Jim Reisert: Travel

2010 India

 
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2010 India - Year of the Tiger

A country is known by the way it treats its animals.
Jawaharlal Nehru, 1st prime minister of India


Carol, Jim and Dushyant, Kaziranga NP, India

Between February 11-25, Carol and I visited the Indian sub-continent with Natural Habitat Adventures. This was Jim's 5th trip with NatHab, and Carol's 7th. It was the first time either of us have been to Asia.

We flew American Airlines from Denver to Chicago, then non-stop from Chicago to Delhi, a 15-hour flight (the longest on their schedule). We arrived in Delhi at about 10 p.m. The return flight left Delhi after midnight, and we arrived back in Colorado at 10 a.m. the same day. Delhi is 11½ hours ahead of mountain standard time. We took four other domestic flights while in India (Delhi to Raipur, Nagpur to Kolkata, Kolkata to Jorhat and Guwahati back to Delhi).

We visited Delhi, Kanha National Park, Kolkata (Calcutta), Kaziranga National Park and Agra. While visiting Kanha, we stayed at the Singinawa Jungle Lodge. While visiting Kaziranga, we stayed at the Diphlu River Lodge. We saw over twenty species of mammals and reptiles, and over one hundred species of birds. Our guide, Dushyant, has only been running this trip for NatHab for a couple of years; this is the first time he (we) got really serious about birding. It was impossible to photograph all the birds we saw; I think there were only a few mammals that we were unable to photograph (barking deer, jungle cat, wild dog).

On a typical game drive day, we woke up early (before sunrise), had tea and cookies, then drove to the gated park entrance in time for its opening. We stayed in the park until about noon (breaking for breakfast around 10), then headed back to camp for lunch and a short break. We'd leave again about 2:30, and spend time in the park until sunset, giving us time to freshen up before dinner. We went for eight game drives in Kanha, and six game drives in Kaziranga. Unlike the game parks in Africa, you are required to bring a park ranger with you in the jeep (one ranger per two jeeps), and he is armed with a rifle containing blanks, just in case there are any "incidents".

We also had two morning elephant safaris (rides) in Kaziranga that lasted approximately one hour. These rides were helpful as the elephant grass in the park can be taller than a person, thus making it difficult to see wildlife through it (for example, we saw many rhinos hiding in the grass). To get onto the elephant, one climbs up stairs to the top of a wooden platform, the elephant "pulls up" next to it, and then you climb on top of the pachyderm and sit in the howdah. There are two types of howdahs; one type is like an open "basket" that holds up to four people back-to-back and side-to-side. In the second type, you ride the elephant just like you would ride a horse. Both of our rides were on the latter. The elephant is driven by a mahout (using his feet), who usually has a long career with a single elephant. During our first ride, the elephants got between a mother rhinoceros and her calf. While the adult elephants formed a protective circle around the little ones who came with us (they like to be close to their moms), the ranger fired a warning shot that got the rhino's attention (and ours, it was only about ten feet from our heads!).

The weather was nice, up to the mid-80's F during the day, but somewhat chilly at night. We only had rain a couple of times - the second night in Delhi and the last night at Singinawa. The monsoons don't start until June, and last through September. In the months preceding the monsoon, the temperatures can get in the mid-40s Celsius (over 100°F)

We had several long rides getting from one place to another (between two and five hours). Driving in India is not for the faint at heart (I'm glad we didn't have to do it ourselves)! Being a former British colony, cars ride on the left-hand side of the road. Roads are barely 2-lanes wide in many places, so passing slower vehicles (and avoiding the on-coming traffic) becomes a necessity. Not only are you trying to avoid hitting other motor vehicles (cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, mopeds and tuk-tuk's [auto rickshaws]), but you also have to avoid bicycles, pedestrians and cattle (mostly cows and goats). Remarkably, we only saw the remains of one or two accidents while we were there. There are some pictures of typical traffic in the slideshow.


Food

We ate well (and healthy) on the trip. At the lodges, we ate buffet-style. For lunch and dinner, there were usually about six dishes, including basmati rice, dal (lentils), paneer (cheese), some kind of meat (usually goat or chicken, never beef), a vegetable and naan or roti (breads). We mostly had naan at Singinawa, and roti at Diphlu (it's a cultural thing). Deserts were usually something very sweet. At Singinawa, we had chocolate cake one night and apple pie another night, both were delicious.

