3guys,New car,2000 kms,No itinerary and Loads of fun

The best trips are the ones we dont plan- and so it is, yet again.
I had been after my friend- Vigyaan- who runs a rural tourism venture- to do some justice to his venture and spend some time on the road- exploring Kutchh and other beautiful places on the way. After almost 3 weeks of cajoling, taunts and mild abuses, we were on. The trip was initially to be over the weekend but then the 3rd guy-Ritesh- wanted to bring his new ride for this highway trip across Rajasthan & Gujarat. So he got his new Swift serviced on Saturday and we were to start from Jaipur on Sunday morning.

I took the night bus into Jaipur and managed to freshen up at my friend’s place before we hit the roads at 7 a.m. We made our first stop in Jaipur for chai-maska. I dont know where exactly we stopped, but apparently this chai-wala baba has a reputation- one which made people queue for tea/bfast at 6.30.
We started from Jaipur and Vigyaan managed to get himself behind the wheels, when Ritesh lit his first one. And we soon realised that you cant risk putting a guy who drives an automatic, behind the wheels of a manual drive- esp on the highway. Twice in the first 30 mins, Ritesh had to remind Vigyaan that the car had a 5th gear too !

Now Ritesh, is a wildlife enthusiast- or so we discovered. And he started convincing us slowly but surely, that if we are headed upto Kutchh, might as well go to Gir Forests and try our luck at Lion sightings. He had me on his side, when he said that this would mean another 200-300 kms. Vigyaan was worried about getting back to work on Monday (he didnt realise that Monday was not happening, even if we were going till Kutchh).
So by the time, we crossed Ajmer and reached Udaipur, we were trying to fix a place at Gir for us to stay. Couple of minutes on Google & Lonely Planet and we realised that this was the “off-season” – something we would hear a few more times on the trip. Ritesh was sad and i had to sell what was waiting for us at the Kutchh – dried river beds, villagers in colorful attires, flamingoes and wild ass.

So after a really spicy lunch, we set our coordinates for Ahmedabad via Himmatnagar. Great thing is, Ritesh is not too enthusiastic about driving and Vigyaan prefers to catch up on his beauty sleep whenever time permits. So yours truly was behind the wheels most of the time and i was enjoying it completely. We were cruising at almost 100-120 kmph averaging 80-90kmph and it was hard not to appreciate the amazing quality of roads. The weather was also good, with a nice cloud cover and the only two things one could complain about were toll-plazas and quality of tea.

When we had just crossed Himmatnagar and taken the turn towards Ahmedabad, Ritesh took out the Lonely Planet and started reading about Kutchh and which town to head into. He found a guide’s number and dialled his number to be told, that this is not the season for Kutchh. We insisted, it doesnt matter, whats the worst that would happen, no flamingoes- right? we could live with that. But the good man that this guide was, insisted that the roads that go into Kutchh are flooded and there is no way we are seeing even the salt-beds or the wild-asses (not even wild ass !!!!)

This was crisis! We had just driven 600 kms and Kutchh was out. We cleared our minds with another round of tea and did a you turn. Ritesh and Vigyaan insisted we should go to Mt Abu and that was one place I wasnt keen on going. We reached Himmatnagar by-pass and asked for Abu Road- and while we were trying to get there, we found ourselves at Mota Ambaji. Now I know a lot of places- religious and otherwise and I had never heard of this place.Apparently its a very famous temple of Goddess Durga and the whole town & its economy revolves around pilgrims- much like Shirdi.
We were glad to have discovered this place, spent 2 hrs in line and when we were finally out of the temple, it was almost 8pm on our first day on the road. We decided to spend the night at one of the hotels in town and also managed to catch the 9.30 movie at the local theatre – Lamhaa.
The movie was a complete disaster, but the hotel staff was amazing. We were told that the kitchen closes at 10.00 pm and we would not get anything anywhere in town after the movie. Ritesh, the smooth talker that he is, managed to convince the hotel staff to get our dinner for us at the theatre during intermission- how many of you have had dinner brought to a cinema hall.

