This Is What Happened When I Saw A Tiger In Real Life!
Beach, mountains or forest? Until a few days ago, all of my vacation plans revolved around the hills, and sometimes, the beaches. Never had I ever thought of the forest as an option. But that’s changed, and how!
I went on a jungle safari to Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh with Taj Safaris, and it is hands down one of the best travel experiences of my life. To know why keep scrolling.
A 2-hour flight from Mumbai to Jabalpur and a somewhat tiring 4-hour long drive later, we had reached our destination, Bandhavgarh. The sun had set by then, but even in the dim orange flames from the mashaals and the lights, I could easily say that this property could make people cry tears of joy.
Mahua Kothi by Taj is a huge property of around 40 acres, with 12 mud cottages, each with a private courtyard. The lodge also has facilities like a library, swimming pool, lounge area and a gorgeous dinner setting under the trees.
As soon as I stepped inside my room, the words ‘welcome home’ embraced me and I knew this was going to be a wonderful stay. Divided into two sections, the room was a luxurious treat. If it was up to me, I would have stayed there forever. No kidding.
An orientation with the naturalists, Karun, Varun and Harsh, and a simple but lovely dinner spread later, we called it a day.
Tucked in the white blankets with a few insects for company, for the first time in my life I was excited to get up at 4 am to venture out into the forest. My one mission: Spot the national animal, the Royal Bengal Tiger.
The call of the birds and the tunes of the little bugs woke me up at the crack of dawn and though sleepy, the thought of the adventure ahead made me rush to the jeep, with my shoes on and my sunglasses flying off my face.
It was four of us in the jeep with our naturalist, Harsh (who was kind of cute) and a local guide. Now, the naturalists have immense knowledge about everything even remotely related to the forest but they take a local with them on the game drive just to give them an employment opportunity. When the forest was declared ‘a national park’, the locals had nowhere to go, and hence, this rule was made.
A quick 15-minute drive to the gates, and we were ready to start our journey amongst the trees, birds, animals and grasslands.
Soon we spotted deer, langoors, various kinds of birds (most of whom were trying to impress their female counterparts) and learnt a thing or two about the tropical forest that Bandhavgarh is. Only about 20% of the whole jungle is open to tourism. There is a fort in the centre of the forest with a temple that is open only on Ram Navmi, when the villagers trek to perform their rituals. Otherwise, it is out of bounds.
Every now and then, Harsh would look for fresh paw marks and ask the driver to turn the jeep in the direction of the alarm calls. Yes, I now know the alarm call of a peacock, monkey and deer quite clearly.
My Adventure Continues…
We then drove to a point where we saw a tiger cub. Oh, what a sight! The cub was around 18 months old and taking a nap. While we were staring at the beauty in front of us, literally out of nowhere, the mother appeared on the scene. Spotty (yup, that is her name) looked at her cub and walked straight past, crossed the road and went to the other side of the jungle to sleep. Apparently, there were two other cubs and she just wanted some peace away from the kids. Our mothers probably know that feeling best, don’t they?
Content and utterly amazed, we made our way towards a delicious breakfast at a common spot in the forest. Cookies, rolls, coffee/tea, muffins and sandwiches were brought out, neatly wrapped by our enthusiastic naturalists. We wolfed them down like we’d been starved for days.
After another drive, we made our way back with the same energy. Surprisingly I wasn’t tired at all, even after sitting in the same spot on the jeep during the really bumpy ride. And the answer to that was the breathtaking forest, the fresh air, and the amazing hosts that the folks at Taj were.
Later, in the evening my fellow companions and I were taken on a village drive. We drove past the huts and cottages and discovered the famous Mahua tree pretty much everywhere! The locals apparently make an intoxicating drink out of the leaves from this tree, and it’s rumoured to be a hit. I couldn’t get a taste of it this time, but hopefully next time, I will be lucky.
Just as we were heading back, the naturalists took us to a spot that they call the ‘fox den’, to see if we could sight any. All pumped up, with our cameras ready to shoot, we rushed to the hill, only to find a surprise waiting for us.
A lovely picnic table set with hot samosas, tea, cupcakes, fruits and more. Everyone around me was all smiles; turns out, Taj Safaris understands that a little gesture goes a long, long way!
But wait, that’s not it. It was dinner time when we returned to the lodge. And guess what, this time our meal was set by the pool, surrounded by dim lights and a canopy of stars! I think my heart skipped a beat in that moment, and I closed my eyes to take it all in.
Traditional MP thali was served with mutton curry, puri, aloo sabji, rice, pyaaz ki kheer, chaas, mutter and gaajar and so on. Candle-lit dinner at its absolute best. Oh God, how could any other dinner match this standard now?!
Out & About!
After the most perfect day, I slept like a baby even though there weren’t any locks on the doors of our cottages, just latches. Somehow the place felt like home, and the people, my own. I knew I was as safe as I will ever be.
The next morning, we went for a game drive again; this time with the mindset of admiring the beauty of the jungle. Soon after breakfast, we were packed to go on a 5-hour long road trip to Kanha, another national park.
(More about that in my next post. If you thought this was amazing, you have to read the next one. It was kick-ass.)
As I bade goodbye to the chefs, the manager and the adorable naturalists, I felt a sense of emptiness take over and found myself planning to go back. The whole staff stood in a line, saying bye to us with huge smiles plastered on their faces. Never felt this special ever!
For Rs 36,000 a night (inclusive of all meals) it is a splurge, but the hospitality is worth experiencing at least once in your life. The safari costs an extra Rs 2,750, but again, good naturalists can make or break your 6 hours in the jungle. The ones at Taj, however, will make you fall in love with them. Guaranteed.