Landing in Delhi on a warm January morning, we are whisked (as far as traffic allows) to the Taj Mahal Hotel in the heart of New Delhi.
After checking in, we head out to explore the city. First we visit Humayun’s tomb, a 16th century, red sandstone edifice set in cool, shady gardens. An untrumpeted but impressive site, it served as inspiration for the Taj Mahal, built some 60 years later. Later, we see India Gate and the sprawling presidential palace.
But truth be told, we’re not here to see New Delhi. Despite the delicious food, intoxicating smells, endless bustle, red forts and grand palaces, we’ve come to India to see something even more majestic: the Royal Bengal Tiger.
And for that reason, after an early start the next morning, we arrive in Jabalpur airport and jump in a car for a transfer to the camp. We are heading to tiger country in the heart of Madhya Pradesh.
Cows and water buffalo graze by the roadside, whilst pigs scamper between the traffic, lazily eyed by stray dogs. Black-faced monkeys watch us from the trees, idly munching on leaves and fruit. A group of men huddle around an overturned grain truck, pondering how to set it right.
After four-hours, we arrive at Banjaar Tola Safari Lodge to be greeted by waving staff who thrust ice cool lemonade and flannels into our hands.
Our ‘tent’, a canvas and bamboo construction with free-standing bath, effortlessly combines luxury with eco-friendly design. Double layered canvas keeps it cool in the summer whilst hot water piped from the bathroom under the flooring provides warmth in the winter.
Our very own wooden terrace overlooks the Banjaar River, running along the border of Kanha National Park.
Dominated by mighty, broad leaved sal trees and a thick layering of bamboo undergrowth, Kanha was one of the nine reserves originally selected under ‘Project Tiger’, an effort by the Indian government to ensure the survival of the Bengal tiger in India through the preservation of their natural habitat.
Our itinerary is simple; up before dawn with a masala chai wake-up call and off on morning safari. Come late morning, we return to the camp for a couple of hours swimming and lazing in the sun before lunch - an extravagant and glorious affair of local fish and meat curries, dhals, chutneys and pitta. Then back to the jeep for another drive in the late afternoon warmth.
In contrast with the blazing midday sun, at dawn the grass is glazed with a layering of frost. Luckily our guide, driver and naturalist, Ramish, hands us hot water bottles and blankets as we clamber into the jeep, an open-topped vehicle with raised seats and minimal protection from the elements.
We’re glad to have gloves and fleeces, however incongruous they seem alongside flip flops and suncream in the suitcase.
At the entrance to the park we stop briefly to collect a local guide (compulsory for all vehicles) and head into the reserve, driver and guide chatting quietly before settling on a route.
We wind through the forest, peering expectantly into the undergrowth. Every once in a while we cross large grass meadows dotted with antelope and deer – legacies of the 27 villages within the park that have been relocated in the past three decades.
Spotted deer and Sambar stare at us before scampering off into the undergrowth, whilst Langur monkeys break from their grooming to watch us drive past.
We see Barasingha swamp deer in the meadows, enjoying something of a resurgence – they faced extinction only decades ago and Kanha was the only park in Central India which retained its population.
Ramish glimpses a sloth bear rooting around in the grass looking for termites, a rare sighting indeed. But after two days, for all the warning calls and talks of sightings and kills from fellow guests, we have yet to glimpse a tiger.
It´s time to move on. And so to Baghvan Lodge we go, a few hours’ drive south.
Rustic stone bungalows, each with a rooftop day bed or ‘Machaan’, are dotted along a path from the main building. An open-air walkway connects the bedroom to the bathroom, and the outdoor shower provides an al fresco bathing option.
We know the drill by now, so with a 5.30 am wakeup call from our personal butler, we pull on our clothes and head for the truck, via a quick bowl of porridge with a generous helping of whisky to sharpen the senses.
Pench is predominantly a broad-leafed Teak forest without the dense bamboo layer underneath. This is Kipling country, the original setting of Mowgli´s adventures. And it should be ideal for spotting tigers through the trees.
Almost straight away we spot a huge Gaur, or Indian bison, its massive rippling shoulders casually toppling a sturdy looking tree. The Gaur population has declined over the years, a less well-known victim of habitat loss and fragmentation in India. But recent projects to reintroduce Gaurs from Kanha to neighbouring parks in Central India started in 2012, and the positive results are standing right before us.
Our attention soon returns to tigers as we trundle off, longing for a glimpse of Shere Khan.
By the fourth day, the mind and the surroundings conspire to play tricks. Every snarling shadow, every twitching branch strains the senses as we peer hopefully into the undergrowth. Surely, after all these outings, this must be it?
A rustle of leaves here, a solitary distress call there, has us reaching for cameras and binoculars. We peer into the trees, determined to the last to catch even a glimpse of this fearsome and elusive beast.
Returning to the camp, we round a corner to be met by a herd of chital, or spotted deer, grazing contentedly amongst the spiring teak trees. Realisation dawns that this, again, was not our day – if the flighty chital haven’t sensed anything, what chance have we?
Suddenly our driver, Shthree, whose eyes are constantly scanning the foliage, stops and stares at the trees. ‘Warning calls’, he whispers, before turning the truck and careering down the small tracks.
We pull up next to another truck, the occupants of whom are all staring intently through the trees. A red flash amongst the green, a spotted deer freshly killed, this is the first sign that something is afoot. And then, as our eyes become accustomed to the shadows, we make out three big cats relaxing in the sun.
The fact that they have spots rather than stripes is of no importance. Leopards are notoriously elusive, and to see three, a mother and two grown cubs, is a remarkable privilege. Indeed, referring to this trip as a tiger safari may not do justice to the vast and unique array of wildlife in this part of India.
Indeed, with less than 4,000 tigers remaining in the wild, and about 1,400 in India, it may be that tiger safaris will one day be a thing of the past, their numbers dwindled by habitat loss and human encroachment.
It seems prescient that Shere Khan, that most famous of tigers, was killed in a stampede of domesticated buffalo.
And so we leave tiger country and head to Mumbai, swapping the rustic luxury of Baghvan for the unabashed opulence of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the cool stillness of the teak forest for the noise and chaos of the Mumbai waterfront.
Sipping on cool cocktails in the warm Mumbai evening with thoughts turning to the morning flight to London, I can empathise with Mowgli in the final chapter of Kipling’s classic, torn between rejoining his human family or staying in the jungle. If it were up to me, I may have chosen differently.