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When I decided to register as a self-employed artist I asked the tax office if I could travel to India to photograph wild tigers and claim it as a business expense.

‘Sure’ they said, I could if that was part of the job,
‘But be sure to keep the receipts,’ I was told,
‘The receipts will be in Hindi won’t they?’
‘No problem.’
‘What things can I claim for?’
‘Travel, accommodation, meals, park fees, guides, equipment. Anything business related.’
So not being a boozer, that’s nearly everything.

Crikey, I was onto a winner.

On my first visit, I arrived just after the monsoon, when the trees were in full leaf and the grass was lush and high.

It took me 11 safaris to spot my first tiger. It was far in the distance and stalking some spotted deer. Luckily for us, the tiger was being tracked on elephant back by a BBC film unit, otherwise, we might have missed it.

A case of ‘follow that elephant!’

It was intensely exciting, and I was a very happy chappy.

I didn’t get my classic shot that time around but no matter. After 11 drives, I did get to see a leopard, wild dogs (dholes) at a kill, jungle cats, a herd of huge bison (gaur) and untold numbers of deer.

That was many years ago in Kanha national park, long before the park became so popular.

I have revisited many times since.

Tax-deductible it may be but am I made of money? No

Two langur monkeys grooming
By the way, there’s more to see than just tigers.

I travel on a budget and do my own thing. I stay in local guesthouses and arrange my own guides. And I’m not talking about roughing it either, I want a clean and tidy place.

If you want to maximise your chances of spotting a tiger you really have to go to India, Madya Pradesh in particular. It’s marketed as ‘the tiger state’ for a reason.

MP lies in the central-north of India and has three parks famous for prolific wildlife and healthy populations of tigers.

Most famous of the three is Kanha NPwith its wide-open meadows full of grazing deer.

Bandhavgarh NPwhich is a smaller and more wooded but with the highest density of tigers in India.

The third is called Pench NP, with fewer visitors, plenty of tigers but much higher chances of sighting leopards.

Two lesser-known parks are:

Resurrected Panna National Park, now restocked and thriving within easy access from Khujaraho (erotic temples).

And Satpura NP, little known outside India and situated in the cooler Satpura Range. The chances of spotting tigers here are fewer but unlike the other parks, it does allow trekking, cycling, and boating.

Outside Madya Pradesh, you can visit Ranthambore NP  in Rajasthan. Its famous for its romantic hillside fort overlooking a beautiful lake. If you’ve ever seen one of those magical shots of a tiger posing under an abandoned pavilion, chances are it was taken here.

If you want the best chances possible of bagging a tiger,  you should head for:

  1. Bandhavgarh NP
  2. Kanha NP
  3. Ranthambore NP

If you go at the right time of year it would be unusual not to see a tiger. March to June is best, it’s the hot season, preceding the monsoon. It’s dry and the vegetation dies back, opening up the views.

A few years ago you were almost guaranteed to see a tiger at any time of the season in both Bandhavgarh and Kanha.
Tigers were tracked down every morning so that tourists could have the chance to sight them from elephant back.

I believe this has now ceased but rules change so you’ll have to check it out.

Before the Indian economy took off you could visit these two gems with relatively few tourists.

Things changed and the parks were overwhelmed with visitors and in order to control numbers they hiked the fees, especially so for foreigners.

They also zoned the parks and charged more for the best zones.

It upset a lot of people, me included.

Amazingly last year (2016) all things changed. Fixed flat-rate prices were set across the board. Not only that, they are incredibly cheap!

Take a look at the rates, if you book a single seat on a shared Jeep (Gypsy) it’s insane! It works out at £3 quid that’s $4 bucks! (at the time of writing)

There are a few extra costs met between all occupants of the jeep like guide fees.
But we are still talking peanuts.

For the first time, foreigners are treated as equals and asked to pay the same fees. Woohoo

That’s the good news.

The bad news is there is a quota system and you need to book in advance.

Where’s the catch?

Well in a typically Indian way, they don’t accept payment from foreign cards. In other words, you can’t prebook.

But you still have options.

You can pay an agent about £12 ($15) to book a seat. (Probably best)

Stay at a resort and buy their package.

