Magical MP – Bandhavgarh

This trip was planned earlier and then cancelled for some personal problems and this is not the first time, consecutive three attempts to MP failed because of some reasons or others, so I was really skeptic if I could ever make it. After Lahaul/Spiti and more desolate Eastern Arunachal, this was more of a relaxed vacation for us where we don’t have to carry dry foods or tons of medicines, neither we were depending on Govt CH with lots of uncertainties nor we were venturing into a territory with no communication but still it turned out to be quite eventful for many reasons.

We started from Kolkata by Mumbai Mail via Allahabad, a train which was not only up to the mark in terms of cleanliness (talking about AC- II) but also started running late from the very beginning. It started an hour late and kept running late and finally we reached Katni around 7.30pm where as schedule time was 4.20pm. As we have our reservation there in Tala FRH, Bandhavgarh, we had to hurry for our onward journey. The Bolero was taken for Rs.1400/- for a drop to Tala FRH from Katni and driver told it would be 2.5 hours drive from Katni, we estimated it much lower and immediately took a decision to buy our dinner from Katni as we didn’t expect FRH people to entertain us with foods at 11.00pm. So ultimately we started around 8.30pm from Katni, the road was excellent, ambience too, it’s a full moon night and we were cruising around almost 80kmph, after midway, I observed the headlight was getting dimmer, asked the driver, he said nothing, carry on further and suddenly around 15km before Tala, at the T-Junction where the road from Katni, Umaria and Tala meets, car refused to go any further, engine stopped completely. We had Vodafone, Airtel and BSNL and none had towers there, after repeated try driver called up the owner and complained the battery had completely drained out and requested owner to arrange some alternatives from Tala. It was an ugly mess, we were almost inside a forest region with no one in sight, with kid it was a pathetic experience and quite bone chilling when we didn’t find a single vehicle after waiting for 15mins. We didn’t have FRH Number to inform them on our status, then all of a sudden like a lifeline a mini bus came after attending a marriage nearby, it was not going to Tala but looking at our condition, the driver agreed to drop us those 15km for Rs.500/- Obviously we were not in a position to bargain even and when boarded the bus we still were not confident that we could reach those 15km, road got extremely bad couple of km before Tala and it was dense forest at both side but the full moon night was simply awesome, though we were not in a position to enjoy that. The bus finally dropped us around 11.15pm at Tala FRH, it’s the first accommodation when you enter Tala from Katni side. We relieved to see the Caretaker still awake then and got our rooms. The rooms are quite good for Rs. 500/- I must say and best part of MP Forest RH is they take money in advance (Through DD) and send booking confirmation either electronically or by courier. So you won’t be uncertain like other FRH in various states where your reservation might get cancelled in case of VIP Arrivals.

We were extremely tired and straight away had our dinner that we bought in Katni and gone to bed. Next morning we didn’t keep any Safari apprehending the tiredness of such a long journey and it turned out to be a boon. We slept till 8.00 in the morning and then got up and had a great breakfast there. The FRH location is brilliant; it’s far away from noise of Tala and had a large campus with very good arrangement of food and of course the value for money rooms. I have spoken to many resorts in Tala and all were quite expensive in the tune of Rs.2000 and try to include everything naming as Jungle Plan (that includes food, accommodation and Safari Costs) by increasing the cost even more. Our rooms in FRH had Air coolers, AC Rooms costs more around 3000/- in FRH but they are quite specious I would say. I was in touch with Mukesh Burman, a well known local of Tala and quite a knowledgeable and experienced guide there. Unfortunately he was suffering from Typhoid and couldn’t accompany us but made every attempts to make our Safaris as pleasant as possible. In Bandhavgarh for Tala zone 35 Jeeps are allowed where as in Magadhi zone they allow 66 vehicles. But tickets of Tala (Zone1) would always be sold off completely and don’t expect to get a safari ticket on spot there unless you pre-book it though your agent or by yourself in Magadhi zone tickets would be available but people say tiger spotting (the main attraction of Bandhavgarh) in Magadhi is not that common as it is in Tala. Rest two zone, Khitauli and Panpatha, probably have very few visitors. Now in Tala almost 160 Jeeps are operational but as only at most 100 (including Tala and Magdhi) are allowed, it’s a bargain game for you. You would listen to many things like 1500/- is the standard charge fixed by Union but just stick to your ground and use your bargain skill and surely you would be able to negotiate it in a better rate. I got it @1000 per safari.

