“ Was that an alarm call ? “
All of us froze as our jeep crunched softly to a halt on the slightly damp trail.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, there was another call. From our left. A langur call. One of the more dependable guys sounding an alarm.
We waited. Silent amidst the forest sounds. The cicadas continued their singing incessantly. A particularly noisy lapwing cackled away in the meadows behind us. We could faintly hear peacock cries in the distance. In the middle of all these sounds, the forest felt deathly quiet. Still. Tense.
In the jeep, we were alert. We gripped our cameras a little tighter. Bodies tensed. Eyes scanned the trees trying to spot any movement, any play of the shadows indicating movement.
Another langur call !! This time a little further away.
A spotted deer looked up in alarm to its left and darted in to the forest away from the alarm calls.
The message was clear.
A tiger was on the move !!!
Shhh…..There’s a tyger lurking around somewhere……
I was finally in Bandhavgarh.
The last few months, the tiger sightings here had simply shot through the roof. Friends used to come back with some mind-blowing lines – ‘We did seven safaris and had 23 sightings, 11 different tigers”…” Three days, 21 sightings, 14 different tigers”.
After our Kenya trip last year, I had mainly done birding trips. I was itching to photograph some of the larger cats which further intensified after two really disastrous trips, one to Jhalana in Jaipur for the leopards and the other to Bhadra in Karnataka ( to be fair, I went to Bhadra with very low expectations ).
These reports from Bandhavgarh made one thing very clear. I had to go there.
Easier said than done. April and May were booked out. I just wasn’t getting a date. Finally I got a couple of days in June, dangerously close to the monsoons, but I thought it was worth the risk. Not that I had much of an option.
And, I was finally in Bandhavgarh.
It was an anxious jeep that made its way to the gate early in the morning. Day was just breaking as we started and through the journey we looked around us in alarm.
In the weeks leading to the trip, I was keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast. There was no cause for worry. There was absolutely no forecast of any pre monsoon showers.
We were further reassured when, as we got off the plane at Jabalpur we were greeted by a seriously strong blast of heat. 43 deg outside.
Our driver scoffed at my queries about rain.
One hour later it started to rain.
A light but persistent drizzle. Which continued through the rest of the drive.
“ If it doesn’t rain through the night, then it will be really hot and humid and the tigers will definitely come out” were the words we heard when we reached Bagh Tola where we were staying.
Not the most calming of statements but then there really wasn’t much we could do but pray.
It stopped raining around midnight, but as we made our way to the Magadhi zone we were scheduled to enter, all around us the impact was surprisingly heavy. A few trees had uprooted, branches had fallen. The rainfall here was definitely much more than the light drizzle we had experienced.
Which would mean only one thing – the chances of any animal coming out of the dense forests into the open would be low.
As expected, most of the morning was a frustrating one. We saw a few birds, including the pretty little Indian Pitta but other than that….nada.
I think, the serpent eagle is the first bird I have seen in most of my safaris. But this time, it was sitting on the ground and the background gelled beautifully with its lovely browns
A pretty lil bird, is the Indian Pitta ! I saw it with a catch but sadly the background was very distracting. I got this beauty with a nice background but there was this twig in front…but I shall still take this one 🙂
Not even any alarm calls. We met other jeeps to exchange information which actually was precious little. Trained elephants along with their mahouts do a daily round of the jungles to check on the tigresses and their cubs. Our anxious queries to them received a bored shake of a head.
It was hot. It was extremely humid. But, obviously the overnight showers would have left enough puddles inside the forests for the animals to drink water from and few would want to venture out in this heat.
And then we took a turn to see a few jeeps parked with reasonably dense undergrowth on either side.
Yay !! Parked vehicles in a jungle could mean only one thing !
As we eased to a halt, we could see, through the undergrowth…stripes !!!
Dotty and her three cubs !
Apparently, she had had a kill the previous evening. A sambar.
For a fully grown mother and her sub adult cubs, a sambar would last around a day and a half. Which would mean that they will remain in the vicinity till the kill is completely disposed off.
We tried to squeeze in a few shots. Nothing great. The undergrowth was just too dense and the tigers were clearly too full and in no mood to go anywhere.
But, we knew what we had to do in the afternoon safari. Just park ourselves here. The tigers will definitely move to their kill to keep feeding themselves.
Dotty’s cub. It was lying in deep in the undergrowth and one of those moments when I got him with too many distractions in the foreground
In a safari, in any safari, anywhere in the world there are two critical aspects. One, pure luck. And the second, a good naturalist accompanying you who understands animal behavior very well.
