Craig and Ross in India.


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February 28th 2019
Published: March 2nd 2019
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Blog # 7. Sunday, March 3, 2019.

Earning our stripes in Tadoba, then Mumbai and back home.

Dear family, friends and colleagues,

Hello everyone, I hope you are all doing OK. We have come to the end of our five week India odyssey. This is the last blog of a trip that was one year in the planning. As usual, we have had a fantastic time. The highlight of the whole trip for me was undoubtedly this past six days. You can guess why. Wild animals. I’m talking sloth bears, wild dogs, a rare black leopard, various deer and birds and – most significantly of all – magnificent tigers! A life-long wish come true to see tigers in the wild. Tigers are endangered and elusive, and for me it was a race against time to see some in the wild before they are all gone. We have now seen all the major big cats in the wild. For me, tigers are the most beautiful.

My careful reading before the trip indicated that Tadoba National Park in central India is currently a very good spot for good tiger sightings in February. So, we booked an eco-lodge called Swasara (actually spelt , “Svasara”) on the doorstep of Tadoba National Park. Tadoba was once little known, but has become a tiger hotspot in recent years, not least because of Maya, a famous tigress who has generated many cubs and is the pride of the park. We flew to the nearest city – Nagpur. We then got a road transfer 2.5 hours north to Swasara, a really very nice lodge with good food and well-appointed rooms. However, there was a snag for us. The whole area that encompasses the park is dry. No booze sold at the lodge, nor indeed none allowed to be brought in (theoretically). I did read a number of travel blogs and Safari-Talk posts before we left home in which people had smuggled alcohol in. No one seems to check. Well, as Richard Nixon said, who is going to fucking know?

So, our plan was to buy some grog in Delhi and carry it in our checked luggage. However, here in India, alcohol consumption is not so prevalent. “Bottle shops” are not obvious and have to be ferreted out. Indeed, most people – including young folks – don’t drink or smoke. We found this really admirable. However, we would be wanting a drink at the end of a hot day’s safari drive in the park each day! Beer in reasonable quantities would be too bothersome to smuggle in our luggage. Remember that we were flying in. This therefore required another strategy. As for wine – forget it. Horrendously taxed and expensive here in India. A bottle of Jacob’s Creek, for example, was AUD $60 if you don’t mind! In contrast, a 750 ml bottle of Vodka was AUD $9! We had brought along from home two “water” bladders for “hiking”, with the intention of filling them with some sort of alcohol while here. So, we bought some bottles of vodka in Delhi the night before flying and carefully filled said “hiking” bladders with the booze. It was like a lab experiment in our Delhi hotel bathroom, the way we were carefully pouring from bottle to bladder, calculating volumes, and working out how much we would need each night of our stay. (LOL!). We then packed the bladders into our checked luggage. They got checked in just fine, although our luggage was suddenly somehow over the weight limit and we had to pay about AUD $40 extra!! It all went fine and when we arrived at the Swasara lodge at Tadoba Park, no one checked our luggage nor asked about alcohol. All we then did was order some Sprite/lemonade or similar to our room at the eco-lodge each afternoon, and hey presto!! We discretely enjoyed much appreciated drinks on our porch for the whole six days we were there. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones doing this. We overheard a guy in the neighbouring unit say to his wife:

“Well, you didn’t answer my question, did you want a beer or not?”

Furthermore, there were four affable 40 something American ladies in the unit further along, and they were on their porch having a merry old time one balmy evening. At communal dinner, they were quite animated and one especially was “as silly as a cut snake”, as we might say in Australia. They either picked up some favours from the Sadhus in Varanasi or they were enjoying just a little wine, in our estimation.

You know I like documenting interesting characters that we meet in our travels. There were other interesting folks staying at Swasara. There were two adorable 60 something British couples, who were on the tail end of an Indian wildlife trip, having been to various other parks and reserves across the country. One of them, David, was hard of hearing. He tended to shout and kept reminding people at every opportunity that he had hearing loss. He was a funny old guy. I asked him over breakfast what he thought of the Brexit votes?

“Eggs and toast?,” he replied. “Yes, I love that. Wish they had bacon here, though. We saw some wild boar on the drive into the park today, maybe they could use some of them.”

Another younger couple were funky Dutch folks covered in tattoos, about late thirties, called Henrik and Claudia. Henrick had big earrings was very nice to chat to. Claudia was equally nice, but she was utterly obsessed with “spicy” food. She told all and sundry that she was not allergic, but simply “didn’t like spicy food.” She seemed to ignore the labels on all the buffet dishes on offer each night.

“What’s this? “ she said, pointing to some innocuous potatoes and onions sauteed with cumin (according to the label). “It is not spicy, is it? I don’t like spicy.”

“No madam, not spicy” said the dinner attendant.

“I’ll pass anyway, “ she said. Moving to the next item:

“What’s this?”

