This trip I'm on a bucket trip mission, to see a tiger in the wild. I've been booked into three different tiger parks in the hope of achieving that ambition. The Indian tiger is the Royal Bengal. They are reported to be elusive.
India sucks you in very quickly. A melange of hyperactivity and incredible spiritual peace. There is something soul cleansing about the winter sunshine here. But the Delhi streets remain chaotic and filthy. The buildings still sprawl higgledy piggledy. Even the plushest new buildings have a seedy side on close inspection. And there is this distinctive smell that is both musky and musty; it hits you as soon as you get off the plane.
Enough sunshine to sunbathe for a couple of hours. I spend most of the afternoon by the pool in my near the airport hotel talking to the Rolling Stones (among others) gig manager, a stereotypical R and B man with seventies hair. Very interesting. He is from New York, scouting out venues for their next tour. He goes home this evening, but wants to keep in touch and will show me round next time I go out. He says.
Dinner with two engineers from Nottingham who treat me on their expenses account, so we sample just about every curry and dessert made in India in a kebab restaurant. Very tasty, but I fear it is too rapid an induction for my insides.
The annoying aspects of travel in India have already kicked in. The guy who meets me doesn't have my flight ticket for tomorrow, isn't even sure if I am booked onto the plane and just keeps telling me not to worry. I am not remotely worried until I realise how worried he is.
Bandhavgarh or bust
I have to get up at half past five to go and sort out the missing ticket, which is great, as I didn't get to bed that early after the great curry extravaganza. My guide whinges and whines, as he has to pay 100 rupees to sort their mistake. Delhi this morning is just like Heathrow last week - a thick blanket of fog. So I sit in the plane for four hours before it finally takes off for Jabalpur, the nearest airport to Bandhavgarh National Park.
Jabalpur is slap bang in the centre of India. I have a driver and a car, complete with a pink plastic shelf unit on which sweets and crisps are artistically arranged for my delight. The driver is quiet. He doesn't speak much English and is married, so I'm hoping he won't be indulging in the common practice of asking me to sponsor him or let him visit me in England. The usual crazy driving though, a kamikaze slalom round the chickens, cows, cycles and people that zoom into the road from every direction.
It's even more interesting today, as a human chain is being formed to protest about the government’s handling of the recent rape cases and relevant changes to the law. School children, students, the army and others are lining up in all the towns effectively sealing all the side roads, so a few diversions are called for. It's dusk by the time I arrive at Bandhavgarh Park. Tonight it's dinner with a Swedish couple in the lofty dining room.
In Search of Shere Khan
And, my goodness it's cold here in Bandhavgarh. in the early morning. I've got a blanket, scarf, gloves, fleece, a cardigan and a thankfully packed at the last minute cagoule and it's still freezing in the jeep. We line up with all the other vehicles to enter the park at sunrise and then teeter along jungle tracks, over escarpments and past waterholes crimson with algae. The terrain is broken, rocky hill ranges, interspersed with grassy swamps and forested valleys.
And the tigers are indeed elusive. No doubt they are hiding behind the lianas, thumbing their noses at us. I have to be content with chital (deer), boar, peacocks and a jungle cat. The small spotted deer are sporting velvety new antlers and look cuter even than Bambi. They follow the loopy tailed langur monkeys around, so that they can hoover up all the leaves and fruit that fall to the ground, when the monkeys crash through the trees. These monkeys are much less aggressive than the common macaques and they perch on fallen trees like old men in armchairs, gibbering to each other.
The afternoon ride is much the same, though considerably warmer. Annoyingly, this park is marketed in Lonely Planet as tigers almost guaranteed. The Bandhavgarh National Park has the highest density of these in India and therefore in the world. (It's also the home of the white tiger - all the white tigers across the globe trace their roots to Bandhavgarh.) And other folk have seen them. The Swedes were flaunting their photos last night.
Sunrise is beautiful over the escarpment and the mist hangs over the frilly bamboo and elephant grass. There are jackals today, larger shyer sandbar deer with huge round ears and lots of fresh tiger tracks. (Called pug marks). The drivers get excited when the monkeys start to make alarm calls (another reason that the deer follow them - the monkeys have a much better view up top), but it seems that the tiger is always headed in a different direction to the road we're on, so still no actual tiger.
I am travelling and eating with an Irish couple today. On being told that the tigers here are Royal Bengals they inquire who it was that had the job of moving them all down here from the Calcutta area. It’s a rest afternoon round the swimming pool, there's no one there except me and a few men. It's too hot in the sun and too cold in the shade - we're 1800 feet up. I resort to my swimsuit, but the number of men around the pool increases alarmingly. They are all fully clothed and all staring. I revert to my dress.
Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright.