On top of these two, we were additionally blessed to have with us, two naturalists, Zian and Akshay, who were also into photography ! Their understanding of what would be the right position to get a good shot, what angle would be best on top of knowing what the tiger would do was invaluable in us being in the best possible positions.
While most of the jeeps bunched around where the animals lay, we parked ourselves, a little further away, in between two separate thickets – one where the family was lying and the other where the kill was. There was a small clearing between these two thickets and the logic was that the tigers will have to pass through this gap and that will give us a wonderful opportunity to get clean shots, with no disturbing background. Being close to where they were lying won’t give us good photo opportunities.
First, one cub emerged after having its fill of the kill. Timid, a little intimidated with all the vehicles around it. A little anxious and keen to cover the clearing quickly and get to the safety of the thickets.
One of the cubs was said to be quite a meek one, one that always stuck with the mother. This could be him….he comes after a mini feast, the blood still sticking to his whiskers
Then, the mother, Dotty, from the opposite side. And the difference was evident. Confident. Fearless. Emerging from the undergrowth onto the main track instead of just crossing the clearing, walking along the long line of jeeps. It sauntered past our jeep – just ten feet away from us !
This was a lovely moment, indeed….calm, confident, unafraid, Dotty strode out
And then the second cub makes his appearance. A lot more confident than the first cub, but still choosing to come out of the thickets at the clearing and not on to the main path.
And, I realized the one disadvantage I had. I was trying out my newly acquired 600 mm prime lens and the tigers were far too close for this lens. I got some lovely headshots but they were just too close for a good head on shot, especially of Dotty as she walked down the track.
No complaints, though. I was thoroughly enjoying the lens.
The most – absolutely the most – exhilarating part of a safari is the chase.
Personally, I enjoy it far more than an actual sighting. Of course, one needs a good sighting now and then, to make the whole trip worthwhile but it’s the chase that truly gets your pulse racing, that gives you a glimpse of how life would be inside those dense forests, how precarious life is for the prey and how they are living a life of constant, perpetual vigil.
This morning, we were doing all the chasing. Dotty had left her cubs – they were close to a year in age and no longer required her to be around all the time – and had gone off on a long stroll.
We followed her pug marks for a long time as she patrolled her territory. Tigers tend to patrol and mark their territory a lot more after the rains. Just in case their scent markings have got erased in the rains.
Her tracks left the main trail, went into the forest, came out from another place but despite us driving all over her territory we could not get any clear sign of her whereabouts. Most importantly, no alarm calls. She must have decided to rest somewhere.
We decided to leave her and go off in search of the other tigress nearby. It was a lovely part of the forest. Meadows on one side, forests on the other and a little further down, the tree line thinned out over an undulating landscape with knee length grass that swayed gently in the breeze. Would be just perfect to sight a tiger in this lovely landscape.
Alarm calls to our left. Alarm calls to our right. Deer darting around in alarm. We waited, not being able to get a precise idea about the direction in which the tiger could be moving in.
The calls are dying.
Then another call was heard to our far right. It sounded a little further away. We raced over to that side, hands tightly gripping the gear and available bars for support, our butts bouncing on the seats as the jeep sped over the bumpy track.
Fresh pug marks !
But, going into another thick forest cover. She had passed through some lovely open spaces while we were trying to figure out which direction she was headed to.
Tough luck. But, that’s how it often works.
You need bucketloads of it. And then some.
Its easy to get frustrated, waiting at a spot and then decide to run off elsewhere, the notion of constant movement giving you the false confidence of a higher chance of a sighting. Doesn’t work that way.
You just need to trust the naturalist or the guide with you and wait. Of course, that long wait could also be in vain, but trusting them has definitely better chances of success.
We had been waiting next to the water body ( man made, sadly 🙂 ) for more than an hour. Or maybe longer. The logic was simple. It was extremely hot. And humid. The tigers, definitely the cubs since Dotty was away wandering, would have had their fill at the kill and would love to soak themselves in the water for some respite from the heat.
So far, nothing. Not a sign. Many vehicles came, waited and then sped off. We spent time taking pics of some unworried langurs that had come to the water body for a drink.
The langurs didn’t seem to be overly concerned about any danger. We clearly had a long wait ahead of us
And then we heard a distant alarm call.
Not many had noticed it. We immediately started our jeep and went off in that direction. Just a couple of other jeeps also joined us.
Would we be lucky now ? Or would it be another chase in vain ?
You could come across a tiger resting in clear view.
You could wait for a tiger to get up from its place of rest in a thicket and step out.
