...but mostly good!
17.04.2012 - 10.05.2012 35 °C
Final India Installment for Spring 2012 and it’s all about wildlife! This blog will be Photo-Heavy and Info-Lite since all the parks here are repeats for me and all of you intrepid readers. The last three weeks were pretty much spent wildlife-ing, with Sandra in Panna and Bandhavgarh, where we explored with Yugdeep and Bejoy. I ended up with what will likely be my final attempt to love, Ranthambhor and a quick visit to Kanha my indispensible naturalist guide, CV Singh.
So excited to be heading back into the forests! My return to Panna introduced me to my first jungle forays with Bejoy, a lovely naturalist from Kerala. We had wonderful drives in the park, although the vulture gorge, one of my favourite places to visit, was closed because Bithri (my first tiger) was staying there with her very new litter of cubs. I always love returning to Panna, especially to visit with friends. This trip, I brought out Canadian Maple syrup, Canadian bacon and flour (Indian flour doesn’t work very well with western baking) to make a pancake breakfast for the gang. They set up a couple of burners outside, which was a relief cause I’m sure I’d have melted if I’d tried to cook in the kitchen!
Seems amazing given the times I've been here, but I hadn’t made a trip to the falls before. This was a real treat! We climbed down into a really beautiful gorge, with the falls only a trickle at this time of year, but still lovely. It was so lush and green with a rich deep pool filled with fish and feeling of serenity that was pretty amazing. It was obviously a favourite spot for bears, since the claw marks were evident all over the trees, some incredibly high up. I'd love to be able to stay overnight there and see all the activity that must happen in the evening. Panna is always, and most definitely on the 'Good' for me.
However, we had 'the Bad' towards the end of our stay. Another guest joined the jeep and he was pretty amusing. He had some very strong opinions – "look over there, a peacock is dancing!" Bejoy would point out. Said our intrepid companion, “I don’t like.” Uh oh… There was actually quite a bit he didn’t like, including drives that were too long. Too bad, cause we like ‘em! He certainly liked the pretty village ladies, and spent his time trying to get someone to introduce him to one! I’m thinking if you want to dally with an Indian lady, a village is not the best place to try to do so!! All kinds in this world!
Panna was unusually wet for this time of year and that meant bugs! Which do not go well for poor Sandra!! So, heading from the more rustic Ken River Lodge, to the super luxurious Taj Banjar Tola in Bandhavgarh was just what the doctor ordered for her final stop. We met up with Yugdeep and like always, had wonderful sightings and experiences. He’s pretty great, both as a naturalist and as a friend and we had a fantastic time with him.
We had some unusual sightings, including two Brown Wood Owls, which are not supposed to be there. Got a record shot only though. There was also a rather big fire in the non-tourist-zone, which was upsetting, especially knowing all the nesting birds at this time of year. All those beautiful chicks in the line of the fire would have had no chance. There was no word on the cause, but most likely people in the forest illegally. It was pretty smoky for a day in the camp, and at night, you could see the red glow of the fire from our terrace.
Panna and Bandhavgarh easily, and expectedly were The Good part of this wildlife visit, as always! Wonderful luxury in the jungle and then back to Delhi for Sandra to catch her flight, and me to head off on the train to Ranthambhor.
Now, on to The Bad! You may remember that I’ve not been a fan of this park, more specifically the way it is managed and run. I thought I’d give it one more try, utilizing new contacts and information from the lovely Usha at Khem Villas. Ranthambhor has a lottery system for jeeps, which means, there are a large number of jeeps, and drivers (aka naturalists [sic]) get the same amount of work whether they are good or not. This also means that 9 times out of 10 you get a tiger-chasing driver (and I mean chasing – the speeds driven inside this park are criminal), with no knowledge of the park outside tigers. It also means that you are jammed 6 people into a jeep (if you’ve been lucky enough to book a jeep), which affords you no real ability to take photos or comfortably see the park. At this time of year, we were able to get cancelations for the days I hadn’t been able to book online (there are quite a lot of block booking scams that happen so a large number of cancellations also happens, and it isn’t the high season).
