Exploring India with NWS

Harriet Reeves

16 May 2018

NWS Harry and NWS Lauren explore India side by side

Day 1: DELHI

Today Lauren and I arrived into Delhi after a wonderfully smooth flight with Air India, thrilled to be beginning our adventure here in this magical country. First things first though - in desperate need of a refreshing shower, we headed to our hotel in the nearby Aerocity Hotel complex before exploring Delhi in earnest.

Out first stop was the hustle and bustle of Old Delhi, and it certainly lives up to its name! Exploring the narrow alleyways and markets, one is really hit by the smells, sounds and chatter of people going about their daily lives here. The old part of the city is covered in beautiful historic buildings, all of them showing such exquisite craftsmanship.

We also stopped for a visit at the Jama Masjid Mosque – one of the largest in all of India – as well as the monumental India Gate, a tribute to the fallen soldiers of both World Wars. It holds so many names it takes your breath away...

We rounded off the day with a delicious dinner with local colleagues Rahul and Rakesh (buffets are dangerous for greedy guts like me)!

It’s an early night tonight as we recover from our journey and prepare for our early flight to Leh tomorrow in the Indian Himalayas!

Day 2: Delhi - Leh

This morning was always going to be an early start, with an 8:30am flight to catch to Leh, but for some reason unbeknownst to me, my body decided that 4:30am would be the correct time to wake… urgh! Luckily the Pullman Aerocity where I was staying has a 24-hour fully equipped gym, so off I popped for a wake-up workout. Before you get ideas that I am a holiday gym-goer, this is the first and only time I will ever use a gym while on holiday I imagine! Somehow workouts and holidays just don’t seem to mix well in my mind!

Having worked up a sweat, it was time to head back to the airport, using the domestic terminal this time, for our flight up into the Himalayas. Now, as a nervous flyer, I was a little trepidatious about this flight. It was in a substantial plane, an Airbus A320, so that was no problem, but the knowledge that you are landing right between two mountains makes me nervous… I really needn’t have worried.

Sure, we had a few bumps as we came in to land, but these pilots are amazing, and handled it with ease. Due to overcast weather, we sadly missed out on the spectacular mountain scenery until the very end of the flight, suddenly seeing snow-capped mountains and scrabbly scree slopes right beside us as we exited the cloud cover. It certainly got the heart pumping but this scenery, so barren and stark, is so beautiful in its own way – certainly impressive anyway!

Leh sits at an altitude of around 11,500 ft and as such, altitude sickness is a real threat up here. The town, stark with its muted colour palette of rocks and bricks from the surrounding area, enjoys splashes of colour from the bountiful prayer flags that criss-cross the roads and alleyways. It is an incredible spot. It feels so unlike stereotypical India and also so like it at the same time – all a bit confusing for my altitude-damaged mind today!

On landing in Leh, we sped through the tiny airport and met our guide, David, who was outside enjoying the slight chill to the air. We headed straight to the hotel for some strongly required rest and relaxation. The air this high is noticeably thin. Lauren walked moderately briskly to an ATM just 100 yards away and immediately had a pounding chest and dizziness – very strange for a girl that loves exercise more than chocolate! So yes, we spent a lot of the day in bed, watching movies and uploading photographs from our day in Delhi yesterday.

Water is key for acclimating yourself to the altitude, so we have been downing it like double vodka Red Bulls on a student night at Vodka Revs! It paid off though, meaning by 3pm we felt human enough to make it out to explore. I mean, we were well into the water hangover stage by this point – headaches and lethargy, but we managed. First stop on our whistle-stop tour this afternoon was the Snow Leopard Conservancy offices, to meet the lead researcher and enjoy the opportunity to ask about the project and the challenges they face. You may have noticed that the snow leopard’s conservation status was downgraded last year, from Critically Endangered to Endangered. While this is fabulous news, it seems like it needs to be interpreted with caution. With little baseline population data from decades past, all trends need to be taken with a pinch of salt, even the encouraging trends!

The Snow Leopard Conservancy started in 2003 and has been working with the local people in the Ladakh valleys and villages ever since, building predator-proof kraals for their livestock and also assisting with a successful insurance scheme whereby the community put money into a public fund, which is matched by the Conservancy, with losses of livestock to predation being recompensed financially. This is an essential initiative as the local villagers rely heavily on their livestock and any losses to the herd are felt hard by the families here. It is a great project that NWS guests get to visit during their trips to Leh, enjoying a similar talk to the one we received. Aren’t we a lucky bunch?!

The visit was followed by an exploration of Leh’s market, during which I completed purchases of the many orders from my dear family, and a huge carb-heavy dinner at the hotel buffet (recommended for staving off altitude sickness).

And now I am going to hit the hay, to the sound of the many stray, adorable (and thankfully fairly healthy-looking) dogs that live here. Sleep tight!

Day 3: Leh - Lato

This morning, after a leisurely breakfast at the ample hotel buffet, we took to the roads for a drive to Lato, the site where the Indian subcontinent collided with the Eurasian landmass over 50 million years ago, resulting in the breathtaking scenery of the Himalayas.

Ladakh’s roads are incredibly good, particularly when you consider how remote it is up here, with smooth and well-cared-for tarmac winding between the mountains of scree, following the route of the mighty Indus River. They definitely put Sussex’s roads to shame! The road’s ‘Mountain Tamers’ are certainly entertaining too, with wonderful (if rather misogynistic) signs along the way to remind drivers to stay alert…

Although the destination of our road trip today was the village of Lato, around two hours away, there was a huge amount to enjoy along the way. As we drove we passed ancient palaces and monasteries, as well as bridges covered in prayer flags blowing in the wind and taking the local’s prayers with them. As we turned off the main road and headed up the Leh-Mahali Highway, we suddenly entered wildlife country, with more blue sheep than we could shake a stick at, as well as red-billed choughs and Tibetan partridges. Now, I don’t know if you have ever tried to take a picture of a light brown goat/sheep (the blue sheep’s heritage seems a little confused) on a scree slope on a bright summer’s day at 13,000 ft, but it is mighty tough (as the images may indicate)! The sheep are so well camouflaged, and with heads for heights that only a lunatic would possess - they appear to be able to stand on ledges only millimetres wide…. Madness!

