India 2015 Safari Journal
Day 1 New Delhi started with the Tower in pretty morning light. Domes and tower, tower through aches and carved pillars were the shots of the morning. Lunch was FANTASTIC at a local restaurant followed by a visit to the big mosque. A rickshaw ride through narrow streets and alley ways gave us an eye level view of the shops and markets. It’s Sunday so everywhere we go there are ladies in colorful saris to add to the ancient architecture photos. India Gate was amazing in its graphic beauty coupled with afternoon light and a festive atmosphere created by groups of families and friends out for a stroll in the park. Our last stop was the tomb of Humayun. You could see by the domes, layout and design that this was a precursor to the Taj Mahal. Tonight we were invited to my friend Amit Sandkhala’s home for dinner. He and Jessica have a lovely house and a 21 month old daughter, the cutest little thing with giant eyes like Jessica. We had Indian red wine and some papadum before dinner. Amit told us about the snow leopard project and a new place in the south where there are black panthers. Both look pretty cool but hard to guarantee. We talked about how the tiger parks are and what our program will have that’s special and should give us the best chances for tigers…I won’t sleep tonight! Dinner was very good…rice, chicken, lentils, breads, mango chutney, and great vanilla ice cream. We stayed too late and got to bed at around 10:30. Tomorrow we catch the early train to Agra and the Taj!!!
Day 2 Agra 5:00 up, 5:15 to the train. Harry is here so he took us on the 2 hour train ride to Agra. The Taj Mahal never ceases to amaze…visually, texturally, spatially, spiritually. We went for a mid- morning explore so we know about the history, structure, and the best vantage points for photography. There will, no doubt, be photos from today that we will keep, but the real shoot will be tomorrow at sunrise! After our visit we went to the marble craftsmen’s workshop where descendants of the Taj’s builders still practice stonework. SO many beautiful pieces to look at. I did pick up a few shards of lapis, malachite, firestone, and topaz from the workmen. Lunch and a rest before we see the Taj from the other side of the river for at dusk shoot.
Tonight we went to the other side of the river to see the Taj at sunset. On the way through the gardens we saw LOTS of birds. There are so many people that come here for sunset that you can walk right up to the birds and make great photos. Best birds for us were the Indian roller and red vented bul-bul. The Taj is stunning from every angle and this side was best for us after the sun had set and the sky darkened. The marble of the Taj took on a pearly hue. Even later it went to a black silhouette with a plumb colored sky.
Day 3 Agra to Khajuraho. We started out at the front of the line at the Taj Mahal and were the first to the fountain pools. The fountains were off so the pools made lovely reflections of the Taj’s glowing pearly marble at first light. As the morning progressed some scalloped clouds appeared and gave texture to the sky. The scouting we did yesterday gave us a game plan for getting to the right spots for arch shots in the most interesting light! We had SO many chances for teaching…vision, composition, positioning to within an inch for the right balance, lens choice, elements of design, use of reflected light…it was lovely. Off to the Agra Train station. Waiting with our bags a craftsman passed by and noticed I was missing a zipper pull on the Gustafson Photo Safari Rolling Case. He put a new one on in no time. Harry stayed to be with his family and we met our new guide, Bhanu. Now we will get to know him and let him know who we are and how we do it. Should be fun!
Tonight is the Khajuraho sound and light show. It’s a cool way to see the history of the 9th Century temple complex. A photographic challenge because of the changing illumination on the temples, but, in the end some BEAUTIFUL shots.
Day 4 Khajuraho…Wow! As striking as the light show was last night, the full temple complex at first light is a world class highlight! These 9th century Hindu temples are completely covered by figures of humans, animals and gods. The golden brown sandstone at first light seems to glow and the layout of the courtyards makes for interesting photo layout. Telephoto shots get details of the carved figures, while wide angle and fisheye shots capture the larger structures and interesting details. The artists did NOT shy away from the concept of sexual attraction and Kama sutra had to come from somewhere….
We had breakfast, packed up and drove to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. It’s Wednesday so the parks are closed but we were met by our drivers and vehicles at the entrance of a newly created buffer zone for an afternoon explore. While we got used to the vehicles we photographed langur monkeys with brand new babies, jackal, nilgai (an antelope also called “blue bull”), spotted deer, Indian roller, rose ringed parakeets feeding on Flame of the Forest flowers, and best of all, jungle cat in the dark, next to a pool of water…by headlights. There were lots of alarm calls that told us leopards and tigers were in the area but we didn’t see them. Tomorrow!
