TIGER SAFARI; New team brings luxury, style to India’s game lodges

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Byline: Richard Slusser, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

PENCH NATIONAL PARK, India – Late afternoon in the heart of India. Our land rover moves slowly along a dirt road, on the prowl for a Bengal tiger. Chital, the white-spotted deer, appear nonchalant. Birds act normal. No tiger in sight. None around here.

Then, leading a cloud of dust, another land rover speeds by without a word, but our driver knows what is happening and quickly turns around in pursuit. A tiger has appeared, and we are on its trail. Hopefully.

The other land rover stops, and we catch up. “It was walking across the road, then into the grass. Then it disappeared in the trees,” says an excited German man, perspiring more from excitement than heat.

“Look,” our guide says quietly, pointing to an earthen dam at the end of a long pond.

The tiger calmly walks across the dam and lies down, stretching out its front legs, head up. If the tiger sees us, it is not concerned; we are about 200 yards away.

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As if it has allowed us plenty of time for photographs, the tiger rises, walks down to the water’s edge, pauses, looks around, then heads into the nearby trees and disappears into the jungle.

The rest of the day is downhill. We are satisfied. We have seen a tiger on our first safari in India. I know I am lucky, for it was only on my fifth trip to southern Africa that I finally saw a leopard – the missing element in my sighting of the Big Five – in the wild.

The land rovers return to Mahua Kothi. On the safari circuits here and in southern Africa, “land rover” has become the generic term for the safari or game-drive vehicle, which once was only the genuine Land Rover that is fitted with tiers of seats rising behind the driver. It’s just as “jeep” in American usage does not mean the vehicle is a real Jeep product.

Several days later, we are staying at the Baghvan lodge in Pench National Park, and again we are in a land rover, looking for another tiger or two.

An attraction in Pench is to ride an elephant and look into the bush below to see if a leopard can be spotted in the thick undergrowth of briars and grasses.

I beg out of climbing a ladder and sitting on a platform on the elephant’s back. Not from fear. I once rode an elephant – in northern Thailand – and it was all uphill and then downhill on a narrow trail by a stream. It redefined “jostling” and ended my brief career as an elephant rider.

The others in my group take off aboard the elephant. They are visibly uncertain about this adventure, firmly holding on to anything available. They disappear into the bush as high as an elephant’s eye, so I climb out of the land rover to chat with the drivers. I look up, and about 25 feet in front of me stands a tiger.

The handsome tiger looks at me a few moments, then moves into the bush, where my friends soon will spot it from on high. Unfortunately, my camera is on the top seat of the land rover. Nevertheless, I have faced down a tiger. Well, sort of. At the least, I have seen my second tiger.

TAJ SAFARIS

Mahua Kothi is one of the first two game lodges opened on the new tiger circuit of Taj Safaris. Mahua Kothi is in Bandhavgarh National Park in the eastern part of the state of Madhya Pradesh; Baghvan is in Pench National Park in the south of the state. These lodges opened early this year.

Two more lodges, Banjaar Tola in Kanha National Park in southeastern Madhya Pradesh and Pashan Garh in Panna National Park in the center, are scheduled to open early next year. More lodges are planned for the tiger circuit.

Taj Safaris builds and operates the lodges. The company was formed in a joint venture between India’s highly regarded Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and Conservation Corp. Africa, which is praised widely for its game lodges and camps in several southern African countries and for its devotion to conservation and to assisting the villages and tribes near its properties.

Taj Hotels has the connections and familiarity of trying to get through the red tape of the Indian bureaucracy, and CC Africa knows how to operate game lodges and camps.

Taj Safaris is concentrating in Madhya Pradesh for its first lodges in a planned tiger circuit. Madhya Pradesh was India’s largest state until Chhattisgarh state was carved from it in 2000. One-third of the state is covered by forests.

Madhya Pradesh has three seasons: winter, summer and monsoon.

For most of the year, the lack of rain is obvious in the countryside, where low dirt walls surround dusty patches of land in which rice will be planted when the rains return in June through September. The dirt walls will contain the water needed to grow the rice. Only one crop can be grown here each year, but the flatlands with more water in states to the south yield three crops.

Cattle and goats graze freely on roads – and cattle roam freely in the middle of city and country highways. The forests sustain a diversified wildlife, from the wee hummingbird to gaur, the largest, but endangered, member of the cattle family. The star of the Madhya Pradesh jungle, though, is the Bengal tiger, also endangered.

