“So nice to be back at The Imperial in New Delhi where I will meet the group. This hotel, with its stunning paintings and lithographs, is a veritable museum piece.
Its long corridors, and atrium can take your breath away. Definitely one of Asia’s top hotels, with its friendly staff, and incredible Indian, Italian and International restaurants.
First stop, Bhopal, where we visit the Tajul Masajid, the largest mosque in India.
… and Bhopal’s bazaars, where you can buy anything… !
Driving to Satpura National Park we stop at Bhimbetka rock paintings from Paleolithic times. This little know World Heritage site is just one of the outstanding stopping points along our way.
No tourists here at Bhimbetka, just a colourful ladies day out… and that’s just fine.
Driving in India is never dull… !
Our walk across Satpura begins, gorgeous weather, as we head towards out first camp on the higher reaches of the Denwa River.
We didn’t see a tiger on our three day hike but we saw many of their tracks. Now we have a week ahead to find a tiger… the hunt begins, stay tuned!
February 25th, 2020
The Journey Continues…
As we approach Kanha national park the sky darkens, it’s as if night is falling, but it’s only four in the afternoon. The rain doesn’t fall on us so much as lashes us, and we’re in the grips of a gigantic thunderstorm, rolling base drums, forked lightning. Usually I love dramatic storms, but this time not so much. Rain makes wildlife disappear, and the ever-elusive tiger even harder to see. It will not be easy.
We reach our base, which is definitely THE place to stay whilst searching for tigers, Kanha Earth Lodge. It’s my ninth year visiting here, it feels like home, and the staff make us feel that way.
It rains all night, but as we prepare to enter Kanha in the morning, the thunder is more distant, and soon the rain stops. The roads however, are awash, and the forest can only be described as “soggy”. I know we will not see a tiger on this first morning, I can feel it, and I’m sure anyone who has tried to find them will know what I’m talking about. Whether they like to admit it or not, “tiger emotions” affects everyone, in various ways. It’s the main reason why we come to India, and it is what we at Tropical Ice strongly promote. Why? It’s difficult to explain, but let’s just say that I know of no other animal, which impacts one like the tiger does. And there’s no other animal that hides itself so effectively from us, optimising its camouflage ability to the extreme. A tiger only allows itself to be seen when it wants to be, and this isn’t very often. It is the royalty of the Indian jungle and there are fewer than 3,000 left on our planet.
We guides spout the usual drivel to our clients: “Don’t focus on only the tigers, view the beauties of the jungle, the birds, and India’s unique collection of deer and antelope.” And, they generally graciously reply. “Oh, it’s all good…if we see one that’s fine, but we know they’re rarely seen, it is what it is etc etc etc…” This, of course, is garbage. These people have travelled half-way round the world to see this creature, it’s what they’ve come for, and I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent over the years, driving around Indian jungles searching for them, silently cursing them, but knowing that when I finally see them, all will be forgiven. They are simply stunning.
The fact is however, they can’t be guaranteed, and there are many beauties in the jungle. As we drive around we see sambar deer, spotted deer, Indian gaur (bison), langurs, barking deer, jackal, and the very rare barasingha.
We return to the lodge in the late morning, spirits as damp as the jungle. No tigers, not even a fresh paw print, no animal warning calls, I’ve never experienced the jungle so silent…and I know it’s going to rain again.
The afternoon is the same, the thunder starts crashing again, and soon we are being washed in the jeeps by waves of rain. As we return to the lodge I wonder about this weather. It is unseasonal, but is there such a thing as “unseasonal” any more? Is this the new normal? One of the guides has shown me photos of yesterday’s storm when it struck Bandhavgarh, the next park we are due to visit. The pictures show a veritable snowscape of hail. It’s supposed to be 90 degrees in the shade right now, and we are dressed like Shackelton’s team in Antarctica.
I sometimes think looking for tigers is like a kind of boxing match. We have eight game drives scheduled to find a tiger, eight rounds in a ring with our adversity. We limp back into the lodge at the end of the day, a little defeated…the jungle just won Round One.