By next morning, I had convinced the duo to go to Jaisalmer, my logic was that I had never seen the real desert- sand dunes et al. So plan was to drive through the day and somehow manage to reach Sam in Jaisalmer district. We drove past a nice stretch of road that connects Mota Ambaji to Abu Road and from there to the NH. By the time we hit our first toll plaza, Ritesh was low on adventure and probably nicotine too. He insisted that Jaisalmer in this season is not worth the additional 900-1000 Kms we are planning to drive. Guess the lack of sleep had made me weak, but I soon conceded to his not-the-right-season logic and we stopped to decide where to go. Vigyaan pulled out his laptop to check with uncle Google for options, I dished out my LP and we had options ranging from Mt abu,Haldi Ghati, Chittorgarh, Udaipur to what not. It went on for almost 15 minutes without any clarity on our next destination, so i decided to take matters in my own hands. MtAbu was vetoed and i started driving straight ahead saying they could decide where we need to go until we make our next stop on the same road- which was at SawaiSagar lake near Udaipur. So we drove for the next couple of hours, by when Ritesh had proposed that we go to Sawai Madhopur. He mentioned that the Ranthambore National Park would be closed, but there was a white river bed stretch where one could see crocs- so Sawai Madhopur it was!
Ritesh is a regular at Ranthambore (claims to have visited it more than 50 times) and by the time we settled into his regular resort, he had figured out that there was a male tiger which had strayed from the park boundary into the nearby sanctuary and had been sighted there for the last 2 days. So we decided to say a little prayer and go on a safari the next morning- into this small sanctuary which was open when it was off season everywhere else. And bingo, there it was – a male tiger lounging in the mud!

My first sight of the majestic creature, and all i wanted to do was get a closer look. Unfortunately our driver didn’t share the same passion for closed-range viewing and hushed my requests mid-way. For the next 25-30 minutes the cat looked at us, ignored us and slept while we took turns clicking and looking through the zoom lens. We then decided to take a quick tour of the rest of the jungle and come back for the stripey. So a couple of wild boar, jackal and buck sightings later, we headed back to the same spot- but as luck would have it, we were shooed away by the rangers. It seems they had been trying to tranquilise this tiger (T12) for the last 18 months and today was a great opportunity.
Though we were outraged at not being allowed the magnificent view, we were told how lucky we were to have sighted T12 in the first place. It seems the male tiger’s territory is much bigger and hence its tougher to locate/sight.

We came back to the resort, rested and started on our way back to Jaipur- thanking Ritesh for the first tiger sightings of our lives. While tracing our path back via Dausa, Vigyaan found his opportunity to prove that he runs a tourism venture. According to him, if we took a de-tour of about 30 kms, we would be able to see India’s biggest baori (waterwell) which was made famous by the Shahrukh movie- Paheli.
So off we went to Chand Baori at Abaneri (you can read about it on GoPlaces). The magnificent structure needs to be seen with one’s own eyes as I am not too confident of doing justice to it with my words or shots.

From Abaneri we went off straight to Jaipur to finish a roadtrip which had taken us almost in circles around Rajasthan and Gujarat- a trip where luckily no one insisted on making plans or sticking to them. Travelling just for the sake of being on the road.

The JUNGLE BOOK (Kanha, APRIL 2009)

The first day
At 4:00 am there is a sharp knock on the door. It’s still pitch dark but its time to wake up with tea & biscuits at 4:15am! The gypsy and eighteen year old Ramzan are waiting for Simrata & me and we quickly join and drive to the queue at Kanha gate. The entry form takes a few minutes and Dinesh Soni the forest ranger hops in. At 5:00 the gates open and we head to the inner park gate; the Kisli gate. It is still dark and we have to wait till 5:45. The Kanha National park is vast; covering over 1000 sq km divided between the buffer zone and the core area. Beyond Kisli gate is the core area. It is critical to be ahead in the Q of Gypsies as one stands a better chance of sighting the shy animals.