“ Roast chicken, ma’am.”

“Is it spicy?”

“Not spicy, madam.”

“Hmm, I won’t risk it anyway.”

I saw Claudia going back to her table with some plain white rice and a few slices of tomato and cucumber. They said they had been in India for four weeks, so god knows how she coped with “spicy” during that time. (In fact, Ross and I encountered very little that was truly really spicy. Occasionally, but not a lot). As Ross and I left the outdoor eating area after consuming our dessert one night, we heard Claudia say as the waiter placed crème caramels on their table:

“What’s this? Is it spicy?”

“This is crème caramel dessert, madam. Not spicy.”

“Hmm,” she said with a suspicious frown, “ I’ll pass anyway.”

Don’t they have crème caramels in The Netherlands? !

OK, so the animals ! We had six days in Tadoba National Park and Reserve. The park is a picturesque landscape of tropical dry deciduous forest, featuring teak trees, stands of bamboo, some grasslands and waterholes and a lake. Open-topped jeeps (and some raucous tourist buses) traverse the park along bumpy, dusty tracks. The park was especially pretty late in the day, as the sun would filter through the forest and across the dust from the tracks. As in Africa, the daily safaris involve dawn and later afternoon drives, with the middle of the hot day given over to sleeping or relaxing by the pool. (Not one for sleeping during the day, I usually did the latter). We were up at 5.30am each day, setting off before sunrise. There was lots of driving along bumpy, dusty tracks in the jeep, with the thrill of never knowing what might be round the next bend. We had our own driver and our accompanying guide, who was named Botee. However, unlike in Africa, not all target species are easily seen, here. You have to work hard to find them. Spotted Chital and sambar deer are common and graceful, and there are the endearing Hanuman langurs (monkeys). I got some great photos of the langurs sitting about on the ground with their arms draped over their knees, like old men. However, for the first two days, we saw no tigers, but had fantastic close encounters with other highly sought animals in the park. There is a Tadoba “Big five”: sloth bear, dhole (wild dog), gaur (a massive type of wild cattle), leopard and tiger. Well, for our first two days, we saw no tigers, but were able to see those other four – all close to the jeep! Firstly, we encountered a shaggy sloth bear ambling along (about 6 feet from the car) and then a pack of dhole (Indian wild dog) chasing chital (spotted) deer. As for the gaur, at one time, we also found ourselves surrounded by a small herd of them. They are the largest bovines in the world, bigger than bison or buffalo. The lead male was very formidable indeed, a mass of brown muscle on skinny white legs. Then late in the second day, our driver and guide basically screamed with excitement and jammed on the brakes. We all nearly fell forward out of the jeep. I have no idea how they spotted it, but sitting in the shade behind a clump of bamboo was none other than the rare, almost mythical, Tadoba black leopard (panther!). Only one or possibly two individuals in the entire park. Very rarely seen. It suddenly darted from the bamboo and galloped across the road behind us. Wonderful! Our guide, Botee, could not stop talking about it.

“Craig, that was an incredibly rare sighting, you are so very lucky,” he said. “I’ve never seen the black leopard till now, only heard about it”.

On top of that, we later briefly saw a “normal” leopard, streak across the track in front of us. Also great. So four of the big five, but no tigers. By this time, we had done four of our 11 trips into the park. It was fantastic that we had seen leopards, dholes and sloth bear, but tigers were obviously our main aim.

Then, on the morning of the third day, we struck gold. Each morning, up to 12 jeeps full of punters from various nearby lodges would assemble in a line at the park entrance gate. Then, like a racing car start where the flag would go down, the gate would open at 6.30am and the jeeps would all launch off. There are no 2way radios used in the park, so no one can communicate an animal sighting to anyone else. Jeeps go barrelling off in all directions, along bumpy dirt tracks. But Botee was an excellent guide, who always seemed to have us ahead of the pack. Sometimes we would descend upon a waterhole where there were lots of jeeps parked, suggestive of a key sighting, but usually there was nothing there but a few deer and waterbirds and they were just waiting, hoping. More often, Botee would carefully examine the trail for recent pug marks (tiger tracks) or stop silently for 10 minutes to listen for any deer alarm calls. The latter was particularly informative. This particular morning, he had some sort of clue that there was a tiger nearby, often talking softly in Hindi with the driver, and listening intently to some nearby barking deer that were making alarm calls. Suddenly, he whispered earnestly, “Tiger! Tiger!” Coming out of the forest and now walking on the dirt track immediately behind us was a most magnificent male tiger. Looking glamorous in his orange and black stripes, he had penetrating eyes and long white whiskers. His mouth was half open and his massive paws pounded the dust as he walked towards us. One of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen in my life. There were no other jeeps around! The driver rapidly backed up, so that we were only about 3 - 4 metres ahead of him. He obligingly kept walking along the track, and we kept creeping forward. I got some superb full frontal shots. It wasn’t long before a barrage of other jeeps had accumulated on the track behind the tiger. However, all they could see was his back and tail; we had the prime front view. After 15 minutes or so, he veered off, melting back into the forest. Ross and I sat back into the jeep looking at each other, shaking our heads in awe of what we had just seen. The excitement didn’t end there. Shortly afterwards, we dropped by to check waterhole #97, which was nearby but usually had bugger all, save for a lazy resident turtle always floating along. Well, there we found Maya, the famous Tigress of Tadoba, drinking in the morning sun. She was simply beautiful. Again, we were initially the only jeep there, although a second one pulled up not long after. We must have been about 10 feet away from her. After drinking, she sauntered in front of us, went and sat down for about 30 minutes, then up and left. (She has cubs, but has them hidden at present, due to the marauding male tigers at the moment. We never got to see her cubs). We had some other good tiger sightings in subsequent days, including a very brightly patterned young female. On that occasion, Ross did not come along. It was just me, Botee and the driver. We spotted the tiger late on the drive, at 5.15pm, deep in the park. However the park gates close strictly at 6pm, and any jeeps not back at the gate by 6pm get black-listed for one month and the guides and driver suspended for two weeks. And it typically took 45 minutes to get back……So, Botee said:

