Cruising around Sunderbans

I had heard a lot about the Sunderbans and even watched many videos and documentaries about the man eaters in Sunderbans, the place always fascinated me, I did want to make one visit there last year as well, however, it didnt work out and so when this year we learnt of a group taking a trip to the Sunderbans we latched onto it.

 

At the outset we knew that tiger spotting is quite difficult around here, that did not deter me, for I have seen quite a few tigers in the wild, I know its all dependent on luck and so you should never make plans based on tiger spotting. I was keen though to atleast see all sorts of birds and more importantly the bio-diversity and the dense jungles that no one inhabits.

 

We reached Sonakhali ferry station, which is about a 4 hour drive by bus from Kolkata, at around 4.30 pm and set in our ferry for the place where we were going to stay, the sunset was quite mellow and there was quiet excitement amongst everyone.

 

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We reached our base camp in pitch darkness and at the camp they told us not to venture outside the lighted areas of the camp as they had seen a tiger roaming around just two days back. Perhaps this was done to ignite excitement among us and also to ensure no one ventured outside the camp vicinity too much!

 

The next morning we were all up early for a safari, however, the organisers told us that we cannot go towards the core zone as the forest office opens only after 9 and so we waited. In normal cases tiger safari’s are always to begin early in the morning so this was a first. Whilst we were waiting we did walk around the Gosaba island where we were based to get a feel of the local village life. Interestingly on that island there was only one shop vendor, who stood with a stool selling, honey, cigarettes and mineral water! That was just about it. Most or almost all of the houses around here had a pond dug around their house and paddy also grew abundantly everywhere so the local staple food of rice and fish was clear for all of us to see. The people here were pretty much entrenched in their daily routines of finding fish from their ponds or looking after their chicken and goats. Some kids were busy playing Bengal’s favourite sport football!

 

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A lady busy catching fish in the morning!

 

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The kids busy playing football

 

We did wander about and spotted a few birds and the people on the island seemed quite gentle and kind and ready to smile.

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A Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker

 

Eventually after breakfast we set out on our ferry searching for the tiger and more importantly ventured towards the core zone! The whole area is a delta and thanks to this richly dense mangrove forest all the storms of the Bay of Bengal is not allowed to enter the mainland. The vegetaion here is dense, the area gets flooded thanks to the high tide and so the land is not really easy to walk on. We infact noticed that during the high tiger the water went up by almost 15 feet!

 

The thing about Sunderbans is that the islands here are not small, they are pretty huge, so whilst you are only allowed to visit the place on boat it means you cannot get to see anything apart from the outer sides of the islands, secondly when it is high tide all you can get to see is tree branches, not even the trunk of the tree as the water goes up that high on the banks of the river. The area is highly inaccessible, dense and so your chances of wild life spotting are few and majorly dependent on luck! We tired our eyes watching however on the first day we barely saw some 10 king fishers and maybe two or three deers on a full day safari! Not ideal for animal watching is this boat safari, also they do not have smaller boats for us tourists or else we could go inside the smaller creeks and see more of the inside of the islands.

 

We did see quite a few kingfishers and many more deer and wild boars the next day, the highlight being one amazingly huge salt water crocodile, the biggest I have ever seen. Apart from that though the wildlife watching here is really difficult. I really wished there would be some way to see the islands from the inside but we couldn’t find any way yet. They do have a few watch towers, however, it was during the holidays and way too many people had come around there, plus even there the sighting was quite poor.

 

Thankfully we were quite a few friends together and we kept ourselves amused whilst the two  and half days that we cruised around here. As far as sighting is concerned the place is quite difficult unless they improve accessibility, that too ensuring no disturbance of the local eco-system. All in all the secrets of the Sunderbans are not there for everyone to see, it would require a lot more sources or a lot more time to be spent around here to find ways to get around the Sunderbans!

 

Perhaps nature at some places doesn’t want everyone to come about and see everything and maybe some things are better off without any human presence. I ll leave you guys with some pictures.

 

Personally I wouldnt recommend people to go to the Sunderbans with high hopes of seeing too much wildlife, the eco-system though is picturesque, however, unless you have some means of getting more access I think I wouldnt spend time cruising around with a boat for so much time.

 

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This croc’s size was humongous, I dont know if the pic does justice! It was really huge!

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These folks probably know the most about these jungles than anyone else!

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The roots of the Sundari tree have this way of coming out of the soil, this is where Sunderbans gets its name from

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These fishermen do go inside these islands to collect honey and they I think are our way to seeing this place up close, perhaps when we venture alone here!

