Bandhavgarh National Park - The Search for Tigers

Trip Start Nov 29, 2013
Trip End Jun 11, 2014

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Flag of India  , Madhya Pradesh,
Sunday, December 15, 2013

Madhya Pradesh is a large landlocked state near the center of India. Lying mostly on the Deccan Plateau it is less fertile and much less densely populated than the states in the Ganges Valley. We made a 5:00 A.M. run from Varanasi for the long drive to Bandhavgarh, first heading west to Allahabad on the still nearly empty Grand Trunk Road, the well-paved main east-west highway across northern India, and then turned southward. About 40 miles south of Allahabad and the Ganges the road rose rapidly up an escarpment to the Deccan, a completely different landscape of rocky undulating countryside, open woodland, forested ridges, and relatively few people.

Here we entered the enchanting "Jungle Book" like rural India of the imagination where roads are nearly free of motor vehicles and we encountered more cow jams than traffic jams, an India of women in bright saris wandering along the roads with big bundles of brush firewood on their heads and men sowing fields by hand or turning over the ground with ox-pulled plows, an India of infrequent towns with picturesque markets and long-tailed Langur monkeys frolicking between trees and homes.

The reason for coming to this part of India is Bandhavgarh National Park, one of several reserves in central India set up to preserve the Bengal Tiger, and said to be the single best place for tiger spotting because of its relatively small size. Despite the crush of India's 1.3 billion people, the country does have a quite good system of national parks and sanctuaries designed to preserve what remains of its natural heritage. Our afternoon Jeep adventure into the interior zone of the park led to some wild boar, spotted deer, jackal, peacock, and monkey sightings but tigers remained elusive. Our Jeeps darted back and forth between spots where tigers had been sighted in recent days and those where fresh paw prints in the dirt on the road indicated they had passed recently. The guide made one sighting, but I couldn’t make it out behind the bamboo thickets. Seeing a bush that allegedly has a tiger behind it doesn’t really count as seeing a tiger, does it? At another spot several of us in the Jeep were sure we saw a light-colored beast framed between some shrubs. Our guide informed us that we were looking at a log. Oh well, this isn’t the Serengeti; big kitties are notoriously hard to spot in the thickly wooded environments tigers prefer.

We spent two nights camping at a small rustic lodge near Tala, the gateway village to Bandhavgarh, the warm sunny days followed by clear, chilly moonlit nights. Our gracious hosts prepared a dinner of mixed curries on the night of our arrival, but our remaining meals were our first camp cooking together as a group, dinners followed by group bonding sessions around the campfire with Kingfisher beers and rum and cokes. Our fearless leaders Tim and Bertie made our first camp breakfast of “Eggy Bread”, the British term for what North Americans call French toast. The hosts’ young son Vishnu guided us for a walk to the village to find a lunch of samosas and pakora at a snack stand and some marketing for dinner. It’s always a bit of an adventure when you’re trying to plan out camp meals and don’t really know what’s going to be available, so you have to be ready to improvise; you can never just say, “I’m going to make lasagna”. In this case no meat or even paneer (cheese) was available, so dinner after our tiger-spotting safari will have to not only be vegetarian but downright vegan. Will I survive?

I took the lead with Fiona, the matriarch of the four member Australian family on the tour, to create a variety of dishes to serve with rice – cucumbers and tomatoes in a honey lemon vinaigrette with caraway, a mild coconut milk curry with potatoes, cauliflower, and peas, and a spicy curry with tomatoes, onions, spinach, ginger, and chili peppers. I didn’t think it was possible a vegan dinner could actually taste so good. It’s all in the spice. We then ingeniously used the leftover rice and potato curry in the morning to make an Indian version of “Bubble and Squeak” for breakfast – patties of the mix bound with egg, dipped in flour and egg, and the rolled in ground corn flakes and deep fried. Ya gotta love any breakfast you can douse with hot chili sauce! This vegetarian lifestyle does have some advantages in terms of warding off the infamous “Delhi Belly” that’s the scourge of foreign travelers in India. I haven’t
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