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Trip Report Wildlife Tour of India

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It’s been almost three weeks since my return from India and I still am dreaming of tigers and eating homemade naan. I planned this trip mainly to maximize wildlife sightings with the Taj Mahal as a side trip as well as a short Delhi tour. I traveled solo.

My wildlife tour company was Wild World India and the itinerary was:
29 Mar, 13/ Fri: Arrive Delhi (Amarya Villa)
30 Mar, 13/ Sat: Delhi city tour
31 Mar, 13/ Sun: Delhi - Agra by road (Radisson Blu)
01 April, 13/ Mon: Same day Dholpur excursion from Agra, later depart Agra to
Delhi by road (Amarya Villa)
02 April 13/ Tue: Depart Delhi by flight to Jabalpur, Arrive Jabalpur and transfer to
Bandhavgarh National Park (Nature Heritage Resort)
03 to 05 April, 13/ (Wed to Fri): Bandhavgarh National Park
06 April, 13 (Sat): Bandhavgarh - Kanha National Park by road (Tuli Tiger Resort)
07 to 10 April, 13 (Sun to Wed): Kanha National Park / Kanha Kisli range
11& 12 April, 13 (Thu & Fri): Kanha National Park/ Kanha Mukki range (Royal Tiger Resort)
13 April, 13 (Sat): Kanha to Raipur by road, Raipur- Delhi by flight (Amarya Villa)
14 April, 13 (Sun): Delhi – Corbett by road (Hotel Tiger Camp)
15 April, 13 (Mon): Corbett (Bijrani zone)
16 to 18 April, 13 (Tue to Thu): Corbett (Dhikala zone)( Forrest Rest House)
19 April, 13 (Fri): Corbett to Delhi by road and depart for onward destination

Africa wildlife tour vs. India wildlife tour
Having been on a couple African safaris, I'm very tempted to write a detailed comparison but that has already been done, and very brilliantly and accurately by atravelynn so I will not rehash it but just add a few differences that really stuck out in my mind:

1) It is hotter (more humid) and dustier than Africa. Bring cool clothing but also a lightweight jacket if traveling in April. Bring a scarf or towel for your camera equipment and a hat for yourself (I had a heck of a time trying to comb out my hair before I broke down and started wearing my silly tourist hat).

2) I don't know if it was just this year due to the vehicle number cuts and they are trying to keep people employed, but there was A LOT of human activity in the parks - especially Kanha which I believe accounted for my very poor sightings there. Unlike Africa, the environment in the parks is controlled: there are man-made structures in the parks, water is pumped in, and forest workers work in the parks daily - motorcycles, bicycles and people on foot everywhere (hundreds). I even saw a big tractor plowing land in the middle of the jungle and I'm not sure what the purpose of that was, but the purpose of the others in April is to create firebreaks...so they are raking the leaves into piles on the side of the road and then burning them. The burning/smoke was so bad in Kanha that I went through 4 pairs of my disposable contact lenses during my 12 drives there and they are supposed to last for a month each. If possible, although I know it would be dreadfully hot and kids are out of school, you may want to travel in May when the burning is done and there might be less human activity in the parks (also less water so better to spot tigers).

3) In some of the parks (Bandhavgarh and Kanha for me but there may be others), you are required to take a park guide with you as well as the guide you hired to show you the parks (if you hired a personal guide which I highly recommend). I only mention this because it is different from other safari protocol and so that you can be prepared with tips for both guides and your driver. I wasn't prepared and it caused me quite a bit of stress during the start of my trip.

4) Its a record. I only used 3 memory cards! I bought the same number I usually bring for Africa but only used 3 of 12 or more. I shoot raw with an 18MP camera so I bring enough cards so as not to worry about running out and having to buy one or two on location or to download photos to another device. If you do something similar, you may be able to cut the number of cards you bring on an India safari in half or less.

