"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
- Mark Twain.
Religiously following Mr. Twain, I now suffer from an acute case of wanderlust, and it is getting contagious. Growing up, I had always identified, albeit superficially, with the power, passion and independence of the tiger. Remember, a tiger also marks his own territory but then there is a difference between wanderlust and just lust. It was this inexplicable and all consuming desire to come face to face with this magnificent creation, that triggered the desire to grab my bags and head for Tiger country. So, Bhandavgarh it was, the unblemished jewel of tiger parks in India. Having heard so much about the place it was only natural I would urge my buddies to set the wheels in motion and 'get on with it'.
Planning to the last T: The first job was to do the lodge, train and jeep safari bookings because come peak season they are all at a premium. We tried being smart, planning ahead and to the minutest of details.
Board and lodge: Having debated endless options we settled on the White Tiger Forest Lodge owned by the MP State Tourism Department. It was in close proximity to the park, in fact it bordered the park, which is ideal, since one gets into the thick of action immediately on arrival. As a thumb rule, I always look at options which are government owned since they have the best location, are inexpensive and comfortable enough for a wildlife trip. There is an emphasis on eco-friendly tourism and the rooms have running hot water, provided through solar heaters. Nothing placates the senses and body than a hot steamy bath, after a long dusty jungle ride. A generator ensures you get electricity 24 hours a day. The staff is helpful and accommodating.
Reaching there: I and my friend Ajit Eusebius boarded the train from Nizamuddin, Delhi. The overnight trip is a bit long but the next best option is a flight to Jabalpur (195 kms away ) trifle expensive, but worth checking out in case time is of the essence. We alighted at Umaria, the closest railway station to Bandhavgarh (32 kms ). The lodge arranges for pick-ups and drop-offs, but be warned, you will be charged two-way cab fares for every journey.
Tips: Be vigilant when travelling in the train, more so when it stops at major stations. The hired help which boards the train to clean it are deft at the art of pilfering. Our naÃ¯vetÃ© cost us a cell phone. Also, when you alight at 5 am in Umaria, it is sleeping, but don't let looks fool you, it's anything but that. The place is a hive of activity as most of the nature freaks are getting off here with their heavy cameras and accessories, all impatient to reach the famous park. The roads are not the most spectacular, and you would be advised to hire an SUV for the drive to Bandhavgarh.
The Park: Bandhavgarh National Park is a magnificent reserve and wilderness retreat. One of the finest national parks in India, it is home to a wealth of endemic flora and fauna. Its lush jungle is crossed by rugged trails that lead to scenic panoramas and modest reservoirs of water. Epiphytes form microcosms in the forest canopy. There's a rich array of habitat and rare flora and fauna, which are dependent on the unique conditions the land confers for survival. The park has a large breeding population of leopards and abounds with various species of deer, the main prey animal of the tiger and leopard. Ungulates such as the Sambar, Barking Deer and Nilgai ( Blue Bull ) are a common sight and can be seen in the open areas of the park.
It also has the distinction of harbouring the highest concentration of tigers per unit area of forest in India, making it a prime reason for people flocking to Bandhavgarh. We too were no exception to that truth. However, there is no guarantee of tiger sightings and it is not uncommon for people staying here for a week, and yet being denied the pleasure of His majesty's royal appearance.
The most popular zone is the Tala range, an area of 105 kmÂ² of the park. The area is richest in terms of biodiversity, mainly tigers. There are four more ranges in the reserve namely - Magdhi, Allah, Khitauli and Panpatha. Together, these five ranges comprise the 'Core' of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, constituting a total area of 694 kmÂ².
The forest of Bandhavgarh National Park sits in a bowl encircled by cliffs and Vindhya mountains, is teeming with wildlife. Its plains have a number of grass and reed covered wetlands where kingfishers dive and cattle Egrets sit poised, hunch-backed in the shallows. Up above, the Indian Griffon nestle in holes in the sheer cliffs. Watching them snare and dive to their share of the 'kill' is truly a photographer's delight. Patience is the key here as with any wildlife photography.
The vegetation grows in characteristic belts depending on the parent rock, altitude and aspect. Open grassland dominates the vegetation. The lower reaches have beautiful areas of savanna and natural forest while the upper reaches are covered by rocks and woody shrubs.
At the centre of the park is the Bandhavgarh hill, in a circular formation, a distant impression of the Indian Parliament House (as the locals address it), rising 811 metres above sea level. Surrounding it are sloping valleys, which end in small, swampy meadows locally known as "bohera". Suffice to say that Bhandavgarh's crown jewel is the old fort area .Thought to be some 2000 years old, there are 39 caves in the Bandhavgarh fort and in the surrounding hillocks up to a radius of about 5 km. The oldest cave dates back to the 1st century. The trek up the fort is a long and arduous one but then if you want the view, you need to climb the hill, as the saying goes. At the entrance the chronicled statue of Lord Vishnu reclining on the body of the seven hooded serpent Sheshnag is a solemn reminder of the Hindu pantheon. As one climbs further, the Bandhavgarhdheesh temple greets you in its sole piousness shrouding the ruins of a fallen empire. The fort area offers a tapestry of natural and cultural splendor - a paradise for would-be brave heart trekkers. The view is breathtaking from Kabir Chabutra (terrace) in the fort area overlooking the game reserve with its necklace of hills, cliffs and rocky capes strung together along a line with its profusion of wild flowers, is a sight to behold.
Tip for those who trek up the fort: Travel light and carry water. Ensure that you talk a lot because that ensures that a wild animal will not be startled, if confronted. Sample the custard apple grown there, delicious to the core.
What we saw: With offering of two Safaris a day--one in the morning, another in the afternoon, and that too in the core area, I just sat back and looked forward to the ride of my life. Trust me; bouncing along the jungle in an open-air 4wd is an experience unlike any other. Nothing is more soul cleansing as the early morning drive in the park as the wildlife slowly wakes up to the fiery dawn with both prey and predator bracing themselves to what lies ahead. Who will be food and who will be the proverbial sacrificial lamb depends upon who draws first blood.
Cautiously, the Sambar converges towards the water and the dewy grass for its eternal quest for f