Jabalpur is not exactly what you’d call an insignificant hamlet. It has a population of over one million. It sits smack bang in the middle of the Indian sub-continent in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Apparently it doesn’t get many foreign visitors because the Indians we met at our layover hotel in New Delhi didn’t seem to have heard of it.
“Where are you going next sir?”
“Jabalpur.” Puzzled expression.
“You are meaning Jaipur sir?”
“No, not Jaipur. Jabalpur. We’re flying to Jabalpur. There’s a national park near there – Bandhavgarh National Park. We’re hoping to see tigers.” This explanation did nothing to dispel the puzzled looks.
“I do not know either of these places sir.” I tried again emphasising different syllables in the word Bandhavgarh. BANDhavgarh, BandHAVgarh, BandhavGARH. This elicited nothing but further puzzlement.
Bandhavgarh National Park scenery.
Anyway, the best way to get to Bandhavgarh is either a two hour flight to Jabalpur from Mumbai or Delhi followed by a pleasant four hour drive east north east, or an overnight train to Umaria which is an hour’s drive from the National Park. I strongly recommend the flight option, and this is how my wife Jacky and I got there. Our lodge – Jungle Mantra had organised an air-conditioned car and a driver for our transfer from Jabalpur and despite the cows, goats and dogs who all thought they had more right to be on the road than we did we were delivered safely to our lodge where we were welcomed by Mr Ramji the owner and his chef – Surindar, a smiling, chubby fellow dressed in chef’s whites. Surindar shook our hands and disappeared back into the kitchen from whence wonderful spicy smells wafted towards us on the warm breeze.
We were then introduced to Toffee – a scorpion tailed yellow dog of the type that you see all over Asia. Mr Ramji explained in his middle class British accent that Toffee had followed him home one day and stayed.
“She’s a good tiger alarm.” He said. “She barks like mad when she smells one and then runs to my house and hides under the bed.” Toffee looked up at him and squeaked in affirmation. She squeaked quite a lot we learned during our stay. She looked earnestly at you and squeaked as if she was trying to tell you something, but she never begged for food.
“When I took her to Delhi for her rabies shot the vet asked me what sort of dog she was.” Said Mr Ramji. “ I’ve no idea, I said. The vet said he had to put the dog’s breed on the rabies vaccination certificate. Country dog, he said. We’ll just call her a country dog then shall we?"
Toffee the country dog
So we sat for a while in the shade of the open dining area, chatted with Mr Ramji and stroked Toffee. Hot, sweet masala chai was served, and delicious warm, newly baked cookies. It was the first of April and the afternoon was hot, but there were gusts of cooler air now and again that Mr Ramji said were unseasonal. After a while we were shown to our cabin, a spacious timber and bamboo structure with an enormous, meticulously clean en-suite bathroom. There was a king sized bed with a mosquito net canopy and a virtually silent air conditioner as well as ceiling fans.
Having slept for a couple of hours we wandered back to the dining area just before sunset where we were met by Mr Ramji, Toffee and two waiters. We were offered pre-dinner drinks and delicious Indian snacks before being seated at the large mahogany dining table overlooking the lodge grounds and the wooded hills of Bandhavgarh National Park beyond. Two hours later we waddled, stomachs bulging with delicious curries and naan bread back to our cabin escorted by a security guard just in case we encountered something large and stripy on the way.
The pleasant cool of dawn saw us making our first foray into the national park itself in a four wheel drive open backed Suzuki Gypsy accompanied by a driver hired by Mr Ramji, a government guide and Mr Ramji himself. This is Kipling country but the jungle of Jungle Book fame is not the sort of jungle you’d expect. The word jungle comes from the Hindi word jangle which basically means an undeveloped wooded area. We in the Western Hemisphere would probably call it a forest. There were large open meadows of tawny waist high grass, just right for hiding a tiger. There were green swamps fed by tinkling rivulets of clear water and big areas of open forests generously sprinkled with sal trees with their luminous emerald green foliage. Then there was the more closed forest where the middle distance was tantalisingly locked away behind dense clumps of tall bamboo. It was within an hour of setting off from the lodge that we encountered our first tiger in one such area, but despite contorting ourselves into all kinds of positions in the Gypsy all we could see were his rump and his legs through the tangle of bamboo before he melted away. It was frustrating, but we’d seen our first wild tiger and we still had the best part of six days left of our safari.