Suggestions/Tips
• Bring toilet paper and hand wipes out with you on every drive.
• Be sure to get a prescription for Malarone or other anti-malarial because there were
a lot of mosquitoes – even in the cities – and they are having a huge malaria
outbreak now.
• Spend more time in Bandhavgarh or go in May (or both!).
• Don't wear anything white nor light colored as the dirt will not wash out.
• Ladies, if you’re worried about “that time of the month” and long drives, the Diva cup
is a lifesaver! I can’t recommend it highly enough (even for at home).
• Hat or scarf - absolute necessity for long hair.
• Something to cover camera equipment – a scarf would be best so you can uncover
it quickly and start shooting.
• Don't leave any equipment on the seat without keeping a hand on it. Needless to
say, my point and shoot Sony went over the edge and crashed down on the rocks in
Bandhavgrh…I can’t believe it still works!
• Conditioner – especially for long hair. Very hard to find there and very few
hotels/lodges had any.
• Lots of 100 rupee notes for park guides (but very hard to come by for me).
• Lightweight jacket if you can fit it otherwise ask for a blanket for cold mornings.
• How to board a gypsy with a peg step (to avoid the embarrassment I encountered):
If you like to lead with your right foot, as I do, walk to the passenger side of the
gypsy and stand parallel to the door, facing the back of the vehicle. If there is a
wide enough running board below the passage side door, step up with your left
foot and put both feet on the running board (left leg against the door of the vehicle).
Swing your left leg up to the “peg” and step up. Your right leg will then be free to
then step directly into the vehicle. Pull your left leg in and you’re good to go! If the
running board isn’t very wide, just step up with your right foot and let your left leg
swing up immediately to the peg.
• Mosquito repellent with DEET. Sorry – it is the only thing that worked. I tried the
herbal stuff and got eaten alive.
• Diabetics may want to contact hotels/lodges in advance to see if they can do a
custom menu - none of the places I went could unless you just wanted toast. In
my experience there all of the meals had extremely high sugar content (except
breakfast where you could get an omelet).
• At the airport – make sure you have your boarding pass upon arrival at the airport
OR your receipt showing your flight because they will not let you in the door without
it. Also, even if you do not have checked bags, hold on to your boarding pass even
after you are on the plane. At some airports they won’t let you back into the
terminal after your flight if you don’t have it with you. Also, they are very serious
about hand luggage. Each piece gets a sticker – make sure the sticker stays on
and that if you pull anything out of your bags before you get on the flight that you put
it back in before you go through the doors to get on the plane as they check every
single thing you’re holding for that sticker.
• Cost of sodas - should be no more than 100 rupees – and even that is high. The
lowest I paid was 50 rupees and that was for diet which costs more. I found that
some places really did try and fleece the foreigners with the drink costs…I think
one place even had 300 rupees for a soda that they only charged locals 25 rupees
for. So just be aware because I found that I could even haggle soda prices there!
• Plugs – bring many different kinds. I had three different plugs and all worked but
not all worked at every location. By the way, the “universal plug” sold on Amazon
did not work for me in India.
• After you’ve had your camera covered on the seat, check settings before you start
shooting. I had the horrible experience of taking a whole batch of photos not
realizing the dial had moved and all the photos came out almost black. Very
discouraging because it was one of my best tiger sightings. I could fix them
somewhat in Photoshop but I still couldn’t get them back to what they would have
been if I had the camera on the right settings.

Lodging
I should say before I start that I am not a 5-star queen. I find that lodging with clean rooms/bathrooms and nice staff is really all I need. All my hotels/lodges fit that bill for the most part. The only one I would say that was leaning toward the dirty/run-down side was Hotel Tiger Camp. And of course - the Forrest Rest house in Corbett you have to look at as more of a camping-type experience as opposed to a hotel experience.

The Trip
On March 25th, I was packed and ready for my almost-month-long adventure. And, yes, I’m one of the crazies who can actually travel for a month with just a carry-on. But believe me – it all fits! However, it was a bit of a challenge this time because I had a day and a half lay-over in Paris where the temps were only in the 30s and 40s. I still made it work and, in fact, I ended dumping some stuff before I even got there because the pack was too heavy for me (I’d be happy to send you a detailed packing list if you want to message me).