While the blue sheep were certainly gorgeous, the males with impressive horns, the real star of the show today though was the scenery. With spring certainly having sprung here in Ladakh, the bright blue skies contrasted beautifully with the bright stone and the incredible geological formations. As the Indian tectonic plate pushed against the Eurasian, the landmass that once lay beneath the ocean pushed up. This resulted in vertical and diagonal projections of hard granite layers with their softer sandstone interiors. The overall effect is one of striated scenery, of rock sandwiches with scree fillings, bordered by a bright blue tributary of the Indus and peppered with small herds of the famed blue sheep. Its amazing. The grass is growing now as the temperatures increase and the snow melts, which has caused the valleys to bloom bright green. This was the setting for our picnic lunch today.

I must admit, after a tough couple of years on a personal front, sitting there in my camp chair in the middle of a green valley surrounded by awe-inspiring scenery, eating a delicious vegetable roti, I felt like I could really breathe some of the past struggles away – this location is going to be really hard to beat!

As always, all good things must come to an end, but all joy was not lost, as we explored the centuries-old Thikse Monastery on our way back to Leh. With intricate frescoes on the walls and stunning statues - endorsed by the Dalai Lama no less - Thikse is a wonderful spot and arguably is home to the absolute best roof terrace on the planet! The views of the surrounding valley and the Indus River are, as with the rest of the area, incredible.

So, to cut a long story short: Come to Leh, go to Lato, embrace this ridiculously stark and yet beautiful scenery and its very brown “blue” sheep, because you will never be disappointed. I cannot wait to come back during another season to see the changes.

Day 4: Ulley

A wonderfully delicious lie-in greeted us this morning. Well overdue and well earned, as everyone in the office will agree I’m sure!

After we finally prised ourselves from our cosy cocoons, we headed off along the Srinagar Road towards the village of Nimmu. The first stop on our photo tour? The confluence between the mighty Sanskar and Indus rivers. I mean, sure, two rivers meeting, whoop dee doo... But actually, the azure waters of the Indus mixing with the deeper blue waters of the Sanskar, combined with light sandy banks and a backdrop of impressive snow-capped mountains…. Yeah it was alright really!

The only drawback to the viewing was the fact we had stopped on the side of a road, with a mighty 60ft+ sheer drop beside it into said confluence, barriered only by a line of prayer flags. I mean, I know prayer flags are very powerful and I do not wish to discredit their power in any way, but I didn’t fancy my chances against a 10-tonne army truck screeching around the corner into me while I admired the beauty… Fortunately, Lauren and I’s vertigo ensured we stopped for a moment of appreciation and some photos before jumping back in the truck to continue our journey past Nimmu and on to our final destination, the village of Ulley.

The drive to Ulley is winding. Very winding! Those with a fear of heights/hairpin bends or those that suffer from severe car sickness, may want to consider this in the planning stages of a trip to Ulley. I have a pretty ridiculous fear of heights; I mean, reaching the top step of the ladder at home is a significant achievement for me, so I was very proud of myself for sucking it up and carrying on. To be fair, my driver, Ashok, is faultless. Not only is he friendly and mad about wildlife (big plusses for me), he drives slowly and carefully – not once did I actually feel as though I was in any danger, despite the precipice of near-vertical scree just centimetres from the truck wheels…

So, after two hours, numerous urial sightings and a lot of expletives muttered under my breath, we arrived in Ulley.

Ulley is a tiny village consisting of six houses, and even those are spread across the huge valley. Many of the houses here offer some form of homestay experience, but my homestay of choice was Snow Leopard Lodge. Not only does it enjoy the most astounding view across the valley to the snow-covered peaks beyond, but it is owned and operated by one of the best snow leopard trackers in Ladakh, Norbu. The rooms are small and comfortable, with shared bathroom facilities (clean but basic) and the dining is enjoyed in a communal mess room. The lunch (and subsequent dinner) were the best we have enjoyed in India so far. You really can’t beat a home-cooked meal!

After a brief wander around the village (which took moments), we headed out at 3pm to the site where an unfortunate yak met his untimely demise at the hands (or paws) of the grey ghost of the mountains. The plan was to head up to the carcass and wait to see who came along as the night began to approach. Just on the walk up we came across a red fox, desperately licking its paw as it had recently been chased down the hill by a wolf. Poor chap. We left the fox to his first aid, and continued up the scree slope.

After some expert spotting by Norbu and his team, we found a lone wolf trotting across the mountainside, moving between the rocks. They are so expertly camouflaged here it was almost impossible to see. As we were all oohing and aahing over the wolf, Norbu spotted him – the grey ghost of the mountains.


I SAW A SNOW LEOPARD!!!!!!

He was looking right at us. He knew our game.

So, in an effort to outsmart Mr. Snow Leopard and encourage him to come down from his perch high on a rocky outcrop on the mountainside, we retreated over the brow of the hill and hunkered down behind a loosely constructed stone wall. Despite us being here in spring, well after the traditional snow leopard spotting season, and with less snow on the ground - arguably much warmer than temperatures traditionally encountered while tracking snow leopards - it was still absolutely freezing!