February 26th, 2020
Early next morning we are back into the dripping world of the forest, and we still have the interest of all the visitors. I felt sure that after yesterday afternoon’s storm, which pelted us in the jeeps, some would have opted to stay back at the lodge. But I have that same feeling as I had yesterday, it’s simply too wet for tigers. In the rain they tend to stay put. We have one exciting moment when we hear the loud roars of a tiger from the trees about 100 yards away from us. We wait but it doesn’t show its face. Four hours later we return empty-handed to the lodge.
In the afternoon we head out again, minus three members of our party, who have had enough of the jarring jeeps, in favour of the lodge swimming pool. I wonder if Murphy’s Law will prevail. This game is not for everyone. It requires stamina, which is enhanced with interest in the surroundings, and if one doesn’t possess this interest the tedium of the drives can become debilitating.
We enter the forest, the sun has come out, it truly is beautiful, and there is a different atmosphere, for the first time I have a strong feeling, everything might be right, could come together. We have an interesting moment, a pair of Indian Wild Dogs playing on a field to our right. At any other time this would be a highlight, but for the moment they aren’t our focus.
The afternoon wears on and as we approach a junction we hear the alarm call of a spotted deer. Our three jeeps stop and listen. Deer don’t make warning calls without a reason, only if a leopard or a tiger is close by. We leave two jeeps in position at the junction, and the one I am in continues slowly along the dirt track. We’ve gone about a mile, when from the bushes to our left we hear a loud sambar deer alarm call. It is, at the most, only about forty feet away. Then another call suddenly erupts from our right. We make a u-turn and race back down the road to the junction to alert the other jeeps, and then ten minutes later we are all in position at the spot where we heard the alarms.
Within a minute of arriving it all comes together, as a massive tigress emerges from the bushes and crosses the road, calmly walking between the vehicles, and into the jungle on our right. She disappears then we hear the meowing of kittens, there’s movement in the bushes as she emerges once again and walks back across the road, four cubs cautiously following her. It is a magnificent sight. Everyone sees it, camera shutters rattle like machine guns, capturing what could be the ultimate sighting the forest can produce. The cubs are four or five months old. The fact that they have all survived proving what an amazing mother she is.
After the show is over, as we drive down the road, back towards the park gate, I find myself in the state of mind I’m always in after seeing a tiger: Did I dream that or did it really happen? I ask Karan, our Mr Fixit on our India safaris, if he ever feels the same way. He knows exactly what I’m talking about. For him. It never gets old.
Our time at Kanha is over…onwards to the next tiger region: Bandhavgarh. As Arnie says…I’ll be back!
February 27th, 2020
It is 4.30am, my alarm has gone off, and the routine begins: wash, coffee, daypack stuff, passport (it is a requirement in India that every time a visitor enters a national park, passports have to be checked), into the jeeps, and off we go.
The weather is crisp, clear, it’s cold now but should warm up pretty quickly. This morning we have a full group, and the excitement picks up as the jeeps start their Le Mans surge. Twenty minutes later the engines are gunned to a higher pitch, we swing and weave fast along the sandy roads. To our right is a wide open grassy glade, and walking across we see a huge tiger, making towards our vehicles. She halts behind a tree and is hidden for a while as she completes her morning grooming. We’ve positioned our vehicles in a place far to the left, taking the chance that she will move this way when she is ready. And she does! She saunters across the plain heading straight for us; from her perspective we aren’t there, as if of little consequence to her. She veers onto the verge of the road, crosses it in front of us, turns and stares at us for a second, is it a look of disdain? Then angles off into the bamboo.
Everyone has seen this, and the general relief is palpable. Every year I return to India I wonder will this be our first year we don’t see a tiger. We’ve been lucky for nine years straight, but is it luck? I believe there’s more to it than that. We put the time in, work hard for it, we are deserving of the rewards. From my point of view, and I know Alex would agree with me, this is the most stressful week in our guiding calendar.