Bhalu @ Digdola
The gates open and we veer in at the normal speed at 25kmph. We have barely entered when Dinesh barked “Bhalu, to the left” pointing towards Digdola hill. The first five gypsies have missed it. Incredible! Ramzan breaks off towards Digdola and a few gypsies behind choose to follow us. We lay wait at the edge of the hill, camera’s ready. After a few minutes the male sloth bear appears ahead. He walks parallel and then crosses the road ahead of us to head into the jungle. “Rare to sight a bear” says Dinesh. We can’t believe our early luck and his keen eyes.

Over the next half hour Ramzan takes us through the Digdola range towards the Kanha meadows. We pass a tusked wild boar and his pack. The park has four varieties of deer which including the common spotted dear numbering about 23,000, the Sambar which is the tallest, bulky and apparently quite daft and the endangered Barasingha. “That’s the Indian Ghost tree and it is known to change its color thrice a year” remarks Dinesh pointing to a shining white dry tree also known as Kullu. Now I understand some of Mr. Kipling’s influences.

The Leopard at Road no 9
After an hour we approach the Kanha meadow that brings us in contact with the gypsies which took a different route and thereby get news on sightings all over the park. The word is that a Leopard has been sighted on road number 9. What Luck. The Leopard is seated on small rocks about 80 feet away and looking down at us. Over the next hour the magnificent beast stares, gets up, looks around and then crouches again. My Nikon is clicking away at full optical zoom. “We are lucky, a Leopard does not stay visible for so long” says Ramzan.

A friend text me in the night saying that his friend a naturalist, has visited Kanha every year for the last ten years and sighted the Leopard only twice.

We halt for breakfast at Kanha camp and visit the museum. There is an astonishing 8 min video with rare footage of animal episodes at Kanha.

Back on the meadows we sight a herd of Bison or the Gaur. “In Kanha only a few tigers have developed the skill to pull down a bison. They weigh close to a ton and the male bison is known to ward off a tiger” quips Dinesh. “The herd you see now has only females. Females keep only one male and his duty is to protect them from a tiger. A prospective bison male has to defeat the incumbent male if he wants property over the herd. This herd is without a male and the herd will choose over time”.

Our first safari is over by 11:00. Shower, lunch and rest

First Tiger sight at Sharavan Taal
Despite April the Jungle is nippy at dawn to become seething hot by afternoon. Its 2:45pm and we are getting ready for the afternoon safari. The gates open at 4pm and we take our place ahead in the single file of gypsies.

The route that Ramzan and Dinesh choose to the meadows is now via the Salghat. It is a long dry dusty road through the range full of sal trees. We pass a small herd of the protected Barasingha deer, which are now found only at Kanha. Unlike the common spotted deer, the Barasingha have a clear brown skin. A common sight in Kanha is to find dancing peacocks. “They either have to shed their feathers or if they have stepped out of water they try to shed the water. They often dance to shed weight and lighten their load” explains Dinesh.

At the other end of the meadow is the large pond Shravan Taal about 60 feet away from the road. The rectangular pond is about 300 meters in length and stretching away. The area is buzzing with expectation. About 400 meters away, near the water a male tiger is napping. It is our first sight of the Tiger. The white belly and stripes are reflecting in the water. We wait the rest of the evening in vain hoping he will wake up and choose to cross the road, before giving up and heading back to Kisli gate.

Wild dogs on the Hunt
The second day at dawn we prepare for the early chill by borrowing the bedcovers of Mogli Resorts and head out. The Kisli gates open and we spot the shy barn owl stepping out of the banyan tree. Again through Salghat range we reach the meadows and head on the route called Schaller Hide. “Elephants are tracking a tiger movement on our left” spots Dinesh. He asks Ramzan to shut the engine and watches them. He figures the elephants have spotted a tiger and the tiger is moving away. The meadows are covered with high grass on both sides and the tiger is not visible to us.