 

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A black capped kingfisher pops a crab for lunch!

 

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These dense mangroves have so many stories inside that they do not want to reveal!

 

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A common kingfisher watches us pass by!

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This is the kind of banks the islands had, no way you could walk without your legs going knee deep in the mud! The mudskippers though loved the place!

 

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Machli Jungle Ki Rani Hai

Once upon a time, there was a boy, who was fascinated by story books, comics and tales by his Naani. He lived in that fantasy world of so many characters and stories. One day, whilst he lived in Mumbai, came a movie opposite to his house, The Jungle Book, an animated movie, based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. The boy starry eyed went for the movie, during the course of the movie they also were selling the comic book with the same name. Fortunately, the kids parents bought one for him.

 

All of a sudden, the Indian jungle was alive in front of his eyes everyday, Kaa, Bagheera, Baloo, King Louie, Col Haathi, Mowgli all would dance around all day in his imagination. He would re-read that comic endless times. Somehow, the negative character in the movie, for this kid, Sher Khan was also a hero. Some fascination for the mighty, arrogant, cunning lord of the jungle kind of remained in his mind.

 

As life progressed, for a brief period, this kid was left at his maternal uncle for about 3 months time in Baroda, interestingly, that phase was a very good one. His uncle had made an arrangement with their office help Pandubhai to take this kid to the local zoo(Kamatibaug) everyday. So sitting on the little seat on the rod of the huge Atlas cycle this kid would everyday lap up the chance to go to the zoo and see his favourite animals. Apparently, retold by Pandubhai, the kid would daily sit in front of a tiger cage, the tiger’s name was Vitthal, for almost an hour talking to Vitthal. 

 

Time flew and the kid grew, his life was more involved in studying and trying to escape from studying both which didn’t quite work out well. Amazingly even though he always loved the woods and read books about the jungles and forests and saw programs on Nat Geo or Discovery, this kid actually never made it to the jungles. He did get one chance during a school trip to Gir but that was a 2 hour routine and nothing more.

 

Eventually the little kid grew up into a man and decided to marry, when you marry atleast you get to go for a honeymoon, so as luck would have it the kid’s lass and the kid planned a honeymoon in Uttar Pradesh(Now Uttarakhand) and as luck turned out one of the two places that they were visiting was Jim Corbett National Park.

 

The kid and his lass both were actually having their first real fling with the jungle. Little did they know it was a triangular love affair. The forest around Dhikala in Jim Corbett National Park has never left the kid’s memory till date, 14+ years have passed, but he swears he still remembers the smell of the jungle. The tree’s so tall that he had never seen before, the introduction to Jim Corbett’s book (Man Eater’s of Kumaon) happened then and that kind of increased the whole fantasy game even more. No, they didn’t see a tiger there, they didn’t even spot herds of Elephants, as far as sighting was concerned it was kind of poor, spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, wild hogs, a hornbill, a few parakeets was just about all that they spotted yet the jungle sorry the experience left a lasting effect.

 

For many years they didn’t travel much and life’s other routines took over, then once again a trip was scheduled to a tiger reserve in Ranthambore. By then that kid, that is me had a kid who was 8 years old. 🙂 Time flies I tell you.

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Ranthambore has got many relics mingling with the woods and vegetation that is growing all over it. All this adds up to the viewing experience.

 

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A full grown adult male spotted deer

 

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A Sambar baby looks us up!

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A pair of wooly necked strok were busy feasting on an algae infested pond

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A crocodile soaks up the sun on a cold morning.

 

The wait to spot a tiger in the wild was just getting longer and longer. For those who have never gone to spot a tiger let me just describe the whole fervour.

 

Apparently, most tigers are not social unless during mating season, tigers are usually alone. Female tigers have smaller territories depending on its strength anywhere from 6-14 square kilometers. Male tigers have even bigger territories of 15-25 square kilometers and there might be some 3-4 female tiger’s being in the vicinity of the male tiger. Apart from some very rare instances most of the times the male tiger and the female tiger are never together apart from a few weeks when they are mating.

 

So challenge no.1 is to locate one tiger, unlike lion’s who are in a pride you have to search for one tiger who has a significantly large territory. Usually these animals are nocturnal and move more during colder periods of the day rather than during hot periods. So either your chances are good early morning or late in the evening before it gets so dark we can’t see.

