Tigers…. WOW !!! India and a different culture and perspective… WOW !!! This could be my trip of a lifetime so way back in the tail end of 2012 or early 2013 I think I booked up for this trip. With two great guys leading the trip it was going to be awesome and I looked forward to getting some of those close up Tiger encounter pics that adorn the web.
Eventually the 4th November 2014 arrived and I met up with the other 6 travellers and our two leaders at Heathrow. We got through baggage control easily – didn’t even bother about our overweight hand baggage – and after what seemed like an age ( well an 8 hour flight with screaming babies/kids) we arrived in Delhi. The first thing I noticed was not the heat but the yellow smog everywhere. Not a very welcoming image at all. We then regrouped and headed off to the Ibis for an overnight stay before catching a morning flight to Jabalpur and then a 3 hour drive to Tala at Bandhavgarh.
The flight was great – about 90 minutes – and the car journey to Tala was my first real view of rural India. It was beautiful scenery, unusual birdlife alongside the road, and the women dressed in their Sari’s working in the fields and building bridges and other labouring work while the men seemed to sit outside cafes, smoking and drinking coffee. Just like home I guess 😉 If I had a £1 for everytime our driver beeped his hooter or overtook on the brow of a hill or a blind bend I would be a millionaire!
We arrived at Tala, having had to stop to fix a puncture on one of our convoy of taxis, drove through the busy main street trying to avoid cattle just wandering around aimlessly. As we drove in through the gates to our lodge area I was greeted by a beautiful garden, beautiful smells, and our gracious hosts and their employees. We were shown to our rooms – I was sharing with Pete who was a great guy ( but oh could he snore). In fact when we shared at the Ibis I thought I may have been sleeping next to a Wildebeest. Not quite in the Danny Green level but way up there about !!!
From now on it would be the same procedure each day as we were booked to visit the Reserve with morning and evening drives. This entailed a wakeup for 4.45, cup of T at 5.30, and off to the Reserve in our convoy of jeeps at 6.00. We would then get back from the drive at 10.30, have breakfast ( which was HUGE and very welcome – and boy those Samosas were good and spicy) at 11.00 and then amuse ourselves until the next drive with a 2.00 meet up and finish at 5.15 ish. The only day this differed was Wednesday when the park closed in the afternoon so other “entertainment” would be sorted.
OK so now you know the routine so what about the photography which is I guess why you are suffering my musings on here. Well we had 15 drives booked over the time we were staying here, and we had 3 jeeps going out on each drive. We get allocated a route ( there are 4 routes in all) and it was pot luck which you would get. I had not prepared myself for how uncomfortable these jeeps are when climbing and bumping about of gravel roads and up mountains and also how you had to ensure that firstly all of your gear was covered up ( the dust is awful) and that you held on to your gear tightly. Let your grip go at your peril !! Either you, or your camera, or both could bounce out of the jeep.
The scenery is amazing, the jungle, the mountains, and of course the wildlife. I could go on now and give you a day by day of the trips and what we saw … but I won’t. Basically we saw lots of Langur moneys, Macaque monkeys, Spotted Deer, Samba Deer, Wild Boar, various birds including some amazing owls and eagles, BUT….. where were the tigers? We knew they were there as we saw the occasional pug marks showing the cats had walked to tracks during the early morning, of during the lunchtime break, we could see where they had sat down on the track for a scratch, we could see the occasional scent marks, but where were the Tigers? Well I was one of the “lucky” ones as on Day 3 my jeep which consisted of myself, Helen, Paul Hobson and our driver and guide, tracked one down aided by the alarm calls form the deer and the Langur monkeys. It was a way away but we could hear in in the undergrowth growling/breathing… we waited in the jeep with huge anticipation. We were then joined by 4 other jeeps who like us waited quietly. Then the tiger broke cover and slowly walked across in front of us between trees and vegetation/shrubs. This was a long distance shot but I had the 200-400mm at the ready and cracked off a burst, and then another. Then the tiger was gone, it settled down for a few seconds out of view and then headed off to an area that we had no access to. That was my first Tiger glimpse and it lasted about 30 seconds.
I think for the first 5 days no-one else in our group had any Tiger sighting whatsoever so I counted myself fortunate. So 30 of our 45 drives approximately ( total for the group) and just one brief sighting. If I am honest disbelief and disappointment was starting to creep in. This was not how it was meant to be… would we go the rest of the trip with no further sightings. We now knew which zones stood more of a chance of getting a sighting – and that was BD zones. They were more open, more light forest, marshland, and didn’t involve huge climbs over the mountains or along the boundary fences. It was also where I had obtained the only group sighting up to that point. But we cheered ourselves up and knew that at any moment it could all happen for us and it just took one great sighting to fill your card with images!! Our guides were now getting concerned themselves and instead of a Tala drive one morning they arranged an alternative to another part of Bandhavgarh where tigers had been sighted – called Mughdi area. But we even blanked in this area as well. So far since we had been out there we had only heard of three tiger sighting throughout the Reserve in total, just just our drives. But luck was going to change – not for me but for one jeep of our party.
