Sweat beaded on my forehead as we sat silently in the back seat of our safari vehicle, an Isuzu Gypsy with no roof and two rows of bench seats in the back for passengers to play lookout. We had been parked, engine off, for several minutes now waiting, watching…listening. The penetrating silence was interrupted only by the intermittent click of Her’s camera shutter as it captured photos of the sun’s waning light casting shadows in the forest surrounding us. Tigers had been spotted today, and we were on the hunt.

Our driver silently communicated with the driver of a neighboring vehicle using hand signals that were as foreign to me as the other languages we had thus-far encountered India. I tried to listen intently through the silence, not really sure what sounds a tiger and her cubs would make as they navigated the dense forest, but determined to be the first to hear it. That’s when we all heard the growling.

It wasn’t like the growling sound I had become trained to expect from movies of man-eating monsters loudly roaring with a deep, guttural pitch. This was more akin to the sound my cat makes when she is about to vomit her latest hairball.


A nervous deer

Our driver made another hand gesture to the neighboring driver, a Pac Man-like chomping motion with his thumb and fingers. This one I understood. We were hearing a tiger.

The engine roared to life and our driver swiftly navigated the vehicle westward along the bumpy, winding dirt trail toward the ridge we had vacated not 20 minutes earlier. The wind blew my hat off my head as we reached the peak of the ridge and looked around us. I was hoping to see the bright orange and white of a pack of tigers, but the surrounding brush, covered in dry leaves and tall grass, was all orange and white. Nothing stood out to me. Our experienced driver, however, kept his eyes on the dirt road ahead of us. Passing tigers leave footprints in the dry, sand-like clay.

He slapped the steering wheel hard and shouted an unintelligible curse.

“We missed them,” he said. “Look!”

He pointed to the ground beside our vehicle. There, in the sand, was a clear trail of footprints: one track of large paws and several weaving tracks of small paws. The local family of tigers, a mother with her four cubs, had passed this way within the previous 20 minutes, and we missed it. The tracks headed west, out of Bandhavgarh Park’s Zone II, the arbitrary boundary our vehicle was confined to explore. The tigers were gone.

Bandhavgarh National Park was a place I had only recently heard about while reading a guidebook during some down time in Agra. I read that India is the place to go on tiger safaris, and Bandhavgarh is the best place to go in India due to its small size and relatively high tiger population density. And because of its relative remoteness — the nearest train station is 70km away — the village is a less-touristed destination than its counterparts. We had to hire a private car (we paid the equivalent of $90) through our hotel to transport us along a two-lane road through the countryside from Khajuraho to the park. The trip took about five hours, but the “highway,” was so bumpy that it made napping virtually impossible.

We had selected our hotel, Nature Heritage Resort, through TripAdvisor and aside from some battles with the shower’s temperature gauge and the hotel’s unexpectedly high price tag for hiring a car from Bandhavgarh to Varanasi ($200 for the 10-hour trip), we were pleased. We booked at the last minute, but our large, well-appointed double room cost US$90 per night with all meals included. The property was dotted with bamboo trees and rock-lined outdoor patios constantly attended to by perhaps a dozen employees constantly engaged in landscaping work. Despite being, by far, the most expensive place we stayed at in India, the lodge was also leaps and bounds nicer. We even ventured so far as to sleep directly on our beds sans sleep sheets!

The resort stay was an early wedding anniversary gift to ourselves, so we decided to splurge by going on a private safari to seek out tigers. There are three Bandhavgarh zones open to safari-going tourists, and with each offering just two, 3-hour outings a day — one in the morning beginning around 6 a.m. and the second in the afternoon, beginning around 3 p.m. — permits are limited. Due to the high density of tigers in Zone I (the so-called “Tala Zone”), its permits are the most coveted, and spots should be reserved at least days in advance through either a resort or (more hassle) the park website. Each area resort has its own drivers and open-air vehicles, and then a naturalist (or tiger-spotting expert) is hired to accompany each vehicle.


Langur monkeys line the road into the park

Because we made our reservations last-minute, there were only two safari slots available during our stay: one in Zone III in the morning and one in Zone II in the afternoon. We decided to try our luck in the morning and then book the afternoon safari if we didn’t spot a tiger during the first outing. Each trip cost US$100 (per vehicle) and though the price tag didn’t exactly fit in the budget, a chance to spot a big cat in the wild was too appealing to pass up.

Despite being skunked on both our tiger seeking expeditions, the three days we spent at the resort were the most relaxing we spent during our weeks in India. The room was quiet and comfortable, the food was plentiful and the safaris were very exciting albeit tiger-free. We did see plenty of other wildlife, including numerous monkeys, deer, wild pigs and even a couple of wolves chowing down on a fawn. Amusingly, we discovered we seemed every bit as exciting as the animals in the eyes of the young Indian tourists we encountered; They had a habit of photographing Her and I every time our vehicles passed on the trail.

As a side note, we met a very interesting couple from São Paulo, Brazil, Ivan and Gabi, who were traveling to places much more adventurous than we were — they had just come from road tripping through Africa, including a trip to Egypt, and were soon on their way to Iran! They highly recommended visiting Ethiopia and their photographs of Jordan reaffirmed our desire to explore Petra before we returned home. Their travel blog, E Se Fôssemos Para (“Where Should We Go?”) is written in Portuguese, but it features some amazing photography.

Although our stopover in Bandhavgarh was not a budget one, and although we didn’t get to see the tigers we would have liked to see, it was still, for me at least, the highlight of our time in India. Varanasi, our next and final India destination, would prove to be the most startling.