November 28, 2013

Panna National Park- Wild, Wilder, Wildest...!!

It was a long drive from Bandhavgarh to Panna, but we were in at the right time to witness a wonderful sunset over the Karnavati river (better known as Ken). The round ball of orange painted the sky in a riot of colours and the shimmering river glowed in its reflection. Numerous birds flew in large flocks against the back drop making it all the more dramatic. Indeed, a sight to behold! We were at Ken River lodge, an ideal setting with the charm of hunting lodges set amidst the wilderness of Panna. The surreal vista from its dining area is bewitchingly picturesque. The lodge also receives visitors who come all the way just to enjoy a lovely meal by the encapsulating river side.

Dining by the Ken
As the sky turned grey we retreated to our cottages only to wake up early for a nature walk next morning. Mr.Shukr, senior naturalist and an avid birder accompanied us on this misty morning trail which began by spotting numerous pug and paw marks of jackals, sloth bears, foxes and cattle. We trod ahead into the forest patch which was infested with colourful butterflies, nice thicket and quite a few medical trees. Various species of avian fauna were seen aplenty. Coucals, hoopoe, large grey bablers, indian robins, plum headed parakeets, doves, red vented bulbuls, woodpeckers, kingfishers, indian rollers and indian treepies were seen flying around, and it was very much a colourful and chirpy way to begin the day. There were numerous marks made by the wild boars, huge dug ups by sloth bears and cobra dens all along till we reached a stream after walking for more than an hour. The serene stream and the mist engulfed trees made for a lovely frame. Our naturalist also pointed out claw and tail marks of a monitor lizard on the sand. There were many langurs loitering around the area along with a few buffaloes which were taking a lazy dip in the waters. Shukr also pointed out a few tree trunks which had bear claw marks on them. This forest patch also has a few houses where people still live in the wild environment, not very far from civilization. The landscape of Panna comprises of five different rocks namely kimberlite, conglomerate, granite, limestone and sand stone, and these were quite evidently seen during the walk. More birds were spotted either resting on branches or flying away as we made our way through the forest cover. On our way back, our naturalist stopped without a cue and pointed to a pair of jackals which were lurking behind a bush. As soon as they realised that we had spotted them, the pair sprinted deeper into the forest. A lovely sighting to end the nature walk.

Parakeets and doves
As we were gobbling down our breakfast, Mr.Bejoy Issac, the manager on duty came in running with his binoculars pointing to a couple of crocodiles which were enjoying the sun on one of the protruding rocks in the river. Crocodiles are quite often seen in Ken river lying lazily on the rocks during day time. They did not even battle an eye lid and stayed still for a very long time before disappearing into the waters of Ken. The resort also arranges for boating and angling , and I did not miss the opportunity of having a closer look at the birds and crocodiles. Angling wasn't fruitful and all the baits turned to be futile. After fiddling with the fishing rods for a while without any success, we rowed into the belly of Ken river, spotted a couple more crocodiles and some beautiful avian fauna like darters, storks and river lapwings.

A lazy crocodile

The first safari through Panna national park was an evening one, with Shukr, the naturalist. We first visited the interpretation centre which almost matches a wildlife museum with information, photographs and other details of the national park. Antlers of a barking deer is an exciting display at the centre. After picking up the forest guide from near the park gates, we entered the world of teak trees. The park welcomes its visitors with tall teak trees lined up beautifully making the sunlight tough to penetrate the thick canopy. The deep, dark and dense forest conveyed only one thing- Green! Various shades of green spread itself like a painting on a canvas with the brown mud path snaking its way through it. Giant wood spiders had their cobs beautifully webbed from one branch to another and we began the drive with sightings of peacocks, langurs and spotted deer. Very few vehicles had entered the park at the same time as ours and all disappeared within minutes into the denseness of the jungle. From my experiences in Bandhavgarh, I decided to stay away from the thoughts of the wild cats and enjoyed whatever the forest offered me. Not very long ago, tigers were extinct in Panna national park, before the successful relocation of five tigers from Bandhavgarh and Kanha brought the stripped ones back.

