DAY 1: Saturday 29 February Depart UK
After relaxing in our complimentary airport lounge we depart London Heathrow for Delhi, late in the evening.
DAYS 2 - 3: Sunday 1 March - Monday 2 March Delhi - Bharatpur
On arrival at Delhi on Tuesday morning we transfer by road to Bharatpur (five hours). Depending on our arrival time we may enjoy some birding along the drive, or on arrival at Bharatpur, with a full day to explore the sanctuary on Wednesday. Bharatpur, or officially Keoladeo-Ghana National Park, is India’s most famous bird sanctuary, with international recognition as a UNESCO world heritage and RAMSAR site. These vast man-made wetlands were originally created for waterfowl shooting, but today provide refuge to vast numbers of birds; over 100 species can be seen here in a day, waterbirds in the flooded meadows and fields complemented by an exciting selection of other species in surrounding grassland, woodland and acacia scrub. Over 400 resident and migratory species have been recorded here, and we hope to see Sarus Crane, Black-necked and Painted Storks, Bar-headed Goose, Indian Spot-billed and Comb Ducks, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black-headed and Glossy Ibis, Greater Painted-snipe, Black Bittern, White-tailed Lapwing, Large-tailed and Grey Nightjar, Indian Scops-owl, Dusky Eagle-owl, Orange-headed Thrush, Brahminy Starling, Orphean Warbler, and Siberian Rubythroat, with numerous birds of prey, including Steppe, Short-toed and Imperial Eagles, attracted to the influx of waterfowl. Overnight Bharatpur (two nights).
DAY 4: Tuesday 3 March Agra
After some early morning birding in the agricultural areas surrounding the sanctuary, looking for any species we might have missed inside the reserve, we transfer to Agra (two hours). Once alternating with Delhi as the capital of the Mughal Empire, Agra’s now sprawling metropolis is scattered with magnificent architectural monuments to this rich period of India's history. Arguably the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal was constructed between 1632 and 1653 by the grieving Emperor Shah Jehan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. This spectacular mausoleum, with its marble walls exquisitely inlaid with flowers of lapis, cornelian, agate, jade and verses of the Koran, is one of the wonders of the world. Agra's Red Fort is a vast complex of marble palaces, mosques and administrative buildings enclosed within massive walls of red sandstone, was the residence of the Mughal Dynasty, and offers a fascinating insight into their daily lives, as well as views of the Taj Mahal from its upper balconies. The Taj gardens are a good place for common north Indian birds and excellent for Small Mongoose, and are a good vantage point for birding on the Yamuna River, which can be surprisingly good with Temminck’s and Little Stint, sandpipers including Marsh, Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, and Ruddy Shelduck. Late afternoon we will continue on to Jarar village in the Chambal River region (two hours). Our lodge here is a sympathetically refurbished cattle fairground, whose restaurant in the old stables serves wonderful organic home-style north Indian dishes. Overnight Jarar for one night.
DAYS 5 - 6: Wednesday 4 March - Thursday 5 March
The Chambal is a perennial tributary of the Yamuna, providing water security to a vast area of irrigated agricultural plains. This is one of north India’s least polluted waterways, home to a rich fauna that includes Marsh Crocodile, the majority population of distinctive Gharial, and Ganges River Dolphin. This is also one of the most reliable places to see the patchily distributed Indian Skimmer, and endangered Black-bellied Tern. We take a leisurely morning boat safari on the river, hoping to see all these plus a wider selection of birds along the shore such as Egyptian Vulture, Brown Crake, Great Thick-knee, River Lapwing, Indian Black Ibis and Sand Lark.
As we make our way to and from the river we will pass through the unique mud ravines that flank its course, where we hope to find Common and Yellow-eyed Babblers, Desert Wheater and Crested Bunting in the sparse thorn scrub. Away from the river, we will explore the sprawling grounds of our lodge, where patches of thorn forest provide an important refuge for birds and mammals in the vast expanses of cultivated lands that surrounds them. Common residents here include Coppersmith Barbet, Jungle Babbler, Rufous Treepie, Indian Grey Hornbill, Spotted Owlet and Brown Hawk-owl, and we also have a chance of Indian Hare, Common Palm Civet and Jungle Cat in surrounding fields. We will also find a roosting colony of Indian Flying Fox in the trees. We leave Chambal after lunch on Friday, driving back to Delhi (six hours) for an overnight stay. This allows us to take a flight to Jabalpur on Saturday morning, an important consideration which avoids a long road journey and/or the alternative of an overnight train. We then drive to Bandhavgarh (three hours) through central India’s fascinating rural landscape. Overnight Bandhavgarh for four nights.
