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Waiting for Sher Khan in Pench

Adventure seekers were left to savour the joy of the drive as a tiger sighting proved elusive, even in the wilderness of Pench and Kanha National Parks

Published: Jun 6, 2015 06:18:24 AM IST
Updated: Jun 4, 2015 03:42:59 PM IST
Waiting for Sher Khan in Pench
Image: Courtesy Mahindra Adventure
The road less travelled: Thirty-four participants took part in the Mahindra Adventure Wild Escape 2015 excursion—a 250-km drive to Kanha tiger reserve with a stop at Pench

It was around 8.30 pm on a nippy February evening. There was a small gathering around the bar. There were two bottles of whiskey and one of rum. We had reached the Tuli Tiger Corridor in Pench, a wildlife reserve that spreads across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, a few hours ago. Many of our fellow travellers were still getting settled into their rooms, but Abhishek, my assigned roommate, and I headed straight to the makeshift bar. There was reason for our haste: The organisers, for reasons we are still unclear about, had assigned us a honeymoon tent. Abhishek and I, while cordial, had met only that morning. We were, as you can surmise, at least hoping for separate beds. (Tuli did later grant us individual beds, phew.)

Ah well, the bar beckoned as did—we hoped—the elusive tiger. It was the start of a five-day excursion organised by Mahindra Adventure to the Pench and Kanha National Parks, and there was little that could dampen our spirits. Quite literally.

I poured myself a drink and joined Sapna and Chandan Gurukar, a couple from Sakleshpur, a town near Bangalore. Sapna is the winner of the women’s category Mahindra off-roading competition that took place only a week ago in Igatpuri, Maharashtra.

“There are hardly any women participating in this sport. Off-roading is something where you have to get your hands and legs dirty. Most women don’t want to their dress to get spoilt,” Sapna says. She had no such problem; and that competition done, the couple had taken a flight to Nagpur to participate in the Mahindra Adventure Wild Escape 2015 excursion—a 250-km drive to Kanha Tiger reserve with a stop at Pench and then back to Nagpur. There were 34 participants driving 18 vehicles made up of XUVs, Scorpios or Thars. Four service vehicles carried the supplies.

Since the vehicles were driven in convoy formation, the participants were expected to maintain discipline. They had to keep a safe distance from the car ahead of them and have the following vehicle in their rear view mirror. Critically, they were not to disturb other traffic on the road and yet maintain the speed needed to reach the day’s destination on time. All the vehicles had a walkie-talkie to keep the convoy in constant communication. In the lead car was Dr Vinod Thakur, a veterinary doctor from the Army, who runs an NGO called Himalayan Explorers with wife Avril. They had organised many trips across India, especially around Nagpur, for those seeking a drive on the wild side. Himalayan Explorers was the official partner of Mahindra Adventure for this trip.

Waiting for Sher Khan in Pench
The Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh forms the core of the Kanha Tiger Reserve

The last vehicle was the sweep XUV, managed by professional drivers whose job was to keep the cars in a single file, between the lead and the sweep—no matter what.

Over the last four years, Mahindra Adventure, a division of automobile major Mahindra & Mahindra, has arranged long-distance excursions into parts of the Himalayas, including Spiti Valley, and into the deserts of Rajasthan. Anybody willing to drive is welcome. Most of these excursions are booked by repeat customers. Many like Sapna and Chandan were drawn to the drive rather than the wildlife aspect of the trip. “We wanted to experience convoy driving,” Chandan told me even as the other participants started gathering for a drink or dinner or both.

Darshan Contractor, a fellow Mumbai-dweller, joined us at the bar. He told us he had already participated in 10 escapades organised by Mahindra Adventure and had made it a point to bring his son Josh, 13,  and daughter Paloma, 17, along with him. He was here for the driving and the tiger-spotting. “I’m not going to go away till I spot a tiger,” he said. “I also think it is the thrill of the convoy driving that brings us back. The trip also gives you that personal time with your family,” added Contractor, who owns an architecture firm in Mumbai.

A hardcore driving enthusiast, he had gone to Igatpuri to learn off-roading and has since taken to the sport. A long trip was usually therapeutic for him, he said.

Waiting for Sher Khan in Pench
Image: Courtesy Mahindra Adventure
As part of the excursion, 18 vehicles carrying the participants were driven in a convoy formation

I also met the Shetty family which owned a restaurant in Mumbai, Ramchandran from Chennai, the Mehtas from Baroda and the Pais from Bangalore. But the stars of the evening were the three professional drivers—Ashwin Naik, Musa Sharif and PVS Murthy—who race under the Mahindra banner in the Indian National Rally Championship. They drive the sweep vehicle, which they said “is like riding a chariot”. “We have to keep each and every horse from veering away and that becomes tough because we don’t know the driving skills of many of the participants. If there is a rough driver, we have to gently get him back into the convoy,” Naik said. He had never been on a wildlife expedition to Kanha and he had just one hope from the trip: To see the tiger.

But everybody missed the 5.30 am wake-up call. By the time we entered the forest, it was around 8.30 am. We knew it would be tough to spot a tiger. We were all packed into Maruti Gypsys that belonged to the resort; they had also given us a guide. The guides are typically locals with a keen sense of hearing and a sharp eye. In most cases, they are excellent trackers. Our guide immediately spotted some tiger pugmarks.

