After our safaris in Africa, it was always a dream to see a tiger in the wild. (Lions, and tigers and bears…oh my! This was the last box to tick!) After a bit of research we decided we would visit Kahna National Park to try our luck at a wild tiger. This trip would take us pretty much to the very centre of the country, with Jabalpur being the closest city and our destination by train from Agra. After a ridiculous train ride (6 hours late, 4 hours slow, and the original trip scheduled to be 11 hours; equating to a 21-hour trip arriving into Jabalpur at 9pm rather then 7am) we took a 3-hour taxi to Kahna National Park and the government run Baghira Log Huts and Hostel. We chose this place because it’s the only place (being government run) that is inside the outer gate to the park. Aside from having some of the most inhospitable service we’ve encountered in India (government run?), the dorm was decent and the food (which was included) was good (but we wouldn‘t recommend it!).
Following our first (and very chilly) night in the hostel, we met a very nice Belgium man, who
was checking out, who gave us the “ins and outs” of the place. He basically said if we want anything (food, tea, drinks, safari jeep, hot water, toilet paper, extra blanket, anything…) we had to ask and then repeatedly confirm to insure it happened; otherwise all you’d be doing is sitting around with nothing to do and nothing to eat…not what you want to be doing after such an epic train trip! I decided to call it “DIY Safari” and started to figure things out.
Fortunately there was a German photographer/conservationist who was staying in the area (outside the park) and was doing safaris twice a day and was looking for people to share the costs. The fees for the park were pretty hilarious too… you don’t pay per person, you pay for the jeep, driver and “guide” (these “guides” ranged from energetic wildlife enthusiasts who told you every tree, bird, animal and sound to guys who slept and texted their friends on their cell phone and couldn’t care less if a tiger was slashing the tires.) Each jeep is meant to hold 6 guests and the driver and guide. For Indian visitors the total cost was 850 Rs
Our first glimps...
(about $20) and they typically had about 10 people packed into their jeeps, whereas for foreign visitors the total cost was 3500 Rs (about $85) and there was no “mixing” of Indians and foreigners, otherwise the jeep would be charged the foreigner fee, which would make no sense for Indian tourists. Some might call this “racial segregation”, but I’ll let you decide. As there were very few foreign tourists around, we were lucky to hook up with this German guy, Jorg, who we ended up doing three safaris with.
The first safari was in the afternoon of our first day and although we saw a fair number of the prey animals, learnt about the park, waited for “possible tigers” to come out from the tall grass and had a beautiful sunset, we saw no tigers.
The following day we did an early morning safari, meeting up with Jorg at 6am and going though the inside gate when it opened at 6:30. The morning was cold and misty, but we were hopeful. We had the same driver as the previous day, Ravi, who seemed switched on and was able to respond to the barking orders of our German friend,
but our guide was new to us and unfortunately preferred looking for tigers with his eyes closed, snoring periodically. Indian safaris are a far cry from their African counterparts or from similar wildlife trips back at home. This was more like rally-car meets the cheer team meets Americas Funniest Videos meets the wild. Picture overcrowded jeeps, with excessively bundled Indians (to their credit it was pretty cold), flying down the dirt road looking for a tiger, blazing past (and scaring) all other wildlife, with camcorders continuously rolling and shouting at each other if they think they’ve spotted something (also usually scarring whatever they thought they saw). It’s a gong-show! So much for escaping the craziness and chilling out in nature! Maybe this place should be marketed as “Indian Safari“, rather then “Tiger Safari” because it was pretty entertaining. As far as the tigers go though, unfortunately there aren’t many other spots in this world left to see tigers in the wild so this was going to have to do.
After four hours of driving around (much slower then the other jeeps) and taking in some of the other animals - massive Indian bison, barasingha deer, chital deer, samba deer,
spotted deer, barking deer, monkeys and birds of all different shapes and sizes - we heard the warning calls of the deer and hoped a tiger would make an appearance. We parked our jeep on the side of the dirt track to wait and this obviously sparked interest in other jeeps who also parked around us. After a few minutes we heard a roar and our heart-rate picked up. Then slowly (regardless of the numbers of jeeps now parked on the road) a beautiful, pregnant, full grown Royal Bengal tigress graced us with her presence. It was amazing! Now this was obviously an Indian tiger because it didn’t seem to mind the chaos it was creating in the other jeeps around us, and as other drivers raced in with plumes of dust chasing them, our driver “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ravi” held his ground and continued to position our jeep as best as possible to watch the big cat.
A pregnant tiger is always a special thing to see because it symbolises hope for this rapidly declining species. With only about 3000 tigers left in the world, about 1000 of which live in India (these numbers all depend who you
Waiting to enter
The gong-show starts outside the gate.
believe as there is a lot of propaganda surrounding the government’s conservation success) each pregnant tigress is of incredible importance. Jorg suggests that one tiger is poached every day in India, with its bones being the primary prize as they are highly sought in Chinese medicine. In most areas wardens and rangers don’t have guns, making it impossible to stop or deter poachers and villagers are offered three times their yearly income to track a tiger for poachers and by the time a tiger is killed, “dismantled”, transported and sold, the black market stands to make about $100,000 per tiger. A sad reality for these beautiful animals.
The pregnant tigress put on a good show for us as she crossed the dirt track in front of us and disappeared into the brush and then reappeared a few minutes later for a short encore. It was a beautiful thing to see and hopefully an experience future generations can enjoy rather then only imagine.
The third day we set out with Jorg one last time in the morning hoping to possibly see another tiger or even possibly a sloth bear (in Hindi: Balu - like the Jungle Book). Unfortunately we
used up all our luck on the previous day because 20 minutes into the drive Ravi’s jeep was acting up so we had to return to the gate for a new jeep, then 45 minutes later that replacement jeep died and we were stuck in the middle of the park. Fortunately for us the guide we had that day was very apologetic for the situation and “ran” the two kilometres (with a stick in hand for protection) to the nearest check-point (ranger station) to radio for another jeep. After covering very little ground for the first three hours of our morning we cruised around the park but saw very little as the sun was warming up the day and the animals began to hide in the shade. Of course, being a government run operation, there were no refunds for the incapable jeeps and the lost time, but we really didn’t expect it to happen… after all this is DIY Safari!
What was a good bit of karma, was that two guys Harsh and Piyush (Harsh, from Jabalpur, just celebrated his 25th Birthday and his cousin Peench was visiting from Mumbai) stayed in our dorm and offered to give us
a ride back to Jabalpur; saving us the cost of the ride and letting us get to know these two guys a little more. Harsh did his MBA in Scotland and recently returned to India and Peench was studying the film and TV industry in Mumbai. It was really cool to talk to these guys, comparing “the west” with India - the goods, the bads and the uglys. And of course in typical Indian fashion they would not allow us just to get dropped off at the train station where we had a night train booked, instead they took us to an area called Marble Rocks, the main tourist stop in Jabalpur, where we took the 30-minute boat ride along the river to scope out the rocks and then invited us to his parents house for a wonderful dinner where the theme was: “Have you tried this before? No? OK, try.” Until I was ready to burst! Their hospitality was great and we really enjoyed meeting his family…thank you, thank you, thank you!
Then the time came to pack our bags and head for the train! Next stop the holy city of Varanasi!
Until Next Time…
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