Chital in misty light

Beyond the tiger

There’s much more to an Indian safari than seeing a tiger. Here are 5 of my jungle highlights…

As I sat in the safari vehicle in central India’s picturesque (and delightfully lesser frequented) Panna National Park, swaddled in no less than seven layers of clothes plus a blanket, and gripping onto not one, but two, hot water bottles, I momentarily forgot about how cold I was. Lost in the moment, we all peered over the side of the vehicle at a remarkably large pugmark in the dirt road. ‘Pug’ is the Hindi word for ‘foot’ and this mighty paw print was from none other than the elusive tiger itself. Pinch me now.

Having never seen a tiger in the wild (actually, having never been to India full stop), I was captivated. Earlier that morning we had already witnessed several trees with shredded bark and deep gashes where fearsome claws had obviously been sharpened. Cue the relatively fresh pugmarks and the fact that we had heard chital (spotted deer) and langur alarm calling from time to time … these were all telling signs that we had officially entered tiger territory.

We continued our drive, eyes peeled in every direction, and deep down, I was silently praying that beginner’s luck would be on our side. Our final clue as we veered around yet another bend, was a research vehicle parked at the side of the road. Returning from their morning patrol, the researchers hopped in and drove off. Briefly greeting us as they passed by, they indicated to our guide that a tigress was nearby. Although no location specifics were shared, we knew we were close. Very close.

Lurking somewhere in the cool shade of the bamboo forest that surrounded us was a tiger. Grinning like a Cheshire cat, I peered through the binoculars (a must-pack item for any jungle safari, I cannot stress this enough!), carefully scanning the dense foliage around us for those telltale stripes. With cameras poised and excitement escalating, we all held our breath and waited.

And … waited. Would those iconic orange and black stripes mysteriously emerge from the thicket? We sat in complete silence, willing her to grace us with even just a glimpse of her elegance. Sadly, it was not our day and the well-concealed predator remained camouflaged in the forest cover. Disappointed? Yes, I can’t deny that my heart didn’t sink, just a little, knowing that I would leave India without that classic “Shere Khan” sighting. Yet, simply knowing that the tigress was there, most likely eyeballing our every move through the leaves, certainly gave us a thrill.

This was my first jungle safari in India (our must-do 11-day India Mobile Camping Small Group Journey in case you were wondering). A seasoned safari goer in Africa, I have shared many a vehicle with safari newbies. Seeing their uncontrollable joy and excitement as they witness Africa’s wild and wonderful creatures for the very first time is contagious. On the other hand, I’ve also seen them so fixated and hell-bent on ticking the famous Big Five off their bucket list, that they often let the small wonders pass them by (not sure what the Big Five is? Brush up on your safari lingo here).

Sure, seeing an elusive tiger in India (or the Big Five in Africa) is a bucket list dream. Just be careful not to let that dominate your journey. Don’t rush from sighting to sighting; rather take time to appreciate the different landscapes in all their magnificence. Smell the crisp, misty air and the dusty earth with its wilted, fallen leaves (I was there in early December, which is wintertime in India) and listen for the melodious birdsong and shrill alarm calls. There is so much more to an Indian jungle safari than just seeing a tiger.

And so, although my own personal quest to observe the mighty stripes of India’s revered jungle ghost was unfulfilled (I should perhaps note, only somewhat begrudgingly, that almost every other vehicle in the park that day did in fact successfully view tigers), here are 5 incredible things, besides the tiger, to enjoy on a jungle safari. Namaste India … I will most definitely be back.

1. Where The Jungle Book comes to life

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book was inspired by the wildlife-rich tiger reserves of Madhya Pradesh in central India. Well, Pench National Park to be exact, which is a mere 460 km from Panna (where I was) and shares the same magnificent and diverse scenery. Step right into a page of the real-life Jungle Book and lose yourself in the different habitats, from towering teak trees and tall clusters of bamboo, to Indian ebony, Mahua and crocodile bark trees. You may not see the regal “Shere Khan” (tiger), but here’s hoping you catch a glimpse of “Baloo” (sloth bear) or “Tabaqui” (golden jackal), among others.

I had some truly special first-time sightings, including chital (spotted deer), nilgai (Asia’s largest antelope), langur, sambar, chinkara, golden jackal and wild boar. We were especially fortunate to catch a very quick glimpse of a leopard leaping through the tall grass, and later, we spotted a very skittish jungle cat that stopped, like a deer in headlights, to peer back at us before disappearing into the jungle. The absolute cherry-on-top was our own private and very close-up and relaxed sighting of a dhole (Indian wild dog). Veteran safari goers will appreciate just how rare it is to see wild dog – in fact, our elated guide exclaimed that he had not seen one in months. Now classified as an endangered species, sadly, there are only an estimated 2 000 dhole left in the wild.

2. The chorus of dewdrops

One early morning, once again bundled in all of my never-ending layers, we stopped deep in the heart of a teak forest to listen for alarm calls. With the engine switched off, we all listened intently for any vocalisations that would lead us towards a predator. The morning light softly peered through the canopy of leaves, slowly warming us and the earth up, and I commented that a gentle rain had started to fall.

Incorrect! It was actually the morning dew drip-dropping from leaf to leaf. It’s these beautiful sounds and unexpected special moments that you miss when you’re on a “Ferrari safari”, racing from A to B. Appreciate the little things and truly absorb your surroundings. It’s not often you get to sit in a teak forest, your eyes closed, listening to dew drops and alarm calls. Take it all in.

3. A river runs through it

The Ken River, which is renowned as being one of India’s cleaner rivers, gently winds its way through Panna National Park. With no villages nearby and a pristine, protected landscape, the water is clear and the misty reflections are wonderfully photogenic. Stop at some of the many scenic lookout points to photograph the river, with its scattering of ruined forts, old Rajput castles and abandoned hunting residences in the distance.

4. Ray of light

The dense forests are shrouded in mist and mystery … if only those ancient trees and deserted forts and temples could talk. The foggy winter haze coupled with the gentle light seem to soften and romanticise the entire landscape and, as the hours pass, the light changes dramatically. The mornings are fresh, but it’s worth it to get out as the sun is rising to catch that soft, early morning glow. The golden sunsets, too, are unforgettable.

5. The jungle orchestra

The quieter you become, the more you can hear. Switch the noisy groan of the engine off often. Cup your ears and listen for those unmistakable cries of peacocks in the distance, cheeky langurs shrieking from the trees above, and the haunting howls of the golden jackal packs. Maybe you’ll get lucky and hear the loud scrapes of a sloth bear sharpening its impressive claws on the tree bark or, luckier yet, the raspy roar of an elusive tiger. Enjoy this non-stop orchestra … without a doubt you’ll miss it when you’re back in the big city, stuck in traffic, and daydreaming of your time in India.

See what lies beyond…

Explore tiger territory, and so much more, on our India Mobile Camping Small Group Journey.