DAYS 7 – 9: Friday 6 March - Sunday 8 March Bandhavgarh
Set amid rocky hills in the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh, Bandhavgarh National Park is simply THE place for Tigers, hosting the highest density anywhere in India and the most reliable place in all India (and thereby in the world) to regularly experience close encounters.
Bandhavgarh is an atmospheric reserve, dominated by the ruins of Bandhavgarh Fort which lies on a rocky outcrop overlooking the swathes of jungle. We spend three nights here, exploring the park’s wooded hills, bamboo thickets and valley floor grasslands on two exciting game drives per day, the first at dawn and then again late afternoon. We do everything possible to get the best tiger sightings possible during our stay here, planning our visits to different areas of the reserve and using committed drivers and guides who are familiar with the Tigers’ regular habits and with tracking and monitoring their movements. Tigers can be quite lazy, and often lie down to rest for hours at a time, regularly giving unforgettable views of this most powerful and awe-inspiring cat.
Six game drives give us every chance of the full Tiger experience, leaving the hot midday period for relaxing and some gentle birding in the grounds of our lodge. About 250 bird species are known from this area, and Brown Fish Owl, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Shahin Falcon, Mottled Wood Owl, Orange-headed Thrush and beautiful Tickell's Blue Flycatcher feature among the park's many bird species. A wide selection of other large mammals find a home here, and as we drive through the jungle and grasslands we may also see Leopard, Indian Wolf, Dhole (Indian Wild Dog), Jackal, Striped Hyena, Jungle Cat, deer including Sambar, Chital and Indian Muntjac, Wild Boar, Nilgai and Chinkara, together with some smaller mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
DAY 10: Monday 9 March Bandhavgarh - Jabalpur - Delhi
After breakfast we depart for Jabalpur (three hours), then transfer by air to Delhi. Again, this is an important part of our itinerary, as we avoid long road journeys by including this flight. We will take a packed lunch from Bandhavgarh, stopping along the drive to eat and for some final roadside birding before we reach the airport. We arrive in Delhi in time for dinner and a relaxing overnight stay.
DAY 11: Tuesday 10 March Depart Delhi/Arrive back in UK
Morning transfer to airport to connect with our flight back to London Heathrow.
Key places of this holiday - some essential background info!
Keoladeo-Ghana National Park (Bharatpur)
Universally known as Bharatpur, which is in fact the name of the nearest town, Keoladeo-Ghana National Park is undoubtedly India's most famous bird sanctuary. It is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage and RAMSAR site in recognition of the importance of its 29 sq km of man-made wetlands to over 400 species of resident and over-wintering birds. Ironically, the flooded meadows of Bharatpur were originally created and maintained as a series of shallow lakes and freshwater marshes for duck-shooting by the Maharajas of Bharatpur, yet since its declaration as a bird sanctuary in 1956 Bharatpur has provided an irreplaceable refuge for vast numbers of water birds.
After a number of years of drought left Bharatpur heavily dependent on the strength of the annual monsoon rains to support its wetlands into the dry season, recent completion of a pipeline to divert water from the Chambal River has breathed new life into the sanctuary, particularly enhancing its population of breeding residents. It is possible to see an impressive number of species in a day or two spent here, even though overall densities can appear low in contrast to the bag counts of over 4000 birds at its heyday as a shooting venue! In addition to the waterbirds many other birds can be found in the intricate mosaic of mature dry deciduous woodland, sandy acacia scrub, and vast open grasslands surrounding the wetlands, while various birds of prey are attracted to the influx of waterfowl.
The National Chambal Sanctuary (Chambal River) at Jarar
The Chambal is a perennial river, originating in central India and flowing northwards and eastwards through three states for over 900km until it eventually merges with the River Yamuna. The river is a lifeline to agriculture in the region, providing the water necessary for irrigation of the plains in India's agricultural heartland. According to ancient myths the river is said to be unholy, discouraging development along its shores where as a result no large settlements and relatively few temples were established. This has been the saving grace for the river, which remains one of north India's least polluted waterways to this day.
The river is home to a distinct and richly diverse fauna, including Smooth-coated Otter, Marsh (Mugger) Crocodile , various freshwater turtles and terrapins, and Gangetic Dolphin, a species particularly sensitive to polluted waters whose presence here provides testimony to the health of the river environment.
