The Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve is known for its amazing and plentiful wild Bengal Tiger sightings and just like mine, it is the favorite Tiger Reserve of many nature lovers and photographers all over the world. Bandhavgarh is special to me, as I have had my best tiger sighting opportunities here, compared to anywhere else. There was a time when people were asked to go to Bandhavgarh and only Bandhavgarh, if they wanted to see a wild Bengal Tiger.
The Tala zone was home to many a legendary tigers like Charger, Bokha, B2, Sita, Bacchi and the new legends like Bamera male, Rajbehra, Mirchani, Chorbehra, Kankati, Chakradhara females and their extremely photogenic cubs. There was a time when one could easily spot 10-15 individual tigers in Tala without much effort. Alas those days are now gone with many old legends waning away and many new generations lost due to various reasons and Tala has lost its former glory in the recent years. My last memorable sighting was in 2013 when Bamera and family decided to put up a show for us.
This year I decided to do a full day photographer’s safari at Bandhavgarh. I asked my friends to join me and they were more than ready to do this in peak Indian summer. So all preparations were done 3 months prior and we were at Bandhavgarh in early June after a slightly disappointing trip to Kanha, my other often visited Tiger Reserve.
We drove down from Kanha via Jabalpur after a nice lunch at Bittu’s Dhaba just before stopping for rest at home in Jabalpur. The road to Bandhavgarh from Jabalpur is one of the best that I have driven on and even my little Chevy Spark had little to complain despite a damaged ball bearing that did not allow me to speed too much.
So we checked in on a Tuesday night at Tiger Garh, which is a lovely little place- relatively new and quite posh compared to my earlier stays at MPT’s White Tiger. I absolutely loved the dinners there, which always started out with an interesting soup like carrot, cream of cauliflower and garlic and ended with an interesting dessert. Rooms and bathrooms were plush and huge and all of them were built with an eco-friendly theme and HD television connections in every room.
Wednesday morning safari at Magadhi was something we were really looking forward to after the Kanha debacle and Banty, my friend and guide from Bandhavgarh, as usual played a major role in getting our first sighting of the morning- Kankati- inside the bush near Tadoba point. We decided to leave her and come back later to check her out once she had moved into the water hole. Soon we were at the grassland and saw Rajbehra cubs resting near the meadow.
It was still early morning and the 400 2.8 needed ISO 1250 to get a few quick shots of them. After this, we were on our way to the Sukhi Patia area. But we had just started, when Banty called out “Tiger” and it was the Rajbehra female walking towards the meadow, far away from us towards the cubs. And then started the mad rush to see her. Soon all the gypsys of Magadhi were trying to get a glimpse of her down the meadow, but she had other ideas and disappeared into the bush.
So we decided to go ahead and check the Sukhi Patia area. There were no tigers there but on our return we were treated to an awesome tiger show by the dominant male tiger, the Mahaman aka Sukhi Patia male.
He is now the star attraction of Magadhi and is a bold, fearless tiger who walks long distances on the road providing excellent photo ops. The icing on the cake was that there were hardly any gypsys around to disturb him and us. The next 1 hour was spent in filling my CF card. Satiated, we finally left and decided to check out Kankati and there she was cooling herself in the water hole at Tadoba Point.
How ironic that Bandhavgarh has a water hole that is named after the Tadoba Tiger reserve! After some more shots and a super morning, we were finally out of the reserve. Bandhavgarh as usual, had been too kind to me and it only cemented its place in my heart as my favorite tiger reserve for tiger sightings. All these wonderful sightings had whetted our appetites for the full day safaris starting the next day 🙂
The rest of the day was spent lazying around the resort with no Airtel network around and so the Tata Sky HD was working over time to entertain us, as Bandhavgarh is closed to tourism on Wednesday evenings. Siva Sanjeev, an ardent tiger photographer from Hyderabad joined us that night after a 15 hour drive to Bandhavgarh. All of us were pretty excited for the full day safaris starting tomorrow and hardly slept that night thanks to the excitement.
