“Welcome to my office,” says Shree, my safari guide, as we drive under the rusty, tiger-striped barrier guarding the entrance to the core area of Pench National Park. I picture the view from my desk of Hammersmith Road and concede defeat.
I’m here to explore the habitat that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book (Disney’s live-action version of which is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 22 August). Kipling was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), an hour’s plane journey south-west of here, and many of the tale’s characters are based on this area’s wildlife: Baloo the sloth bear, Akela the wolf, Kaa the python and, of course, Shere Khan the tiger.
Sadly, there are as little as 3,000 wild tigers left on the planet, and the endangered felines are Pench’s tourist economy’s main draw. Government initiatives and charities such as Born Free (www.bornfree.org.uk) are working to protect and conserve the species. But, as much as he’d love to, Shree can’t guarantee we’ll see one.
I’m staying at a place called Baghvan (“tiger forest” in Hindi), within the national park and about an hour’s drive from its protected “core area”. You get more than just the bare necessities of life here. It’s jungle de luxe, with its tastefully appointed dark-wood huts kitted out in colonial style.
Some local villagers will show you around their home for a modest fee. So the day before my first safari I get Baghvan’s staff to arrange a visit to Khmbha, home to some 460 people.
The drive to the village is an effusion of colours, popping out of the landscape like felt tip in a colouring book. Rows of saris dot the paddy fields as women work, bent like boomerangs, knee-deep in sludgy water. Kingfishers line up on telephone wires, glistening like turquoise tightrope walkers in waistcoats made from mother of pearl. Even the grass looks supernaturally green.
I’m greeted by some smiley kids who are pumping water from a well, then shown into a house floored with a mix of soil and cow dung. The owner’s wife is in there, pounding rice and grinding lentils. She lets me have a go and in less than a minute I can feel blisters threatening to scar me hands. She does this stuff all day.
In the garden they grow okra, papaya, chilli, mint, custard apples, pomegranates, lemongrass, sesame, limes, turmeric… After the tour, the owners make me a cup of chai and a bowl of spicy lentils like the ones I helped to grind. This excursion is dubbed the Mowgli Village Tour. It’s a tenuous link, but I’m so glad I did it.
Safari day one
Over the following two days I have three safari visits arranged. I’m confident I’ll nail a tiger sighting or two during that time. But this jungle VIP proves more elusive than I’d anticipated.
Bisected and sustained by the River Pench, Pench National Park is home to teak and banyan trees; bison, buzzards, antelopes, hyenas and 150 tigers. I ask Shree how likely a tiger sighting might be. “The most tigers I’ve seen in a day is 14,” he chuckles. Hooray! “The longest I’ve gone without seeing one is 28 days.” Boo! No definitive answer there then.
It’s a 4.30am start on safari day one. Clouds of green parrots dissolve into the sky as we drive. Cows obstruct the roads like flabby, overconfident royalty. It’s monsoon season and I seem to be the only Western visitor around. Shree tells me that the summer high season (September-December) is a better time to spot tigers. I’m starting to get worried.
As our jeep does its circuit around the park’s rough and rocky path, we see monkeys (langurs, rhesus macaques), deer, hornbills and peacocks. Lots of peacocks. My game of jungle bingo is going well, but there’s a tiger-shaped hole in my card.
It’s like PHD level Where’s Wally finding those critters. What’s that under that tree? Oh, it’s another langur. What’s that crouching behind that rock? Ahh. Another rock. “Shere Khan is shy today,” says Shree. But we do see paw prints in the mud. Then, our jeep gets stuck in it. For two hours… while we wait for help to arrive. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow…
Safari day two
The next morning’s safari, in a different area of the park, is equally fascinating. We breakfast by a spectacular waterfall and get within sniffing distance of a pack of wild dogs. But still no tiger.
Later we return for the evening session; our final attempt. I try not to focus my hopes too much on a tiger sighting — I’ve already seen so many incredible creatures. But just as the light is about to fade along with our hopes, a haunting, guttural murmur in the undergrowth has Shree slamming on the brakes.
We follow the sound as it stalks back and forth, getting tantalisingly closer but always beyond sight behind the rocks and trees beside the road. Another couple of jeeps arrive, each containing half a dozen more tourists.
Eventually we pin her down. There’s a rustle in the undergrowth and the tiger appears, barely 50 feet from us. Then, with a swish of her tail, she’s gone. Like a stripy stripper exiting the stage. Always leave them wanting more.
As we head back towards the fringes of the national park, I have to keep reminding myself that what we just witnessed was in the wild. This ain’t no safari park. “Yeah, seeing a tiger was awesome,” I think. “But leopard sightings are even rarer. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see one of those.”
Back in my room that evening, a hand-written note sits on my bed. It reads…
“Congratulations on seeing my arch nemesis. I hope you will swing back soon to try and find my other animal friends. Bon voyage! Love Mowgli.”
The Jungle book is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 22 August
Gary Rose stayed at the Taj Santacruz hotel, Mumbai, and at Baghvan Lodge, Pench National Park. For further details, see www.tajsafaris.com
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