We often had breakfast in the parks (on the jeep or van), which consisted of a hard-boiled egg (sometimes scrambled or in omelet form), yogurt, vegetables wrapped in roti, fruit (apple, banana or orange) and juice (orange or mango). Lunch (when in the vans) was similar, but add a chicken, cheese or vegetable sandwich on white bread with the crust cut off.

When at the hotels in Delhi, Kolkata and Agra, we had a buffet breakfast and lunch, and ordered off the menu for dinner. Despite what you may think, the hotels do serve beef. It's funny what you miss when you're on the road. A couple of times, people ordered hamburgers at the restaurant, and one night I had two plates of spaghetti with a plain tomato sauce (but extra oregano) - it really hit the spot!

We drank bottled water everywhere. Our guide drank bottled water, even in the hotels! Soda like Coke and Sprite was made with real cane sugar. And we drank Kingfisher beer (Kingfisher is also a domestic airline), which only seemed to come in 22-ounce bottles. Some of us had wine at dinner (not me).


Tigers

We were blessed to see three tigers during our trip. The first was in Kahna on Sunday, February 14, the start of the Chinese "Year of the Tiger". As it was a Sunday, when many of the locals come to the parks, there was quite a pileup of vehicles trying to catch a glimpse (we guesstimated about thirty). The second sighting was in Kahna during our last game drive, when several mahouts and their elephants cornered a tigress and nudged her out into the open (we were the only ones there to see it). The third was on our second-to-last evening in Kaziranga, but the light was low and the tiger ran off into the jungle very quickly. We tried hanging out in the same spot the next evening, but it was not to be.

Many people go the parks for the sole purpose of seeing a tiger, and consider it a wasted trip if they do not see one. I never expected to see one, and even if we had not seen any, I still would not have been disappointed.

It is sad how few tigers there are left in the wild. We saw Aircel billboards all over the country reminding people that there are only 1411 tigers left in the wild in India. Unfortunately, it's not a problem that can simply be solved with money; there are cultural and political aspects to it as well.


Cities

In addition to the game safaris, we toured several historic sites in three different cities - Delhi, Kolkata (Calcutta) and Agra.

In Delhi we visited the Mughal historic sites Qutb Minar and Humayun's Tomb.

In Kolkata, we visited various sites built during the British reign, including the Governor House, St. John's Church (the first British-built church in Kolkata) and Victoria Memorial Hall. Per request, we were also able to visit one of the sites of the Missionaries of Charity, which houses the final resting place of Mother Theresa. Normally one can visit her room, but it is closed on Thursdays (the day of the week we were there).

In Agra, we visited more Mughal historic sites - Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. Our hotel room in Agra had a view of the Taj Mahal. We visited the Taj Mahal twice, once in the evening and again the next morning. We took the high-speed "tourist train" from Delhi to Agra, and arrived in almost exactly two hours. Due to the (mis-)alignment of the train/airline schedules, we had to drive back from Agra to Delhi, a five-hour drive!


Photography

Photography in India is somewhat different than Africa. The game parks are not as "target rich" as in Africa. Thus, you must do a lot of moving around to see the wildlife, rather than being able to sit in one spot and observe it. You are not allowed to venture off the marked paths, unlike in Botswana, and you certainly can't get out of the vehicle. Many of the species like the rhesus macaque, jungle cat, barking deer and wild dogs are extremely skittish; you may see them, but they're usually gone before you can take a photograph. The land is more forest/jungle than plains. The elephant grass in Kaziranga is very tall; there's very little to see trying to look through it. Tripods are prohibited in certain places without out a special permit, like the Taj Majal. My tripod stayed in the suitcase the whole time, all the shots I took were hand-held. Thank heavens for image stabilization!

All the wildlife photographs in the slideshow were taken with a Canon EOS-1D Mark III body, and a Sigma 80-400 mm telephoto lens. The non-wildlife shots were taken with a Canon EOS-20D body and a Sigma 24-105 mm telephoto lens, because it was smaller and easier to carry around the cities and villages. I definitely need a better lens combination for birds. The Sigma lens + Sigma 1.4 teleconverter will not auto-focus with the EOS-1D (I wish I had seen this chart a long time ago).

 

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