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Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park

In the last moments of our last game drive, we see not one but two tigers – male and female – at Kanha National Park in central India © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Our Royal Expeditions ‘Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure’ in central India began with our experience cycling through villages and the wildlife sanctuary, itself. See:‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park and continued with Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?)

It is approaching 5 pm, the final moments of our fifth and final game drive in six days of exploring India’s Pench and Kanha national parks, famous for tiger. So far, though we have seen amazing animals, birds, insects, the ultimate prize of a tiger sighting has eluded us. I have new appreciation for how elusive they are, particularly with the massive amount of forest territory and the fact they tend to be active before 8:30 am, then settle down in the jungle, coming out again in the evening in this season which is approaching winter.

I have also come to suspect they have also figured out the schedule for our safari vehicles which announce our coming with loud rumbling sounds.

The light is fading. This entire drive hastily arranged in Kanha by Royal Expeditions because none of us had spotted the tigers after the four scheduled game drives so far. Nara, our naturalist/guide from Taj Safaris, is laser-focused on finding a tiger for us. We have already gotten to see most of the animals for which these parks are famous – it has been thrilling to see them in such close proximity (I even got a brief sighting of a leopard!). But we have yet to catch even a glimpse of the star attraction: the tiger.

Langur mother and baby monkeys in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have seen and followed tracks left on the sandy road; listened to the “alarms” sent up by the black-faced langur monkeys (that look like wise men) that provide our guide and naturalist the best clues as to the location and movement of the tigers. The scene is quite fantastic, in fact, when one guide gives a scouting report to another, and we all tear off at great speed.

But we have yet to have the luck of being in exactly right place, right time to view.

We only have 2 hours this afternoon, so he races to get to the most likely territory known for tiger – it takes 20 minutes to travel there from the entrance gate even driving so fast, bumping on the rough road and holding on tightly to the railing in the open vehicle, the park is so vast. It is quite a thrill ride.

Kanha National Park is a bird-watchers delight © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Periodically, especially where the trails cross each other, he stops, turns off the engine, and just listens. Sometimes there is just complete (eerie) silence, but soon a fantastic cacophony jungle sounds come into focus. We hear various bird calls, which Nara identifies for us, and we find ourselves searching the trees and the sky, contenting ourselves with shooting photos of fantastic birds.

Nara and the park guide examine prints in the trail – and can tell how long ago they were made, whether a male (more rounded) or a female (more rectangular and pointed).

It is just after the rainy season, so the forest is thick, verdant and cool (actually cold in the morning); but in the intense summer heat and drought, the forest becomes dry and brown and the tigers come out to water holes (some made by the park) more predictably. So while the conditions are generally more pleasant this time of year for viewing, sightings are trickier.

Nara and the park guide who is assigned to us confer. We move on.

If we meet up with another jeep (there aren’t as many in this section of the park), they share intel, sometimes strategizing.

Whenever he stops, Nara explains his strategy for finding the tiger, based on its patterns, which is really insightful.

Other safari goers we chance to meet during our drives- particularly where we stop for breakfast – tell of their luck. A British woman makes us jealous when she shows photos she snapped off a tiny point-and-shoot camera of a mother tiger with her cub, while we are there armed with our superduper DSLRs and 300 and 400 mm lenses, with nothing to show.

Starting the game drive in Kanha National Park as the sun rises © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The best time to see the tiger is either very early – moments after arriving in the park (when I chance to spot a leopard on a ridge), or late in the afternoon. The park doesn’t open before 6 am, so we head out from the lodge by 5:30 am (they send us off with hot coffee and tea and biscuits, plus a blanket and hot water bottle for the safari vehicle), and it can take 40 minutes waiting at the gate in the surprisingly cold air, before we are processed, assigned a guide and a zone in the park, and allowed to enter.

So we race to get to some spot that our naturalist and guide believe has a good likelihood for spotting tiger. Of course, along the way and throughout our tour, we see an amazing array of animals and the guide patiently waits for us to take our shots before moving on, imparting information about the various animals we see. The landscape is really beautiful, and in the morning and afternoon light, dramatic. You never know what you will spot or when, so it is constantly thrilling – you are literally hunting (with a camera).

Barasingha (swamp deer) were endangered in 1970s when there were only 66 left but at Kahna, they made breeding pairs and are repopulating © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the first couple of game drives, we all were a lot more casual, so spent a lot of time with the langur monkeys, rhesus monkeys, the jackals, the wild dogs, the wild pigs, the spotted deer and the swamp deer, and the myriad birds, not to mention the insects and trees that prove quite fascinating. But as we realized our window of opportunity for seeing the tiger closing, we were a lot more single-minded in that pursuit, rushing passed scenes of animals we had already seen before.

The naturalist and guide who accompany us are earnest to the point of frantic to succeed for their tourists. “Until people see a tiger, they can’t relax or do other things,” he tells us.

