Strathspey Wildlife  
India 2013 - "Land of The Tiger"
Pench Kanha Bandhavgarh Agra Delhi
Heathrow to Pench National Park - Saturday 9th to Monday 11th March 2013

It all began a day before, with a flight down from Inverness with our regular companions, Mark and Ros. After a comfortable night in the splendid Heathrow Premier Inn, it was to begin in earnest with a short trip on the Heathrow Hoppa to Terminal 4, for our evening flight to Mumbai aboard Jet Airways' very comfortable Boeing 777-300. We departed at  9.05 pm for a flight of around 9 hours, and with a 6-hour adjustment we touched down at Mumbai at 11.20 am. Through immigration, then we had couple of hours to await our transfer flight to Nagpur, and an opportunity to change our pounds sterling into rupees. It was only a short flight, a little over an hour, before we finally arrived at our destination, and the starting point for our two-week adventure. We had to repeat the immigration process, (having had to leave the Mumbai terminal, only to re-enter at another for the transfer flight!) and having picked up our luggage we passed through to be met by our Exodus tour leader 'Bali' (Balvinder Singh) We had already met Ian, one of our fellow-travellers, in the queue at Heathrow (betrayed by our Exodus labels!) then Bali did a quick head-count to confirm that all fifteen of us had arrived safely as we introduced ourselves to each other. With the introductory pleasantries done, Bali ushered us to our fleet of four white SUV's where the drivers quickly relieved us of our luggage.


All aboard, with a welcoming cool Coke in each of the door pockets, and we were soon on our way, with a drive of just under three hours to our first destination at Pench. We were soon into the downtown traffic of Nagpur, for this, our introduction to the chaos of Indian traffic - a non-stop crescendo of horns was an invasion on the ears. Lane discipline is non-existent. In places, the lanes are clearly marked, but if a gap is there, it is soon filled - a two-lane road quickly becomes three, and sometimes four, filled with cars, lorries, motorcycles and the familiar tuc-tucs. Motorcycles could be seen with a family aboard - the youngest astride  the petrol tank, dad driving behind, with mum behind him sandwiching another toddler between them! Rickshaws, often a cheap option for a taxi were also evident as ligthweight goods transport. Utter chaos, but this was a breeze compared to the traffic of Delhi we would experience later in the trip.  Our journey to Pench Jungle Camp took just under 3 hours, and on arrival we were greeted by the staff with a warm welcome and a cool drink. Bali soon had us organised, and the local staff were on hand to escort us to our 'tented camp." For those unfamiliar with the term it may well conjure up images of a ring of bell-tents surrounding a camp fire. In truth, the only connection with the word 'tent' is that our accommodation did indeed feature canvas walls, but little else in common. We stepped into a rather luxurious en-suite room, with comfortable beds and a range of traditional solid hardwood furniture that would it would be very unwise to try and move for fear of doing yourself a serious injury. Close examination of the bed-head provided us a little reminder with regard to what all of us would view  as the prime purpose of the trip - that of encountering tigers in the wild, with a tiger pug-mark carefully carved into the headboard. Time for a quick shower and brush-up, before we assembled in the dining room for our evening meal.


We were faced with a broad range of India food, some of it familiar - some of it not! No  worries however, as Bali took up position behind the counter, as indeed he was to do with every meal served during the course of the tour, to translate these exotic dishes into terms we could understand. How spicy? That was a familiar question, but we had little to fear. I don't think any of us found that the food was too hot for our distinctly European (and American!) palates. Though we all had various tales of Indian food in our local restaurants, this was all together a different experience and a delightful introduction to the world of Indian food. That was until we had the dessert!!  And nobody on the trip will forget what was christened by Bali as "spongy balls." I still don't quite know what it actually was, though I would best describe it as a lemon-based Indian cottage-cheese mixture, formed into the aptly-described "spongy balls" served with a 'sauce' which was actually clarified butter. It certainly wasn't to everybody's liking, but I have to say that this was the only culinary disappointment of the trip. Everybody was ready for an early night after the long journey, so Bali kept his evening briefing short in preparation for our first early start.


