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India 2004

>Many years ago I had planned to go to India but didn’t make it because where I really wanted to go was Nepal. That might sound a little confusing but as didn’t have time to do both I decided to do neither. In retrospect I think it must have been a good decision because I had no reason for not going to India this time and it was great (although I still haven’t been to Nepal – which I would now like to combine with Tibet and another visit to China).

Now some of you may wonder how and why I travel so much but at least on this occasion I can blame it on my friend Donna. It was her who cruelly suggested that I go to India to see tigers with her even though this was supposed to be a non-travelling, hard working year for me. In such instances, where wildlife and travel are involved, I seem completely incapable of saying no and so it was that I went on the Exodus Tiger Safari.

Basically they market this 10-day tour to wildlife and photography enthusiasts. Instead of doing the regular India stops (Agra, Varanasi and wherever else), they take you to two national parks and send you in twice a day to spot tigers. There is a quick drive by/pseudo stop in Agra to check out the Taj but otherwise it’s all tigers if you’re fortunate enough to see them (which we were).

So I found myself flying to Delhi via Kuala Lumpur and Colombo on Air Lanka. I have to kill three hours in KL and eight in Colombo where there is supposedly only one coffee shop in the transit area. Total flying time from Melbourne to Delhi is only 14 hours, so 11 hours waiting in between seems a bit excessive and please slap me if I’m ever tempted to take a cheaper flight but more stops type of flight again! It brings back horrific memories of the eight hours I had to kill in Japan when I was so tired and fell asleep on a bench for four hours.

Luckily I managed to have a bit of a nap on the first leg of the flight. The entertainment system wasn’t working (which is perhaps better than not having entertainment at all as was the case on the second and third legs of my journey) and I had finished reading my book. The nap abruptly ended when my leg decided to spasm on the plane. Basically of its own accord it kicked out fiercely. It was quite lucky no-one was seated nearby else they suffer serious injury or otherwise notice my strange behaviour and ask for an explanation. I ended up turning the kick into a body roll / stretch to deceive anyone who may have witnessed the kick in the first place. Perhaps in my defence many of them had their own spasms to deal with. For the final moments of the flight I was just concerned that my bag of rice crackers might explode with the change in air pressure.

Just a note on transit delays … one thing which you have to love is that they allow you time to intimately get to know the airport. Take for instance the transfer desk. At KL international airport there are quite a few of them, every one of which is open except the one I need to get my boarding pass for Air Lanka. So whilst everyone else is ready to board, I have to wait until someone turns up to open my counter. The information desk gave me that look they reserve specifically for imbeciles when I queried when it would open, so now I’m just waiting to see.

On a positive note, the transit delay in KL at least gave me a few hours to catch up on my journal entry for NZ. I flew there just a few weeks earlier for a long weekend to watch the Olympic Hockey qualifier tournament. Without boring you with the details of the hockey … which to me are not in the least boring … I booked myself a Business Class trip with my Frequent Flyer points. Having never flown Business Class before it was all very special. The Qantas lady at the checkout counter in Melbourne looked like she would be much more pleased to put me and my slightly torn jeans in economy which I unfortunately find to be the standard niceness with Qantas.

As luck would have it, there were only a handful of Business Class passengers so the service was great. I had a three course meal. Not like the usual where each course is presented on the same tray just a different bowl. I literally had three full trays of food and when I mentioned to the flight attendant that surely there could be no more food she offered more if I so desired!

With food out of the way I settled back to watch the in-flight entertainment only to find that the chair was a little uncomfortable. It was too big and luxurious and as a consequence I was unable to touch the ground. My legs started to throb as they dangled uselessly over the edge. It was only on the return flight that I noticed another passenger flip out a hidden little foot rest thing that made everything much more comfortable. A trip to the toilet was just as confusing. I like to think of myself as a well travelled girl, but I have never before encountered cloth hand towels in a plane bathroom. Usually it’s just paper towel that you dispose of, but in Business Class they have cloths but I couldn’t find anywhere to put it once I used it. Well, there was a rubbish bin but that seemed a little wasteful so it ended up that each time I went to the bathroom I had to stuff the little cloth in my pocket and work out what to do with it later. My method on the flight back was to avoid going to the bathroom at all.

Back to more recent times … and my flight arrived in Colombo nice and early which wasn’t such a bonus at all since I had to wait seven hours for my connecting flight. I killed almost an hour walking up and down the hall then paid US$20 for a day room so I could sleep the rest of the time away.

