Yes; Once again we again drove from Kolkata to Tadoba and Pench National Parks. The Year 2020 has been one-off for several reasons; the major one being, closure of international travel during the pandemic. Our original plan was an adventure self-drive to “Badain Jaran” desert in the Inner Mongolia province of China. But COVID 19 had other plans in mind.
Note: Most wildlife images are towards the end of this blog… so please keep reading to the end
The Plan for driving to Tadoba and Pench
So, a few lockdowns, bookings, cancellations, change of best made plans later, we finally selected Tadoba and Pench for the Durga Puja Holidays. We knew that we could absolutely depend on our good friends Nandita & Ranjit at the Svasara Resort. We also booked the Pench Jungle Camp as per their advice. Read about the previous drive to Tadoba. The decision to drive down was very easy because of our love for driving, having to avoid public transport and enjoy the verdant green forests on the way.
We were joined on the drive to Tadoba and Pench by Paramita and Manoj, our old friends. They had also been bitten by the travel bug quite early in their lives. We planned the drive through the Saranda Singbhum forest area. There are 2 routes to cross the Saranda forest area between Chaibasa and Manoharpur, an experience truly.
Drive Experience to Tadoba and Pench
Onward Journey Route to Tadoba and Pench
For the onward journey, we drove through the oft traveled route: Chaibasa > Jagannathpur > Noamundi > Manoharpur. The section from Noamundi to Manoharpur is amazing with nature at her best. Curving roads through the dense Saranda forest also provide a flavor of driving on the snaky hills. The road surface was good adding to our delight.
The small stretch from Manoharpur in Jharkhand to Sambalpur in Odisha is the only link road in this area. The Jharkhand road is well maintained while the Odisha road to Sambalpur is pot-holed.
Return journey route from Pench
Paramita & Manoj drove back to Kolkata from Tadoba and were not joining us in Pench. We tried out a much less travelled route by returning through the less traveled northern part of Singbhum forest: Manoharpur > Posoita > Goilkera > Sonua > Chakradharpur > Chaibasa.
This was the first of its kind of experience inside India during our drive to Tadoba and Pench. Absolutely deserted on a road about the girth of our vehicle, an impenetrable dense forest, we were wondering if wild elephants would just wander out from them. Sporadic tribal villages and emerald hills dotted the landscape along the road. This place was earlier an insurgent hotbed, but the journey was uneventful. We did not feel threatened in the drive, but felt quite connected to the rural areas.
Time at Tadoba
We spent a blissful few days in Tadoba, kind of an energizer for us for the year. Early morning and late afternoon safaris in the forest. The time in between indulging in a dip in the pool and adda with our good friends Paramita-Manoj and Nandita-Ranjit. If you ask a Bengali about their to-do list on an average day, “Adda” is necessary be making it to the top three of a true Bengali soul. The adda here was offbeat though; mainly on tiger sighting stories, stories on tiger life, behavior and often straying into the forbidden territory of their love life.
The Tigers of Tadoba
The first few safaris in Tadoba were a bit of let down in terms of photography. The Core zone went without sighting of stripes for more than 48 hours, a very unusual phenomenon. The main attraction of Tadoba, “Maya” seemed to have vanished with her cubs. “Choti Tara” also seemed to have gone underground with her cubs. The males “Rudra”, “Tala” and “Chota Matka” dominated the core forest and were looking to secure their territories and mates. These younger males had already driven away “Matkasur”. This male tiger behavior had forced the females into concealing their cubs.
By the way: Maya, Tara, Rudra, Tala, Chota Matka, Matkasur are all names of tigresses and tigers lovingly given to them by humans like us, who love them and get emotionally attached.
Other animal spotting at Tadoba
Though these magnificent stripes kept on eluding us, we were having a gala time inside the forest with ample sightings of Wild Dogs (Dholes), Sloth bears and varied bird species. In one sequence, we witnessed a leopard being chased by a pack of wild dogs into a forested area while the herd of about 100 spotted deer on the other end were sounding persistent alarm calls. This wild dog and leopard activity in broad daylight happens only if the dominating tigress or tiger (in this case Maya) has become inactive.
Film on Maya:
The renowned wildlife film maker Mr. Subbiah Nallamuthu is currently in the throes of shooting a documentary on Maya and hence present in Tadoba. He too was seemed to be in dry patch because of this brewing tiger chemistry.
Kankajhari the largest male tiger of Tadoba
Ranjit was telling us that most sightings were now at the Alizanza buffer zone. But we finally saw “Kankajhari” in the Kolara buffer zone. Kankajhari is currently the largest known male tiger in the Tadoba forest and is often known to charge at singular safari vehicles. Fortunately for us, there was another vehicle with us. Paramita, Manoj, Chandrima and me were adda-ing away to glory (which one should not do) near a watering hole. We were waiting since there was a kill nearby, when this elusive character stealthily passed right behind our vehicle. It was Paramita who spotted it or else Kankajhari would have sneaked right past us.
Veerappan the male tiger at Sirkhada buffer zone
The next afternoon we spotted “Veerappan” (another huge male tiger) as we entered the Sirkhada zone. This guy had just hunted a domestic cow or bull and kudos to our remarkable guide to have identified the drag marks on the dirt road.
We waited and soon enough we heard loud and heavy breathing just beside us from inside the foliage, which Manoj thought to be Paramita snoring. Within seconds before we could react the cattle was pulled inside the dense foliage, leaving us to imagine the power of this animal.
