TRAVEL: THE SUNDAY EXPRESS/KANHA, MP


Into the wild


Sheila Kumar goes trawling in Kipling country where she sees a magnificent tiger and much more





The Kanha Tiger Reserve is not as lush as the Corbett Park. It does not have a brooding fort looming over it like in Ranthambore. However, what it does have is 940 square kilometres of bamboo and sal forest, rolling meadows covered over with tall grasses, a lake or two and very, very strong chances of glimpsing a tiger.



One finds Kanha is a well-run park where the guides are competent and understand the value of silence. They actually listen to the vital warnings systems that indicate a cat may be lurking in the vicinity. The reserve was awarded the Best Maintained Tourist Friendly National Park, a well-deserved accolade.

But the bricks before the bouquets. To get to Kanha, one needs to traverse terrible roads, one a national highway (12-A) at that. Considering Madhya Pradesh hawks its tiger territories (Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Panna, Pench) with due aggression, it is surprising that nothing has been done about laying fresh roads. However, if the determined manage to traverse the abysmal route, they will reach the village of Mocha, just three to four kilometres before the game park. At Mocha, there are a handful of privately run resorts and inside the park, the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board runs the Bageera log huts and lodge.

Our jeep safari kicked off at a numbingly cold hour of the winter morn, travelling a plotted circuit. Within the hour we had seen two impressively large specimen of the Indian bison (gaur), herd upon herd of chital, the one remaining black buck in the park, a pair of wild boar the size of which would have impressed even Obelix, a brace of four-horned antelope, stray sambhar and quite a few barasinghas.





Rathor Singh, our guide, turned out to be something of an amateur ornithologist, so we got to admire a variety of avian life ranging from the common egret, kingfisher, lapwing, rocket tailed drongo, woodpecker, to green pigeons, crested serpent eagles, pintail ducks, owls galore and a white-backed vulture high up in its lair. The museum in the heart of the reserve is an interesting one spread across a handful of rooms, its pictures arresting, its text informative without being long-winded.

Kanha has 128 tigers, 90 panthers, one black buck, a few bears, about a 1,000 of the white-socked gaur, 20,000 chital and 350 Branderi swamp deer, the only ones left in the world of this breed of barasingha.

The humans talk in code at Kanha. Just about every one had their heart set on witnessing the main event, of course, so whenever two jeeps would draw up alongside, a terse ‘Any dekkos?’ would issue. Someone would mutter ‘Route 8’. Elsewhere, a thumb raised up or turned down did all the talking. Soon, word came that we could just get lucky further ahead.

So, further ahead we went, the guide cautioning us all along that spotting a cat did not naturally guarantee a darshan.

However, a darshan is what we got, and a great one at that. At a clearing ahead waited two elephants; the tiger had been spotted in the vicinity. The pachyderms crashed into the jungle and came to an abrupt halt some 500 yards ahead.

There he lay, literally at our feet, one magnificent male tiger a good five feet or more in length, his yellow and black striping gleaming with good health. He had just eaten part of his kill, a chital, and now lay in a stupor, not even bothering to raise his head at the advent of gawkers. His huge paws were crossed, his tail twitched lazily and so did his whiskers.

William Blake’s powerful tribute to the cat ran through my mind as did epiphany Number One: There is no gazing one’s fill of a tiger. Once you look, you want to arrest that moment, freeze it, and keep looking.

And then, one of the elephants stepped a bit too close for the tiger's comfort. He raised his head, fixed us with a yellow glare and growled low but with distinct menace. The mahouts hurriedly moved the elephants to a safer spot, the magical moment passed and the cat went back to dozing.

Epiphany Number Two: sighting a cat engenders immediate greed. Once you have seen one of these beasts, you want to see another. After which, you will want to see more of them.




Which was why we spent the evening safari going up inclines, crossing boulder-dammed inlets, scanning the elephant grasses intently, ears pricked to catch any warning call. The Panjal river runs to the park's south but a shortage of monsoons has left the many creeks all dried up and so, there didn't seem to be many watering holes. We came to the Shravan Tal, where Shravan, the good son, had given his feeble parents water.

We passed a thousand silent sentinels of bamboo, saw the ghost tree, the large albino sal. We came across a hundred intricate termite castles some standing a good six feet in height; we saw many giant cobwebs glinting a gauzy silver in the dappled light, we saw pug marks, some fresh, some not. We stopped at two trees where tigers and leopards had left clear markings. We saw a spectacular sunset at Bamni Dadar.

After two-and-a-half hours we had done pretty much all of Kanha, its densely forested areas as well as its rolling flatlands, wrapped in an intense seeking silence occasionally interrupted by shrill birdsong. We had come across a lot of animals but our somewhat grim search had not yielded a tiger. At the end of the ride, came the final epiphany: sighting a tiger is pure magic yes, but a leisurely ride through Kanha sans any expectations, is a great way to spend time, too.
Getting there Kanha is about 165 km from Jabalpur, 259 km from Nagpur, both centres being well connected by road, rail and air.
Accommodation Among the privately run resorts is Tigerlands. Phone: 0761-2622224. MPTDC has its own log huts, and safari lodges inside the reserve. Tel: (07649) 277227 or (0755) 2774340/42/43. For more info, log onto mptourism.com.
When to go The reserve will yield a fair sighting of animals all through the year but the cool months (October to March) are the best.

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