Getting to Bandhavgarh National Park was a lot easier than I had expected. The connections were right and although the journeys were slow. There was no waiting time anywhere. I left Jabalpur for Katni by bus early yesterday morning. At Katni, I got an immediate train connection to Umaria. I even got a seat in the General Section. The train was late at its destination. After the standard affair of daal, roti, sabji and chawal. I got a bus for Tala.
Tala is the place within walking distance of the park gates. You cannot however walk inside the park. Tiger spotting has to be done on four-wheel drive open jeeps, which the local call Gypsies. Entry to the park for a vehicle is Rs. 680 and hiring of the vehicle costs Rs. 1000. Other than the driver and the guide, the jeep can take a maximum of six visitors.
I met a young man on the bus to Tala. He was interested in taking a jeep safari. We made some enquiries and we found a family from Katni who were keen on a ride. The three of them – Sonu, his wife and his sister – had already seen a tiger that morning. We all teamed up to share the cost and the experience to follow.
After an impatient wait at the gates to complete lengthy formalities, we drove in quietly. There was still time for sunset and the sun was hot. The only chance of sighting tigers would be at streams and ponds. We saw spotted deer, sambar, jungle fowl, peacock, drongo, wild boar but no tigers. Leopards are rare sights. The only elephants that we ever saw were rather tame, chained up to trees near the entrance.
The vegetation is primarily sal trees and bamboos. Grassy meadows are ideal resting places in the open plains. The forested hills all around are remote hideouts. The ravines and deep river courses are highways. Bamboo groves offer lots of shade and camouflage.
Sonu turned out to be quite a resourceful person. He and his family were staying at the Kumkum Guest House. There were no available rooms for the night but after a lot of talking he set me up at the manager’s office. They had a spare mattress but they were short of woollen blankets. I didn’t need one since I had my handy and compact sleeping bag. No one here had ever seen a sleeping bag before.
‘Will this keep you warm?’ asked Sonu with some concern.
‘Yes. I can be comfortable in this for upto five degrees,’ I assured him.
‘How do you use this?’, he enquired as I rolled out the sleeping bag and unzipped it.
‘It’s quite simple. You get into it and zip it fully. You can pull the drawstrings tight so that warm air doesn’t easily get out,’ I explained.
They were quite amazed that this would be enough for a cold night in these hills. I think finally they got convinced and gave up their attempts to get me a blanket.
So after a good sleep, I was up and ready by five this morning. Again we were five in the group, not counting Sonu’s one year old son. We were wrapped up nicely in woollen caps, mufflers, jackets, gloves, blankets and some even in duvets. In an open jeep, with cold wind blowing straight at you, it feels like zero degrees. Temperature in the mornings at Bandhavgarh at this time of the year is between five and ten degree Celsius.
Our jeep was second to enter through the park gates. Yesterday evening we had taken routes C and D. Today it was D on the way in and A for the return. So in the early morning light, with the cold of the night still in its intensity, we went peering through the undergrowth.
The jeep moves quickly. As far as human sight would allow, we search every shade and shadow. We enquire every strip of colour for that pattern of golden brown and black. We hear every sound that might betray an elusive presence. We catch every movement of the wind hoping for something more. Every form is matched to familiar ones that we have come to expect.
The closest we came was the call of cheetals nearby. Not a single tiger appeared. We saw pug marks on the dirt roads that our jeep took. Forest workers were busy taking measurements of these marks. The tiger had walked this way last night. So after a total of six hours on the jeep, yesterday and today, I had not seen a single tiger.
The Bengalis who had come in two jeeps said it was a waste of money. The people from Katni blamed the routes taken. In fact, no one had seen a single tiger since yesterday morning. Visitors in about 50 jeeps must have been disappointed. Others blamed their ill luck while the guides and drivers were as always confident that tigers will be spotted in the next ride.
There are an estimated 45 tigers in this park of 448 sq. km. Rumour has it that this is an overstated figure to show false results of success and to continue funding from the Central Government. One visitor estimates only 15 tigers in this park. All tourist brochures will almost guarantee tiger sightings at Bandhavgarh but the truth is less encouraging.
There used to be a time when only foreigners or mostly foreigners were visitors to this park. Today domestic tourism is on the rise and the equation is fairly balanced. Accommodation here is rather expensive. There are no low or mid-range options. Visiting National Parks is clearly not a pursuit for the Indian masses.
Perhaps the disappointment in visiting Bandhavgarh lies in the sole expectation of sighting a tiger. The guides too are focused only on tigers and rarely stop to admire the open grasslands, the scintillating highlights through the forest canopy or the majestic rocky cliffs that tower in the background fort-like. They do not stop to admire in leisure a group of sambars taking a drink at a pond or wait for the flight of a vulture perched high on a dry branch. There is more to Bandhavgarj that just tigers. Those loaded with money can drive up through the forested hills to visit the fort. Others have to be contented with tiger pug marks or tiger scratches on tree trunks. Even less fortunate have to be contented with stories about how the tiger came down the rocky outcrops, crossed the meadows, stopped by a stream for a sip and then disappeared into the green hills deep in the forest.