We hunkered down there for a little over an hour, with a powerful scope honed in on him as he dozed in the sunshine on his perch. As Mr. Snow Leopard snoozed, our toes became numb, as did our bottoms, and pretty much every other part of our bodies come to think of it. The temperature may have been 3°C, but the wind chill was a good 10° below that at least. Not the day to be wearing fingerless gloves.

As I was beginning to think that Mr. Snow Leopard ought to be renamed Mr. Slow Leopard, we were awakened from our torpor by another red fox dashing down the slope right in front of us, hotly pursued by another wolf, both of whom disappeared over the edge before we could even think about reaching for our cameras. It was just the jolt we needed, and so too for the leopard, as he yawned, stretched and ambled down the mountain a little way, with us scrambling to get back into a better position where we could see the carcass as he approached it.

This pattern went on a few times, with him moving a little, us scrambling, him deciding that the latest rock he found was the perfect snoozing spot, etc. He was occasionally interrupted by a fox or wolf ambling by in the hope of a free meal, before catching sight of the leopard and deciding that it really was not worth the hassle.

After being out in the cold for a good four hours, as the light on the last of the peaks turned to dusk, he made his move. FINALLY. By now the light was pretty poor, so forgive the bad photography here, but when you are significantly underprepared for the cold and also hugely excited about seeing a snow leopard on your one and only afternoon tracking them, not to mention wolves too, you get the shakes a bit!

In the end I actually just sat back and watched, trying to take this incredible day in. With the backdrop of the stunning Himalayas, watching a now endangered (thankfully downgraded from critically endangered earlier this year), powerful and frankly majestic creature in the vast expanse of the mountains, this has been an impossible day to beat. It would have been amazing with any sighting at all, but with three foxes, three wolves and a big male snow leopard, well, I can’t stop the huge grin that keeps spreading across my face.

P.S. Tonight is the very last night of the snow leopard season here in Ulley, and the guides, chefs, and entire village have had a wonderful party which they invited me to join. Despite not speaking any of the language, the infectious joyfulness of these people as they spoke with their colleagues and friends and celebrated a hugely successful season, made me feel right at home. Ulley is a wonderful place for wildlife, scenery and people - I will be back!

Day 5: Leh - Agra

Today we headed back to Leh early, in order to catch our flight back to Delhi. I was so sad to be leaving the mountains behind, but very excited to feel warm again! On arrival in Delhi, we popped to the hospital as Lauren was feeling a bit poorly. Some excellent service by the doctors and nurses ensued and soon we were on our way for the long drive to Agra (which took around four hours).

Due to our unscheduled hospital visit, we didn’t have time for the Red Fort as planned today, so will head there tomorrow, after our early-morning start to watch the sunrise over the Taj Mahal! I will try and make sure my photos do it justice! Watch this space.

Day 6: Agra - The Chambal River

This morning started early. And I mean eeeaaarrrlllyyy!!

To get the best view of the stunning, majestic, wonderful, mesmerising, wondrous, bewitching and beautiful Taj Mahal (as described to us at 5am in the morning by our guide), you have to get up early, before the sun rises and begins reflecting off the white marble that houses the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who reigned here during the 17th century.

The Taj Mahal is somewhere I have always fancied visiting, despite being a bit of a rubbish culture vulture (I prefer the wildlife to the history – sorry Dad). But it really was everything that our guide described it would be with all of those superlatives. When we walked through the west gate and caught our first glimpse of the marble mausoleum, we really were left speechless for a few moments. It is incredible and ethereal.

Not long passed however until we noticed the many couples having professional photographs taken of themselves, ensuring they got that perfect holiday snap. Now I have the utmost respect for the people that did this, ensuring they had wonderful mementos of their trip to enjoy for years to come, but the naughty schoolchild in me just wanted to cringe and laugh at the contortionist positions that the photographers were putting them into. It was a bit bizarre to say the least.

Our guide took us on an in-depth tour of the mausoleum, perhaps a little disappointed in our higher interest in the squirrels and parakeets than the intricate historical records, though we did try to concentrate. Wildlife runs through my veins and whilst the history is fascinating, it doesn’t manage to hold my attention as long as a three-striped Indian squirrel… sorry!

Following our visit, and a site inspection of a couple of local hotels (I guess I should try and do some work while I am out here), we popped over to the Agra Fort. I strongly discourage you from visiting at 12 noon in late April, as it is so incredibly hot, it feels as though you are inside a roasting oven. But the Agra Fort is beautiful, and certainly palatial. With a taste for the finer things in life and certainly a healthy appetite for the ladies, Shah Jahan filled this vast palace with numerous rooms for his concubines, wives and, following the death of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal (for whom the Taj Mahal was built), his daughter…

Like the Taj Mahal, the Fort has incredibly intricate stonework, with delicate carvings inlaid with gemstones from the surrounding area. It is a great place to visit to get an idea of the history of the Mughal Empire and also has some wonderful views of the Taj Mahal too.

After more culture than I could shake a stick at, it was time for the short 1.5-hour drive to Chambal Safari Lodge, a location I have been wanting to visit for a while now (so I was rather excited).

Chambal Safari Lodge is located on the outskirts of a small village on a large stretch of rural land, with trees and fields and numerous resident wildlife species. From the lodge, one can visit a number of wildlife- and culture-based locations, from the Chambal River to the Blackbuck Sanctuary and the Bateshwar Temple Complex (a smaller version of Varanasi). After some delicious home-cooked food and some time relaxing in the grounds of the lodge, we headed out on a 40-minute transfer to the Chambal River for our afternoon river safari.

