Disappointing as regards tiger sightings - I was one of the lucky ones but still saw only three, albeit all special encounters. It is not a good time at present to visit tiger parks. The new (controversial) regulations imposed by the Indian Government mean that the park authorities have been forced to cut the number of tourist jeeps permitted to enter and constrict the areas where they are allowed to drive and there are now no opportunities for additional game drives or elephant rides.
- What was the most inspirational moment of your trip?
- Undoubtedly the first early morning game drive in Bandhavgarh when a magnificent male tiger padded out of the bamboo and crossed the road a few feet behind our jeep - magical. But India is a destination like no other and the whole trip was an unforgettable experience, shared with a good bunch of fellow travellers.
- What did you think of your group leader?
Our leader was Hemal Dey. Hemal is a very likeable, kind man with good knowledge of India and its history and customs and a bird specialist. He did his very best for us in often testing circumstances:
(1) The late addition to our group of three people whose original-choice holiday trips were cancelled caused problems with game drives and Hemal was constantly trying to manage the situation to be fair to all. Exodus had flagged the problem in an e-mail sent shortly before departure saying that at Kanha and Bandhavgarh game drives would need to be 5 people per jeep but this did not happen on the ground and at all the parks our 10-strong group (plus Hemal) was spread across three jeeps and only rarely did all three together gain acess to the premium zones.
(2) Because there were no additional game drives on offer we had several days featuring hours of "leisure" time and Hemal arranged village visits and "birding" walks for us.
(3) Our schedule for Agra and Delhi at the end of the trip had to be abandoned because extensive fog caused the train from Katni to Agra to run 12 hours late and instead of arriving in the early hours of Thursday morning we reached our hotel in Agra after dark in the evening. In fact Katni Railway Station (including the "first class" waiting room) and the sleeper train are experiences I will never forget - with Hemal producing brunch (toasted bread sandwiches and boiled eggs) when we had gone almost 24 hours without food.
(4) As the Taj Mahal is not open on Fridays, after visiting Agra Fort (well worthwhile) Hemal took us to a vantage point behind the Taj Mahal where we could just about see it in the distance looming out of the mist.
- Do you have any advice for potential travellers?
My resume of each park and the accommodation provided:
Pench Jungle Camp had the best facilities (including a pool) and the park offers the best game viewing. It has a huge variety of animals and birds which are easy to see through the teak forest. But none of our group saw a tiger (Hemal had warned us that a tiger sighting here would be unlikely).
Wild Chalet at Kanha had the best location (overlooking a river) although it was extremely cold evenings and mornings and game drives away from the premium zones were practically a waste of time - dense sal forest making game viewing very difficult. But I had my first tiger sighting at Kanha - our jeep spent some time watching a female on the edge of the forest a hundred yards from the road stalking a spotted deer.
Nature Heritage Resort at Bandhavgarh is close to Tala gate and this is the park where, across the group, we saw several tigers. However, most sightings were "manufactured" - the park authorities use elephants to find tigers and shepherd them to where jeeps are waiting. Bandhavgarh is the most beautiful of the parks we visited with spectacular landscapes.
The staff at the lodges made us most welcome, service was excellent and the food was always good - plentiful and tasty, mostly vegetable curries of all sorts but with one meat option and all the usual Indian meal extras.
The park roads are all extremely dusty and everything gets covered with a reddish film. The evening shower back at the lodge was always a highlight of the day for me!
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
Transfers between the parks were made by taxi and the travelling days were not for the faint-hearted. The drivers were constantly sounding their horns trying to clear a path through town and village roads thronging with cows, goats, pigs, dogs and people on foot, on bicycles and on motorbikes, not to mention seriously overloaded lorries. Chai stops (marsala tea - lovely) and "behind the bushes" comfort stops broke up the journeys.
We were greeted with friendliness, courtesy and smiles wherever we went - at the lodges, on game drives, when visiting villages - and we could see the benefits that tourism brings to the people who live in and around the tiger parks. Their family members work as park guards, mahouts, guides, jeep drivers, at the lodges or have small shops and the new restrictions are already having a detrimental effect - many lodges have not re-opened following the annual closure for the monsoon season.
The park guides and jeep drivers (who have superb knowledge of animal behaviour and hawk-eye vision and contribute so much to a game drive experience) seem hopeful that the current restrictions will eventually be lifted - their mantra is that tourism protects tigers because the parks are more frequently patrolled and tigers tracked when tourists are visiting. I do hope their optimism is not misplaced.