Nothing can quite prepare you for seeing a tiger, their majesty and beauty immortalised by literature giants. Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book character, Shere Khan, assumed almost tyrannical regal rule over the jungle while William Blake’s famous poem manifests the Bengal tiger’s wonderful ‘fearful symmetry.’ These big cats remain the holy grail of wildlife sightings, their elusiveness making for stimulating adventures.
In the beating heart of India’s tiger country, amid the towering sal trees, a number of reserves offer the best opportunities to see tigers on exciting safari outings. Other than big cats, there are many other exceptional wildlife sightings; think baby sloth bears carried on their mothers’ backs, sambar deer in their hundreds and huge grey Malabar hornbills gliding over the morning mist. Explore from a tented camp, a lodge immersed in the jungle or a decked-out tree house facing the savannah where you might just spot a mongoose or two.
Next-level safaris in Bandhavgarh
There’s a saying that goes, ‘in any other park, you are lucky if you see a tiger. In Bandhavgarh, you are unlucky if you don’t see (at least) one.’ Once the hunting region for India’s maharajas, Bandhavgarh National Park now reserves these territories for its free roaming wildlife. One of India’s smaller national parks but with a high concentration of tigers, safaris here are riveting and not just for the obvious reasons. Other than tigers, the rich grasslands and mist-shrouded mountains are also home to tree clambering leopards, bushy-haired sloth bears and small but noisy barking deer.
Stay in a lodge where it’s not unheard of to see langur monkeys before breakfast and where you can venture through the park from dawn until dusk only stopping for lunch alfresco. A cultural visit to a neighbouring tribal village is enough to lure anyone off the wildlife track, another unmissable experience.
Kanha: In search for Shere Khan
The largest national park in central India feels far flung yet familiar. You may recognise the bamboo forests, river crossings and rocky plateaus that make up the backdrop to Kipling’s Jungle Book, as does the cast of exciting creatures; Bagheera the panther, Baloo the sloth bear and the infamous Shere Khan. While tigers are, of course, its most sought-after residents, the less ferocious animals are worthy of celebration too – from elegantly horned barasingha deer to the hefty gaur cattle that lumber through the bush. Rest your head in smart cottages set within the forest complete with a spa to knead out safari-worn muscles. On top of well-honed excursions, the possibility of walking safaris in the outer buffer areas of the reserve are all the more thrilling as you tread through animal territory known for hundreds of bird species and that hazy golden light.
Into the Wild at Pench National Park
Another Jungle Book inspiration, Pench’s ghost trees and tracts of long grass make the perfect terrain for any safari. But it’s the 24/7 proximity to India’s wildlife and fewer crowds that make this reserve so exciting. Other than tigers, there are whispers of the park’s most enigmatic resident, the black panther – an incredibly rare yet bucket-list sighting. Highlights include packs of Indian wolves hunting down spotted deer congregating at the water’s edge while the next day you might see the vibrant hues of a Malabar giant squirrel hanging in the treetops. Stay in a tree house for unrivalled perspective of the forest where you wake up to the sounds of birds and fall to sleep to the cackles of wild dogs.
Panna, the safari underdog
Wonderfully lesser known and certainly charming, Panna National Park and its surrounding forest makes up a small but no less rewarding habitat. Based out of a rustic lodge and mercifully without the crowds, safaris are organised in a matter of seconds rather than days so you can dip in and out of its tiger reserve with ease. One of the most alluring features is its diverse terrain. One minute you encounter rocky outcrops, ideal lookouts for predators, then next, vast scrubland that carpets the earth’s skin. As well as tigers you may see rusty-spotted cats, chital hunted by leopard and even crocodile wrestling for shade as you cruise in the comfort of an open-air 4×4. The important Ken River runs right through the park, its wide, glistening water ideal for bird watching from a riverboat spotting parakeets and paradise flycatchers.
Bandipur’s dramatic stage
Down in Karnataka state, Bandipur National Park is where you can dive deeper into dense forest and feel like you’re lost to the world. Stories of tiger sightings passed along from naturalist guardians range from big-cat families lapping at the emerald river edges to females followed closely by their newborn cubs. The wide variety of habitats from shrubland to moist deciduous forest supports a cast of Asiatic wildlife; wild roaming elephants, Indian bison and golden-jackal, a relative of grey wolfs, that take to the jungle stage. Stay in a lodge practically planted into the tall grass where you can watch the drama play out from the comfort of your terrace and enjoy dinners under the shelter of towering bamboo. Every evening, come what may, you’ll see the clouds elegantly drape the silhouettes of the Western Ghats.
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