So when they get a hint of a tiger, they race with unbelievable speed, even dashing in reverse (hold on!) despite how crude the road (more of a trail) to get to a spot. Sometimes so many vehicles converge in both directions no one can move (this is particularly the case on a day that school and scout groups have come out by the dozens) – but the driver manages somehow to maneuver with tremendous skill.

This happens repeatedly with no sightings (which is why you will typically organize 3-5 game drives during your visit).

But here we are, at 5 pm, when Nara picks up on the alarm sent up by the langur monkeys. He says a steady alarm means the tiger is moving; intermittent means the tiger has stopped.

It’s our last game drive, hastily arranged by our tour company, Royal Expeditions (no small feat since permits have to be applied for in advance), our last chance. We follow the ‘alarm’ sent up by the monkeys. When their calls are not continuous, Nara can tell that the tiger has stopped moving, and calculates that it is in the middle of the forested area.

Nara has to guess which direction the tiger will move. After about 10 minutes waiting and listening (while we happily shoot photos of birds gathering in trees above us), he picks up again and goes to the last best spot, in the direction of a meadow with tall grass that leads to the water.

Several vehicles are already parked there and in an instant, excitement:

“People lose their minds when they spot a tiger.” The naturalist tells us. The drivers, also.

A female tiger crosses the road just in front of our safari vehicle in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just then, the tiger emerges from the forest and crosses the road, just a few feet from the vehicle ahead of us – but we aren’t in great position to see and I am thinking how ironic this is to finally be where the tiger is, but not to actually see it.

But Nara is not to be thwarted. He maneuvers our vehicle through this enormous crowd, going off the trail into the thicket, to get us into a good position.

Meanwhile, we are holding on in open vehicles, trying to snap shots before the tiger disappears again into the forest growth.

I snap, snap, snap – get a shot (I am thinking it isn’t great, but a shot nonetheless, but actually, afterward I see I got more than a few) –before the tiger disappears into the woods.

Nara moves the vehicle again and lo and behold, the tiger remerges from the wood, now crossing the road directly between our vehicle and another one, to a grassy area on her way to the water. Amazingly, a male tiger emerges and walks after her.

On the last game drive in Kanha National Park, in the last moments as the light fades, a tiger! © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the other vehicles have already headed out because it is literally closing time and the drivers are fined if they are late to the gate. But Nara stays. We get shot after shot as the light fades to dusk. I’m lucky, standing up on the highest perch, to get some shots of both tigers together.

I shoot frantically, not knowing how many moments I will have. I can’t even take the time to check if my setting is right. I’m going on instinct. I fight between needing fast exposure and high ISO to compensate for fading light, the darkness of the woods, and the tigers’ motion, and fear I might actually be overexposing.

Getting the shot of the tiger in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By now, we are the only vehicle still remaining. We watch as the female sits in the grass, looking back at the male as he approaches her. It is quite a scene.

Finally, Nara says we have to leave and he tears off at great speed to make it back in time, while we are giddy with our good fortune: We saw not one, but two tigers!

It’s an intense, thrilling feeling. I realize I have barely taken a breath.

The game drives have been fascinating. It is thrilling to not know what you will see, or when. Then momentary, serendipitous flashes.

Seeing the animals in their habitat, all sorts of questions and considerations come to mind.

And the landscapes are just beautiful.

Kanha’s Abundance of Animals

It is remarkable how this short distance away from Pench National Park where we spent the first three days of our “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure,” the ecology changes so much. The Kanha forest (“jungle is the Hindi word for forest) is much thicker, and because of the higher elevation, is much cooler. The Kanha National Park spans nearly 2000 sq km (only one-fifth open to tourists), and currently has an estimated 49 tigers.

Setting out in safari vehicle through the jungle of Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Instead of a teak forest like Pench, this forest is mainly sal – a wood that was used for railroad ties; three kinds of bamboo (bamboo gets flowers only once in its life, then dies), the saga tree (the tree, with bark that looks like crocodile hide, is worshiped by the people who harvest water from it to drink when necessary); and the Mahua tree (the flowers are made into a liquor which is a big money-maker for locals. “People only collect the flowers that have fallen from the tree, which drop after midnight, to make liquor. If animals eat the flowers, they also get drunk – that’s why you might see a drunk monkey.”

The first evening at the Kanha Earth Lodge, where we stay during our time here, there is a slide presentation by the naturalist about the animals in the park”

The male spotted deer (chital) has antlers to attract a female. “He will put grass into the antler to look more handsome.” (I actually saw one which had managed to find some blue plastic string for decoration).

Male spotted deer finds some blue string to decorate his antlers in order to be more alluring to a female © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This park also has sambar (Asia’s largest deer, it depends on its sense of smell, but will foolishly go right up to a tiger to smell it); the Indian Muntjac (barking deer), which is only found in a bamboo forest. We even get to see all of these, including the Barasingha (swamp deer) which was endangered in 1970s when there were only 66 left (it only gives birth to one baby a year, but at Kahna, they made breeding pairs and are repopulating).