Madhya Pradesh is home to several national parks other than Bandhavgarh, Pench, Pashan and Kanha. These parks are among India’s 28 Project Tiger areas, which were created to protect the tigers in the wild. Project Tiger began with the designation of five areas in 1973 and gradually has been expanded.

The Madhya Pradesh forests are divided into teak, sal (another tree), and miscellaneous. Within the parks are mesas, meadows and mountains, ravines and rivers, many of which are seasonal.

Besides the tigers and gaur, there is much more wildlife, such as chital, a small white-spotted deer; wild boar; monkeys; and a rich and colorful bird population. The Bandhavgarh park is where the white tigers of Rewa were discovered.

Until last year, the game lodges operating on the fringes of these national parks were short on luxury – and most of them still are. Think one-star hotels. That changed early this year when Taj Safaris opened its first lodges.

Transportation between the Mahua Kothi and Baghvan lodges can take about eight hours by car, much of it over narrow roads on which the honking of horns is perpetually audible. This is a characteristic of automotive travel in India, whether in town or country. We broke up the ride by staying in one of the better lodges – before Taj Safaris arrived. As I said, think one-star accommodations.

Credit for the design of the Taj Safaris lodges goes to CC Africa’s creative director, Chris Browne, who has conjured many memorable game lodges and camps, such as the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and Lake Manyara Tree Lodge in Tanzania, Bateleur Camp at Kichwa Tembo in Kenya, the four diverse CC Africa camps in the Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and many more – each different, each memorable.

The Mahua Kothi and Baghvan lodges are the expansion and enhancement of the sites of previous lodges.

Accommodations at Mahua Kothi are in newly built huts based on traditional local architecture, but they are far more than what “huts” connotes. Orange is the theme color at Mahua Kothi, where many of the decorative elements are found objects, such as a child’s rusted fire truck, an old toy bus and old Indian furniture.

Separate suites were built at Baghvan, where blues and mossy greens offer serenity; the glass carafes are of the palest blue. In the kitchen, Mr. Browne uses a ceiling lamp often found in an Indian home, but he is not happy with one and hangs several in a row instead of the single lamp traditionally used.

Mr. Browne is plenty serious in his designs, but he finds opportunities to conjure a whimsical sophistication that in lesser hands could be gimmicky. He always connects his designs to the location so guests know they are in India, or Africa, and not in just another Ralph Lauren emporium.

A welcome addition created for Taj Safaris is the new land rover that takes guests on game drives from early morning to outings in the dark night. For the India venture, CC Africa turned to the Tata conglomerate, whose many industries include steel, the manufacture of buses and trucks and also Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces.

Prior to the Tata version of the safari land rover, passengers had to climb up a side of the vehicle to get to their seats or step on two tiers of seats to reach the seats at the top. Tata changed that, putting an aisle between two tiers of seats – with a seat on each side of the aisle – so climbing up the outside and stepping on seats is no longer necessary.

CC Africa has added another friendly touch for the morning game drives, which depart at 5 or 6. It often is cold that time of day, so there is a blanket for each passenger (not new), but in the middle of the folded blanket is a hot-water bottle (new) to keep the hands warm.

Before the morning game ride, hot beverages and cookies are available to guests; midway during the morning ride, the guide parks the land rover in a designated area where passengers may get out and enjoy a snack such as muffins and roti, a tasty soft Indian bread, again with hot tea or coffee made with a plunge filter.

During my week at Mahua Kothi and Baghvan, most of the food was Indian, but I have been told that dishes have been added that can appeal to the sensitive stomachs of Westerners. Those dishes are less spicy – and less interesting, no doubt. I had no problem with the Indian food and looked forward to it daily.

Typically, plenty of spices were used, but not all of the dishes were hot or assertive. I anticipated a meal as a culinary adventure, what Taj Safaris promised would be a “culinary extravaganza that the kitchens of our lodges offer.”

For guests unfamiliar with Indian cuisine, all curries are not yellow; they can be red or green or brown.

Essential to many of the curries are coriander seeds or powder, turmeric, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel, poppy seeds, cinnamon leaf, black cardamom and green cardamom, nutmeg, mace, saffron, rose petals and chilies. Fine aromas for fine-tasting food.

The beds at the two lodges were on the firm side and quite comfortable, and there were comfortable chairs for reading, and spaces for sitting outdoors. At Baghvan, guests could opt to sleep outdoors on a king-size bed under a roof and surrounded by curtains and mosquito nets. In March, I noticed very few mosquitoes.

