The Sussex Wildlifer
Tiger Safaris and Birding in India


Trip Report 1: India, Delhi, Agra, Chambal River 
Safari and Bandhavgarh: October-November 2008

Trip Report 2: India, Delhi, Chambal River Safari,
Bharatpur, Ranthambore, Jaipur and Sariska: January 2012

Cultural

Our recent trip to India fell neatly into three distinct, and very different, parts: cultural, the River Chambal and Bandhavgarh and its tigers. Many things have changed since we last visited India; the pollution you feel could be cut with a knife and in Delhi and Agra was possibly the worst we have ever had to experience. It’s really that grim. The traffic is worse than St Petersburg, and that really is saying something, believe me. Don’t even consider driving yourself. The standard of driving at first seems to be appalling until, that is, you realise that it actually takes considerable skill to drive that badly. All the drivers seem to anticipate the unexpected – all the time: overtaking, undertaking, constant horns, going up one-way streets the wrong way. Of course, the huge Metro construction programme in progress in Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games does not help matters; what a difference that will make, but in the meantime chaos reigns!

Then there are the black kites and electric crematoriums, the super magnificence of India Gate in Delhi, arriving at New Delhi rail station at 4.45 in the morning for the Agra express – no spitting, no hawking and definitely no boozing and the most comfortable train ride of my life are all but memories now. Then the romance of the Taj Mahal, both at sunrise and sunset, but oh that pollution and the thousands of people (it was Diwali)! 

Chambal Safari Lodge

At last we escaped from the cities and headed deep into rural India, a very different and exceptional experience and one not shared by the average tourist, before reaching the wildlife oasis of the Chambal Safari Lodge. The wildlife here is simply stunning, the food the most delicious we have eaten outside of Kerala and the owners and guides the nicest people it is possible to meet. We managed to wangle an extra half a day, which meant that we could then enjoy the Sarus Crane Trail, a drive deep into the nearby wetlands, which are simply overflowing with huge flocks of cranes, storks and a multitude of other birdlife.

There were three species of owls roosting up during the day at the lodge, and on the river safaris we got to see the rare and highly endangered Gangetic dolphins and gharials, a long-snouted fish-eating crocodile, although we were just a bit too early to see the Indian skimmers, which over-winter here. By way of compensation I was able to stalk a pair of sarus cranes to within 20 feet; dropping onto one knee, I then managed to edge even closer until I pushed my luck just that bit too far and they slowly waded into the nearby swamp. Still, I got my photographs!

We stayed longer than most at the lodge, but even our three nights was not nearly enough and I would return to this wildlife paradise like a shot. It really is one of those very special wildlife places in the world. There is even a cultural experience at the nearby temple complex at Bateshwar on the River Yamuna and the annual animal fair there added an extra dimension to our trip: that and the fact that we were the only two Europeans there! Modelled on Varanasi it merits a visit.

Bandhavgarh and the tigers

Twenty eight sightings in ten days far exceeded even our wildest expectations and some of these were at point blank range. Bumping around rough tracks in the reserve in an open-backed jeep for over 7 hours a day is the most bum-numbing, boring experience, but when you round a corner and come literally face to face with a tiger produces the most incredible adrenalin rush imaginable. Then there are the elephant safaris, described by some as a circus, but hugely enjoyable, especially when you get to within a few feet of twin male tigers. 

One of the mornings we drove up early to the fort to photograph the many species of vultures as they warmed up in the sunshine. As we breakfasted, we watched in awe as they lined up in their squadrons and ghosted along the edge of the near 3,000 foot high cliffs; some we looked down on, others drifted overhead. This just has to be the best place in the world to see these much-maligned birds. It is truly an awesome experience and one not shared by any of the other jeeps that day which made the same journey, as they came up much later and missed this incredible spectacle.

The last Tiger

One afternoon we had entered an unpopular section of the reserve and, once we had given the few other jeeps about the slip, had driven to the far end along surprisingly good tracks. There were just the five of us, Jai our driver, Pete our tour leader, our park guide and Toni and myself. Our guide badly needed a pee and so we had stopped to allow him to go behind a tree. The next moment there were several deep, loud growls from the jungle and our guide came hurtling back.

The langur monkeys immediately started their alarm calls, quickly followed by the deeper barks of the chitals, or spotted deer and the larger sambar. Minutes passed and then chitals, sambar and a lone blue bull, or nilgai, hurtled across the track behind the jeep and disappeared deep into the forest. We spotted another sambar some distance off and watched as he followed the progress of some unseen animal through 180°. Even he got spooked and sped off.

Nothing happened for an age, but we held our breaths, spoke only in low whispers and were patient for well over an hour. And then it happened… There was a male tiger, huge head, peering at us through a small gap in the trees. Slowly, ever so slowly, he prowled on to where the trees jutted out into a meadow like a spearhead and which pointed directly at a water hole. On and on he went, tantalising glimpses through the trees, and then, at last, he was out in the open, continuing his arrogant, prowling walk, heading for the water.

We gave him time to settle and then hurtled around the track to a spot where we had a clear view of him drinking, and did he drink! It dawned on us that he must have killed earlier and now needed to slake his thirst and wash himself. Spellbound, we watched for over half an hour, before he appeared to head off back into the forest, but at the last moment he changed his mind and came back to the water, wading in up to his belly to drink yet more water and wash himself.
And then he really did decide that he had had enough of us. Unhurried, he prowled away, this alpha-male, for he was the son of Boka and Sukhi, and we never saw him again.