There are also wild pig; gaur (like a big bull with horns), jackal (they can get drunk eating the Mahua flowers; dhole (wild dogs; only the alpha male and alpha female are allowed to mate); sloth bear.

There are more leopards than tigers, and unlike the tigers, are not endangered.

Leopards are sly, he tells us – they eat dogs, goats on periphery (that is, in the villages). They can climb trees so have more food options (monkeys) and hunt at night (which is why they are harder to spot during the day). “They call the leopard the ‘Ghost of the Jungle’ because one minute you see it and the next, disappears.”

Meanwhile tigers are more discriminating about mating – the male can mate with three females (depending upon food) and if the female he wants to mate with has cubs, he will kill the cubs in order to mate with her.

Sunlight filters through the branches in Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are up before dawn for our first game drive in Kanha, which is supposed to be our last (we’ve had three in Pench National Park so far).  It is quite an experience to be at the park as the sun rises, and we head out on these dusty dirt roads with the red sun in our face, mist on the meadow, and later, as the sun filters through the trees.

We are so earnest to spot tiger, we tell our naturalist/guide not to bother with the breakfast gathering, but that we want to spend as much time as possible in our hunt to see the tiger.

He thinks there is a sighting and speeds off, frantically. There are five jeeps doing the same thing, one driving backwards at a furious pace.

Then we all stop still. Listen. A hand signal, and we all take off again.

A young cub crossed road, the guide announces. We missed it.

We hear an “alarm” from the langur monkeys and speed off again, bouncing, rocking,

No tiger. But we content ourselves with a sighting of White throated kingfisher  and a gathering of hard ground swamp deer found only in Kanha – a female and one young male (with just the beginning of antlers) and two babies (as adults, the males stay separate from the females).

Munna  ©2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we leave the park, we actually meet Munna, the park guide for whom the park’s famous tiger was named. “Munna” means “small child” and the fellow never liked the name very much. He had a limp, and the tiger was injured and had a limp, so they named the tiger “Munna” also. “After a tiger was named after him, he didn’t mind his name.”

On our way driving back up the forest road to the Kanha Earth Lodge, I spot the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo – the bird I have been dying to photograph – and our guide pulls over. We become engaged in chasing after this bird, then another, then a staggering array of birds: a scarlet minuet (male), a black-hooded Oriole, a Lesser Golden-backed woodpecker – more birds in this small area than you might see in an aviary. He tells us it is a hunting flock.

While seeing leopards or tigers might be the brass ring, just being on this carousel is sheer delight – the number and variety of animals we see at close range, the birds, even the insects are fascinating.

Drongo © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Kanha National Park Kanha, one of the first tiger reserves established by India under Project Tiger (1973), is also one of India’s largest National Parks, encompassing nearly 2,000 sq. km of deciduous forest, grasslands, hills and gently meandering rivers and home to literally hundreds of species of animals and birds. Prior to this, the whole area was one enormous regal hunting ground, its game the exclusive preserve for high-ranking British army officers and civil servants seeking trophies for their colonial bungalows.  One vast plain where we see a herd of deer used to be a village of 500 people, who were relocated when they created the park.

Deer, Kanha National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This picturesque reserve presently boasts of having large tiger population, as it has the ideal habitat. The meadows (called maidans) are surrounded by thick forests that create ideal grazing spots for the hundreds of chital deer, barasingha and sambar deer, which means they are ideal hunting ground for tigers, leopards, jackal and wild dogs (all of which we get to see). Kanha offers the last remaining habitat of the hard ground barasingha (swamp deer), which was brought back from the brink of extinction (which we get to see). During our visit, we also get to see many of the other animals that live here: wild pig, Rhesus Macaque, Langur monkey (my favorite). I think I even got a glimpse of a gaur (Indian Bison) before it retreated into the woods.

Other animals that are here but we don’t get to see include sloth bear, striped hyena, muntjacs (barking deer), chousingha (four-horn antelope), jungle cat and mongoose.

This diverse landscape also supports more than 250 species of Indian birds including migratory species. The Indian jungle fowl, which is the ancestor of domestic hens, is common here.

Crested Hawk Eagle © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

For bird watchers and photographers, Kanha’s diverse landscape also supports more than 250 species of Indian birds including migratory species, a mind-boggling number we actually get to see during our brief time: Green Footed Pigeon, Pygmy Woodpecker and Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher. Little Minivet, Scarlet Minivet and Long Tailed Minivet can be seen at Parsa Toala grasslands. Resident common raptors as the Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Hawk Eagle, Crested Honey Buzzard, White Eyed Buzzard, Shikra and Common Kestrel can be sighted hunting and nesting in tall trees.

