Often in life as in travel, the conundrum of whether the journey or the destination rates as being more important comes into question.
We had the opportunity to reflect on this when we went on a wild tiger safari at Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh.
We arrived, (we being Beth and I as well as two new acquaintances, Mike and Silke,) at around eleven thirty at night. We had a prior arrangement with the Kum Kum Home hotel manager for a late pickup at Umaria, got into a smallish mini van, and proceeded to our lodgings along a tired, crater-filled road to Bandhavgarh. The 45-minute journey was highly entertaining because it included, albeit inadvertently, a night safari. Along the way we saw the reflective eyes and dark silhouettes of a number of native creatures like deer and even a jackal.
We awoke the next morning to have breakfast on our veranda. Somehow the layout of Kum Kum Guest house took us to Africa—it seemed to be reminiscent of the set of “ The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
The heat was of a warm comforting quality and surrounded us like a tandoori oven. The large, broad trees were absolutely beautiful. They were of the Flame of the Forest variety. The branches were bursting with orangey red flowers that looked like tigers' claws. In the gentle breeze, the trees swayed lazily and the dark shadows that were cast on the hard compacted earth, danced back and forth. The local languar monkey troupe played on the tree limbs in a whimsical fashion.
The manager came over and announced that we could go on safaris through two gates to view the tigers, appropriately labeled Gate One and Gate Two. We booked three journeys through Gate Two, because the popularity of Gate One meant that it was booked out for the days we would be there. Gate Two also cost 500Rps more.
Here's how it went:
Day One, Gate Two, Afternoon.
We were super excited! Today was the day. We would see the tigers. We drove for twenty minutes to get to the gate. We saw some deer. The sun hung heavy in the sky. And then, our jeep broke down.
The engine cut while we rounded a corner. The driver got out and checked under the hood. Steam erupted like Mount Vesuvius. The driver poured water in the radiator. We made some jokes about it, looked on the bright side of it, and all felt relief when we continued on our way. The delay was only fifteen minutes.
After another ten minutes of driving, the jeep overheated again. We were beginning to feel a little concerned--the guide and driver had no means of defense if a tiger were to attack.
After 20 minutes we were on our way again. All of us wondering if we would see tigers that day.
Day Two, Gate Two, Morning.
A better jeep, but . . . no tiger sightings meant none of the desperately hoped-for elephant rides were available.
And, no tigers.
Day Two, Gate Two, Afternoon.
Was it disappointing? For me, frankly it was. The perspiration was there. The effort was there. The will and commitment was there. What we needed was just a little luck.
Unfortunately, for our travel companions, their time was up. They had a 4:22 a.m. train to catch back to Varanasi.
Luckily for us, we had a more flexible schedule and Beth and I worked in one final trip.
On our third and final day we set off in the afternoon with a Belgian family, Christian, Genevieve and Mathieu.
Day Three. Gate One, Afternoon.
Finally, we were scheduled to enter the always busy Gate One. I had a good feeling about this: We were in a new Jeep, and making good speed. We saw a couple of rare birds.
The driver asked, “ What do you want to see today.” to which I replied, “ No spotted deer, no Sambhar deer, no barking deer, no peacocks, no monkeys, no langaurs, no kingfishers, no beetle eaters, no vultures and no jungle chickens! Just tigers please!” We had seen these other animals at Gate Two.
“They are wild pea fowl.” corrected Christian, about the peacocks, and then continued, “ Can we also see leopards and sloth bears?”
“Leopards and bears are very rare.” answered the guide.
I began to notice the position of the sun. I asked Beth with some concern, “Are we going towards Gate Two?”
“It seems like it.” she replied.
A few hundred metres more, and we received confirmation. We were driving towards a derelict trailer with one wheel missing. We had passed this trailer each of the time we entered Gate Two. We were going on the Gate Two trail again.
“Not Gate Two again!” I said.
I took Beth's hand and held it tight. I must have looked crestfallen.
Geneviere whispered, “Ce n'est pa vrai!”
The guide noticing the change in mood, responded immediately.
“No, no, not Gate Two, only Path C for five minutes.
After fifteen minutes, true to his word, we were with six other jeeps in a clearing by a water hole.
Three tigers strutted through the tall yellow grass with poise and pride. They bathed and groomed themselves and we watched on in awe.
I had seen tigers before but I hadn't seen them free. An unspoken agreement must have been made. 'You people can watch us, and we won't eat you and by the way, thanks for not hunting us.' We watched for over an hour and then left, bubbling with excitement.
The sun had set and in the mango orange afterglow we had almost reached the exit when the jeep in front of us stopped abruptly. We also stopped and saw that on a ridge just 30 metres above us was a leopard. It stretched, yawned and was gone.
The journey contained such a variety of animals. The destination only required tigers.
Was it too greedy to get the best of both?
Click here to see our photos from Bandhavgarh!