Now let’s get back to India. The two National Parks we visited were Ranthambore National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park. Both of which are theoretically good for spotting tigers. Ranthambore feels considerably bigger but with the tracks covering only a small percentage of the park, the likelihood of spotting tigers is not as high as in Bandhavgarh. Regardless, it’s a beautiful park with an impressive fort on a plateau, which you can see from almost everywhere. I had to mention the fort because it really is incredibly impressive. It was built around 1140 AD, they’re not really sure who by, but when you see it you might, like me, be in awe at the size of it.

The wildlife in the park is diverse. Not only can you see tigers but also bush pigs (also known as wild boar although in Australia it’s a colloquial term for Australian girls who are very rough around the edges), leopard if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), Sloth Bear if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), Caracal if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), squirrels (just kidding but wouldn’t it be great if you could, they’re so cute), peacocks (not really a highlight after you’re seen thousands of them), Jackals, Chitals, Sambar Deer, mongoose, loads of monkeys (common langur) which although they’re common always bring a smile to my face, crocodiles, eagles, owls and so many other birds that I have absolutely no knowledge of what they’re called.

In India I’ll generalise and say that they love their curry, uniforms and bureaucracy. I’m also very fond of the curry but the bureaucracy is annoying. In the park the bureaucracy forces you to stop to pay for cameras, stop to get hounded by hawkers and finally stop to pick up number plates which identify which route you’re allowed to drive. This route is the route that your driver and guide are allowed to take you on through the park regardless of where any tigers may have been sighted. It’s a little frustrating but it is also a fantastic way of seeing more of than park than you might otherwise see.

While we were in India the temperature was surely above 40 degrees every day and everything was quite dry which is supposed to be the best time to see tigers (I think it’s because the water holes are fewer). It’s not too unpleasant in the heat as the safaris are organised first thing in the morning, when your eyes are still crusted together and then another safari in the later afternoon, which is a bit warmer but eventually when the sun goes down it’s much more bearable. In the middle of the day we just went back to our accommodation (in Ranthambore this included a pool) to eat curry and relax.

As for the tigers, well it took me forever to see my first one, even though it was supposedly looking right at me. By quite a while I don’t mean nup, nup … oh there it is. I mean several minutes! First off I saw all the jeeps stopped on the track ahead, then as we approached everyone points in the direction of the scrub off to our right. Not much help really as the scrub is pretty thick and the tiger wasn’t just sitting there in front of it. You can’t imagine the excitement as everyone is clicking cameras or fiddling with their binoculars. There’s actually a lot of noise which surprised me as I thought we should be deathly quiet so as not to disturb the tiger. It gets worse though as the guys in the jeeps jostle for the best position (to get the best tip?) and arguments break out about who should be where and no-one can get through anywhere in the end. The jeeps become dodgem cars and if you don’t believe me, take for example the four accidents/bingles we had in jeeps (although a couple of those could be attributed to our driver chewing some local drug/stimulant).

Anyway, I’m still trying to spot this first tiger with directions such as “see the third twig from the dark tree stump 20 metres ahead, look 186 degrees and you can see a stripe”. This continued for a few minutes until the tiger finally decided to move making it a damn sight easier to spot. I saw two legs and then nothing until thankfully he came into the clearing and plonked himself down again. Then you just stand there (stand in the jeep I mean) watching for an hour or so until the traffic jam clears.

Now my unscientific view of tiger behaviour is that they’re lazy, just like domestic cats. In the heat they don’t mind lying around doing nothing all day and that’s basically what you see them doing. We watched one tiger for about an hour and a half and all it did was turn its head a couple of times. Oh, that’s not entirely true, it did get up to stretch at one point. So that’s why if you look at my photos they all look pretty much the same. We were lucky enough to see a few tigers moving around as well which is quite impressive as they lope along. They will rarely look at you but they always know where you are. There’s a sign in one of the National Parks which quite succinctly says “you may not have seen us, but we have seen you”.

We had a couple of great Tiger sightings in Ranthambore. My favourites were the very first sighting, the “I wont move” sighting which was pretty close at 10-15 metres. Then there was another sighting where a young tiger was watching us through some scrub. This only lasted for about 30 seconds but it was watching us quite warily and it felt like the most interactive sighting. Then there was the final favourite sighting, which was from no more than five metres. A mum lay there breathing heavily in the heat whilst one of her big babies (fully grown but not fully filled out) was lying under a tree not too far away. Mum was elevated on a little embankment and we were way too close for my comfort. The jeeps are like the MASH jeeps – very open and low and I was feeling a little apprehensive. Then again, that’s what this is all about, otherwise I could see them in a zoo with glass between us.