Return to Delhi

Long overnight train journeys in India are a really interesting experience. It is only a shame that for much of the time it was too dark to see anything. Arriving early in the morning we transferred to our hotel, where we were given a free upgrade to the Executive Suite and then, in the afternoon, headed off to the fabulous bird reserve at Sultanpur. What a great way to end a trip like this!

Postscript

In January 2012 we returned again with Lionscape Indus to India, this time for a full-blown three-week birding/tiger trip taking in Delhi, the River Chambal, Bharatpur, Ranthambore, Jaipur and Sariska. Pete Cooper was not with us; we were led by naturalist Dhanya Venkatesh and, as there were no others on this trip, we had her and our driver all to ourselves. We had some great times together, as well as so many laughs.

Delhi, post Commonwealth Games, was more manic than ever and we were hugely thankful to leave all the driving to someone else. I have no comprehension how any stranger to this city could possibly safely navigate such roads. Another thing that puzzles me is why any hotel chain would wish to build a marble palace in a slum, which is exactly what we encountered. The hotel was great: the surroundings were not.... When we told family and friends that we were off to India early in the New Year, they all thought the weather would be warm and the skies blue. How wrong they were! The nights were freezing and fog blanketed the city day and night. Luckily we knew some of this in advance and so had plenty of layers.

We kicked off with visits to the Okhla Barrage, not at its best due to the very high water levels, and a really welcome return to Sultanpur, which was as rewarding as ever, clocking up over 90 bird species for the day. The road to Chambal via Agra is a long one and, at times, an extremely busy one with a number of crashes and at least one death en route judging by a body laid out at the side of the road, but we felt secure in our tank-like 4x4. We enjoyed a couple of stops along the way to view water birds and several sarus cranes, one of my favourite Indian birds. Arriving at Chambal Safari Lodge we are greeted like long-lost friends and manage a quick whizz around the grounds for birds and civet cats.

This time the river cruises turn out to be really rewarding with great views of Gangetic dolphins and utterly stunning close-up encounters with gharials, mugger crocodiles and Indian skimmers. The extra icing on the cake turns out to be the eagle owls and a rare wagtail migrant from China. The only downside is the continuing air pollution, making good photography very challenging and it is only on the last afternoon that the weather relents and the sun shines, at long last, down on us. What bliss!

For me Bharatpur is a disappointment, but we enjoy the rickshaw rides. True we see many great birds, but this area has still to recover from recent damage caused when the river waters were, for a time, diverted elsewhere. It is going to take quite a time for things to recover. We stay in a Rajah's palace and even get to meet the man himself. What a life they must have all led once upon a time!

On to Ranthambore where we enjoy two game drives a day with butterfly and bug hunting in between times. We get to meet, on an extremely intimate level, Machli whom some call the Queen of Ranthambore, whilst others call her the Queen of the Lake. She is old now, with few teeth left, although we see her manage a kill of a young spotted deer. On our first afternoon, alone in our jeep with Dhanya, our park driver and ranger, we meet her face on along a narrow sandy track. She forces us to back, and then again and again until she has room to move across our path onto another track. Being directly eye-balled by this lady at point blank range is a distinctly un-nerving experience and I can tell you that at times I simply held my breath and even stopped taking pictures of her. What a lady! We continued to enjoy meeting her on a number of subsequent occasions. Beautiful, how stunningly beautiful she is!

The only other tiger we met was an alpha-male, who came straight at us up a slope, eye-balling me the whole way. I was taking so many photos of him and he seemed interested in the sound of the shutter, which at times resembled the noise of a machine-gun. Again, we were alone in the back of an open jeep and he passed within inches of us. Now, that is quite an adrenaline rush, I can tell you! Then, despite being within yards of a calling male leopard and seeing signs of them in many places, we just fail to quite catch up with them. A great shame, but that is wildlife viewing for you. Ranthambore has plenty of lakes and in between quiet spells with the tigers we thoroughly enjoy the birds, includung the bar-headed geese, which migrate right over the Himalayas to and from China. We will probably never get so close to snipe again. Before we leave Ranthambore, on our last afternoon, we drive to a less well visited part of the reserve, where we get to see the highly endangered Indian gazelle, or Chinkara. This beautiful name perfectly suits such a lovely creature.

This is where Dhanya leaves us, as we are now off on an extra week we managed to book through Pete as a separate matter. So to Jaipur and the many good birds on the lake and all the interesting things associated with this great city. Then on to Sariska, one of the tiger reserves where they were recently poached out. A few have been relocated here again and although we come very close indeed to them, they elude us, as do the many leopards. Still, no matter, there are many jungle cats and birds. There is a feeling among some of the locals that the loss of tigers was not only due to the trade in skins and tiger parts, but also to certain vested interests who are keen to build on the reserve, such has been the explosion in property values over recent years. Let us hope that these people do not prevail!

Returning to Delhi with a day to spare, we decide on another visit to Sultanpur, only to find that the place is closed for the day and no amount of offering suitable tips to the guards will persuade them to let us in. As it turns out, they do us a favour, as we head off to an area called Basai Dhankot, where we park in the grounds of a temple and set off around the fairly swampy surrounding countryside. Plenty of birds here, many great ones, but the star of the day, no the whole week, turns out to be the white form of bluethroat, the very last bird I photographed on the trip. I didn't even realise what it was until I viewed the images that evening.

Once again Pete Cooper delivers with bells on and we could not possibly have wished for a better, nicer person than Dhanya with whom to share so many unforgettable wildlife experiences and to have as a travelling companion. She is a real star, an extremely able and efficient wildlife professional!