Safari in Bandhavgarh National Park: A Brush with the Wild

Are you planning a safari in Bandhavgarh National Park? Read about our thrilling experience and find out about Bandhavgarh Fort in the meadows, hotels, best time to visit, bookings, and safari packages in the famous tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh, India.

The Beginning

Where do you begin a travel story? Is it when you arrive at your destination? Or when you are travelling there? Or as far back as when you begin your research about the place? Come to think of it, it’s really hard to define a clear starting point for trips.

Because long before they actually materialise in time, they begin germinating in your mind, taking shape through Google, Lonely Planet guides and recommendations from friends.

And so, every trip has a past, present and future; the past being the research and the anticipation; the present being the actual holiday and the future being the memories that will assail you over and over, encouraging you to do an encore.

We’ll begin the story of our first trip to Madhya Pradesh (Bandhavgarh and Kanha wildlife sanctuaries) from the part we loved the most – the journey.

Katni station, Madhya Pradesh
Katni station, Madhya Pradesh

We boarded a train on Thursday night after bidding goodbye to our offices and settled down for a relaxing overnight journey in the 2AC compartment of Mumbai Mail.

Train Journey from Mumbai to Madhya Pradesh

26.6.15 Friday 9 AM. In the train to Katni, Madhya Pradesh.

We woke up to find ourselves somewhere in the middle of Madhya Pradesh. Acres of farms passed us by, and then a family, already hard at work at a station called Bhairanpur (You Google it and there’s nothing – literally nothing. Yes, there are still a few places whose existence the Internet knows nothing of). The names were similar to North India but the feeling was somehow different. The people were slim and so were the animals. It was perhaps a thrifty land.

We spotted a kid at Banapur dressed entirely in red – like a pop of colour in an otherwise earthy landscape. We contemplated what we might do for the rest of the ride. Read a book perhaps (Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck). And allow ourselves to be distracted now and then, by the panorama unfolding outside our glass window.

Some people had curled up again in their blankets after performing their morning ablutions but we couldn’t surrender to sleep and give up the wonders of that beautiful day.

Slowly, the landscape started giving way to more of the green denizens. Ponds of water reflected the blue sky, dotted with greyish clouds here and then. The grassy, natural lawns were a lovely playground for the local children. To see them run across the field with not a care in the world filled our hearts with joy.

By a divine stroke of luck, our train was only half an hour late despite the devastating fire at Itarsi station. The good folks at Pugdundee Safaris sent a car to pick us up at Katni station, a two-three hour drive from Kings Lodge, Bandhavgarh, where we were going to be staying.

A crossing herd of chital or spotted deer
A crossing herd of chital or spotted deer

Drive from Katni to Kings Lodge, Bandhavgarh

26.6.15 Friday 4 PM. Khitouli, where the wildlife sanctuary begins. In the car.

The wiry young driver, Bhole Prasad Yadav revealed, “Sometimes you can see the tiger on the road here but they are harder to spot in the sanctuary!” That was news. He told us that once the parks shut for the monsoons, he would go back to farming. “I spend eight months driving and four months farming in the village,” he said proudly.

We noticed that it wasn’t raining at all and asked him if that wasn’t a problem. “It is! But we get water from the tube wells,” Bhole said. Once he got talking, he didn’t seem to want to stop. He told us that it was very hot in the summers and very cold in the winters. “There are bears and leopards in this sanctuary. They stopped allowing trekkers in here after a leopard was spotted on the route,” he said. As if trekking wasn’t perilous enough as it was!

Suddenly, he stopped and started pointing outside the window excitedly. A lovely male peacock with his feathers in full display darted away as I fumbled for my camera. We were disappointed because we didn’t know then that we’d see many more of those beauties later! Bhole was determined to give us a ‘pre-tour’ of the sanctuary and managed to keep a lookout for creatures of the forest even while keeping an eye on the road.

We spotted jungle fowl, a monitor lizard and langurs along the way. I clicked a photograph of the ubiquitous tall trees and Bhole volunteered that they were sal trees. They were adorned with leaves all along their trunks and looked like faeries cloaked in green. “The best tiger sightings are at gate 2. That’s where they’ll take you tomorrow,” Bhole said.

We were new to the concept of safaris and only then did we learn that there were three entry points into Bandhavgarh National Park and two of them were favoured for spotting a wide variety of wildlife. “One of the tigers caught a man,” Bhole said, with just the right amount of menace in his tone. “When the park is shut, they tigers prey on our cows more often and prefer to stay close to the village.” Poor cows.

