Posted by: Tommy | March 4, 2011

Tiger Hunt

We let Sarah compose our itinerary for the time she’d be with us in India.  It made sense – she had access to internet for research, no other major trip planning to occupy her thoughts (it was November when she decided to come visit – we were just starting in Africa) and a limited amount of time in which to see what she wanted to see.  If there was something Anna and I wanted to see, we could always go back after she left.

Her to do list: Kerala backwater houseboat trip, animal safari (looking for tigers) and a few days at a really nice beach resort.  We visited Kochi after the houseboat trip and from there found a package to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve for 2 nights/ 3 days.  It included transportation from Kochi (so it would be easy – we thought) and safaris, plus left us enough time to see Mysore – something we thought we’d have to miss.

The car picked us up at 6am (6:25 – counts as on-time; India is like Africa in that way) and we set off.  The driver spoke less English than I speak Spanish (almost none) so we mostly rode in silence.  At about 9:30, it started getting hot, so I reached for the A/C.  He just about slapped my hand, flipping the A/C off as fast as I could turn it on.  He informed us we’d paid for a non-A/C ride. (India is strange in this way – every room is priced A/C or non-A/C, usually with the price double for A/C.  Every cab ride, every bus, every train – A/C significantly increases the cost and you usually have both options).  We were all sweating and we told the driver to call the agent we’d booked with, as we’d been promised an A/C ride.  Instead of calling, he turned the air on…but at a level barely passable.  I was in the front and was ok, but the girls were in the back getting pretty steamed.

It didn’t seem that far on the map, so we hadn’t really thought too much about the time we’d be in the car.  We also hadn’t been on any Indian highways to this point.  It turns out there are no highways in India.  Every road is the same – roughly two lanes wide, though Indian drives show little regard for personal safety in turning it into a buzzing 4 lane highway.  Multiple times on the drive we’d look out the windshield to see a 4-wide line of cars (a semi, being passed by a bus, being passed by a rickshaw being passed by a car) coming straight for us, before miraculously dovetailing back into 1 lane just before colliding with our car.  (Unbelievably, the driving is MUCH worse here than in Africa – India has one of the highest accident fatality rates in the world – which doesn’t surprise us in the least).  We were on the road for a total of almost 8 hours, the last two of which were through winding, hilly roads – beautiful views, but we were in no shape to enjoy them.  The 8 hours of hot car, winding roads and stop-start-stop-start driving (for the entire ride we never got about 40 mph, and if we hit that it was only for a few seconds, before slamming on the brakes again – and that’s before we factor in the Indian propensity of putting speed bumps on highways) had left all three of us with a distinct queasiness.  Not a strong start.

Luckily, the hotel was extremely nice – it reminded both Anna and I of the Solitaire Guest Farm in Namibia that we really enjoyed.  It had stunning views of the mountains surrounding the tiger reserve, a nice TV (we haven’t seen much TV on the trip – exciting) and a strong fan.  Our guide, Kumar, met us at the hotel and went over the plan.  Basically, we’d be going both evenings at 6 on a drive by Jeep.  It gets dark here at 7, so we’d have an hour at dusk to spot animals and another hour in the dark, using the headlights of the Jeep to look for nocturnal animals (the tiger is primarily nocturnal).  On both mornings, we’d set out at 6:15, drive to the reserve and then continue on foot, trekking through the jungle for 2.5 hours.

Having just come from Africa, Anna and I knew what to do on a Jeep safari.  Keep your eyes open, as we’d usually spot as many things as the guides in Africa.  And that similarity held – but it might be the only thing African and Indian safaris shared.  This maybe should have been apparent if we’d thought about it, but we didn’t.  India’s flora is closer to Yellowstone or even the Amazon than to Africa, as far as density and type of growth.  And our safari experience resembled more closely our experiences in Amazon (on our honeymoon) for the walking safaris and Yellowstone (in August 2010) during the Jeep drive.

There is only 1 road running through the Tiger Reserve, wide enough for 1 car, but used by cars going both ways.  This road is not strictly a safari road – it’s also the only road connecting 2 towns.  As such, there is plenty of commercial traffic, plenty of commuter traffic and plenty of safari jeeps.  The safari jeeps want to stop and look for animals, the commuters want to get on to wherever they are going and the commercial traffic just wants you to get out of their way.  And the only way each of these cars communicate with each other is by honking.  Honk – I want to pass you.  Honk – go ahead. Honk – scoot over. Honk – I can’t, I’m driving a tiny piece of junk that might fall apart if I try driving on the bare shoulder.  And just because 30 of the 2000 remaining wild tigers in the world happen to live around this road doesn’t mean the Indians are going to stop honking their beloved horns.

