A gentle breeze didn’t stop the sweat rolling all the way down my back in the blistering heat. I didn’t mind. I was transfixed on the tigress and her 4 cubs playing in the water hole. They were our 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th tigers of the day on our afternoon game drive in Bandhavgarh National Park. We’d see our 8th tiger heading for another body of water afterwards. Spoiled for sure!
Is May too hot to go on tiger safari in India? It depends on how badly one wants to see tigers! It’s a dry heat, not unlike the hottest of safaris in Botswana or in the Namibia desert.
On 8 game drives in 3 national parks – Bandhavgarh, Kanha, and Pench, I saw 15 different tigers with 19 tiger sightings, sometimes seeing the same tiger at different times in different locations. For 3 of those game drives, we saw no tigers, the other 5 drives thrilled with multiple tigers, some in plain view, a few behind tall grass obscuring a decent photo.
Game drives start earlier in the heat – gates open at 5:30am so early, early morning starts are necessary. The heat didn’t kick in until around 8:30-ish so the first 3 hours were pleasant enough especially while driving. Most days we left a little before the 11am park closure. Afternoons were sizzling with 108-degree temps – I fantasized about jumping in the water with the tigers! It did cool down some early evening and there’s a later park departure than the rest of the safari season.
Royal Expeditions hosted this amazing tiger safari with post extensions. The fam group split up and went in 3 different directions afterwards: three to the Golden Triangle, one to an Ayurvedic spa in the South and 2 of us to Kerala and Varanasi, 4 directly to the airport….lots of logistical planning and execution handled with expertise and attention to detail from our jetway meet and greet service on arrival to international flights home.
Known for their creative ideas that match client interests, insider access and high-touch service, Royal Expeditions takes great care of clients whether they are global dignitaries and politicians, European and Middle Eastern royalty, celebrities, the travel trade or “regular people”. Founded by the Princess of Jodhpur and former Parliament member and Minister of Culture, the company is well connected with a reputation of excellence to maintain.
Vishal Singh, Partner and Managing Director, helped found TOFTigers, the tiger conservation non-profit, and is quite passionate and knowledgeable about wildlife and conservation. Royal Expeditions books a variety of jungle lodges throughout India and is a fan of the Pugdundee Safaris’ eco-luxury lodges in Central India for many reasons: well-trained and personable naturalist, nicely appointed cottages, bungalows and tree houses, delicious food, gracious service, great value and their single-use plastic free operational commitment to sustainability in 5 of their 6 lodges.
We started at Kings Lodge in Bandhavgarh NP and were immediately spoiled with seeing 2 tigers in the morning and 6 tigers in the afternoon! WOW. We saw a Darrah female cub walking along the side of the road and a Mahaman female cub in the green swamp grass which made for a stunning photo. Cubs are not named until around 2 years of age and when they leave “mom” and set out on their own, so they are called their mother’s name and gender.
The afternoon tigers included Solo, whom I had seen several years ago, with her first litter of 4 cubs. The cubs were play-fighting in the water-body which is what the naturalists call man-made water holes. I was quite surprised that 1 cub was so much smaller than the 3 siblings and thought it might be from a different birth? But no, just the runt of the litter! Solo had been in a fight with a male tiger who had inflicted deep cuts that required 3 layers of stitches. Because she has 4 cubs, the park rangers intervened with medical care. I love that the Pugdundee guides know all the tigers by name, habits and their stories! (photos above – Solo walking away with the “runt” and 2 of her other 3 cubs play-fighting)
Later that afternoon we saw Dotty, whom I have also seen on previous drives in Bandhavgarh. She crossed the road right in front of us and backed into the pond. Unfortunately, her 3 male cubs were not with her in the water. Of course, the jungle is home to other wildlife, and we saw plenty on our game drives: blue bull, sambar deer, spotted deer, wild boar, jackal, monitor lizard, rat snake on a tree, gaur or Indian bison, tree shrew, squirrel, rhesus macaque and the ever playful langur monkeys plus over 30 birds.
Kings Lodge was lovely, with spacious, air-conditioned cottages. Food was delicious, the tribal dance and outdoor dinner was a treat, Wi-Fi was quite good, service was gracious, there’s a pool and the naturalists are fun! One of their senior naturalists traveled with us to Kanha NP – that can be arranged for your clients also.
We did dine at their sister Bandhavgarh property, Tree House Hideaway, which is intimate with only 5 beautiful tree houses.