Kings Lodge, Bandhavgarh

Kings Lodge

We arrived at Kings Lodge in the evening and were greeted by their marketing head and Manav Khanduja, the owner. Manav was so unassuming that we didn’t recognise him at first! The lodge was welcoming and done up tastefully in décor that was elegant without being overbearing.

The cottages were located a short walk away from the pool and reception area. Saket Shrouti, the friendly young manager who hailed from Nashik showed us to our cottage. Earthy and spacious, it was equipped with a beautiful bathtub. We enjoyed a soak with a glass of wine to wash the grime of the train ride away.

Dinner that night was a sumptuous affair. The outdoor spread was lit-up dreamily and we partook of one drink too many but still managed to be up at 3:15 AM the next day for the early morning safari.

Kings Lodge

Early Morning Safari in Bandhavgarh National Park

27.6.15 Saturday 4 AM. Kings Lodge: Poolside.

There were so many stars in the sky! The pre-dawn canvas was so thickly dotted with them that there was barely space for any more. The undergrowth was buzzing with secret life even at thar hour. Walking to the reception from our cottage in the darkness was one of the eeriest experiences we’ve had.

We felt like we were being trailed by a feral pair of eyes. A haunting in this wilderness would be hard to battle. We noticed how the pool glistened in the glare of artificial lights and how different it was from the glow of the sun.

The forest full of sal trees
The forest full of sal trees

Safaris are exciting. They are also painful because of the rough jeep travel and tedious after you’ve been on several in a span of a few days. But you forget everything when you glimpse a peacock so high up on a tree that you can only see it through your binoculars. We didn’t even know they could make it to such heights simply by hopping from branch to branch.

Your back ceases to ache from the ups and downs when you see a herd of graceful chital deer crossing the road right before you. You begin to feel truly fortunate when your more learned companions tell you about phenomena like brachiation (it’s when monkeys swing from tree to tree using their arms) and the diurnal nature of cicadas.

A mahout with his elephant
A mahout with his elephant

On this trip, we remained a stranger to the tigers but we did see more birds than we had ever done (crested hawk and serpent eagles, a drongo, golden orioles, kingfishers, rollers, cormorants, a coppersmith, turtle doves) and a wide variety of animals each of whom was beautiful in a different way (sambhar and chital deer, a mongoose, a monitor lizard, jackals, vultures).

And though we did not see the beast himself, we did see the tiger’s pug marks hinting at his elusive presence and the naturalist from Kings Lodge also brought our notice to the tiger’s territorial markings on tree trunks.

The crested serpent eagle
The crested serpent eagle

It wasn’t just the creatures that held our attention; it was also the myriad trees, creepers and grass. A ghostly white entity with chalky bark revealed itself to be a gum tree.

Ravi, the local forest guide regaled us with the gruesome tale of a foreign photographer who was attacked by a tigress in the 90s after he used the flash feature while photographing her. “The driver pulled the tigress off by her tail and the photographer escaped with injuries,” Ravi told us with gusto. So when you go, remember not to startle or nettle the animal in any way. Else, you might be another one of Ravi’s stories.

A sudden hush fell over the jeep when we spotted in the distance, a family of deer calming sipping from a largish pond, while a couple of jackals and a lone vulture lay on the surrounding grass. It was a frame straight out of a wildlife documentary and for once, even the cameras lay untouched as we drank in the sight of that perfect ecological balance.

A bright caterpillar livened up the ride by landing on my companion’s arm. Imagine if we’d given it a ride straight out of the forest and into the lodge! We felt blind when our companions began chattering excitedly about what they called a Eurasian Thicknee in the midst of some dry foliage. After a few agonising moments of screwing up our eyes in concentration, we saw it.

The cagey bird was exactly the same light brown colour as the surrounding foliage and blended right in with the background. Talk about a successful camouflage!

The Eurasian Thicknee
The Eurasian Thicknee

We saw tiny flycatchers and white-throated kingfishers that flew away the second we approached. We wondered whether humans belonged in that forest at all. We simply could not visualise a time when humans were a part of that landscape.

The roar and the rustle of the jungle frightened me as I scribbled in my notepad. And to add to that, we spotted long stretches of strangler vines with trunks all twisting and gnarly like ropes.

We were quite famished when we returned to the lodge and we ate our scrambled eggs with cheese on toast with gusto. Our breakfast table was set in a garden full of various herbs such as basil, turmeric and lemongrass. There were a few amla trees standing guard as well.

In the night, Saket the manager caught a poisonous common krait and managed to lure it into a sack; he would release it into the wild later.

Meeting the Gond and Khushwaha Tribes

We might have wasted away at the inviting pool or in the comfort of the soft beds in our rooms had it not been for the infectious enthusiasm of Siddhartha Joshi of ‘Tell me your dream’ fame. As a part of his series, Sid wanted to interview a few villagers from the nearby settlement and we decided to tag along.

