Arriving just past midnight after a long day of travel, I was pleasantly surprised how nice my hotel room was at the Danwa Backwater Escape. The room could have been pictured in any travel magazine, but I was leaving the hotel at 5:30 a.m. to start my tiger safari and was just happy to get a few hours of sleep.
Dragging myself out of bed, I met my two fellow travelers for the long car ride to the starting point of the hike. We had all signed up for a four-day (approximately 40 mile) hike in Satpura National Tiger Preserve. The trip organized by Pugdundee Safaris was one of the few (if not only) safari that allows a person to hike and camp in a tiger preserve in India. It is a “glamping” experience, in that your tents and food are all taken care of by the safari team, but the Indian sun and terrain make this anything but glamorous. I didn’t care about glamour, my goal was to see a leopard and tiger up close, without all of the tourists who crowd the better known tiger parks in India.
The hike begins about 50 miles from the Danwa Backwater Escape, but given the poor rural Indian road conditions takes about 3 hours to drive to the starting point. Revati was a travel blogger from Mumbai, who was making her second trip to Satpura (her awesome travel blog can be found at www.different-doors.com). She was clearly a lot younger than me and was dressed all in Khaki and wore a tan bucket hat. Helen was a seasoned traveler from the UK who was now living in Singapore and on vacation in India to see the wildlife. The one thing we all had in common was that each of us was more prepared to tackle a large pizza than hike 40 miles over four days.
By the time we started our hike (around 9:30 a.m.) it was already 90 degrees. One of the first things our guide Chinmai said was “don’t expect to see lots of animals, it is too hot for them already and this is very rock terrain. They will not be out until the sun goes down in the evening and the big cats don’t like this area.” What do you mean we are not going to see many animals I thought to myself I am doing a safari hike specifically to see animals. I could have gone on a Jeep safari, but I wanted to avoid the crowds and get closer to the animals. I am sweating in the hot sun specifically to see wild animals.
The landscape was not at all how I had imagined. I pictured a scene straight out of the jungle book with lush forest teaming with life, after all India is the home of Mogwli, but instead the terrain looked more like early fall in New England or the Mid-Atlantic states. Many trees had lost their leaves which littered the hiking path and made a loud crunch as we walked. But this was not fall weather it was dry, dusty and I was slowly cooking under the hot sun. No animal other than a stupid tourist would be out in this weather, it was just too hot to move.
After an hour into our walk, Chinmai stopped us and pointed up into a tree. Thirty feet above our heads was a giant squirrel. We stopped for a minute, took a picture and then continued our walk. I would like to say that this was the first of many animals that we would see on our Safari, but unfortunately I can’t. We did an arduous 9 mile trek, with very little shade and each of us carrying heavy packs to only see one @#$%#! Squirrel. The trek took us approximately 8 hours (including a one hour break for lunch), during which time we decided that the only sane thing to do was to find out if we would see more animals tomorrow. If not, our safari hike was coming to an abrupt end.
We nearly collapsed when we walked into our campsite. Set along a narrow stream we each had our own individual sleeping tent with cot, shower tent and toilet tent (complete with wooden box and a toilet seat on top). I was shocked at how many staff they had to set up the camp for one night. My best guess is that there were 18 people working on our campground including a chef and bartender. We were informed that tomorrows walk would be harder than today’s hike as it would be rockier and more uphill, but we should not expect many animals. Despite being blown away by the campsite, we unanimously decided to boycott hiking the next day. To be honest I don’t know if my legs could have taken another 10 miles in the hot sun (this hike was far harder than the hike to Everest Base Camp).
Fortunately there were available accommodations at the Danwa Backwater Escape and it was agreed that after breakfast, we would pack our bags and head back to the hotel. That evening we went on a night safari in a more Jungle Book part of the park (an area where camping is not allowed). In three hours we saw monkeys, deer, a civet and best of all an elusive leopard. Cancelling the hike could be the smartest travel decision I made.