DURGA PUJA holidays are probably the best time for Bengalis to fulfil the craze for a family vacation. Since I find myself seldom lucky for this, I instead prodded my family on a vacation early last autumn.
Having had enough of sea beaches and hill stations, we decided it should be an adventure tourism site this time where we can catch a glimpse of the big cats in their natural habitat~ a little too much for the ever-cautious Bongs!
After all our surfing on the Internet and enquiries with tour operators, we opted for the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Following a monsoon break, the Park is opened to tourists on 1 October every year and the jungle sarafi usually starts from 15 October onward.
Since there is no direct connection to Bandhavgarh and the nearest airport Jabalpur doesn’t have a direct flight from Kolkata, we booked on a flight to Raipur.
But one can travel up to Jabalpur by direct train from Kolkata and then hire a vehicle to reach the Park. Or change the train at Jabalpur and board another up to Umariya, the nearest railway station to Bandhavgarh.
We were booked on a morning flight to Raipur and hence, we had ample time to reach the Park the same day. To be closer to the wild, we had booked our stay at the White Tiger Forest Lodge of Madhya Pradesh Tourism. The resort is located at Tala on the main road to Bandhavgarh.
The journey from Raipur to Bandhavgarh passes through Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary and several small towns and villages. On our way we spotted some foxes, peacocks and some birds. The condition of the roads that lacked any potholes, made the journey even better.
As we came nearer to Bandhavgarh, the flora and fauna of the surroundings began to change. From tall Sal trees to wild grass, from thin jungles to dense, we could now begin to feel what it actually means to be in the wild. Our craving for adventure got a boost when we saw several high-mounted vehicles and jeeps ferrying groups of wildlife enthusiasts returning from tiger trail.
We were soon at the White Tiger Forest Lodge, our abode for next two days. The moment you step inside the resort surrounded by long trees and greenery, you can literally feel the silence of woods, with only an occasional buzzing of insects and sometimes the sweet sounds of birds.
Dinner at the resort restaurant was another thrill, as we meet several tourists who had their first brush with the wild cat. Add to this that the delight of coming across some Bengalis we too were putting up in the resort. We called it a day a little early, as we were booked for our maiden safari the next morning.
Every day two safaris are conducted starting 6.30 am to 10.30 am and 2.30 pm to 5.30 pm. During October, Banghavgarh can be quite cold at night and early in the morning. Gearing ourselves with cameras and binoculars we made ourselves comfortable in a Gypsy hired for Rs 2,200. Mobile phones are not allowed inside the Park so it’s best to leave them in the room.
The Park has three main gates and another three small gates. Tourists are required to pay an entry fee of Rs 2,700 per Gypsy and another Rs 300 for a mandatory guide. Vehicles’ entry gates are decided randomly and they have to strictly follow the designated route. Ours was the Tala gate, where three tigers were spotted during last afternoon’s safari.
Keeping our fingers crossed and eyes wide open, we began to venture deep into the wild. Moments into the Park, we came across a herd of spotted deer crossing our path. Our driver Ramesh applied the brake at a distance and we crazily went click click click. That’s our first encounter with some wildlife inside the Park.
Next, we came across a bunch of languor jumping from trees and munching on wild fruits. With some pictures taken, we moved ahead along the rough terrain.
Our guide Hemraj, who happens to be a new recruit, was keeping to himself all this while. But all of a sudden, he broke his silence and asked us to look atop a small mountain. It’s the centuries old Bandhavgarh Fort located at an envious position from where the entire Park is visible; but it is closed to visitors.
As we went forward, herd of spotted deer became a regular, so was peacocks, large snakes and birds. Suddenly, the driver stops the Gypsy and asked us to maintain silence, he then he turned back and said that a tiger was probably nearby.
At some distance, we saw several vehicles standing still and every single face turned to the left. Some shutterbugs were going click click, while others were busy on binoculars. We now realised it’s really here.
Soon we could see the strips of a big cat behind the bushes: a Royal Bengal Tiger lazing on the grass. It is said that if you spot a tiger in the wild you are lucky; but if you unable to spot a tiger in Bandhavgarh you are unlucky! Patting us for being lucky in our maiden safari, we were awestruck at the size of the tiger.
Vehicles are not allowed to be stationery for too long, Park authorities conduct regular monitoring so that wild animals are not disturbed by over enthusiastic tourists.
Moving forward a few meters, another vehicle coming from opposite direction asked Ramesh to rush ahead as another tiger was spotted at some distance. And true we spotted another big cat: it was smaller in size then the first one and was asleep.
Photographs taken and posing done, we returned to our cottage around 11 am. Some of our fellow tourists went on the afternoon safari as well, but we opted to stay back to sink into the silence of the wild park.
Next morning, it was time to bid goodbye to the big cats and to Bandhavgarh, with the thirst to come back again sometime in future.
(Debapriya Bhattacharjee is an assistant editor at Newsmen)