Two tigers! Yes, we saw TWO TIGERS!! Unbelievably amazing. We are so lucky.
We arrived at Kanha national park in the afternoon and went straight out into the core in a jeep with our guide, Saleem – unlike in Bardiya, there’s no walking (“otherwise you might step on a scorpion, a snake or a toxic insect,” was the hilarious reason given for forcing visitors to hire a jeep and driver for the most paltry of journeys). We saw plenty of animals the moment we entered, including wild boar (tigers’ favourite dinner), barasingha deer (12-horned and found only in Kanha), chital spotted deer (tigers’ other favourite dinner), gaur (massive humped buffalo), sambar, and loads more. With deer grazing on the gently rolling grassland and the deciduous forest behind, it resembled the parkland of a stately home in Sevenoaks, Kent, not far from where I grew up – except for the monkeys, and, of course, the fact that tigers were out there secretly roaming…
The next day, we woke at dawn and went into the forest. Saleem heard from the elephant wallahs that a tiger had been spotted nearby the elephant huts in the jungle. We raced there in our jeep and from there we took an elephant for the 400-metre journey through the high grass to the tiger. And there she was: invisible until you were above her, lying in the grass with two cubs hidden in the grass behind. We didn’t see the cubs, they were too well hidden, but she was there burning bright, as Blake said she would be, in Rudyard Kipling’s backyard next to a tasty boar kill. Utterly captivating – I couldn’t draw my eyes from her beautifully painted stripes. But sadly, we couldn’t sit there on the elephant watching her for the next few days, as I planned, we had to return to camp. That afternoon we went back into the park to seek her our again, or find another one, but despite nearly seeing a sloth bear (our guide saw it, but we missed it), no tigers – in fact very little of anything compared to the previous afternoon. We drove back to our camp a little despondent, which is very spoilt of us considering our fab spotting earlier and the fact that many people spend days and weeks unsuccessfully tiger spotting.
We were almost back, when suddenly, what was that enormous stripy cat walking down the jeep trail towards us?! Nick said: “Tiger” just in time, and we braked as it approached, getting closer and closer. This was one scary pussycat and beautiful as it was, we felt a teensy bit exposed in our open tin can. Saleem reversed up and she continued to come at us, walking on as he reversed more. Still she came, and he reversed again. We gasped, took pictures and video, gasped some more, adrenaline pumping. Finally she walked off into the forest, leaving us tiger-eyed with wonder. We’ll upload photos and wobbly video when we can.
Kanha is a pretty amazing place – I am obviously a little biased after our fantastic encounter, but the dedication and commitment shown by the forest wardens was quite something. It’s a pretty dangerous place to work and a number of them had horribly mauled faces, heads, body parts from bear, tiger, gaur attacks. The controlled nannying of visitors was a bit tiresome – no walking, having to fill in tedious forms every time you want to enter the core zone, etc – especially after the far more relaxed Nepali approach. But it works: tiger poaching is non-existent in Kanha, according to Saleem, who grew up there and has been a guide for 17 years. Other initiatives have also helped, for example, villagers relocated from the forest have been “compensated” with running water and electricity, biogas (instead of forest logs) and they get financially compensated when their cattle gets eaten by tigers, for example – something that doesn’t happen in Bardiya.
We left Kanha in the early morning, taking the bus to Jabalpur and then intending to get the train to the colonial hill station at Pachmarhi. But what with the bus being hours late getting there, and then the train also being delayed, we realised we would end up arriving at midnight in some outpost an hour’s drive from Pachmarhi, and abandoned the plan. We spent the afternoon and evening tediously holed up in the stinking train station waiting for the night train to Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh’s state capital. Which is where we arrived at 6.30 this morning, after a sleepless night, to discover the entire city’s hotels have been booked out for the weekend because it’s medical exam weekend: all the people hoping to train as doctors (almost everybody’s Indian son) and their parents are in the city for the weekend. Nightmare. After walking the foggy raining streets in ponchos like drowned turtles with our enormous backpacks, walking door to door, from the most unfriendly hoteliers we’ve so far met (some hotels have a policy of not taking “foreigners” – not sure if this is because we aren’t Muslim or what, but it’s bizarre and racist I think), we stopped. Of course none of the phone numbers we had for anywhere outside of Bhopal were working, because all the phone stalls had “connection not”, so we buckled and called the luxury one.
It’s lovely, quiet and away from the horrible roads by the station. And I got chatting to a wonderful woman (fellow guest) who has invited us to a family wedding tomorrow night (so long as I can find something suitable to wear for a mosque wedding, which isn’t too filthy). And tonight we will eat with her family and have henna preparations.
A friendly face and already Bhopal isn’t so bad…