Tiger Tour

The original plan for the cycle rally was to go from Nagpur to Jabalpur via Chhindwara and Pachmarhi, but it was later on shifted to Pench and Kanha – rebaptising the Satpura Tour into the Tiger Tour.

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Spotted at Wardha Railway Station: Gandhi’s Cycle !

The group for the first time had a strong female presence – with 5 young ladies leading the 13 member pack as it sprinted across central India.

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The Cycle Ranis with Rani Durgawati of Mandla

The reservations had been made on the Garib Rath – which still retains Lalu Prasad’s gift to the India of three side berths. On my usual trips to Nagpur, I avoid starting on Mon, Wed and Saturdays: the days that have the Garib Rath running. But having decided on a departure date of Mon, 2-Jan, there was no choice. In the last week of December, we discovered that the Garib Rath does not have a luggage van. The jugaad was to book the cycles in Maharashtra Express of the previous day. But Sundays Parcel office is closed, so second jugaad, was to book the cycles in on Saturday, with a request to board the cycles on Sunday night. We arrived at Nagpur Parcel office on Tuesday morning – to find our cycles missing. They were later discovered to be still on the platform where they had been unloaded. Fortunately, all in good shape.
My friend, Ashish, had got us very cost effective accommodation at Lohana Mahajanwadi Dharamshala near the Agrasen Chowk. This is on the Eastern side of Nagpur station – an area that I have never explored earlier. There were issues with the accommodation, but the service was prompt – surprising since it is run by a trust. The food at Rs. 110 for an unlimited thali was excellent and VFM. The AC dormitory had bunk beds, but since it was quite empty, all of us got to use the lower bunks.
A mini-truck had been arranged as the support vehicle – which was to come in from Chhindwara. It landed up at 2300 hrs. Our gynaec friend, Dr Shirish Patwardhan had decided to ditch his cycle this time – and was the official cleaner this time. The first question put to him by his driver boss Ramesh was – Aap log enjoy karte hoon? Took some time to figure out that enjoy meant booze. Ramesh was an expert in distillation processes. He raided the markets for mahua flowers @ 50 Rs. per kg – and explained to us how the booze is manufactured. And if you don’t have the time – the bottle costs only Rs. 60.

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Ramesh ‘enjoying’ himself in the truck

The road from Nagpur to Pench was reasonable. Very good till the Ramtek exit. After that it started through forest area. 4 laning work was going on in that stretch. Interestingly, 7 flyovers were being built inside the forests – to give safe passages for our four legged friends. We crossed over into MP – and reached Khavasa. From there we had to leave the highway for a 10 km ride through the forest to Turia village where Vulcan Resort is located. The team at Vulcan was the best that we encountered in the trip. Food was good. The safari arrangement went off without a hitch.

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We had a good guide – who taught us a thing or two about how to observe animal calls. He used these principles to actually make us observe a tiger in the undergrowth as it went about its morning rounds. Later on in Kanha in an open air theatre inside the museum inside the park, we watched a very interesting film about a tiger family. Watching Discovery channel in the outdoors in the jungle is indeed a very different experience. And we could relate very well to it thanks to our guide.

image014The Ghost Tree – shines at night

image016Pench River

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The original program was to stay two nights at Pench, but we realised that Kanha is about 190 km away – and covering that distance in one day would be a challenge. So an additional halt at Seoni was inserted into the schedule – and the team left after a sumptuous lunch at the resort to cycle down to Seoni. The distance was about 55 km – and it was anticipated we should be able to do it in 3 hours. Bad roads and an interesting ghat ensured it took 4.5.
The Vulcan team had been asked for a recommendation for a hotel in Seoni – and Hotel Vrindavan was a good find. The service was poor – so we negotiated the rates downward from 1000 to 800! Kaizen in the restaurant was convincing the chef to make a simple dish of boiled vegetables. He charged 120 bucks for it – but the gravy-less vegetables were something that the tongues relished after 3 days of highly chill-ied veggies.
As the young lady gang roamed around Seoni – they found local cycling enthusiasts who came down for a post dinner chat. Two of them decided to accompany us the next morning. Montu was the local business tycoon – his family owned 154 acres of irrigated land, were the local jewellers – and also were the distributors for Pepsi. He ended up treating us to breakfast – and donating three cartons of Aquafina water bottles. He seemed troubled by his younger brother. The family sent him to Nagpur for his 12th standard. He lived a nawab’s life there – spending 6 lakhs on food and booze. Finally the last straw was when the brother beat up the hostel warden. Even now, he is still in party mode. In business he has been made in charge of collections – but follow-up is not in his genes. What can be done about him?

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A good suggestion from their side was the visit Amodagarh – the place where Kipling’s Jungle Book originated. It is about 40 km away from Seoni. After a 30 km ride on the road to Kanha, you need to take a 12 km kaccha road to reach Mowgli’s village.
Our Seoni friend arranged for a jeep to take us in. We parked the cycles on the main road – and some of us jumped into the support vehicle to get us. Mowgli’s den is a very scenic spot next to the river. A small waterfall and lot of rocks. We were told that the Disney team had actually come here to do some shooting. We found his den to be occupied by a god-man, who has claimed that as his home from 1977. Used to be an academician before that.