We drove to Kanha NP in a convoy of pristine white SUVs where we stayed at Kanha Earth Lodge with its charming and spacious air-conditioned cottages. Wi-fi is a challenge here. Again, food here was delicious but different from its sister property. We did eat Indian food in addition to a Mediterranean meal of humus and falafel which I found fascinating as the main ingredients, chickpeas, are a staple of Indian cuisine. Different spices and preparation made for a delightful surprise. We also had a delicious bush dinner one evening.
On our first drive in the sal tree and bamboo forests of Kanha, we saw the male tiger, Sangam, walking to the water body. Like all the tigers we saw, he backed into the water which was amusing to watch. We saw a 3-year old female, Sandukkhol, hiding in a cave and then in tall grass so no good photos of her. The next morning, we saw Dhawajhandi several times, once walking across the road and then going into a pond where her daughter was hidden behind tall grasses.
We were entertained by fighting jackals, saw more langur monkeys with babies, Indian rollers, woodpeckers, Scops owls, gaur, rose ringed parakeets to name a few other wildlife. I love the ghost trees in Kanha and we had a lovely village visit on our convoy drive to Pench NP.
Pench Tree House has 6 charming tree houses and 6 spacious cottages. As I’ve stayed in the tree houses on numerous occasions (and do love them!), I stayed in one of the new cottages. They’re very comfortable with an upstairs loft bed, bean bag chair, sofa desk and nice balcony. The tree houses have a desk, window sofa, great outdoor balcony in the trees. Of course, all are en-suite and air-conditioned. After one hot afternoon game drive, I cooled off in the pool which all the properties have. Oh my, the food is extra delicious here! I enjoyed paneer tikka and the most incredible sun-dried cauliflower dish along with the Indian crispy okra or Kurkuri Bhindi. Yum! There’s a very large organic garden here where they do cooking demonstrations and dinner can be served outdoors next to the garden. Wi-fi is good in some of the cottages and tree houses.
On our Pench game drive we saw Langdi and 2 of her cubs, one laying in the grass like the typical lazy cat and a daughter who was much easier to photograph. In fact, she was one of the most stunning tigers I’ve ever seen with extra markings on the sides of her face. I’ve named her Miss India and hope that sticks!
More langurs, jackals, Scops owl, birds, deer and ghost trees in this beautiful teak forest with mahua trees which the locals brew. One night at dinner by the pool, the staff served us the local mahua drink. By the way, animals love the mahua flowers too!
Let’s discuss photography as that seemed to be a concern with agents – I do shoot with a nice camera, a Sony RX10. Agents with iPhones and 300mm lenses or smaller were not happy with their photos. Those with 400-600mm lenses were, so if photography is important to your clients, I’d recommend the bigger lenses or the mirror-less cameras with good zoom capabilities without huge lenses.
We drove from Pench to Nagpur and flew into the historic port town of Cochin then on to Thekkady. It was quite the drive on winding mountain roads, through lush foliage, colorful villages and a few tea plantations. With less than 24 hours there, we headed back through the mountains to the backwaters of Kumarakom which was utterly charming! While we didn’t get to spend the night on a houseboat, we did take a local boat through the backwaters which reminded me of boating through Thai villages minus the floating market. As you slowly motor on the river, you actually watch people go about their daily lives from washing clothes, bathing, brushing teeth, working, even villagers congregating for a wake with a dead body wrapped on an outdoor table. Obviously out of respect, I took no photos. As for teeth brushing, I lost count of the number of people outside brushing their teeth – good dental hygiene here! Then we drove on to the beach in Mararikulam which was also quite charming. At all 4 destinations we stayed at CGH Earth properties. Their commitment to sustainability is most impressive as we toured the solar, composting, recycling, water purification operations as well as the organic gardens. Service was friendly, food was good but sadly we had no time to experience their Ayurveda spas.
Varanasi was everything I expected…on steroids! It’s colorful, crowded, and chaotic. The evening aarti and early morning boat ride along the Holy Ganges river were two very different experiences, equally wonderful. There are numerous temples to visit as well as a tour of the impressive Benaras Hindu University, the largest in Asia. Visiting Sarnath, learning more about Lord Buddha and standing under the Bodhi tree (they say the “grandson” of the original) was all interesting and educational. Although early June is a little hot for comfortable tourism, it was thrilling to experience both Kerala and Varanasi.
kiki / may + june, 2019