Or try and get on one of the limited numbers of jeeps permitted to enter each day without a prior booking. You will have to queue and the competition will be fierce so get up very early to save your place in the line.
I haven’t tried this new system yet but I suspect that for a fee some enterprising souls would queue on your behalf. It happens like that in India. Ask around and try your luck.

Another new option is the open-top minibus called a cantor. I wouldn’t dismiss this option out of hand. I saw two tigers in Ranthambore from a cantor and you will still get to see the park. It’s a great way to spend time while you try to get in a jeep.

Tigress on a riverbank portrait tadoba national park
Tigress on a riverbank in Tadoba national park

Yet another option is the new buffer zone Safari.

I think this is an exciting idea. I’ve encountered a tiger on the outskirts of Kanha. The more demand for Safari space could mean that more surrounding land might be made available for protection. it’s win-win.

This is the booking page.

http://forest.mponline.gov.in

Let me know if you find a reasonable way around the foreign card conundrum.

In Madya Pradesh, the rules are similar for each park and the fees are the same. The difference is the number of jeeps allocated for walk-in visitors, they vary from park to park.

About India

If you have the time and confidence you can do this all yourself.

The daunting part for new visitors to India is the initial overwhelm.

Let’s be honest, India is in your face.

It’s noisy, dirty, chaotic, and stressful.

Poverty is a part of everyday life. There are beggars, hustlers, and scammers. It’s little wonder that some visitors turn tail and get the hell out.

If you can get over the shock of the first few days you’ll adjust and be fine.

A few things to remember.

  • Don’t fight India, you won’t win. Go with it.
  • Never admit it’s your first time in India (says you’re gullible)
  • A polite ‘No thanks’ is not enough. Be rude if you have to.
  • ALWAYS agree on a price beforehand, for everything.
  • You will be tricked occasionally, let it go.
  • Keep your sense of humour, most of it is just funny

Above all remember

  • You are very unlikely to be hurt by strangers.
  • Everything is easy when you tune in to the system.
  • Most people are friendly
  • These days you can escape the chaos and grab an air-conditioned latte!
  • INDIA IS NEVER BORING.

The Godsend of an economic boom is the technology leap. You can now cut out most of the sharks. Most things can be bought or reserved online.

Let’s assume you have a flight to New Delhi. Then what do you do?

Most travelers stay near the New Delhi railway station. It’s an area called Paharganj and is full of budget hotels and cheap eateries.
At the time of my last visit they’d cleaned the place up and limited vehicle access. With luck, it’s still in force.

Prebook a place to stay on TripAdvisor and you can ignore the touts.

You can conveniently catch the trains from here. New Delhi main station is at the end of the road.

Book your train online using the tourist quota using these sites:

www.cleartrip.com

www.makemytrip.com

www.yatra.com

www.irctc.co.in

You can also buy a ticket in the International Tourist Bureau on the first floor of the railway station. Remember to bring your passport and cash only or you won’t be able to buy a ticket. You will have to fill in an Indian railways reservation form and state your train name, destination, class of travel and bunk preference. Major trains are listed on the board at the rear of the waiting room or use the  Indian Railways at a Glance Timetable which is anything BUT a glance.

You might also like to try the Indian railways’ passenger reservations enquiries site.

Be aware that the ‘helpful’ strangers who hang out near the tourist office are touts trying to convince you the office is closed. They are all lying so totally ignore them, they are full of crap.

I’d advise anyone unsure of themselves to travel by 2nd class air-conditioned, 2 or 3 tier sleeper. You could even go first class but you don’t get much more for a much higher price. Having said that, it’s all cheap by western standards.

The advantage of paying the extra money is not just about the aircon, welcome as it is, but the extra peace of mind that goes with it.

The higher the class, the fewer people in the carriage. The other passengers are wealthier and educated so they’ll respect your space which is welcome.

You must ALWAYS chain your luggage to the seating but there’s far less opportunity for theft in the higher classes.
You won’t get hawkers in first class.

The alternative is the backpackers favourite, 2nd class sleeper – nonair-con.

It’s half the price but crowded. It’s often noisy, gets dirty quickly, beggars work the carriages, street urchins sweep the floors (for tips), there are buskers, hawkers, and chai wallahs. Kids run around and families picnic together and share their food. For many tourists, traveling by train in India is half the fun.
You often strike up conversations and meet friendly, curious people, and see all life go by.

Getting some kip can be a challenge (bring earplugs) but this is the India you’ll talk about when you get home.

