I will admit it. For the last few years, I have been chasing tigers. I really, really wanted to see a tiger in the wild in India. During every forest or national park visit, my first question to the ranger would be: “have there been any sightings lately?”. The obsession was getting quite ridiculous for the other family members, but, I just couldn’t give up. So, when we had a chance to chalk out an itinerary to visit Madhya Pradesh during May, I couldn’t help but include a tiger reserve or two and wish myself good luck.
But of course, I am not the only one with the same thought. Being peak summer season, May is one of the best times to see animals mainly because they often seek out well known watering holes within the protected jungle areas and sightings are more common than usual. As we were deciding where to go, research told us that unless you book and confirm your jeep safari ticket, do NOT book your hotels. The jungle jeep safari tickets are a lot harder to come by than hotel rooms. Who knew?! Our dates were tentatively fixed, so our search for jeep safari tickets began. In the case of Madhya Pradesh, the website to find tickets is: https://forest.mponline.gov.in/ The most famous parks in Madhya Pradesh – Bandhavgarh and Kanha were fully booked. Waitlist was available but we were told that with the tourist rush, there was no hope. Pench had a few slots available. Panna Tiger Reserve on the other hand had a lot more jeep safaris still available. So, Panna Tiger Reserve it was! We quickly booked a jeep for a morning safari one day and then for an evening safari the next day. Both safaris would concentrate on the core zones within the reserve.
Next, we had to decide on a place to stay. As luck would have it, the MPT Jungle Camp, which is located right next to the Panna Tiger Reserve Madla gate had rooms available. We immediately booked them. Jumping ahead, in our experience, although the rooms were simple (with A/C though) and the food choices were minimal, we sincerely appreciated the effort put in by the staff who ensured we had a comfortable stay throughout. The rooms were large and the bathrooms clean and the prices just right. What more do you need : ) The camp is located in the buffer zone on the edge of the reserve core zone, so you are surrounded by jungle sounds all through the day and night. I would definitely recommend staying here if Panna Tiger Reserve is on your itinerary. Phew! Two of the difficult jobs done – had tickets to enter the reserve and had a place to stay.
We reached Madla late in the afternoon. As we had decided not to go on a safari that day, we instead decided to explore nearby attractions after lunch. The next morning, we set out on the morning safari at around 5:45 am. As the line of jeeps slowly made their way deeper into the jungle, everyone was on high alert. About half an hour into the safari another jeep in front of us located two tigers as they were walking around in the woods. The jeeps tried to take up strategic viewing positions as quickly as possible. Then, within minutes, all jeep movement suddenly came to a halt. We all watched in wonder as we saw these majestic animals slowly walk up a hill. Our viewing location was at a little bit of a disadvantage but we could still see the tigers with our naked eyes. This is where a DSLR camera could have really helped with the magnification. The lens on the regular phone camera just wasn’t good enough. Luckily, our naked eyes were good enough to see and admire these beautiful creatures.
After watching these tigers make their way up the hill and disappear, the jeeps continued on their journey. Along the way we saw many other animals play. Around 8 AM, our guide decided to take the jeep to a place where another set of tigers commonly came to drink water. Voila! Lady luck was shining on us indeed – there was a tiger in the water having a drink. The jeep stopped and all of us admired the beautiful tiger as it drank water and then slowly walked across the rocky meadow before disappearing behind the rocks.
We couldn’t believe our luck – we had witnessed the glorious beauty of three tigers in one day. Completely grateful for our luck we continued our journey and ended up exploring the rest of the park which included taking a short boat ride in the Ken River. During the boat ride, normally we would have been able to spot crocodiles along the shore. However, because of the intense heat, the crocodiles had all found refuge in the water and were nowhere to be seen. Once we completed the boat ride, we declared the morning safari as super successful and returned back to our resort happy and satisfied.
We decided to do the evening safari the next day. This gave us a chance to explore the area surrounding Madla without having the pressure to come back to the resort quickly. The next evening, we got into the safari jeep around 4 PM. It was very hot. We carried five bottles of water with us and were not sure if that would be even be enough. We were extremely lucky once again. We had an amazing ranger guide who within a short time of us entering the park noticed a leopard sitting calmly behind a tree. We were in utter shock. Apparently, it had been a couple of days since a leopard was spotted by tourists. The weather was really hot and the leopard was very thirsty and was trying to make its way to a nearby watering hole. We patiently waited and watched the beautiful leopard slowly make its way towards it. We were told that leopards are extremely sensitive to noises and by the time she started making her way to the watering hole, many jeeps with tourists like us had surrounded the area eagerly trying to get a glimpse – so the shy leopard decided not to move and chose to hide in the bushes instead. We felt bad so we decided to drive away so that she could drink the water in peace.
As we continued to drive through the jungle, we spotted many animals close to the watering holes quenching their thirst and trying to beat the heat. We saw how birds, deer and monkeys cooperated with each other, and were having a good time. If you enjoy bird watching, the variety of birds and the colours they display are quite remarkable. Sometime later, we also had an opportunity to see a tiger from a distance chasing its prey. We were not close enough to click pictures with our phone cameras. We continued the jeep safari in hopes that we would be able to see another tiger up close and personal. However, this time around, that did not happen. Soon it was time for us to wrap up the safari as it was getting dark. We got back to the entrance around 7 PM completely thrilled that we had sighted a leopard and a tiger along with many other animals.
As my nephew put it – we were darn lucky. Four tigers and a leopard in two days. Who could have imagined! It is unfortunate that Panna Tiger Reserve is often overlooked compared to other national parks in Madhya Pradesh. However, based on our experience I can truly say it was one of the best experiences we have had in Madhya Pradesh so far. Perhaps the hot weather was on our side as the animals were desperate for water and the guides and rangers knew exactly where to go. Many kudos to the forest officials who ensure the watering holes have the life-saving water accessible to these animals. Or maybe our timing worked out. A few jeeps that came to the sighting spots a few minutes after us had missed the action. Perhaps nature decided to be kind to us. Regardless, we were thrilled that we were able to spot two out of the five big five animals of India in one park during one visit. Of course, the only sad part was that I did not carry my DSLR with me, so I could not take any Nat Geo worthy pictures.