“Craig, we can watch this tiger and get some great photos for 10 minutes max, then need to drive like hell to get back to the park entrance gate.” Well, the tiger was wonderful. Then the drive back was hair-raising. Like a dodge ‘em car ride gone ballistic, the driver drove like a bat out of hell, slipping, sliding along the track, skillfully swerving to miss trees or giant termite mounds by inches. Botee braced me and said:

“Keep your head down, Craig, and hold on.”

We made it back to the gate with about a minute to spare, and I gave the driver a higher that usual tip! Some other tiger sightings were distant or fleeting. All up, none could compare to that double banger experience so close at hand on day three that I described above. There were certainly some drives where we saw basically nothing but a few deer and monkeys, but that’s how it is with nature (and why we allocated six days, not just one or two!) By the end of our stay, we had seen everything we wanted, and even some smaller critters that I enjoyed, such as ruddy mongoose, tree shrews and birds that I won’t bore you about! So, those of you interested in seeing wild tigers (Reinaldo de Medeiros, Rob Sall?) I do recommend Tadoba. Check out some of my photos (click any image to enlarge it).

As per usual when I stay at a wildlife hotspot for any length of time, I get melancholic and emotional about leaving. Tadoba, after our six days there, was no exception. I have described this feeling in blogs in the past. Apart from the strong emotional connection I get with nature, I bond well with fellow like-minded animal lovers, and the devoted guides and rangers that we interact with. We were sad to say goodbye to everyone when we got the road transfer back to Nagpur airport. The guy driving us back was pleasant and chatty, eventually asking me:

“Are you married Sir.”

Finally - having no more of it - Ross immediately jumped in before I could respond and said:

“No, he is not married. He just fantasises that he is. I mean, look at him, he is a very silly man. Don’t believe anything he says.” I frowned. So ended my fun time with Indian cabbies and marriage talk!!

From Nagpur, we flew to Mumbai, where we first arrived five weeks prior. We had one full day in Mumbai before our late night Singapore Airlines flight home to Melbourne. We whizzed around the main sights on an organised day tour, seeing the Grandiose Victoria Terminus Train station, Chowpatty Beach, Gateway of India, the opulent Taj Mahal Palace hotel, etc. We saw kids playing about at the Maiden Oval, with a backdrop of lovely old colonial buildings and palms – that classic Mumbai shot. The British influence is so strong in downtown Mumbai that it looks like a slice of London but with palm trees and tropical heat. We had lunch at the famous Leopold’s Café (or infamous, after those terrible co-ordinated terrorist attacks across Mumbai in 2008, that included Leopold’s.) We found the city tidier and more orderly than the other Indian cities we had visited, or maybe that’s just because we were only in the clean South Mumbai tourist zone of Colaba. Certainly, slums were not far away. Indeed, we got a bird’s eye view of them juxtaposed with modern high-rise developments from atop the Four Seasons Hotel (when we went for a quick drink at their AER Cocktail bar). This glamorous rooftop bar affords incredible views back at the city and the Arabian sea lapping at its Western fringe. Then it was a dash to the airport, amidst heavy evening traffic. So ended our India trip.

