Wild at Heart
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The heart, that organ within us that pumps blood to every nook and corner of our body, we say it’s what keeps us alive. In day-to-day life, the heart is our point of feeling, our centre of emotion and instinct. Similarly the heart of each country is what usually has the richest culture, history and soul.
India’s heartland, the central province, Madhya Pradesh is known for it’s rich history and famous for being the home of the striped stalker, the Royal Bengal tiger. Thanks to Tata Motors Full Throttle – Jungle Experience, that is exactly what we got to experience from the 23rd to the 28th of March 2013.
Our journey began from The Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi. After a small round of introductions, a briefing and breakfast we got the keys to the cars allocated and the convoy was flagged off. Our final destination for the day was the historic city of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. We left the Taj and headed straight for what one could call best expressway in India, the Yamuna Express Highway. Comparable to any interstate highway in the United States of America, the Yamuna express highway bypasses all the small towns and crowded areas between New Delhi and Agra. A vast straight stretch of well-paved cement, three lanes on both sides and India’s F1 Track, the Buddh International Circuit on its outskirts, the Yamuna expressway is a road to experience.
Drive fast but be weary as there are speed cameras at certain points on the highway waiting to fine speed demons at the tollbooths. Within 3 hours we were at Agra making our way towards Dholpur, Rajasthan, for our lunch stop. What was most intriguing about the initial drive was that we went through 3 states, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and in each state the road quality differed by ten fold!
After driving 343km the first day we arrived at the Usha Kiran Palace, a wonderful heritage hotel by the Taj group. The experience living here for one night itself was pretty royal. Vast lawns, fountains in the shape of snakes, arches and jail-work carvings adorned the premises. The rooms are huge and not to mention the palatial bathrooms with stone tubs instead of the usual plastic ones. One really does get to experience the taste of royalty once you sit down for dinner in the dining hall.
That night we visited the infamous Gwalior Fort for the sound and light show. Overlooking the city, right in the mezzo, this gorgeous fort still stands magnanimous after all these years. It is a sight to see and a different encounter compared to most of the forts usually seen in our country.
The next morning, a Sunday, the 24th of March, I got up early and made my way to the fort once again to take some sunrise photographs and to my astonishment there were crowds of people flocking at the fort for their morning exercise. What seemed to be a quiet place at night turned into a hang out zone during the day.
Some people were doing their push-ups, sit-ups and jogs while others had got their dogs for a walk while their kids ran around playing tag or football. After clicking a few sunrise photographs I made my way back to the hotel where breakfast was already served. The convoy was getting ready to leave. We had another long day ahead of us.
An approximate of 350kms was to be driven via two prominent locates, Jhansi and Orchha.The road between Gwalior and Jhansi was comparable to that of a teenagers face going through adolescent. I am glad I was in the Tata Xenon pick-up truck. If you want one road to really put your suspension to the test this is it! There was not a single patch of smooth tarmac between these 2 famous cities. Agreed the roads were under construction but even what seemed to look like normal potholes ended up turning into craters as we drove by. Rattle,rattle bounce bounce. Everyone’s comment was heavily filled with sarcasm, “Best road till now.” The cars did their job well and took each bump with ease. The final stretch to Jhansi was a clean flat road and the sign of relief that was given out once we got on that was priceless.
Upon reaching Jhansi we had a quick walk about in and around Jhansi fort. The fort in no way did compare to the prestige of Gwalior’s Mann Mandir. The ramparts spoke about the numerous attacks and battles they had faced. After being captured the British had used the same fort as a garrison for themselves too. Most of us know that Jhansi is famous for her Rani Laxmibai, who fought the British for along time and gave her life trying to protect herself and her adopted son after being betrayed by one of her own people.
Lunch break was in the temple city of Orchha at a pretty hotel called Amar Mahal. It over looked a river of which on the causeway the convoy stopped for a nice photo-op. There were still 230kms to be driven so we picked up pace and headed straight for Panna. The roads got slightly better along the way.
Madhya Pradesh is a very agriculture oriented state. India gets most of its wheat from this state and now we know that fact s true as there were limitless fields of golden wheat, ready to be reaped and taken to the market. Day 2 ended at a remote river resort called Ken River Lodge.
Situated on the banks of the Karnavati river in Panna is Ken river lodge, right on the outskirts of the Panna National Park. A very rustic, natural and machhan feeling was what was experienced here. Wooden tree houses, the creaking of the floor boards and the constant buzz of mosquitoes. The area itself was very well landscaped and vegetated, which made one feel like they were staying in a jungle. After an early dinner we hit the hay and called it a night. Next morning we had an early start.