Then on the fourth morning we arrived back at Jungle Mantra Lodge after another tiger-less game drive to be met by two very excited waiters. They said that toffee had been barking all morning while we’d been in the national park. They’d gone out to investigate and found the carcass of a cow in the grounds maybe eighty metres from our cabin. There were signs of a scuffle and dozens of tiger pug marks in the dust. Mr Ramji took us to see the carcass. There was some flattened grass, but no bite marks on the beasts throat, perhaps it died of fright, saving the tiger the trouble of making the kill. A few chunks of flesh were torn from the rump. The cat must have been disturbed or it would have eaten far more. It was certainly fresh, there was no smell.
Jacky and the cow carcass.
If I wanted to be funny I'd say the carcass is the one on the right,
but since I want to stay married I won't.
That night after dinner instead of waddling back to our cabin, Jacky and I hauled our bulging bellies into the Gypsy where we were joined by our regular driver Joseph, Mr Ramji, the two waiters, the security man and Surindar still in his chef whites. As paying guests we had the best seats while everyone else clung to whatever part of the vehicle offered a foothold. We drove out of the lodge grounds onto the dirt road that runs between the low fence of the lodge and the three metre fence of the national park. The sharp barking alarm call of the sambar deer had alerted Mr Ramji who guessed that the tiger must have come back to finish the cow. We parked in the road, in what Mr Ramji thought was the most likely spot that the tiger would cross. The night was balmy and moonless and the stars competed with satellites and fireflies for ascendancy.
A walk in the long grass can be interesting.
Surindar was in charge of the spotlight and he scanned the bush with it with practiced ease as though tiger hunting was taught at every catering college. Now and then his movements prompted a gust of curry scented air to waft from his clothes. It mingled with the sickly sweet aroma of fallen yellow mahua fruit that had been mashed under the wheels of vehicles including our own. Every morning we’d see women and children from the village collecting this fruit in baskets by the side of the road. Mr Ramji said they’d go out at about four in the morning, braving tigers, leopards and traffic to collect the fruit and make it into a potent alcoholic brew.
We’d been sitting in the Gypsy for about forty five minutes. “There, there! It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming!” Hissed Mr Ramji. He was mildly excited to say the least. Surindar swung his spotlight and there on the other side of the lodge fence was a tigress. What a beautiful creature, so lithe and athletic and so supremely confident in her own skin. She hopped over the fence as though it didn’t exist not twenty metres from where we sat, her intricate orange and black markings glowing in Surindar’s spotlight. She ambled across the road making soft, staccato, guttural calls as she went. Somewhere inside the national park the Sambar deer were filling the night with their alarm calls. Surindar swung the light away from the tigress to the park fence. There on the other side was a miniature version of the tigress – her cub, less than half her size and less than a year old. The tigress sprang over the three metre fence of the national park without touching it and landed softly on the other side, greeting her cub with gentle head rubs. After a moment they sidled off together into the darkness and soon the only evidence that they had been there at all was the ever more frantic barking of the deer.
Over the next two or three days in the national park we photographed a total of four more tigers, as clear as you like, in broad daylight, walking, drinking, sitting, laying down, you name it, but we still think that our own Jungle Mantra tiger was the best, and we hadn’t even managed to get a photo of her. It doesn’t matter a jot though. She's imprinted on our memory forever and that’s what’s important.
Visit the Jungle Mantra website here. http://www.junglemantra.com/default.htm
Interested in visiting India, Africa or any other wildlife destination? Call me – Peter Emery on 0449 689 447 or drop me an email. firstname.lastname@example.org
More Bandhavgarh scenery.