Nowt a drive to Kanha Park - six hours. My driver has no concept of tourism whatsoever. His sole mission is to get me to my destination as fast as possible, regardless of who gets sent flying. The horn blares continuously. The camera is out of the question. He doesn't even slow down enough for me to identify anything I might like to photograph. To be fair, he doesn't speak much English (so information is out of the question). And he was sick last night, so perhaps he had a good motive for rushing over 'every jungle mile'.
I'm staying in Kipling Camp, which is English owned and managed. It’s very much Back to the Raj, Old Chap. Everyone here has been to Eton. Nevertheless, still no tigers. (Despite an alarm call in the evening when we all pile into a jeep to pursue a reported sighting up the road). Though there is gin and tonic.
Nine layers, two blankets and a hot water bottle on safari drive today. Kanha Park is much bigger than the last and has far more open space. Though still no tigers.
Tiger Safari - Kipling Country
Then we hurtle on to my third and last park, Pench. The driver is healthy today, I checked. But the driving is still the same. It's too infuriating, zooming past all this exotica, the glittering saris and bright houses and teeny temples. It's hay making time and there are oddly shaped stooks all along the road, with humped Brahmin cattle draped over them. Eventually, I order the driver to stop and I take some pictures. He looks totally bemused, as do the locals. None of them speak any English either.
We cross the same railway line ten times. The closing barriers descend at least five minutes before the train comes. We have no choice but to be patient, though the locals aren't. They slide their bikes under the security arm and meander across, oblivious, even when they can see the engine and hear it honking madly.
To my alarm, the driver then asks me where I am staying and how long for, but he seems to find the place without any problem. This is supposedly where Kipling set The Jungle Book, (despite the Kipling reference in Kanha) though there is no evidence that he ever visited this area. These are the Seonee Hills. There is even a Mowgli Festival scheduled.
I’ve been allocated a giant wooden framed tent with a huge built on bathroom. I suppose I'm glamping. The tent's all lined with curtains, so it's like sleeping in a marquee. They tell me it's dangerous to put heaters in them (pshaw - I don't think they even have any), so it's two quilts and two hot water bottles tonight and a sprint whenever I need the toilet. I’ve noticed that all my rooms so far have a tall standard lamp that won't function, as there is no socket to plug it into. I wonder if this is de rigeur in Indian hotels?
Lots more curry and aromatic rice pudding. But I'm still waiting for the exceedingly good cakes. Perhaps they only come out if 'A Tiger Comes to Tea'.
The Eye of the Tiger
Two more safari drives. This is teak forest, much flatter and more compact, but the animals on view are similar. Teeny blinking owls peeping out of a tree and prettily striped palm squirrels running up and down another. A Rikki Tikki Tavi mongoose skitters across the path, more monkey alarm calls and even some roaring; the tigers remain stubbornly out of sight. Jungle babblers taunt us as we peer around hopefully. The locals are clearly not bothered by the prospect of being eaten. They wander around, collecting water, doing the washing and repairing the roads. My guide tells me that the tiger is a gentleman and only attacks deer or the odd cow. If he takes cattle, the farmers get compensation, but they have to prove it was a tiger. An interesting take on a crime scene.
The main excitement comes when the safari driver manages to tip the jeep into a ditch, before we even get underway in the afternoon ,and I just escape being jettisoned myself. It takes six men to lift the jeep out. I should have been suspicious when we ventured out in the early morning with no lights on. The driver explained that he preferred to keep things natural. Tell that to the poor folk on the road who have to keep scattering out of the way.
I'm feeling really depressed. It's my last safari drive today and Lonely Planet has already reminded me that there is 'only a remote chance of seeing tiger at Pench'. I have a touch of Delhi Belly (it’s been a relentless diet of curry - delicious but tough on the system). Everything I own (because I've been wearing it all at the same time) is caked in dust from the forest trails. And I'm weary from all these 5.30 a.m. starts. To my great delight the Mowgli Festival is sited in a field just behind my tent and it begins at five in the morning. There are 200 school children who have been selected to come and view the wildlife.
When I see the armadas of jeeps, full of aforesaid children in white peaked caps lined up at the gate it's definitely a case of 'abandon hope all ye who enter here'. To add insult to injury, they allow the children's jeeps in first. I reflect that if I was a tiger anywhere near the vicinity of this chaos, I would definitely keep a low profile.
If this was fiction ,the guide, feeling sorry for me (and anxious for a fat tip), would hare across the park, breaking all the rules, to get ahead of all the other traffic and surprise a female tiger with three hidden cubs, who is heading off hunting. She would chase off a pesky jackal who was annoying her, roaring ferociously right in front of us and loop in and out of the jungle spraying and rubbing her scent on trees. She would take her time as she would not be remotely bothered by the pandemonium that preceded her arrival and trailed in her wake, and lollop along the road for twenty five minutes, looking for a good spot to hide and wait for prey to wander by. And, miraculously, that's exactly what happens in real life. Gotcha!