Day 5 Bandhavgarh. Here we are…at home in the sal forest. It’s spring and Fall at the same time! The sal trees have just put out their new, lime green leaves as reddish-brown leaves carpet the forest floor. Flame of the Forest trees are as red as can be. Animals and birds are everywhere including herds of nilgai (look like a quarter horse, run like a giraffe), giant sambar, spotted deer, bee-eaters, peacocks, pied robins, and others I haven’t heard of. Tiger markings are everywhere. There’s a female with 3 big cubs in the area so we hope to see them. Jungle alarm calls told us the cubs were to our right and the mother’s roar gave her location to our left. We knew the cubs would have to go to her and as we looked for a likely spot to see them a big cub poked his head out and turned back into the bamboo thickets. Alarm calls behind us signaled the approach of a second cub. What are you supposed to do?!? They walked back and forth in the underbrush until they got the nerve to show themselves, and go to the mother. The first one gave a snarl and crossed in concealment while the second simply sprinted across. I’m happy to have some shots! This afternoon we hope to see them near water, playing, swimming, and splashing….we’ll see.
Day 5 PM The main action in the afternoon is at the watering hole and If the tiger comes it can be spectacular. There were lots of birds coming to the water; spotted doves, black-napped governor, racquet-tailed drongo, king fishers, and ruffus tree pie. The most spectacular was a male peacock preening on a log. No tigers so we started hunting when we heard the late afternoon alarm calls. Again, no tigers came out but they were certainly there. As we watched a likely meadow a sloth bear mother ambled by on the far side with 2 cubs on her back. No shots but lovely to see.
Day 6 AM Karen is still on the mend so she’s going to stay home this AM. We got to the gate to pick up our guide and do the paperwork. They found that Indrajeet’s name wasn’t on it…Bhanu’s was there instead. We had to go back to the lodge and change guides. We got into the park a half hour late and started out shooting birds, monkeys and wild boar. We came around a corner in time to see 20 vehicles stacked up looking into the bamboo. The word was that a 3 year old tiger had made a kill and was in the bushes eating. Sooo…..Let’s see. Everyone in the park is here looking at the tip of a tiger’s ear. That means there are like 10 tigers in the area that have no one following them. We bailed out and 10 minutes later we found a full grown female hunting on the far edge of a meadow. She disappeared moving left into the trees. The road curved to meet up with the direction she took. The guide said he could hear her….we stopped where the view was completely obstructed by bamboo. I had the driver move 50 meters forward to where the bamboo was much more open. A minute later our guide said “SHE’S COMING!” “Where”…..”RIGHT HERE!” She emerged from a stand of bamboo 30 feet away and started walking straight into my lens. She took her time and gave me that “Tiger-Come-Hither” look that I’ve been after for 8 years! The light was soft and even, the tiger was a perfect specimen, doing an intriguing behavior, in a great setting and I executed flawlessly. It’s what we work so hard for… Perfection. I don’t know where Ralph was. I think he missed it. I don’t think I’ll tell him about it. This afternoon Karen needs to come and we need tigers for her, and Ralph!
Day 7 GPS special access all day today. We got into the park 30 minutes before anyone else and had unlimited access to any track in any zone all day. No need to leave the park at 10:00 and we could stay 30 minutes late. I’ve been looking forward to this! The early access offered a lovely peacock displaying in an idyllic forest scene. By the time the rest of the vehicles entered the park we were already set up on a lightly wooded ridge with three 8 month old cubs. Mom wasn’t around so they sat, walked, ran, tackled, rolled, and tussled. I would have preferred the site to have been an open glade, but the cats in the woods look pretty awesome! From there we explored to find more peacocks, sambar, spotted deer, painted storks and had tea at 9:30 when the rest of the folks left the park. The other guides were sharing sightings from the morning. The last guide out of the park said there was a 3 year old female approaching a watering hole. By the time we got there we found 2 tigers who bolted to the forest as we pulled up. We waited for 40 minutes and just the female came back. It was beautiful to see as she came from the bamboo thickets, gave us a look and backed into water up to her neck. We could see the male relaxing in the shade. We were sure he would come out eventually. Instead of the original male coming to the water, Idrajeet grabbed my shoulder and said “Another male is coming.” I couldn’t breathe as a third tiger, a big fat 3 year old male walked out of the forest! He stopped in the clear, looked right me and gave the biggest growl face!!! He continued to the pool and rubbed noses with the female before taking a drink and going in the opposite end of the pool. After a half hour he got out and went to the shade. We decided we needed to find Ralph and Karen. We drove all over the park for an hour and had no luck. We returned to the pool just as Karen and Ralph drove up…WHEW!! The female was in the pool as one male got up, walked over to the other and looked our way. They approached the pool and gave us lovely views with 3 huge tigers in the same frame. Lots of drinking, slashing, and grooming. As good as it gets! We were there all alone for 3 hours. As 3:30 rolled around it was as if the tigers had an alarm go off. They got up with water streaming from the fur and walked into the woods just as the first wave of vehicles came for the PM game drive. Everyone was pointing into the forest as the tigers sat in the bamboo shade…What a great day!!