Into the national park

As we drove ahead,  the naturalist pointed out bear claw marks on a couple of trees which had bee hives dangling on its branches. Parakeets, both alexandrine and plum headed were seen quite abundantly while a changeable hawk eagle perched restlessly on a branch. The numerous streams that we crossed over added to the beauty of the landscape. At one such crossing, we almost mistook a snake with its protruding head, for a piece of wood. A closer look confirmed that it was a water snake. More spotted deer and langurs were sighted before the jungle opened up its vastness with the thicket giving way to open grass lands. Ken river winds its way through the park and we had a small break near the bank of it with magnificent vistas. We lunged forward on the mud paths back into  greenery in search of anything and everything wild. A shikra perched high on a branch was the first sighting after the break, shortly followed by a sambhar deer that was grazing happily before looking up at us for a moment. A wild boar and its playful babies were seen loitering on our way back and they gleefully posed for us without a fuss. A serpent eagle flapped its wings as it flew over us and perched on a stump. 

Changeable hawk eagle
The expansive Ken
Sambhar deer
A boar family
How much ever you disagree, the want to see a tiger will always remain each time a wildlife enthusiast goes on a safari. You can reduce the level of interest, but can never ignore it. So simultaneously the search was on for the tiger and somewhere in the middle of nowhere there were two guys from the forest department with antennas and trackers which help them trace the collared tigers. The signals initially showed signs of the tiger coming the way we were headed, but turned weak after a while. Meanwhile, other jeeps also gathered nearby to sight the stripped cat. I personally do not prefer sighting tigers like this as it gives the feel of being in a game reserve than in a national park. I believe in chance encounters which are much more exciting. Moving ahead, we patiently waited at a few waterholes to try our luck. After rather long waits, we drove back without sighting any wild cats and reached the lodge in time for another lovely sunset by the Ken. With monkeys jumping all over the roof top of the cottage, the night turned into an eventful one.

The next day began quite early and the morning drive to the national park was greeted by numerous birds like copper smith barbet, jungle babbler, crested eagle, white vultures, plum headed parakeets and a lonely peacock. The route was a different one this time and the jungle engulfed us as the jeep drove deep into it. No langurs or spotted deer this time. It was just the silence of the mist wrapped jungle. The jeep slowed down suddenly and came to a halt. Our naturalist had heard an alarm call of the monkeys and the lazy morning turned into an exciting one as we waited with bated breathe for the wild one to arrive. The naturalist was sure there was a wild cat amidst the bushes as the monkeys kept repeating the alarm calls with their eyes fixed on the ground. And then within a few minutes the wild one appeared leaping across a couple of rocks beneath the trees. A leopard it was! We saw it only for a few seconds before it vanished again into the bushes. The alarm calls never stopped and the wait continued. The deep gorge next to the bushes and rocks made it tough for the leopard to go across and the only option for it was to cross the path we stood on. We waited for long but no sign of the cat. We then moved ahead a couple of meters and waited patiently. We were all looking in one direction when the leopard quietly had begun crossing the path behind us. Luckily someone pointed out and we saw the majestic creature, as shy as a newly wed bride cross the mud path in front us and then into the tall grasses. It did look up for a second or two before hiding itself amidst the grass and then went up deep into the forest. That was undoubtedly one of the wildest ways to begin the day. It was also my first leopard spotting. The excited wildlife enthusiasts moved ahead and spotted a female nilgai, not very far from where the leopard lurked. Another gorgeous looking creature which was not quite bothered about our presence. 

