And not even a hint of breeze. Just dust and burning sunlight.
At Mukki, we stopped near a pond, which was supposed to be a favourite tiger waterhole. No tiger. But I saw an interesting sight – a peacock, a heron and a changeable hawk eagle hissing at each other, before going down to drink from the pond. I have heard of serpent eagles killing peacocks, I guess the hawk eagles are too weak to be a threat.
Three hours went by. First safari is always the toughest , especially when you are facing the heat and sun for the first time in the trip. And don’t have adrenaline helping you. Disheartened, we turned back towards the exit gate, which was some 20 kms away.
A cheetal is giving an alarm call. Wait for 10 minutes. The deer stops calling. So you start driving again, more disheartened than before. Then, after making a turn, you see a few vehicles that have stopped ahead. You use sign language to ask passengers of the nearest vehicle why they have stopped. Someone whispers ‘tiger’. You can’t hear him, but can lip read that word.
So, apparently a tiger is sitting somewhere inside the bamboo grove to your left. I climb on the seats, and imagine I can see an ear. Maybe – but not worth taking a shot. Then a blur emerges from the bamboo grove, even before you can point the camera properly. Forget about changing the settings (the shutter speed should have been a lot higher to capture a charging tiger properly. A young tigress explodes out of the grove, pouncing on the monkeys that were playing on the ground. Unfortunately, she is unable to catch a single one. The monkeys have managed to scamper up safely. But they are so shocked that they are not even giving the alarm call.
The tigress gives a disgusted look at the monkeys and then walks across towards a nearby water tank, about 25 feet away. She sits near the waterhole for a while, looking up at the monkeys from time to time. I can read her expression – “Next time I will catch you!”
Then she walks up the forest track. We are already late, so we don’t try to follow her. She marks her territory and then vanishes inside the undergrowth.
Happy, sweaty, dusty faces. Sighting at the 11th hour. A close one too. There were some gasps when the tigress charged and came close. Sometimes I encounter people who are very excited to see a big cat from some distance, but start panicking when the cat comes close. I didn’t meet anyone like that this time in Kanha, but I remembered a Bengali lady who was all excited when she saw a tigress in Tadoba from a distance. She was berating her driver “Arre gaari shamne leke jao! Joldi koro!” The poor driver tried to explain that one couldn’t really break the line and spook the tigress. Anyway, the tigress decided to head right towards this lady’s vehicle (which was right behind my Gypsy). The change in attitude, and decrease in bravery, was inversely proportional to the distance of the tiger from her vehicle. Eventually, when the tigress passed 7 feet from her vehicle, the lady was hiding her face on her knees, with her hands covering her head. And softly moaning that she wanted to get away from there. I should mention that this particular tigress had killed and eaten a human a few months back. Leaving just one leg for cremation.
Anyway, one you get a nice sighting, you forget about the heat, the dust, the tiredness, the 1400+ km drive to get here. Once I finished the safari (and got dropped near the MPTDC canteen – the vehicle proceeded towards Khatia gate, which was 3 kms away), I quickly grabbed another quick shower while the rest of the occupants of the tourist lodge were still discussing the sighting. Took my camera and laptop, and headed towards Bagheera Tourist Lodge, which was a few hundred metres away. Their restaurant had a functioning AC, and chilled beer. Just what the doctor ordered. The best possible place (inside the forest) to go over the photos, charge the camera battery, and get ready for the next day.
After shortlisting some of the photos and charging my camera and phone, I drove to Khatia gate. There were a few dhabas within a few hundred metres of the forest checkpost, so I selected one that looked to be popular, and had a nice meal of chicken and rice. I was in no mood to have a bland veg dinner. Requested the forest guard to open the gate again, and drove back to Kisli Tourist Hostel. Saw a jackal on the way, but no wild cats or leopards. Sat outside the room till midnight, listening to the sounds of the forest. Cheetal mating calls. Alarm calls coming from far away. The ‘chuk chuk chhukkkar’ of the nightjars. Scampering rabbits – playing around in the grass of the compound. Bats moving around. The shining stars and the milky way. And the irritating sound of the air cooler.
Woke up at 4:15 in the morning, to preempt the other guests and be ready before they wake up. Start the safari with high hopes. Kanha zone this time. A few barasinghas, many herbivores, even a few vultures. But no big cats. Came back a little disappointed, and well boiled. A quick shower, a quick nap. Light lunch, then again out for the afternoon safari in Kanha zone.