On the 26th boarded my flight to Delhi via Paris. When I was researching flights to Delhi from Washington State, it seemed most of them flew east instead of west and most had a connection somewhere in Europe. Bam! The cheapest ticket had a connection in Paris! Paris is my most favorite city in the world (and I’m not in to cities at all) and I knew there is no way I could connect there without spending a couple nights. I’m going to include a description of Paris here because I think it’s a nice way to break up this long flight to Delhi and there really is a lot you can do in a small amount of time there.

Paris
I landed at CDG a little after 2pm (two hours late) and hopped on the train to city center (very easy to do and highly recommended over taxis). I booked a little hotel called Hôtel Collège de France. It was a perfect place for me – two blocks or so from Notre Dame and right next to Cluny Museum. I had wanted to visit the Cluny Museum when I was in Paris 10 years ago but missed it (literally couldn’t find it!) and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it this time. The hotel was clean and everyone was very friendly and helpful. The rooms were a very reasonable EUR98 (for single) and another EUR10 for breakfast.

After I checked in and changed, I walked a block to the Cluny Museum. The attraction of this museum for me was the famous unicorn tapestries. Following the museum, I took a little walk around the Latin Quarter taking in all the sights and sounds of Paris….I missed it so much! It was like coming home. I ended up at Notre Dame just taking in the views until sunset at which time I made my way back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.

The next morning, I had breakfast at the hotel and then ventured out for my very busy day in Paris. It was a little cloudy but not raining so that was a plus. I took a morning walk alone the Seine and then found my way to the Louvre. I was there at about opening time and the line was very short to get in. Having been there before, I knew what I wanted to see and made good use of my two or so hours there. After the museum, I had a coffee at a little street side café and watched the world go buy for an hour or so.

I walked to O’Chateau for my wine tasting / cheese tasting lunch. What an incredible find that was! The tasting was excellent and the cheese was so good. I meet some fun people and learned a lot about the wines and cheeses of France. I highly recommend doing a wine tasting in Paris if you can. After the tasting, I walked to the Rodin museum. This museum is actually my favorite in Paris. I only paid 1 euro for the gardens (where The Thinker is). I love the gardens here and could sit for hours. I walked around and visited all the sculptures in the gardens and then sat for a while and watched the Thinker thinking.

Following Rodin Museum, I walked to the Eiffel tower (past Invades where I did a photo stop). I spent some time taking in the views of the tower from the bottom. Having been to the top on my previous trip, I skipped it this time. Plus, I had to make sure I was on time for my champagne cruise on the seine.

The champagne tasting cruise was sponsored by the same company – O’Chateau – and they offer a discount if you do both the tastings (you don’t have to do them on the same day). It was fabulous! The boat leaves from the quay right behind the Eiffel Tower and you tasting is in a private salon at the front of the boat so you aren’t jammed in with everyone in the back. This was a lot of fun and the champagne was flowing (much more than just a tasting!). Funny enough –I ended up talking to a couple in front of me about travel and were talking about African safaris. After the boat ride, I had planned to go to the Muse d’Orsay but I was dragging and it was dark so I decided to skip it and just take the train back to the hotel.

Needless to say, I was very tired and felt like I had been traveling for a month already. I stopped and got a nice bottle of French wine ($2!!) and some street food and had a nice little picnic in my room for dinner before an early bed time. It was a nice day in Paris, but I was ready to see some tigers.

On to India!

Delhi
I’m happy to say that I was so tired that I feel asleep on the flight to Delhi and woke up 30 minutes before landing. Falling asleep on airplanes is totally unheard of for me so you know my Paris walk the day before totally did me in (but was certainly worth it).

The plane landed at 11:30pm and I took advantage of no luggage to collect and made a quick currency exchange stop at the Bank of India to in the luggage collection area. I had exact totals of the types of bills I would need all planned out and I gave the gentleman my list. The first thing he said was, “Sorry, we aren’t allowed to give 100’s – or not many of them.” And of course, I wanted mostly 100s. So I said ok thinking I could find somewhere in the city to break all the 500 rupee notes down to 100 rupee notes. That was a BIG mistake. I would recommend that you wait and exchange in the city and try and get as many 100 rupee notes as you can. When I asked my driver later to take me somewhere to exchange all those 500 rupee notes into 100 rupee notes he said that no one in India would do that for me because they wouldn’t make money off it. Ok…this caused a huge problem for me because, of course, no one can make change for 500 rupee notes! I really struggled with the money issue and this was the only down-side of my trip other than the dreaded shopping. My entire trip was pretty much paid for in advance and I really only needed funds for tips so the 500s were a burden – big time. My driver had a solution: “just exchange more.” Well, that might be nice for someone with unlimited funds but I was on a strict budget didn’t have any more US dollars to exchange as I had exchanged ALL my trip savings money at the airport – enough for the entire trip (or so I thought). I think they are used to Americans who just throw money around like it’s water so I know he didn’t understand me when I said I didn’t have it in my bank to withdraw. The bottom line – try and get small bills and as many as possible.