After four game drives in Ranthambore National Park we headed off to Bandhavgarh National Park via Agra and the Taj Mahal. I wont comment on the Taj other than to say it’s not very impressive from so far away and as it was closed (supposedly every Friday) I didn’t get to see inside it. Definitely need another visit there to do it any justice.

An overnight train journey and a long car trip later we arrived at beautiful Bandhavgarh. This National Park has a smaller, less commercial feel to it. No-one trying to sell us anything, no designated routes to follow. Not only that, but inside the park they have mahouts who ride elephants into the tall grasses to find more tigers that you can’t necessarily see from the road, even if you’re just metres away. Then for 300 rupees they will take you on the elephants to see tigers from very close range. The most vivid experience of this for me was sitting atop the elephant watching two tigers in the long grass. They were just sleeping and didn’t care that there were three elephants near them. Now in order for the two people on the other side of the elephant (two people sit either side back to back) to see the tigers, the elephant dutifully turned around which means that I’m looking at whatever is most interesting on the other side. I can’t remember too clearly but I was probably looking at the pictures I had just taken on my camera, or some such self absorbed thing, but then I looked directly down and there was another tiger, a very unhappy tiger, staring at us. The long grass meant that no one had seen this tiger and we had almost trod on him. We were on a biggish elephant but there is no doubt in my mind that the tiger could have jumped up and nibbled on us had it really cared. Luckily for me it just provided the very best photo opportunity and otherwise left us alone.

There were many more tiger sightings, a couple of turtle sightings and a snake sighting (not enjoyable) but that was pretty much it for the trip. I had hopefully managed to fatten up one baby puppy and a blind dog at the park entrance with biscuits from the accommodation in Bandhavgarh – possibly not the greatest thing for their digestion but they were such poor skinny things. The people on the trip were wonderful as always and I’m quite sure I have never met such a well travelled group of wildlife enthusiasts. They put my meagre adventures to shame so I’m all fired up to join the elite.

My apologies to Donna for whacking her every time I saw a tiger. On one occasion I was very excited and thumped her pretty hard and stammered “Tiger” which you could easily see as it was right ahead of us. I think the moral is, don’t sit too close to me when wildlife spotting (includes squirrels and all domestic animals as well).

If there was one disappointment from this trip it was that … ok, three disappointments … it wasn’t long enough, we didn’t see any little baby cubs and my photos didn’t turn out great. None of which are valid as I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been there in the first place. All of which can really be resolved by going back which I’m thinking of but not sure at this stage. I’m planning a trip to South America (Argentina and Peru / Chile) at the end of the year and next year I’m hoping to get back to Africa to see the Gorilla’s again so another trip to see tigers might have to wait … or not.

For the moment though you’ll be happy to hear that I’m working hard, or at least I have ATTENDED work for a grand total of 63 days for the financial year (July-June). Seems excessive I know but I have to pay for these trips somehow. I dragged myself out of bed this morning only for the money, as the shear joy of work doesn’t do it for me anymore. I have 4 working days left at my current contract and I will probably/hopefully renew here or find something better. The job market does not ever seem to be as grand as it was several years ago.

My hockey exploits have been temporarily interrupted as I recover from a calf tear. Amusingly I was still able to play a second match after the injury (not knowing at this point the damage I had done to myself). I played dreadfully so at least I have an excuse! Life is playing tricks on me now. I parked at a car park closer to work to avoid the walk but then had to limp/hop/cry down seven flights of steps as there was no elevator. If that’s not funny enough, the following night one of the cats I was babysitting raced off outside (I don’t think this cat has ever been outside in its life) so I had to try and catch it. Truthfully I had two friends there who sort of annoyed it enough that it raced back inside before I had done more than get my shoes (a 10 minute hobble) and find some kitty treats (another 10 minutes).

Otherwise, I’m quite happily not studying at uni for a change but I have been studying Spanish since the start of the year. Loads more work to be done.

That’s it for now. I hope that you are all well and happy and perhaps I will hear some news from you soon.

Cheers

Cheryl

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