We had drawn zone DB which was not bad, but BD was better. You have to go through the first zone and then on to the second zone in that order. We set off doing zone D, heard a few distant alarm calls, saw a few pub marks, but as we progressed towards the end of our first zone D we noticed unusually we were seeing no oncoming jeeps coming out of zone B and into our zone D. That could only mean two things!! Firstly the five jeeps in zone B had got lost and were driving about aimlessly looking for a Starbucks ORRRR they had located a Tiger. So we tore off in the zone B at a rate of knots ( or bumps) and sure enough around the lake and the dam area were 4 jeeps at least all laughing and training lenses off over the lake.
Apparently two tigers were spotted on this nearside bank in the undergrowth. Not close up but close enough to get some half decent picures. They had then decided to swim across the lake over to the far side, climb up the bank, move off in to the sparse undergrowth and then roll about drying themselves off. By the team we had arrived in our jeep the action was over. I could hardly get any view at all of what the others were seeing way in the distance as the one remaining tiger messed about sunning itself and rolling around playfully. Eventually I caught a glimpse, rattled off half a dozen very very long distance shots, as the tiger got up and moved off into another no access area of the reserve. So now I was feeling lucky – well sort of! At least I had now had TWO tiger sightings even if they were just record shots. Some of our party still had seen nothing….
The day before we were due to come back home there was one other sighting that I had. We were first on the scene having followed tracks and alarm calls. But it was not to be my lucky day… again! This day I was in a jeep that had horizontal bench seats rather than the cross way seats. So when the guide shouted Tiger as we were listening to alarm calls I was facing the wrong way. I jumped up with camera/lens and Monopod moving in to position quickly but too late – the tiger had gone and the sighting lasted just a few seconds. Long enough for Helen who was facing the right way and sitting on the facing fence to rattle off a couple of shots and they were pretty good. Still long distance but she really did well with a few really sharp images in the undergrowth. The tiger was walking slowly across the hillside so our driver decided an intercept may be possible. He stuck the jeep in first and moved off… not a good idea as I was still standing up in the jeep hanging on to my gear. I fell back – almost on to Helens lap – banging my shin and twisting my knee as I collapsed on to the bench seat behind. Thankfully my gear was still all in one piece even if I was suffering a bit 😉 The tiger meanwhile had started to head up the hill so another victory to the Tigers of Bandhavgarh….
We saw no other tigers for the rest of the trip, not just our jeep but the rest of the group. Others in our group did manage to see Leopard, and also Jungle Cats ( including cubs) but for me it was just Langur Monkeys and Spotted Deer.
So why was it this bad? Why no tiger sighting where others who have visited the Reserve this year had achieved great photos and sighting? Well there is an answer – at the tail end of August apparently two new tigers, males, moved in to the area. They had one thing on their mind, like all men, that is to get a territory, get a mate, and get laid 😉 So these tigers moved in, and they drove out the parks dominant male. Now this male had a family that had grown up over 10 years being used to jeeps, photographers, noise, and so were their cubs. The park had been in a relaxed state for a long long time. But things were now changing!! With the dominant male now driven out to find a new territory the new tigers did what is expected of them and proceeded to kill the cubs – I think there were 3 or 4 cubs. The female tigress refused the advances of the incoming male tiger(s) and tried in vain to protect her cubs. Unfortunately she too was killed by the new tigers. So the reserve is now in a state of flux – two new male tigers who have a fear of jeeps etc and prefer to stay hidden, just wandering the paths in quiet periods and overnight, and what is becoming an increase now of male cubs which all eventually get thrown out to find new territories. Apparently research shows that stressed tigress produce more male cubs. Not good news for Bandhavgarh and its future. If you also add to that the huge increase in Leopards in this area it could be worrying times ahead….
In terms of tiger sightings this was a disappointing trip – but nature doesn’t usually play ball fairly. But the trip as a whole was great as it was a totally new experience for me . The company was great and the leaders, guides and drivers couldn’t have done more or worked harder to put us on tigers. Would I go back or has it put me off? No its not put me off at all BUT I would not go back until I knew things had settled down again and it has made me think seriously about future trips. Of course I could go back in the hot season and just stake out a watering hole – shots almost guaranteed. I like a bit of a challenge so not sure that would be for me ( though I may have easily settled for that after 10 days of virtually no sightings this trip), I just think that the timing was wrong for us on this trip due to these unusual circumstances, and while hugely disappointed I would still like another crack at it sometime.
Addendum – I have now been back 2 weeks and I have this really strong feeling gnawing away at me of failure and – for the first time – not coming back with shots I wanted. Sometimes nature sucks!! I have now seen recent pictures this week coming out of Tala and the Tigers have now been showing. In fact my guide sent me an email last night 1.12.2014 saying that had spent 2 HOURS with a tiger yesterday… Not really sure how you can reconcile this disappointment as its not like you can just take yourself away for a weekend to “try again”… oh well!!