At 4 AM the alarm woke us all up and we were ready to go in the next 45 minutes. Banty had arranged a flat floor gypsy with the middle seat removed and a mattress to sit. This was going to be our home the whole day and we were soon off to Khitauli which was our entry point. The first animal to greet us in the morning was a Jackal sitting at the cross roads which we later came to know was near its den full of pups. Khitauli was a dampener that morning and we quickly moved on to Magadhi. As we approached Tadoba point we saw a few gypsys up in the front. There was huge male tiger sitting and cooling himself in the water hole that is close to the road.
He was Bamera’s son Mr. X. He was oblivious of us gaping in awe and photographing him while he rested there, giving us an occasional glance. Soon he got fed up of us and decided to leave the water hole. It was a good start to the day.
We then proceeded to check out the Sukhi Patia male who was the star of the day yesterday but apparently he decided to move to his den a little earlier today. But on the way I saw what probably was the sighting of the whole trip for me, a mottled wood owl pair.
These birds are absolutely unreal and like any owl are always a pleasure to watch. At the meadows we saw the Rajbehra cubs. But they were far away moving out and coming back to the meadow turn by turn. They were too far to photograph and so we just enjoyed them through a pair of binoculars. After a hearty packed breakfast at the assembly point we were back at the meadow checking out the Rajbehra cubs. Soon all the regular safari gypsys were out and there were only 5 full day gypsys left in the entire park and that felt really good. There was hardly any movement of tigers at around mid day so decided to go and check what was happening at Tala and on the way we got to see Rajbehra cubs up close near a little hill where there seemed to be a depression in the middle. It was assumed that there must have been a kill there and the cubs were making a constant beeline to it and back throughout the day. We exited out of Magadhi after waiting at the Tadoba point which was devoid of any tigers at this time but was a hot spot for birds who were busy having a drink in the hot mid day sun. We exited out of Magadhi and the Tiger Garh staff was waiting at the Tala entry gate with our packed lunch.
After resting a bit and a nice lunch, we were back in from Tala and without much ado we were back near the Rajbehra cubs. We got quite a few nice shots of them feeding on a kill and decided to move out of there in a few hours.
Banty now decided that we should try to get the Sukhi Patia male. By then it was time for the evening regular safari gypsys to enter the park for the afternoon safari. We continued to wait at the road where he was sighted the earlier day as Banty was confident that he would be out for a drink and a meal. Lots of gypsys passed us in both directions ,but we kept waiting at our designated spot. Soon it was late evening and the alarm calls started. It was obvious that a tiger was seen and was on the move, but which one? We kept waiting and waiting but no sign of the male and soon the regular gypsy folks started their long journey to the gate for exit but we had the extra time to wait thanks to the full day safari rules. Once all regular gypsys were out we decided to wait and then moved to the Sukhi Patia lake. All 5 full day gypsys were there and guess what, Mahaman male was also there having a drink. The sly cat had avoided the main road and taken some back road to reach there. The light was down but my 400 2.8 saved the day and I took many shots of him before we had to go too.
Thus ended the first full day and boy was it great!! I doubt if I am going to like regular safaris at all after this. Soon we were at the Hotel and hot dinner with some amazing garlic cream soup was just what I needed. It was then time to rest and get ready for the next day safari.
Again Banty was here on time and we proceeded to Khitauli gate for our full day entry. Just before entry there was a loud alarm calls near the main road and we proceeded to check it out. But we closely missed a leopard and went back to enter the park. Again Khitauli drew a blank and without wasting much time we entered Magadhi. Nothing at Tadoba point and we entered the meadows. Here we saw one of the most fascinating sights of my life. A large male sub adult on a tree branch with limbs hanging like a leopard from Kabini.
It was really a wonderful sight one that I will remember all my life. As we were busy taking pictures the males sibling, a smaller female decided to walk behind us with a snarl and an attitude to match.
