Monday, May 4, 2009

The Bandhavgarh Trip

The Journey Begins

I've always wanted to visit Bandhavgarh. I dreamed of Bandhavgarh, its famed tigers, its meadows, its teeming wildlife, its birds. Planned several times, only to be abandoned at the last moment. So finally till I and my friend Captain Suresh Sharma actually boarded the Hirakund Exress from Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station, I had secretly feared that this trip too will meet the fate of earlier planned ones. But that was not to be. Here we are finally in A1 coach occupying between two of us just one berth, #7. It's a day journey and we have accommodating co passengers and a kind TT. We settle down with introductions and the usual question, "What do you do with all the photos you take?" It is a difficult question at the best of times to explain to the uninitiated. I just tell the eager Sardarji on Berth #8 that it is a 'nasha' (intoxication or addition) for me. He knowingly nods his head. The delicious Chhole and paranthas that Susan so lovingly packed for us saved us from the culinary torture of Railway food. For dinner, there was curd rice (Thair Saadam). Bliss!!

Umaria - Taala

We were met at the Station by a friend and sent to Bandhavgarh by the Innova from the resort. Arriving late at night at 2 AM did not diminish our determination to join an early morning jeep safari.

Nature Heritage Resort, Village Tala, very near the gate of the Tiger Reserve is a great place to say. Built around a central courtyard with places for an open air bar, a cafeteria and a few odd places to sit around, the resort exudes a very 'jungly' atmosphere.
Our cottage had two rooms with a shared verandah facing the central coutryard. Food is great and the staff are friendly and helpful. For some reason, the Nature Heritage Resort, locally referred to as the 'Agra Lodge' referring to the place of origin of its owner, has, over the years evolved as the favourite place of stay of photographers. Most of the important ones stay here and the chance to meet some famous lensmen is an added attraction for staying there. We were lucky to meet a few celebrities, also staying there. Jonathan and Angie Scott probably needs no introductions to those interested in wildlife. Born and brought up in the UK, Jonathan finally ended up in Masai Mara, Kenya and fell in love, first with the forest, then with the Big Cats and finally with Angela. He is an outstanding photographer, an artist whose pen and ink sketches of cats are much sought after. He is best known as the host of a number of BBC TV shows about the Big Cats of Africa. He has also written two books, one of Masai Mara and another on leopards. Angie is a famous photographer on her own rights. Another pleasant surprise was meeting Nanak Dhingra, the famous Indian wildlife photographer. A lively person known for his generosity and concern for the under privileged, Dhingra has his photographs published in every single wildlife magazine worth its salt. The owner of the Resort, Mr. Rajvardhan Sharma is a celebrity of sorts. His exploits in saving a hapless French tourist by risking his own life are so legendary that every guide in Bandhavgarh claims to be eye witness to the incident.


Though summers are intolerably hot in Central India, it is worth braving the torture of the Sun if one is keen on spotting tigers. For one thing
Water sources dry up leaving a few well known and approachable water holes. All animals, prey and the hunters and scavengers congregate at these places. This is probably the reason why one can surely see at least one tiger on each safari, unlike in other reserves and national Parks. Another reason why summers are better is that in summers Bandhavgarh forest looks dry and bereft of the green foliage of the post rains winter season, making tigers more visible. Finally, the crowds of tourists in Winter are so large that all resources get strained beyond comfort. As many as 50 safari vehicles enter the Park every day and the news of spotting of tiger attracts a large number of vehicles. Too many for the comfort of the tigers and the serious photographer and wildlife enthusiast. even in late April the number of vehicles were as high as 20 daily. The system of entry has been reorganized recently.

