Wednesday 18th November 2015

Four Tigers and a Leopard appear…at least to some

Following our move from Kanha to Pench, it was not long before our rather slow rate of wildlife sightings picked up somewhat, even if only temporarily. On our first morning Gypsy ride, I was treated to a distant but splendid sighting of a large tigress loping along a grassy ridge, and shortly after followed by two half-grown cubs. Sadly Rosemary was unable to latch onto these and missed the whole scene, which I found sad as for me this was one of the more impressive viewings of a tiger I have enjoyed to date.

The tigress seemed to glow against the brownish background

The location was good, with a long view across the lake at “Centre Point” in the park, and the open grassland at the far side allowed for clear vistas, and the short grass meant that the tigers could not hide. The animals seemed to positively glow against the dry grass and grey-green bushes behind. There were other vehicles around us, but for once there was little jostling and revving, perhaps because they were far away and therefore everyone had the same chance to see (or not to see) them.

Pench was the location for that wonderful BBC documentary called “Spy in the Jungle”, where remote-controlled cameras allowed for filming of tigers and other wildlife at far closer range than would otherwise have been possible, and I shall certainly view that programme again with renewed interest now that I have been here. The forest is much less dense than at Bandhavgarh or Kanha, permitting easier sightings, and the larger bodies of water attract greater numbers of birds.

Having said these positive things, the modern type of tiger tourism just is not my thing. Every morning one rolls out of bed at 04.15, piles on several layers of clothing as even this far south the morning Gypsy rides are a chilly experience, gulps down a hot cup of masala chai, and then climbs up onto the game-viewing seats of the vehicle, and then bumps and swerves along the rough roads to the park entrance, where passports have to be shown, a guide is picked up, and into the park one drives. There then follows a four-hour apparently rather aimless drive around on the jungle tracks in a desperate quest for a tiger sighting.

After four days of this sort of bumping along the jungle tracks and seeing remarkably little, I for one was becoming a little desperate. We did have one reasonable tiger sighting, this time of a tigress in the long grass some distance away to our left. Manoj, our Rural Traveller guide, managed to get some quite reasonable long-distance photographs using Rosemary’s new Canon SX60 camera, with its 60X zoom, which caused me some frustration, as my new Canon SX530 did not produce anything like as sharp images.

The Canon SX530 did not seem to be able to produce a really sharp image of the tigress

Perhaps the most amusing mammalian encounter we experienced at Pench involved a somewhat smaller creature than the tigers and the other large mammals we had really come to see. Last year, while on our Naturetrek tour of Bhutan, north-eastern India and the Sundarbans, I had developed a particular liking for a biscuit brand called Dream Creams. This year, I had only managed to locate them at one shop, and I was saving my second and last packet for a celebration in case we spotted a leopard or some other target species. However, when I returned one evening to the bedroom, where I had left my day pack on the bed, I found to my horror that there was a large hole in the pack, and shreds of white plastic wrapping were strewn across the bed. A mouse with clearly an advanced sense of taste had gnawed its way into my rucksack, and bitten through the plastic in order to get at the Dream Creams, spurning two other brands of biscuit, Marie and Marie Light, in its quest for the best!

Dream Creams are any biscuit-lover’s dream!

But a mouse had got at them before me!!

And so our tour of three of central India’s national parks ended, and after spotting my first ever Wolves, two that ran across the road in front of our vehicle while we were still in the forested area, we had to bid our farewells to Manoj, who had a marathon bus and rail journey ahead of him, first to Nagpur, then to Delhi and finally on to Ramnagar, where his wedding awaits him. We wished him every happiness in this next stage of his life. His replacement, Yogi, had arrived the night before, and he, Rosemary and I then continued our journey in a rather swift Suzuki Swift towards the Nagzira/Nagjira Tiger Reserve, which has proved to be more to our liking in many ways than the fully fledged national parks.

Rosemary bidding Manoj farewell in front of a car that seemed to be already decorated for his wedding!

Nagzira was only declared a tiger reserve comparatively recently, and does not attract much international tourism. Consequently, the infrastructure is less sophisticated, and our first Gypsy turned out to be a positive wreck, having clearly rolled over in the past, leaving a dented and broken roof bar and bodywork that was riddled with holes. One advantage of this rattletrap of a vehicle was that it could not charge along the bumpy forest tracks as fast as a more modern Gypsy would have allowed.