As the elephants have moved away on the horizon, there are signs of anxiety in the herds of deer along Schaller Hide road. “Wild dogs” shouts Dinesh. “Over there” points Ramzan. We wheel backwards. One, then the Second, surely there are more. Some of the deer are crossing the Schaller Hide and moving away and some are listening for signs. Suddenly two of the wild dogs appear and cut off the rear and a fawn is trapped in their ring. It is a quick end. The five wild dogs are now helping themselves. We feel our stomachs tighten.

“For someone to live, someone has to die” is what the forest ranger in the Gypsy next to ours is telling his fellow travelers. So it is. The wild dogs are now retreating back to the forest via Bison road. We head ahead and snap them crossing the Bison road.

After the break at Kanha Camp, Dinesh chooses the Indri road. “That’s the Shigra, part of the Eagle family. It is a combative bird and it bully’s other birds” said Dinesh. A role for everyone in the Jungle

Himalaya’s story
Towards Indri road we pass a tomb of a mahout and Dinesh recounted Himalaya’s story. 15 years back a mahout had died and the Elephant Himalaya was in grief. The tale states the elephant sat at the door of the hut thereby not allowing the family to carry the body of the mahout. Somehow the Elephant was cajoled into moving away and the processing was carried out. But the Elephant was disturbed and stopped performing its duties. It was left alone. The mahout’s son Sabeer also a mahout was then posted away to Pench Forest. Sabeer informed the Adhikari that Himalaya was still disturbed and would not be advisable to send him away. But the Adhikari thought otherwise.

Unfortunately one day Himalaya charged at some forest rangers at the camp towards Indri road. The forest rangers ran away. Himalaya gave charge to one mahout who fled towards a tree. The mahout climbed a tree, which was not very strong. Himalaya shook the tree, almost uprooting it and then killed the mahout. The Adhikari’s gave the order to shoot elephant. At this time one Adhikari thought of Sabeer and he was called back.

Sabeer was convinced he could get around to Himalaya. He went close to Himalaya and gave his call. Himalaya chased him away. Sabeer went again. The tale states that Himalaya recognized the call and went to Sabeer. Then placed its trunk on Sabeer and wept.

Last year, while crossing Kanha’s ground to hunt for its mate, Himalaya met a tragic end getting electrocuted. Today Sabeer is back on Kanha and he rides Himalaya’s kin, aptly named Himalaya.

We had completed our morning safari after a long dry ride on the Indri road. Then back at Mogli Resort. Shower, lunch and sleep. In the afternoon we took our place in the single file. We passed the banyan tree with the shy barn owl and ahead Dinesh sighted the changeable Hawk Eagle. He was simply the most glorious bird I have seen.

This time Dinesh veered us right towards Nakti Ghat instead of the usual left towards Salghat. At the Nakti Ghati pond I got a fabulous shot of a Sambar dunking her head and pulling out juicy weeds.

Back on the meadows word reached us that a Leopard had brought down a cheetal on Road no. 9. The Leopard was in the thicket and we could barely see it. “It probably is same Leopard we saw yesterday,” remarked Dinesh. “It will eat it’s full for now and then tear apart parts of its kill and hang on a tree. To eat it later”

Sighting the second Tiger at Salghat
At Road number 9, word reached us that a tiger was sighted on Jamun Nalah. We decided to try our luck and headed along Kanha main road. In any case the Leopard was busy on its kill and would probably not surface out.

We reached the Jamun Nalah. Dinesh saw signs of Tiger movements and asked Ramzan to continue ahead. We were on the Kanha road and had to make a choice. Either continue straight or turn right into Salghat. We moved straight on Kanha road.

