Tigers and Cricket - January 2010
Notes from the 'outfield'
'Unless I get Alzheimer's, I'll remember this day for the rest of my life'
'Why did you book this safari?' I ask one client at Heathrow
I love cricket and I love tigers,' she replies. Impossible to argue with her reasoning, but let's see if the 23 year old Lancashire League player makes an impression on the scoreboard on match day.
In a month or so it is the Chinese Year of the Tiger (God help them) so this January my India safari is more poignant than normal. On April 25th I am 'running' the London Marathon in a nine feet high Bengal Tiger costume so accompanied by my 'costumier' I lead seventeen wildlife fans, on board a Jet Airways flight at Heathrow. It's the fifth of my special annual charity departures and one that turns out to be perhaps the most eventful.
NB: Please click on the images to enlarge them and appreciate them more...
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Day One: Fog, and more fog, this is to be a common theme on this itinerary and little do I know upon arrival at Indira Ghandi International how much of an imprint it will leave. With no confirmation that the overnight train to Katni was running we take the momentous decision to drive to Bandhavgarh, travelling more than 600 miles on shocking roads with a night in the historic town of Gwalior.
Day Two: Thankfully our local company in India is as good an operator as I have worked with in 26 years. Sound staff, a comfortable coach and a superb driver help the journey no end, as do various stops, silly games and the growing excitement that our destination is one of the few successful strongholds for this critically endangered animal. Late in the afternoon (hour 22) we pass Panna National Park. This was once a flagship for Project Tiger but last year its last big cat was murdered to satisfy the despicable Chinese demand for tiger body parts. It is a beautiful area but there is not a tourist vehicle or tourist in sight. When the poachers come to town it is not just the tigers that suffer but whole communities. This cancer of poaching infects all levels of society and it is not even the perpetrators who make the real capital gains. The blood on the hands of the dealers is thicker and far more lucrative. This is a sobering moment which is not lost on the group.
A 10pm arrival into a freezing Bandavgarh is sweetened by the incredible staff at the Nature Heritage Lodge who have become good friends over the last ten years. The food had not deteriorated either. Any notions of heading straight to bed are thwarted by Raj, the owner and extraordinary naturalist, who wants to discuss the new Park Director, update me on the various tiger dynasties in the park and also to wonder whether the Marathon could raise enough for a new vehicle. This would not be a gypsy jeep but a large one that could bring 40 kids a day into the park from villages bordering the park, where feelings towards tigers and tourism are at understandably ambivalent. 'Make it good for the local people and you make it good for the park and the tigers,' insists Raj. I agreed although GBP27,000 will take some work.
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Day Three: A sinister mist clings to the trees and the mercury sags around zero, but nothing can quell the excitement of our first morning in the park. Once the sun breaks through it illuminates the towering escarpments and leafy trails and slowly the temperature rises. Would it be asking too much to see a tiger on the first drive? Not for one lucky vehicle, the occupants of which spot the huge new park male walking nonchalantly up the road, pausing to drag his scythe-like claws down a tree trunk before vapourising into the sal forest. There is a new route system here and although almost Teutonically run it does stop the awful bottlenecks of a few years ago. Unfortunately some high caste VIPs still preside and the sight of some Bollywood industrialist and his spoilt kids jumping the queue to mount an elephant makes me spit but fights like this can't be won - and privilege alone cannot guarantee success. Hard yards and field craft are necessary to stand any chance of success. Accomplished guides like Papu and Lala, veterans I have used for many years have over fifteen thousand game drives between them and generally their hunches are the correct ones. A relaxing drive can be transformed in seconds by one Sambur deer warning call, as it proves this afternoon when everyone 'bags' their first tiger. They may be exhausted after a journey equalling a drive from Delhi to Islamabad but seeing a beautiful female sashay across the road bathed in golden light dispells the fatigue and consigns the hellish journey to memory. 'Unless I get Alzheimer's, I'll remember this day for the rest of my life' said Steph Marsh in my jeep that afternoon. Enough said.
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Day Four: A quiet morning with one distant sighting but our minds are beginning to focus on the cricket. Whilst our own England Xl may be eking out a draw in Cape Town we are intent on a proper result so after a sumptuous late breakfast we manage a quick twenty twenty contest at the school. It is wonderful to see the developments here at a school was falling down five years ago. It shows on the faces of the pupils and those at the crease where we somehow manage to win a practise match, although no doubt they will wheel out their big guns tomorrow. Young Emma looked good in the field and Balvinder's batting was almost regal but you win nothing in training. Invigorated and excited we return to the park and within an hour hear that one vehicle had had an incredible encounter on a normally barren route with a mother and three cubs. This was an open area that I must have spent at least fifteen afternoons at without even hearing an alarm call. Papu and the forest guide heatedly discuss the possibilities and although we agree the chances were slim we drive up to the high northern area of the park. We sit, and we sit and we sit. Nothing. The we cruise down to the open granite and dry grass plains. Just as the ignition is cut there is a single distant Langur monkey call. And then, rounding the bend in the road in full view is a tigress, in perfect light. And she's calling to her cubs. No artificial substance could ever emulate the breathless high of this sighting, made better was the fact that this was a red letter afternoon all over the park, indeed one vehicle sees eight different tigers. Dinner is a noisy affair that evening.