The Chambal River is home to a huge array of birds, but for the less twitchy among us, there is a wide variety of reptilian and mammalian fauna to observe too. Our luck this trip has been good, and it continued that way as we saw almost all of the most sought-after species on our afternoon boat ride, including mugger crocodile, softshell freshwater turtle, Asian golden jackal, gharial (a crocodile with very narrow jaws) and the elusive pink river dolphin! It’s almost like Natural World Safaris puts you in the right place at the right time…

Cruising back to the jetty as the sun set was a great way to round off a very busy day.

Day 7: The Chambal River - Bhopal

This morning I awoke to the sound of the Indian alarm clock: a group of flamboyant peacocks, strutting their stuff around a rather bored looking peahen, cawing to their hearts' content. I can think of far worse ways to wake up!

For me, I headed out at a respectable 7am on a short bush walk in the lodge grounds with the lodge’s resident naturalist guide. For a lodge located fairly close to the village, I was surprised by how much wildlife it holds (as well as some rather interesting plants). On our short hour-long stroll, we came across flying foxes, nilgai antelope, macaques, lizards, many more peafowl, a little owl and more. It was a great way to start what was going to be a long transfer day.

We also made a quick visit to the nearby temple of Bateshwar, which is a little similar to Varanasi, with people going to bathe in the holy (and heavily polluted) waters of the Yamuna River. The temple was beautiful but the pollution was staggering, particularly as we saw numerous people (even babies) being bathed in the water. It is not often that I get culture shock anymore, but that really hit me.

The aim of the day was to get to Bhopal in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, ready for our adventures in Satpura National Park tomorrow. This involved a drive of five hours back to Delhi via Agra, followed by a couple of hours whereby the guy at the Sunglass Hut at Delhi Airport kept trying to rip us off (no fooling us I’m afraid!), followed by a 1.5-hour flight to Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh (also known as the ‘City of Lakes’, a large, red, light-up sign informed us as we arrived).

So, today’s blog is a short one for you all (you can now breathe a huge sigh of relief)! Hopefully I will have more exciting things to report tomorrow, as Satpura is known for its excellent leopard and sloth bear sightings… Baloo and Bagheera, we are coming for you!

Day 8: Bhopal - Satpura national park

After a leisurely morning, we enjoyed breakfast with a local colleague, Aly Rashid, who runs three lovely hotels in the Bhopal/Satpura area. Aly is so passionate about wildlife viewing in India and has some fantastic ideas, so watch this space for what the two of us can concoct.

After our breakfast meeting, Lauren and I took to the road (yet again – who knew India was such a big place!?) for a 4.5-hour drive to the edge of Satpura National Park, home to sloth bears, leopards and tigers (though the latter are rarely seen in the main area of the park). On arrival, just in time for a huge lunch (as always, I swear I have added a few extra kilos to my waistband already), we had a rare and very welcome spare hour to relax by the stunning pool, before heading out on an evening/night drive in the buffer zone of the park. Though not officially under the national park umbrella, the buffer zone is home to a huge array of wildlife, from cats and antelope, to birds and more.

Along our drive we were fortunate to see a wide variety of species including nilgai, gaur (the largest bovine in the world and I suspect where the inspiration for the Minotaur mythology stemmed), Hanuman langur, macaque, spotted deer, chinkara and sambar deer, as well as a jungle cat! We stopped for sundowners in a bone-dry riverbed before continuing our drive, this time with the spotlight on. We had a really close encounter with a young chinkara that appeared to have lost its herd and seemed rather too naïve for a wild animal, an observation causing huge anxiety as we were actually tracking a leopard at the time.

Returning back towards camp, we decided to go down another track in the hope of seeing a mother leopard and her three sub-adult cubs, who frequent the area. Heartbreakingly, what we saw instead was a fire raging though the tinder-dry forest and turning the air red with smoke. Us being us, we decided to hop out of the jeep and try to put out a fire that had jumped the road. We managed to get it down and make a fire break around it, but realised that this was a bigger problem than four people could fix alone. Cue a mad dash back to the lodge to rally the troops and head out to fight the fires. Being women, and guests, we were not allowed to go and help, which was incredibly kind yet frustrating, but I understand that they wish to keep us safe. The team arrived back at camp in the early hours of the morning, and had managed to prevent the fire from spreading further, which was truly valiant of them as the fire had been raging across a wide area when we had come across it. 

Thankfully we had gone in search of the leopard and found the fire in the first place!

So, what caused the fire? In the local area, some of the people rely on the production of a local alcohol made from the flowers of the butter tree in order to scratch out a living. The trees are about to shed their flowers, and as the ground is currently covered with tinder-dry leaves, some locals set fire to the leaf litter in order to ensure they can see their flowers when they are dropped, making their lives easier. Whilst I have huge respect for the local people here, living in very simple conditions, I am struggling to not find it an incredibly selfish (as well as illegal) act to start fires here. The nightjars are currently nesting on the ground, and the insects that break down the leaf litter would not have had time to escape the flames, even if larger animals and birds could. All because they do not want to have to look for the butter tree flowers through the leaf litter. It has made me think, what are the negative impacts of my own laziness? I think it is something that everyone may need to consider – is spending that extra 10 minutes on something better in the long run for you and those around you?

Day 9: Satpura

We had a pre-dawn start this morning for our first game drive into the core area of Satpura National Park. The park is best known for its healthy populations of sloth bear and leopard, and there are good chances to make sightings of these species here as a result. The park also has a growing tiger population, but the largest density is down in the Bori zone, impossible to reach on a half-day trip and with the heat so high, a full-day trip would be just way too hot at this time of year.

We had a really successful game drive, with two leopard sightings to ourselves which was lucky.

Unfortunately, neither of the leopards fancied the paparazzi hanging around, so we decided to give up on photos and just enjoy the wildlife sightings for what they were. This was Lauren’s first time seeing giant squirrel in the wild, and I think they went down well – they really are so cute. However, Lauren’s firm favourite was the gaur, the world’s largest bovine species, of whom we were lucky enough to see on a few occasions.

