CC Africa transformed the word eco-tourism when they launched a series of high-end resorts that also worked to promote land restoration, biodiversity and community. Now, teaming up with Taj Hotels and Resorts, they are hoping to do the same in India.
In years gone by, tigers in Bandhavgarh were so prolific it was considered an omen for the ruling Maharajas to kill 109 per lifetime in order to bring peace- and prosperity- to their people. In those days an estimated 300,000 tigers roamed wild in India. Officially, there are 3500 left, although critics say this number is more like 1500. A new project by Conservation Corporation Africa and Taj Hotels and Resorts that is hoping to take the circus out of Indian safari and inadvertently, save the tiger.
Copying the model that has made CC Africa a vanguard for sustainable tourism in Africa, Taj is in the process of establishing a circuit of lodges in Mahdya Pradesh’s National Parks. Using sustainable (and local) building techniques and materials, buying local produce, employing local staff and educating villagers on the importance of protecting the tiger (and consequently protect tourism to their park), they are forging new grounds for wildlife tourism in India.
“There are a lot of eco-tourism projects in India, but most aren’t ecologically conscious. They just pay lip service to the trend”, Sarath Champati, the project’s chief naturalist tells me over dinner at Mahua Kothi, the first of four lodges to open, in November last year. “Were hoping to raise the standards.”
Mahua Kothi’s 12 bungalows, each hidden behind tufts of bamboo, are modelled on kutiyas, traditional village dwellings of Madhya Pradesh. Designed by Goan architect Dean D’Cruz (best known for the upmarket hippy resort Nilaya Hermitage in the hills of Arpora), the walls are rendered with kneaded clay, lime and rice husks, keeping the room deliciously cool, even when temperatures outside push 35 degrees Celsius. Continuing the ethnic theme, plush but whimsical interiors by CC Africa’s Chris Browne boast local katni stone cut like floorboards, messy and uneven paint work, wooden toy soldiers hanging from the walls, antique Keralan rice boxes and an Indian toy truck with “Horn Please!” scribbled on the front.
Each bungalow opens onto a walled courtyard, cozy with a plush burnt orange couch; ours guarded by a rather scary looking black spider. It would be nice to sit there, overlooking a plain of wild grass, but I’m not keen on sharing with an eight-legged arachnid, and the properties affable GM, Harpreet Singh Gill, tells me the naturalists refuse to have the spiders moved.
Unlike Africa where most game reserves are private, with night and off road driving that offer greater chances of cat sightings, India’s parks are regimentally controlled. At Bandhavgarh vehicles must follow a designated route, be accompanied by a park guide (who works more like a minder, making sure vehicles stick to the tracks and drivers don’t use phones to try and tip each other off) and adhere strict opening hours. The park has one of the highest concentrations of tigers in India (23 in just over the 100 square kilometres accessible to tourists), but seeing a big cat is a mere matter of luck, as my boyfriend, Ewout, and I were about to find out.
Woken in the wee hours of the next morning with a pot of fresh black coffee and home made biscuits, we set off in search of the tiger. Being nearly winter its frigid outside and we have to rug up with thermals and blankets (in January temperatures drop to as low as 1 degree Celcius). The jungle is still waking up; birds chatter as mist slowly lifting off the ground and the sun breaks through the tops of the trees. Stretching over 473 sq km, with the majestic fort as its centrepiece, it’s a sublimely beautiful landscape.
We don’t see any tigers on our morning drive -actually quite rare at Bandhavgarh- but we don’t care. Guide Karan Modi’s passion for the jungle is fascinating, and he identifies birds and deer and shows us tiger scratch marks on a tree 12 foot from the ground. Apart from tigers, the park is home to leopards, sloth bears, honey badgers, wolves and cheeky rhesus monkeys, to name a few. Putting along at 20 km an hour, our companion from the National Park spots a tiny snake head poking out of a dead tree. I can barely see the snake’s head- camouflaged by the tree- stationary and less than two meters away let alone driving. How the tracker did, I conclude, could only be through intuition.
