November 2022 when the email promoting a Tiger Safari FAM (familiarization) trip popped into my inbox. I could hardly believe it as I’d spent the last couple of months dreaming of India and embarking on a tiger safari, but just couldn’t figure out how I would manage it. I took the serendipitous offering as a clear sign and immediately jumped on an email to Kiki Paris from Wanderlust Safaris, to secure my spot. As luck (or the stars or fate) would have it, there was one spot left, and it was mine.
The trip was scheduled for February 7th, 2023, and I could hardly wait. With an extremely busy Christmas and New year’s period in the travel industry, the 2 months flew by and before I knew it, my trip was just around the corner. With too much luggage, ticket and passport in hand, I made my way to Miami Airport on the Tri-trail – getting there way too early, as usual. Check-in and security lines moved quickly and I had a long 3-hour wait for my departure. I booked with United Airlines, but ended up flying on their codeshare partner – Swiss Air - which was an unexpected treat – the aircraft, service and food were exceptional, and I had the added bonus of having a two seats free between myself and my fellow row-mate. This space gradually decreased, however, as she (my row mate) conveniently edged her way closer and closer to me until she was sleeping on my feet. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant flight and I managed to get quite a few hours of sleep, which is unusual for me. The short layover in Zurich gave me just enough time to grab a Chai tea Latte from Starbucks (yes, they’re everywhere), before boarding another 7-hour flight to Delhi. This flight was jam packed, but since I was well rested, I took the time to watch a few movies and a television series, and before knew it I was there. I landed in Delhi 40 minutes after midnight and made it through Customs and immigration in record time. While standing at the baggage carousel I heard someone calling my name – the Royal Expeditions Rep had eventually found me, and after assisting me with my luggage, whisked me out of the airport to meet my driver who would ferry me to the Lemon Tree Hotel for my overnight stay in Delhi. After a quick, invigorating shower and a tooth brushing, I fell into a deep sleep on an incredibly comfortable king size mattress (although at this point anything would have been comfortable compared with an economy airline seat).
Lemon Tree Delhi Airport
I awoke dark and early the following morning, repacked my bags (30lb limit) for my flight to Jabalpur and proceeded to breakfast. The Lemon Tree had a delightful spread of both Western and Indian options, some proving rather spicy, but very tasty. I had the pleasure of meeting two of my fellow FAM goers, Elaine and her husband Nick at breakfast, before proceeding to the lobby to meet the rest of the group, who had enjoyed a pre-tour to Jawai Leopard Reserve. They were a great group of people, all sharing the same mindset, and I was sure we were going to become fast friends. The group included Kiki, from Wanderlust Portfolio and Vishal from Royal Expeditions – the trip hosts / organizers. After a quick get-to-know-you, we headed to the airport. The flight to Jabalpur was a short 1.5 hours and we were soon on the road to our next destination and first national park – Bandhavgarh!
The 3.5-hour drive proved very interesting, traveling through wheat fields and small villages. Wednesday was market day in this region and each town was bustling with market stalls, selling everything from spices to saris. We had to navigate around potholes, other vehicles, scooters, pedestrians, cows, goats and stray dogs, and miraculously managed to avoid hitting anything. It struck me that there was an order to this seeming chaos – all this honking, that at first seemed very uncivilized, was just a means of communicating with other drivers, and vehicles constantly gave way to let each other pass. This system really worked, without any anger or hostility. Let us (not me per se) loose on these roads and we’d have an unprecedented number of road rage shootings within the first hour!
Market day - Village on route to Kings Lodge
Just after sunset we reached Kings Lodge – our base for the 2 days we would spend in Bandhavgarh National Park. We were warmly welcomed by the manager and staff, with hot towels to wash our hands and a fragrant drink (this was the typical reception at all the lodges that we visited). We were then shown to our beautiful suites (where our luggage was already waiting) to freshen up before dinner.
My private cottage at Kings Lodge
Kings Lodge, as was the case with all the Pugdundee properties, was eco-friendly, environmentally sustainable and a single-use-plastic free zone. Lodge premises are all re-wilded with native species, offering a natural habitat to many local species and safe passage to visiting wildlife. Kings Lodge had its own organic kitchen garden, a farm-to-table initiative with the emphasis on sustainable and healthy food options. Food is also sourced from local farmers, thereby reducing the lodges carbon footprint.
Flower and herb garden at Kings Lodge
Pugdundee safaris also encourage avenues for economic well-being for the host communities with which they co-exist, and more than 70 percent of their staff and management is comprised of locals. They are also actively engaged in contributing to education and infrastructure of local schools.
Pugdundee managers and staff participate in regular sustainability training. They also offer India’s first-of-its-kind, Professional Naturalist training program (since 2018). This three-week program focuses to elevate wildlife enthusiasts into professional naturalists and with the extra 3 nights’ extension for guiding techniques, graduates will be equipped to be inducted as trainee or lodge based naturalists in the wildlife based tourism sector. Besides the PRONAT course, Pugundee also offers an Amateur- and Young Naturalist course – to introduce children to- and build a lifelong appreciation for nature. This last course is offered complimentary to children between the ages of 9 and 16 years.
