In a typical year, we would travel once every quarter or more, mostly to the national parks in the country or sanctuaries and when not travelling we would be scouting the best properties and experiences for our next quarter, rearranging our travel gears and writing and chatting about the highlights of the last travel.
But this is not a typical year – and travelling has only been in the talks and the aftertalks!
The past four years, we have not traveled anywhere – no, it was not for lockdowns or covid blues, it was a natural call. We had our son – so when he was tiny, all we could manage was travelling to our native and back (and a touch me not trip to Goa). But all this while I would often lay down beside my little human, close my eyes and dream big – travelling far and wide with him and as a family of three. I was itching to be back in the forest, soak in the wild. Wildlife safaris in India has too shifted to digital booking - more systematized but coarser too in terms of experience if you yourself booking a safari and tatkal booking is a bother just like train reservations.
We did not book in advance, so here we were, after contemplating for months, finally trying to book our first safari in the span of two days online (yes, that’s tatkal) and ughh! We clearly could not get through! But did it stop us from hitting the road? Nahh. As they say, ‘A man can only resist so much before he gives in.’ We got our car serviced the day before. We packed our gears, lots of woolies and thermals, food, and medicines, inflatable car bed, travel pillow and blanket for Aronyok and some handy toys and books. No cosmetics and fragrances this time. We wanted to travel as light as possible. We started at 6 pm. Destination: Nagpur. Distance: 730 kms. Route: Pune -Ahmednagar- Aurangabad- Jalna- Chikli-Akola-Amravati route.
The roads are good without glitches with 2 and 4 lanes; you will find lots of local eateries, fueling stations with restrooms and tyre menders along the road. There is generally medium traffic, but we could dodge it because of the overnight drive.
Before a long drive, we usually have targets in mind, with multiple pitstops and ETAs. This helps in breaking the monotony and keeps the mind alert. This time we carried F&B as we had no plans to stop more than twice, and we were not eating out either. So, we took our first halt at a fuel station to fill up the tank and eat dinner. Second to freshen up at 4:30 pm. Aronyok slept fine at the back while we enjoyed the drive, the first night drive ever while sipping on our filter coffee every hour. We reached Nagpur at 7 am the next day and we found a decent hotel to stop over.
We always prefer to stay in a resort close to the forest, but this was the time around Christmas with people pouring in, so we had hard luck with Pench. Kanha was a little too far. Hence, it was the easy bait Tadoba, we spoke to our old friend Munthang who is now the manager at Tadoba Jungle Camp – a one-year old resort, sister of Pench Jungle Camp – resort smaller in size, duplex cottages, impeccably designed, excellent food and of course the unforgettable warmth that will melt your heart and soul. We did not want to rough it out. So, when TJC offered a deal (a little expensive than the average tariff), we thought it was good, considering the accessibility to Moharli gate. The next morning, we ate our breakfast and packed some fruits and milk for the road. Destination: Tadoba Jungle Camp. Distance: 160 kms. Route: Chimur -Warora route.
The next day was relaxing, we did not get a safari, core was closed, the day after core and buffer both were full, so we again had a day without safari. We came here to introduce Aronyok to our first love – forest and wildlife. So, we focused on enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of the forest with all our senses. We also did a after-dinner drive onto the road from our resort to Agarzari gate. Sometimes stopped on the way. Turned our engine and headlights off. That thrill still gives me goosebumps. Aronyok was full of surprises on this trip. He did not scream, did not get scared, talked softly when we asked him to and listened carefully. He often would say, ‘Mumma, stop, birds chirping’. So yeah, he did not get bored for a second, for all good reasons. We spotted Sambars, spotted deers and wild boars out on the road – although left in a hurry the moment we turned the lights on. Aronyok himself could spot a family of spotted deer from the porch of the resort. There were deer alarm calls from time to time – we heard it at night as well from the backyard, but no big cat came out during our stay. Munthang told us that there was a tiger sighting only a week ago after 10 pm – but only for a fraction of second. They and some other guests saw right from where we had our dinner. It went into the thickets the moment they turned on the flashlight.
On the third day we luckily got a buffer booking for an afternoon safari. Excitement and adrenaline kicked in. It was the first wildlife safari of Aronyok!
We knew there was no sighting in the morning due to fog, we feared we would not get a sighting either. We were waiting in the Gypsy on the tar road passing through the park, hoping that he/she might show up, as we started hearing deer alarm calls nearby. We then turned the vehicle and went inside and follow the call. The guide got a phone call that it may be the tigress Sonam – we drove faster this time, chasing the half information we had and half instinct! But luck was not on our side! Sonam was gone before we could reach, we saw fresh pugmarks.
It was getting duskier and wind getting crispier. I wrapped one blanket around my son who felt nothing like interested by this time. We left the setting sun behind and drove along the golden grasslands on one hand and the lake on the other. And then, an unexpected screech, we witnessed something we never did in the past – a sloth bear crossing the path, the light was not apt for a bright picture, but we took several shots of his passage and it was a delight.
While we were still in awe of what just happened, and the gypsy again yelped to a halt. We had a roadblock. A herd of bison was ahead of us, lounging around and not letting us go! We got them for a few minutes before they decided to move. No, they never looked back. Happy that our safari was not that bad without the tiger sighting, we were now going back. But here we were in for another surprise - the guide gave us a hint that we might want to wait down the road for sometime and it could be the last hope to spot the big cat. We were like, ‘Haanji, kyu nahi’ with a big molten smile on our grubby dusty faces. So, we did wait for a couple of minutes – yes – you heard me right – just a couple of minutes trying to spot him, no alarm calls to tell us which side, our guide took a chance at his usual territory and there he was sitting idly behind the bushes – the Ambe Utaara – a shy adult male tiger. He was pretty far, and light was bad. After a few scape shots, we put down our cameras and watched him till he got up and vanished into the thickets. It was probably the quickest sighting we got ever! My son did see his first tiger in the wild. And boy, what a lovely parting gift it was!The next day we stayed in bed till 7:30 am. Had late breakfast. Spent some time cycling. We had a long drive ahead of us so it was necessary to renew our energy once more. At 6 pm, we again started for Pune.