Kanha Earth Lodge

My villa at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Like the Pench Tree Lodge which we enjoyed during our time at the Pench National Park, the Kanha Earth Lodge (www.kanhaearthlodge.com) enhances our safari experience. It is also an ecolodge made of all natural materials that is stunning in its design that blends so perfectly without adverse impact on the environment, uses local and traditional art (there is even a fellow who paints tigers), has its own organic garden and a lovely swimming pool, a stunning lodge (WiFi available in the office), and each night, offers fascinating presentations by a naturalist about the wildlife and the national park, while serving appetizers.

The dining room reminds me of a castle, actually, with the stone and wood, vaulted ceiling, candelabra and local artwork.

Dinner by firelight at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

One evening, dinner is served outside in a garden by firelight. The food –and presentation – is superb.

The service is impeccable, which you note immediately with the staff on hand as our van pulls up, with moist towels and a refreshing beverage. The lodge supplies coffee and tea and bottled water in the rooms. When we leave for our game drives at around 5:15 am, they have coffee and tea and biscuits on hand, blankets and even hot water bottles for us in the jeeps.

The room is actually an entire villa, with massive living spaces and has its own patio that faces out to the forest.

In the evening, with the turn-down service, they provide a hot water bottle, and we are told that our rooms are inspected for possible intruders which might have hidden away in dark places.

The lodge is located away from a very busy tourist area – you feel you are in the national park – but very close to villages and farms, so you feel very much a part of the local culture. At night, we hear drumming of a festival.

Kanha Earth Lodge is located among villages and farms that surround the national park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Both ecolodges (only operated October to June) that we enjoyed are part of Pugdundee Safaris (www.pugdundeesafaris.com), which operates six ecolodges (Kings Lodge and Tree House Hideaway in Bandhavagarh; Denwa Backwater Escape in Satpura; Ken River Lodge, Panna; as well as Barahi Jungle Lodge in Chitwan, Nepal) as well as wildlife safaris, which means a kind of seamless quality.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

Next: The Pushkar Camel Fair

 

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Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

What luck: first morning, spotting a leopard at Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Our Royal Expeditions ‘Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure’ began with our experience cycling through villages and the wildlife sanctuary, itself. See: ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park)

Royal Expeditions new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure” is set in the land of Rudyard Kipling’s fantastic tale of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, and his nemesis, Shere Khan, the tiger. During the course of our six days at Pench National Park and Kanha National Park, in central India,  we see many of the characters that populated his story and the landscape (“jungle” is the Hindi word for forest) in which they thrived. And much to my amazement, I learn that there may be some truth to the fantastical adventure.

Over the course of our six days – three each at Pench and Kanha – we are scheduled for four game drives, and I soon realize why you need multiple chances if your goal is to spot a tiger: they are really hard to spot.

Safari vehicle sets off at sunrise into Pench National Park in pursuit of a tiger © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Even without spotting a tiger, each game drive is its own adventure – the landscape of verdant, forest, the serendipitous encounters with animals not even a stone’s throw away, with nothing between you and them. And never knowing what you will encounter and when, or what’s beyond the next bend.

The “hunt” is thrilling: the way the guides track the tigers, looking for tiger tracks in the sandy trail, stopping where the trails cross to listen for “alarms” from the langur monkeys, or the signs of urgency from the herds of spotted deer (their tails go up when they are anxious). When the guides think they hear an alarm, they take off at fast speed, leaving us to bounce around and hold on to avoid being thrown out of the open vehicles.

Langur monkey sitting nonchalantly © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In all my years as a travel writer, this is my first wildlife safari, so the experience is completely new. I am told by my fellow travelers who have much more experience doing safaris in Africa (but never before in India), that there are certain similarities to the structure, the way you experience the animals, largely because of the topography, is very different.

The first thing that is surprising is how early we get up: 4:45 am for a 5:30 am departure, sending us off with hot coffee, tea and biscuits, in order to be lined up at the entrance to the park by the 6 am opening (we will have a full hot breakfast in the park at around 8:30 am, which is an experience itself). It is quite cold – we dress in layers and the Pench Treehouse Lodge gives us blankets (Kanha National Park, at a higher altitude, is actually colder and the Kanha Earth Lodge where we stay next gives us a hot water bottle along with a blanket).

Dramatic landscape in Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We line up with perhaps 40 other safari vehicles, while our driver (who is also the lodge naturalist) brings our permit (we have to be registered in advance) and shows our passports . We are assigned a park guide and one of four zones where we can explore (only 292 sq km of the 1180 sq km Pench Tiger Reserve is open to the public). Our vehicle comes from the lodge but when additional ones are needed, they hire locals who have their own safari vehicle.

Access to the parks is heavily restricted because they are already overrun with tourists – about 90% of them Indian people versus foreign tourists (and these are mostly British, with a smattering of Europeans and Americans).

Rhesus monkey, Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we enter, there is this incredible scene as we watch the orange globe of the sun slowly rising just in front of us and spreading its light through the moisture of the trees.

