Bandhavgarh National Park
Venu, who loves wildlife sanctuaries, had been to Bandhavgarh National Park in 2003 and had loved the place. So he chose it again as our family vacation spot this Christmas holiday. Madhu and I were thrilled. After the fantastic experience at Sasan Gir, we were totally looking forward to a new and different wildlife experience.
Bandhavgarh National Park is in Madhya Pradesh and a good 16 hours away by train. The Kalinga Utkal Express, which runs from Haridwar to Puri, goes through Delhi and stops at Umaria Station, which is about 20kms from the national park. But we couldn’t find tickets on this train. The next best option is Gondwana express, which runs from Delhi to Jabalpur and stops at Katni Junction, which is about 100kms from the park. So we (Mom-in-law, Dad-in-law, Venu, his wife, kids, Madhu and me) boarded Gondwana Express on December 25th at 3:30pm. It was an overnight journey and quite entertaining with the kids on board . We alighted at Katni Junction at 6am the next morning. It’s a small town and the station was completely deserted at that time of the day. Thankfully, the hotel had arranged for a taxi to pick us up and the driver was already waiting at the station when we got there.
It was a 2-hour drive from Katni Junction to our hotel, Nature Heritage Resort at Tala, Bandhavgarh National Park. The roads from Katni were well-maintained and very scenic with lush green fields on either side. When we reached the outskirts of Bandhavgarh National Park, about 8kms from Tala, the roads suddenly deteriorated in quality, forcing the driver to reduce speed considerably. We later learnt that this was kept undeveloped on purpose so that cars don’t zip past, scaring or hurting wildlife that may venture out, especially at night.
The forest area in Bandhavgarh National Park was converted to a National Park in 1968. By this time, poaching and hunting had dwindled down the number of tigers to alarming rates. The tradition of hunting wild animals to show one’s valor has been one of the biggest reasons for the disappearance of India’s national animal. The second reason is, of course, encroachment of habitat as our population increased. The govt was desperate to save the tigers from extinction. At the time of inception, only the Tala range was within the national park limits and this constituted to just about 105 sq.kms. Over time, adjoining ranges of Magdhi, Kalwa, Khitauli and Panpatha were added to the national park, which totalled to almost 700 sq.kms. However, most of the tigers are found mainly in the Tala range as the other ranges still have villages scattered within them. The govt has plans to move these villages out but that’s not an easy task.
Today the tigers face danger more from the villagers than from poachers. The villagers hate the tigers as they tend to prey on their livestock, which is their main source of livelihood. So they have poisoned and killed tigers in the past – terribly sad! The govt is trying to remedy this by paying the villagers for cattle killed by the tigers, but like everything else about the govt, this has not been an efficient process. Non-profit organisations are now stepping in to help out and protect the habitat and the tigers. Bandhavgarh National Park currently has about 55 tigers but has the capacity to accommodate 75. Once the villages are cleared out, the area can easily have up to 100 tigers and this is what the govt and non-profit organisations are working towards.
We reached Nature Heritage Resort around 9am on 26th morning. We were told that our rooms wouldn’t be ready until noon. So we refreshed ourselves at the restrooms next to the reception area and hung around the beautifully landscaped resort while they served us breakfast. Venu immediately started enquiring about booking safaris to the national park. He found out that only 45 jeeps are allowed into the park twice a day, 6:15am and 2:30pm. The resort has 2 jeeps of its own with dedicated drivers. The rest of the jeeps and drivers, required by the resort guests, are hired from the local Jeep Owners’ Association. Most of these are pre-booked well in advance. We hadn’t done any booking . So there was a high chance of not getting any jeep at all. We were horrified by this thought ‘coz there’s nothing to do in Bandhavgarh National Park apart from wildlife viewing at the park. Venu spoke to the owner of the resort, Mr. Rajvardhan Sharma, whom he had met during their last visit here. Mr. Raj promised that he would personally look into the matter and would ensure that we got as many safaris as we needed. And true to his word, he was immediately able to arrange a 2:30pm safari for us that same day .
We stayed 4 nights and 5 days at the resort – 26th thru 30th. During this time we (or at least some of us) went on 8 safaris, the maximum possible . For all 8 safaris, thanks to Mr. Raj, we were given one of the resort’s jeeps along with a dedicated driver, Vinod. 7 of the safaris were within the Tala range, the entrance of which is within walking distance of the resort. One safari, which Madhu and I missed out on, was to the Magdhi range, which is 6kms away. Just like the process at Sasan Gir National Park, each of the jeeps are assigned a guide and a specific route. There are 4 roads within the Tala range – A, B, C, D. Each jeep is given a combination of 2 of these roads as the route to be followed within the park e.g route A D meant that you must enter the park using road A and exit using road D. We got different combinations every day.
