Excerpt from the Welcome Home Letter written by Expedition Leader Mark Brazil from our 2011 Wild India expedition.
On reviewing our wildlife sightings, it is amazing to think that between us we saw 30 species of mammals and nearly 250 species of birds. It was the supporting cast of so many birds that kept us focused in the field, and with our senses tuned hour after hour to make so many of those mammal sightings possible. Of course, those birds also provided us with some stunningly beautiful scenes, sounds, and encounters in their own right, too; after all who can forget the gorgeous colors of the white-throated kingfishers; the green-blue-tailed and chestnut-headed bee-eaters; or the Indian rollers that we all admired so many times.
From Delhi’s new air terminal, we flew to the site of Khajuraho. On arrival the temperature was a sizzling 98°F, so we checked in at our hotel and allowed the temperature to fall a little before setting off to explore. The extraordinary carvings of the Khajuraho were not merely Kama Sutric as they are so often depicted, but also encompassed a wide range of scenes of daily life in all its forms, and were the cause of entertainment, amusement, bewilderment, and even amazement at some of the gymnastic poses! Our local guide, Sahu, had an astonishingly encyclopedic knowledge of the site and could have led us around for several days before running out of stories to tell us. By the time we reached our hotel, cooling drinks were in order and we concluded the day with dinner.
After an early breakfast, we continued southwards into Madhya Pradesh, to Bandhavgarh National Park. As we drove we witnessed the unreeling of daily life along the roadsides for the five and a half hours of our journey, making stops along the way to admire a giant fruit bat roost/colony through the telescope and for tea and coffee. We settled quickly into our comfortable Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge, and set off into the park on the first of our many game drives. The forest was ablaze with the deep orange trumpets of the flame of the forest trees and vines. During the following days, in addition to many other birds and mammals, we were extremely fortunate to have multiple sightings of the Bengal tiger. For me, the most powerful encounter was at night, when some of us heard the alarm barks of a Sambar, followed by a tigress roaring deeply over and over again “aum….aum…aum,” from the forest edge not far from our lodge. The disconcertingly sad fate of this fabulous creature was brought home to us during Amit Sankhala’s presentation on the park and the pressures on its most charismatic creature, and made each of our views feel even more precious. The rarity of this wonderful creature means that sightings are no longer guaranteed, and it was tremendously fortunate that all of us had such good views. While in Bandhavgarh we were also able to participate in a village visit and a local birding walk, adding to the diversity of our experiences.
Leaving the lodge after an early morning birding walk would have been a sad affair, were it not for the fact that we were headed for another four-night stay at an even more delightful spot—Kanha. Our journey took us through varied and interesting rural countryside, through farmland and villages on a road that has greatly improved in recent years. The agricultural and village sights seemed somehow medieval—albeit with cell phones and motorcycles! We paused along the way to view another giant fruit bat roost, to wander through a colorful local market at Shapura, for observations of waterfowl at Niwas Pond, including bronze-winged jacana, pheasant-tailed jacana, garganey, and cotton pygmy goose, for a picnic lunch at the Niwas Circuit House, and a final comfort stop at the holy Narmada River and Temple. Despite the long journey we were settled in at the splendid Kanha Jungle Lodge, on the edge of Kanha National Park, with our hosts Tarun and Dimple Bhati and their son Jai, in time for dinner. We even managed a first glimpse of the eye-shine of an Indian giant flying squirrel.
The following morning we began the first of our many relaxed safaris into Kanha. This fabulous area, inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, did not disappoint, with mist rising from the meadows in the mornings creating beautiful scenes. Our wildlife sightings here included excellent viewing of the magnificent gaur, the giant wild cattle of India, the diminutive barking deer, the rare barasingha or swamp deer, repeated views of the Indian giant flying squirrel as it emerged from its day time roost and glided off into the forest, and yet more tiger sightings. In fact, by the time we were ready to leave Kanha, some of us had accumulated no fewer than ten sightings. With views of tiger pug marks in the sand, claw scrapes on trees, scenes of scent-marking, and views from elephant rides and our jeeps, as a group we had seen more signs of tigers than any other group I have led in the last five years—alas, not an indication of increasing overall tiger numbers, merely of our tremendous good fortune. Our very last safari into Kanha was a great example of that extraordinary good fortune, with many of us enjoying either a tremendous sighting of a tiger feeding on a sambar kill, or of a female and cubs. What memories to carry away from a trip!
After a very long travel day, from Kanha to Raipur by road and then on to Kolkata by air, it was a relief to arrive in the comfortable ITC Sonar Hotel, Kolkata, less than an hour from the airport. The following morning we set off after a leisurely breakfast for our flight from Kolkata to Jorhat in Assam. Soon after we left the airport we realized what a different part of India we had arrived in: it was slightly cooler, more humid, the people have very different facial features and language, and the roads are better than further south. Eating a late picnic lunch on the way, we drove through the lush countryside of Assam on our way to the lovely Diphlu River Lodge.
The following morning we were off early once more, but this time so that we could experience a misty morning ride on elephant back in search of rhino; we were lucky and encountered 14 including several females with young calves.
Kaziranga’s three separate ranges (Western, Central, and Eastern) gave us more than enough to do; not only did we visit all three areas, but we also enjoyed three excellent elephant rides through the damp grasslands to photograph rhino at very close range. Combining our sightings from all three ranges, we counted an amazing 94 Indian rhino—a fantastic total. On our early morning visit to the Eastern range we saw several capped langur and heard hoolock gibbon greeting the morning sun, while on another day we visited Burra Pahar and the south bank of the mighty Brahmaputra River to see the immense, sandy ‘moonscape’ that this huge river runs through. There we encountered several elegant river lapwings and yet more capped langurs. Each evening before dinner, we met up with Vijay to discuss aspects of this fascinating country and to consider modern Indian society: the world’s largest English-speaking nation, the largest democracy, the largest country driving on the left, an economic and IT powerhouse, yet a country with huge swathes of its population still seemingly living in centuries past, bound by what seem to many of us as out-dated social conventions, yet that for most Indians merely represent normality.
Assam and Kaziranga provided a fitting finale for our wildlife explorations of northern India. During our trip we were exposed to the richness of ancient and modern Indian culture, to ancient architecture and carving, to the diversity and color of modern Indian roadside life and to a great wealth of insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
All too soon our trip came to a close; perhaps it felt all the sooner because we were such a relaxed and enthusiastic convivial group, almost like an extended family sharing our common interests in culture and wildlife. Some of us left straight from Delhi Airport and some were to stay on in India for several more days or to travel on to other holiday destinations, but those of us who remained said our farewells over dinner at the Radisson Hotel near Delhi’s international airport, and left for the delightful distractions of home with memories of India fresh in our minds.