We are lucky on our first drive – my group gets to spot a leopard on a ridge poking out from bushes (the others in our group, in another vehicle, weren’t so lucky). The leopard is there for a few moments but I manage to get off some shots. Leopards are particularly hard to spot – they are called the “ghost” of the jungle – because they primarily hunt at night.

Breakfast served from the hood of a safari vehicle in Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Around 8:30 am, we gather at an appointed place for breakfast – a fantastic meal the lodge has sent along with sunny side-up eggs, pastries, coffee and tea, fresh fruits and juice – which we enjoy in an open area where we see the lake that separates the two national parks, and a vast open area where there is a herd of deer and an assortment of birds. (All the safari vehicles follow the same routine, stopping at around 8:30 am to provide breakfast for their guests.)

Continuing on, we spot a group of jackals – one has a bone in its mouth and makes displays of dominance.

We come to an area with langur monkeys (my favorite jungle inhabitant) – with black faces with defined, expressive features and silvery fur. One sits on a tree root, posing like an old wise man (Jack Benny also comes to mind). Later we find a group of langur monkeys together with a herd of spotted deer.

Langur monkeys and spotted deer are best of friends © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“They are best friends,” Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Treehouse Lodge, tells us. There is a symbiosis between them: the langur sends down leaves and fruit from the trees for the deer to eat and sends off alarms when a predator approaches, while the deer are easier prey than the langur.

Great wood spider. The female is immense and eats the male after mating © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive under a massive spider web with a giant wood spider (that’s its name, and for good reason– black and yellow stripes, perhaps 2-3 inches wide. Sagor tells us that the male is tiny by comparison and that the female eats the male after they mate (unless she has something better to eat). For once in my life, I am more fascinated than fearful seeing such a creature so close at hand.

Ghost Tree © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He points out the “ghost tree” – it is starkly white, standing apart from the other trees. This tree changes color with the seasons– white, red, green; it gets its name because especially in the moonlight, it looks like a ghost walking in jungle, its tree limbs looking like arms flailing about wildly; the wood is used to make toys and musical instruments and the gum is used  as a laxative and as a thickening agent. “People used to eat the roasted seeds when they were hungry,” he says. He points out the “crocodile tree” – Saga- with bark that resembles a crocodile’s hide. “The tribe here worships the tree; if there is no water, they harvest water from the Saga tree.”

We come upon a pack of wild dogs – actually a rare sight – devouring a deer carcass. It is amazing to watch their teamwork: a couple stand like sentries, facing out, while the others tear at the carcass, switching off. Watching the dogs, I wonder why we don’t see more bones around – I learn that the bones are degraded by bacteria and fungus, taking about a year before they are reduced to nothing.

There are 60,000 spotted deer in Pench – the largest concentration in India – in fact, too many, we are told. But they provide the food source for the tigers, leopards and other predators.

Pench offers amazing bird sightings © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The profusion of birds is unbelievable: in the course of our visit, we see most of the “star attractions”: the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (my favorite, a blue-black bird with two hanging tails); the White-rumped Shama, the Gold-fronted leafbird, the Indian Roller, the streak-throated woodpecker, the Changeable Hawk-Eagle, the Coucal (big bird, brown and green, red eye), peacocks (they sleep in trees at night; the male loses its feathers during monsoon, then grows new ones), the white-eyed buzzard, the Indian Pond Heron (also called “magic bird” , it looks white when it flies); green parakeet; Crested serpent eagle (feeds on snakes); the Rufus tree pie (known as a tiger bird because has the same colors); and the Red Jungle fowl (the first chicken in the world) and the Crested serpent eagle (feeds on snakes).

Sagor says he has personally spotted over 100 species in Pench; there are over 200 in the region.

It is amazing to me what an eye Sagor, our guide, has – he spots two tiny Indian Scops owls the exact color of the knot-hole in a tree, and stops the vehicle. We can barely see it.

He tells us that Pench, which is named after a nearby river and was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1983, has about 43 tigers. That they are methodical (something that helps poachers): they are out until about 8:30 am, then sleep until evening in the winter. They only live about 13-14 years.

Male spotted deer finds some blue string to decorate his antlers in order to be more alluring to a female © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only 292 sq km of the 1180 sq km Pench Tiger Reserve is open to the public as Pench National Park, on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states, where a number of endangered species are protected. The tiger is the dominant predator here, The other predators include leopard, dhol (Indian Wild Dog), wolf, hyena, jackal and jungle cat. The prey species include chital (spotted deer), sambar deer, muntjac, gaur, wild boar, langur monkey and rhesus macaques. There is a rich birdlife with over 300 recorded bird species, including parakeets, hornbills, kingfisher, barbets, minivets, orioles, wagtails, and a host of raptors; the crested serpent eagle, crested hawk eagle and white-eyed buzzard. (Amazingly, we see most of these during our visit).