Once again the morning had been electrifying. After spending some time here, we again decided to check out the Mahaman male. This time there were a huge number of gypsys lined up near a water hole and the tiger we saw first was Dotty, Mahaman’s mate with remains of a spotted deer in her mouth. She went into the jungle and all focus shifted on the Mahaman male who was resting and was quite disturbed with all gypsys hounding him with huge telephotos in white and black color.
He decide to walk inside and we backed up in preparation of head on shots. But instead of him it was Dotty who put on a brilliant show. Right from marking, sniffing and walking along the road head on, we spent the next 45 minutes with her and boy, is she a rock star 🙂
We finally bid her adieu and decided to go ahead for lunch after checking out Tadoba point which was empty at this time. After polishing off our packed lunch we again entered from Tala. As we had encountered and photographed almost all tigers from Magadhi, we decided to concentrate on some other individuals for the rest of the afternoon. We decided to concentrate on Solo. This single tigress from Tala, who was having a siesta in her cave and is known to move out with almost clock work precision around 4 o clock, to the water hole near Rajbehra. Any way since there was still a lot of time for the clock to strike 4:00 PM, we decided to catch some large birds near the Rajbehra area. We were obliged with pretty good sightings of the crested serpent eagle, crested hawk eagle and the bird of my interest the shy skulker, Sirkeer Malkoha. This was easily my best ever shot of this elusive bird.
Soon it was nearing 4:00 PM and we were back near Solo’s cave and as expected, she walked and was greeted by alarm calls all over the place. Now Solo is physically one of the biggest and strongest female tiger’s that I have ever seen.
Hopefully she will have cubs and Tala will once again regain its lost glory. Banty then drove around and we waited at the water hole where she was likely to come and lo, in a few minutes she came ambling around and snarled at us to see that her solitude was disturbed by 3 Idiots on a green gypsy. She soon settled down, relaxing in a pool and was constantly mobbed by 2 Sambars who kept banging their feet and kept calling with their raised tails.
Eventually, it was time to leave and we exited out from Tala, thus ending our epic 2 full days at Bandhavgarh national park. Trust me, a full day safari is something that every tiger and nature lover should experience as it has the following advantages compared to a regular safari
- Zone free: This IMHO is the biggest advantage that a full day safari has over a regular safari. How many times have you been disappointed knowing that you are going to a zone or an area in the park that has pretty slim chances of spotting a tiger compared to a known zone or an area that you know will guarantee a sighting. A full day safari nullifies this problem and you are free to go any where where regular gypsys are allowed to go. This itself is worth all the premium one pays for a full day safari.
- Extended timings in the park: Full day safaris start earlier in the morning and end later in the evening compared to regular safaris. Anyone who has been on a safari in India will know that maximum movement of large predators like Tigers and Leopards is early morning or late in dusk. So this is again a huge advantage, as I have noticed that in recent times, tigers have started timing their movements after the park traffic has settled down and the gypsys have exited out. Our Mahaman sighting on the first day of the full day safari could not have been possible if we had exited out with the regular gypsys.
- Better chances of sightings in winters: Peak Indian summers are extremely hot and dry with temperatures touching 45 degrees at mid day. No tiger or animal in its right mind is going to come out its shade or water at this time of the day. But Winters are cool and balmy and so tigers are out and move about at almost any time, preferring mid days over other times of the day. But as regular gypsys are already out of the park at this time, potentially a full day winter safari has more tiger sighting opportunities than even summer safaris.
- Less crowd and lesser number of people per gypsy: Currently Bandhavgarh only allows 5 full day safaris gypsys with only 3 pax allowed per gypsy excluding the driver and guide. So once the mad rush of regular gypsys is gone you have many hours of solitude and potentially a lot more peace to enjoy the jungle and its denizens.
So I wholeheartedly recommend a full day safari over a regular one, despite its huge cost premium over a regular safari and I have already planned my next one in the coming season 🙂