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Day Five: Leopards have consumed me in Africa for twenty years, this beautiful predator raises the pulse like no other species and last summer the Mara delivered these rossetted cats in spades. In India, however, but for a distant sighting in Chitwan and a flash of tail in Kanha many years ago, these elusive Asian cats have been conspicuous by their absence. As we leave the park our precision optics zoom on a white fronted kingfisher. Parked by the granite three hundred metres away is Lalu, waving at me. Thinking it is another bird I follow his frenzied arm pointing to the rocks thinking surely there is not a tiger there, it would be too perfect. I'm right. It's not a tiger, but a female leopard who bestows on us a minute of her time before merging with the flora. The perfect end to this day would be to win the cricket but it is not to be. It's a tight game and clearly the highlight of the school's calendar but the home side are a little too strong for us. Playing in front of packed viewing areas with every vantage point taken and every ball commentated on by a hysterical commentator in perfect English brings home to all players that this is no ordinary game and must be taken seriously. Hundreds turn up to watch as the first ball is ceremoniously bowled by the new park director who also came to pick up the new patrol jeep we have raised the money for. New classrooms, vehicles, bore holes, ablution blocks and staff rooms are harder currency here than taking wickets or photographs and this success story is heart warming. After some rushed chappatis we rush back into the park for a beautiful afternoon with a little cloud cover. The open plains of East Africa are so different to here. Seeing a lion then using the Motorola to summon your fellow guides is just not part of the equation in Bandhavgarh. Heightened sensory awareness is critical in Mowgli's back yard and so it proves this afternoon as a spotted deer warning calls leads us to tracks - but no tigers. There is also the small matter of chance and although the fortune normally shakes down over a whole safari it would be dull if everyone saw the same thing.
Day Six and Seven: It rains heavily in the night and it's touch and go the next morning - but lie ins are for losers and as ever the park rewards the brave. As wildlife encounters go sitting astride a sturdy howdah on the back of an Indian elephant a mere four metres from the park Alpha male B2 takes some beating. Most enjoy this before the tiger returns to his ill-gotten buffalo breakfast. The purloining of domestic cattle by tigers is a big area for concern. Unless the villagers are compensated they will lay poison for the offender, so the aggrieved parties must recoup their losses and this takes money. More money. One vehicle scores big during the afternoon - watching a young striped couple mating. One of those shameless voyeurs is my costume designer, so I think she has a pretty good idea of what they look like now ! Wildlife viewing is always a gamble as are elephant rides with tigers. The mahouts get up long before the dawn and their elevated position enables far better viewing across the bamboo and thick forests. Often a sighting from elephant involves a few minutes staring at a frequently catatonic animal. However the big win is if you are aboard when the tiger moves as the elephant has to stay with the cat so they can then locate it for other tourists. The following morning the elephant follows the big park male as he strides purposefully up a dry river valley backlit like an 80's Timotei ad before finally laying down on a smooth sandstone rock. Two other tigers are seen on the way out and delightfully the combination of rain and sun has invigorated the birdlife. Both Indian rollers and a pair of green bee eaters are seen setting up their dry season stalls. Pickings are tough for these iridescent beauties as the cold keeps the insect count down but they are stunning and the park is more than just tigers.
Day Eight: The winning photographer in the competition gets an extended elephant ride. She was sore afterwards but the elephant was delighted. There is no guarantee of any luck but fortunately the same mother of a few days before is with her cubs sucking the marrow from that same poached buffalo and a memorable 45 minutes ensues. This isan extraordinary encounter, 'managed' by Raj. However, these guests have paid more than most for this safari, making a significant contribution to the project in their tour price, and they have put up with some awful travelling conditions (although the worst is yet to come). The final tally of 36 sightings and 11 different tigers will be very hard to beat. Ever.
Some leave Bandhavgarh early, they could not risk missing work and as the fog closes in the trains begin to run like the Christmas Eurostar. To cut a long story short, and most will be dining over this itinerant tale for many years, all make their flights home but not without massive dramas. I must thank everyone for their indefatigable humour, marvellous behaviour in the park and also congratulate them all on some incredible photographs.
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Sitting in a grey SW12 this morning it is hard to comprehend what a pilgrimage this safari is. Stressful, yes, arduous, oh yes, exhausting, definitely. Worth it, what do you think. It matters and it will start mattering more each day in the lead up the the Marathon on April 25th. Tigers can survive, not just on breakfast cereal boxes or beer bottles but in parks like Bandhavgarh. It would be easy though for them to follow the plight of the Pandas that live in zoos and ghastly 'holding facilities' in China but not properly in the wild any more. It is tipping point right now ..... don't let it happen.
If you feel strongly about this please visit the attached Just Giving site and donate and then watch out for the idiot running on the 25th April.
Paul and award winning journalist and author Chris Haslam will be doing a special 'Worth More Alive ' Bengal Tiger lecture together on the 22nd of April, three days before the race, book your place.
Paul would like to thank the team for contributing their photos to this piece.