What we encountered were two best friends who shared the same name (Munni), a little girl whose shy curiosity charmed our lenses, breathtaking examples of hand sculptures and the differences in lifestyle between the Gond and Khushwaha tribes.

Here is a photo story of the heartwarming discoveries we made.

A Gond woman in Bandhavgarh
Munni of the Gond tribe gesturing in her cool stone house. She opened up once we began asking her questions.
Handmade art in a Gond house
Does this look like something you might buy at an art and handicraft shop? It might surprise you to know that Munni made and painted this all by herself. The Gond tribes are immensely talented and from the looks of it, have a great sense of beauty and proportion.
A Gond woman and her daughter
Munni with her small daughter whose innocence captivated us.
A Gond woman with her daughter
And here they pose for Siddhartha’s camera, while we took our own pictures furtively.
A Gond child
Don’t you think this lovely child deserves a frame of her own?
Drying grains and mahua seeds
The spread of drying grains and mahua seeds made for a colourful sight at Munni’s house
A half-finished Gond doll
In the backyard, we discovered another example of Munni’s skills. This is a half-finished doll which Munni was yet to paint.
Toran at a Khushwaha house
The toran (sacred gateway) at the entrance to Munni’s home. And this is the Khushwaha Munni who stays next door to the Gond Munni.
The village folk at Bandhavgarh
Munni and Munni (the Khushwaha Munni has her face hidden here) with their children
A cow in its shed
A lone cow in its shed stared back at us curiously
Two young Khushwaha girls
Khushwaha Munni’s two daughters were struck by shyness when we asked them to pose. I love the little one’s bashful smile.
A hand cart
A hand cart baked in the heat outside Munni’s home
A temple at Bandhavgarh
Temples here had turrets that resemble mosques.

Also read: Our adventures in Kanha National Park

Practical Tips and Information

Bandhavgarh Hotels

You will have the best possible experience at Kings Lodge and Tree House Hideaway by Pugdundee Safaris. We stayed at the former, but we made a day trip to Tree House Hideaway as well, and the tree house cottages were absolutely charming. Of course, these are luxury accommodations, and thus expensive.

Bandhavgarh Safari Timings

There are four gates and zones at Bandhavgarh National Park, and only a fixed number of vehicles are allowed to enter through each gate. Safaris can be experienced in two shifts: morning and afternoon/evening. Usually, the park opens at 6:30 AM and shuts at 6 PM, but here are the exact seasonal timings (as of 2019):

  • 15th October to 15th Feb: 6:30-11 AM, 2:30-5:30 PM
  • 16th Feb to 31st March: 6-11 AM, 3-6 PM
  • 1st April to 30th June: 5:30-10 AM, 4-7 PM

Obviously, the morning safari is more enjoyable because of the cool air and pleasant climate, but you should go as often as you can to enjoy the maximum wildlife sightings.

Bookings and Safari Packages

If you book with Pugdundee Safaris, the lodge will make all the safari bookings for you in advance. This is important, because slots are not easily available. Additionally, you will travel in excellent open-air jeeps, which are hardy, and offer the best views of wildlife sightings.

When you go for the safari, don’t wear bright colours or distracting patterns (reduces the chances of spotting tigers), and carry ID proof along (you will be checked at the gate).

Another reason to let your lodge do the booking is that they will have an experienced naturalist guide the group. You will also be joined by another naturalist at Bandhavgarh National Park.

Best Time To Visit Bandhavgarh

Most wildlife sanctuaries in India are shut during the monsoon months Bandhavgarh National Park is no exception. It is shut from 1st July to 14th October. If you want to see the forest in its lush green glory, you should visit just after the rainy season, i.e., October.

Bandhavgarh in late June
Bandhavgarh in late June

However, for the best wildlife sightings, May is best because the sparse foliage lets you peek through and easily spot the animals and birds. In dense foliage, it is easier for them to hide. However, May does tend to be very hot. For pleasant weather, go anytime between October and March.

Bandhavgarh Fort and Shiva Statue

Statue of Lord Vishnu at Bandhavgarh Fort
Statue of Lord Vishnu at Bandhavgarh Fort

Here’s a special tip: Bandhavgarh National Park is not just about wildlife. It is also home to an ancient fortress that is perched upon the highest hill in the heart of the park. Ask the naturalist to take you there! Also don’t miss the 35 feet long, supine statue of Lord Vishny in the fort’s midst. It is 1000 years old and surrounded by a mysterious pond and the Badi Guha caves. Read more about the Shesh Shaiya here.

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