In the evening, I again went out of the forest gate, and had dinner outside (I like my non veg, and the ambiance of local dhabas). Then back to the lodge – after convincing the forest gate guard to raise the barrier – driving at 20 kmph. A few boars crossed the road. Saw a jungle cat leap into a bush. Parked the vehicle outside the lodge, and sat on a chair enjoying the atmosphere. Heard alarm calls from far away, but they died down. I had heard that tigers sometimes prowl around near the balcony. But I had no such luck, thought I waited till midnight. Note: when sitting outside, make sure that the room door is unlocked and that you can scoot inside if required. And that you carry a decent torch. And that you have sharp ears, and can understand some jungle sounds, While Kanha has no recent history of human – big cat conflict, it always helps to be careful. I would have been a lot more wary if I were in Tadoba. Or in the Nilgiris for that matter. A few days earlier, when I was in Masinagudi, a big male elephant came visiting around 11pm. I was sitting outside in an open, ground floor balcony, doing some work on my laptop. Then I heard a snort, which told me that an elephant was around. I peered round the balcony wall, and saw a magnificent tusker come through the resort gates. I would have stood quietly, but my vehicle was parked 40-45 feet away from the elephant. So I had to stealthily go out, wait till the elephant turned, and then go to the main resort and warn the guys. After much effort on our part, the elephant moved away a little bit, so I could jump into the vehicle and park it closer to the main building.
Fourth safari. I am getting used to the dormitory routine. Get up before the others, so that you can have the bathroom and shower to yourself (I was having 4-5 showers a day to beat the heat). The Kisli gate opens, and the Gypsy goes inside the park. A few cheetals, and a couple of gaurs nibbling at the grass. We reach the Kanha meadows. Hear alarm calls. Our driver and guide talk to another guide, who is quite a hero – all others look upto him. We decide to wait on a track. Then someone whispers ‘TIGER!’. Yes, it is a strange combination of a whisper and an excited yelp. We look to the right. I can see a tigress, about 500-600m away. She has come out of the undergrowth, and is looking towards us. I silently pray that she will come my way. She does. She starts walking towards the vehicles.
For the next two minutes, she walks straight towards us. We reverse a bit, and tell the vehicle in front to move ahead by a few metres, so that the tigress has some space to cross the road. She passes right in front of me. Then she goes into the long grass, and passes through a grove of Sal trees. I shoot a few more photos when she is passing through the sal canopy.
A few fellow travellers – who had become friends – were leaving Kanha after the morning safari. Said goodbye to them, and went out to check out the nearby forest rest house. It has a brilliant location, but is haunted by grumpy bureaucratic officials who think that they are doing you a favour by allowing you to stay there for a day or two. After some thought, I decide against staying there.
My afternoon safari was in Sarhi zone. The initial stretches – passing through broken hills – were arid, and the landscape looked somewhat like Tadoba’s. Once I crossed the hills, the valleys and meadows were a lot greener. Came across Barasinghas in golden light. Shot a flying peacock, and a couple of deer fawns in lovely soft light. Alas. I no longer have a single photo from this safari and from the next 3 in Kanha, apart from one shot of a tiger. When transferring files using Nikon View NX2, and trying to delete a single photo, I mistakenly selected ALL the photos from these safaris, and deleted them. Tried recovering through a few options. No luck. Photos from FOUR safaris gone down the drain. Grrrrr.
A night drive
YAWN. I had fallen asleep after the Sarhi safari. Splashed some water, and then went outside the room. Darkness had descended. I could hear the familiar and soothing call of the Nightjars. Somewhere within 50 metres, a brain fever bird was crying ‘brain fever, brain fever’, or perhaps ‘Did you do it? Did you do it?’. Those who have heard it, will know how irritating it can get at times.
As I sat in the dark balcony, I chalked out plans for rest of the evening. I needed to go to Baihar (near the Mukki range) to pick up a few other fellow safari guests (there were a few of us sharing the Gypsy) – who were stuck there since there was no transport in the evening. There was no mobile signal inside the forest, so I had no idea how far away Baihar was. One guy I had asked, had said it takes 3 hours to reach there. Anyway, I thought that once I get Airtel signal in Khatia, I would figure out the optimum route.
A quick shower, and I was ready to face whatever the night threw at me. At Khatia, I got 1-2 bars of mobile signal, and Google Maps showed me that the ‘normal’ routes would be ~ 85-100 km, depending on which route I took. No time for that. But as the crow flies, Baihar wasn’t that far away from Khatia. Was there a shorter route, a cross-country route?
