In India, Tiger Is the Name of the Game

Suddenly we sensed tension in the air. A chital (spotted deer) fawn called for its mother. A peacock strutting on the ground flew up to a high branch. The other birds, in no danger, ignored the warning.

For the four of us in the safari vehicle, news of a nearby predator was just what we'd been waiting for. And we fervently hoped it was a tiger, because here in India, tiger is the name of the game. Africa may have the Big Five, but India has the Big One: the legendary Bengal tiger. Safari hands who have already checked off lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino in Africa are here to see tiger.

Their best chance is in the central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, home to one-fifth of India's estimated 3,600 tigers, almost half of them in tiger reserves. This is why CC Africa, a leading eco-sensitive safari operator in southern Africa, and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, a major Indian hotelier, recently launched a multicamp tiger circuit, the first upscale lodges in that province, each at the edge of a national park.

The first of them, Mahua Kothi, opened in November at Bandhavgarh National Park, and the second, Baghvan, in February by Pench National Park; the next two will be ready by mid-2008. These are not the first deluxe camps in India - there are two, for instance, in Rajasthan near Ranthambhore National Park — but they are the first in tiger-rich Madhya Pradesh, the first to have their own intensively trained naturalist guides, and the first to offer a circuit of wilderness lodges for a varied safari experience.

Our first stop was Mahua Kothi, where 12 chalets in a sun-filtered bamboo jungle are grouped around a central lodge like an Indian village. Each villa has its own courtyard with a sacred basil plant, revered by Hindus for its religious and medicinal properties. Inside, enchanting folk art fills the vaulted air-conditioned bedroom: three near-life-size, dark wood puppets from Kerala hang on a wall, a painted wooden truck atop the wardrobe has a "horn please" sign like real Tata trucks, traditional Indian board games are available, and a stuffed mongoose among the throw pillows on the bed is a witty nod to Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

For the 6 a.m. game drive, there is a hot-water bottle for your lap, a muff for your hands and a blanket lining the soft seat of the superb new safari vehicles. I don't usually wax euphoric over 4x4s, but these are the most comfortable imaginable: three theater-style rows, each with two individual seats separated by an aisle, offer incomparable viewing. (Comfort is second nature here. You come home from a late-afternoon game drive to find your butler has drawn a bubble bath, and in the evening, has lit your courtyard candles and turned on the electric blanket to warm your bed.)

As we drove to the park, Kartikeya, our naturalist, which is what rangers are called in India, told us how to pronounce his name. He gripped an imaginary wheel to signify a car, then made a T and a K with his hands.

A good naturalist brings the jungle alive with his passion and knowledge. He explained how tigers mark their territories by spraying urine and clawing trees sometimes 10 or 12 feet up the trunk, and talked about the symbiotic relationship between langur monkeys who eat in trees, dropping leaves that become food for the chitals on the ground. His brown eyes shone with delight at almost everything in the bush. Every time we drove past a rock wall, he stopped, hoping to see his first leopard.

Bandhavgarh controls how many vehicles are in the park, what routes they drive and strictly enforces the no-off-road tracking rule. A park ranger always rode with us.

The park, with tropical forests and woodlands, steep, rocky hills, flat grasslands, lakes and a 2,000-year-old hilltop fort with a 10th century statue of Lord Vishnu, is particularly beautiful and filled with a wonderful variety of wildlife: chital and sambar deer to Indian wild dog and jungle cat, wild boar and Indian bison to porcupine, jackal and fox.

And birds. Two hundred and fifty species just in this park, flashing their gorgeous colored feathers. Kartikeya always braked for birds: an emerald green bee eater on a long stick, a turquoise Indian roller in the nearby grass, a turquoise white-throated kingfisher by the water. By the time I left Bandhavgarh, I had checked off 39 1/2 birds on my birding list; the half was credit for a bird song (Malabar pied hornbill).

But we were after tiger, and they are not easy to find. While Kartikeya was pointing out tiger tracks and tiger poo, elephant keepers called mahouts were on their elephants looking for tiger in the bush. If they find any, they alert the naturalists, who speed to the site where guests ride elephants into the bush for a view. It's the only way to go off-road tracking.

Kartikeya never got a call.

But at the end of our last game drive in Bandhavgarh, a tiger nonchalantly sauntered across the dirt road in front of us, heading for the nearby water hole. Kartikeya wheeled the 4x4 around and raced for the lake. There he was, languishing on the opposite bank, his reflection in the still water. Eventually he stood up, then slipped behind a bamboo thicket out of sight. It wasn't a close sighting, but the pastoral scene enthralled us.

Dinner that night was so gala it almost seemed like a celebration of our tiger triumph. A blow-out barbecue in the boma with fire pits and local dancers, with spit-roasted lamb, whole chickens cooked in a mud pit, dumplings roasted on cow dung cakes served with black lentil and ghee; all manner of charcoal baked breads; fruit salads; and spiced vegetables.

We always had our curried soups, pilafs and kebabs in different places. One lunch was under a huge spreading mahua tree, another by the side of the pool, a dinner on the lodge rooftop under the stars.

Breakfast our last day was by the walled organic garden, the breads and muffins, pancakes and pressed rice laid out on a bullock cart, and then we moved on to our next camp, Baghvan, at Pench National Park.

Baghvan is delightfully different. Its 12 suites sit along a dry riverbed, surrounded by forest. Each has a bedroom connected by a covered walkway to a bathroom suite, with indoor and outdoor showers. Its rooftop is a covered terrace, with a large mosquito-netted bed, overhead fan, hookah pipes and a copy of Kipling's "The Jungle Book."

The terrain in Pench is primarily a dry deciduous forest of mostly teak trees and meandering jungle streams, but the game is similar. As for tiger tracking, on our last day we got the mahout call.

We drove over to meet two elephants. Their mahouts had leaned a ladder against the side of each elephant, and we climbed up to wooden platforms on top. Then Mohan Bahadur, the 12-foot-tall male I was on, lumbered off into the bush, swaying from side to side. And there she was, four or five feet from the elephant, eyes closed, resting under a tree, the sunlight dappling her orange and black stripes. After several minutes, she got up and, ignoring us, wandered away and lay down under another tree, while we followed. The whole encounter was perhaps 20 awe-struck minutes, silent but for the clicking of cameras.

You can bet we had a final celebratory dinner, Taj/CC Africa style, in Baghvan's treehouse, a covered, open-sided rectangle perched among the treetops over a dry riverbed. It was a meal of "street" food, laid out on a blue wooden cart typical of Delhi streets. Dozens of dishes — black lentil dumplings, tandoori chicken and prawns, all kinds of breads, saucers of yogurts and aromatic spices — all meticulously described on a menu by each place. But for the surprise dessert (trays of sweets) was this simple message: "For tonight it is just lots and lots of love."


Game viewing is at its best October to June; avoid mid-June to September, monsoon season.

In mid-2008, Banjaar Tola, in Kanha National Park, will open with 18 tents and Pashan Garh, Panna National Park, with 12 chalets. The all-inclusive rate at all lodges starts at $725 per person, which covers accommodations, all meals, all scheduled safari activities, including elephant safaris, drinks, house wines, house spirits and local beers, laundry and emergency medical evacuation. Book through

Joan Scobey is a freelance travel writer.

© Copley News Service

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