After a delicious tapas style dinner around a rustic, heavy set wooden table, we were ready for bed. It had been another long, tiring, but very enjoyable day – the first of many to come.
Wake-up call was at 5am, giving us time to dress, have a quick breakfast and coffee (which I learned was a big mistake, since the first toilet break was at least 3 hours and a very bumpy ride away), and make it to the gate by 6am. The first to the gate was the first in the park and first, we hoped, to see a tiger – so being first was paramount! Since we were 7 people including Vishal, we had to travel in two open-topped Gypsies (safari vehicles). Each guest is allocated a specific vehicle and driver/guide and zone within the park. At the gate all guests must present their passports to prove they are in the correctly allocated vehicle. It’s quite a procedure but seems to work well.
While days in February reach into the upper 20’s C (80’s F), the mornings are cold – in the very low teens C (50’s F), so layering is important in open safari vehicles. As well as our own jackets, fleeces, beanies, buffs and gloves, the lodges supplied us with warm blankets and hot water bottles. This was how we bundled up each morning (I really wish I’d gotten more photos)!
As we entered the park, I was filled with anticipation at the possibility of seeing my first ever tiger (in the wild, that is). As the dawn broke, the jungle came alive with exotic bird song from parrots, hornbills, barbets, and Jungle Babblers, to name a few. Then a rooster bolted out of the undergrowth – I was surprised to learn that this was not as I presumed, a wayward domestic chicken, but a Jungle Fowl, a wild bird that is the spitting image of its domestic cousin – who knew this was where chickens came from (unfortunately it was too dark to take a photo). Another common sighting was wild peacocks.
Although our first day in the park did not produce any tigers, it was not lacking in wildlife. We saw Langur Monkeys, which were to be a common sight throughout our stay, Golden Jackals, Spotted deer (the most common deer species), Sambar deer and numerous bird species, including Indian Rollers, bee-eaters, peacocks, and many more.
We even saw a wild Indian elephant – until recently there were no elephants in Bandhavgarh or for that matter, any of the central Indian parks, but a herd migrated here around 5 years ago and there are now approximately 50 resident elephants. They have an impact on tiger sightings as they are very aggressive towards tigers, especially when they have young calves.
Top Left: Golden Jackal, Top Right: Spotted deer calf, Bottom Left: Spotted deer, Bottom right: Langur monkey
Trained elephants with their mahouts were quite a common sight in the parks that we visited, which had me very conflicted. I am very much opposed to elephant riding because of the abuse and cruelty these gentle giants go through when they are taught to carry people. Not to mention the injuries and complications caused by having a people ride them day in and day out – including long term spinal injuries, blisters, foot infections and the like. However, in this case it is apparently (although I’m not too sure of this) the only way for rangers to access the dense jungle and monitor the health of tiger populations and other wildlife. It’s a case of sacrificing one animal for another. It brought me to tears, to see off-duty elephants shackled and barely able to move. If working elephants are a necessity, they should at least be allowed to roam chain free when not on duty – as in Nepal where they have created chain free corrals where elephants can just be elephants.
This evening we were treated to a conservation presentation, followed by a cultural show and boma dinner.
Our second morning in Bandhavgarh started in the same way. Once again, full of anticipation we entered the park and after bouncing around for almost 3 hours, with a number of false alarm calls from monkeys and deer, we eventually had our first tiger sighting - Jamhole, a very large and regal male tiger. It came as quite a shock to learn how different the safari etiquette is in India, compared to Africa. Here, there is no respect for other safari goers, or even the tiger – it’s a free-for-all and vehicles have no problem cutting each other off, pulling in front of each other, or even, in this instance, backing into each other, just to get the best vantage point. It was absolute mayhem, with lots of screaming and shouting and Jamhole, who was up to this point peacefully relaxing in the shade by the side of the road, got up and disappeared into the undergrowth before we even got a shot in (camera). All we saw was a tail! Fortunately, he appeared again as he crossed the road behind us, heading towards the buffer zone to stalk some cows, which were not in short supply. Unfortunately, we were once again on the wrong side of him and only got butt shots. All the same, it was unbelievably exciting to have seen our first tiger, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Regarding the parks, they are all comprised of core zones and buffer zones, which are shared with local communities. Wildlife is free to roam between the zones. Of the core zone, only 20% is accessible to the public. The remaining 80% is off limits. I thought this was fantastic.