Our first stroke of fortune as a single gypsy headed in from the opposite direction. Dinesh flagged him down and we learnt that the Tiger had not walked ahead on Kanha road. Ramzan turned around the gypsy in record time back towards Salghat.

The gypsy climbed up the hill till we came across two gypsies stationed ahead. They were waiting and listening for sounds. The Tiger was somewhere in the thick shrubs. We parked next to them when we had our second stroke of fortune. One of the forest ranger moved his gypsy towards a higher position on the road and peered into the shrubs.

Suddenly he was visible. The young male Tiger was crouched peacefully behind the shrubs and watching us all this while! The Tiger was about 300 meters away and we had some beautiful clicks of Tiger. My brother in law Prag is busy adding to his collections. The Tiger had walked quite a distance and was probably resting. Dinesh said Tigers are great walkers and are said to cover 30km in a day. But our time had run out. It was close to 6:10 and time for us to head to Kisli gate.

The Last day
Wake up at 4:00 am. Tea &Biscuits 4:15. Ramzan is already waiting in the Gypsy. The Jungle is a wonder for him. The eighteen year old can think of no other life. Bless him.

The word at Kisli gate is that the Tiger at Salghat got up just as we left and walked towards the Gypsies and crossed the road and walked into the Salghat hill. Others share that a Tiger was sighted near Shravan Taal in the evening. Maybe it is still by the pond at dawn.

At Shravan Taal there are fresh footprints of the tigress heading away towards the Neela Nallah. There are jungle calls. We lay watch. Two mahouts appear and speak to Dinesh and head right into the woods. Gypsies have to stick to the road and no person is allowed to step down from the jeep. Only the elephants with their mahouts have the privilege of making their own pathways.

We watch over an hour when I ask Dinesh if we should move to another place. Dinesh would rather lay watch but he senses my impatience. Ramzan turns back towards Shravan Taal where we watch two full sized male Barasingha with wonderful antlers negotiate a very – very cautious walk from Schaller Hide towards the pond.

Back on Schaller Hide we watch a mongoose cross our path. I dish out my Nikon when the mongoose surprisingly stops looks back and I get superb moment. Instantly it scoots away. “They are very shy and never look back” says Ramzan. The park abounds with Kipling’s characters.

The Tiger show at Chunnar Ghati
After our breakfast at Kanha Camp we spot a pair of Jackals running along Kanha main road. The word at Kanha camp was that a Tiger show is happening at Chunnar Ghati. For a Tiger show you have to pay Rs100, get a token and await your turn to mount the Elephant for a real close look.

There are four elephants at Chunnar Ghati that pick up people and take them close to the Tiger. The ride lasts at most a single minute.

The Tigress is sitting next to a rock. Our Elephant moves through the bushes towards her. Just as we turn towards her, she gets up and retreats into the thicket. I can just see her chest heaving through the shrub. But it is too quick to capture the moment. “I think the sun got to her” says the Mahout.

When we head back to Kisli gate, Dinesh says the Mahout & the Elephant who took me were the same Sabeer and the Himalaya.

Just before the gate Ramzan has sighted a beautiful Serpent Eagle with its distinct yellow beak.

The Tiger & the Wild Boar
In the afternoon after our meal and nap, the three of us troop out for one last safari. Dinesh joins us at the Kisli gate with the news that Tigress at Neela Nallah appeared after we moved away. And it walked on the tracks for over half an hour towards Shravan Taal

It’s a lesson in patience that I have to learn. Ramzan takes the shortest route to Shravan Taal through Salghat then skims along the meadows to reach Shravan Taal. There are a few gypsies ahead of us that stop to inspect the large pond and then choose to move ahead to Neela Nallah.

Dinesh is not convinced and borrows my binoculars. “There! It is sleeping” he exclaims pointing through the trees. Even through the instrument he is barely visible. A small speck

We decide to lay watch. As time ticks by others arrive spot the speck through the trees and wait. But after some time choose to move ahead or head back to the meadows. The sleeping male Tiger is oblivious to the expectation at the distant end of the large pond. Minutes tick into an hour.

Then a wild boar appears from the other end. It has not seen the Tiger. Unbelievable! Then instincts take over. In single instance the boar turns his head towards left and the Tiger raises his head backwards. The eyes meet and the boar darts back. There is muted laughter at our end. The Tiger goes back to sleep.

Occasionally it stretches its hind legs. Most watchers have got bored and left, only a few remain. But we want to implement our lessons in patience now.

After another hour the Tiger shows sign of awakening. It lifts its head towards our direction and then upwards to smell the wind. Gradually it lifts itself and deliberately walks back to the small mound and stops to watch.

The wild boar was thirsty. It appears in a few minutes and does not see the Tiger at its original sleeping place. Confident, it continues its descent into the pond. The Tiger takes a few strides and tightens itself. Then it charges down into the pond. The jungle is screaming with calls. A hunt is on.

The Tiger tears into the water. The Wild Boar makes crucial sharp turn and evades the leap. By the time the Tiger turns back the Wild Boar is out of the water and moving away from the pond. The Tiger makes a slow walk back to the mound.

“It will walk out of the other side and we may see it cross the road” feels Ramzan. He negotiates the gypsy backward and we drive along the pond to the other end. We wait for the Tiger to walk down from the covered mound and towards us.

The Tiger walks down and then stops to spray his marking on a tree. Then he enters the bushes and walks out 6 yards in front of us and crosses the road. Then he stops and clears the grass with is hind legs and eases himself. Done with the natures call he walks right by and into the grass leading to Schaller Hide.

We are in ruptures. What a moment.

“Its 6:15 Ramzan, you have 15 minutes to reach Kisli gate” reminds Dinesh. We blaze back.

It’s a trip and a place we will never forget and hopefully get back to soon. And I have learned a lot from the young Ramzan about his joy for life and experiencing the soul of the Jungle.

Getting There:
Most airlines have direct flights to Nagpur from Mumbai & Delhi. From Nagpur it is a 6 hour (240Km) drive to Kanha. The road is rough in patches, a good cab is recommended.
You could also take a train to Jabalpur and drive to Kanha (4 hours).

Staying there:
We stayed at Mogli resorts (INR 3000/day for a/c cottage, all meals). Park charges, Gypsy hire extra. It is located next to Kanha gate which saves precious time for getting into the entry Q. Other resorts, Kipling Camp, Tuli resort.

Jim Corbett National Park

JCNP is the most celebrated of the Tiger Reserves in India but we failed to see the celebrity cat… all we managed were a few pugmarks and the warning calls of the barking deer- rubbing it in, that we missed yet another close encounter.

Jim Corbett National Park

But the beauty of the jungle & the numerous other species (birds,deers,elephants,reptiles etc) more than makes up for the elusive Tiger. If you ever go there make sure to have your reservation at Dhikala camp. Dhikala is situated on the banks of RamGanga river. The other side is an open ground about 1 km wide which provides good view of the animals coming to quench their thirst.

The park is really well maintained & the camps have good facilities, but what I was unimpressed with was the lack of knowledge about how the tiger census is done. I asked quite a few officials as to how do they get to the exact count of tigers- & i was told it was done through pugmarks. Apparently their pugmarks are as unique as our fingerprints !- I personally dont buy that 🙂

But anyways my doubt was- that howd the officials know that a tiger has died- coz they wouldnt see the pugmarks or the tiger & would assume that the cat is in hiding. I fear its this logic through which they claim that there are 400 tigers @ Corbett! If there were even half as many- we would have surely seen one.

Once inside the park you are not allowed to venture out of the camp between 11am & 4pm- coz thats the time the jungle gets back to normal after all the jeep & elephant safaris.If you have the interest you can get yourself parked at the machan for these 5 hrs- but make sure you take enough water & food with you.

I only wish there was a way to volunteer as a Forest guard for a month…