Glass finds a rustic resort where India’s famed tigers are never far away
It’s just after 5 am when the wake-up call comes, “Tiger safari, sir”, whispers the voice down the phone. I drink masala chai on the terrace as the sun comes up and then hop into a jeep and head into the Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve. Farmers are already at work in the fields in this remote part of Madhya Pradesh, harvesting their crops by hand. Cows wander aimlessly across the road, while langur monkeys sit mischievously beside the highway, black faces and alert eyes full of mischief.
As we switch to the dusty track of the forest – routes that will bear the imprint of our tyres and also the fresh paw-prints of tigers – my guide is confident. “This is the best reserve in India for tiger sightings,” he says. “After a safari, the question is not ‘did you see at tiger?’ but ‘how many tigers did you see?’” Soon after setting off from the Syna Tiger Resort, I was about to find out whether his confidence was justified. There are about 60 tigers in the reserve’s four main areas and while Bandhavgarh is one of the smaller tiger reserves in India – when compared to Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand or Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan – it offers the highest chance of seeing tigers in the wild at close quarters because of its open, undulating forest terrain and visible watering holes.
A dozen or more jeeps with passengers equally keen to see the tigers pass back and forth, exchanging information about possible sightings. We sweep along the forest route, pausing to look at the footprints of tigers to ascertain their direction of travel. The guides interpret the sights and sounds of the jungle – the warning calls of monkeys and samba deer and the flight of birds, while keeping a sharp eye out for tigers. The driver pauses and slows to a halt. Less than 50 feet from the roadside, a beautiful female tiger rises, glances behind and then walks slowly into the undergrowth. It is a remarkable, exhilarating and truly mesmerising sight.
We try to retain the vision for as long as possible but within moments, the tigress slips away, her distinct markings helping her blend effortlessly into the dry forest landscape. The Syna Tiger Resort’s resident naturalist Ajay Ghale explains: “When people talk of Bandhavgarh, they talk of tigers. While there are other reserves across Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere in India, the chances of seeing a tiger at Bandhavgarh is so much higher because of the topography of the forest – it is open, rocky and not so dense so wherever the tigers are, it is possible to see them as they move.”
Most guests I meet had seen tigers at some stage – either a dominant male or a female with cubs and were thrilled by the experience. In addition to tigers, visitors can see bear, various bird life (such as the Changeable Eagle), vultures, peacocks, the Indian Roller, mongoose and deer - including samba, spotted and the Indian gazelle. By 9 am, the sun – and temperature – is rising high and the jungle goes quiet as the animals retreat to the shade. The chances of further sightings diminish so we retreat to the Syna Tiger Resort where breakfast is ready. Then, there is time to relax in the shade or by the pool. Like the tigers a few miles away, we are out of the heat of the day fora while, before returning to the forest for an early evening safari when the tigers again emerge.
Set in 67 acres, the Syna Tiger Resort has 15 cottages and one tree house along with a bar, restaurant, spa and its own vegetable garden which provides produce for the kitchen as well as an interesting herb garden. Eight of the cottages are themed on the Indian states of Orissa, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Kerala, Karnataka, Assam, Tripura and Chattisgarh, selected because of their strong cultural identities. “Each of the cottages is decorated with materials, items and antiques from the individual states they are themed on,” explains resort manager Jhumli Sinha.
Care of the wildlife and of the natural environment is paramount with a focus on eco-tourism, so access to the reserve is closely regulated, with the number of jeeps on each tiger safari is strictly limited and the routes carefully selected. It is a theme the Syna Tiger Resort embraces. With acute awareness of the environment it is situated in, the resort has an eco-friendly approach: it is plastic-free, has water conservation policies and rainwater harvesting and ensures guests adhere to the conservation rules when entering the park on a tiger safari.
In short, the focus here is evidently about culture, community and conservation. The advantage of the Syna Tiger Resort is that it is close to the tiger reservation which is open from October to mid-June and not too far off the main access road. Yet it is quiet, discreet and rustic. And only a couple of miles away, out in the expanse of the Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve, India’s big cats rule supreme. Majestic, powerful beasts that delight visitors with a tantalising insight in to their existence. By Mark Nicholls
The Syna Tiger Resort is located within the Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve. It can be reached via overnight train from New Delhi to the railhead at Umaria which is 35km away, or there are flights from the capital to Jabalpur, which is the nearest airport and three hours’ drive away. In New Delhi, Mark Nicholls stayed at the Metropolitan Spa and Hotel.