 

The tracking is usually done by drivers and guides who take you on a safari and whilst in the early morning they might be guided by pug marks more often than not they depend on a call by a langur or a deer. Now this is a very interesting way of spotting a tiger. The guide hears a call and raises his hand signalling everyone to be quiet. Everyone stops, the jeep also is shut, everyone tries to listen, the sound of the jungle reverberates in your ears. Pin drop silence, fresh air of the jungle, a small chi chi by a bird somewhere, a fly buzzing by your ear, the rustle of dead leaves as the deer walk on them, you can hear the jungle come alive!

 

Cooo…

 

You whisper to the guide

kaun hai?

us taraf ped pe se koi langur awaz de raha hai..

Apparently, when the tiger is on the move, a langur or a deer who ever spots it keeps giving an alarm call to all others alerting them that the Big Boss is on the move. The whole experience of keeping quiet, listening to that one hoot from a distance, tracking that hoot and seeing which direction it is being relayed is by what the guides gauge the location of the tiger. This whole exercise when there is pin drop silence and you actually absorb the jungle just by your eyes, ears and nose is what makes the whole experience quite fascinating and unreal for me.

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Mornings be so wonderful in the woods! Dawn at Ranthambore

Okay so back to my story, after the first safari was unsuccessful, the second day’s morning safari was pretty eventful as we managed to actually spot a leopard of all people. Amazingly, there was no alarm call, there was no evidence we were going to see it and all of a sudden it was me who thought he saw a deer walk and asked the jeep to stop and we realised it was a leopard. Early morning the leopard seemed to be walking back up the hill, as the guides would generalise, leopards spend the day in higher ground away from the tiger ground. This fellow was quietly walking away, he crossed the road whilst we stood there transfixed, he paused for a second looking at us and then as if we didn’t matter kept on walking on his merry path.

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This fellow posed just for a second! Terrible shot I know, but the excitement of having spotted a predator!

No tiger, but hell a lot of excitement, Bagheera’s fair cousin after all 😀

 

The next safari we got into a zone that was special, it belonged to the legendary & the most famous tigress of the country and apparently she had killed something in the morning and our guide and driver excitedly took us to the spot. Machli, the tigress, is probably the most photographed and most well documented tigress amongst all Indian tiger’s not just that but infact a  report says that India had earned about USD10 million per year due to tourists attracted by the tigress for the last ten years!!!!  She has stories galore, they call her the Park ki Naani as she was 17 year old then in the last stage of her life and many of the powerful tigers in Ranthambore were her kids! So we stood at that spot where she had been seen in the morning for an hour, I was transfixed and did not want to move even if that meant 4 hours of waiting. Eventually, whilst we were busy shooting a mongoose some movement was noted below a banyan tree it was dark and far she was moving, she was spotted, but, as most tiger’s are, she was lazy and in the noon at 3 pm she was in no mood to move she actually lied in some nullah (waterbody) where we couldn’t see it.

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The first sighting!!!! Albeit quiet far and zoomed up!!!

After so many years, so much of a wait, a glimpse from miles away, I didn’t want to go or give up but my driver and guide took me around teaching me to enjoy the jungle and all other aspects and not be crazy about the tiger. They were right, but, it was my first time! Sigh… after about 2 hours of zipping about we came back to the same spot hoping that now that it was a bit of late evening and considerably cooler she would probably make a move. The fact that she had some kill around there made our chances bleak. As the time went by, the exit time was nearing and most of the other jeeps started to go, I was feeling gutted, I didn’t want to go. We were the last jeep and I requested by driver, last 5 mins then we will go away.

 

Just as my driver’s patience was wearing thin and late exit fine looming on us our guide excitedly gushed in a whisper….

woh hili

woh hili… 

jhadiya hil rahi hai….

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Finally she emerged! Her snooze was perhaps over! Yay… she was moving!

Those two minutes when you try to spot the movement are like crazy, you feel you are blind, then eventually we saw her moving, she was still quite far, but she came out of the bushes and climbed a rock and sat down, we could see her in full but she was quite far.

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She sat down at a vantage point, probably eyeing her kill and whiled a few minutes before flies ensured she didn’t stay there!

We gaped, looked in our binoculars and soaked the feeling of watching a tiger, free and on its own, not a care or worry in the world she sat there, yawned, shook her head to get rid of the flies, gaze about and allowed us for a minute to understand what her world was like.

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For a minute she looked into my lens! Zoomed image but boy she looks magnificient doesn’t she?