On this 5-day journey I had with me Blaupunkt’s new line of headphones, namely the noise cancelling “Comfort” and the trendy new “Style” sets. For a budget price these headphones are good companions for such long trips and flights. The Style series of headphones, priced at Rs.15,000/- has Balupunkt’s unique feature where one can share his/her music from the same device just by simply plugging another headphone into the output jack found on the headphone. Two people can experience the same media on one single device. This was the feature that most of the people were amazed at and appreciated a lot, the most common reaction I got was, “that’s awesome, I would love to buy these.” The only downside was that they got a bit uncomfortable after long periods of use. My pinnas were slightly sore the padding is not as soft as I expected it to be.
As for the Comfort series, the noise cancelling is comparable to any of the high-end competition but there could be a slight improvement in the sound quality. The Style series had a better crispness in the music heard. For Rs.10,000/- they are the perfect buy for the frequent traveler that would love to enjoy music and cut himself/herself out of the hustle bustle of the world outside.
Monday morning, 5:30am the Safari gypsy picked-up all the participants and it was time for our first jungle experience of the trip. Panna is about 550sq kms in area and is the twenty-second tiger reserve in India.
Right from the get go there was a tension in the park with Sambhar Deer letting of warning calls. We knew this meant that there was a tiger in the area. After scouting out the area and camping out by the side of the path we drove off in search of the illusive striped stalker. The calls died down and our gypsy was unfortunate to not see the pregnant female tigress called T4. Nonetheless we were happy that someone from our group got a sneak peak of the gorgeous cat. Panna is a big park with 16 tigers, so getting an opportunity to see a tiger is a big achievement.
Back the lodge we packed up, relaxed and had a nice light lunch and left for Bundela Jungle camp at Bandhavgarh. The initial road section right out of Panna to Nagod was a gorgeous road full of twists and turns. It is a driver’s delight. Once again as we got closer to Barhi, Khatauli and Umaria the roads got treacherous again. This time mixed with the red soil of Madhya Pradesh it gave us a sense of what the Mars Rover might be going through on its expedition on the planet Mars. The run-offs of the road were smoother than the actual road itself. Since the so called paved road ran through the park the official’s excuse for not doing up the road was that it forces the tourists to drive at a slower speed, hence protecting them and the animals of the park. A pretty lazy excuse if you look closely. Once again it was a blessing in disguise having the Tata Xenon. It’s long wheelbase and leaf spring suspension made for a pretty comfortable ride through the terrain that was similar to a minefield. After going through quite a bit of soft off-roading and eating dust we reached Bundela jungle camp in a quick three and a half hours. That evening was very relaxed and allowing for an early wrap as once again we had a before dawn start the next day.
At 5:45am in the morning, the second safari of our trip was underway. Participants had their hopes up for spotting a tiger here in Bandhavgargh. It is one of the smallest tiger sanctuaries in MP and it has a high density of tigers as well. This raises the odds of tiger sightings making Bandhavgarh one of the most visited tiger sanctuaries in the country. There were a few complications at the park gate, which once ironed out gave us access to the Katauli park entrance. This area of the park is comparatively newer and the animals are still not used to the movement of the vehicles.
Our luck allowed us to spot some nice Sambhar stags, a Changeable Hawk Eagle and a Serpent Eagle but no jackpot. The illusive striped stalker out smarted the tourists and stayed away from the cars. As it is in every national park, the guides do their best to keep the enthusiastic tourist’s hopes up, but most of the safari’s end in disappointment. After all it is hard to have a glimpse of a critically endangered species.
Done with a disappointing Safari, we returned to the Bundela Safari Lodge for a quick lunch and got ready for a long day of driving ahead. Pench National Park was a 10-hour drive from Bandhavgargh.
A long haul of 360kms through crater filled roads and experiences close to minefield dodging is what we expected once again. To our astonishment the first 100kms of road from Umaria to Ghughwa Fossil Park was mind-blowing! Long undulating curves with green and ochre rolling hills on either side, this road immediately transported you to the British countryside. With the occasional village to slow down the pace, nothing else stopped the convoy of Tata Safaris, Arias and Xenons snaking casually along this serene scenery and enjoying every bit of it. The convoy stuck together and drove as one tight unit. Villagers gawked at the SUVs ploughing through their territories. Some even decided to take some video on their phones and cameras to show off to their friends and relatives. It must have been a one-of experience for them just as this breathtaking road was for us.
The Ghughwa fossil park was our stopping point for lunch and a chance for us to have a look at some fossilized Eucalyptus trees, dinosaur eggs and some fossils of what seemed to look like a Ramasaurus, similar to a Tyrannosaurus Rex but smaller.
