One always feels apprehensive when travelling to a new country, especially when this country happens to be in another hemisphere and has a population in excess of 1 billion people. You wonder to yourself, ‘what wild places could be left in such a place?’.
In any event, in November 2018, myself, Photographic Guide Villiers Steyn, and two guests headed to India to do some exploring. And what we discovered, was a truly remarkable place. We started our trip in the Southern Province of Karnataka where we explored the green jewel of Nagarhole National Park. The forest holds tigers, leopards and a host of other animals but currently has a resident Black Panther (a melanistic leopard) which we knew we would have a slim chance of seeing.
We spent three nights in Kabini, just outside the Nagarhole National Park and set out twice daily for game drives hosted by the Government and Forestry Department. Unfortunately, we did not see the elusive black panther (affectionately known in those parts as ‘Blackie’) nor did we see any tigers. We were treated on our final drive to a large male leopard, draped picturesquely on a branch in the jungle. This gave us a glimpse of what one could see out there. From a photographic perspective, this was a tough environment but from an experience perspective it was fantastic.
After our 3 nights in Kabini, we made the journey north to the Province of Rajasthan and onwards to the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Boy, were we treated to an amazing wildlife experience during the short time we spent there.
I will set the scene of our first morning visiting the park: A scenic 15 minute drive from your hotel, on winding roads, buffeted by immense cliffs on either side, gets you to the gate into the park. Along the way, lie entrances to the various zones of the park, closed off by chains, luring you to enter both to the left and right. On arrival at the gate, your backdrop is the stunning Ranthambhore Fort, built in the 10th Century. Peacocks and peahens call out and are all over the parking area, a meeting point for the religious pilgrimage which takes place daily to the top of the Fort. Excitement hangs thickly in the air. You feel like you are about to enter Jurassic Park.
Two large wooden doors block your entrance into the park. Your driver and Forestry guide sort out your permits and the gates are opened for you. You drive through a manmade archway, and, soon, natural archways created by the many Banyan Trees found in the park. Immediately, your guide notices Tiger ‘pug marks’ in the soft, fine sand in the road. “She passed by the gate in the night” he exclaims.
You carry on into the park, the landscape opens up and you are greeted by an immense lake stretching at least 400 meters wide. Old ruins sit on an island, a remnant of the history of the place. You drive along the lake shore as other vehicles split off in various directions. Not 3 minutes later, ‘Tiger!’, Tiger!’. Your heart skips a beat as you focus your eyes trying to see it. Its right in the middle of the road, 20 meters from your vehicle and walking straight at you. No ways! ‘Arrowhead’ your driver says; a 3 year old Tigress who holds the lakes territory- so named after the stripes forming the shape of an arrowhead on her forehead.
You spend the next 90 minutes with her. Chaotic 90 minutes photographically, as the number of opportunities to get images of her on territorial patrol are mind boggling. Your driver anticipates each move she makes, taking roads and parking. You wait for 10 minutes sometimes and then she appears, walking straight at you. What an experience. What a rush. ‘Is this real?’ you think to yourself. ‘Can this be real?’. You are the only vehicle with her for the better part of 45 minutes.
After Arrowhead moves away from the road and into the bush, you head off in search of more… But what could satiate you now, after an experience like that? How about 3 more tigers, just 1km from where you left Arrowhead. You stop atop a cliff and watch tigers playing in the gorge below whilst enjoying a delicious packed breakfast. Kicking yourself at the incredible morning you were a part of.
You explore some of the scenery on your way back to the hotel. The diversity of the landscape in the park is awe-inspiring. Open veld-like areas turn into wooden open shrub-land. Next you find yourself driving through a gorge along a waterway, blanketed in rich green forest and full of birdsong. Game is numerous and the deer species fill the landscape like one would expect to see with antelope in Africa.
After an amazing time, you head back to the hotel to refresh and have some delicious Indian cuisine for lunch before heading back into the mystical wilderness. Your afternoon is filled with more of the same. Tigers, exploring the landscape and seeing new places. You could do this again and again. And so you day draws to a close as you sit around a fire, discussing your days’ experience, ready for the new day and the new possibilities it holds.
We enjoyed two days as described above. We saw and incredible 7 individual tigers and had an impressive 9 sightings during our two days. The birdlife and wildlife in the park are plentiful and incredible. They generously fill the time between tiger sightings. Being here for the first time and seeing different animal species, we experienced something new again, and this is what grabbed us by the heart almost immediately. On our last evening, driving along a winding road on a cliffside, we bumped into one of the Park’s may leopards which ended our short trip off with a bang.
Words are one thing but images speak more to the place. From a photographic perspective, we could not have asked for better sightings, guiding and vehicle positioning. This was experience which rivalled many African Experiences. We knew, on the very first morning, after just 30 minutes in the Park, that our clients would love this place, this incredible land… Incredible India… And we immediately set plans in motion to show them.
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