Satpura is a stunning park, with a variety of landscapes from young(ish) teak woodland planted by the colonials, to limestone hillocks (reminding me of Botswana’s kopjes), and riverine grasslands and valleys. 

It is beautiful. On the wildlife front it has a huge amount to offer. 

On our game drive this morning we saw Hanuman langur, rhesus macaque, leopard, giant squirrel, gaur, spotted deer/chital, and a huge range of birds. It is a bit of a birder’s paradise I suspect. The only species that remained elusive after our game drive that were on my “wishlist” were sloth bear and dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) – but I couldn’t be disappointed given the excellent experiences we had encountered!

Returning to the lodge at 10:30am, there was just time to have a quick site inspection of my hotel, Reni Pani Jungle Lodge (gorgeous by the way!), and a rapid dip in the pool before we transferred 20 minutes closer to the park entrance, to our second lodge, Forsyth Lodge (also awesome). Located on 40 hectares of wild land, Forsyth is a lovely spot and is run by wildlife guides themselves, so the wildlife experience is big here. Plus, we found that they have a very loveable yellow Labrador that they rescued called Rocky - who couldn’t love that!?

After some time doing work (I had to do some at some point I suppose), we headed off into another section of buffer zone in the late afternoon. This area has a waterhole that a sloth bear mother and her two cubs have been visiting fairly reliably for a few days now. So, we went down for 5pm, waited a few minutes, and like clockwork, I noticed something large and black moving in the forest. 

I thought I was losing my marbles to be honest, but no, there she was, ambling down through the dry deciduous forest to the rapidly drying waterhole, with two 6-month-old cubs clinging to her back. 

She was bigger than I expected, as the only sloth bear I had seen previously was in Sri Lanka, where the subspecies is much smaller. Her black coat looked so thick (necessary to protect her from biting ants and termites as she raids their mounds), and her toddlers so heavy, that you couldn’t help but respect the girl for handling the ridiculous heat we are experiencing. It was a brief but brilliant sighting, with the cubs climbing down from mum to drink as she did and having a quick play with each other before jumping back on board the mum-mobile and ambling off in search of dinner.

We took our cue to leave, and explored the forests and valleys, listening out for the alarm calls of peacocks, langurs and giant squirrels, and keeping an eye trained on the road in search of spoor (animal tracks) to see who may be about. Watching the sun set over the Denwa River (one of Forsyth’s camping grounds) was pretty magical, as was the night drive that followed, using the high-energy flashlight to search for eye shine in the forest. We came across a couple of common palm civets which was great, though when I was gifted the flashlight to do some spotting, all I could find were spiders looking back at me…

Our return to the lodge was quickly followed by gin and tonics, a huge dinner (hard to break the habit of a holiday) and big squishy cuddles with Rocky, the lodge’s chunky yellow Labrador, who was very excited to have some guests at his lodge. 

So all in all, a pretty fabulous day!

Day 10: Satpura National Park

Another early pre-5am start this morning as we took another game drive into the national park. This time around, we took our time; still keeping an eye out for the “big ones” such as leopard, sloth bear and tiger, but also making sure that we didn’t let the safari become all about those things. So, we stopped for photographs of scops owls or little herons getting choked by the fish they had just caught (finally something else whose brain overestimates the size of its stomach).

In the end, it was low on the "big species" front in terms of sightings, but we had longer to watch the wildlife, such as the very young baby langurs hopping about and getting cheeky with both ourselves and their mothers. We were really pleased with how our morning went. I even managed to sneak an apple from my breakfast to one of the forest elephants! We did almost get a sighting of the elusive tiger, with so many alarm calls going off from prey species in a huge valley, but due to the size of the area, and no way to reach the location that the alarmed langurs were staring at, it was impossible to verify. It was definitely a leopard or a tiger, so a shame that we missed it but this is what a safari is all about – luck – and the fun was in the searching too.

We returned to the lodge at 9:30am, as the day was just getting so hot and the animals were all settling in to endure the heat of the day as best they could, with the langurs all finding a tree each, to move around like clockwork, ensuring that they always remained in the shade of the trunk.

We have just had a huge brunch, and I am chilling out (working) on my “machang”, which is an elevated second storey to the room with open sides, allowing the air to flow through – I may make it my bedroom tonight if I can cope without the air conditioning. A group of langurs that are hanging out on the machang of an empty room next to me suddenly started shrieking with alarm calls and running about willy-nilly about 10 minutes ago, as did the noisy babbler birds. I had a quick look over the railing but sadly couldn’t find the source, though the hotel does have leopard and sloth bear walk around the property from time to time…

This evening we are heading back into the buffer zone as it is our last evening in Satpura and I want to say bye to the beautiful sloth bear and her toddlers. I will keep you posted…

Hello, me again! So we headed back to the buffer zone and just parked up at one of the waterholes for the evening. By sitting quietly in one spot, we were able to become part of our surroundings and had some great sightings as a result – mama sloth bear came back with her two cubs, panting in the 45°C heat (at 6:30pm!), in addition to a lone langur male, five wild boars, three muntjac (barking deer) and numerous birds. It was a wonderfully peaceful way to enjoy our final evening in Satpura, particularly following such a hot day. This is a wonderful park, even outside of the main protected area – well worth a visit for those keen to see more than tigers.