Leopard hiding amidst the grass
We crossed many streams, sighted a few spotted deer, wild boars and many pug marks, of both tigers and hyenas. Meanwhile, the the mud path had wound its way up, onto one of the three plateaus inside Panna national park. The verdant greenery made way for vast open lands and the gurgling Ken river sneaked itself through the landscape. The vehicle stopped again. There were continuous pug marks of a tiger and it was wet. The cat had walked the same route not very long ago. The jeep again moved slowly with eyes peering in all directions, but no sight of the one that walked the path, a while back. Two female nilgais turned their heads as we reached the top of the plateau, only to go back to busy grazing immediately. I was awed by the stunning vast landscape of Panna. It has everything, trees, thickets, grass, a variety of rocks, wonderful wildlife and a gorge with a plunging waterfall. Dundhwa waterfalls, though not at its best, falls beautifully into the depth of the massive gorge over a dense canopy and then snakes its way through the forest.  A beautiful landscape frame. A few vultures were seen perched near the falls flapping its wings and enjoying the vista. A couple of them also glided over the magnificent landscape.

A pair of Nilgais

Dundhwa falls
After a cup of refreshing coffee, we drove back, down the slope of the plateau into the denseness of the thickets. We did spot more tiger pug marks on the way back and were startled when a group of wild boars suddenly crossed the road. The jeep stopped after a while as we had a flat tyre in the middle of nowhere. Sounds exciting, isn't it? As our naturalist quickly changed tyres, we peered with a lot of concentration for anything wild that might pop up. A gazelle was the only one to enter the frame and it leapt past us at such a pace that even before I could take my lens out, it disappeared.

The wild drive into Panna national park ended with a few more bird sightings, as the tall teak trees welcomed us back to civilization. I loved Panna for its absolutely stunning landscape and the plethora of avian fauna it offers to wild life enthusiasts. The leopard sighting early in the morning is something I will always love Panna for. Raneh falls, Pandav falls and Ken Gharial sanctuary are the other interesting spots of interest in and around Panna. The ideal time to visit Panna would be from march to june when wildlife sightings would be quite high. But if you want to enjoy the verdant greenery and landscape, october to february would be the apt months.

Signing Note- Wilderness at its best...!!

Location- Madhya Pradesh
Nearest rail head- Khajuraho (30 Kms)
Nearest airport- Khajuraho (30 Kms)

I was in Panna national park on an invite from Pugdundee safaris.

November 20, 2013

River Krishna...!!

3 KM bridge over the expansive Krishna at Korti- Kolhar on NH-218 in Bijapur district, Karnataka. It is one of the longest bridges in India. October 2013.

November 9, 2013

Bandhavgarh National Park- The Wild Country...!!

Yes, I did not spot a tiger at Bandhavgarh! The national park at Bandhavgarh opened before me a plethora of fauna and flora, that the famous tigers of the region seemed like the least of interests. Had I gone with the mission of sighting just the tiger, I would have definitely missed out on all the other vivacious creatures, the lovely engulfing greenery and the gorgeous landscape. I was advised by many keen wild lifers to enjoy the jungle rather than chasing the wild cat. If you are lucky, you will definitely spot one. If not, do not miss out on other species. If all that you want to see is a tiger, then the zoo nearest to your place is the ideal destination.

During our stay at Kings Lodge, we started exploration of the jungle with a nature walk. The naturalist from the lodge who accompanied us was quite knowledgeable about the various species of plants, butterflies, birds and introduced us to a few of them. The place had a fairly thick foliage with lots of bamboo, asparagus, lantana with beautiful tiny flowers and mahua trees from which the local alcohol is made. The naturalist also pointed out the local and botanical names of most plants. Though am not able to recollect the names, it sounded wonderful and took me back to my biology classes.  A large pond with lots of water lilies looked spectacular with the hues. On a very lucky day, I was told there are chances of spotting a stripped cat quenching its thirst at the pond. Avian fauna was aplenty and the colourful butterflies were fluttering all over the place as we trod on the narrow trails. Dug ups by wild boars were seen in quite a few spots and the naughtiness of monkeys were ubiquitous. We walked deeper and spotted a white necked stork in the distance. As I was capturing it on my lens, a few parakeets flew past my head squeaking as they went, followed by a red throat fly catcher. We spotted more avian fauna like macpie robin, indian robin, spotted dove, egrets, red vented bulbul and much more as we explored the wonderful countryside surrounding the Bandhavgarh national park. On our way back, we were greeted by a huge herd of cattle which were being led home by herdsmen from the nearby village. The huge round orange ball of setting sun made for a magnificent landscape. It was almost dark as we were driving back to the resort when suddenly a jackal crossed our path. First spotting of a wild animal in Bandhavgarh and that got me excited. However the smart fellow was too quick to be captured on my lens and disappeared into the nearby bushes.

An interesting tree
White necked stork

A robin
We spend the evening with a British couple who were so frustratingly in search of a tiger in the wild. They had been to a couple of safaris before and were yet to spot one. From their talks, I was sure that even a leopard will bring no excitement. A tiger is all that they wanted to see and they were to accompany us for the next day early morning safari. To get out of the room at 5 am and walk through the paved way to the reception area is in itself quite a wild adventure. The tiny lamp shades along the path and a torch light was definitely of no help to spot any wild one lurking around. It was a quick quick walk in the darkness before we got onto the jeep and headed for the safari. It was a bumpy ride to Tala zone (one of the three zones at Bandhavgarh) in the chilly weather. The sky looked gorgeous with the stars and the moon yet to leave the stage. There was a long line of jeeps that greeted us and we waited for the forest officials to inspect our identification cards before heading into the park at 6 am along with a forest guide and our naturalist. 

The gate opened and the jeeps lunged forward into the vastness of the jungle. The mud path snaked its way through the greenery and the mist engulfed the tall grasses and the broad deciduous trees. All eyes peered in search of anything wild. We began with a visit to Sheshaiya which has a big statue of Lord Vishnu in a reclining posture along with a Shiva linga and a statue of Brahma. There is a green pond right in front of it and followers believe that a river by the name Charanganga starts from here. The place is undoubtedly one of the most serene points inside the national park. 

Misty morning
The jeeps travel through different routes marked as A,B,C and D in Tala zone. Supposedly Tala zone has high concentration of wildlife compared to other zones and hence the rush. We were allocated route A and began our wild safari by spotting many avaian fauna like lapwings, a grey hornbill, coucals, oriental turtle doves, plum headed parakeets and many more. The giant wood spider with its enormous cobweb was seen everywhere. As the sun opened up, spreading its rays through the thicket of jungle, the drive through the long meandering pathways made for a beautiful morning. The jungle was dark, deep and green. With chirping of birds and chattering of monkeys accompanying us all through, I could not have asked for anything more. We stopped by on sighting spotted deer who are always the best posers for photographers. Perched on tree tops, langurs and rhesus macaques kept leaping as we drove past them. Two gorgeous peacocks walked away as our jeep sped past them. Quite shy to pose for the camera, they hid themselves in the bushes. We also waited for a pair of mongoose to cross the road and that was indeed a beautiful sight. Though they were quite shy in the beginning on hearing the noise, they quickly walked across the road for a wonderful frame. We also spotted a tree shrew on a nearby tree and that was a first time for me.

Giant wood spider
Indian roller
A dove
A naughty langur
Tree shrew
A pretty pair of spotted deer
Meanwhile, our co-travellers were restless without a tiger spotting. Bandhavgarh has one of the highest percentage of tigers in the country and they were yet to spot one after 3 safaris (including the present one). The jeeps crossed paths, but the guides and naturalists nodded their head in disappointment. The elephant trackers (forest guides tracking tigers on elephant tops with wireless) were seen frequently crossing our way but with no luck. The park had just opened up 10 days back and the guides and naturalists needed time to spot the locations and the movements of the wild one. So cannot label them as mediocre guides. More jeeps came by and after discussions followed by assumptions we headed to a couple of points and waited at each of those places with hard luck. Then came an elephant tracker who said he saw a tiger lazing on the mud  pathway just before the park opened up. Tiger spotting is sheer luck!

