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Marija Feb 23rd, 2008 06:46 AM

Bruce and Marija, accompanied by 450 Indian school children, search for tigers in Bandhavgarh
As part of our India trip, Bruce and I wanted to try our luck at seeing the endangered tiger. Based on so many negative comments about Ranthambore, we decided to head to the more remote and better managed Bandhavgarh which supposedly has the largest number of tigers per unit area. We stayed for three nights at the year-old CC Africa/Taj hotels lodge Mahua Kothi.

The road to Bandhavgarh

There�s no easy way to get to Bandhavgarh . These are the possibilities enumerated on the Mahua Kothi website:
From Delhi to Mahua Kothi--
Fly to Khajuraho; the drive from Khajuraho to the Lodge is approximately 6 hours - 230 km (via Satna)
Fly to Gwalior; Gwalior to Umaria by train (approximately 12 hours*); and the drive from Umaria to the Lodge is approximately 40 minutes - 30 Km
Fly to Gwalior; Gwalior to Katni by train (approximately 10 hours*); and the drive from Katni to the Lodge is approximately 2.5 hrs - 75 km
Fly to Jabalpur; the drive from Jabalpur to the Lodge is approximately 4 hours - 190 km
By train to Katni (approximately 13 to 14 hours); the drive from Katni to the Lodge is approximately 2.5 hrs - 75 km
*All trains from Delhi stop at Gwalior

From Mumbai to Mahua Kothi--
Fly to Bhopal; connecting flight from Bhopal to Jabalpur; and the drive from Jabalpur to the Lodge is approximately 4 hours - 190 km

The famous erotic stone carvings on the temples of Khajuraho beckoned, so we decided to fly to Khajuraho, spend some time admiring the temples and then drive from there to Mahua Kothi. We were not looking forward to the long and bumpy road there and back and even considered substituting an easier-to-reach park but we wanted to maximize our chances of seeing tigers and stuck with the decision to go to Bandhavgarh.

To ensure that we arrived in time for the afternoon game drive at 2:30, we asked for a 5:30 AM start. The local arrangements agent suggested that we could leave later and still make it in time but we didn�t want to take any chances, especially since he said the road was perfectly safe in terms of driving at the early hour. We also declined a breakfast stop en route and munched on granola bars and nuts, though we did encourage the driver to take as many breaks as he needed.

Our concerns about the road were unwarranted. There were two stretches, about 15 minutes each, where the road was bad. Otherwise the road was in decent shape and the time flew by as we watched the fascinating activities that take place on rural Indian roads. By 10:30 we were contentedly seating at a table in Mahua Kothi feasting on a specially prepared hot breakfast and being congratulated for our early arrival which allowed for leisurely exploration of the camp and a great lunch before the game drive.

HariS Feb 23rd, 2008 06:55 AM

Hi Marija,

Welcome back!!! Hope you enjoyed your visit here!


Leely Feb 23rd, 2008 09:50 AM

So this is what you two have been up to! Wonderful start, can't wait to read more.

atravelynn Feb 23rd, 2008 10:01 AM

Nice start and I bet that's what you were thinking as you were heading down the road that was not as bad as you thought. My interest in the 450 children has been piqued.

sonali74 Feb 23rd, 2008 04:12 PM

Hi Marija.... great u had a good time.... wow u reached early... but mahua is beautiful... i really loved it...I hope u had good sightings...and thank god i told u to take warm clothes and i assume u took warm clothes... our winter this year has been extremely severe...pls tell us the rest of your trip and....has the rule of going once into tala core range area and the other game drive in the newly opened conservation area been implemented

Also who was your naturalist guide... the whole staff makes u feel sooo comfortable... the warm luxurious bath drawn out with scented water... i really loved that....pls tell us more


Marija Feb 24th, 2008 02:38 PM

Hari--we really enjoyed India and hope to return and visit the south. Sonali-- thanks so much for all of your advice which we followed.