But there’s nothing to beat sighting a tiger when you are chasing it using the alarm calls as your guide.
Its fascinating to peer through the thick growth around you trying to see if you can detect any movement and then finally catching a glimpse of those elusive stripes in between the trees and the bushes. Or did you ? The light is constantly playing its tricks with the shadows and we wonder if we did really see that quick glimpse of those stripes or was it our overworked imagination at play ?
Quiet. Utterly noiseless. The stripes glide through the bushes. We briefly admire the natural camouflage this magnificent beast is gifted with.
And then, that heart-stopping moment when we can see it clearly between the trees. The sunlight throwing some glorious effects all around. That rich, golden yellow skin. Glowing. The focused look in its eyes as it takes in the surroundings. That open mouth as it breathes heavily.
That first glimpse !
A slightly cleared view as it comes out of its cover
It was one of the cubs. One confident cub this one was. Not at all intimidated by the long line of jeeps around it and he strode confidently to the pool ahead.
Quite confident for a cub. It kept a wary eye on the line of jeeps but otherwise seemed unperturbed
We squeezed in a few quick shots as it moved through the trees and then sped away leaving the other jeeps behind. We needed to get into a good position to see the cub emerge from the tree line and make his way across the open space to the pool.
I briefly wonder if I should change my lens to a 200-500 which would give me greater flexibility if he does come too close. I give up the idea, unsure if I have those few minutes that would be required to change my lens ( Oh for that second camera body !!! )
Perfect position !
He makes an appearance. And once again, I realize the limitations of having a monster lens when this glorious animal is so close.
Sigh…a 600 prime has its limitations when the animal gets so close but one does get lovely headshots
He reached the pool. Studied the pool carefully. Decided where to get in and then settled in with what I liked to imagine was a luxurious sigh of contentment.
The blessed saucer 🙂
Now, there’s this thing about wildlife photography. There are numerous unwritten rules. Many of them. A tiger in a pool is a wonderful sighting, presents oh so lovely opportunities to take some unforgettable images. But.
But, the pool has to be a natural one. Not a man made one with a cemented surface that is visible. Across all forests, the forest departments build what is commonly called as saucers which the department fills with water in the hot summer days. Cemented sides. Nah, they won’t do.
The department of course, does it for the animals but we selfish photographers love to gripe on why they couldn’t have got a little creative and tried to at least hide the cement instead of painting it a bright white J.
I wasn’t too bothered. I clicked away.
Time to head back….this one would definitely grow up to be one massive, handsome beast…
And then stepped over and vanished.
I simply cannot overstate the importance of having a good naturalist with you.
We were back at the saucer. The afternoon sun was harsh and a usual position which could give us the best line of sight to the saucer would have the sun staring directly into our camera. Far from ideal.
“Lets position ourselves there, under that tree”.
“ But this position gives a better view of the water, doesn’t it ?”
“ Yes, but the other cub is bound to join in, and we saw where it is resting, it will come from there and we will be perfectly positioned to watch it approach from that position. The sun will help us”
Ten on Ten.
Instead of having the sun facing us, we could get some neat shots of the sun hitting the cubs from one side, giving us some lovely shots.
Exactly as our naturalists, Zian and Akshay said, soon the second cub appeared from the opposite side, the sun lighting him up brilliantly
It hovered around for a while before deciding that the water was too tempting…that wall and the dark background adds much drama to the image, I felt
After a while, the first cub decides its time to head back for a bite, taking one last look at the setting sun and giving me another lovely opportunity
Our last safari.
It had to be a short one since we had to leave for the airport which was a good three hour drive. We wanted to get into the park early.
But, the best laid plans of men and mice and all that. Our guide from the Forest Department turned up late. Really late. We were almost the last jeep to get into the park.
Our plan was to avoid the area of ole Dotty and her family and spend time looking for some male tigers. There was news that a few males were on the move, marking their territory.
We avoided the usual turn that takes us to Dotty’s territory. And, in just a few minutes as we took a turn , changed gears to go up an incline and we noticed a large number of jeeps parked on the track.
We craned our necks to see where the tiger was, for nothing else will keep so many jeeps stationary.
And, right there, bang on the track was one of the most gorgeous male tigers sitting. By the way, a male tiger can weigh almost 100 kgs more than the female. And this one was a true specimen that clearly showed its additional weight very powerfully.
A huge beast, sitting nonchalantly with his back to all of us. Least bothered to even turn around to check on us once in a while. Not that it would have been easy for him to do that…he had one of the thickest necks I have ever seen.
Look at that THICK neck !!
