Hunting the Elusive Tiger in Pench
Our driver just heard that a tiger was sighted along our trail. We were some distance from the sighting. Suddenly the calm jungle trail seemed like an off-road race track as we made our way to try and see an elusive Tiger.
Rudyard Kipling romanticized the Indian jungle with his tales of the jungle boy, Mogwli, in Jungle Book. For many, Disney’s animated take on Kipling’s book has been the first introduction to the wondrous creatures that populate the Indian Jungle. So when I learned that Canvas n Chrome was organizing a safari to Pench, the forest in which the Jungle Book was reportedly set in, I was pretty keen on joining the expedition.
Pench National Park is situated in Seoni in Madhya Pradesh and is named after the Pench river that flows through the park. Along with the nearby Tadoba Tiger reserve in Maharashtra, the two parks provide a perfect paradise for nature lovers. To get to Pench, we decided to go via Nagpur in Maharashtra. Since we planned in advance, we were lucky to be able to catch the Mumbai-Nagpur Duronto Express train. While I rarely prefer to catch trains these days (mainly because of the time taken), this was definitely a nice quick and comfortable way to reach Nagpur.
From Nagpur we set off to reach our base for the next three days or so – the wonderful Pench Jungle Camp. Pench Jungle Camp is a little hideaway resort near Pench that is spread over a wonderful 12 acres of lush foliage, lawns and landscaped gardens. We checked into one of the resorts wonderful safari tents. The tents were air-conditioned luxury rooms masquerading as jungle tents. Think of a nice deluxe hotel room with a canvas top and you have an idea of the luxury in store for you.
After lunch, we set off on our first safari for the trip. The safaris were conducted in open topped Gypsy Jeeps with each Jeep holding about 06 people. This year was supposed to be a good year to spot Tigers in Pench. We made our way through Palash, or Flame-of-the-forest, lined roads to the gate of the park.
Since this was my first jungle safari, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We were allotted one of the routes that went through the forest and started on the first safari.
Riding through the jungle, in an open top Jeep, with little idea of what lurks around the next corner is an extremely exhilarating experience. The road twists and curves through the jungle, and suddenly you are face to face with a spotted deer calmly grazing on the grass. Up ahead you can make out a Sambar walking through the underbush. Overhead, Langurs jump from tree to tree, while Jungle Babblers fly by the road in groups of seven, as your Jeep races on the safari trail.
And then you see your first peacock in the wild. The pretty bird forages in the grass, dragging its long tail behind itself. And then you see the second, third and fourth peacock and pretty soon peacocks are as common as crows. And just as you are settling in and admiring the wonderful birds, a mongoose darts into the undergrowth giving you a fleeting glimpse.
On the first safari, we saw all this and much more. As we were slowly going along the trail, suddenly we heard the alarm calls of deer. They sounded close by and came from the jungle in front of us. Excitement took over as our guide confirmed that this meant that a tiger or a leopard was probably quite close by. We peered into the thick undergrowth trying to spot the tiger but it was in vain. Finally when the calls had died, it was time to move along the trail. We spent most of the time that evening hunting for the elusive tiger.
And then our guide got the news that there was a tiger sighted somewhat close to where we heard the alarm calls. Our driver suddenly got into rally car mode, and we were drifting along forest trails, trying to reach the spot before the tiger vanished. And as luck would have it, we were late by like 05 minutes.
The next day we set out at the crack of dawn for another safari, in the hope that we would be able to spot a tiger. The early morning chill was quite a surprise given the general heat of the day. During this safari we managed to see numerous forest birds like jungle owlets, woodpeckers, plum headed parrots, rose ringed parakeets and of course peacocks. And, we were cruising along admiring these birds, when I spotted what then looked like a dog sitting by the road side. This was a Jackal, that let us photograph it to our heart’s content before vanishing into the jungle.
The evening safari also gave us more views of the forest denizens, but still no tiger was to be seen. In fact, by then almost every other group had managed to spot a tiger, except us. It was almost as if the tigers of the forest were wilfully ignoring us and hiding whenever our Jeep passed by. We met many people on the trail and were so used to “just missing” a tiger sighting that the conversation usually flowed like this:
Jeep 1: Guess what? (The entire jeep is visibly excited)
Us: You saw a tiger? That too 05 minutes ago?
Jeep 1: Yes, Yes !!! It was BMW, he sat on the road for almost an hour. How did you know? (The tigers of Pench are rather colourfully named by the locals with names like BMW, Collar-wali etc.)
That night, we had our last dinner at our wonderful resort wondering if we would get lucky on our final safari, next morning, and finally spot an elusive tiger. We were all hoping to have better luck and even planned on trying elaborate superstitious schemes like sitting on a lucky seat !!!
The night skies around Pench are quite free from light pollution and we also tried our hand at shooting some star scapes, especially since it was a moonless night. The milky way had not yet risen and after much thought I resolved to wake up at about 3:00 in the morning, just to shoot the milky way. I had already scouted out a wonderful location near the camp from which I would have an unrestricted view of the sky. Several tries later, I managed to snap up this awesome picture of the night sky.
We set out for our final safari with eager anticipation that we would finally be able to see a tiger. The trip began quite well, with numerous sightings of birds and other forest mammals. We stopped by a water hole waiting for a tiger to show itself. One had been spotted at the same waterhole a while back. But after waiting there for a while, it became evident that no tiger was going to show itself any time soon there. In our eagerness to spot one, almost every deer call became an alarm call for us to follow on. Now, we were about almost through our safari for the day, with still no tiger sighting, when our guide suggested we return back to the same water hole.
We began our journey back towards this water hole, when we came across a few herds of wild boar, fleeing away from the direction we were headed in. We were elated. The wild boar is prime prey for the tiger and the fact that they were headed in the opposite direction meant that there was probably a tiger near the waterhole.
When we reached the water hole, there were several Jeeps already waiting there in anticipation of the arrival of the tiger. But sadly we were not to be given a glimpse of the striped beauty. All of us waited in vain for an appearance by that king of the Indian jungle, only to have to finally turn back.
We returned back to Nagpur and then onwards to Mumbai, having spent about three days in the jungle but never having seen a tiger. We were sad that we didn’t get a chance to see that majesty of nature, but elated at having communed with nature and recharged to tackle city life again.
Pench is about 995 km from Mumbai. The closest airport is Nagpur in Maharashatra. By train, Nagpur is again the closest Rail Head. The Mumbai-Nagpur Duronto is an overnight AC Sleeper Train that is probably the best way to reach Nagpur by Rail. From Nagpur, Pench is about a 2 hour drive, so it is best to organize a cab from here.
Best Time to Visit
For best sightings of wildlife, late winter and summer are the best times to visit, as at other times the jungle is fairly dense.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Pench Jungle Camp (Starting at INR 6500 per night). Other options include MTDC’s Kipling and the more up scale Taj Bhagwan. Groups like Canvas n Chrome also organize more economical group tours to Pench.
Things to see and do
The number one thing to do is go on Safari in Pench. But it is advisable to book safaris in advance, as there are a limited number of vehicles allowed into the park each day.