Sunday, January 11, 2009

The woods are lovely dark and deep....

Akshay Gopinathan Nair

What better way to bring in the New Year than to spend it in the quiet, calm wilderness, deep inside the forests of central India. While winter may not be the perfect time to spot wild animals in any national park; the 

ghostly dense fog lurking over the never 

ending green plains as the e


morning sun rays struggle to penetrate the mysterious, thick blanket of mist, give

 the forests an ethereal aura which is something witnessed only in 



Against this

 magical backdrop, you see a Royal Bengal Tiger majestically striding towards you – an absolutely breathtaking sight. Welcome to Bandhavgarh Na

tional Park, Madhya Pradesh – truly the heart of Incredible India.   

      Having been to Ranthambhore and Corbett tiger reserves, 

Bandhavgarh seemed to be the obvious choice for our next visit. We made the bumpy three hour long drive from Satna, a major junction on the Mumbai-Patna route, to Tala, a small 

village which serves as one of the entry points into Bandhavgarh National Park. Tala is dotted with many dhabas, budget hotels as well as the luxurious Mahua Kothi, a high end five star property. The White Tiger Resort is owned by the Madhya Pradesh tourism department and provides good, affordable accommodation.


          After accommodation, the next thing on our mind was the safaris into the park. While arrangemen

ts  for the safaris can also be made online, we chose to look around and eventually managed to hire a Maruti Gypsy a sturdy 4x4 for ourselves with Sikandar and Annu as our drivers. All the guid

es and safari drivers in Bandhavgarh have organized themselves and formed a union which augurs well for the tourists who have to pay a uniform fee of about a thousand rupees per safari, which can be shared by up to six tourists, the maximum number of tourists permitted in each vehicle. Excursions into the park are allowed at twice in a day; the first is the morning safari, from 0630 hours to 1030 hours and later, the evening safari, from 1430 hours to 1730 hou



 Bandhavgarh, in wildlife circles, is synonymous with tigers; and

with a mere 105 sq. km.  housing 26 tigers in the zone accessible to tourists, Bandhavgarh has 
 the highest tiger population  density in India. Over the four days we spent in Bandhavgarh, we made six visits into the park and spotted tigers on four occasions. Bandhavgarh National Park was the 

former hunting ground of the Maharaja of Rewa, and also the first place where white tigers were first discovered.  

On the morning of our second day in the park, news filtered through to us that a tigress had paid a visit to a farmer’s house in Tala village and managed to steal a calf. Pug marks of the tigress were also found near the main road to Tala gate. With a mixture of awe, fear and wonder that out hotel was barely a few meters from the villager’s house, we entered the park 

on what was easily the coldest day of the winter yet.  And it was on this day that we experienced the most unique and novel way explore the forest – on elephant back! Not only can the elephants travel deep inside the forests through the vegetation reaching places vehicles cannot; but also wild animals such as deer, boars and even tigers tend not to react to the elephants’ presence allowing tourists a close view of the animals inside. 

A tiger, after a heavy meal, usually prefers to laze around hidden amongst the tall grassy bushes, unperturbed by any commotion around it. Thanks to the elephant safari which the forest officials organized, we were able to get within a few feet of the one such beauty which turned out to be the same tigress that had earlier come to the village for a meal. What a moment it was!  

             While the experience of elephants carrying tourists constantly coming in and around the tigers could be stressful for the tigers, the park rangers ensure that the tigers are never disturbed or unduly distressed and should they feel that the tigers are uneasy; the rangers quickly call off all elephant safaris. However it was heartbreaking to see that a few of tourists who came in to the park, showed no concern what so ever for these majestic creatures – constantly using their camera flashes, talking loudly among themselves and even, would you believe it,  even clapping when they saw a tiger.  

              But it is not only tigers that are found here; the other residents include gaurs (Indian bison), sloth bears, leopards, porcupines, wild boars, sambhar deer, barking deer, nilgai deer and chital (spotted deer). Another feature of this unique biosphere which hits you almost immediately as you enter the forest is the abundance of birds – from the grey Malabar hornbills to blossom headed parakeets, from blue bearded bee eaters to white bellied drongos, owls, Indian rollers , most of which we saw in barely a few days.

            At the heart of the forest, perched on a seemingly never ending plateau, stands an almost unassailable fort – the Bandhavgarh fort. Entrenched deep in history, the fort can be visited throughout the day, permission for which must be obtained from the forest office at the Tala gate.  The fort is home to numerous Red- headed Vultures, a species which, we learnt later, has come dangerously close to extinction over the past decade.

       With the perfect blend of history, wildlife, virgin forests and a high probability of spotting tigers, Bandhavgarh is a place no wildlife aficionado should miss. As we left, we couldn’t help but feel that four days was far too less to fully explore the enchanting forest that is Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. In spite of the dwindling numbers, India is still called ‘the land of the tigers’, and after this captivating trip, I must say that Bandhavgarh National Park would surely have to be its capital!