After my big mistake at the airport, I made my way out the arrivals where the Wild World India representative was waiting for me. It was a relief that 1) he was there and 2) was very easy to find. At almost midnight, I really didn’t want to deal with a missed pick-up (this happened to me in Africa once). The company rep took my luggage and immediately asked, “Do you know Heather?” Um…no? I said no and didn’t think anything of it. We got to the car and I met the driver and he said, “Do you know Heather?” Ok, I know it was midnight and I was tried but it was becoming a little bizarre. I said “no” again and got in the back and was whisked off to my hotel (more like a B&B).

At this point, I’d like to give a shout-out to Heather. Heather, if you’re out there reading this, I’d love to meet you! I feel like I already know you as I was compared to you from, literally, the moment I landed in India until the day I left (on the way back to the airport). So what was it? Why did they think I knew Heather and vice versa – to the point where they were acting like we were related? Apparently, Heather and I are both “larger” women. Much larger than they see on a regular basis is my guess given all the attention paid to the issue. After all – all extremely fat women from America must know each other, right? From what I gathered from my driver and others, this is the only thing we really had in common. I tried very hard not to take offense to this because it was not meant in a mean way but it did get tiring hearing it almost every day.

One other thing you should know about me, other than the fact that I’m extremely fat, is that I abhor shopping - any kind of shopping. I know, not normal, right? If I need to buy something, I buy it online so I don’t have to shop in a store. Because of this basic hatred of shopping, I avoid group tours at all costs because of the “forced shopping excursions” included on those types of tours. I much prefer to travel alone so as to avoid being forced to shop.

Besides that fact, I only had a carry-on with no room for “stuff” and I had no money to buy “stuff” as that was not why I was on this trip. I wanted to tell you this in the event you have similar feelings because it is probably best to arrange your day tours of Deli and/or Agra with just a driver and do the tour yourself. In hindsight, I wish I had known that my “guides” were going to force me to shop because I most certainly would have told the tour company that I did NOT want a guide – just a driver. I would have been much happier and would have seen more of both Delhi and Agra if I had not had a guide. I did have a very nice tour of Old Delhi by rickshaw, but that is all I saw of Delhi. Why? Because as soon as I got out of the rickshaw my guide tried to force me to buy a book from a street vender. I was a book about the Red Fort – which I hadn’t even seen yet. I felt **very** pressured and we stood there for almost 5 minutes to let him try and make me buy it. I kept saying “no thank you” but that wasn’t working (my guide was trying to sell it to me as well - she took it from him and started explaining what the book was). The message that I wasn’t buying finally sunk in and we got into the car and left. But as soon as we got in, my guide said, “Ok, now we’re going to look at some weavers and a portion of what you buy goes to support…” I just said, “Stop. Take me back to the hotel.” I was done and I had enough. I did ask if we could skip that and go to the next historical site and the guide and driver both said no – so I went back to the hotel. I was very disappointed because I had really been looking forward to seeing the historical sites of Delhi. I had done research online and knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. Instead, I got less than an hour tour of the city.

Agra
The next day was my trip to the Taj Mahal where I did finally get to see the Red Fort before hopping over to the Taj Mahal. I’m not into architecture, but I have to say that the Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building I have ever seen. It was a **hot** day in Agra (well over 100 degrees I’d say) but it really wasn’t too uncomfortable outside as there was a light breeze and shade. Before my tour started, my guide had to use the facilities so I was sitting on a bench outside just looking at the Taj Mahal in wonder. Two little girls walked by me with their mom. Before I knew what was happening, the two girls – probably sisters age 10 and 6 - turned around and came over to me. The oldest one held out her hand. I shook her hand and then her little sister held out her hand. I went to shake her hand and she giggled and walked away. It was really rather touching.

