Big Cat Diaries...
25.01.2008 - 02.02.2008
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Taking a night train to Umaria, we left behind the splendour of Taj Mahal and the squalor of Agra. Lured by tales of tiger sightings told to us by other travellers, we took a bus from Umaria to the village of Tala - accesspoint to the Bandhavgarh National Tiger Park, a 448 sq km park home to some 65 tigers. the park boasts the highest density of tigers of any park in India, and we were optimistic due to the claim of 99.99 % chance of spotting a big cat.
All the same, the regal ruler of the Indian jungle lived up to his elusive nature. On our first jeep ride through the park, we saw two kinds of deer, two types of monkey and several interesting birds. Not bad - but no tiger.
Next day, we did a morning ride. It was freezing cold, and the jungle was eerily quiet. We didn't see neraly as many animals as the day before. At a quick tea stop, we were told that some of the other jeeps had spotted a tiger. We rushed to that area and waited, hoping he would reappear. No such luck, but we did hear hom roaring in the nearby bushes - what a sound! So deep, like a rumbling thunder. On the way back, we spotted a jungle cat - looked like a mini cougar ( or a vary large house cat)
Spurred on by our increasing success, we went on another trip that afternoon. We returned to the same area, and again we heard the tiger roaring. Amazing. And eventually, he did emerge from the trees. He came sauntering onto the road, with absolute confidence - sent a thrill down all our spines. One of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen! There were loads of other cars there, and all were jostling for position nearest the tiger (which explains the extremely poor quality of the pics ) But the tiger appeared unmolested by this racket, and just walked slowly along, crossed the road and disappeared in the trees. We drove around a bend in the road, and he emerged again. Amazing encounter! Apparantly, he was the alfa male of the area, and he was truly huge and imposing...
(I know, I know - they're shit, but hey, it's a tiger!).
Encouraged, and perhaps gone slightly mad, from our tiger encounter, we decided to do a completely illogical, insane backtracking train ride across half of India, to visit Sasan Gir Lion Park in Gujarat. Before we got to Bandhavgarh, we had not been aware of this last sanctuary of the Asian lion, and after the tiger we were possesed by a desire to see this other large cat of India! The fact that we had not thought about it earlier cost us about three days of riding trains, as we could have done the park on the way to Rajasthan. Even the best laid plans and all that...
We caught a train from Katni to Jalgaon, then Jalgaon to Ahmedabad, then to Veraval, and from there a bus to the village of Sasan. 36 hectic hours later we were there...
Sasan is a small, remote village, much like Tala, completely focused around the nearby national park. And just like the tigers, the lions of Sasan Gir proved more elusive than we had thought. Given the hype about this lion park in guidebooks and the like (to quote Lonely Planet: ÿou'd be unlucky not to see a lion on a safari here"), we were expecting the lions to be easier to spot than the tigers. In fact, they proved to be just the opposite. In Bandhavgarh, we saw a tiger on our third trip - here we ended up doing five trips before we found the lions. Of course, wildlife spotting is always a matter of luck, so we were not complaining.
On our first runs, we saw lots of other wildlife in the park. Lots of deer, like in Bandhavgarh, but also other species. Blue bull, the largest antilope in India (very large animals indeed). A jackal, wild boars, lots of birds.
All very exciting, but in the end we were itching to find the lions. We could hear them roaring at night, but no sign of them. Finally, we "bribed"a park official, and our luck turned The ranger took us off the paths, and we walked on foot (!) into the bush to a spot where they knew of a fresh kill. A huge lioness was there, with two grown cubs. They had feasted on a sambar deer, and their bellies were enormous, hanging down to the ground. Lucky for us, as we were literally standing a few meters away, with only a park ranger with a measley axe for protection. Who knows what would have happened had they been hungry? Talk about an adrenaline rush! When we got to close to the kill, the lioness got up and glared at us, and bared her teeth. Time to leave! The lions were not as beautiful as the tiger, but they were certainly majestic, their sheer strength was impressive. Worth the detour we both agreed!!