The National Chambal Sanctuary, encompassing a 400km stretch of the Chambal River downstream of the Kota barrage in Rajasthan, was created in 1979 when it was chosen as a release site for captive bred Gharials. The name of this distinctive fish-eating crocodile is derived from the Hindi word ghara or ‘pot’ which the bulbous nasal appendage found on all mature males resembles. Decimated almost to the point of extinction by poaching and indiscriminate fishing, the Gharial now finds sanctuary along the Chambal, which hosts the majority of the 1500 or so Gharial estimated to exist in the wild in India today.
Birding on the river by boat (boarded 27km from our lodge) is pleasant, facilitated by the lack of vegetation along the shore. For around half of its length the river is flanked by mud ravines, a unique geological feature that is re-formed with the soil erosion that accompanies each monsoon. The sparse vegetation within the ravines is predominantly tropical dry scrub forest, and a width of up to 6 km of this habitat on either side of the river is protected within the sanctuary.
Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve
Bandhavgarh lies among the Vindhya Hills of Madhya Pradesh on gently undulating land with small hills separated by wide sloping valleys. The valleys contain long linear grasslands flanking the streams, which end in swampy meadows or ‘Bohera’. The vegetation is dominated by moist deciduous forest, primarily Sal, in the valleys and lower slopes gradually evolving into mixed deciduous forest on hills, where the soil in relatively poor, and in the hotter, drier areas of the park to the south and west. Dense bamboo thickets occur in places throughout the park.
Bandhavgarh has been a centre of human settlement for over 2000 years, referenced in ancient texts. In Hindu mythology the two monkey architects who engineered a bridge between Sri Lanka and the mainland for Lord Rama are said to have built Bandhavgarh’s Fort which lies at an elevation of 811m on a natural outcrop dominating the park. Lord Rama is said to have given the fort to his brother, hence the name Bandhavgarh, or ‘brother’s fort’. The oldest evidence of human habitation within the park is a series of caves dug into the sandstone north of the fort, which contain inscriptions dating from the 1st century BC. Bandhavgarh was ruled by a succession of dynasties, including the Chandela Kings who built the famed temples of Khajuraho, until 1617 when the centre of court life moved to Rewa 120kms further north, leaving Bandhavgarh’s forests to rejuvenate. Bandhavgarh then became a ‘Shikargarh’ or royal game preserve for hunting parties involving the Maharaja, for whom it was considered a good omen to shoot tigers. Bandhavgarh was the site of capture of Mohan, the famed white Tiger, by Maharaja Martand Singh in 1951. Estimates show that one in 15000 Bengal Tiger births will result in presentation of the rare recessive gene and the birth of a white Tiger – Mohan was subsequently bred with naturally-coloured Tigers, eventually creating a second generation of white Tigers which have spread to zoos across the world.
Bandhavgarh remained the private property of the Maharaja of Rewa on India’s independence until the 105 sq km were handed over to the state to constitute a national park in 1968 – poaching and cattle-grazing were brought under control and mammal numbers rose dramatically. With the advent of Project Tiger in 1972 and the resultant wave of conservation-minded thought, it was realised that this small area was not adequate to support a viable Tiger population, and three further ranges – Khitauli, Magdhi and Kallawah – were added to the original Tala range, increasing the area to 448 sq km. In 1993 Bandhavgarh was taken into Project Tiger, with the inner core area extended to 694 sq km by the addition of Panpatha Wildlife Sanctuary, and the demarcation of 437 sq km of buffer zone.
Today, tourists are restricted to parts of Khitauli and Magdhi zones and the original Tala zone. The 2011 census estimated that 59 Tigers make this forest block their home. Some estimates suggest up to 22 Tigers are located in the core zone, which equates to one Tiger for every 4.8 sq km. Bandhavgarh is justifiably famed for its Tigers, however in contrast to Kanha and Pench, which are somewhat contiguous, Bandhavgarh is an isolated forest fragment which poses important considerations for its future viability.
The park is home to a further 36 species of mammal, more than 250 species of bird and over 80 species of butterfly. Gaur (Indian Bison), have been re-introduced and can be found alongside Sambar, Chital (Spotted Deer), Barking Deer (Indian Muntjac), Wild Boar, Ruddy Mongoose, and Small Indian Civet, with the park’s drier areas also holding Nilgai, Chikara and Chousingha (Four-horned Antelope). Indian Wolf, Striped Hyena, Jungle Cat, Caracal, Honey Badger, Indian Porcupine and Indian Pangolin are among the less commonly sighted mammals.