Marija Feb 24th, 2008 02:39 PM

The atmosphere at Mahua Kothi is very similar to that in the CC Africa camps in East Africa that weve been to. The food and wine were plentiful and good. The cottages are very comfortable with large showers, bathtubs, double sinks and private courtyards. The beds have electric blankets with two control units. It took us a while to figure out that since the camp advertises AC they must have heat. Once we figured out how to turn on the heat all was well. As Sonali indicated India was very cold at the end of January / beginning of February so heat was most welcome. Even with the cold spell eating lunch on the roof the main lodge was sunny and pleasant.

Four couples assembled for the afternoon game drive. Six of us went with Hari in a big Land Rover clone made by TATA; the other two with Himanshu. I assumed incorrectly that the couple who went alone had booked a private jeep. I never did understand why they divided us unevenly. Our vehicle mates were Brits as were all of the guests we met at Mahua Kothi.

The rules in Bandhavgarh are different from the parks weve been to in Africa. Radio or cell phone communication between guides is forbidden, though they do share info when they encounter each other. Each vehicle is assigned a government naturalist who rides in the vehicle and ensures that all rules are followed. Interestingly, the government naturalist also assisted the camp naturalist in spotting game--he was by no means just an enforcer of rules. The only off-roading is on elephant back. In the morning each vehicle is assigned one of the routes through the park which it must follow. For the afternoon game drive the guide is free to choose a route. Part of the park area which was off-limit had just been opened for game drives, however the animals were unaccustomed to vehicles so Hari indicated that it still wasnt being used much.

The bad news was that tiger sightings had diminished this year as compared to last. Hari estimated that tigers are seen on one out of three drives. Even visitors who stay several days are leaving without any tiger sightings. Theres a poignant note next to the park gate instructing visitors not to be disappointed if they dont see a tiger--but to take comfort that the tiger has seen them. We quickly adjusted our expectations from seeing several tigers to hoping that we would at least see one.

As we drove around the park we saw lots of spotted deer, some larger deer (sambar), monkeys, peacocks, wild boar, but no tigers. When Hari checked out of the park he reported that tigers had not been seen by any of the vehicles. One game drive down, five to go. We returned to the lodge for drinks, snacks and dinner.

HariS Feb 24th, 2008 04:14 PM

Hi Marija,

Glad you had a great trip! Just curious - any idea how many hotels/lodges around Bandhavgarh (approx) thesedays?


Marija Feb 26th, 2008 05:54 PM

I have no idea how many lodges are in Bandhavgarh. Sorry.

Marija Feb 26th, 2008 05:56 PM

The next morning, after the requisite tea and cookies, we assemble at 6:15 for the morning game drive. As Sonali warned us, it was very cold in the morning. We were prepared with jackets, hats, scarves and mittens. We packed all of the warm clothes that had already proved their worth in Botswana in July. Those who dont read were freezing in their skimpy Goa beach coverups. I dont understand why the camp shop doesnt stock warm clothes since that would be a big profit center. Of course, it may be that previous visitors cleaned out all of the warm gear. When we left we donated our scarves and mittens to the lodge hoping that someone else could put them to good use. Of course what we were really hoping was that we wouldnt need them for the rest of the trip. India was experiencing a very cold spell for Indians but pleasant weather for Midwesterners escaping the snows.

After picking up the government issued naturalist we cruise our route nervously scanning for tigers. Of course we werent scared of seeing a tiger, we were terrified that we would leave without seeing one. Again, deer, monkeys, peacocks, lovely scenery but no tiger. At some point all vehicles gather at a center point where the guide finds out whether the mahouts and elephants have tracked a tiger and whether permission is given for going out to the tiger on elephant back. (Mating tigers, young cubs, tigers with kills as well as tigers engaged in other sensitive activities cannot be viewed on elephant back.) The news is good: a tigress has been found. Hari gets a viewing number for our jeep while we quickly eat breakfast. We then race for 20 minutes to get to the mahouts who instruct Hari that he has to leave and get a second stamp on some document. I never did understand the intricacies of the queue. Theres some sort of scheme where they dont want everyone arriving together so you get a number, have to go away, get a second stamp elsewhere and then show up at the elephants. However, if your number is low enough you can get away without the second stamp.