Would we get lucky?

We drove deeper into the Pench jungle where the most common sights were langurs and spotted deer. We came to an open space and, on the far side, saw 14 vultures. There are around 40 vultures in the Pench jungle; they are now considered to be endangered species. They were pecking away at a carcass and did not fly away even when we approached them. They merely jumped away from us. We spent some time observing them and then, while returning, saw a jackal relieving himself in the morning sun. The guide said it was a rare sight. But our fortune did not extend to a tiger sighting.

Waiting for Sher Khan in Pench
Images: Courtesy Mahindra Adventure

Safari sightings: The Pench and Kanha National Parks are a delight for nature and bird lovers. (Right) There are around 40 vultures in the Pench jungle, but they are now considered an endangered species. “They did not fly away even when we approached them. They merely jumped away from us.”

The afternoon safari did not yield any results either even though we travelled through the jungle for almost three hours. We saw a brown-headed barbet, a snake, an eagle and a fox. But there was no sign of the tiger.

Two safaris later, participants—unable to hide their disappointment—were getting impatient. Thakur said the key was to enter the jungle in the wee hours of the morning. His wife Avril urged us to leave the bar on time. “It will be a really early morning,” she warned us.

But it was pouring at 4.3 am the next day. By the time a few of us managed to assemble for the safari, it was already 6.30 am. The rain had thrown a dampener and the tiger remained absent. Thakur said if that we didn’t spot a tiger during the next safari, we would head to the neighbouring Tadoba, about 400 km away.

The next morning turned out to be our last safari in Pench.

That afternoon, we left for Kanha—and the 150-km drive was just as Naik had described it. Think of a chariot that is three km-long. The walkie-talkie inside our vehicle kept throwing up instructions from the lead car and the sweep car. ‘Lead to the convoy, there is a village ahead. Please drive slowly’ or ‘Adventure 6, please close-in the gap’ were examples of the messages that kept us in a single file. Rarely was a vehicle out of sync with the convoy. The sweep vehicle, an XUV, was tasked with monitoring us and, at times, racing up and down the convoy to ensure all was proceeding as planned. (Incidentally, of the 18 vehicles, eight were driven by women.)

Waiting for Sher Khan in Pench
Image: Courtesy Mahindra Adventure
It is common to see langurs and spotted deer inside the Pench jungle

By the time we entered Kanha National Park, our optimism had started growing. There was a tiger in the horizon, we convinced ourselves. We reached the Tuli Tiger Resort in Kanha by 8 pm. It was already cold. We prepared for an early morning safari, but it turned out to be another wet start. Our hope for a vision in stripes was dissolving.

The jungle was dense, exactly how Rudyard Kipling had described it in The Jungle Book, but then, it was easier to spot Sher Khan in the movie. Consider the scale of the jungle at 940 square km. Of this, only around 10 percent is accessible to regular tourists. The tiger, an elusive creature, can easily avoid adventure seekers and big cat enthusiasts, as a foreign tourist staying at the resort had discovered. There for the last 15 days, he was still waiting for his sighting. He had been visiting Kanha for the last 11 years and this was the first time that he could not spot the tiger, he told us. The onslaught of tourists had put the tiger on the defence, he said. Perhaps the reason it was not coming out in the open.

Two safaris the next day yielded no results either. Some people started talking about the Tadoba National Park again. “The Arya family from Delhi and I are going to Tadoba. I am sending my kids back home. I’m not going home till I see the tiger,” Contractor told me. His passion amazed me. Many of the participants had given up, and were enjoying the trip for what it was—an incredible drive.

Waiting for Sher Khan in Pench

On the following morning, Ramchandran and his wife, who had come from Chennai, wanted to reach the gates of the park at 5.30 am. They wanted to be the first ones to enter the forest. We reached the spot by 6.30 am and found around 150 students from a school near Pune already waiting. “There goes our chance of spotting the tiger,” my roommate Abhishek gloomily said to me. And he was right.

In frustration, I started to tease a langur who, I realised, did not like my attitude and started chasing me. “Sirji, please stay away from the monkeys. They have rabies,” the guide warned me. I hastily ceased and promised never to bother a langur again. But the animal wanted its pound of flesh and managed to steal Ramchandran’s breakfast. “This is not done,” he complained. It had been a particularly bad day for him.

That afternoon, we soaked in the 250-km drive back to Nagpur. At night, when we gathered for a final dinner, everyone was united in their disappointment at not having seen the tiger. At the same time, we agreed that the jungle had made up for it. The absence of a wild cat sighting could not vitiate that experience.

Some of us drove back to the airport the next morning. Sapna returned to Sakleshpur for another off-roading experience. A few others persisted. Darshan Contractor and  Thakur went to Tadoba. Their night safari did not yield any results, but the morning showed them wild dogs, sloth bears and a tiger in the buffer area of the jungle. The Aryas joined them that afternoon and saw a tiger too. The following morning, they went to another core area called Kolsa where they saw two tigers. They also came across a leopard. Suddenly, there was an explosion of big cats.

They sent us pictures via WhatsApp within hours of their sightings. I believe that the foreigner who waited at Kanha eventually ended up spotting the tiger too. The rest of us, however, weren’t unduly resentful. We had the jungle. And the drive.

(The writer went on this trip on the invitation of Mahindra Adventure)

(This story appears in the May-June 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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