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Seeing a Bengal tiger this close, with no noisy gang of tourists nearby, is an intense, nearly spiritual experience. (Patrice Halley/Patrice Halley)
Seeing a Bengal tiger this close, with no noisy gang of tourists nearby, is an intense, nearly spiritual experience. (Patrice Halley/Patrice Halley)

Go Zen on a Taj Safari and spot a Royal Bengal tiger Add to ...

A purple light of dawn invades the inky sky. Like a ghostly creature, a cold morning mist, mixed with some of the nearby village smoke, is slowly drifting into the silent forest. It is barely 6 o'clock and there is already a lineup of vehicles waiting for the gate of Bandhavgarh National Park to open. I have come halfway around the world to visit the kingdom of the elusive Royal Bengal tiger in the hope of catching a glimpse of the animal, and I am already caught in a traffic jam!

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Finally, our guide gets us a daily permit. Still half asleep, a nonchalant park ranger comes to lift the gate and as soon as he has done what seems to be the one and only task of his day, a car rodeo starts. Jeeps full of safari-goers rev up their small engines and, with the first rays of the sunshine, take off in a dark cloud of diesel fumes and orange dust. I brace myself for the ride.

Established in 1968, the park, located in the state of Madhya Pradesh, was the canvas for Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. It also bears the highest density of Royal Bengal tigers anywhere in Asia. After half an hour of racing other vehicles on dusty roads, dodging low branches, cocking my head to spot what I came to see, while trying to remain seated, I wished I didn't have a camera. At least then I would have had a free hand to hold onto something.

In the meantime, I quickly realize that I am lucky to be a guest with Taj Safari. While other tourists are squeezed like sardines in their tiny Marutis, I have a roomy vehicle almost all for myself. If they spot a tiger, they will barely have enough room to lift their cameras while I will have the entire upper deck of a customized Tata to photograph from.

At 10,500 hectares, Bandhavgarh is small in comparison with most Canadian parks. The park is framed by imposing limestone cliffs and we cut through the dense jungle on rough, dirt roads.

After 45 minutes, we have made our way toward the centre of the park and are now alone on a remote road. The dust has settled and our guide is looking for fresh wildlife tracks. Slowly, as the forest awakes, animals start popping up everywhere. Monkeys cross the road, spotted deer and samba (an elk-like ungulate) stroll beside us, and birds zoom overhead from perch to perch. Before the morning heat rises, the wildlife is on the move.

We silently wait for some action. Attentive to any sound, Hada, our guide-naturalist, is hoping to identify a distant warning call. The mewing of a spotted deer, the howling of a langur monkey or even the flight of white-bellied drongo could indicate a predator on the prowl. Whether it's a leopard or sloth bear, a small Asiatic jackal or the magnificent Bengal tiger, no one knows until we spot it.

Hada is flanked by a park guide who doesn't speak a word of English and is quite content to be here, earning meagre wages by pointing out species to the tourists. The name of the game, it seems, is to capture a tiger photo at all cost. While most of the tours apply a drive-by shooting technique (after a few quick snapshots, they proceed to the next animal to be sighted by the side of the road), my guide is excited to accommodate my request. Real photographers are a whole different species, I explained. We are not interested in another “click.”

We need to wait, wait longer, and then wait some more in hopes of capturing a rare moment in the wilderness. It is when the animal becomes indifferent to our presence that his natural behaviour resurfaces.

THERE WILL BE DUST AND THERE WILL BE SWEAT

The roar of small engines and a trail of dust visible in the distance eventually lead us to a jamboree of vehicles competing for position. Surrounding a tiger napping in the forest, a herd of overexcited humans cackles while snapping pictures. Nonchalantly staring at the unwanted crowd and ignoring the staccato of motor drives punctuated by ridiculously inefficient bursts of light from point-and-shoot cameras, the bored animal waits for an opening slot in the Delhi-like traffic jam. Soon, eyeing its escape route, the cat retreats to the depths of the forest in an impeccable feline move.

Our guide takes us to a nearby watering hole, where we wait patiently for nearly an hour before we are rewarded. The Bengal cautiously meanders into a tall grassy area. It is a female looking for prey.

Quietly, she progresses along the shore trying to make her way nearer to a small herd of samba. She is fully aware of our presence but ignores us, her black stripes and smooth orange coat a perfect camouflage in her environment. Seeing the tiger in this condition is an intense, nearly spiritual experience. She gazes at her prey, ears flattened, ready to strike, judging her chances of success. My camera body is covered with a thick bath towel to muffle the sound of the motor drive, I click and click some more. I take long deep breaths between bursts to steady myself and to appreciate to the fullest this rare moment.

By the end of one of the best days in my life, the sun shies away as if nothing has happened. We congregate in the main tent around an Indian meal. The spice smells are entangled with the fragrances from the nearby forest. Across the river, steps away from the fragile civilization of our tents, I hear a crack. I lean over the deck, trying to guess the drama occurring in the darkness. I am here, almost alone, in the land of the tiger.

IF YOU GO

The author stayed at Taj Safaris properties Mahua Kothi in Bandhavgarh National Park and Banjaar Tola in Khana National Park in the state of Madhya Pradesh, the second-largest state in India. Taj Safaris operates an interpretive wildlife experience based on a sustainable ecotourism model. Both lodges have exotic and luxurious accommodations supported with world-class service, and can provide an air-conditioned vehicle to ferry guests to and from the airport.

While Mahua Kothi is a solid traditional building, Banjaar Tola is a luxurious and amazing tent camp. Guests are equally pampered with a butler assigned to each guest or room who takes care of your desires (such as a flower-strewn bath ready upon your return, with a traditional martini or G&T on the side). Food is Indian style, but they will take care of special dietary needs and accommodate guests who don't like spicy food.

Rooms from $390 to $655 a night, double occupancy. For more information, go to and



 

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