We arrived back home in Melbourne last night – Saturday March 2 (Mardi Gras night, I just realised). It is now early Sunday morning and I have a touch of jetlag. So I thought I would document some of my thoughts on India and up-load this last blog. And as I have said in blogs of previous trips, these written accounts are as much a record for me to look back on as they are a public travelogue. We loved our five week trip, really enjoyed India. It has been a relentless whirligig of incredible sights, smells, sounds and tastes that has left us dumbfounded. India presents humanity in all its raw detail - life, death, wealth, poverty, ingenuity, hardship, beauty, ugliness. Truly the most eye-opening trip of our lives. Look beyond the noise, chaos and filth and everywhere you will find energy, enterprise, happiness and beauty. Certainly the street scenes are the most photogenic I have ever encountered, as there is always something going on – and not just one thing, but many things. It leaves the mind in a whirl! I think it also makes you, as a traveller, learn something about yourself, your attitudes to others, your beliefs, etc. And if it all gets too much, the serene hotel is always a good retreat. So, many thumbs up. Favourite cities were the lovely lake city of Udaipur and the charming desert city of Jaisalmer. Best wildlife experience was clearly the tigers of Tadoba (our main reason for going to India). Other notable highlights were the huge flocks of demoiselle cranes in Khichan and the gharials of Chambal River. The food was also a major highlight. Had not expected almost everything to be so bloody tasty, especially the vegetarian. We also found most things far easier than expected, especially the airports and flying. We took five internal flights all up. All pleasant, punctual and efficient experiences. I would like to go back one day, and do South India.

!s there anything we didn’t like about the country?. Sure. There were three main things:

1) Lack of social equality. Heterosexual men really dominate. Women still need greater equality, as does the LGBTIQ community (despite gay relations being legalised here recently). The caste system still persists there, which holds people back from realising their full potential.

2) Mis-treatment of animals. Many animals stuffed into small cages in the heat at markets, and elephants that the tourists ride are mis-treated. (Probably so were our camels from Rajasthan desert ride, upon reflection). One image I had trouble getting out of my head was a view outside our Agra Hotel room. We overlooked a dirty yard where an emaciated white horse was tethered. Both its back legs were tied to a peg in the ground and a rope around its neck that tied it’s head to an old wooden carriage. So it just stood there, all day, basically unable to move. I saw a boy untie it at one point, ride it off somewhere, then came back and tied it up as before. Poor bloody thing.

Now, number 3 was the biggest negative for me and one that was inescapable however much I embraced the culture. The apparent complete lack of regard for the environment. Rubbish and crap in the cities, and out in the countryside too (though generally not at tourist sites). People clearly just dump stuff – paper, plastic - everywhere. We watched guys drink chai from small paper cups then just drop the cups on the ground, for example. We learned that when piles of rubbish get too high, they just burn it. There is also a very high level of general pollution. With a population of 1.2 billion people – that’s over 1000 million souls - you would think that a major impetus would be to keep the environment clean. Or at least dispose of rubbish responsibly. What they are doing is degrading their environment, wrecking their future. I do appreciate that lack of funds and rampant corruption make getting things done difficult, but change is needed. So the mess in a lot of places was rather disappointing. Add to this, the challenges of climate change, and I foresee difficulty ahead for this country. Some difficult decisions will need to be made about birth control too.

As for keeping healthy, we were basically well for the entire five week period. I had an upset gut early one morning, nothing major that some tabs of lmmodium and Buscopan didn’t fix. Ross also felt off on one other day. But we never needed the antibiotics we packed. So, very good for some 35 days in India. We recommend taking a Travelan tablet before each meal (except breakfast). We also took the oral cholera vaccine before leaving, shown to also be immuno-protective against “Dehli Belly.” All up, this worked for us.

Here in India, we felt safe throughout the whole place. We also experienced nothing but complete friendliness and help, everywhere, from everyone, with no ulterior motives. Not just those in the tourist industry, but cabbies, people serving in 7/11’s, people at airport security checks, those who stopped to assist us on the streets. All great, and all with beaming smiles. Not once in five weeks did we encounter a cross word or nasty person. Is this all down to Hinduism, with people trying to accumulate their karma, so not totally altruistic? I don’t know, but anyway, everyone was wonderful. Sure, there were people often trying to sell us stuff, but a firm “no thanks” usually works.

So, come to India with an open mind and a spirit of adventure, and you will be richly rewarded.

Love and best wishes to all,

Craig (and Ross).

P.S. The last picture in the series below shows a map of where we actually went, if interested.

P.P.S. More photos below. Remember that you can click on any (or all) images to enlarge them.


Additional photos below
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3rd March 2019

Incredible!
Thank you for allowing us to tag along on your India adventure. I'm pleased you enjoyed so much about my favourite country. It truly has everything, even though its people don't. The one place on your itinerary that I've never visited in my twelve journeys around this incredible land is Tadoba - and you managed to see some of the animals there which I've missed too. I've added it to the list for a future visit - and future visits there certainly will be!
4th March 2019

Incredible Indai
Many thanks, Mike.
8th March 2019

Many thanks
Many thanks, Mike, on your comments of my blog/s. We loved India.

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