The design of the bathrooms was very interesting, again thanks to Chris Browne. The artwork on the walls of the private accommodations as well as in the lodge also reflected Mr. Browne’s talent to make each place look special and different.

To get to the bathroom at Baghvan, guests must leave the bedroom and use a wooden walkway suspended above the ground. Some guests complained, saying it was cold and inconvenient; I thought of it as part of the Taj Safaris adventure.

One problem guests face in getting to these tiger circuit lodges is transportation. The nearest airports are a four-hour ride by car to a lodge, although trains can bring guests closer, sometimes resulting in just a 30-minute ride from train to lodge.

Taj Safaris is working on getting air service closer to the lodges. Travelers to India must be aware that transportation is not always quick, that it is not rare for a train ride to take five hours to reach the same destination that can be reached by commercial jet aircraft in an hour.

The ride to the lodges can bring the ultimate reward in beholding a beautiful Bengal tiger – or two – in the wild and also in being served delicious Indian food. This is how the experience of travel can enrich a life with expanded horizons and understanding. Hold that tiger.

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Flights to India, to lodges

No nonstop flights operate between Washington and cities in India. I have flown from Washington Dulles International Airport on Austrian Airlines, which has convenient connections in Vienna for the flight to New Delhi, and on Continental Airways, which has nonstop flights on Boeing 777 aircraft from Newark, N.J., to New Delhi and also to Bombay. The Indian food served on my Continental flight to Bombay was delicious.

Air India long has operated flights from New York. India’s fast-growing Jet Airways has flights on Boeing 777s between Bombay and Newark and between New Delhi and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Both flights have a stop in Brussels. Flights from Bombay and New Delhi continue to other airports for guests headed to the Taj Safaris lodges.

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To Mahua Kothi: From Delhi, fly to Khajuraho or Jabalpur, or fly to Gwalior and to Umaria or Gwalior to Katni for a lengthy train ride. Trains also go from Delhi to Katni (about 14 hours), with a 2 1/2-hour drive to the lodge. From Bombay, fly to Bhopal and then to Jabalpur.

To Baghvan: From Delhi, fly to Nagpur (1 1/2-hour drive to the lodge) or to Jabalpur (3 1/2-hour drive to the lodge). From Bombay, fly to Nagpur.

For Taj Safaris, which also can make reservations for Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces in Delhi, Bombay and other cities, go to www.tajsafaris.com. For Conservation Corp. Africa, go to www.ccafrica.com; for Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, go to www.tajhotels.com.

U.S. citizens visiting India must have a passport valid for at least six months after their visit to India and a visa. For visa information, go to www.india-visa.com. The Indian Embassy’s Consular Wing, 2536 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, accepts and processes visa applications.

CAPTION(S):

The white-spotted chital usually move in small herds in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh. They are quick and alert, but not enough to avoid capture by a hungry tiger. Goats (top) are fit to be tied in a village known for its pottery near Baghvan, a Taj-CC Africa lodge in Pench National Park. The name of the lodge comes from “bagh” or tiger and “van” for forest – the Bengal tiger. [Top photograph by Richard Slusser/The Washington Times; Chital photograph by Joan Scobey/Special to The Washington Times]

Brazen monkeys appeared from nowhere for a drink of water at the entrance to the Mahua Kothi lodge in Pench National Park. The lodge has 12 suites or kutiyas – a style of hut in central India – that have an additional bed (left) where guests may sleep outdoors and get closer to nature if they so desire. The name “Mahua Kothi” is derived from the butter tree or Madhuca indica, more commonly known as “mahua.” [Left photograph courtesy of CC Africa; Monkeys photograph by Joan Scobey/Special to The Washington Times]

India has designated 28 areas as Project Tiger reserves where the Bengal tiger is protected. In two national parks, Bandhavgarh and Pench, CC Africa has joined with Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces to create upscale game lodges in a tiger circuit. Two lodges opened this year; another two will open in spring, all four in the Madhya Pradesh state. [Photograph by Richard Slusser/The Washington Times]; Creative director Chris Browne accents Taj-CC Africa’s Mahua Kothi lodge with orange; in the Baghvan lodge, Mr. Browne’s blues are as pale as the glass carafes by the kitchen window. The lodges are the first Taj Safaris lodges to open in India’s Bandhavgarh National Park as a tiger circuit. Far right: a Mahua Kothi land rover pauses for photographs of an approaching elephant. [3 Photographs courtesy of CC Africa]