A common enough occurrence, we were told. A tiger safari is a whole other monster. This isn't Africa, where you might miss out on the lions but will still get your fair share of giraffes, elephants, and what else. This is India. Regulations are tighter (no off-road driving), unbendable schedules, the safari equivalent of a crowd...
And tigers are elusive. Since you can't sweep the terrain searching for them, you're best bet is that one will decide to take a stroll on the road. Are they prone to doing this? Apparently (and luckily) yes.
Many people spend a week in the jungle without the smallest glimpse of a tiger. Some can only spot them in the distance, a speck in the binoculars. The first few rides, it seemed we were destined to share that ill fortune. We had seen a mother and cubs frolicking in the water - far, far away.
Yes, this isn't Africa. Tigers are probably the wildest animals in the world. You need patience. You need time. But it's all worth it.
The first tiger we spotted close up was in Bandhavgarh National Park, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. A female was cooling off in the shade. Look at that beauty:
And that's when the waiting game began. We took times with the camera as the temperature dropped. Our talented guide told us he was certain the tigress would move in just a couple of minutes - she was only waiting for somewhat cooler weather. We were already incredibly close, but our view was slightly obstructed by vegetation. Then, true to prediction, she got up to take a short stroll in the road.
In a moment, it was clear. Lions have nothing on tigers. The grace, the stripes, the astounding beauty... And of course the sheer size. Even from atop a jeep, a tiger's size is evident. 300 kilograms of pure muscle. A sweep from a tiger's paw can break a bear's spinal cord. We are dealing with the real king of the jungle. And what we didn't know was that this was a relatively small female!
That short encounter with a tiger made everything worth it: the 12+ hours of flight, 7 hours on the road... If this had been our only tiger experience, we would have been satisfied. But it was only beginning.
We rode to Kanha National Park, where we stayed at Mahua Kothi lodge, a joint venture between andBeyond and Taj Hotels, called Taj Safaris. (Beautiful property). Kanha is denser than Bandhavgarh, which of course makes tiger viewing even harder. And we only had two days here, so chances were slim.
Kanha must was particularly generous. We had a beautiful encounter with a small female chilling in the shade - she's known as the beauty of Kanha because she has the most perfect features.
And then the crown jewel, that same morning. A gigantic male that strolled lay next to the road for a good ten minutes, then strolled for thirty, lied down again, tried to hunt, and basically just stroke poses for us for an hour and a half - always sticking to the road! Here you can see the mere bulk of him:
Our experience in Bandhavgarh was enough to make the trip incredibly memorable, but Kanha just blew us away. I know how lucky we were; it's definitely not every day that people get such sightings! And while Africa is more exciting - you get to see animals interact with each other, and the scenery is just so mind-numblingly beautiful - a safari in India stands on its own feet. It's a different experience altogether.
And tigers, well, what can I say? They are, without a doubt, the most majestic creatures on Earth, and deserve our full respect.
Here are some of our pictures of the amazing male tiger of Kanha: