I came to India prepared for things to go wrong… I had heard lots of stories and had already read at least two books set in India just before I got on the plane to Delhi. But India can be easy 🙂 People showed up when they promised. The drivers were excellent even if the journey felt scary to a novice. The accommodation was charming and rustic but there was air-conditioning or a high speed fan.
The countryside we drove through was evidence life for the average person in rural India was still trapped in another century. Shelters did not really look like homes and many were patched with scraps of plastic. There were so many piles of concrete and bricks it was impossible to tell if buildings were being constructed or demolished. Life looked incomplete, arduous and precarious. It was hard to reconcile the women walking down the sides of the road with water jugs or bags of rice piled on top of their heads with our air-conditioned SUV.
I do love chai so did at least have a few chances to sip authentic roadside chai with our driver perched on well-worn plastic chairs. But mostly we just floated through in our bubble where the cool air, the teeming bowl of candy and the bottled water flowed freely.
Then we got to our last tiger reserve – Bandhavgarh. Bandhavgarh is probably the most famous tiger reserve in India. It is supposed to have one of the highest tiger population densities in India. It’s the former stomping ground of a Maharaja (who killed most of the tigers showing off before it became a national park of course) so it is a smaller space and I got excited by the idea of less aimless driving covered in dust and more snapping photos of wild animals. I even like taking photos of monkeys and exotic deer 🙂
I did get some great shots of peacocks! And watched a mating dance that was spectacular – and hilarious. The dude just kept dancing around and showing off like a guy in a singles bar with terrible pickup lines. And the ladies just stuck together snacking and no doubt making snarky remarks. I felt sorry for the male… it appears women stick together in cliques and give guys a hard time in all the species 😉
The tone of our Bandhavgarh experience was foreshadowed as soon as we got to the park. Driving in India is an adventure, not just because there are no passing rules and everyone is jockeying for position, but because one encounters all types of road conditions from proper highways to dirt tracks immortalized by John Denver. But at least we got to drive ON the road!
Apparently much of Bandhavgarh is a construction site. I am hoping this means in the future better roads and possibly roads that don’t flood in the rainy season. Right now it just means a very narrow path of elevated concrete where it is tough for two vehicles to pass each other and gigantic ditches on either side with a wicked drop off from the concrete center. Playing chicken just got more dangerous…
Our driver was lovely and intrepid so he chose a path based on the flow of the traffic on the other side of the concrete and we breezed or bounced depending on the path chosen. Then we turned off a side road to the lodge – and encountered a full-blown construction site that had completely blocked off the road. He had to get out and have a chat.
We were now in Michelle Shocked “Memories of East Texas” country. Take a left. Take a right. Bounce through the rice fields. Hope you don’t destroy the undercarriage of your vehicle. But he got us there! Of course, then we had to figure out how to unlock the gate to the lodge – but eventually we made contact and were able to check in.
The lodge was charming and my favourite of the trip (Jungle Mantra Lodge). The owner was a charming Englishman with an Indian background who had moved back to marry an Indian woman in a romance worthy of Harlequin. Everyone sat together at the evening meal and we became a rag-tag family and the conversations were more stuff of a gentleman’s club than the Indian jungle.
We discovered our tour operator was a little more ordinary. I ended up as translator and peacemaker. Clemens had booked private safaris so he could commandeer the back seat of the jeep with his gigantic camera equipment but we had other people in our first jeep – and our tiger sighting was pretty lame.
The park was famous though so we stayed optimistic and I sat in on the conversation trying to understand what had gone wrong. It appeared we had paid the German tour operator who may or may not have paid the Indian tour operator. The Indian tour operator definitely hadn’t paid the lodge in time to secure the permits for the best gates so we now had to take the leftovers.
Other people saw tigers in Bandhavgarh so I am sure they were there – but definitely secure your permits in advance! Instead we had the Monty Python safari experience. The driver got stuck and I hoped this wasn’t some bad scheme of extortion. He eventually got the vehicle restarted but the roads in Bandhavgarh did seem a little more rutted than really seemed necessary. Stranding tourists in the middle of a tiger park doesn’t seem like a great tourism strategy.
The worst safari was saved for last though. The accents were so thick it was almost impossible to understand the guide or the forest employee escort. It appeared we were roaming around a “buffer” zone rather than the national park. As Clemens pointed out, we were looking for tigers, not cows. There shouldn’t be cows in the national park. Indians love bureaucracy so – not only are there different gates and zones for the national park – there are also “buffer zones” between park and non-park. Because of Bandhavgarh’s popularity, you need a permit even to travel in the buffer zone (but it costs less).
Due to the lack of a common accent, let alone language, it was entirely unclear what was going on. What was clear was that we were doing tons of dusty driving, seeing almost nothing and then madly dashing for the gate before it got too dark and the park closed. We did eventually get back to the lodge – that was also unclear as our guide didn’t necessarily seem competent enough to remember where he had picked us up. John Cleese would have loved it 😉