Experience with a Tiger feeding in the wild
For the next half hour, we were being able to sneak an occasional peek of the stripes while the crunch of bones crushing reverberating across the forest. Tigers are known to be master of stealth accompanied by oodles of guile and craftiness. Veerappan truly demonstrated this. Our guide said that he would surely go to the lake once he finished his meal. And we humans unaware of the craftiness of the tiger, tried to follow him through an off-road; meanwhile Veerapan changed course and drank water right on the road where we stood a few moments back. We saluted this magnificent creature’s intellect and left him to rest as we charted our course inside the forest. And Lo & behold! Within the next 5 minutes we see a cowherd with hundreds of cattle grazing inside the forest… what a paradox!
Time at Pench
Like most good things, our sunny days, and cool nights in Svasara, Tadoba came to its anticipated end; we bid adieu to Paramita-Manoj as they drove homewards, and we drove to Pench in Madhya Pradesh. The highway was marvelous, and the drive took less than 4 hours through Umred and outskirts of Nagpur. The disconcerting issue, however, was the highway running right through the heart of Pench National Park. Pench is quite a large national park and divided across Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The heart rests a bit since the authorities seem to have realized the damage and are building wildlife corridors by elevating the highway for the forest area.
Pench Jungle Camp
We reached Pench and had booked a luxury tented accommodation in Pench Jungle Camp luckily isolated from the rest of the huge property. Mr. Ajay Ghale , who runs the property seemed to like our company and chatted with us for quite a bit and was there almost every morning with his four well behaved and playful Alsatians as we left for the morning safari .We met his team, a number of whom are ex-Taj Hotels (Tata) employees and a couple of them seemed to remember us from our visit to Kanha national park -Taj Banjaar Tola two years back also with Paramita and Manoj .
We went for the evening safari and morning safari next day from the Turia gate. The forest in the MP area has been in the wildlife tourism business far longer and that shows in their professional approach. Ranjit had also hooked up us with Vilas, an expert driver and guide know to him.
The Pench Forest has a character of its own and offers exquisite photography options. The morning safari from Turia gate runs for a whopping 5 hours (6AM-11AM) almost giving the flavor of a full-day safari. During the morning break in the breakfast area of the forest, we had a surprise meet-up with our friend Mridul and his family. Same time and location what are the odds – we should have bought a lottery ticket that morning.
A Crested Hawk Eagle on the hunt
The first afternoon, we witnessed a Crested Hawk Eagle trying to hunt a squirrel perched on the top branch of a tree. The eagle was flying to the top and then diving into a free-fall to seize the poor squirrel from the branch. This went on for about 10-15 times while the squirrel managed to survive all the attempts. The lucky squirrel was supported all the by a pair or Racket-tailed drongos and a Rufous Treepie. They created a huge rumpus in the forest and kept on hounding the eagle. At last, the squirrel managed to disappear in a crevice below a fallen tree trunk and was saved that day. The eagle left and we were sure would return another day.
The Turia Gate
We also had a good drive having spotted and photographed a male leopard who had lost an eye in combat. Our not so small forest experience told us that leopards are chased away by dominant tigers of the area but Pench seemed to be different.
Another key difference of Pench through the Turia gate seemed to be the several packs of Dholes. We kept on spotting them while they are a rare spot in most Indian forests. We spotted 5 packs in 2 days and could photograph them at great length.
Ranjit had booked 2 safari drives from the Khursapar gate in Maharashtra. The contrast between the Turia and Khursapar gate is stark in terms of infrastructure and process, but the forest drives are truly rewarding.
The Khursapar Gate from Maharashtra
We reached the gate in the dark and were first in the queue at the Khursapar Gate. Soon enough, we spotted fresh pugmarks of a tigress with 3 cubs and then “Bindu” emerged from the forest sadly not with her cubs though. She rambled head – on towards our gypsy quite relaxed and we kept on backing up to allow her space. Several vehicles arrived by now but Bindu decided that the morning show was over, and it was time to return to her cubs.
The Khursapar forest area offers myraid of opportunities for tiger sighting. The area has dense foliage and is smaller compared to Turia gate.
Finally, this afternoon was our last safari drive this year and from the Turia gate. We started to return towards Turia gate as dusk fell and our spotting effort yielded no results. Ours was one of the last 2 vehicles returning when unexpectedly we heard alarm calls from spotted deer and jungle fowl. Vilas decided to wait back for a couple of minutes, and it paid off.
Sighting Langdi from the Turia gate
Soon enough “Langdi” emerged from the bushes, climbed down from the 2 switchbacks on the hilly curving forest road and then kept sauntering on the road. Langdi is a tigress in the Turia gate area and her placement of her front right paw while walking gives her the name. It is an amazing experience when this magnificent animal walks right beside you and looks into your eyes. On two instances our vehicle was right where she climbed up the hilly tract and was just a few feet away from Chandrima’s face. As we stared at her eyes, she had a questioning look and often seemed to demand for space to move ahead.
All is well that ends well. We enjoyed the moment to our hearts’ content but had to leave Langdi on her tracks and head back to the gate to reach on time.
Rejuvenated with impressive encounters and cameras filled with superb shots, we started off the next morning for our arduous drive back home to Kolkata. These time outs in the forest keep us energized till it is time to again catch a break and head back to the jungles.