We were amongst the last vehicles to reach the spot and as a result we struggled to get a good view. Our naturalist informed us that the tiger will get up and move to his left up an incline and if he did that, the other jeeps will completely obstruct the view. And right now, his back was to us so in that too didn’t really give us a good photo op. Guess just enjoy looking at the magnificence of the animal.
We were so close that a 600 was just completely useless. I quickly changed my lens to a 200-500. Just in case, I get a chance.
And then, the Gods smiled at us.
The tiger lumbered up and instead of turning left, it decided that there was a tree to its right that needed to be sprayed. As it moved, the jeeps ahead of us, roared in front to get a good view of the tiger in the assumption that the tiger might continue down that path beyond the trees.
We eased our vehicle into their vacated slot. Prime position.
The tiger went up to the tree, sprayed the tree liberally, scratched his neck on the tree ( that too leaves scent markings ), turned around to look at all of us, turned around to look straight into the sun. Perfect light.
We were close. Real close. Even at 200 mm I could only get such tight shots
Brilliantly lit up by the morning sun…would have been fantastic if I could have got a full body image
And all this so close that even at 200 mm I was struggling to get its entire body into the frame !!! As he finally stopped lavishing his attention on the tree and proceeded to go up the incline to our left ( exactly as our naturalist predicted J ) I just put down my camera and stared at it. What an animal !! And it was just three or four feet away from our vehicle !!
It found a gap between the vehicles, calmly threaded his way through that gap and went and once again sat down for a few minutes before deciding to up into the denser parts of the forest.
That was truly exhilarating.
“Bandhav” meaning brother. “Garh” meaning a fort. Legend has it that Rama built the fort inside the forests here and gifted it to his brother for him to keep an eye on Lanka.
While multiple dynasties have ruled over the area, once the Baghels got their second chance to rule the area, the story takes an interesting turn. In the year 1617 AD, the Baghels decided to move their capital to Rewa. Once the royal family moved, the fort was not as frequently inhabited and the nearby villages also started moving out. As the human population decreased the forest flourished.
Its quite a beautiful forest. I had imagined it to be a very dry forest and was quite pleasantly surprised. Sal along with mixed deciduous forests with the occasional small meadow thrown in, made some parts look really lovely.
Of course, there are lots of other subjects for your camera. We once had a quick glimpse of a sloth bear with two cubs scurrying across the path ahead into the forests. I could get some lovely shots of the Indian Golden Jackal as it headed home after what I imagined was a hard days work.
The Indian Golden Jackal was hurrying back after a long day when we saw it….we waited for it to come a little close and with a wide open background, got some lovely shots
On our way back, that last morning, we saw this one a little away in between the trees, studying us
The last morning, we saw a glimpse of a jungle cat and stayed put, trying to get a better look and, yet again, patience and perseverance paid off !
Gotcha !!! After missing quite a few shots, I nailed this one
We really don’t give them any privacy 😦
And, of course there were the birds. The Pitta was to be seen quite frequently. On the first day, when we were rushing to see Dotty and her cubs, we saw a crested hawk rather close by in the water and we got some nice pics. But, Bandhavgarh is most famous for its tigers.
This crested hawk eagle stayed put for a long time
The wire tailed swallow, perched conveniently close to one of our breakfast halt points
We were a trifle unlucky that one of the zones that was really rocking, the Khatauli zone was closed since wild elephants from the nearby jungles of Chhatisgarh had wandered into that zone. There are no wild elephants usually in these parts and as a safety measure, the department had shut it down.
How we reached the place
We flew into Jabalpur, which is the nearest airport and then drove down to Bandhavgarh. Would take a max of three hours and the roads are excellent. The place you stay will usually arrange for a pick up and drop. Charges : Rs. 5000-6000
Where did we stay ?
Bagh Tola. (http://www.baghtola.com )
What a lovely place !! Beautiful tented acco, really comfortable and excellently managed with very friendly and attentive staff. But a place to stay really has to be beyond just a place to stay. We loved returning to the resort and spending time at the brilliantly stocked library. Leafing through various books about the wildlife of India and overseas, I read about fascinating stories of tigers, leopards and other animals. I would specifically recommend a wonderful book on the African wildlife, where the watercolours in the book are simply mind-blowing. And another book called, I think, The Hunters.
And, as if these books were not enough, we had a nice time after each safari chatting up with Zian and Akshay who accompanied us on all our drives and without whom we definitely would’nt have got into the best positions for many of my pics.
All in all…all the challenges notwithstanding, a really lovely trip. Returned with a hard drive full of pictures that I will take ages to work on and some lovely memories.
I just can’t wait to get back.