Until recently, India's wild-life reserves could not boast lodges or camps that approached the sophistication of those found in Africa. Things began to change when Amanresorts and Oberoi Hotels both opened luxury camps adjacent to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. Now, Taj Hotels has entered into partnership with &Beyond, a Johannesburg-based safari company, to create four stylish and comfortable new lodges in the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
Traditionally, Indian wildlife reserves have suffered by comparison with the great safari areas of Africa. True, the subcontinent's parks tend to be smaller and are often hemmed in by human habitation. And generally, their ecosystems contain fewer large mammal species than you will find in the Serengeti. Nonetheless, the best Indian reserves remain stirringly beautiful. Of course, they have one priceless asset: the planet's top predator, the magnificent Royal Bengal tiger, which can weigh in at more than 500 pounds and measure 11 feet from nose to tail.
India's first national park, Corbett, opened in 1936 in the foothills of the Himalayas. The region has gripped the imaginations of generations of children, thanks to Jim Corbett's classic book, "Man-Eaters of Kumaon." Today, however, the greatest (and the best-run) of the country's reserves is Kanha National Park, a remote 750-square-mile tract of forest in Madhya Pradesh, crisscrossed by undulating rocky ridges and dotted with grassy meadows and small lakes, where large herds of herbivores and more than 300 bird species congregate to drink and to feed.
Kanha was declared a park in 1955, and it, too, enjoys a distinguished literary history, having been the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." Here, 116 years after Mowgli's debut, the real-life Shere Khan continues to stalk his prey along the reedy margins of the lagoons. In fact, Kanha today holds about 130 tigers, as well as around 80 leopard and more than 100 sloth bear. Its most abundant prey species include over 20,000 spotted deer (chital), 2,000 gaur (the world's largest bovine, bigger even than the African buffalo) and 1,200 swamp deer (barasingha), narrowly saved from extinction and now found nowhere else.
We began our trip to Kanha in Delhi, where we noted with some relief that the domestic air terminal has improved greatly since our previous visit. Flying within India used to be a nightmare, and not just because of the country's chaotic airports. Not long ago, the routes were monopolized by Indian Airlines, then a candidate for the title of the world's worst major carrier. Over the past decade, however, the network has been privatized, and Jet Airways, Kingfisher and IndiGo all now offer reasonable levels of service. Our 90-minute flight to Nagpur was aboard a clean, modern Airbus jet. However, the plane was full, the seats relatively close together and, as is the case on most domestic routes, only coach class was available.
There is no escaping the fact that travel in India still presents a bit of a challenge and should be contemplated only by those with a moderately adventurous spirit. If the airlines have improved, the roads have undoubtedly gotten worse. Although reputable travel companies now provide modern air-conditioned vehicles, owing to a booming Indian economy, the number of trucks has exponentially increased. And there is only one rule of the road in India: Might is right. (Train travel might sound like an appealing alternative, but even in first class, Indian Railways is definitely not for the fainthearted!)
Our drive from Nagpur to Kanha took six hours, and by the time we arrived at the lodge, we had begun to question the wisdom of the whole enterprise. Belatedly, we discovered that it is possible to transfer by light aircraft, and on a future visit, we would definitely spend the extra money and opt for wings rather than wheels. Aboard a four-seat Piper Seneca, the flight from Nagpur to Baihar (near Kanha) operated by Chimes Aviation Charters takes just 50 minutes. At a rather different price point, Taj Air, an aviation company associated with the hotel chain, offers private transfers from major cities all over India, by either Falcon jet or Piaggio high-speed turboprop.
It is a tribute to the superb staff at Banjaar Tola that within half an hour of our arrival, we were reclining on our terrace with a pot of Darjeeling tea, already feeling thoroughly relaxed and at home. Located along the banks of the Banjaar River, the property opened in March 2009 and comprises two camps of nine "tents" each. We had been assigned to East Camp, which offers an open layout and picturesque views of the river. The atmosphere of West Camp is more intimate, and its swimming pool, screened by lush vegetation, is considerably more attractive. Overall, however, it is hard to choose between the two, and you are likely to be equally content in either.
Each of the air-conditioned tented suites is set on an elevated wooden platform and provides a large bedroom with a king-size bed, a huge bath with a soaking tub and walk-in shower, and a private terrace with two daybeds in addition to a dining table and chairs. Everywhere, the influence of upscale African safari camps is in evidence. &Beyond (formerly CC Africa, formerly the Conservation Corporation) is a highly reputable company despite the succession of silly names, with a portfolio of 46 properties that includes iconic retreats such as Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and Kwandwe in South Africa's Eastern Cape.
As the exceptionally gracious camp manager showed us around, it was hard to believe that we really were in central India. Our suite's imaginative use of local materials, textiles and artifacts; its expanses of indigenous wood; and its clever juxtaposition of elegance and rusticity all evoked memories of happy times spent at the edge of the Kalahari. Outside, however, the crimson- and saffron-colored saris of the women washing their clothes in the river returned us swiftly to Madhya Pradesh.