Day 11: Satpura National Park - Pench National Park

This morning, we rose early (hate to break the habit of a lifetime), for a bush walk in the grounds of Forsyth Lodge with our guide. The original plan had been to do this in the national park, which I had been really looking forward to, but time constraints with the drive to Pench National Park and a pre-organised activity there this afternoon meant that we just didn’t have enough time. However, the walk was nice, even if just to stretch my legs. It gave us sightings such as a honey buzzard and numerous passerines, as well as a briefly nerve-wracking stand-off with some of the local dogs which apparently hunted chital (spotted deer) last week. You could definitely see their group hunting strategy, though thankfully our guide did a great job of staring them down and making them back off. As a dog-owner and -lover, it was an odd feeling being so nervous of them.

After time for freshening up, packing and breakfast, we bid our farewells to the wonderful Forsyth Lodge team at about 8:30am with our driver, Naseem. The drive to Pench is supposed to take five hours but by some miracle of lighter than usual traffic, we arrived in good time for lunch at our beautiful jungle camp, Jamtara.

In the late afternoon, around 5:30pm, we headed out with our guide, Ajay, on a walk through the village. This is a linear settlement, dispersed over a wide area of wheat fields and made up of beautifully simple whitewashed houses with bright pink bougainvillea flowers. As has been the case in every single location we have been thus far, there was a wedding procession in full flow, in addition to the brahman cattle being herded back to the small barns attached to each house. The children in the rural villages seem fairly fascinated in us wherever we go, particularly of Lauren’s pale skin and blonde hair. They often come out of their houses screaming “Hi, Bye!” to us, in different orders (I am not quite convinced they know what they are saying), but always with huge smiles on their faces. After speaking with a group of three kids aged around 4-5 years old, one of them started stroking Lauren’s skin and hair - I am not sure that he thought she was real!

Day 12: Pench National Park

This morning we rose early; I mean, I say we rose early, but the dodgy house/drum and bass music blaring from one of the village houses meant we barely slept…

But anyway, we rose early for our first game drive in Pench National Park, thought to be the inspiration behind the setting for The Jungle Book. Entering through the Jamtara Gate, towards the north of the park and just five minutes from our lodge, we were the only jeep on the roads for quite some time, which was great. Pench is primarily covered in teak woodland (around 40 years old), but with a limited understorey, the visibility is still pretty good. The woodlands are bisected by river valleys, all bone-dry now except for the odd pool of water.

Ajay did have his work cut out with us; having had numerous sightings of the main species in Satpura, we were looking for predators such as tiger, leopard and Asiatic wild dog (dhole). However, with my strong aversion to being part of any form of jeep crowding (yes I sound spoilt but I would rather miss the experience than contribute to harassing the animals), we were forced to move on from our sighting of two sub-adult male tigers relaxing on a distant island in the main Pench riverbed, as the jeeps were coming up from the southern, more popular gate thick and fast.

All was not lost however as our game drive continued, encountering a large group of rhesus macaque with some very young infants, and coming to a waterhole with so much life, that we parked up in a shaded area and just relaxed for half an hour, watching the spotted deer, Hanuman langurs, white-fronted and pied kingfishers and Indian rollers interact with the environment and one another. It was a very peaceful scene, which of course meant no predators! Luckily by this point Lauren and I were so ridiculously hot and exhausted from our poor night’s sleep, that we enjoyed it just as much as if it had been 10 tigers dancing in the road and playing the flute…

Tonight we will be spending the night in the lodge’s “star bed”, where we can sleep out in the fresh air and observe the animals under the bright full moon. I can’t wait!

Day 13: Pench National Park – Delhi

Last night in the star bed was incredible. The weather is so warm that the thick duvet provided was unnecessary, meaning that we ended up with a most sumptuous mattress-topper effect that, coupled with the fresh breeze, the bright moon lighting up the field of wheat below our platform, and the sounds of the forest around me, meant that I slept like a baby.

I admit when the spotted deer below began to screech alarm calls just after we got into bed - followed by frenzied “intruder” barking by the dogs in the nearby farmhouses - I did a fair bit of scanning with my torch in search of a leopard (the likeliest culprit) and had a twinge of nerves at sleeping out in tiger country, but it’s all part of the adventure! We also had a mild panic when, at 1am, Lauren woke me to ask what the ginger-looking animal right below our platform was… in the blur of our non-spectacled state, it looked incredibly tiger-like, but on donning my second pair of eyes, it was a pretty little spotted deer, just munching away happily – cue the big sigh of relief and subsequent relapse into deep sleep!

This morning we enjoyed one more game drive into the park, observing some of the old favourites such as the Hanuman langur and the spotted deer, as well as some new species such as the jackal and the beautiful Malabar pied hornbill. We missed out on the tigers again sadly, but I suspect that this is due to the extreme heat we have been experiencing; it hit the high 40s (centigrade) by mid-morning! Therefore, the predators seem to be active earlier in the day before the heat rises too much, and as we are limited as to when we can access the park due to opening hours, we seem to be just missing out on the magic window of time. At least all of the other jeeps seemed to be having a similar run of bad luck!

After a quick shower to slough off the thick layer of dust our bodies had accumulated on the drive, we took to the tarmac once more for a 4.5-hour drive to Nagpur, followed by the 2-hour flight to Delhi. We have just arrived at The Claridge’s in the city centre (a favourite of NWS), and I am now snuggling into my wonderfully cosy bed to do some photo editing. Corbett tomorrow!

Day 14: Delhi - Corbett National Park

Today was a simple transfer day, driving north into the foothills of the Himalayas from Delhi to the town of Ramnagar, just on the outskirts of Corbett National Park.

We stopped for a fresh and delicious lunch at the beautiful and homely Jim's Jungle Retreat, before continuing on to our hotel for tonight, Paatlidun Safari Lodge, located about 40 minutes away from Jim's, close to another of Corbett’s park gates.