After acquiring the second stamp we pause at a cluster of jeeps who are viewing cubs in the bamboo forest. Wow! The only problem is that they are so well camouflaged that I cant see them. The guides keep pointing and positioning my head but Im not at all sure what Im seeing are tigers. The naturalist takes my camera and photographs the cubs so I can review this sighting at my leisure. Bruce is clicking away, confident that he has seen the two cubs. Im distressed, debating the question of whether I can claim to have seen a tiger

Fortunately the tigress the mahouts found is still sleeping in the forest and four of us climb on an elephants back and are transported to the site. Now I can honestly report that I have seen a tiger! Of course were still hoping that well have better sightings but at least Ive seen one and Bruce claims three. (Hari says its been four days since hes seen a tiger so were really grateful to have this viewing.) We return to camp happy. Not only has the tiger seen us but we have seen the tiger.

After lunch and a nap we set off for the afternoon drive. Hari takes us to the spot were he thinks the tigress and cubs would have moved from the morning viewing but theyre either there and well hidden or have gone elsewhere. The park is beautiful but, unlike Africa, theres not a lot of wildlife to keep you amused. We admire the peacocks, snap photos of the deer and look for interesting birds. But as much as you try to find other diversions theyre minimal. Youre there to see the tigers. Our time is almost up so we head for the exit gate. Its been a great day, weve seen tigers!

A short distance from the gate we encounter a large number of jeeps watching a tigress take a bath in a small pond. The game viewing etiquette in India is difficult to describe. The best description is probably that there is none. Everyone is standing in their jeeps, theres lots of shouting, children are crying, an old man in a jeep across from us tumbles from the jeep when the driver starts moving unexpectedly. People rush to aid him. All thats missing is someone selling samosas and lassis. Our government naturalist tells us to stand on the seats of the jeep for a better view. We dont know how to behave. Imagine standing on a jeep seat in Africa! We finally stand up since otherwise we cant see anything. Her privacy disturbed, the tigress finishes her bath, crosses the road and disappears into the bamboo. Were elated to have seen another tigress, even in the midst of such chaos. Back at the lodge were entertained by local singers and dancers as we eat dinner outside.

waynehazle Feb 27th, 2008 08:30 AM

Sigh... India has GOT to manage those parks better. But at least you got some glimpses of a tiger.

And of course I look forward to seeing the pictures.

atravelynn Feb 27th, 2008 07:15 PM

Thanks for the report. Your description of the tiger viewing with the guy toppling out is quite hilarious in one respect and not at all humorous in another. Looking forward to the rest.

Marija Feb 27th, 2008 07:17 PM

The next morning our alarm goes off a few minutes before the official wake-up. As we groggily discuss the need to get up we feel a spurt of water upon our pillows. My first thought is that the water bottle has somehow sprung a leak but its next to the bed, undisturbed. The next theory is that its raining and the loosely woven cottage roof has sprung a leak. I jump and open the door but theres no rain. Slowly it dawns on us that some creature sitting on our roof has peed on us. Although weve grown accustomed to public urination in India, this is a little too much! We tell our tale to the manager and anyone else who will listen but Im not sure they believe, us claiming that it has never occurred before. I dont really care if they believe us--I just want to make sure they change the bed linens. We dont want to acquire some rare disease transmitted only by monkey urine.

As we set off for the morning drive we ponder what impact being peed on by a monkey will have on our destiny. Perhaps its a good luck omen that will bring the tigers out from the jungle. Its at this point that Hari delivers the bad news: forget tigers, for the next two days we will be joined in the park by 450 school children from Ahmedabad. That translates into an extra 60 or so jeeps in the not-overly-large park. Not good. The children havent arrived in time for the morning drive so we cruise around admiring the scenery. We just miss a mating pair of tigers that crossed the road a few minutes before our arrival. No viewing from elephant back either, since the mahouts had tracked the mating pair and park policy doesnt allow interference with such important activities.

We werent lonely on the afternoon drive. Jeeps loaded with beaming, happy children were everywhere. The children were so excited at being at the park. They waved enthusiastically at our jeep, inquiring as to whether we had seen a tiger. The park had really come to life, it was like rush hour in a major city. Hari was certain that no self-respecting tigers would emerge into the jeep filled roads and he was right. No one saw a tiger that afternoon.