The Real Jungle Book 

On the way into Pench National Park for our morning game drive, as we pass villages, Sagor Mahajan, the naturalist from the Pench Tree Lodge, tells us that though this is land is the setting for Kipling’s Jungle Book, Kipling never actually visited here –it was his father who spent time here and inspired his son with his stories. But then Sagor shocks me by saying that the story could have had a basis in fact, of an actual boy brought up by wolves.

“There are two stories about Kipling: in the first story, Rudyard Kipling’s father visited often, loved it, and would narrate stories to Rudyard – that’s how young Rudyard Kipling was inspired, but never visited,” he tells us as we rumble along the road.

“In the second story: two British guys roaming around a nearby village learned of a story about a young boy who was rescued, who had been brought up by wolf pack. He couldn’t speak human, walk like a human, nothing about him was like a human. The boy was actually found and rescued, but he died two or three years after. Both of them wrote separate books about it.” Kipling, he says, likely read the stories.

This is utterly fascinating – but surely, such a fantastical legend must be part of that village’s folklore, passed down from generation to generation?

I’m intrigued enough to do my own research, finding an article in the Times of India by a reporter who did trace the original stories and visited the village.

In his article, “Did Seoni have a Real Mowli?,” Sumeet Keswani writes:

While Kipling’s was a work of fiction, it’s said to have been inspired by Sir William Henry Sleeman’s pamphlet, An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens, which describes a wolf-boy captured near Seoni in 1831. Sleeman was a British soldier and administrator and is known for his work in suppressing thuggery. We found a mention of the wolf-boy named ‘Seeall’ in Mervyn Smith’s Sport and Adventure in the Indian Jungle, which describes his capture and behaviour in captivity. “I have reason to believe that he was the original of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli,” the author writes.

Mowgli is still a “pervasive theme” in the district – there are caricatures on bus stands, an annual Mowgli Mahotsav, Keswani finds, but is not, apparently, a folk story that is widely shared.

“The only clue is talk about a cave on the outskirts of Kanhiwada, a village that finds mention in the original tale,” Keswani reports. But in his investigation, he could not find any local people to give credence to it.

“In the book, Mowgli may have been the target of Shere Khan, but today the tigers of Pench are the ones in danger,” he writes.

Wild dogs devour a deer carcass © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While we don’t actually see any wolves, we do get to see a pack of wild dogs tearing apart the carcass of a deer, and over the course of our visits into the parks, see many of the animals that animated the Jungle Book characters. But after our three game drives in Pench, we have yet to see the tiger. But we still have our visit to Kanha National Park, where we go next.

Pench Tree Lodge 

My treehouse at Pench Tree Lodge provides the perfect ambiance and amenities for our Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What makes the experience all the more special are the accommodations: Pench Tree Lodge (www.PenchTreeLodge) which only opened in 2016, is literally a tree house, built of all natural materials, but with stunning design, local and traditional art, and every comfort and amenity you could crave. There are just six of these tree house accommodations spread over 16 acres.

Chef Pankaj Fulera of the Pench Tree Lodge shows his versatility and art © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a gorgeous dining lodge and the restaurant is headed by sensational chef, Chef Pankaj Fulera who was runner-up for Best India Chef) who is equally adept at traditional Indian cuisine as a fusion Continental (cooking classes and a tour of the kitchen can be arranged). Every dish is served with stunning presentation. The dining lodge has two different dining rooms, plus a lounge area.

One night, our dinner is served outside, under a tree that I have taken to think of as The Tree of Life. The atmosphere is breathtaking. We are there just as they are replanting the lodge’s organic garden, which supplies the kitchen.

Our tree houses have a balcony (mine has an enormous Mahua tree, the dropped leaves of which are turned into a liquor), and a stunning bathroom.

They both are absolutely perfect- luxurious, comfortable, sophisticated and gorgeously designed, but designed to blend perfectly with the environment, and support the local tribal people. They enhance the experience.

There is also a fantastic lap-size swimming pool (so much fun to swim and watch the green parakeets flying above).

Dinner served outside at Pench Tree Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pench Tree Lodge offers impeccable service, which you note immediately with the staff on hand as our van pulls up, with moist towels and a refreshing beverage – cold when it is hot in the afternoon and hot when it is cold at night. You really get some of that vibe as if we were a royal hunting party (okay, we are out for photos, not trophies).

Our rooms are supplied with coffee, tea and bottled water (flashlights, too). When we leave for our game drives at around 5:15 am, they have coffee and tea and biscuits on hand, blankets in the jeeps.

From my balcony, I can see how Pench Tree Lodge preserves the rustic, natural landscape © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Pench Tree Lodge, between dusk and dawn, we must call for someone to escort us to and from our tree house (the lodge is, after all, contiguous with the national park, and I think it also has to do with snakes) and each tree house has a device that emits a high-pitched sound that can’t be heard by humans, that deters rodents from entering. We are warned that at night we might hear the sound of monkeys jumping on the roof and when that happens, I am grateful for the warning.