As by the time we arrived it was too late to head into the park, we enjoyed high tea (lemongrass tea is delicious by the way), and treated ourselves to a little pampering in the hotel spa (Indian head, neck and foot massage, yes please)! As we were enjoying our spa treatments, the biggest storm I have encountered outside of Africa rose up, whipping about fierce winds (“cover your heads in case mangos fall on you!”) and torrential rain, as well as the odd impressive clap of thunder. I love a good thunderstorm!

It is still pretty feisty out there now but inside the room I am all cosy - starting to decide against sleeping under the stars again tonight though...

Day 15: Corbett National Park

Last night we experienced a little of the epic thunderstorms and winds that have been causing widespread damage and loss of life across the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Fortunately, we experienced just the edge of the storm so were in no real danger, other than from falling rock-hard mangos, but the experience of the wind ripping through the valley so quickly was very surreal.

This morning we set off early yet again to begin our safari in Corbett National Park. The park is large and beautiful, with numerous entrance points. We were heading to the Dhikala Zone, where we would spend the night. The Dhikala Valley is beautiful, with winding roads leading you along the river and valley edge, before emerging into majestic forests of Sal trees reaching over 70 ft high. The avenues of these trees created beside the road are very impressive (one day I aim to have a driveway similar to this… a little overambitious perhaps, but all dreams start somewhere)!

The park is best known for its elephants and its prolific birdlife, playing host to numerous migratory species during the winter months. We enjoyed a leisurely game drive in the morning, including our first elephant sighting, before settling in to the Forest Rest House at Dhikala. The rest house is run by the government and has totally seen better days, but the bare bones of what it once was are still there, with en-suite private rooms or dorm options available. Our excellent guiding team got to work in adding a little polish, with fresh, clean linens, snacks, drinking water and, most importantly, cleaning the bathroom – the effect was excellent. Sure, the beds are still pretty (very) rock solid, and the cleaning of the bathroom could only achieve so much, but it was improved 1000% by their efforts.

We had time for a quick kip (I had found a huntsman spider in my room the night before so had little sleep… eek!), before heading out at the front of the queue for our evening game drive at the early hour of 2:45pm. Almost every other jeep there went in the same direction, heading to the last known spot of the previous drive’s tiger sighting, but we were taking a different tack, and headed out to the grasslands, in the opposite direction of the other jeeps. We were soon rewarded, with a great sighting of a mature bull elephant in search of ladyfriends. He was in musth, which can often lead to aggression in males (too many hormones – I think we have all been there!), but this old chap was a gentle soul and allowed us a wonderful sighting. Sadly for him, the ladies in the vicinity were not terribly impressed, and he was chased off by a younger male, all resulting in a lot of trumpeting and rumbling. I’m sure he will strike lucky at some point – there are plenty of elephants in Corbett to choose from!

Whilst cruising the park, looking at gorgeously flamboyant flameback woodpeckers and the brilliantly named “spangled drongo”, as well as the well-known and well-loved langurs and spotted deer that we have seen throughout this trip, we happened upon a tiger sighting. Well, I mean he was certainly there - I got a great look at his left paw and the right-hand side of his face as he lounged in the heat behind some irritatingly large leaves - but he was there, so it totally counts! What we could see of this guy told us that he was the almost fully grown cub of a well-known female in this area, though mum was keeping out of sight completely.

We waited for some time in the hope he might come down the riverbed, particularly as there was an especially brave/silly peahen pretty much taunting him by staying just out of reach, but unfortunately the sun would wait for no man (or tiger) to set, and we had to get back to camp to avoid getting fined. But still, we saw a tiger!

Early to bed as have another ridiculously early start in the morning, followed by a long drive to Dudhwa National Park and the newly reopened Jaagir Lodge!

Day 16: Corbett National Park – Dudhwa National Park

This morning we rolled out of bed and straight into the jeep before dawn, ensuring that we were first out of the gate and not eating the other jeeps’ dust. We returned to the grasslands where we had seen so much elephant activity the night before. Again, we found a herd of elephants, this time all-female and containing quite a few young calves. After watching them for a while, we moved on as other jeeps began to arrive, and we set out to seek some better tiger sightings.

The tigers proved elusive this morning, but we still enjoyed some lovely primate sightings and birdwatching – we even witnessed a baby rhesus macaque fall out of one of the high branches of a tree, right on to the lantana weeds below. It was a few seconds of holding our breath until the mum shot down the tree to retrieve her thankfully very alive and well infant.

After returning quickly to the camp to pack up the room, we set off once again, this time for a game drive back out of the forest to the main gate at the road. It was a huge shame to leave Corbett, as this was the park I had the least expectations for and had turned out to be one of my favourites by far.

day 17: Dudhwa National Park

I think today was our earliest start yet, leaving the lodge by 4:15am on the well-kitted-out lodge jeep. Every whim was catered for, with photography bean bags, fleecy ponchos, water and personal binoculars. We were headed for the Satiana Gate of Dudhwa National Park, through which we drove and on towards the rhino enclosure. The drive took in total around 45 minutes, but that included time to try and catch a photo of the shy flameback woodpeckers, as well as watch a male hornbill prepare to feed his wife (who was holed up in a tree incubating their eggs).

The only way to enter the rhino enclosure, where up to 36 greater one-horned rhinoceros are homed (over an area of 20km2), is on elephant back. Now I made a promise to myself years ago that having experienced elephant-back riding, I wouldn’t do it again. I do not get any pleasure from it and see it as an archaic way of interacting with these noble animals. I was in a catch-22, as the point of this trip is to experience everything so as to best advise my clients, but on a personal level, I didn’t want to do it. After some soul-searching, I decided to suck it up and go. The elephant, Chambala, and her 3-year-old calf were lovely, and we had a good cuddle and said hello to each other before we climbed aboard.