Get the upper berth (U.B.) if possible. You can lie down at any time and your luggage is more secure.

The Indian railway system is amazing.
You get on an overnight sleeper, wake up and you’re there – er usually.

Trains tend to leave the main stations on time but arrive late. If you think about the logistics of running a service this size it’s not surprising.

Wild tiger resting on a dirt track in Kanha
A tiger walked out of the bush and rested in front of our jeep.

Getting to Bandhavgarh NP

There are a number of ways of getting to Bandhavgarh. 

By far the best and most convenient is to fly to Jabalpur for about $50 and catch one of the many trains to Katni which is only 1.15hr up the line and then catch the bus to Umaria.

There is a direct train from Delhi to Umaria called the Jammu Tawi Durg Superfast Express, leaving Delhi Safdarjng Railway Station at 15.35 and arriving in Umaria Station at 06.43.

You could also catch the overnight train to Jabalpur.  Catch a train to Katni and then catch the bus to Umaria.

Be aware that these trains do not originate in Delhi so will run late.

I’ve always visited Bandhavgarh NP via Varanasi or Khajuraho.

Varanasi is the ancient city on the Ganges where they cremate the dead and scatter the ashes into the river. It’s an amazing place, like nowhere else on earth. You could stay for a few nights and then move on.

You can fly to Varanasi of course for about $50-ish.

There are two overnight Varanasi trains leaving New Delhi station at 14.02 and arriving at 15.10 and 15.35 respectively. Don’t worry about arriving so early because the train will be late. Be very aware that Varanasi Junction is notorious for bag thieves.

In the past, I’ve stayed a few days in this extraordinary city and caught the midnight train south to Katni.

Another option is to fly to Khajuraho ($80-ish) from Delhi, visit the erotic temples and take a side trip to Panna national park nearby. Then take the bus to Satna the nearest railway station and wait for a train to Katni. Buses leave for Umaria regularly.

Where to stay

I’ve always stayed in the cheapest place called Kumkum guest house. It’s basic but friendly and they can arrange safaris for you. I’m pleased to see it still exists. A quick search on Tripadvisor found other guest houses for about £15 a night.

About the park

Overlooked by Bandhavgarh fort, the park is 448 sq km of rocky hills dominated by dense sal forests and lowland meadows. It’s a compact park but packs a punch. There are more tigers per sq km than anywhere else on earth. The wildlife is prolific.

There are 3 deer species, the most common being spotted deer which can be seen everywhere, the much larger sambar deer and the smaller but shy barking deer (muntjac). Bison (gaur) herds are seen, so too are nilgai (bluebull) antelopes. Wild boar, macaques and langur monkeys are very common. With all these prey species in high densities it’s little wonder Bandhavgarh supports such large numbers of predators.

Chinkara and four-horned gazelle are also present but I haven’t seen any.

Leopards exist but are rarely seen. They keep a low profile around tigers. Wild dogs (dholes) are also present and you may encounter a pack if you are very lucky. You are more likely to spot jackals.

There are also jungle cats and sloth bears. Both need luck to find. The former because they are so small, the latter, because they are nocturnal.

Three spotted owlets
Three spotted owlets in the first Banyan tree as you enter Kanha

Getting to Kanha NP

Getting to Kanha NP is straightforward. Take the overnight train from Delhi to Jabalpur. the most convenient is the 12122 MP Sampark Kranti train, leaving H Nizamuddin station at 17.25 and arriving in Jabalpur at 07.55 the next morning.

There used to be a direct park bus in the morning which went directly to Khana NP, but I’m not sure it’s still operating. It doesn’t matter anyway, the local buses will get you there. It should take about 4 hours but I’ve taken as long as 6 hours in the past. You should arrive at Khatia Gate, the village, and access point to Kanha, before nightfall.

If you wish to break the journey, you can always stay the night in Jabalpur and catch an early bus the next day.

Where to stay

At Khatia, the village bus stand is just before the gate. Most of the cheapies are within a short stroll. In the past, you could stay in the village for about £5 a night but those days may be over. A quick search online show places advertising £15 per night which is fine.

I have stayed a couple of times in Chandan Motel and I see it still operates. I won’t recommend it only because I didn’t like the owner/manager when I was last there. Things may have changed by now.

