The jungles of Madhya Pradesh were, for me, love on the very first safari. As I write this, I’m keeping my ears tuned for the sound of birds that I have begun to identify, I’m absent- mindedly brushing imaginary insects off my arms, I’ve got a yearning for the faint smells of musk enveloped by lush green vegetation and even the bumpy bone rattling drive through the jungles. But that’s not how the story began.
As a hardcore city girl, I haven’t really spent time in the great outdoors, and most definitely not among wildlife. I’m not one for roughing it out, neither do I have the guts of steel I always assumed it takes to be able to do something of this kind. Give me European museums filled with beautiful art, big cities with opulent history and I’m happy. Quaint towns in Tuscany with cobbled streets is about as far as I’ve been willing to go off track. But this has been a year of firsts. One that began with spending the night camping in the Arab desert when we visited Dubai. Surprisingly, tossing uncomfortably on the air mattress aside, I quite enjoyed myself, and would do it again.
Charles, who has enjoyed his share of time in the jungles of South India encouraged me to go. He was certainly far more prophetic about the outcome than I’ll give him credit for. So I bit the bullet and signed up for over a week of nothing but safaris in the remote jungles of Madhya Pradesh; Pugdundee Safaris’ Satpura-Bandhavgarh-Kanha Tour. Closer to D- day however, I began to voice the fears I’d been pushing to the back of my head. Even if I was to ever go on safari, I didn’t think it would be one of the Safaris in India. I’m thinking more African Safari. What would a luxury safari in India entail? The comforting knowledge that we were to stay in three luxurious safari lodges – Denwa Backwater Escape, King’s Lodge and Kanha Earth Lodge helped ease the anxiety. Somewhat. My grandfather however, was more than excited for me. I would be visiting his old hunting grounds. Posted here back in the day, he has seen the region before it became a protected national park. He doesn’t know it as the tourist zones it has now been divided into, but instead navigated his way through the tiny villages and solitary police stations that once stood where spotted deer now graze. Seeing my trepidation about the upcoming trip, he took it upon himself to call me every night with stories about his tiger encounters in the hope that it would prepare me. It worked, fascinating me further.
Your Guide to Safaris in India
Leather trunks, wide brimmed hats, afternoons fuelled by Quinine fixes of Gin and Tonic, liveried wait staff. This was the impression I had of Safaris in India thanks to the many films I’ve seen promoting this Colonial illusion. While luxury is possible to attain (even here in India), the reality of safari trips are far removed from Kipling’s time. So 3 national parks and 9 game drives later, here I am, completely qualified to tell you all about what to expect, what to do (and what not to do). Presenting your guide to safaris in India.
1. When to go
Summers are a great time to spot tigers because they tend to visit watering holes at least a couple of times a day to cool off. But it’s also when the Sloth Bear can’t bear the heat and retreats into the cool dark recesses of the jungle. The national parks are shut in the monsoons when roads become un-navigable. That’s also when certain animals like this Barasingha (Hard Ground Swamp Deer) dons a bright coloured coat. Winter is once again a lovely time when everything emerges lush and shiny after the monsoon. Most safari lodges in India will do the needful when you book your stay with them. Safaris per day are limited and often get booked up well in advance, and booking yours a couple of months earlier is a good idea.
Depending on your budget and whether you intend on using those later, there are several pieces of equipment that can go a long way in making your safari a more comfortable and richer experience. For the shutterbugs, a DSLR with a good zoom lens is a great idea. I was thrilled to be able to capture various birds that a point and shoot couldn’t, and often used the lens in lieu of binoculars to spot far away creatures like the elusive leopard. That being said, if you aren’t a photographer, a good pair of binoculars is a great idea. Check ahead with the safari company if they’ll be provided.
What to wear on a safari in India will depend on the region and the season. Depending on the weather, gear up with light jackets for the early morning chill, raincoats for showers, and breathable cotton fabrics in natural shades of khaki and beige/green. Avoid dark or flashy colours, wear closed and comfortable footwear, a cap or hat for the wind that will certainly play havoc with your hair, sunglasses for the glare, a good sunblock. Leave the strong perfumes and flashy jewellery at home.