A 5am start was necessary, as indeed it was for each of our mornings in the parks. The best chance of seeing tigers was as they woke to patrol in the cool early light of dawn.  The parks opened at 6.15 am on the dot, and, as on every one of the subsequent game drives, we were at the gates waiting for them to open. Entry to the parks was strictly controlled. Each jeep had its allocated passenger list, and everybody was required to carry their passport to verify their identity. For this, our first drive, we were partnered up with Ruth and Dave, residents of Northamptonshire, with Dave, like myself, being a contented retired bobby! We had to stop at the park gate to pick up our forest guide, who, along with the added expertise of our driver/guide would listen to every sound of the forest and scutinise the tracks for any sign of tiger activity. Though there was a lot of wildlife in evidence as we entered the park the emphasis during the first two hours was on seeking out the tigers. After that there would be plenty of time to view the birds and mammals, and the endless photo opportunities provided by the langur monkeys. On entry, the various jeeps, each allocated pre-determined routes, dispersed across the available 300 square kilometres that represent the tigers' core area. The guides' senses were tuned to the noise of the early-morning forest, listening out for the alarm calls of the langur monkeys, the birds and the spotted and sambar deer, as well as scanning the tracks for any fresh pug-marks (paw prints) of the tigers. Whilst many of the clues passed us by, they rarely escaped the notice of our guides.However, it soon became clear, that as is the case with much of our rare wildlife, patience is essential, and with only mild disappointment on this our first drive, the tigers proved elusive.

We did see a leopard however, courtesy of our eagle-eyed guide,  but it was too distant and obscure to photograph, as it padded through the dense undergrowth. There was no shortage of other wildlife to keep us entertained. The langur monkeys were everywhere, never failing to entertain. Quite often they would take up very human-like poses, perhaps sitting cross-legged on a log watching the tourists pass by. I often wondered if they thought that we took on monkey-like poses, or indulged in monkey-like behaviour which they found equally amusing. During the (relatively) quieter intervals in seeking out wildlife they were never far away, and never ceased to provide photo opportunities. Birds too brought our jeep to a stop on many an occasion. From small colurful bee-eaters to large birds of prey, they too kept the photographers busy. More often than not, the guides were able to quickly identify them. Failing that, the best tactic was to take the photo whilst you could and leave the identification till later, when you're tucked up in your bed with your bird-book! Spotted deer were also present in some numbers, the stags with their antlers in 'velvet.' The larger Sambar deer were less easy to see, and as we learnt, its alarm call was seemingly a strong indication of the presence of tigers. So our first game drive, lasting around four hours came to an end, and it was back to the camp for breakfast, though this was in fact a brunch. Bali had offered us a full lunch if required, but nobody thought it necessary after such a huge breakfast. We had some free time between breakfast and our next game drive, scheduled for that afternoon. One or two of us (!!??) seized on the opportunity to catch up on lost sleep, and as we passed the peak of the midday heat, some ventured out for a stroll around the camp. But it wasn't too long before we were getting set for our afternoon drive, meeting up at 2.30 to ensure once again that we were in place for the gates opening at 3.15.

The afternoon drives were much quieter, as the heat of the day takes its toll on the park's wildlife. The tigers would be lying low, asleep in the shade, and likely to be sleeping off the labours of hopefully, an early-morning kill. The birds too were noticeably quiet, and it was largely down to the spotted deer and langurs to keep the shutters clicking away. Birds of prey were regular sigthings, usually at rest perched amongst the branches of the trackside trees. Unlike birds of prey in the UK, they tend to sit tight here and provide plenty of photo opportunities, whereas our own domestic birds take flight at the merest sight of a camera! Particularly interesting was a honey buzzard, one of several that we were to see, which offered a perfect pose, whilst the UK holds just a few dozen breeding pairs, and sightings are few. As the sun started to set, it was time to leave the park, which closed promptly at 6.15. Drivers and guides who risked a late exit faced the prospect of being banned for a week or even longer, but the line of jeeps leaving virtually en masse, on the dot, suggested that they had the timing of their exits finely tuned. Frustratingly, as we left the park it was time for the tigers and other predators to become active in the cool of the evening, though the twilight of the early evening was only brief, and had turned to darkness by the time we arrived back at camp. Time then to take a much-awaited shower to rinse away the dust of the parks, and freshen up for dinner. We met up around the camp bonfire , and Bali gave us some indication of what the rest of the tour was likely to offer. Good news also, in that he was able to confirm an extra 4 optional game drives for which most of the group had taken up the offer. Though mostly in the afternoon, we couldn't afford to miss one opportunity of sighting tigers.