It’s still early and people are now waking up to the fact that the jungle is indeed, more than just about tigers. Our jeeps are now stopping to photograph deer, and birds are being observed for the first time.
I think to fully describe the aura of a Bengal tiger is beyond my power with words. In India the tiger is more than an animal, it has a profound religious, spiritual significance, the country people are in awe of its strength. Jim Corbett, back in the 1930s, was commissioned by the British government to shoot tigers that were terrorising villages in the Kumaon region of northern India, in the lower Himalayan foothills. He described in his book that families who had lost a relative to a tiger attack were strangely ostracized by other villagers, their reasoning being that for a tiger to do such a thing it must be that this particular family had done something to deserve the attack, the tiger being a retributive harbinger. Whatever…there is no doubt that the tiger possesses an aura like nothing I’ve seen before in the wilds.
Two game drives left ahead of us, enough time to photograph the jungle’s other inhabitants. If we can keep this up we are ahead on Rounds, close to winning this boxing match.
February 28th, 2020
With tiger pressure off we can now see the forest despite the trees, and there is much to see even if it takes some work. Far more than in Africa, India’s wildlife, be it bird or mammal, has taken camouflage to a ridiculous level. Try finding this beautiful Stone Curlew (Thick knee)…
Our jeeps wind up a twisty track, which leads to sleeping Lord Vishnu, who perpetually slumbers in a vegetated grove on the side of a cliff. It is one of my favourite monuments, for it is relatively unknown, and not visited by too many tour groups. The atmosphere would do justice to an Indiana Jones movie…
Vishnu is one of the trinity of Hindu gods, representing wealth and well-being. This spectacular statue was carved from the cliff side 1,000 years ago. Zoom in and you will see the seven-headed cobra encircling his head.
We complete the afternoon’s game drive with one more tiger sighting. This tigress is moody, disdainful of our presence, and we catch only fleeting glimpses through the bamboo. She is however, our seventh tiger sighting in three days. We’re not complaining!
Our tiger viewing period is now almost over, and back at the lodge I’m feeling in a celebratory mood, ably assisted by a particularly good Bloody Mary. It is somehow gratifying when one’s problems in life have been reduced to the difficulties presented by how to drink it in the shower…
February 29th, 2020
Our final game drive was literally an Attenborough wildlife documentary in which we were all playing a part in. We saw little for about an hour, then as we drove past a lake we saw a huge ripple move across the surface, as if some great fish – a dolphin perhaps – was on a mission. It was no fish, only a large tiger swimming towards the far shore, about one hundred yards from us. It was another tigress (Bandhavgarh seems to be ruled by women, apart from two male cubs we haven’t seen a male tiger yet, perhaps Hollywood could learn something from this obscure Indian jungle!) She rose up from the water, long, lithe, glistening, then shook herself dog-like, and continued along the bank and soon disappeared into the trees. Then another large tigress appeared from the right and followed her, before making a u-turn, and moving back in the direction from which she came. We gunned our jeep engine, and roared off to a point where our naturalist felt sure she was headed. Sure enough she emerges from the trees and disappears into a plain of long grass. Ahead of her is a herd of grazing spotted deer. We had been hunting her, she was hunting one of them. We stood quietly watching for about fifteen minutes. Then she burst from the grass straight at an unsuspecting deer. The herd leapt in unison, all calling their alarms. She moved fast but not fast enough, they outran her, and she drew to a halt. Then she turned direction and sped after another deer, which we hadn’t seen. But it too was swift and she missed. It had been a magnificent display of tiger behaviour, and a wonderful finale to the tiger section of our safari.
Photo credit: Matthew Swartz
Evening glow in Bandhavgarh as we end our tiger search.
Last evening in tiger country.
Today we drive to Jabalpur, then fly northwards to the lower foothills of the Himalayas to immerse ourselves in the history of Shimla, one of my favourite parts of the trip. Meanwhile the never-ending colourful chaos of India’s roads, and villages will keep us occupied for a few hours to Jabalpur.
