Imagine sitting in a jeep, wrapped up against the early morning chill, in the middle of the savannah, grassland or forest landscape. You hear the bark of a deer which, as your expert naturalist whispers to you and your fellow travellers, is a sure sign that a Bengal Tiger - the national animal of India and one of the biggest wild cats alive - is close by. Wait near a watering hole where tigers come to quench their thirst and soak themselves in the natural pools, straining your eyes for that first flash of orange fur. Drive along dusty tracks in the heat of the late afternoon, ready to stop if one of these magnificent animals, all muscles, burnished hide and black stripes, meanders casually across your path.
For many, the chance to spot a tiger is a once in a lifetime experience that’s worth travelling a long way for. However, sightings of these wildest of wild animals are notoriously unpredictable, even in India’s best-known National Parks. The Selective solution? An itinerary that includes not one but three different parks, all located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. This allows you to explore some surprisingly diverse scenery, see myriad bird and animal species, and hugely increase your chances of spotting one of these elusive big cats. Whether you’re an old hand at India who’s looking for something different, or a first-time visitor for whom wildlife, rather than bustling cities, ancient forts and elaborate palaces, is your ‘thing’, an itinerary that combines Panna Tiger Reserve, Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks could just be right.
Winding your way south from Delhi, and making a couple of stops along the way, you’ll eventually find yourself at Panna Tiger Reserve. This lesser-known sanctuary stands as a testament to the challenges of wildlife conservation, as despite it being designated as a reserve since 1994, the tiger population has largely been wiped out. Following the reintroduction of the species there are promising signs of recovery, but sadly this is still the park where you’re least likely to come face to face with the big cats. Selective Asia’s Kate confirms that this is more than compensated for by the scenic forests, plateaus, gorges and waterfalls, the variety of wildlife, the proximity to the (eyebrow raising!) sculptures at the nearby temples of Khajuraho. The cherry on the cake is the chance to stay at some of the most unique, passionately run and welcoming accommodation in this part of India - the Sarai at Toria.
If your luck isn’t in at Panna, then Bandhavgarh, world-renowned for its dense tiger population, is fast becoming the best place in India to encounter the Royal Bengal. Where Panna is quiet and understated, Bandhavgarh is better-known, most recently as the former home of Tigress Raj Bhera, star of the BBC documentary series Dynasties. Bandhavgarh certainly attracts a larger number of visitors, and it’s fair to say that the park is still catching up in terms of some of its conservation and preservation policies. However, with its diverse landscape of sal forests, open savannah and river valleys set around a huge rocky outcrop known as the ‘castle’, and many other inhabitants including the Asian leopard, striped hyena and a variety of species of deer and monkey, we think Bandhavgarh would be hard to miss.
Continuing south to an area said to have provided Rudyard Kipling with inspiration for The Jungle Book, Kanha National Park feels like a benevolent older relative to Panna and Bandhavgarh. The original park was first created in 1955, before later being designated as a tiger reserve. Apart from the tigers, it’s home to numerous other species, including a sizable number of barasingha (swamp deer), which exist nowhere else in the world. Despite being one of India’s largest and most beautiful conservation areas, with scenery ranging from vast forests to grassy meadows, meandering rivers to rocky escarpments, it all still feels fairly low key. Nevertheless, Khana deserves recognition for being one of India’s more innovative reserves, with efforts being made to limit the speeds at which jeeps move around the park, and increasing the employment of female rangers. Add to this an almost perfect habitat, and recent research indicating a growing Tiger population, and Kanha is the ideal place to finish your search for Shere Khan!
However eager you are to jump into a jeep and head off in pursuit of wildlife, you’ll need to begin your India adventure somewhere more cosmopolitan. We think a couple (or more) days to explore the unique mix of ancient and modern in Old Delhi are extremely worthwhile. Once the capital of the Mughal rulers, with its maze of narrow streets, historic architecture, markets, sheer crush of people (and the odd cow!), it's a real contrast to the wide streets, colonial backdrop, imposing tombs and monuments of New Delhi, India’s current capital. To see the city in a different light, follow your early morning cup of spiced chai with a bicycle tour of Old Delhi, carefully negotiating the tangled lanes of Chandi Chowk, Delhi’s busiest market. Investigate the area around New Delhi train station with a young guide from the Salaam Balaak Trust, a non-government-run organisation providing support and protection to street children, and head out in the late afternoon to dine like a local on some of Old Delhi’s mouth-watering street food, with your guide on hand to make recommendations and talk you through the mind-boggling array of options.
Agra, and more specifically the Taj Mahal - perhaps the most beautiful building constructed anywhere in the world, and without a doubt one of the most famous - is going to feature on almost everyone’s India radar at some point. But when the high visitor numbers threaten to take the shine off even the Taj’s marble magnificence, it’s time to rethink how you see it. Why not decamp across the river to the small village of Kachpura, where a member of the community will explain its significance dating back to Mughal times, as well as offering you an insight into present-day life? For some, this can feel a little outside their comfort zone given the stark difference between village life and the pristine monument beyond, but the villagers are hugely welcoming, and the project is bringing much-needed funding to the area. Another very worthwhile cause can be found around an hour from Agra at the sanctuaries set up by Wildlife SOS. One is home to over 200 Indian sloth bears, while the other is a haven for around 20 rescued elephants.
One of the great benefits of travelling overland is the chance to pace yourself and break your journey along the way. Enroute to the supreme tiger spotting grounds of Madhya Pradesh, we’d recommend a couple of brief pauses to catch your breath and to load up on history and culture. This could also be an opportunity to make use of one of the world's most extensive rail networks, another quintessential India experience. Spend a night in Gwalior, a historic town with a skyline dominated by one of the country's most impenetrable fortresses, along with palaces, Jain and Hindu temples and ancient water tanks to spare. Or opt for Orchha, a small almost medieval-looking town packed with impressive architecture, but often overlooked by travellers. Join the crowds of chanting pilgrims for the atmospheric evening ritual at the Ram Raja, the only Indian temple where Lord Rama - a popular incarnation of the deity Vishnu - is worshipped as a king might be; just the thing to bring you luck in your tiger spotting endeavours.
No two national parks are the same, besides their individual topography, flora & fauna, they each tend to have their own story and unique energy. We can include national park visits in almost all journey’s we design, however in this instance we are focussing on a combination of our three favourite Madhya Pradesh parks. We’d typically suggest that you spend 2 nights at Panna and Bandhavgarh and 3 nights at Kanha. For the 12 nights suggested at a per person price of £3,290US$3,790 (not including international flights) we’d recommend starting your trip with a stay in Delhi for 2 nights before leaving south by train via Agra, stopping for 2 nights, and then 1 night in Orchha.
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