Of the 7 safaris in the Tala range, we spotted tigers in 3 . And what sightings they were! Unbelievable! They are such magnificent animals! The colors, the stripes, the gait … everything about them is superb! On our very first safari, a 2-year old tigress, apparently not yet fully grown (although she looked grown enough to us!), crossed the road right in front of our jeep. Vinod, our driver, who has been doing this for almost 10 years now, was able to predict which direction the animal would head and would then position our jeep strategically to give a fantastic view. So on our 2nd safari, when a male tiger crossed the road, we were again out in the front with a really good view. This time the tiger crossed and was smelling the air around him when he suddenly picked up the smell (or maybe sound?) of a wild boar, which was on the other side. To our amazement, he suddenly turned around and galloped to the other side of the road, chasing after the boar. It was quite a sight! In a matter of seconds, the calm cat had suddenly turned into a dangerous predator! I can’t imagine what we humans would do if such an animal chased or charged us.
On our last safari into the park, we spotted a male and a female tiger prancing about close to road A. The guide informed us that the male tiger is afraid of the jeeps and will, therefore, keep his distance. But the female tiger did not seem to have any such qualms. She actually walked towards the road and sat herself down on some grass within a few feet of our jeep. We couldn’t believe our eyes! She sat around for at least 5 minutes, licking her paws and smelling the air. We felt blessed to have had such a close look at her. It was the perfect ending to a fantastic tour of Bandhavgarh National Park.
Apart from tigers, there are plenty of Chitals (Spotted Deer) and Sambar (Brown Large Deer) in the park; we spotted many of them. We also spotted Barking Deer (small, brown deer), wild boars, peacocks, vultures, eagles and Kingfisher birds. The park is said to have quite a few leopards as well but they are hard to spot and we didn’t spot any.
The terrain at Bandhavgarh National Park is very different from that at Sasan Gir. For one, Bandhavgarh National Park is far more green. And it’s hillier too. The hill of Bandhavgarh National Park is smack at the center of the park. Atop this hill is a fort, which is dated to be at least 2000 years old. We didn’t find time to explore it. The Bandharvgarh hill is surrounded by smaller hills and green valleys with grassy meadows between them. It’s all quite beautiful. So even when we didn’t spot tigers in some of our safaris, the ride around the park was totally worth the effort.
The only problem with the safari is that they are 4 hours long. On the first 2 safaris, when we spotted tigers, there had been no time for a break. So when we got back to the resort, each one of us made a desperate dash to the bathrooms . But there is a ‘Center Point’ at the center of the Tala range, which is nothing but a bunch of tea and breakfast stalls put together in a fenced area especially for the safari goers. There are also toilets (basic but clean), which is a huge relief . Vinod brought us to the Center Point during the rest of the safaris and here we happily drank chai and ate hot pakoras fresh from the fryers. On cold mornings, this was a fantastic relief!
One afternoon, the rest of the family, excluding Madhu and me, went on a safari to Magdhi range instead of Tala. There they saw some elephants that were used in the past for safaris into the park. These days this has been banned. So the kids were able to spot some of them being looked after by the forest officers. They were also able to spot a tiger in the grassy meadows of Magdhi. This is very rare as Magdhi range is not known for tiger sightings. Later they visited the memorial of one of Bandhavgarh’s most famous tiger, Charger. He was so named because he would charge all visitors within his sight , although he never harmed anyone. He was on the cover of National Geographic too.
As for Madhu and me, we walked out to the village of Tala, drank chai from a roadside stall and leisurely walked around. We spotted a Kerala Ayurvedic Clinic (Chakrapani Ayurveda Clinic). We ventured in to check its authenticity and the prices. We were happy to see that the place was managed and operated by a bunch of Malayalis who were graduates from the famed Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala. The prices were reasonable too. I opted for an Ayurvedic facial (Rs.300 – 40 minutes) while Madhu got a full body massage (Rs.800 – 1 hour). Both treatments were absolutely heavenly! They were both relaxing and we were grateful for the break from the bumpy, safari rides.
While I waited for Madhu in the main lobby area, the owner of the salon walked in. He sat around for a while and chatted with me. He owns 4 Ayurvedic salons in Bandhavgarh National Park, 3 of which are within resorts in the area. He lives about 100kms from Bandhavgarh and checks in twice a week on the salons. He owns a petrol pump and a chemical factory, which are his main source of livelihood. His interest in Ayurveda made him travel to Kerala where he learned it intensely and also met many stalwarts in the field. Around the same time, Ayurveda grew as a huge tourism attraction and that made him open a salon here in Bandhavgarh National Park, the closest tourist spot to his hometown. He brings therapists directly from the Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala and provides them with boarding in Bandhavgarh. They get to go home when the park closes for the year. He seemed quite passionate about his Ayurveda salons claiming that they were not opened for profit-making reasons. Whatever the case, we totally enjoyed ourselves at the hands of the Kerala therapists!
Overall, we had a fantastic time at Bandhavgarh National Park! The park is wonderful and we are sure to go back there someday. The sightings are supposed to be best in summer when the little streams within the park dry up and the animals are forced to come out to the bigger water spots. Since weather is not perfect in summer (can get up to 44 degrees Celcius), there aren’t many tourists around that time too. So maybe our next trip could be in summer!?