Thankfully we found a rhino relatively quickly, basking in the mud and looking thoroughly pleased with himself. We enjoyed observing him for a little while, before the rhino started to look like he wanted to enjoy his “mudding” in peace, so we left him to it. They did previously offer jeep safaris into the rhino enclosure, but due to ‘diminishing funds’ for the elephants' upkeep, the forestry department decided to make it elephant-only in order to ensure the elephants generate more revenue. I am not sure quite how much I believe this, as when I asked if, when the current herd of captive elephants die, they will then be doing jeep safaris instead, the response I received was, ‘no, they will get more elephants’ – so they seem to be feeding the paying-for-the-elephant-feeding problem…

Anyway, having disembarked and enjoyed a bush breakfast, we headed slowly back to the lodge, keeping an eye out for fishing cats which are widespread in the Terai floodplains.

In the afternoon, after a site inspection of the beautiful Jaagir Lodge, we drove around an hour away to the Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary which, though not physically connected to Dudhwa National Park, does fall under its umbrella. Kishanpur is a small reserve and has a very high density of tigers, with one tiger per every 10km2 (roughly)! Lauren and I had not felt that we had experienced a good tiger sighting thus far, always hardly able to see it either due to distance or relaxing under thick vegetation. So, Ritish and Amit, our guides, had the weighty pressure on them to deliver. And, well, they certainly did!

We had stopped for a quick bathroom (long-drop – ‘breathe through your mouth!’) break at one of the forestry bases within the park and had just clambered back into the jeep, heading off around 100 yards down the road when we stopped for a photo of a bird (for which Kishanpur is also fantastic). Ritish heard an alarm call from a langur nearby and followed its gaze in the direction we had been headed. There, around 300 yards down the road, in the shadow of a large bush, was an animal, a tigress lying on the side of the road. The best bit? There were no other jeeps around, so we had at least a few minutes of our encounter with this girl all to ourselves.

We edged closer, but kept a healthy distance (I do not intend to get my fingers nibbled) and watched her for a while as she panted in the 4:30pm heat. She had clocked us, but didn’t seem too bothered, actually stretching out and then heaving herself up and walking down the road – right towards us. Amit reversed slowly in order to ensure a good distance between us. After spraying her scent on a nearby tree, she found herself a nice patch in the middle of the road to lie down and sprawled herself out across the dusty earth.

At this point we were joined by another jeep, who told his mate in another jeep, etc. In total, there were five jeeps watching her, which is my big bugbear with safaris, as I never want to feel part of a jostle to the front or participate in hounding an animal, but luckily all the jeeps were respectful, staying a good distance away from her and remaining quiet. We had our side of the tigress all to ourselves, and kept well in to the side, so she had multiple escape routes if she wanted to.

I think I managed to fill a 16GB memory card with photographs of the beautiful girl, before she once again heaved herself up and started to pad through the undergrowth below the huge Sal trees, heading off in search of water, dinner, and probably some peace from the paparazzi.

It was an incredible sight and we really could not have asked for a better way to end our trip here in India – tomorrow is our last full day.

Day 18: Dudhwa National Park - Delhi

Today is our final full day here in India, and as excited as I am to get home to my family, friends, and wonderful doglets, I am sad to be leaving too. This country is so rich in experiences, wildlife, scenery, culture, food and warmth (both physically – I think I almost melted into a puddle on the floor in Pench – and socially), and I feel as though I really have not even scratched the surface yet.

Despite being offered a lie-in kind of morning before driving to Lucknow for our flight to Delhi and beyond, it seemed a shame to miss an opportunity to get back into the bush and see what else we could conjure up before heading back to “Mud Island”, despite only having three hours' sleep in the last 36 hours! So, we rose at 4am and set off for the Satiana Wetlands once more, located in the north of Dudhwa National Park, to explore the roads further and spend some time up the many watchtowers, looking for birds (Ritish has totally turned me into a full-on “twitcher” now), and the swamp deer, which until now we had only seen from a distance. We came across a huge herd which was lovely, getting to see the young ones playing and others necking or grooming one another.

We are now en route to Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh’s state capital, for our flight to Delhi this evening. The drive from Jaagir Lodge takes 5-6 hours but the roads are mostly good, and our driver seems to know his way around the organised chaos of the roads here. This evening, once we arrive into Delhi, we are heading for dinner with our local colleagues Rakesh and Rahul, at Rahul’s house, which will be lovely, before heading back to the airport to catch the early-morning flight back to London tomorrow.

It has been an extremely busy 18 days in India, preceded by a busy few months as NWS grows from strength to strength, so we are both feeling pretty exhausted and in need of a holiday to get over this one. However, this has been the most wonderful trip. We have seen many different corners of India that most people have not even heard of, (let alone had the privilege of visiting), we have stayed in some beautiful lodges and camps, assisted by passionate naturalists and hospitality professionals, and as a result of this, have seen a ridiculous amount of wildlife, including (but not limited to)...

Tiger, leopard, snow leopard, wolf, fox, marmot, urial, blue sheep, gharial, marsh crocodile, nilgai (blue bull), pink river dolphin, chital (spotted deer), sambar deer, wild boar, jungle cat, Hanuman langur, rhesus macaque, golden jackal, Asian elephant, Indian rhinoceros, barasingar (swamp deer), barking deer, hog deer, palm civet and sloth bear...

This is in addition to over 100 species of bird, but for the life of me I cannot recall each species (note to self: must buy a good bird book). How lucky are we?!

If my musings about our trip have lit a spark for you and inspired you to come and explore some of these lesser visited areas of India, please do let me know and I will be delighted to talk about the options until the cows (or gaur) come home.

Best,

Harry (and Lauren)

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