Stay tuned for the hills…
March 1st, 2020
Our journey northwards takes us by train to the base of the foothills, then we board the “Toy Train” as we wind our way up through the valleys and ridges, past heaving villages, towards Shimla.
This 95 kms railway was built between 1895 and 1903, and has over 100 tunnels. It was an incredible feat of engineering, and was the conduit for moving the government up to Shimla for the duration of the summer months, when the heat down on the plains became unbearable. Amazingly, for those months Shimla became the summer capital of India, and during the Empire’s zenith approximately one-fifth of the world was overseen and run from Simla (as it was called then).
Old British railway stations can be seen along the route, dating back to 1896.
In the late afternoon we arrive at the fabulous Wildflower Hall, the original residence of Lord Kichener, who was commander-in-chief of the British army in 1906.
Nestled amongst the deodar tree forests of the hills, Wildflower Hall is a breathtaking location.
And if the location doesn’t do it for you, the interior probably will. Wildflower Hall has it right, not over-the-top chintzy, just classy elegance.
The wood-paneled opulence of the billiard room is fabulous, and it’s the correct sized table!
The view from my bedroom is spectacular.
We probably won’t be using the tennis court on this trip…
But hiking in the deodar forest is beautiful.
…and the snow peaks of the Himalayas crown the walking experience.
March 3rd, 2020
It is our final day of the safari, and like yesterday, it dawn’s bright and sunny. We drive into Shimla, which used to be called Simla, and make for the Viceregal Lodge. This is where the Viceroy of India lived during India’s summer months. It is greystone neo-gothic, also known as Victorian gothic, and it stands today as a memorial to an Empire that was.
I’ve been told that it is a small replica of Balmoral Castle, in Scotland, and its austere baronial walls would suggest this. There is a scheduled tour of two rooms inside, and a peek at the entrance hall, but there is little historical knowledge to be gained from this tour. Today the building is the Institute of Advanced Studies, and two-thirds of the tour is devoted to this aspect, which is truthfully pretty boring. Ok if you’re an Indian student, but if you’re not, best to stick to the grounds, and soak up the ambience.
The building was completed in 1888, it had a staff of 500, and was the home of many Viceroys, including Lord Curzon (1906), and finally Mountbatten in 1947, who successfully mismanaged the independence handover to India, in a rushed job which saw the slaughter of about one million Hindus and Muslims, but principally the latter. Most of the talks for this event happened at the Lodge.
We make our way to the Gaiety Theatre, which was built by the architect Henry Irwin (he also built the Viceregal Lodge), its doors opening in 1887. A young Rudyard Kipling, who was based for the summer months in Simla, had some of his first plays shown here. Today it is fully preserved, and is a World Heritage Site.
At the far end of the Mall we climb up to Scandal Point (Simla, during the end of the 19th century, and first few decades of the 20th, was a veritable den of wild parties, and White Mischief), and before us lies Christchurch, built in the 1840’s.
Shimla is truly Hereford in the Himalayas, and was the setting for James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, the Shangri-La in the mountains.
Only shopping remains – Shimla is the center of Pashmina – and then we make our way back to Wildflower Hall.
Tomorrow is journey’s end, we’ll drive down from the hills to Chandaghar, and fly from there to Delhi. It’s been a superb safari, and I believe that we at Tropical Ice have thought up a trip, which shows the visitor so many important aspects of India. It isn’t a country that can be seen in 10 days, or 2 weeks. India isn’t even a country, it’s a civilization.
The day after tomorrow I’ll be back in Nairobi. Alex’s group will be arriving in Delhi this weekend, so good luck with the tigers – you’re all going to have a great time.
Thanks to those of you who have stayed with me for the duration of this blog. I’ve enjoyed it, as has my group India, and I’ll leave you with our Slumdog Millionaire moment in the streets of Jabalpur.