After this, our last game drive in Bandhavgarh, we departed for Kanha Earth Lodge, a long but certainly not boring, 5-hour drive east. The Earth lodge was exceptional – the luxury cottages were very spacious, with not just one, but two toilets. The style was apparently inspired by Gond tribal architecture, and each had its own very private outdoor patio with views of the forest. The lodge’s 16-acre property, comprised of natural forest, borders Kanha National Park’s buffer zone and offers a pristine wilderness experience. What’s more, it’s only a 25-minute drive from the Khatia park gate.
Kanha National Park nestled in the Maikal range of Satpuras, is a sprawling expanse of pristine wilderness. On our first early morning safari, I was struck by the stunning beauty of the Sal forest that surrounded us. The towering trees, with their dark trunks and broad leaves, formed a dense canopy overhead that filtered the sunlight, casting dappled shadows on the forest floor, while in open patches sunlight streamed down in golden rays. The forests opened onto wide open grasslands, where Spotted- deer Sambar deer and Barasingha grazed lazily in the morning light.
This landscape is said to have been the inspiration for Rudyard Kiplings famous “Jungle Book” (although the same was said of Pench National park). It is a place of rare and remarkable beauty, a haven for wildlife and a testament to the enduring power of nature.
Although our safaris in Kanha did not include any tigers sightings, they delivered something equally exciting and even more rare – two wild dog or Dhole sightings – the second one found the dogs on a very fresh kill. Seeing wild dogs was something I was desperately hoping for, but I knew the chances were very slim. We also saw the rare barasingha or swamp deer – the came very close to extinction when a successful breeding program and conservation practices at Kanha National Park brought them back from the brink.
Pench followed Kanha, with a 2-night stay at Pench Tree Lodge – another wonderful property offering both cottages and elegant tree houses made of local Sal wood, perched on top of Mahua trees. Another amazing feature at Pench was the below-ground game viewing hide, that looked out onto a small water hole. We were told that jackal and leopard were frequently sighted here, along with other mammals and bird species. Unfortunately, we did not have time to use the hide – it was all go-go-go, tiger-tiger-tiger! Next time I’ll spend an extra night or two.
Pench National Park, an reserve covered by towering teak and deciduous dry forests, saw our second tiger sighting. We all held our breath as this stunning creature emerged from the foliage and into the dappled morning sunlight – it was Laxmi, a beautiful tigress. She silently padded through the jungle, completely unbothered by our presence, enjoying a peaceful morning stroll through her kingdom. We watched in awe as she moved with effortless grace, her eyes fixed ahead as if she had a specific destination in mind. After a few minutes, she disappeared back into the underbrush as quickly and silently as she had appeared, leaving us with a sense of wonder and awe.
Pench is where the literary genius, Sir Rudyard Kipling created his timeless classic, The Jungle Book and its wolf child, Mowgli. This masterpiece was inspired by the true incident of a human child, reared by wolves in the nineteenth century.
Besides tigers, Pench is inhabitat by a Myriad of flora and fauna including Indian leopard, sloth bear, spotted deers, sambhar deer, wild boar, wild dogs, golden jackal and langur monkeys. Pench is also an idyllic place for bird watching, boasting of over 210 species of birds.
Our fourth and final stop was Tadoba National Park and the phenomenal Waghoba Eco Lodge Located in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. En route we made a brief stop at a pottery workshop.
We loved Waghoba’s “green” luxury cottages, all constructed with handmade Adobe earth bricks, facilitating energy efficient cooling, and vaulted ceilings made from handmade conical tiles. With a top-notch chef, the meals at Waghoba were outstanding!
At Waghoba they have taken the initiative to hire females in the male dominated wildlife industry, aiming for 50:50 ratio. Candidates from neighboring villages are always given priority.
Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is regarded as one of the world’s most preferred tiger destinations. The reserve is made up of southern tropical dry deciduous forest filled with dense Teak woodlands (and let's not forget about the beautiful ghost trees), opening onto grassy meadows, lakes and rivers.
Groves of bamboo supplement food availability for herbivores and provide both a safe harbor to prey and cover for predators. Tadoba Lake is a perennial water source that offers a suitable habitat for marsh crocodiles and a paradise for bird enthusiasts with a stunning diversity of bird life.
With just one night in Tadoba we only had time for two safaris, but they produced more tiger sightings than any other park. Just before sunset on our first safari, we watched in amazement as two tigers mated. Granted we had to watch through our telephoto lenses as they were quite some distance away and mostly hidden in the long grass – nevertheless it was an incredible experience. Then we had to frantically rush to make it to the gate before closing time – for any of you familiar with Disney World, it was comparable to Mr. Toad’s wild ride and left us all with rather tender behinds!
After our final sunrise safari, and last tiger sighting, we headed to Nagpur airport for our return flight to Delhi.
With a heavy heart, aching back and butt, a suitcase full of very dusty clothes, thousands of photos and 6 new friends. I bid farewell to Central India. It had been an adventure of a lifetime, shared with an amazing group of likeminded people, and one that I wouldn't soon forget. Unlike my very long flight back to the Western world!