Day 8 It’s our last drive in Banhavgarh and without the pressure of needing tigers we could stop and get young langurs playing leapfrog on a suspended branch, spotted deer feeding on their hind legs and displaying peacocks. BTW peacocks are indigenous to India so anything from a zoo or hotel grounds pales in comparison to dueling male peacocks showing each other who’s the boss as their calls echo through the sal forest. As we drove around a corner and saw a stopped vehicle I thought “I wonder if it’s a…” Idrajeet yelled “Male Tiger!” He walked right out of the forest and straight to us. He continued on as more vehicles arrived and went to the woods only to emerge later in wide open grass lands. Stunning to see. On the way out of the park the elephant patrol was winding its way out of the forest. Lovely pictures with lime green sal trees and orange flame of the forest trees as a backdrop.
To the lodge, breakfast, pack up and drive to Khana. I’m now in palatial room in the middle of the forest. Dinner with Tarun and his wife is always a pleasure.
Day 9 Kanha It rained last night…hard with lightning and thunder. No idea how this affects tiger behavior. Tarun is my driver and Camell is the guide…we can’t lose! We were first into the park and saw lots of beautiful stuff but no tigers. We had a nice herd of gaur (giant bison-like animals), mating langurs, langurs in the sal trees in amazing colorful light, and jungle fowl. Funniest of all was an Imature male peacock displaying with his winkey little feathers. Ralph had a different jeep and saw a 3 year old female tiger. In the afternoon there were finally some alarm calls. We stopped for 2 MASSIVE gaur bulls who were showing each other how impressive they were. There were some forest workers standing on the side of the road…NOT working….watching the forest. We could hear jungle fowl alarm calls. Terun asked them were the tiger was. I started filming as they pointed up the road and around the bend. Terun pointed and we started driving and before I could put the video down a 7 year old tigress came walking right to us. I kept video tape running and Karen said “Keep shooting” as Terun shadowed the tiger. She walked for 500 meters before disappearing into the bush. Several cars came late and saw where she went in so they stayed to see if she would come out….We went, instead to a different water hole where there was…a HUGE male tiger on the far end of the pool up to his shoulders in water. I kept filming as he got out, shed water, walked to a likely spot and started pawing the ground. He sat down, gave a big yawn and it was time for us to go. Tomorrow is another Kanha day!
Day 10 Kanha Lots of alarm calls this morning but no tigers for us, though. Karen got a big male crossing the road. The cool thing is without tigers there’s SO much stuff to shoot that you can fill the portfolio in a relaxed way. Barasinga deer were out as were the giant gaur. We stopped at a fire break that was filled with spotted deer and a single gaur. It may be one of my favorite phots of the trip! Barasinga were foraging for water plants and created some nice reflections. Just above them was a serpent eagle. Peacocks were displaying and we got chances for gaur families and sparring on the way home.
This afternoon was a total rain out. The storm was a heavy downpour with lightning echoing through the jungle. It was a nice chance to do some more editing and process some of the tiger photo backlog. That’s an amazing thing to be able to say…”Tiger photo backlog…” Amit, Jessica, and Sienna are here, so dinner time was like a party!
Day 11 Lots to see but no tigers. Some beautiful spotted deer behavior, pretty barasinga, gaur everywhere…I’ve never seen so many. We had a peacock displaying in the perfect clearing, perfect light, at the perfect distance. He started with his back to us and slowly spun toward us…almost got to the right angle and turned back. He did that 7 times before folding up his tent and disappearing into the forest. AAARRRGGgggh! This afternoon the parks are closed so the park guys (who all live locally can get to the market and take care of family life. I taped an interview with Amit that covers his history with Project Tiger, tiger behavior, and the benefits of tourism to a tiger park. Tomorrow is our last morning in the park….dream of tigers….I ended up hanging out with legendary nature film maker Steven Mills and Simon Pettit who worked with Hugo Von Lewick when he was pioneering nature films in Tanzania. Absolutely riveting conversation for hours! They love the East Africa Books. When the 3 leopards came up it was “Bloody Hell…” The buffalo and hyena shot was “Bugger Me!!” The lion chasing the wildebeest…”That’s the one!!”
Day 12 Last tiger drive! No tigers this morning…The cool thing is without tigers there’s SO much stuff to shoot that you can fill the portfolio in a relaxed way. Barasinga deer were out as were the giant gaur. The tigers made lots of kills when it was raining the last two days. The deer can’t hear them coming. The tigers drag kills into the deep bushes and we can’t see them. This morning was bright and clear so when the tigers walk the valleys and meadows the deer hide. We could hear alarm calls all through the forest…monkeys, sambar and spotted deer. We had no luck finding tigers, though. The alarm calls died down so we went for a quick breakfast at the Central Point. Driving to the last spot where we heard alarm calls we looked into a swale to find the biggest male tiger of the trip relaxing in a forest pool. He was mostly in shade with a few sunspots on him. As the sun got higher the shade was complete and we were in business. Stripe patterns, ear spots, full front face shots, and lapping up water were the best shots. The whole scene was really about the soft, dappled light on a magnificent cat. This was the way to end a tiger safari. It was time to go so we drove out of the park, packed our bags and started the long trek home.