The dining lodge has two different dining rooms, plus a lounge area. (Cooking classes can be arranged).

One of the reasons Pench National Park is so popular with tourists is that it is the closest tiger park to a well-connected commercial airport in India -Nagpur is about 3 hours drive. Karmajhiri gate (where we stay at the Pench Tree Lodge) and Jamtara entrance gate of Park are at the furthest points, so get fewer visitors. More significantly, you really feel immersed in local life.

Apart from the wildlife, the Royal Expeditions “Jungle Book” tour also provides distinctive opportunity to experience rural life in India – the “soul of India” is in its villages, where 60% of the 1.2 billion people still live -and meet with local people who live in harmony with wildlife. Just how much in harmony? We see thatched, raised platform shelters so that the farmers sleep in their fields at night to guard against encroaching animals.

Women working in the fields in Pench © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

On our way back from our game drive in Pench, looking out over the fields being tended by farmers, Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Treehouse Lodge, tells us that the villagers here have lived here for generations – they are descended from people who migrated from South Africa in the 17th century.

I’m thinking how interesting that is, because of his description of the dragonflies we see,  Wandering Gliders, which, he says, migrate back to South Africa, taking four or five generations to complete the trek, the longest migration of any insect.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595. 

Next: Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park 

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park 

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© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Cycling through a herd of cattle on their way home © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our 25 km cycling trip through the Forest Corridor sanctuary between Pench and Kanha national parks in central India – literally the locale for Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 classic “Jungle Book” –  is the most challenging ride of the aptly named new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” offered by Royal Expeditions (see story). But the most colorful, scenic and interesting ride comes during our stay at the Kanha Earth Lodge (another fantastic ecolodge), alongside the national park, when we ride through villages and alongside farms.

Farmer in a field in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

After an exciting game drive in the Kanha National Park in the morning (still no sighting of the tiger, though) and lunch at the lodge, we set out on a 14.9 km route that circles back to the lodge. It is a mix of road and single-track off-road (though the cars don’t drive on anything better), and involves some technical riding (sand, gravel, rocks).

What is so special about cycling is that it brings you into local communities, at a pace and perspective, perched on the bike saddle, to really see things, to be in the scene, not just a spectator looking through glass, and with the ability to stop, look around, and interact.


Welcomed into a home in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Not too far from the Kanha Earth Lodge we come into a village, where our guide invites us into a home to see what it looks like on the inside. A father and son are there, looking a little mystified at this sudden intrusion. There are cows and goats in pens in a front courtyard (in this community, the animals are kept in front of the house and not usually in pens, as a sign of wealth and status, Vishal Singh, the managing director of Royal Expeditions who accompanies our small group, tells us). It is dark and spartan inside – there is electricity and a small, old television set. Most homes do not have indoor plumbing. There is a beautiful garden in the back.

We ride a little further and hear drumming so we ask to go inside and come upon a band of shepherds rehearsing with dancing and singing, getting ready for a competition that is part of the Diwali harvest festival underway.

A band of shepherds rehearse for a festival © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we set out to continue on our ride, we find ourselves going against a massive herd of cattle (with horns, no less) that fills the narrow street, with no choice but to bike straight through. The cows, it turns out are used to people, and as we come mere inches in front, turn slightly to make way for us. There is a shepherd at the back of the herd, but we are told that the cows find their way to their own homes for the night.

Biking through a village in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

People cycle all over India, but not in the manner or style that we are riding, so we are curiosities. In fact, it is astonishing to see the loads that people carry with a basic bike, though scooters and motorcycles are extremely popular (and we’ve saw as many as four people on a motorbike). When you see people biking with a load of sugar cane or batches of wood or pipe on a regular bike – not the mountain bikes or hybrids with 24 gears that we have – it is awe-inspiring.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We become immersed in these scenes of everyday life and fields and farms: women are carrying massive loads on their heads, walking with the grace of a model in an etiquette school; men driving carts pulled by cows; school girls in their neat uniforms riding bicycles home (the government gives girls a bicycle when they matriculate to high school); a fisherman who has just returned with his catch.

Biking in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then toward the end of the ride, on a berm overlooking gorgeous rice fields on one side and a small lake with water buffalo on the other, trees along the border completing the picturesque setting as the sun begins to set, the Kanha Earth Lodge fellows set up a snack using the front of the jeep as a table – offer soda, coffee, tea, water, a kind of fried onion (tasty!).

We snack leisurely while watching people cutting down the rice stalks with scythes; others take huge clumps in yokes on their shoulders to great mounds growing ever higher with each new contribution, to dry before being threshed. Soon, a woman comes along who we had met in the village earlier, engages in conversation and takes photos with us.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sun is a blazing red-orange when we set out on the last leg on a sandy road. I get one shot just before it disappears into a line of clouds. As dusk sets in, the temperature becomes much cooler as we make it back to the hotel just before dark – greeted with a wash towel and refreshing lime juice.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Photo tip: For biking, I use a Canon G16, a small point-and-shoot I can keep around my neck and pull out with one hand. It is remarkably fast and responsive, has a terrific zoom lens that is wide enough for landscapes, long enough for close-ups, has an enormous ISO range plus built-in flash if necessary, sensitive sensor that gives rich color, and has image stabilization. It also takes video. I’ve taken shots in horribly low light using the Automatic setting.

