Sunday, April 22, 2012

What? Where? When? How?

Where to go? What all to see? How long is enough in each place? The idea of a pan-Indian, non-stop wildlife wander seemed incredibly romantic, and the detailed planning was eventually surprisingly enjoyable, but narrowing down to the final list of destinations was anything but easy. The problem is simple  – our country has so many things to see across so many places, that it will probably take a lifetime to see it all, and I only had a few months at best.

Finally, it boiled down to what all I really wanted to see and apart from the tiger, and in no order of preference, it was the Leopard, Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Wild Dog, Asiatic Wild Ass, Blackbuck, Wolf, Hyena, Desert Cat, Kashmiri Hangul and the Nilgiri tahr. Just chasing the last three would imply three different parts of India, the Wild Ass in the West, Hangul up north in Kashmir and Tahr in the Southern Hills. Add in the tiger forests of Central India and some serious geography lessons were needed!

Also, we had just around three months for all of this. March through May was the only available window – I couldn’t do before March and most parks start shutting down for the monsoon in June.

So the planning had to be pretty meticulous to ensure that we gave ourselves a fair shot at seeing all these species, make sure the travel was seamless to avoid wasted days and ensure that we did all this in a pretty aggressive budget. I have to say that putting this together was one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done.

Starting from a list of nearly 30 National Parks and Sanctuaries, the list finally narrowed down to 17, across West, North and South India. The only regret was not going to the East, especially the North-East, but it didn’t really work out for time and timing reasons. But I will go there sooner rather than later. There’s always a next time!

Where to start? Honestly, this gave me headaches for a good two weeks, as I juggled with possibilities and combinations. And not knowing where to start gave me no joy with the rest of the planning. After these two weeks I asked the wife for help. And Surbhi settled that dilemma straight up when she said she was joining the first leg and she wanted to see Lions. And there is only one place in India where we could see Lions – Gir National Park in Gujarat. So the West it was.

The rest of the plan sorted itself out pretty easily, as destinations just dovetailed each other in a pretty convenient sequence. Starting from Gir, the whole trip was finally planned in three phases (with family time breaks in between) of around three weeks each, with around 5-6 destinations in each bucket. And the sequences were planned to ensure no wasted days, with minimum travel and transit time.

So March was West and North India – Gir, Velavadar, Little Rann of Kutch, Ranthambhore, Dudhwa, Corbett and Dachigam. All as different from each other as can be, both in terms of the kind of forest as well as the inhabitants.

April was reserved for the beautiful Southern forests  – Bhadra, Anamalais, BRT Hills, Bandipur and Kabini. All loosely part of the Western Ghats/Nilgiri Biosphere. With some animals endemic only to this part of the world.

May would be Tiger heartland  – Tadoba, Nagzira, Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh. the forests of Central India, Kipling ‘Jungle Book’ country. With Ranthambhore thrown in again, as a personal favourite.

And the idea was to travel by road or train as much as possible. I have always felt that air travel is almost always antiseptic and more a convenience than a real experience. What I really wanted was to travel the real way, soak in the countryside, meet the people, stop by the wayside and have chai, get off at the railway stations and absorb life as it passes me by, at the true Indian speed - 8 kmph not 80!

So over the next few weeks, I will detail out my experiences in each of these wonderful parks, with some photos thrown in for good measure. Hope you enjoy it!