Friday, May 4, 2018

3 Incredible Days in the Heart of India-Madhya Pradesh | Day 1: Tigers of Bandhavgarh

Remember the Madhya Pradesh tourism ad in which a captivating voice used to sing "Hindustan ka dil dekho" to a catchy tune? That was way back in 2007 (feel old already?) I had been to Gwalior and around with family before, but this ad convinced me that I hadn't yet seen the real MP. I was eager to go see everything the voice sang about in the ad and to make a video of my own just like it.

Of course, I was just a teenager with ideas. Life went on over the years, and my fascination with Madhya Pradesh got overshadowed by my growing love for the Himalayas. That was, until last week, when I finally set foot in the heart of Incredible India.

The reason that finally brought me to Madhya Pradesh was a work tour to Jabalpur, which we conveniently scheduled on Friday so as to give us the extended weekend to explore the less frequented east-central region of Madhya Pradesh. And by God, one hell of a 'work' trip it turned out to be!

After wrapping up work early on Friday evening, we set out to explore what little part of Jabalpur we could in an evening. We first drove down to 'Balancing Rock' to witness the famous volcanic rock that has remained balanced on its base rock for hundreds (or thousands?) of years despite very little surface contact between the two. I had heard about this rock, and even though it is an attraction you can hardly spend 10-15 minutes at, I think it holds a sense of wonder and is well worth the trip.

From there, we drove to Rani Durgavati Fort nearby, where we had to hike up a series of stairs for 15 minutes (including frequent breaks to catch our breaths) to come face to face with a beautiful little hill fortress cum watchtower. Built in the 11th century by the ruler Madan Singh, the fortress was renamed by the MP state government to honour Rani Durgavati, an indomitable Gond ruler and a female icon of the region.

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We ended the eventful day with dinner at 70mm Dining, a trendy restaurant which seemed like Jabalpur's version of an up-and-coming Bollywood-themed cafe where young (and young-at-heart) junta could hang out. It wasn't the best meal I've had, but full marks to 70mm Dining for trying.

Day 1 in the Heart of India

On Saturday morning, I woke up early to embark on a road trip to Bandhavgarh National Park with my colleague and partner-in-travel. A quaint little jungle resort was to be our home for the night.

The 3-3.5 hour road journey was paved for most part by grassland and forest. The region is known for its abundance of Mahua and Sal trees that shed their leaves in the winter and begin to grow them back, first red then green, at the beginning of summer. The road was narrow, smooth, and stretched out up to the horizon. The bird-watcher in me kept looking out of the window, eager to catch sightings. But there were no birds. It was too hot to be sitting out in almost-bare trees, even though it was not half-past-nine yet. Villages and farmlands appeared on the sides of the road every now and then. The locals cannot be too well off around here, I thought to myself as our car slowed down to let a herd of severely malnourished cows pass.

We stopped on the way to chill by this little water body. I spotted plenty of birds (finally) and buffaloes cooling themselves in the water too.

The driver told us the road led up to Dindori and Mandla, both tribal districts. We asked if there was naxalite activity in the region, and he denied its being a problem. Some 30 km outside Tala, the gateway into Bandhavgarh National Park, we picked up our companion who was managing our stay arrangements. He was a wildlife and birding enthusiast, and the first thing he told us was not to get disappointed if we didn't spot a tiger during the evening safari. There were also cheetal, wild boars, Gaur bison, leopards and several species of birds to be seen. Spotting a tiger was entirely a matter of luck, and you could end up going on several safaris before catching glimpse of a single tiger. 

Authentic jungle cabin experienceAuthentic jungle cabin experience in Bandhavgarh National Park

We were famished by the time we reached Bandhavgarh National Park. We dropped off our bags in our respective log huts that were erected on cemented platforms with glass walls all over, a cottage-like roof on the outside and a tarpaulin ceiling inside to give them an authentic jungle camp feel. It felt like I was 'glamping' in one of those fancy resorts in Bali, Kenya or Sri Lanka that I've seen so many Instagram travel celebs post pictures of.

Vegetables grown in greenhouses on-site

As we were led to the restaurant for lunch, I found out that the vegetables they use in their food are mostly grown in-house on little farms and in greenhouses. We had a simple lunch comprising seasonal vegetables, rajma, the usual North Indian food accompaniments, and a delish fruit custard for dessert. The restaurant overlooks a small lotus pond, beyond which is a patch of tiger grass that constantly reminds us of our being in Bandhavgarh National Park.



Incredible Tiger Safari through Bandhavgarh National Park

Around 3.15 PM, we left for the tiger safari that starts at 4 and lasts till 6.30 or 7. We reached the gate of the national park, where you're supposed to get tickets and approval of the forest ranger on duty for your safari, only to discover that the ranger was absent and there were scores of people waiting to get their permissions before us. After over half an hour of speculations and mild cursing on how the ranger could be absent at the time of the daily evening safari, it was heard that there had been a forest fire somewhere in the jungle and the ranger was required to be there. So permissions were sought on the phone and after a long, tiring delay in the intense heat, we were finally on our way to spot tigers in the wild.

With us were an experienced driver, who had started driving his own private jeep after working with the park rangers for many years, and a guide easily into his sixties, who had been born in the region and had been roaming these forests since the age of 14. During our first 10 km into the park, we saw plenty of cheetal, bison, peacocks, sambar, wild boars, and birds like partridges, jungle bush quail, painted spurfowl and several others I couldn't recognise. Then a safari group approaching from the opposite side told us two tigers had been spotted sleeping under a tree some 10 km away. We all decided it was worth skipping some wildlife spotting in the interest of heading first to where we had certain knowledge of a tiger being spotted. And so we rushed through the jungle at max velocity, making it one hell of a thrilling ride. 

Thrilling ride in an open jeep through Bandhavgarh National Park
Thrilling ride in an open jeep through Bandhavgarh National Park

The story of how we came face to face not with one or two, but 4 grown female Royal Bengal tigers, and how we marginally escaped being shredded to pieces by the majestic beasts, makes for another blog post that I will write if enough readers ask me to. For now, it will suffice to say I have NEVER felt such a crazy rush of adrenaline in my life.

After a wildly successful safari that ended with light showers and a windstorm, we returned to our log huts for a quiet night in the company of croaking insects, night birds, strange noises around the huts and the thrill of sleeping in the middle of a forest in a log cabin

Day 1 had ended in a whirlwind and we were excited for more. Luckily, Day 2 did not disappoint.

(Stay tuned for the next post on our run-in with White Tigers and Black Bucks on Day 2 of the most incredible trip to Madhya Pradesh)

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