The plan for the next morning was to wake up extra early and be the first car at the gate. That way we could cruise down the road before the tigers took refuge from the crowds. Although we were there at 6:00, the sixty jeeps carrying the children beat us to the gate. I was filled with admiration for the teachers who were able to get the kids out of bed and poured into jeeps at such an early hour. Teachers paced the road in front of the gate distributing breakfast sacks.

We were assigned a route we hadnt been on so we got to see a different landscape and fairly large groups of deer. Of course we were surrounded by jeeps brimming with children eager to wave and greet us. They may have scared away the tigers but they were delightful companions and so much fun to look at. We all discussed what a great idea it was to bring children to the game park so they could develop an appreciation for the importance of conservation. We just hoped that they would get to see a tiger.

Hari warned us that if a tiger was found by the elephants all 450 school children were going out on elephant back to see it. He was sure that would preclude us going out but we werent concerned since we were as anxious as the children that they get to see a tiger. We had already seen one. However, when we reached the center point where elephant viewing is arranged we somehow got a number and were allowed to go out again on elephant back to view the sleeping tigress. So once again we viewed a sleepy-looking tiger in the jungle from elephant-back. For some reason the other jeep from Mahua Kothi was not allowed to go. We left the park with echoes of Did you see tiger? ringing in our ears.

After a leisurely lunch at the swimming pool we rejoined our driver who had stayed in the town while we were at Mahua Kothi. The drive back took longer since we encountered several political rallies, trains crossing, kids in rickshaws returning from school, and endless commerce. We enjoyed every minute of the five hour ride back to Khajuraho. Theres never a dull moment on an Indian road.

Leely Feb 27th, 2008 07:56 PM

I'm just as delighted as you that the children got to see a tiger. Did I read the installment correctly: the children did see it, right?

Marija Feb 28th, 2008 04:42 AM

The plan was to take all of the children, and as far as we could tell, they were executing the plan very efficiently. The kids were beaming and exclaiming "We saw tiger!". We wouldn't have gone if we thought we were depriving any of them of the opportunity to see the tiger.

Leely Feb 28th, 2008 06:30 PM

Thanks for clarifying, Marija. How thrilling for the children and also for you and Bruce.

Next installment, please. :)

Dana_M Feb 29th, 2008 08:18 PM

Your description of game viewing etiquette, with people standing and kids screaming, reminds me of a recent trip to Namibia :(

Great trip report. I'm thinking about India and the possibly of Bandhavgarh (or one of the other CCAfrica/Taj locations) for next year. What would be the minimum time you would recommend for the best chances of a tiger sighting and still not get bored with the game drives if you didn't spot a tiger?

Will you be posting photos?

Marija Mar 1st, 2008 06:05 AM

We stayed for three nights, took six games drives, and I thought that was about right. CC Africa is opening two more camps later this year in India and will connect all of them by small planes, just like in Africa.

Dana_M Mar 1st, 2008 08:51 AM

Thanks Marija. I knew about the new camps but didn't know about the small plane transfers. I can't wait to hear more about your trip.

Kavey Mar 2nd, 2008 06:43 AM

Lovely to read your report!

We visited Bandhavgarh in November 2006 and were extremely fortunate in the number and quality of our tiger sightings. On our very first drive we encountered that "game viewing etiquette in India" (or lack of it) that you mention and were horrified. Luckily the British couple sharing our jeep agreed wholeheartedly and we asked our driver and guide to do their best to keep us away from the crowds, even if it meant reducing our chances of tiger sightings. Infact, after we did one of the elephant back rides, the four of us also agreed we didn't want to do another so again, it meant we were able to avoid the rest of the vehicles quite easily. It took a few times of asking for our guide to understand that we really did mean what we asked - we would rather reduce our chances of sightings than have sightings like that first one again. Once he understood he was as good as his word and toured us around some beautiful areas of the park. AND to our delight, our tiger sightings were wonderful and usually fairly quiet too.

I love the fact that school children are being shown the wonders of India's wildlife, and especially the tiger. Only with support from locals will conservation truly have a chance; already the chances of the Indian tiger surviving are perilously low.

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