As the evening temperature was pleasantly cool, we eschewed the air-conditioned dining room and sat outside on a terrace overlooking the river. There, we enjoyed a delicious meal of lightly spiced Indian food, accompanied by a bottle of chilled white wine. Some Indian wines are surprisingly good nowadays, in stark contrast to 20 years ago when they were invariably undrinkable. In particular, Sula Vineyards in Maharashtra (near Mumbai) produces a Viognier, a Chenin Blanc and a Sauvignon Blanc, all of which are unexpectedly stylish. Our fellow guests came from Delhi, England, Italy, Denmark and Japan. The eclectic, articulate and well-traveled group included a cardiac surgeon, a fashion photographer, a well-known sculptor and a senior financial executive who had taken two years off to visit "all the top luxury resorts in the world" on the pretext that he would be wasting his time in his Tokyo office until the economic recovery had gathered momentum!
We were awakened at 6 a.m. the following morning by the arrival of coffee and cookies. Half an hour later, in the silvery light of early dawn, we clambered aboard our safari vehicle, a sturdy Land Cruiser with three banked tiers of seats, in all respects identical to those in service at top African game lodges. Our driver-guide, Harsha, explained that he had been extensively trained by &BeyondÕs South African instructors, and over the next three days, he proved himself an exceptionally knowledgeable and charming companion.
The most frequent complaint about Indian wildlife parks is that the authorities fail to regulate the overall number of visitors, and in particular, the number of vehicles allowed at tiger and leopard sightings. This is undoubtedly true in some places, but at Kanha, a sufficient degree of control seems to be exerted. In addition, Banjaar Tola is located on the opposite side of the park from the main gate. However, the driver-guide does most to determine the quality of your experience. Harsha's knowledge of the park was encyclopedic, and he assiduously avoided other vehicles. As a result, we would sometimes drive for nearly an hour without encountering anyone else.
Of course, most people come to see a tiger, and doubtless return home bitterly disappointed if they fail to do so. Wild animals cannot be relied upon, and tigers are naturally elusive. Those at Kanha, however, show signs of becoming habituated to vehicles, and when encountered in daylight seem relatively unconcerned. The park's rangers also understand the layout of the various territories and have become adept at tracking known individuals. As a result, most visitors to Banjaar Tola can expect to see a tiger if they stay for two or three nights. During our visit, all the guests saw at least one tiger every day, and one fortunate couple encountered three in the course of a single afternoon.
On our first morning, we were in luck. Harsha stopped by a ranger station to inquire if a tiger had been seen, and 30 minutes later, we were perched on the swaying back of an elephant heading off-road into the forest. It turned out to be a young female, perhaps 4 years old, with dramatic markings on her rich orange fur. She was lying in a glade gnawing at the hindquarters of a young gaur, which apparently she had managed to bring down with the help of her three nearly full-grown cubs. We sat watching her, mesmerized, at a distance of perhaps 30 feet, for around 15 minutes.
The four new Taj Safaris properties are all located in eastern Madhya Pradesh, around four or five hours' drive apart. The company's stated intention is to create a "tiger circuit," with guests progressing from one camp to the next. Quite apart from the arduous drives involved, this is frankly a crazy idea. The camps and reserves are all relatively similar, and we would recommend visits to a maximum of two. We have concluded that Banjaar Tola is the pick of the bunch, because Kanha offers the best tiger-viewing and because it is still possible to experience the wilderness in solitude.
To the north, Bandhavgarh National Park also has exceptional tiger sightings, but despite the appeal of Mahua Kothi, the first of the Taj camps opened in 2006, the park is now overcrowded and in need of more enlightened management and regulation. And if seeing a tiger is your principal objective, it might be wise to avoid Panna National Park (and Pashan Garh lodge), as the entire tiger population was recently wiped out by poaching. The Taj property that provides the best counterpoint to Banjaar Tola is probably Baghvan lodge in Pench National Park. Just a three-hour drive away, Pench supports a stable tiger population and is considered an excellent place to see leopard.
Over the past two decades, despite the widely publicized Project Tiger conservation initiative, India's tiger population has steadily declined. In 1990, it was estimated to be about 4,000, but to general consternation, a 2008 government survey insisted that the total had fallen to fewer than 1,400. Poaching is partly to blame, fueled by the relentless demand for tiger parts in traditional Chinese medicine. If unmolested, however, tigers breed and multiply quickly.
The most serious problem, which may yet prove terminal, is loss of habitat. At independence in 1947, the human population of India was 345 million. Sixty-three years later, it has nearly quadrupled to 1.2 billion and is expected to exceed that of China by 2030. If wild tigers are to have a future, then upscale tourism — and the jobs and revenue it generates — is likely to play a major role. Places such as Banjaar Tola provide an unforgettable wildlife experience, but they may also be instrumental in saving one of the world's most magnificent species.
Banjaar Tola 97 Tented Suite, $1,295, all meals, house wine/spirits and two daily safari drives included. Tel. in United States and Canada (866) 969-1825.
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