After refreshing with a cup of coffee and cookies which we had carried, the search for that elusive tiger began again. I too wanted to see a tiger in the wild, but that however was not my sole purpose of the safari. So as others chased the tiger, I enjoyed the greenery, the colourful birds and butterflies that flew over us and the spotted deer and monkeys that popped up from no where. Suddenly the jeep stopped. Our naturalist heard alarm calls from monkeys and then the excitement grew. We waited with bated breath for the stripped one to enter the arena. There was more hooting and alarm calls going around. Surprisingly we spotted a couple of deer grazing away happily a few meters away. False alarm calls, said the guide and we proceeded further. Had it been a genuine call, the deer would have leaped ahead in a flash. We did find a few pug marks on the way and also waited at a water hole which was supposedly frequented by a male tiger. No signs there too. The sun was shining bright and beautiful by the time we made our drive back to the gate with a few sulking faces on board. That was a wonderful drive early in the morning, sighting so many wonderful birds and animals along with some gorgeous greenery and landscape. 

A pug mark
After a heavy breakfast and a quick lunch without much gap between them, we headed back to the park for our afternoon safari. The route that we took was B and D and had a more beautiful landscape than the earlier one. It was quite sunny all the way and the drive started with the sighting of more langurs, rhesus macaques, peacocks and spotted deer. We had something new this time and spotted a sambhar deer grazing. It looked up when we stopped by for a capture. A wild boar was seen at a distance as we drove deeper in to the jungle. However it did not pop up and kept searching for its food amidst the tall grasses. Vultures, grey hornbills, parakeets and indian rollers were seen aplenty this time either perched on the branches or flying away into the horizon and that made for some lovely frames. It had rained in the last couple of days and the streams were still trickling by. We were languorously driving trying to spot as much wildlife as possible when our jeep came to a halt and a group of rhesus macaques crossed our path. It was a huge bunch with lots of babies clinging on to their mothers. Simultaneously, the search for the tiger was quite active and the guides concentrated on alarm calls and interacted with the elephant trackers for information. We again waited at a couple of spots, where the chances of spotting was quite high. Suddenly information passed around that a tiger was on its way down a hill and then the wait began. More jeeps joined us and more cameras came out all set to capture 'the one'. Patience pays, but not always. After a long wait, the jeeps headed further with luck not favouring us again. The sun was about to set by then and the harsh heat had given way to cold winds. The thick jungle also opened into a expansive landscape with tall grasses, hills and the Bandhavgarh fort. The grassland look breathtakingly beautiful against the setting sun. As we drove back, I gazed at all those lovely greenery, took in a lungful of fresh air and listened to the numerous sounds that came ringing from all corners of Bandhavgarh national park.

A grey hornbill
Rhesus macaques
Sambhar deer
The expansive landscape of Bandhavgarh national park

As we left the resort the next morning, we passed by the british couple who were returning after their fifth safari. From their facial expressions, I could make out that the tiger had still eluded them. I seriously advise all visitors to enjoy the drive, sighting all those gorgeous avians, mammals, rodents and many more that the forest offers along with the luscious greenery and magnificent landscape. To top all these, if you sight a tiger, undoubtedly it is the icing on the cake. Bandhavgarh is wilderness at its best and the ideal time to spot wildlife would be during the summers when the tall grasses die out, the trees become leafless and the animals wander in search of water. I wish the tourism authorities promoted Bandhavgarh as a national park rather than just a tiger country.

Signing Note- Get engulfed by wilderness in Bandhavgarh...!!

Location- Madhya Pradesh
Nearest railhead- Umaria (35 Kms), Katni (90 kms)
Nearest airport- Jabalpur (190 Kms)

P.S.- I was in Bandhavgarh on an invite from Pugdundee Safaris.
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