Tiger in the woods

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of India  ,
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

From Jabalpur we get another bus straight away to Kanha National Park, supposedly the best park in the country for spotting tigers. The bus that takes us there is fairly flash and even stops half way at a fancy hotel for complimentary chai and pakoras. We are set down just in front of the gate to the National Park on a road lined with outdoor restaurants, of the plastic chair and blackened hearth variety, and a couple dozen 'resorts'. Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" was inspired by this park, so a lot of the places reflect that influence, such as 'Mogli Resort' and 'Kipling Guesthouse'. A 'resort' here is really just a very basic guesthouse with double rooms running at about US$4.

The only reason people come here is to see tigers in the park, so every resort organises safari jeep tours to help them achieve this. The problem is that there are way more resorts than tourists, so it is hard to find a jeep that is full. You can fit up to 6 people in a jeep and you all share the costs accordingly. With the park entry fees alone costing more than our entire daily budget, we are quite keen to find some other people to share with on our safari tomorrow morning. We pop into almost every resort to find half-full tours but none of them have any tourists yet. Later in the afternoon we meet an English guy named Johnny who is travelling alone. He seems okay at first glance so we invite him to share with us.

Johnny kind of latches on to us after that, regaling us in his tales of eight months in the remotest areas of Papua. "Oh, Papua New Guinea", I say, nodding, "sounds interesting". "No, no, Papua, the Indonesian side. Different place", he informs us. Having travelled for eight months in Papua and a bunch of other places on different trips, Johnny says he has "perfected the art of backpacking". At dinner, we realise that he hasn't perfected the art of speaking to people who don't speak English. He rabbits away to the waiter in his English accent, oblivious to the poor chap's blank stares. Every time he finishes, Jane and I have to 'translate' what he has said into clearer English. God knows how he got on in deepest darkest Papua. Nor has he perfected the art of not burping or farting at the dinner table. The one time he excuses himself is before he lets a particularly long fart bubble out.

Our cavernous room with its concrete floor and solitary think blanket provides little protection from the winter cold, so our 5am alarm is actually quite welcome. We have such an early start because the Park gates open at 6 and the early morning is the best time to spot a tiger or leopard. We put all our clothes on - about six layers each - plus the hotel blanket in anticipation of driving around in an open top jeep in the morning cold. The jeep pulls up, with Johnny, at about 5.30 and we join the convoy of about 10 other jeeps entering the park. Park entry fees have doubled in the last year or so, although no one seems to know the exact reason. By the time we have paid the entry fee, the cost of the guide, petrol, the vehicle rental costs and various other charges, we are over double our entire budget for today - and it's only 6am.

We are the fifth group into the park. The other four continue straight ahead, while we veer off on another path, meaning we have the whole place to ourselves. The sky is slowly starting to lighten up, revealing a spooky layer of mist across the treeline. We drive slowly along the deserted path, our eyes peeled for the black and orange beast. Every now and then the driver stops and the guide points out the heavy imprint of a set of tiger tracks. There are 131 tigers and 96 leopards in this National Park but no tigers have been sighted for the last five days.

As we drive through some thick jungle, we catch a glimpse of something scampering across the track in front of us. The driver cuts the engine, allowing the jeep to roll silently down the hill and we all hold our breath. The guide turns to us and whispers, "jungle cat!" What is a jungle cat? we wonder, peering into the undergrowth in the hope of spotting this wild creature. Suddenly we see, perched on a tree stump, a grey and white house cat, licking its fur. "That's a jungle cat?" we ask, laughing slightly. "Oh yes", says the guide with a straight face, "jungle cat!" Shortly after, we drive past a small lake with a family of small ducks swimming across it. "Look!" we shout to the guide, "jungle ducks!" "Ah yes", he replies, avoiding all the irony in our voices, "jungle ducks".

After about 90 minutes of driving around, we arrive at the station of Kisli where we can buy tea and go to the bathroom. All the other jeeps are stood here too. No one has seen any tigers yet. Then word starts to creep around that a tiger has been sighted somewhere in the park so a bunch of jeeps drive off. In a case like this, the tiger has probably killed a deer or something and will spend the rest of the day eating it and sitting around, so there is no rush. You can only view the tiger from atop an elephant, which of course costs another 600 rupees per person to ride. We're not sure if we are throwing good money after bad but we decide to give it a go and we drive off to the kill site. There are a number of other jeeps there so we have to wait. When our turn comes, Jane and I climb on to this elephant who plods away about 50 metres into the jungle. Sure enough, a huge tiger is lying around, not doing much of anything and he just sits there posing for photos. Although it is all a bit staged, it is very cool to see an awesome beast like this in its natural habitat doing its natural thing. We have no more than three minutes to snap some photos before we are turned around and taken back to the road.

And that is more or less it. We drive back to the park gate, still looking for wild animals but less enthusiastically. Our jeep-mate Johnny doesn't have enough money on him for the jeep hire so we have to drive the extra two kilometres down to his resort and then back to ours to pay. Johnny is one of these guys who believes that everything is on his time. Instead of just grabbing his wallet and coming out again, he stops to change clothes, go to the toilet (a #2 by the sounds of things) and rearrange his luggage, as well as having a chat to the resort owner, while we are all sat in the jeep waiting for him.

The driver tots up our bill: "okay, total is 972 rupees. Just make it a thousand."
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