If you are the type of person unconcerned by turning up without a prior booking I’m sure you will find some bargain places locally. If not, get your haggling together and see if there are cheaper walk-in rates. In my experience, prices are often higher online.

The entrance to Kanha and it's meadows
Entrance to Kanha

About the park

Kanha is 1945 sq km of wooded hills and meadows. If any park in India can claim to compete with an African experience then it’s probably this one. Famed for its wide-open meadows, Kanha represents the very best in Indian wildlife watching.

As well as the huge populations of spotted deer and numerous sambar deer Kanha is also home to the critically endangered hardground barasingha deer which can be seen in Kahna meadows but usually from a distance.

Bison are harder to find but I’ve seen them.  Antelope too are more elusive. Needless to say, wild boar and monkeys are everywhere.

You are much more likely to encounter leopards in Kanha than Bandhavgarh and I’ve seen wild dogs quite a few times. Jackels appear to be a common site and I’ve seen jungle cats a few times. You are unlikely to see a sloth bear.

There’s far more to Kanha than this small list. Not being an avid birdwatcher I haven’t even touched on birdlife. There is a guide in the village called Bafati Khan, ask around and get him to take you on the nature trail. He’s a real birder and such a good man. Hopefully, he’s still working. He was my jeep guide of choice for many years. We even encountered a tiger on that path!

Getting to Ranthambore NP

By far the closest tiger reserve to visit is Ranthambore.

It’s on the Agra to Jaipur line and only 2 hours from Jaipur. The jumping off point is Sawai Madhopur Junction, about 10km from the park.

The direct services to Sawai Madhopur are mostly inconvenient, three should be fine but as they don’t originate in Delhi the timings are not to be trusted.

It is also possible to catch the very early Shatabdi Express from New Delhi at 6am, arrive in Agra at 8am, then change for a Jaipur bound train. It’s about 4 hours by train from Agra Station. 

Better by far is to break your journey and stay over in Agra and see the Taj Mahal, or Jaipur and see the Pink Palace.

One side trip of note is Keoladeo NP near Bharatpur. It’s only 1.5hrs by bus from Agra. If the monsoon rains are good it floods, attracting vast flocks of migrant birds. The local guesthouses are cheap and pleasant.

Where to stay

There are plenty of cheap places to stay. The hotels are mostly strung out along the main Ranthambore road. I haven’t visited for a few years but a quick check on www.makemytrip.com found many places nearby and to suit all pockets.

About the park

If you’ve ever seen those amazing shots of tigers roaming amongst romantic ruins or perfectly framed in an abandoned pavilion, this is probably where it was taken.

The landscape is dry-deciduous forest ranging over 824 sq km of the Aravali hills. Upon entering the main gate you see a fantastic abandoned fort perched on the slopes of a thickly wooded hill and overlooking a large crocodile infested lake. It’s everything you hope for.
If you are very lucky you might even see a tiger come down to the water’s edge to drink or cool off in the heat of the day.

Sambar deer can be seen in and around the lake. There are many peacocks too and if you are lucky you might see one in full display.

You’ll see wild boar and monkeys everywhere and nilgai antelope are also common. I’ve seen Indian gazelles on higher ground.

The predator list is impressive but tigers are probably easier to find than most. Leopards are seen occasionally and so too are jungle cats but there is an outside chance of spotting a caracal lynx which would be amazing.

You might see a fox or a jackal. Striped hyenas are nocturnal and more likely to be seen by spotlighting around neighbouring villages; same for porcupines.

The Rajasthan Forest Dept has an unattractive website for booking advanced tickets for Ranthambore. http://fmdss.forest.rajasthan.gov.in/

Please note that at the time of writing foreign visitors are expected to pay more than resident Indians to access the park.

If you arrive without a booking there is one option. You can go on an open top mini bus called a canter.
I did this on my last visit and believe it or not l saw two tigers.
Unless rules have changed (likely but check anyway) it’s possible to walk the access road to the park gate. I met a chap birdwatching there every morning. He even saw a leopard but be warned, that’s where we saw our first tiger!

Wild tiger looking around bamboo pencil drawingI borrowed an ancient film camera (after a theft) and the snapshot I took was to be blunt…crap. It didn’t matter though, I had the reference I needed. You really don’t need a fancy kit.

 

Tigers head in circle for leadbox

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