In the morning each vehicle is allotted a particular zone out of the five for safari. In the first one hour the vehicles are supposed to remain within the allotted zone. This is done to prevent overcrowding and to give each group a chance to spot tiger in the open before there is crowding. Once the tiger is spotted in a zone at a place away from the track but approachable by elephant back, the tourists are allowed to ride the elephants and approach the tiger for a closer view.
It is indeed nice to give a closer view. Somehow, in their eagerness to get better view, the mahouts often get to close to the tigers and cross the personal threshold of comfort. Sometimes they even interfere with tigers' movement to let all see the tiger. At times the 'tiger shows', as these are called become a big circus and counter productive.

We too got our chance on the howdah, but trust my luck to let me down. When my turm came to photograph the magnificent male dominant tiger, son of the legendary B2, the damn fellow decided to sleep and not even lift his head. When the elephant turned to let those on the other side of the howdah a dekho, he obliged them by looking up and yawning royally. And can you believe, there were no one with a camera on that side of the elephant!

The bird life in Bandhavgarh, unlike in Ranthambhore is rich. Not only that, easy to approach and photograph.
Even though I am an avid birder, I normally do not photograph birds. Two reasons. Firstly, taking photos take away, at least partly the pleasure of watching birds. The moment you want to photograph, your first priority is to click. For that you plan approach, select the vantage point, worry about light, equipment, tripod and a hundred other things. Secondly, I do not have the lenses required for bird photography. The longest lens I have is a Sigma 300 mm and a Sigma 1.4X tele-convertor. This is insufficient for small birds. Often when asked what is the ideal focal length for bird photography, I tell that you need 100 mm more than the longest lens you have. Till i am rich or one of my rich uncles - very few are left, rich or poor - die bequeathing huge bank balance to me of till Nikhil Devesar donates his 600mm, I do not even want to day dream of bird photography. That having been said, I managed to click a number of acceptable quality images of large birds like the Brown Fish Own here. In all I managed to spot over 45 species including Malabar Pied Hornbill, Racket-tailed and White-bellied Drongos. The lesser adjutant was so tame and gave me good shots.

The most productive area for us was the central dam and pool known as Raj Behra. Currently a mother and three sub adult cubs are the inhabitants of this scenic spot.
An artificial dam constructed across a seasonal stream has created a fairly large reservoir surrounded by vast meadows. The whole area is teeming with wildlife. Hundreds of spotted deer (Chital) feed on the grass, animals like sambhar, wild boar and jackal also frequently visit this spot. There are also plenty of peafowl. The presence of water also attracts a large variety of birds. Once can easily spot birds like three variety of Drongos, two of Orioles, two of Bee-eaters, three of Doves, two of Hornbills and two of mynas. Wildlife department has also built a concrete hide near the dam to permit photography. I must try this facility. Some day!

An unexpected treasure was the splash of colours of leaves. The forest was full of newly sprouted young leaves of various shades and colours.

Though my desire to meet the legendary mahout and photographer Kuttappan (A Mallu, like me) remained unfulfilled I met Raghu, arguably the best guide and budding photographer. We struck friendship and he acted as guide for me on more than one occasion. Normally guides are allocated at the gate on the basis of a roster and the visitor has no choice. There are two ways of overcoming this. First, and what I used, is to request the guide allotted to you to let Raghu take his place. Second, what I plan to do next time, is to hire Raghu's jeep and get an additional guide from the gate. (It is mandatory to have a guide, even with Raghu or Kuttappan on board)

Afte three days at Bandhavgarh, enjoying tiger safari during day and the food and drinks of Nature Heritage Resort, one can't be blamed if one felt reluctant to leave. But leave, we had to. We caught the late night Utkal Express on 29th April. Recalling, despite not getting very good images of tigers, one had 15 sightings of 7 different tigers in three days and six safaris. The food in the train made us dream of Susan's cooking. The Air Conditioning also conked off, making the return trip uncomfortable. But we kept going over the fantastic experience of the last three days.

1 comment:

Shobha Kamath said...

Thanks for following my blog.

I was thrilled to read your Bandhavgarh trip and other birding experience as we (my family) also experienced a similar one during our visit there.

I also liked your style of writing.