Usually once you decide the Gypsy, the driver would take the tickets (that you have pre-booked) from you and would get it verified in next morning and pay the guide charge and you would be ready to enter the park. In Bandhavgarh you can choose your guide where as in Kanha and Pench the guide would be allowed in sequence and you have to take who ever would be allotted. In Pench there is a work around where you can choose your guide out of turn by paying additional Rs.200 to the guide who was initially allotted (Total Guide cost would be Rs.400 then) but in Kanha I didn’t find anyway to get the guide I want. Guides do matter specially for first timers as an experienced guide can tell you in details on park and its flora and fauna. Also they have tremendous sense of judging the movements of big cats, understanding the alarm calls and behaviors of other animals and also they would keep telling you some interesting stories about the park. I’m sure a good guide can make difference in your experience.

Back to the park, Bandhavgarh and Pench are almost same size and much smaller to the size and varieties in comparison to Kanha. In Bandhavgarh for Zone1, there are 4 specific routes, A, B, C and D and you would be getting 2 out of them in random, since park opening in Oct 2010, route A is closed for visitors, so only available routes in Zone1 are B, C and D. We got C/D in evening safari of first day. Evening safaris were scheduled to start around 3.00pm and it goes till 6.00pm the sunset time. It was cloudy day and we started our first safari with few birds, storks, and herds of spotted deer. In 5 to 7 minutes after starting the journey, the guide suddenly asked us to be silent, he spoken to the driver in some local accent which I didn’t understand much but the way jeep started running after that, we understood something is going to happen. Slowly we understood in subsequent safaris the alarm calls of Sambar/Spotted Deer and the movements of Langurs nearby and how these guys actually zero in then the possible movement of Big Cats by considering where they seen the cat last and many other factors like if it killed any last night, if it is accompanied by cubs etc. This is really an interesting aspect and you would surely enjoy the moment you would start understanding the underlying principles. Soon the driver also heard something and press the sudden break to halt the Jeep and then started the waiting, we were trying to look here and there but didn’t understand what’s going to happen. Within few moments another three Jeeps came from behind and stopped there, hardly 2/3 mins of waiting and then the unbelievable scene, it was barely 10 ft from me, suddenly it appeared royally from the bush beside us and crossed the road without even caring that 5 odd Jeeps and at least 30 odd people were watching holding their breaths. Its absolute silence and only the sound of relentless number of shutter clicks, not sure how many actually seen it in naked eyes as when I took off my eyes from Camera, I saw all were watching through their lenses only. Actually I was so engrossed with my 300mm lens, I would have completely missed the opportunity to take snaps with some other perspectives, like the first one below, with Jeeps in background it shows how close we have seen it, Thanks for my friend Arindam for taking this snap and sharing with us. But 10 minutes within the first safari, the dream was coming true, it was an unbelievable feeling, difficult to express, the way it walks past us clearly shows the royal arrogance. We were so awe struck, for next 10/15 minutes we were not speaking normally among ourselves, we couldn’t believe that we have seen tiger from so close.

Bandhavgarh at its Best (The First snap credit goes to my friend Arindam):

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Rest of the evening was not that eventful, mainly because all of a sudden it started raining and our driver forgot to carry the plastic they use during rain and you can understand how we spent the rest 2.5 hours in relentless rain sitting in an open Jeep.

Next day morning safari was at 6.30am and we had to start around 5.45am after the last evening rain, it was very cold, morning safaris are really a different feelings when you could see the forest is coming into its life with sun, the wild boars, herds of deer in light and shade were awesome, the light was so low, no point in trying anything with camera, specially with slow lenses, so enjoying the forest and feeling it is the only thing that one can do to his or her best during this early hours. The sun rise in the rocky terrain is gorgeous and beyond any word to express. We have seen lots of birds and peacocks (mainly in route B), sambars, spotted deer, jackals and langurs.

In evening safari we have experienced a great sun set on the backdrop of Bandhavgarh Fort, which again needs proper planning to visit as only 4 cars are allowed per day, 2 during morning safari and 2 between 11am to 2pm. This ride can’t be booked online, you need to buy the tickets on spot if available. Some amount of trekking is involved as vehicles no longer are permitted to go till top because of environmental degradation.

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Next: Magical MP – Amarkantak