The most powerful beast was all alone actually, every one stayed miles away and yet as she again got up and made a move Cooo went a langur, for a change, human’s had spotted it before the monkey’s! As she moved down from the hill the langur shrieked harder. The jungle suddenly seemed to be coming alive as she moved and then it struck us, it was moving towards a road crossing.

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Some how in this image she looks quite short and actually like a long lost kitten!

Our guide took us to a spot where he reckoned the tigress would come out, for a few anxious minutes we lost it, we wondered if we might not see her again and then a few bushes moved, and like the cutest of kitties, she emerged, cutest she looked from a distance, but, as fast as lightning it dawned upon you, as she walked and walked towards us, decreasing the distance to about 6-7 feet of our jeep we actually experienced how enormous and how terrifying the feeling can be. She never for an instance indicated or even took notice of us apart from a casual two moment glance. No even an iota of threat was issued by her, we were a total non event for her. Perhaps she was so used to having camera’s chasing her for so many years she stopped taking notice. But boy when she came really near our jeep, before it crossed it, this was not something we were used to and it was certainly a first for all of us, we had frozen, I had stopped clicking and grabbed by son close to me. DSC_0238That moment was indescribable, fear, joy, ecstacy, excitement, nervousness everything in one and you dared not shriek at that moment. Something that you have wanted to experience for so long in your life suddenly happens like a blur in front of you and you don’t even know how to react!

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That blur of a moment is still alive in my eyes, she went a little away from our bushes and lazily plonked herself on the floor again. In those 5 minutes of activity it had given memories of a lifetime to a few people. The beast as some would call it was beautiful, graceful, light footed, arrogant but above all was free to its own will! Yes, this wasn’t a tiger in a cage, it was in its own free world, where she could sleep all day or walk miles if she wished. Yup that was my first tiger in the wild.

 

Machli I guess was worth the wait of 35 years! The queen of Ranthambore, Park ki Naani, Lady of the lake are some of the names of her but none appeals to me more than Machli. Apparently Machli was the trigger point for many more encounters in the future to come, which I am all going to recount in the next few posts. Here are a few pictures of the most picturesque Ranthambore, for a reserve in Rajasthan you will be surprised by the number of water bodies it has and all of my pictures are from March!!

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Nothing and I repeat nothing can compare to this experience of stalking the biggest stalker of them all in his own backyard! Yes spotting a tiger in its natural habitat is an experience one can only comprehend once they experience.

 

 

 

Dudhsagar Water Falls

Disclaimer : This is the non adventurous, touristy way of reaching the falls!

 

When Aamir Khan flew that plane over Pangong Tso in 3 idiots we all loved it, infact I felt finally some Indian films were finally actually exploring India’s most beautiful places. Little did we imagine that the very next year there would be traffic jams on the road to Pangong and there would be packets of Lay’s wafers and Bisleri bottles floating in the waters of Pangong! The curse of Bollywood if you may call it now, not their fault mind you, but our people (tourists) and our govt who fail to see the coming number of people and do not prepare adequately to arrange for the trash that we will bring along.

 

A few years later, a Deepika Shahrukh Khan starrer makes another such wonderful natural location of India famous, Dudhsagar Falls, result : flocks and flocks of Indian tourists arrive on the scene. What was once a place were only a few people went is now flocked with people. The result should be good, more people get to see the beautiful place, the rain forest can be protected from being cut as it now suddenly generates revenue, the locals also suddenly have a source of employment that they had not forseen.

 

I hope in a while from now that will be the case. As of now I must confess though at my surprise the forest is still pristine and clean, no plastic, no bottles, no dirt anywhere, not that we spotted. The crowd is huge, they have now limited the admittance into the park to 225 jeeps, each jeep carries 7 people charging Rs. 400 p/p from Collem plus the driver into the Dudhsagar Falls, they have made life jackets compulsory for all to avoid any mishaps, there were people around the waterfall to ensure no one was at a risk of losing lives, some volunteers were even clearing water bottles from the water on a surf board which were dropped by a few irresponsible tourists.

 

Inside the park its awesome, the jungle is super dense, absolutely like you would imagine a rain forest to be like, the route that the jeeps drive through is adventurous, super bumpy and awe inspiring, the water is clean, albeit a few too many people at the main pond below the falls with everyone wanting to bathe, the dip is every bit worth it as I went in, the scary part for me was my feet didn’t touch the bottom, I can’t swim and the fact that fishes as big as almost 2-3 feet swam about around me, not that they harmed but they kinda scared me, when I look back now I find that super cool and wonderful to be able to swim with fishes! The fishes are all friendly and actually tried to keep away, accidentally sometimes they would brush your leg or stomach and to me it gave chilly creeps. I am a total waste I know, some people tried to catch them but the fish were pretty agile for them! All said and done, with the life jacket you need to take that plunge in that pool! The swim is amazingly soothing!