The next day we are the only guests in camp (perhaps even the park) without coming home with tiger sighting story. Feeling slightly disenchanted, Ewout and I head off for a short walk around the property, looking for key places to photograph. When we came back Gill’s face is white as a ghost. “You didn’t hear the growl?” he asks, shuffling us indoors. Err, umm, no? “There is a tiger lurking around the mahua tree; he must have been standing less than ten meters from where you were.”
Ripples of excitement rang through the lodge; ears and eyes switched to high alert and guided escorts to and from the lounge and villas become compulsory. Still, the only feline we see is the skinny tabby lurking around the pool.
The highlight of any trip to Bandhavgarh is the fort. Abandoned by the ruling families in 1617, when they moved their palaces to a site nearby, the 2000 plus year-old fort is riddled with ruins; statues of Hindu gods, man made reservoirs (their enormous sides hand carved out of rock), an ashram and a temple where a lone priest has resided for the past 25 years- all overseen by a family of leopards.
It’s also a favourite place for Ratna Singh, a Taj guide whose ancestors once ruled Bandhavgarh. Educated in International Law, with such pedigree and qualifications Singh would have no trouble landing a high-flying job in India’s burgeoning economy. But more at home in the jungle, she works as a naturalist at Taj’s second safari lodge, Baghran, on the outskirts of Pench, the famous setting for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Pench is famed for its leopards, not tigers, so it was heartening when less than ten minutes into our morning drive, Singh finds fresh pug marks from a tiger on the road (typical felines, tigers don’t like to get their paws wet, or noses tickled by the long grass, so stick to vehicle tracks) and then in the far distance, the gruff and huff of monkeys sounding alarm calls. We slowly cruise down the track until the calls are all around us; deer yelping, birds squawking, monkeys jumping from tree to tree. The tiger is close, so close, but we still can’t see him. My skin shivers and heart pounds, waiting, watching, hoping. Then everything goes eerily quiet. Singh thinking maybe the tiger heard our jeep and slinked off down the valley.
By now our tiger sighting efforts are getting tedious. This is our fifth drive and still not one cat. “Should it matter?” asks Ewout as we solemnly drive away. This is the same question CC Africa and Taj are posing. By presenting the jungle as an intricate eco-system, not just a place to spot tigers, they are hoping to illustrate the beauty of nature.
It’s the last day of the annual Durga Puja, a festival celebrating the Goddess Durga, the Mother of the Universe in Hindu Mythology. Durga rides on the back of a tiger, Singh tells us, which is auspicious for spotting tigers. Today, she says, we will see a tiger. I’m not as convinced, but happy that the powers of the universe are on our side.
Each day two elephants and their mahouts try to track one of the tigers in Pench. If successful, they shuttle tourists- on the back of the elephant- from the road, offering a glimpse of the marmalade coloured cats.
We are told there is a tiger in the midst, but being a public holiday, the park is chock-a-block full of holiday makers, all vying for the same result as we are. We have to wait our turn, hoping the tiger doesn’t decide to move in the meantime.
Finally, from a wooden chair hanging high on the elephant’s back, lurching through the jungle while dodging branches and trying not to fall, we come face to face with two cub tigers. They are patiently watching a herd of deer, and like superstars bored with attention, don’t so much as even flutter an eyelid our way.
The most strenuous part of any trip to the Taj Safari Lodges is getting there. “No Hurry, No Worry” declares the road sign between Bandhavgahr and Pench National Parks, a journey stretched over 8 excruciating hours. Our driver perhaps didn’t see the sign, or didn’t care, swerving within inches of oncoming cars and trucks five times our size, stopping only for the odd cow sleeping on the road. My head hit the car’s roof four times and when we finally got to Pench, he checked us into the wrong hotel.
More recommended is booking English-speaking 4WD transfers with Indian Safaris and Tours (www.indiasafaris.com; +91 129 4082361), a Delhi- based company part owned by CC Africa.
There are currently two ,Taj Safari Lodges open (from $450 per person per night, all inclusive; www.ccafrica.com/india): Mahua Kothi at Bandhavgarh National Park and Baghvan at Pench National Park. Banjaar Tola at Kahna National Park (half was between Bandhavgarh and Pench) will open in the first quarter of 2008, and Pashan Gerh at Panna National Park towards the end of 2008.