So, here we are, in Ranthambhor, comfortably set up, camera in hand, and… Tiger census was happening. I understand the need for an annual census, but, it would be nice if they could actually plan and organize this effectively, alerting visitors to this. I had only booked one month in advance, which should have been plenty of time for them to know this would be happening. Nope, that would be too efficient I’m thinking. Our morning safaris were an hour late starting because of this census, and then, a whole day of safaris was cancelled. No reimbursement, no switches, no nothing. Not even a head wag! Beware – in and around the full moon in May, do not go to Ranthambhor. [note: after writing a letter of complaint to the forest department, and having a friend forward the same letter to the Minister of Forests for Rajasthan, a reimbursement was paid, although no acknowledgement of my letter was made. I'm not sure which of the letters made a difference.]
So, I saw my first Ranthambhor tiger, but still likely my last. Never say never, but I won’t voluntarily go back there. This is said with some sadness too, because the park itself is spectacularly beautiful. There is an abundance of birds and animal activity you notice as you speed by. The jungle, the ruins of the old fort and the rambling buildings taken over by the jungle are so atmospheric. So much potential here, but of all the parks I have visited in India (and that is a lot) for my money, it is hands down the worst-run park in India.
On the good side, finally made the hike up to the Fort, which was really lovely and offered the best photography moments. Also the pond out back at Khem Villas, which was sadly some of the best wildlife watching and where we were treated to a pied kingfisher fishing.
The Ugly? No! not the park, that was wonderful, and such a contrast to Ranthambhor. For my money (and admittedly basic-knowledge), Kanha is one of the best-managed parks in India. The Ugly came on the overnight train ride to Jabalpur from Sawai Madhopur near Ranthambhor.
You’ll have heard me rant about ‘VIPs’ in India before, but this took the cake. It was easily the worst, almost comically and stereotypically-bad experience with VIPs I’ve ever had. We boarded our train and settled down for the ride, before stopping to pick up our cabin mates for the evening. A married couple by the manifest. Mr. & Mrs. M. were ushered in. He, a train bureaucrat, of middling importance I’m sure, but of massive importance to him and even larger importance to his wife. They entered the cabin (meant for 4 people) along with lovely little sycophants, who proceeded to spread out in the room and hallway, while Mr. M held court and they all nodded and laughed and smiled with great sincerity. The two servants travelling with them served the tea and snacks, weaving in and out of the throng. "Holy Crap", I texted CV sitting squished into a corner and avoiding the gesticulations of a hanger-on. "Holy Bureaucratic Crap", he texted back.
This went on till past 10pm, when they finally settled down to snore and snort through the night. No need for an alarm call though -- up at 6am, to make and receive calls... and of course the steady return of the entourage. Including a Mrs. Sycophant, who made sure Mrs. M felt equally important. Yeesh!!! Get me to the jungle!
After that wonderful night, we were thankfully off to the fabulous Kanha. We stayed at a lovely place - The Kanha Jungle Lodge, which was really remote and set in a rather dense forest. The lodge is run by the family of Mr. Kailash Sankhala, one of the founding people in Project Tiger in India. A real VIP! Someone who had done such wonderful things for conservation and the sometimes seemingly endless and frustrating fight for the tiger and India’s forests.
Our naturalist was very good, the drives slow and absorbing and our time wonderful. I will always be excited to return to this park. And that is that!
I am hopefully returning in the fall of 2012 and then again in the spring of 2013, but for the first time in 4 years, I haven't committed to take with me. So, if you, or other friends/family are interested in photography, wildlife, culture, adventure, food, shopping… really the star’s the limit in India… let me know. I will take up to 6 people, and singles are welcome.
India is a daunting place for the first-time visitor, especially on a shorter time-frame. But one you go, and I bet you’ll be hooked! This has happened for everyone I’ve brought, most of whom had no desire to visit the country (this includes myself!) before hearing, reading and seeing about my adventures there.
Check in to the travel and photography website www.cheekymonkeytravel.com for some sample itineraries or contact me if you're interested. I’ve been to, and/or taken people to all the main tourist destinations of the country, and more interestingly for me, many of the less-touristed locations. If you have a small group wishing to explore India, any number of combinations can be arranged. My focus and passion is for wildlife and photography, but not to the exclusion of everything else that is so wonderful in India. Being open to the unexpected creates some of the most amazing Moments.
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