My guide of the Taj Mahal was excellent. He even pointed out good spots for photos, etc. However, I could have done without going inside the building. Looking at it from outside would have been enough for me. It was a true mob scene and very dangerous getting out of there. If you have children with you, I highly recommend not worrying about going inside because there is a good chance of them getting trampled on the way out. By the time I actually got out, I was literally having a heat stroke and I was shocked at the total disregard for others that the locals seemed to have when trying to exit the building. It was certainly every man, woman and child for themselves! It was a real mob mentally that I have not experienced very much in my travels. It was also 20 degrees hotter inside the building. So, at that point I was hot, red-faced, sweaty, stressed and ready to get the heck out of there…and where do we go next? Why, shopping of course! I have to tell you that I really resented being forced to sit through a tile making demonstration when I was suffering heat stroke. But I had to do it because they wouldn’t drive me back to my hotel without stopping there first. In other words, I had no choice and was trapped. What started out as a nice tour ended up with me being very frustrated and feeling sick.

After an overnight in Agra, I had an enjoyable excursion to Dholpur to take a boat ride on the Chambal River before heading back to Delhi. I would recommend that you swing by the river if you are interested in birds and/or the crocodiles that are critically endangered (gharial). I also saw a dolphin but he jumped out of the water too fast for me to get a photo. Thanks to the new highway, the ride back to Delhi was quick and I had most of the afternoon to relax at Amarya Villa.

So, yes, if given the choice, I would have certainly ditched the guides in Delhi and Agra and I would have just explored myself. But I was very grateful for the boat tour on the river and that it didn’t involve any shopping stops. Thank goodness it was time to leave the cities – and shopping – behind to go be with the animals!

Bandhavgarh
Delhi was an interesting city. Some of the sights in and along the roads that I experienced during my short stay: coconut sellers walking between the cars, people riding sideways on bicycles, whole families on motorcycles w/baby in front (I saw up to 6 people on one small motorbike), rickshaws, oxen carts, tractors, tuck-tucks, fruit and veggies on carts, spices piled high in big sacks, beautiful colored clothing, many stray dogs in street laying under cars, etc., chickens crammed in cages way too small, dentist performing surgery on the sidewalk, cows, sugar cane trucks, electrical wires-crisscrossing over street, wrapped around poles. Delhi certainly needs to be experienced as it is an assault on the senses, not in a bad way, which is very hard to describe.

On the morning of April 2nd I left the city hubbub behind and boarded my flight to Jabalpur. Upon deplaning, I was met by my guide Rajen who was with me for the next 11 days. From here it was about a 3 hour drive to Bandhavgarh (Band-HOAG-gerr). When I arrived, there was a huge storm brewing complete with lightening, thunder and high speed wind. It was rather exciting, but very bad for my first drives into the park. Apparently tigers don’t like rain…and it rained for my first two days and I didn’t see any tigers until the 3rd day.

For the next 11 days, I had the typical safari itinerary: Early morning drive at about 5:15am. The middle of the day was free with the afternoon drive beginning at about 3:30pm. All my drives were in the Tala Zone. You should book early enough to get your drives in this zone if you can because everyone else I spoke to who had drives in other zones saw no tigers at all. Now that permits are limited, booking early is even more of a necessity (but this could always change in the future too).

In total, I had 11 tiger sightings (9 different tigers) in 7 drives at Bandhavgarh. Two cubs during one sighting were really almost too difficult to see, and I had one amazing sighting with two cubs eating what I think was a porcupine. I also had an excellent sighting of a jungle cat and many incredible bird sightings.

Rajen was amazing! He could see things that other people – other guides – couldn’t see and could seem to make tigers appear out of thin air. Even though he is a guide n Kanha and Bandhavgarh was not his “home park” he knew the area and certainly knew how to spot the tigers there. Bandhavgarh is easier to spot tigers from the road as opposed to some other parks because the foliage is less dense and the area is smaller. Now that there are no more “tiger shows” all tiger sightings happen from the road so it is important to have a guide who knows how to track and a good driver to get you into the right position.