 

The only two drawbacks I felt were one, the jeeps should be open gypsies not closed jeeps, the viewing could be so much better and second the queue to get in, it is as chaotic as it can get, almost driving some people to wanting to return from there without visiting. My advice, be patient, bear the pain and enter the park, once inside its calm, peaceful, beautiful and fun. Amazingly its not littered up despite so many people visiting which is a tribute to the people visiting and the local officials.

 

On our way back we also saw some people trekking the route our jeeps plied and I was devastated to learn that you could actually trek and I had opted for the jeep. I am not aware how you get that permission, but do look for it before going for the jeep like an idiot which I apparently was. Walking takes 2.5 hours one way, drive is 45 minutes one way. Walking in a rain forest would certainly be a most wonderful experience.

 

From what I learnt is the trek through the train tracks has been disallowed, although some people still do undertake it, if spotted by railway officials you could be fined. I guess Indian ways would certainly work anyways if you are wanting to go through that way regardless.

 

Here are a few pictures of that place, few coz we were more busy bathing than clicking! 🙂

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whilst the trees and foliage across the road is cut for easy access, the jungle besides is so dense you need to see to believe!

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Thats just one of the 3 water bodies that you cross on the way! 🙂 Fun eh??

 

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Whilst we saw one monitor lizard on the way, the closed jeeps don’t really allow you to look about a lot, what you cannot miss though is this fella! They are in thousands!

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They keep falling throughout the year! Four tiered water fall it is!!!! The sight is to behold and soak, a passing train makes the whole scene kinda unreal!

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I think this is said to be India’s 5th tallest Waterfall!

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Bathing here is one thing you do not want to miss out on! Even if you can’t swim, put on the float jacket and go in the water! Take my word for it!

 

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Now you know why they call it Dudhsagar don’t you?? Totally foamy milky falls!

 

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Thats me splashing happily 🙂 🙂 🙂

 

 

Stop! Tiger on Prowl!

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Early morning safari’s are blissful! Not only do you get to be in the woods early in the morning and take in the fresh air, but the slowly penetrating sunlight gives you a thousand sights that will fill your memory for all those days when you have to go to work! The jungle is fully alive first up in the morning, the birds in full flight and at their chirpiest best!

The visitors in the park even more excited at the hope of spotting animals and among all a tiger!

Then, 5 minutes into the park you see this beautiful young female cub walking all alone on the road towards you and you wonder whom do you thank for your luck today!

Oh she was awesomely pretty walking down towards us! We kept reversing our jeep as she kept on walking towards us, she refused to acknowledge our presence, spraying on the trees and marking her territory.

This cub is not yet an owner of a territory and will soon mature into a full grown tigress and make her own territory, she has started doing a bit of it. We were blessed to watch her from up close! 🙂

Tiger tiger burning bright!

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As the jeep rolled on the safari track in the ever green Saal Forest in Bandhavgarh, the conversations kept on going to the superb tiger spotting in the morning. The evening safari was probably in the wrong part of the jungle and so the focus was on capturing the landscape, the sunset, the reflections in the waterhole or probably capture the Malabar Pied Hornbill.

But then, when you least expect something, trust destiny to turn up with it.

All of a sudden our driver gestured to our right and exclaimed!

“Woh dekho Tiger!”

That was the first sight of this lonely male tiger who seemed to be actually almost slithering over the grass. He walked nonchalantly, gliding through the tall blades of grass, no prey in sight and no destination perhaps decided.

29th March was one heck of a lucky day in our lives, we spotted two male tigers in a day! Both so close that we could almost smell them!!! Life has turned a full circle I tell you. 🙂 🙂 🙂

All set for the jungle!

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All the wildlife enthusiasts patiently wait whilst their papers are being checked at the entrance of the Ranthambore National Park. Apparently and increasingly it appears to me that more foreigners visit our jungles than Indians. I guess the lure of watching a tiger in its natural surroundings is a lot more attractive for them than us. Not that I am complaining, for these tourists are a lot more disciplined and appreciative than a lot of Indians we encountered during this trip.