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We skipped his sermons as we realised that we still had a 100 km ride left. It required some pacing in order to hit the target of reaching Kanha by sun-down. You need to leave the state highway at Chiraidongri in order to reach Khatia, where our resort was located. The ride after leaving the highway was in large part through forest.
Kanha park is spread over 2000 sq km – and occupies more than half of Mandla district. It has about 35,000 deer – including the almost dog sized barking deer to the majestic Bara Singha. I realised that the wild boar, which most farmers regard as a menace, has a very important role to play in the jungle ecology. The boar is the tractor of the jungle – as it upturns the soil in its quest for tasty roots.
As with any forest we encountered a lot of langurs. I wonder how a black face helps the langur gain a survival advantage? We spent 10 minutes observing a langur family. Our yoga teachers have a lot to learn from langur postures. Also we found quite a few of them perched on ant hills. I assume that was for their mid morning snacks.
Kanha park was set up in 1973. The villages inside the park were settled outside. Four decades later, the village farmland is still meadows, loved by the deer. Unfortunately the new villages are not very agriculture friendly thanks to the jungle residents. So cattle rearing is the preferred occupation. The tigers once in a while will feast on cattle – in such cases the forest department compensates. The problem is with goats and sheep – which get carried away entirely. You need to show part of the carcass to the foresters in order to be eligible for compensation.
Most of the population is split between the Yadavs, the traditional cow-herds, and the adivasis, who survive on the jungle. Today most villagers rely on tourism for their income. I asked our driver what they do when the parks are closed in the monsoon from July to Sep. I liked his answer: ‘Nothing.’
Both Pench and Kanha have a limit on the number of vehicles that can enter the forest. For that the system is to be able to do online booking. We had asked our resort manager to do that – and he had managed to find slots for 11 of us at different times and different entry gates. (in hindsight, should have done the booking ourselves, as he charged us 100 bucks service charge for a Rs. 261 booking amount).
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Yours truly could manage to find an early morning slot which required entry from the Mukki gate, which was 50 km away from Khatia. The resort arranged for a Honda Mobilio to ferry us at 0500 in the morning so as to reach Mukki by 0630 hrs.

image036 The Sindoor Fruit found on the Van Vihar Hotel campus at Kanha

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Our guide this time was not too good – yet we managed to find a tiger through some interesting serendipity. She was walking across the kuccha road – but she hurried into the forest as soon as yours truly in some excitement shouted to the rest of the group to have a dekko. Our afternoon gang was luckier. They actually had a tigress following them for 5 minutes! Not only did they get good photos, they actually were able to get a 2 minute video also.
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The road from Khatia to Mandla was quite good. The bigger the road, the more impersonal and unfriendly it becomes. Local roads are the best place to meet local people.
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Caught up with a farmer to ask him why the rice stalks were not removed before the wheat was planted. There are two angles to it – one it costs some money to get the rice out. The other is that when the watering for the wheat starts, the roots loosen out – and become a sort of automatic mulch. Got some local jaggery as it was being cooled down.
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The manufacturer assured me of no harmful chemicals being present in his. Seeing him putting in some powder into his concoction, I asked him its origins. He claimed it was some bhindi like vanaspati seed which helps in settling down the dirt that goes in.

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90 km to Mandla was covered by lunch time. Managed to buy guava at 10 Rs per kilo from the Mandla market. Our MP Tourism resort was 10 km ahead of town on the Jabalpur road. My cycle developed a rear tyre puncture as soon as we entered Mandla town. Managed to find a repair guy – who took exactly 5 minutes to put things in place. He put his tubeless tyre fluid onto the hole and patched it up without a patch. Discovered an hour later that his patch-work was quite patchy – and the tyre was flat again. Put the cycle into the truck and headed back to the city for some repair work.
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Spent the evening on the Narmada ghat – and ended up buying a very interesting toy from the MP Tourism emporium near the ghat. A 3 foot bamboo with a washer at one end. You swing it around and it becomes a flute!

Next day was a 80 km ride to Jabalpur. We started after the hotel’s complimentary breakfast, imagining that we could reach Jabalpur by lunch time. The Seoni syndrome struck again – as bad roads, diversions to hot water wells and ghats ensuring that we reach only by evening.

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We got caught in a sudden shower on the way – which did not do much damage to the cycles – but ensured that all the back packs in the truck were now wet packs, in spite of some last minute tarpaulin covering. Next time need to get a covered vehicle. There was a small fiasco at Jabalpur as the hotel that we had booked was into some major renovation. Bhushan managed to find us a good hotel close-by – and we managed to get a refund from the original hotel. Like in Seoni, we found a cycling enthusiast who turned out to be an excellent host for us.

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The Low Geared Cycle jugaad in Jabalpur
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The Maruti 800 jugaad Mercedes sighted in Jabalpur

Our local cycling host treated us to dinner – and accompanied us on the ride to Bedha Ghat the next morning. Dr Jamdar is an orthopaedic who runs a hospital in Jabalpur and is politically quite active in the BJP. He is Narendra’s classmate from BJ Medical College. Dr Jamdar arranged for some excellent hospitality at Bedha Ghat the next day. The Riverview resort where we had breakfast at Bedha Ghat has a strong Pune connection – the owner has spent 6 years in the Osho Ashram at Koregaon Park. (Note: Rajneesh aka Osho used to be a teacher in a Jabalpur college before he got into the spirit business)

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The boat ride was interesting – as I got to test my punting skills after a decade. The boatmen entertain as they row – with not just film references – but interestingly rhymed dialogues. The highlight of the boat ride was being able to see a water snake slither up the rocks with a mouth full of fish.

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We then went on to Dhuadhar falls to see the mist – and start our journey back.

As always we managed to run the trip on a tight budget. The per person cost, inclusive of food, travel, cycle transport, stay and safaris, was under Rs. 12,000! At the end of the trip we asked the newcomers to reflect. They had observed us recycling Bharat Swacchta Abhiyaan cards which were leftovers from a previous trip. So was that the real mission? That foxed us – we were honestly very selfish in these trips – we were doing it for our own enjoyment and health. But should it be different? Should our rallies have a mission? And should the mission change for every rally?