Market Day in Kanha 

The Royal Expeditions trip is designed to really immerse us in the cultural experience.

On our third day, we have a morning game drive at Pench, then lunch at the Pench Tree Lodge, then drive a couple of hours to Kanha National Park, which will be our venue for the next three days for game drives and cycling. The drive gives us a superb view of local life – Vishal notes that in India, “Daily life is lived in public” as we see a fellow brushing his teeth in the street. Vishal times the trip so we arrive in time for a weekly village market underway, just at the base of the forest road to the Kanha Earth Lodge.

Women carrying a load along the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Madhya Pradesh is dominated by tribal groups, remarkably untouched by development in other parts of India.  The differences in the tribal community, spread over various parts of the state, are based on heredity, lifestyle and cultural traditions as well as social, economic structure, religious beliefs, language and speech.

This is most apparent in the market. It is a swirl of color, sound and activity.

Merchants spread out food produce and wares on cloth on the ground – have their scales to weigh. They hawk their wares. People crowd around to buy. Cash money is exchanged. It is a kaleidoscope of color: the women in vibrant saris, the fresh produce.

Weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Cows roam freely in the market- one snatches a potato from a pile and the merchant yells and reaches over to swat it with a switch to get it to move on.

We are here at around 4 pm and the warm light makes for gorgeous photos. Indeed, Royal Expeditions offers a photography tour that goes from village to village for their markets.

Weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are the photos I’ve seen in my mind –that I have wanted to take my whole life. The colors and contours of the bright saris against the brown fields, or the colors of the mud homes, newly painted in broad horizontal stripes – white and blue or pink or green – for the Diwali Festival, the Festival of Lights celebrating the last harvest before winter, against the field of bright yellow mustard (canola) flowers.

In these settings – even shooting from a moving vehicle and especially for wildlife – I use my new Nikon D500 DSLR with a 28-300 mm lens with image stabilization, which I find wide enough for landscape scenes, but close enough. The camera’s best virtue is how fast it responds, its enormous  ISO range (I even shoot village scenes at night as we drive back to the lodge). In general, its 20.9 megapixel CMOS sensor produces rich tones though I am still trying to figure out how to get the best exposure readings. It takes cinematic 4K UHD video and is WiFi capable. It is relatively light compared to other professional-grade cameras and fits ergonomically in my hand, which is a comfort when you are shooting for hours at a time.

Bangles for sale at the weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Royal Expeditions’ new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” program combines all my favorite activities: biking, immersive cultural and wildlife experiences and photography.

It’s hard to overstate how unusual this trip is – the whole idea of being able to bike where wild animals can also roam, when people are not allowed to step out of their safari vehicles, normally. The trip is result of a creative insight as well as the tour company’s connections with the preserve officials to get the permits to bike into the sanctuary.

Indeed Royal Expeditions has royal connections: the tour company, which specializes in luxury, customized and special interest trips, was founded in 1993 by the Princess of Jodhpur, who served in Parliament and as the nation’s Minister of Culture (see http://royalexpeditions.com/)

Royal Expeditions has created an innovative “Jungle Book” itinerary that combines wildlife safari with cycling adventure through central India © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Notably, our trip, which covered about 25 km of the Forest Corridor, was immediately followed by a fascinating 160 km fundraising ride, produced by Tour Operators For Tigers (TOFT) along this same forest corridor that we traveled, linking Pench with Kanha national parks, where wild animals freely roam. Singh is a founder of the group which has about 150 members now. This year, about 20 people took part in the 4-day/3-night ride which raises money to hire local people as village guardians, providing them with smart phones so they can alert authorities to illegal poaching. But I see the ride as a major lure for cyclists from around the world because of its unique setting and challenge (the “road” is more of a mountain bike trail, especially so soon after the rainy season), as well as the opportunities to stay in guesthouses in these villages, not to mention the mission. “Authentic” doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

Kanha Earth Lodge

My villa at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Like the Pench Tree Lodge which we enjoyed during our time at the Pench National Park, the Kanha Earth Lodge (www.kanhaearthlodge.com) enhances the wilderness experience. It is an ecolodge made of all natural materials that is stunning in its design that blends so perfectly without adverse impact on the environment, uses local and traditional art (there is even a fellow who paints tigers), has its own organic garden and a lovely swimming pool, a stunning lodge (WiFi available in the office), and each evening, during cocktail hour, the in-house naturalist offers fascinating presentations about the wildlife and the national park,.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.com, tours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

Next: Tiger Tiger! On Safari in Kanha National Park 

See also: Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

 

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© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures