India has been on my list for many decades but there are so many places on my list it is often an unexpected catalyst that compels me to actually book the plane ticket. In this case, it was celebrating a milestone birthday with my ex-husband. Yeah, a plot twist before the trip even starts 😉 But we have stayed good friends and celebrating milestone birthdays with friends is kind of the theme for 2015…
That is why you will see me running through India at a breakneck pace, eschewing culture in favour of tiger stalking and living in a bubble… It is a different travel experience tagging along on someone else’s trip, especially in the developing world, but it adds an element of surprise. I might have been less surprised had I not been working every minute until I got on the plane and done a bit of research but all the essential elements had been organized by others so I could just show up and see what I had gotten into…
One thing I had definitely gotten into was very little sleep! We were going on 17 game safaris, which started even earlier than in Africa. But first we had to get to Nagpur. There aren’t a lot of flights so we had to be at the airport around the time early risers are getting up. I realize it seemed strange to the lady frisking me at the Delhi airport and stamping my boarding pass far more than seemed necessary that I didn’t know where I was going but I did pay enough attention to know I was getting off at the first stop. Obviously the travel agent had been a bit sub-par and we weren’t sitting together on the plane.
But I got off at the correct airport and we were off on our first major car journey in central India. They were all supposed to take copious numbers of hours per our itinerary and I am sure at some point the estimates were correct but we got lucky on our first go and had roads with a lot of modern infrastructure so we breezed along and got to the lodge in record time (according to the itinerary at least).
I would get used to the traffic patterns in India but our first leg was a bit disconcerting. Mostly it was because we had a lot of decent roads so our driver could gun it. It felt like the Autobahn although I know we were never going really fast by first world standards. Of course, on the Autobahn you are not in a car juggling pedestrians, motorbikes, tractors, giant trucks, other cars and COWS!
The freaky part was that you had to stop for cows (and they knew it) and occasionally there was another car and no shoulders – or lines for passing. If playing chicken is your thing, you will love India!
Eventually I started to relax. I am certain there are accidents – and do NOT DRIVE in India – but, like in Africa, if you let a local handle the traffic, your chances of survival are high. They have lots of practice and just seem to anticipate the right move. No one is trying to get killed – and no one is actually going that fast – so they just all accommodate each other. It is a little frightening – but also impressive – to watch. You think you are about to be part of a head-on collision but somebody finds enough space to squeeze back into the traffic and you pass by as though nothing special has occurred. We sheltered developed world types who waste all that space in the middle of the road where we paint lines…
Needless to say, though, arriving at the lodge felt very relaxing! Especially as it was modern – not only did I have a good private bathroom, I had a mini-fridge and air conditioning.
We arrived in time for lunch. I like Indian food. I was excited. Lunch was pretty good. Cafeteria style so not amazing but better than adequate and we asked for more of the wonderful lemonade we had been welcomed with upon our arrival.
We explored the property a bit enjoying the questionable weather that meant less heat but potential thunderstorms. My first Indian safari began a few hours later. We met our guide, Shirag. He was very personable and interesting. It felt like my fond memories of safari in Africa.
In India, you are required to bring along a park guide. They don’t generally do much except take up space in the vehicle but it provides jobs in the developing world so I am OK with it. Clemens is a serious photographer so he set the game plan right away. He would sit in the second row of the jeep managing all his photographic devices. I would be left to deal with all the others who had to climb aboard 🙂
Most of the time this worked really well as I had the first row all to myself. Unlike Africa, the Indian safari vehicles are pretty basic and there is little cover for passengers. Safaris normally occur in the dry season and it isn’t much of a problem. I had not expected it to rain in April in India and had to pack light. I’d brought a rain jacket to Cambodia and never worn it so thought I wouldn’t bother clogging my backpack with unnecessary stuff.
Don’t follow my example! It’s funny how memory manages to fade the edges from bad experiences. At first it was fine, just a bit of a drizzle. I was freezing as I expected it to be 40 degrees not 15… and had dressed for 40. The game drive was scheduled to last three hours. I could – and probably should 🙂 – have just wimped out and traded places with the park guide as he was sitting beside the driver where there was some shelter but there was a tarp so I figured it would be fine.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how dusty it is in the dry season in India. Tadoba is covered in red sandstone like the outback in Australia. So I spent most of the three hours with a very dirty tarp dripping reddish water on me as I attempted to take photos. I would have just given up and headed back to the lodge as the animals also didn’t have a rain jacket so they were not likely to be posing for photos. But I sucked it up and was rewarded by actually seeing a real live tiger in the wild! We weren’t too close and it was hard to get a great photo but there were still some tigers left in the wild in India. I also got see gaur, sambal, chital, dhole and langur – and the landscape is beautiful.
I was really excited though to get back to the lodge, have a shower, put on more clothes and have a beer with my dinner. That’s when I discovered there was no alcohol at the lodge. I’d started reading about India before I began the trip and would read three books about it during the trip. The one common theme seemed to be spiritual awakening. Someone was always going to an ashram or seeking out a guru.
That is just not my thing. So it was strange the first night to contemplate whether I had accidentally signed up for something with all the same hallmarks – no alcohol, very little conversation, lots of time spent in silence waiting for something to happen and contemplating one’s own thoughts (three hours frozen and being dripped on under a claustrophobic plastic tarp to see a tiger lying under a tree far away for five minutes).
The first safari was the hardest… I still don’t want to go to an ashram but at least I know I can survive accidental de-tox and meditation – and the lemonade was delicious 😉