When I got to Kanha I started talking to other guests who had been at Bandhavgarh, in the Tala zone, the same time I was who said they hadn’t seen any tigers at all. I asked them if they had their own guide and every single one of them said, no, that they had used the park guide. This is why I believe it is worth the extra expense to hire your own guide. No, you still won’t be guaranteed to see a tiger because you can’t control wildlife of course, but I believe it does increase your odds.

Kanha
I was very sad to leave Bandhavgarh where I saw my first tiger. I enjoyed Bandhavgarh and actually wished I had booked more time there. But on April 6th I had to leave to make my way to Kanha.
The game drive timing at Kanha was basically the same as Bandhavgarh with the only main difference being that you had breakfast in the park instead of back at the hotel.

What they say about quality vs. quantity is very true. While I didn’t have much luck with my drives here (12 drives, 4 sightings with 3 different tigers), I had one truly spectacular – and a little scary – sighting that made up for the lack of other sightings and also gave me the best photos of the trip. There is a tiger in Kanha named Munna (“lame”) who is very famous for the markings on his head: they spell “CAT”! Munna and I had a very close encounter and I can honestly say that he didn’t look very lame to me. Yes, I was almost tiger food. We were leisurely driving down the road when Rajen yelled, “Tiger!” Munna was walking down the middle of the road in front of us with two other gypsy’s rapidly backing up to give him enough room. We started backing up as well. So all three vehicles were driving in reverse and Munna was just happily walking forward. For some reason my driver decided he wanted to turn around and go forward. The problem with this plan is that Munna was walking too fast. The driver turned into the side of the road into the bushes, the other two cars backed up past us and then my driver tried to turn around but Munna was less than two feet away by that point and we couldn’t move. He walked right behind us – I could have reached out and pet him if I hadn’t cared about losing an arm. Munna stopped, looked me in the eye, lifted his leg and sprayed a tree right behind us and then kept walking. I did see my guide preparing to put himself between me and the tiger if the tiger saw fit to try and eat us, and that was even scarier than seeing the tiger that close and personal. As it turns out, he was hungry and looking for lunch so we were indeed very lucky to have averted disaster. We watched Munna for a while…he posed for us and gave us some great photo opportunities and then we got to see him start his hunt. Later during the afternoon drive, we saw him bathing in the lake. He is certainly one tiger I will never forget!

The other nice sighting I had at Kanha was a sloth bear and her cub. And, of course, there were also many beautiful birds. Kanha is a much bigger park than Bandhavgarh and has very dense foliage so it is much more difficult to spot the tigers as they like to repose deep in the jungle.

Corbett
After saying good-bye to Rajen, I headed back to Delhi for a short overnight before a 4 hour drive to Corbett park. Corbett had absolutely stunning landscape and it was fun to see the wild elephants, but my time in Corbett was relatively uneventful. I saw no tigers or other cats but some beautiful birds. Honestly, I feel that my guide wasn’t as adept at tracking – he ignored warning calls from the deer and he had the driver driving way too fast (in fact, other guests who had seen tigers told me I should tell the driver to slow down because they noticed that my driver was driving very fast!). But it was still an incredible experience to stay in the middle of the jungle at the rest house and be surrounded by such beautiful scenery. In hindsight, I might have done Corbett first so I wouldn’t have had any expectations of seeing tigers.

Summary & Photo Links
All in all, it was a trip that I will never forget. The logistics of my trip were perfectly executed by Wild World India and I would highly recommend them for wildlife tours. From the early planning stages all the way to my final trip to the airport after the tour, I felt that WWI was professional and had things in control at all times. It left me free to just enjoy the trip and not worry about anything. I would certainly consider a return trip with them some day.

While I enjoyed all the wildlife in the parks, the tigers are majestic cats and have fast become my favorite (well, they are at least tied with leopards). I was very happy to achieve my dream of seeing wild tigers and I do hope that future generations will have the same opportunity.

Paris photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cj_thurman/sets/72157633314198227/
India photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cj_thurman/sets/72157633352405527/

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