4. Getting into the vehicle
When you go on a jeep safari, choosing where to sit depends on what you want out of the drive. I enjoyed the last seat, which although it was rather bumpy, was ideal for an unobstructed and slightly elevated view of the forest. Depending on the park, guides will sit in the last seat or stand in the front passenger seat. If you’re going to want to ask a lot of questions, it makes sense to sit closer so you can hear him over the hum of the engine. Don’t forget to carry photo identification with you at all times.
5. Be open
Far too much emphasis is laid on spotting the big cat on tiger safaris in India. But do bear in mind that this is the wild. Sightings are unpredictable, and you could spot anything from 0 to 14 tigers on one drive alone. Don’t push the enthusiastic guides and naturalists to go on a witch-hunt for the tiger, but allow them to reveal the various treasures of the jungle to you. Over the various safaris, I’ve learnt to identify over 29 species of birds, each of them beautiful and unique. The trees and other vegetation too tell stories of nature’s gorgeous harmony with the animals that favour their leaves and fruit.
Ask questions, because naturalists are only too happy to answer. Learn to identify the various species of birds flying about, tune your ears to the various mating and alarm calls the creatures make. Decode the way they identify how long ago a male or female tiger walked past a spot basis pug marks in the ground. These people have an instinctive connection with the Indian jungle, from years of study, and getting into the groove can really enrich your experience.
7. Be respectful
For the wild creatures, the jungle is their home and you’re an uninvited guest. While some of them don’t mind the various jeeps they’re used to seeing in the distance and will even pose for the shutterbugs, several of them go scampering away. Minimise disturbance by speaking in hushed tones, keeping your limbs within the vehicle, not using flash on your camera and generally being respectful of your surroundings. This will also allow you to notice and take in more than someone who treats it like a noisy picnic through the forest.
8. Know your body
Are you someone who needs to take a loo break often? Cut down on your water intake just before the drive, or you’ll spend half your time driving to and from a toilet (remember this is a national park and you can’t just jump out of the vehicle and relieve yourself in the shrubs). This may mean missing out on amazing sights and inconveniencing others in your jeep.
9. Be grateful
Being a forest guide or naturalist is tough work. Studying and tracking unpredictable creatures, often putting themselves at risk and following their deep passion for research, conservation or whatever else they’re pursuing takes some real grit. When you’re in the jungle, you’re their responsibility. Remember to listen when they speak and thank them for sharing this wealth of information with you (whether verbally or in Rupees).
10. Don’t stop learning
Most good safari lodges will provide you with a bird/mammal/reptile/tree checklist for the area. Go over them, since you’ll have access to a naturalist and it’s so much fun ticking off the species you’ve identified on the drive. Our lodges also had lovely libraries and reading rooms filled with excellent resources on nature and wildlife.
11. Be well rested
Don’t retire into the air-conditioning of your room unless you absolutely must. Instead, kickback (after a light meal) in the shade on a verandah serenaded by the beautiful song of birds. At night, sleep early in preparation for the next morning’s safari and ask the reception for a wake up call if you’ll have trouble surfacing on time. Given the 4 am wake up time, exhilarating drives and absence of lights and traffic sounds, you’ll pretty much sleep like a baby.
12. Listen to the call of the wild
Nature and wildlife were probably at the very bottom of my list, alongside dental extractions and majoring in Quantum Physics. But this trip flicked a switch within me, and with every safari I found myself much like the tiger; I’d tasted blood and wanted more. I know this won’t be my last safari. Au contraire, I believe this trip has been the beginning of a wonderful, everlasting friendship; between the wild and I. If you’re planning to take off on your first safari, you were warned. It’s addictive. It will never be enough.
And for those of you wondering, yes I did spot not one, but three tigers. More on that soon! Have you been on safari in India? What are your tips for someone looking for a guide to safaris in India? Or are you on the other side of the fence? Never been on one? What’s been stopping you? Tell us in the comments below!
This post was made possible by Pugdundee Safaris. Opinions as always, are our own.