I have just returned from 3 days spent in the Bandhavgarh National Park as a part of a solitary backpacking trip across some destinations in Madhya Pradesh. I believe people look for info as I certainly did and maybe what I write now maybe of some use to others.
I reached Umaria railway station at about 4 am, it was dark and cold and there was certainly no way to get to Tala which is the town that is the main entry point to Bandhavgarh. I could wait for a couple of hours until about 6.30 am when the first bus to Tala starts from Umaria (right opposite the Railway station) or help myself and make it in time for the morning safari.
I decided on the latter and hired an auto to take me the 32 kms to Tala. It cost me 300rs after some bargaining and after driving through the darkness in the forest, passing a run over jackal and disturbing some feeding deer, I made it to Tala at about 5AM.
I had already called up someone at the Gitanjali lodge which is like the cheapest place in Tala. Others in the same category are KUMKUM lodge. The tariff charged from me was 250 rs per day which really is quite decent. So I reached Gitanjali and found the caretaker and he gave me a room with a rather stinky toilet. I decided not to worry about that for the moment. I then saw 5 boys who had hired a single room, bottles of whisky were lting around and I asked them if they would take me, they had some more bottles of whisky ready for the safari and were reluctant to do so, so I left them alone and rather thankfully at that.
I asked the care taker the best option, so he advised me to walk to the main gate into the forest which is about a kilometer away from the guest house. So I left my backpack and took my camera to the gate. It was a nice long walk, I was joined by a young boy who was probably as nervous as I was at walking through a forest with the possibility of a hungry tiger in the wait. I also passed a freezing stream flowing across the road. I made it to the gate just as dawn was breaking.
The price for solitary wildlife travellers is fairly steep in bandhavgarh. For instance, for an Indian, a safari would cost a minimum of Rs 1680/- per trip. This would include Rs 1000/- for the gypsy and Rs 680/- that includes the entry cost and the guide charges. The guide incidentally is a figure of some confusion. Some people tend to think that the guide is indispensable for a good sighting, and others tend to think that the guide is just a person on the safari. My own impression is that a guide is useful if he is good, but a guide in no way ensures that you will see a tiger. But you have to have a guide so I guess its not too good an idea to run after a guide with a reputation.
Anyway, reaching the gate, I saw all these gypsies lining up and soon it resembled Delhi rush hour. I am told it was worse earlier. Now, a maximum of 45 vehicles are allowed inside the Tala zone, they have definite routes allotted to them, and the tiger show or the elephant ride to the stationary tiger that made Bandhavgarh the most sought after par for tiger viewing has been stopped in the Tala zone. There are other zones where it still goes on but people do not visit those zones, apparently the sightings are not as good as in Tala and the cost for hiring the gypsy is Rs 1500/-.
So I decided to start asking people to take me along for a cut in the total cost. After some people refused, I finally met two guys from Bangalore who decided to take me along. Eventually I had most of my safaris including a trip to the fort (which is not to be missed) along with them. I paid them 1/3rd of whatever they were paying for the particular safari. I think it suited all of us as we had a fairly good time.
Coming to the safaris themselves, as i have said before, the guides do not matter as much as they should. The forest, well. I have been to Sariska, Corbett, Bandipur, Nagarhole, Sariska and some others. I had also partly gone to Bandhavgarh due to the reputation the place enjoys. And I must say that I was slightly disppointed. Maybe it was due to the weather, but it was quiet, there was no movement, a few alarm calls and most of the times, it did not feel like we were going to run into a tiger anytime soon. The vaunted density of tigers in Bandhavgarh is probably lower than it is claimed. I was told by some people that at least 4 tigers had been poached in the past couple of years, 2 had been trapped for sending to other places and hence the population was lower than stated. In fact during one of the safaris, I was surprised to realize that I was discussing milk production in Karnataka with one of my companions.
For the record, I did see a tigress and on another occassion, a cub of the same tigress but other than that nothing. Other people have seen a lot more, so maybe I just dont have the tiger luck.
In total, I took 7 safaris, and most of the times, that is just the way it was. A driver told me that a group had recently taken 20 safaris without spotting a tiger. So all those who say that Bandhavgarh is a place for definite tiger sightings is pulling a fast one or doesnt know better . The tiger sightings were mostly due to the elephant tiger shows and because the gypsies had a free run of the park which is no longer the case.
Soon it was time to be back, I hired a taxi to Katni railway station. The drop cost me Rs 1400/- and I boarded a train back to Lucknow.