I asked a couple of local jeep drivers. After talking among themselves, they told me that there was a short cut, a dirt track. I asked them, does your jeep go? They said yes, once in a while, if required. I might have to cross 1-2 dry river beds, though. “Yeh 4WD vehicle hai? Tab to koi problem nahi hoga” (Is this a 4WD vehicle? Then there shouldn’t be any problems)
Well, if a jeep could go, should Bison (my vehicle) chicken out? What’s the point of having a 4WD Fortuner if one can’t do such small, unplanned x-country drives?
The initial stretch was a narrow dirt track past a few houses and mud huts. Then it was just me trying to maintain a decent speed on a dirt trail, among swirling dust that diffused the headlights and reduced visibility. I knew from GPS location that I was going South – the right direction. There was no one on the track that passed through the buffer zone of Kanha. I was in somewhat of a hurry, and so started pushing the vehicle a bit. The new Pirellis performed well – grip and handling on a broken dirt trail was better than that of the stock Dunlops. This is all relative, of course – the Fortuner has a reputation of rolling over if driven rashly over corrugations (there were many articles in the South African press about this). So when I talk about pushing the vehicle, it is after keeping in mind what the vehicle can and can’t do. And there were sudden dips, rocks and loose gravel on that track every few metres.
Came across a checkpost after a few kms. The guy was surprised to see my vehicle in the night, but took Rs. 25, gave me a receipt, and let me go. As I drove off, I shouted to him in my best Arnold voice that I will be back after a while.
Crossed a couple of dry stream beds. Not a big deal – any high ground clearance vehicle could have managed if driven carefully. The problem was the dust. I couldn’t see very far away, which reduced my speed. Quite a few times I came to intersections, with 4-5 different tracks going in different directions. I couldn’t see beyond a few meters even if the headlights pointed towards one track. The other tracks were all dark – I had to reverse and turn the vehicle to point the lights towards another track and get an idea. I eliminated a couple of options, but then drove for a few hundred metres, before realizing that I was on the wrong path, and turned back. That happened three times, if I remember.
Eventually I came across a village. Doors were closed, and it was eerily quiet. Luckily, a few guys were still loitering outside, and they confirmed that I was on the right track. After quite some time I reached a broken tar road. I think I preferred the dirt track. The road was filled with potholes (some of them 10-12 inches deep), which were well camouflaged in the dark.
Anyway, I eventually reached Baihar and picked up the safari mates. I had traveled about 40 kms, cross country. Then it was time to rush back to Khatia/Kisli, before the forest gate shut down for the night.
There were no people around this time in any of the villages I passed. All the doors were shut. But by then I had some idea about some of the turnings, and how they correlated with my location on GPS, so without any further goof ups, I managed to arrive at Khatia gate.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I wouldn’t have tried doing trail driving in the night, through the buffer zone, if I didn’t have a reliable 4WD. And there was no way I could have maintained that pace if the vehicle hadn’t been tough and abuse-friendly.
I did a few more safaris in Kanha. They were uneventful as far as tiger sightings were concerned. Got a few nice shots of barasinghas, foxes, langurs, sambars and gaurs, all in soft warm light. I remember one shot of a flying peacock that had come out very well. Unfortunately, all the photos from these safaris got accidentally deleted when I was reviewing the photos with Nikon software. Couldn’t get them back though I tried everything.
The last safari in Kanha ended on an interesting note. My co-passengers had been feeling disappointed, they hadn’t had any proper sightings in the last few safaris. Earlier in the afternoon, we had seen one tigress from far away, when she was walking on the side of the road. We waited for five minutes, praying that she would come close. But then an over-aggressive driver gunned the engine of his Gypsy, and she just melted into the undergrowth. After two more hours of searching for stripes, we turned back towards Kisli gate with a heavy heart. A few km before the exit gate, we saw a couple of vehicles that were waiting. We stopped. Someone whispered ‘tiger’. And then I saw it between two trees. A handsome male tiger. The light was very bad, and we had run out of time, so I could only take a couple of high ISO shots – standing on the seat to shoot through the opening in the trees – before we were forced to go back.
Chatted till late night with guests who were staying in the lodge. Sitting on the steps of Kisli Tourist Hostel, we could soak in the forest atmosphere. Stars above, deers roaming around, the ‘chuk chuk chukhaaar’ call of nightjars, occasional cheetal alarm calls. Unfortunately no carnivores paid us a visit.