My trip to Bandhavgarh

On the 22nd of December, my friend Yoshiaki, from Tokyo, and I started our journey to Bandhavgarh. Our train, Shipra Express, was at 9.40 at night from Howrah station. The train journey was as usual, late by an hour. We reached Katni Junction at 6 in the evening on the 23rd. We were to stay at Madhya Pradesh State Tourism’s White Tiger Forest Lodge, and their car was at the station. From Entrance of the White Tiger Lodge Katni it took two hours and a half to reach the lodge.

I had visited the place earlier and almost all of the hotel staff knew me; I had a chat with them and booked a Maruti Gypsy for the next day’s forest trip with the most experienced driver of the place, Yadav-ji. We had dinner and scheduled a 5 a.m. wake-up call. The night was not very cold. The next morning we woke up before 4.30, and got ready. Tea was served at exactly 5 a.m., and we started off from the hotel. The morning Tala Gate near dawn was very cold outside and we were in an open Gypsy –not a very desirable situation! We reached the Tala gate before 6, and ours was the only car there at that hour.
The forest trip times are during 6.30-10.30 a.m. Andagain during 2.30-4.30 p.m. Of the three gates at Bandhavgarh, Tala is the main one; of late, they had opened two other gates, Magdhi and Khetawli. The Placard announcing the Reserve animals of Tala zone are quite used to cars and humans, so that photographing wildlife there is much easier than at the newer two. Alas! Our bad luck – the 45 cars allowed per trip into Tala were already booked. So we had to move to the Magdhi zone. It was quite a distance away from the main gate, and on the way we saw some chitals (Indian spotted deer, Axis axis) and monkeys, both black- and red-faced.

We entered the forest, a fox crossed the road.

And then we found three Indian Sambars (Cervus unicolor), one male with two females, and again some chitals, but the number was much less than what I found at Tala the last time.
And we found a gorgeous peacock.
We were searching for about an hour when suddenly we found fresh pugmarks on the road; it was a tigress.

She had walked along the road about a few minutes ago. We followed the trail, and at one place found fresh tiger dung.

We also saw the signs that she sat on the road for some time, and then entered the bushes on the right. We waited for some moments to hear an alarm call. When chitals or monkeys find a tiger, they make a typical loud sound to make all other animals aware about the tiger’s presence. This is known as an alarm call, and a tiger can be detected by following this sound. However, we heard nothing. The other side of the bushes bore no pugmark either. We waited for quite some time, but got no sound except for normal forest sounds. It was around 9 a.m., and we lost hope since that was the time the tiger takes rest. We moved on for other wild animals. We met with a family of wild boars, a kingfisher, an eagle and a stork at some distance from the road.

When it was time to return, we caught a glimpse of a wild cat, quite a rare sighting. We were hoping it’d come out in the open, but it moved into the thick vegetation. On the way back we again went to the bush where the tiger was, but it was inside; there were no fresher pugmarks yet. We returned to the lodge to the disheartening news that all the cars to Tala had spotted a tiger.
As soon as we reached, I met the manager, Sharma-ji, and told him that he had got to arrange our afternoon trip in the Tala zone. He smiled and assured me he would do something. We had a heavy breakfast. I took to the shower, and Yoshiaki went to bed.

Later I searched for hornbills around the lodge, but found none. Last time there were plenty of them, the grey ones, and lots of other birds too. But because of cold this year they were absent, as Sharma-ji informed. But he gave me good news; we could enter the Tala zone in the afternoon. Also, he informed me that two tigers were mating just beside the lodge boundary since the last three to four days, and hotel staff had found them the previous night near the water tank.

We had lunch at 1 p.m. Our stomachs were full, so we could not eat much. We started at 2 and entered the Tala zone sharp at 2.30, the second car of that trip. The guide informed us of the presence of the tiger near Rajbehra.

We moved fast to the spot. The first car was already there, but they did not hear any alarm. Now was the time to have patience. Yoshiaki and I started taking pictures of the forest while Yadav-ji was thinking about the ideal place to wait.
Meanwhile few more cars arrived at that place. Suddenly a loud sound was heard – it was much like a big rock or something rolling down. I thought of deer or the pet elephants, but Yadav-ji said that it was the mighty cat. Silence

everywhere, and suddenly we found 2 tigers running down fast towards us.

They changed direction at a distance and moved parallel to the road. I forgot clicking; all the cars were also moving slowly with the tigers. The guide informed us that they were two years old and playing; otherwise, tigers never made so much noise. He also told us that they were going towards the pond nearby. Suddenly, we heard the sound of the mother calling the cubs. I had heard this sound many times earlier, in the Discovery Channel! It was like “aau... aaaau”, but that was the first time I heard it live in the wild.

One of the cubs ran back fast, the other also followed its way, but stopped near a rock; all of a sudden I remembered I had to take snaps – the opportunity was running away, and I started clicking like mad. He (a male cub) was looking at something beside the rock. He stood still for some moments and again moved towards the road where we were. I took lots of snaps, but in the low light, I could not get a good one. However, he was near the road, we were hoping he would cross the road. Suddenly one of the cars from behind appeared in front and blocked its way. He stopped for a moment, and then moved back, losing interest in crossing the road. I did not stop clicking. He sat inside the forest for a long time, and then, at another call of his mother, ran fast up the hill.No time left, we returned. On the way back, we met a curious sambar staring at us.

Yoshiaki remarked it looked more like a doll than an animal. We reached the lodge and had snacks and tea. Yoshiaki liked Indian tea. There was a Tiger how in the lodge, but I’d seen that earlier, and Yoshiaki lost interest in the recorded show after watching the real live drama for so long. So we played table tennis and billiards for some time, and then had dinner. Menu included fish curry, and for the first time I found fish in any forest restaurant.

Sharmaji had informed me about a surprise awaiting us; I could not guess what. When we moved to our room, I was just thrilled! A tiger appeared to roar just behind my ears – it was that male tiger mating beside the lodge! Our room (Room No. 26) was the best one, thanks to Sharma-ji, located at the extreme end of the boundary of the lodge. I did not enter the room and was listening to the roar. Yoshiaki also joined me. I cannot describe his state of mind; in Japan there is hardly any forest, and here, a few hours ago he was up close and personal with two wild tigers. Now he was just few hundred meters away from the most aggressive one.

I told him how lucky we were, because tigers roar only during mating, probably
for a week in a year. We stayed outside the room for 30 minutes. One of the

hotel staff came and told me to go inside; the tiger had killed a cow about an hour ago, and hidden the kill somewhere. He checked the boundary and the gate to the forest. I realized it was not wise to stay outside, but to my delight I could hear the tiger’s roar and chitals’ alarm from inside as well. That night’s experience was great; we felt that we were really inside the wilderness.

The next morning we did not go for the forest trip, and woke up late – around 7.30 a.m. We had somehow forgotten the previous night’s experience, and walked towards the river just beside the lodge. As we were crossing the gate, the last night suddenly came to my mind. Yoshiaki was by then in the middle of the river. I whispered as loudly as I dared, “Yoshiaki, come back! There might be a tiger sleeping inside the bush!” and instantly we heard a sound of something inside the bush. We could not move our feet for a dead second,andthen a big male chital came out of the bush. We breathed a sigh of relief, but did not want to stay there for any longer. Yoshiaki told me, he was just going to die of a heart failure!

We were scheduled to take train from Katni. We had breakfast and started at 10 a.m. I promised Sharma-ji I would be there next year again. This Bandhavgarh trip was a memorable experiencefor both of us with so much happening around us.

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