Our accommodation in Nagjira has proved to be a complicated saga in itself. We were initially supposed to stay for one night in a Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation guesthouse outside the park, and a twin-bedded room had been booked, but a large double bed awaited us. Having shared my bed in Pench with a four-legged mouse with a taste for Dream Creams, I was anxious to regain my independence, and twin beds were a prerequisite if I were to contemplate sharing a room with another mammal, in this case, a Fox! The staff were unwilling to make the necessary adjustments, and consequently our plans were changed, and we left in the hope of finding netter facilities inside the park.

We arrived after dark, and after some champion negotiating by Yogi, we ended up being spirited away from the main tourism complex to a secluded Forest Rest House a couple of kilometres away. We checked in here, and Yogi returned later with some of our normal evening fare, rice, dhal and curried vegetables. The one item that was missing was our daily ration of Kingfisher beer, but we made some effort at finding an alternative, using a bottle of Smirnoff “garam pani” (hot water, i.e. vodka). The main obstacle was the lack of a mixer such as juice or Sprite. Nothing daunted, a substitute concoction was created, using an orange-flavoured Tesco Vitamin C tablet, some juice squeezed out of a very pip-ridden and not very flavoursome green orange, and water, the unpleasantness of which was soon deadened by the vodka.

Rarely has vodka been mixed with a Tesco Vitamin C tablet!

The following morning, our local guide Prakash took us on one of our more successful Gypsy rides to date. Shortly after leaving the rest house, we found ourselves on a track that showed signs of tiger, pugmarks being clearly visible in the dust. And it was not long before a tigress emerged from the roadside vegetation, and we were able to follow her for a short while, photography being limited by the pre-dawn darkness. This sighting lifted our spirits (more than the previous evening’s vodka had), and we found ourselves feeling more and more positive about this attractive park, with its lower-key atmosphere than the more regimented national parks we had previously experienced.

This tigress appeared out of the undergrowth and padded along the track in front of us

However, our glowing feelings were dealt a heavy blow when we returned to the tourism complex for breakfast. The canteen in which we were supposed to enjoy our celebratory “half-fried” eggs (Indian term for sunnyside up!) was a dingier dive than I had endured for many years. The cooking surface was caked with gunge, detritus littered the floor, filthy hands had been smeared across the walls, and cloths that were no doubt used to “clean” the tables had to be seen to be believed. The toilet facilities were worse still; one of the two washbasins was broken open and out of action, and the Indian-style pit toilets resembled a black hole of Calcutta. Yogi came to our rescue, commandeering the kitchen and preparing our breakfasts himself, doing his best to ensure that at least the utensils he used were of a reasonable cleanliness. It is sad indeed that such a potentially attractive park should be unable to provide better catering facilities, and I shall be writing to the authorities to request action.

Surely Nagjira tiger reserve deserves a better restaurant than this

Our disappointments were not over, as after returning to the comparative comfort of our secluded resthouse, and just having settled down to work on our photos, we were suddenly informed that a Forest Department official would be requiring our accommodation for his afternoon siesta, and we were summarily turfed out. We spent the lunchbreak on a bench in the shade of a splendid spreading tree looking out over a lake, enjoying the cooling breeze and nursing our indignation at our ejection. We were later transported to our current, rather less attractive abode close to the offending restaurant, which luckily we have not had to endure again as Yogi has excelled himself in preparing our food himself and delivering it directly to our rooms.

The rest house we were turfed out of

That afternoon turned out to be one of the wildlife highlights of our journey so far. On our way back homewards, Prakash and Yogi simultaneously exclaimed “Leopard!”, and at that moment a leopard appeared to spring out of a ditch right by the front wheel of the Gypsy. It shot through the roadside grass and disappeared into the jungle. However, it did not go far, and we almost immediately relocated it, sitting in the thick undergrowth, scowling at us. It eventually lay down and afforded unbelievable views, and I was able to obtain a number of reasonable photographs, although most are a little fuzzy due to the gathering darkness. I could even see the reflection of my camera’s red-eye reduction lamp glowing in its eyes as I pressed the shutter. Rosemary was tragically unable to spot it once it had lain down, and no amount of explaining could help her to locate it. A cataract operation looms for her, perhaps.

The Leopard was looking straight at us from only 30 feet away

To look into a Leopard’s eyes was quite an experience

The next three Gypsy safaris did not prove to be quite so productive, but overall we were very pleased to have come to this tiger reserve, and it was refreshing to be the only western tourists around. Our driver Bioosh and our excellent local guide Prakash did a fabulous job in looking after us, as did Yogi, and we ended our tour of central Indian parks with a warm feeling of satisfaction. We are now in Nagpur, from where we are due to fly tomorrow to Ahmedabad, where the Gujarati leg of our Great Indian Adventure awaits us.

The Nagjira team: Yogi, Rosemary, Prakash and Bioosh

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