A cool beer went down particularly well, then it was time to retire to the dining room, where Bali once again took up his position behind the counter to guide us through the myriad of food on offer. This was to become a regular feature of the tour. Bali would never sit down to his own meal until each and every one of us had settled, and even then had to be told to at times!! But when Bali did receive his meal, it always came with extra chilis, and a customised side-dish, which undoubtedly was more suited to his Asiatic taste!  Even during the meals I became aware of Bali in brief but constant exchanges with the local staff. I hadn't the foggiest what he was saying, but it was clear that he was keeping the serving staff on their toes, ensuring that anything requested, or drinks ordered, were promptly delivered. The food, as on the previous evening was excellent, and it wasn't too long after finishing that we all turned in for an early night, looking forward (??) to our 5.15 am reveille, and the prospect of another early-morning game drive. And so the routine began again, with early-morning tea and biscuits to kick-start the day's activities. Bali allocated our jeeps, and Bali was aboard with us today, and Ros and Mark. During the early part of the drive we sensed that we got really close to a tiger this morning. There were lots of alarm calls, and the guides seemed sure that we were very close. 4 or 5 jeeps joined us as their guides had been attracted by the activity. They organised themselves, and fanned out along the track. All eyes were peeled, straining to look through the dense undergrowth. We were certain they were there, but once again, they proved elusive to everybody. As the early chill of the morning gave way to the heat, and with no further potential contacts, we settled down to concentrate on the other mammals and birds. The usual subjects were evident once again, with the addition of a jackal on early-morning patrol. Amongst the birds this morning we had one bird of prey that even the non-birdwatchers could identify....a buzzard, with white eyes? Though the tigers were still eluding us, the wealth of wildlife in the park kept us occupied. We remained confident that it was only a matter time!And so it was back to camp for today's big breakfast - fruit juice to sart, with a wide choice of eggs, omelettes - plain, cheese, masala? Fried chipattis,lentil and potato dahl, vegetable cutlets, toast and marmalade, and plenty of tea and coffee to wash it down! Time for this particular guy to catch up on a bit of sleep, with the customary excuse ..."Mad dogs and Englishman ......"

Once refreshed, Nancy and I went for a stroll around the camp, joining Mark and Ros, and Paul and Gaynor who were busy photographing the butterflies busily hopping along the shrubs beside the pathways. We all scurried around, trying to identify one that would actually settle for a second for a photo. I think we all managed - eventually - to pin one or two down! That afternoon, we were down for our first optional game-drive, and our last at Pench (at a cost of 1,750 rupees). Once again we were with Mark and Ros, and as we entered, all the usual subjects were active, save for the tigers. After a two-hour drive we returned to the camp. David and Ruth had already arrived back, amidst much excitement. They had sighted their first tigers! Dave showed us his photographs, and Mark managed to spit out the words, "We're very pleased for you ......!!" We all had a good laugh, but yes, of course we were, and Dave had captured some images which come the end of the tour, any of us would have been very happy to return with. I suggested that he could go home now, but I think the journey to Delhi would have presented too much of a challenge, so he and Ruth elected to stay on! As the remainder of the party arrived back it transpired that everybody else had seen a tiger. The four of us being the only jeep out of the four that would be leaving Pench without a sighting. Nancy started to feel frustrated, but I encouraged her, as did Bali and everyone else, that there was still plenty of time left, and that our fortunes would surely change. We felt further encouraged by Bali's assurance that as we moved on into Kahna, chances would improve, and again, as we arrived at Bandhavgarh. We hoped he was right! After dinner, the 4 jeep drivers came to accept their tips for their services during the previous three days,and so again, it was an early night in preparation for our departure to Kanha.
Next stop - Kanha