Tiger Spotting...

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March 8th 2013
Published: March 8th 2013
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It's been a while since I've been anywhere with internet, and unfortunatley the small local cafe that criminally attempted to charge me 100R p/h has some very poor computers, and so though I have 3 hours to kill before my train to Bhopal, I can't access my hotmail or upload photos to flickr. I've now got 6 books in my backpack that I'm steadily working through, so at least I have reading to occupy me during the long transit waits. Sorry to any family or friends who have emailed me recently - I'm unable to reply at the moment!

Khajuraho was a noisier, more 'touristy' and less friendly town than Orchha, and though the temples were in near-pristine condition and the carvings were superb, I was after 24 hours already looking to leave. The international airport excretes pitifully large groups of package tourists into the town, which is entirely made up of hotels and restaurants and thus has been the least relaxing place to walk around. Many people earn a living purely off a commission that they earn when they follow you into a shop or hotel, pretending that they led you there. Thus, I did no shopping.

I was kept in my room (an adjoining room to a massage parlour, for 150R p/n) for 3 nights due to a lack of trains towards my next destination; I thankfully managed to enjoy the rural surroundings of Khajuraho by bicycle, meeting a fellow solo backpacker on my way. We spent the next 2 days exploring the less-touristy sights around the main temple complex, shrugging off the waves of kids pleading for chocolate and rupees. I also had an ayurvedic massage, which I can only describe as a very painful full-body rub-down. I have no idea what a conventional massage is like, but I assume it can't be anything like what I experienced.

My long bus-train-bus journey to the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve looked initially to be folly. The people I met in my cheap hotel told me they'd been on 3 or 4 safaris with no tiger sighting, and that getting a jeep to the best gate - Gate 1, Tala Gate - was near-impossible due to the amount of package tourists that had booked them online for absurd prices. These tour groups are quickly becoming the bane of the backpackers' life! I was very luck, it turned out, to have arrived when I did. A lively Italien woman had just been to charm the park director and had secured a jeep into Tala Gate only 3 hours after I arrived! Though they already had the maximum amount of 6 people for one jeep, they were happy for me to squeeze in and join them!

The officer at the gate perfectly portrayed what it is to feel self-important, prowling around, snatching passports and asking for dates of birth with narrowed, suspicious eyes. He very nearly didn't let me in, as the 7th man, but did eventually do so on the proviso that I'd 'tip' him on the way out, which I of course did not. We were into the park, the best park for tiger-spotting chances, in the best gate! I prepared my camera eagerly and peered out into the jungle and forest to try to glimpse that elusive white-black-orange streak in the brush. The branches, logs, leaves and rocks conspired continuously to merge and form tiger-like outlines in the distance, but as the jeep rumbled on, they mockingly diverged into their seperate components once more. This happened so much that I eventually gave up looking, especially as our guide informed us that you hear the presence of a tiger before you see it - the animals perform distinctive alarm calls to warn of predators.

We penetrated the depths of the jungles and emerged into wide plains of grasses, but all we saw on my first 3-hour safari were the common spotted deer and the cheeky languar monkeys that can be seen fairly easily fromoutside the park too. No tiger. One down, 2 safaris to go!

My second safari was also at Tala Gate - the government had very recently opted to open the park on wednesdays, which it until 2 weeks ago been shut mid-week. This meant internet bookings hadn't taken place, and so we were good to go to the best gate again at 6am. The morning chill kept me awake (in 5 layers I was still shivering) and I was once again periscope-necked in an effort to spot the big cat we'd all come here for. After 3 hours of stop-start safariing, trying to follow distant alarm calls, our guide informed us that the chances of tiger spotting were over, the sun was now up and so they'd be lying down inactive until the evening.

We all slumped back miserably. I had only the funds for one more safari and it was unlikely that it would be in the Tala Gate again. Maybe my hopes of seeing a wild tiger were slightly optimistic. As this sank in, we pulled up alongside another jeep that had 2 tourists inside, taking photos of a distant elephant and rider. I got up ontot he stps on the outside of our jeep to get a better look and so, when the vehicle lurched forwards as someone shouted "TIGER," I fell out of our jeep and into the neighbouring one!

No time to feel pain (or embarrassment) though. I hurridly scrambled back onto my original jeep and followed the pointed finger of our guide. Sure enough, the elephant had been sheparding a huge tiger through the bushes, towards us on the road! The distant black outline was lazily zig-zagging down towads us. Out from the left emerged another elephant, and it soon became clear that they sought to block the tiger, forcing it down the hill and closer to the jeeps that were soon gathering around us to see the tiger. Out came my long lens and my shutter joined the chorus of others that had quietly erupted moments earlier.

The tiger confidently plodded along about 30 yards from the mass of jeeps, huge paws softly raking the leaf-strewn ground. It is an altogether more majestic and princely animal than the lion. It is entirely appropriate that the most colourful and enigmatic of the big cats resides in a country famous for the same two cultural attributes - it was stunning and soon cameras were being lowered and chorus of 'wows' won over th camera clicks. After a couple of minutes, the tiger slunk off into the thick of the trees where the elephants coundn't follow. The jeeps exchanged beams and high-fives as we careered to the park gate before closing time. I was thrilled, but others who'd done 4 or 5 safaris were over the moon!

I also went on another safari the next morning to the worst gate, but was lucky to get another brilliant tiger sighting, closer but more fleeting than the first. I'll upload a couple of photos when I find a computer manufactured after the turn of the millenium. I went on a couple of long runs in the evenings, with a fan club of children following me like a scene out of Rocky. I also met some very interesting travellers in the park - one who'd cycled 4000km in 2 months on a touring bike with improvised paniers, from Bangalore to finish in Delhi. Another Swiss family had left Zurich 6 months ago in a 1970s Renault campervan, and were now negotiating their way overland through Burma to continue their mad journey! Inspiring, bonkers people.

My next few days of travel are all planned as I've been tired of missing trains. My next 10 days are, roughly: Bhopal - Mumbai - Aurangabad - Ajanta - Aurangabad - Ellora - Aurangabad - Mumbai - BEACH!

Usual best wishes to all reading and I hope to reply to emails and put photos up soon (if Mumbai hasn't got a decent computer, then I may as well give up all hope)


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