It kind of kills the mood of animal spotting when you can’t slow down to look at something without inviting a cacophony of horns for the duration of your stop.  We didn’t manage to see anything the first evening except a peacock with its tail up.  Which was nice, but not a tiger.  The next morning, we got up at dawn and headed out for our first trek.

Preening Peacock

We’d not driven for 10 minutes when Kumar motioned the driver to stop and let us out.  He had heard some monkey giving the particular call that signals to other monkeys the presence of a tiger.  We carefully tread through the jungle, always watching out for the elusive tiger, circling through the brush, trying to get closer to the monkeys.  We walked for roughly an hour, all keeping silent.  We saw plenty of sign of tiger – tiger poo, tiger pawprints, etc. – but no tiger.  After an hour, the monkeys stopped their commotion and Kumar announced that we’d failed.  He was certain there were 2 tigers merely 20 yards away, but hidden in the dense brush.  We continued on our walk for another hour, looking out for other animals – there were leopard, sloth bear and elephants, in addition to tiger, in the park.

We saw little else – a few spotted deer – on our walk and returned to the hotel.  We had the day to hang out before a trip to the elephant camp in the afternoon.  We spent 2 hours watching the elephant camp workers wash and feed their captive elephants before going on our evening drive.  This drive was more of the same – we did see a few wild elephants on the side of the road, but nothing else.  Another difference between an African safari and an Indian one – on the African night safari, you would use spotlights to look into the brush on either side of the truck and reflect off the animals eyes.  In India, you just look straight ahead using the headlights of the Jeep.  This is much less effective.  I’m not sure if they do it this way because the brush is so dense that you need the animal to be in the road to actually see it (reasonable explanation) or if the Jeeps are too cheap to come with a power socket for a spotlight to plug into (the likely explanation).

With spotlights, we might have seen more than just these monkeys.

The next morning, we went on our final walk.  This turned out to be the best yet – we actually found a herd of water buffalo and a small group of 3 elephants.  We had not gotten a word of instruction – before either trek – from Kumar about what to do when we actually encountered animals.  I thought there was just nothing to worry about – but that changed when we encountered the elephants.  Unlike Africa, where the guides always had a plan to get the best possible view of the animals and would communicate to the group a strategy for staying safe while getting a good look, Kumar went with ‘Run away as fast as you can whenever the elephant looks this way’.  Not the most effective strategy.  He had us kind of freaked out after running away, then approaching again, then running away again for 30 minutes.  The three elephants never paid us any attention, but you would have thought they were threatening us the whole time by Kumar’s behavior.  But hey, he’s still alive, so we followed his lead.

Having just come from Africa, Indian safari is not what I was expecting.  Had I only the experiences of Amazon and Yellowstone, I would have been content with driving along, seeing just a few skittish animals before they darted into the bush and with walking for 2 hours without seeing anything more noteworthy than a deer with spots.  But African safari is a much richer experience – rhino blocking the road, leopard preening in front of you and lions chewing an impala within easy photo distance.  An African guide would never lead you into the bush without very detailed safety instructions and certainly more precautions than Kumar exercised.  A Jeep wouldn’t run a night safari without spotlights.  Of course, it also wouldn’t cost $100 for 3 days, either.  Anna and I have decided to do another safari – at noted tiger haunt Ranthambore – so we’ll see if another part of India can measure up.

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Responses

  1. Interesting comparison between African and Indian safaris. I once visited India for a volunteering trip. Our host often went on tiger safaris with volunteers — he had gone 10 times and never seen a tiger! I hope you get lucky and that your next safari is a little more enjoyable.

    • I think that’s good advice – that India does not compare with Africa for safari. We have another safari planned, so we’ll let you know if it goes better.

  2. Seeing a tiger on foot seems crazy to me, but what do I know. As the old joke goes, you don’t have to outrun the tiger just the other people on the safari.

    • And that’s why I always take Anna on safari.

  3. Tommy,
    how can you tell tiger poo from the other animal poo?

  4. ARE YOU CRAZY!!!!! STAY IN THE DAMN JEEP, for Jimminey-christmas!!!!!!! xoxo, kita


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