Hitting the road again, it was time to encounter the hilly roads of Madhya Pradesh. At this point of the journey I had switched vehicles with a colleague of mine and was driving Tata’s variant of the Safari, the Storme. I had driven the same vehicle on the flat surfaces of Kutch and wanted to experience it through the hairpins and chicanes of this hilly road. After taking the first corner itself I realized that my college had the better half of the bargain. The Xenon, having a longer wheelbase, sits slightly lower than the Storme allowing it to corner in a much smoother fashion. The body roll of the Xenon on sharp corners is not as much as the Storme’s either. Nonetheless the Safari Storme, with its powerful engine hauled through the corners and in no time we were on the straight highway towards Mandla and Seoni.
Pench Jungle Camp, situated on the outskirts of the park, yet away from civilization is a beautiful property with Machhans and Tents for their guests to live in. I was allotted a fancy, modern tent, equipped with air conditioning, extremely comfortable beds and a luxurious bathroom. Normal tents were nothing compared to this. It was a luxury stay in a jungle environment.
The 27th of March was Holi, the festival of colors. Being a Wednesday, Madhya Pradesh govt has made it compulsory for all national park gates to be shut for a day off for all park rangers and forest officials. That allowed for us to have relaxing day. Time for us to catch up on sleep, relax in the pool and bask in the sun. A few activities were organized for the enthusiasts. These included bombing around on 150cc Yamaha ATV’s on the 1km long track present on the premises, the flying fox, Commando Tree Bridge and in the evening a sunset flight in a hot air balloon. The evening ended with all the participants and the media getting together and talking about their favorite experiences through the long journey we had taken over the last few days.
The next morning was our last change to spot a tiger in the while on this expedition. We entered Pench national park with our hopes high even after having disappointing experiences at the other sanctuaries. Initially, there was not a creature in sight, no crows, no deer, no sparrows, NOTHING! A Peacock was the first animal we saw after about half and hour of driving. Pench is one of the few prettier parks in India. The terrain is varied, with hillocks, flat grasslands, and marshes, periodically scattered with large water-bodies. The forest seemed on edge that morning. Barely anything stirred. As our gypsy did its rounds on the dirt tracks we kept a keen eye out so as to try and spot our national animal.
While we were creeping through the forest on an isolated road, there he was, not fifty meters from us. A big male tiger. He emerged from the brush and majestically plodded across the road, between to safari vehicles to get to the gorge where he could relax in his pond. He seemed satisfied, full and unphased by the awe-struck tourists staring at him and using their cameras in continuous shutter mode so as to capture a memory of this royal beast in it’s natural habitat. Within a minute the striped stalker was back in the bush, camouflaged and hidden from even the most trained eyes. We lingered around the same area for a while hoping to get a second glimpse of the big male but it seemed as though he had vanished into thin air. Our’s was the only gypsy among the group to have spotted a tiger on the last day in this striking setting. After that sight everything got a hint of grandeur to it. Even a simple chital deer looked appealing. After spotting a few birds and some Nilgai we headed back to the lodge, finally satisfied and grateful.
The sense of satisfaction one gets when they get to see the pride of their country walking healthily in it’s home is something work experiencing with your own eyes than looking at a photo and reading a travelogue. Soon there will be only pictures and stories left and future generations will know of the tiger only as a the illusive striped stalker that once existed and roamed the lands freely, the king of our jungle.
As we headed to Nagpur after lunch, I was listening to a track by and artist called Emancipator called “Safe in the Steep Cliffs” on the new Blaupunkt Style headphones and it dawned on me, I am glad we have fixed trails and paths to follow in the national parks, that’s what keeps the tiger safe from us. The cliffs are the only areas he has where we haven’t infringed. Lets keep it like that, because no matter what, in a safari, even if you don’t spot a tiger, he’s surely spotted you.
Overall this Jungle experience was organized and executed extremely well by Tata motors in coalition with Cougar Motorsport. Participants did not have to worry about anything at all. The back-end and paperwork was handled cleanly and even if there were hiccups and mishaps, they were dealt with in a very professional manner. All the vehicles made their owners proud and gave their owners a sense of reliability and security. That’s what these Tata Motors Full Throttle (TMFT) Experiences are about, getting to know the capability of your own vehicle and also an opportunity for customers to try out the other vehicles in Tata’s line-up in situation they cant during a simple test drive.
If there is going to be a second season of the TMFT experiences, I urge all Tata 4x4 or 4x2 owners to step up and take this opportunity and go experience and feel the glory of your motherland in a home-grown vehicle in a way that you may not be able to do on your own. Take this opportunity to travel in a convoy, meet new people, make new friends, experience living in luxury hotels and learn more about your home on a very affordable budget. For those of you who like numbers, the 4day Kutch experience was at an overall cost of Rs.10,000/- and this 5 day jungle experience was priced at Rs.15,000/- only. Hands down it was an experience worth the time taken off work and the money spent. Next time I’ll see you there!