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Welcome to VCM-Photography, a website designed and written
by myself Vernon Metcalfe to showcase my photographic passion for
military aviation and wildlife.
My aviation photography is orientated towards the dynamic aspect of military low flying, where aircraft are captured flying landlocked against the countryside, rather than airshow photography, where aircraft are captured against the sky.
My parallel passion is wildlife photography, encompassing all species, but with a preference for the ‘Big Cats’, which has taken me to places such as India, looking for the elusive tiger, Africa for the lion, leopard and cheetah and to the Brazilian Pantanal for the iconic jaguar.
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In November, accompanied by my wife I embarked upon my second photography safari of 2023 to India, primarily looking for tigers. On this trip we were travelling to Bandhavgarh National Park in the Umaria District of Madhya Pradesh. This was our fifth visit to Bandhavgarh, which is regarded as one of the premier parks for tiger sightings.
We last visited Bandhavgarh in October/November 2022. I was undecided whether to visit again at the same time of
year, as tiger sightings can be more difficult due to the jungle blossoming into life after the recent monsoon rains.
The vegetation is lush and dense and the big cats can disappear into the jungle only a few metres from the forest tracks.
With more water available in the jungle interior, tigers are not restricted to the waterholes used during the dry season
where the chances of a sighting can increase. On a positive note, the jungle is more photogenic when in bloom and the
temperatures are more bearable than the intense heat of the dry season. Bearing these points in‑mind, we decided
to go with the mindset we would see nothing and if we did see a tiger it would be a bonus.
We were flying British Airways to New Delhi, where we would catch an internal flight to Jabalpur, approximately 180km south‑west of Bandhavgarh. From Jabalpur it was a four‑hour journey by taxi to our hotel, Bandhav Vilas, located on the outskirts of the village of Tala, after which the main safari zone of Bandhavgarh is named. The itinerary was to depart London Heathrow on Wednesday 15th and arrive at our lodge midday Thursday, in time for the afternoon jungle safari.
(Note: on previous visits to Bandhavgarh, we travelled by overnight train from New Delhi to Katni, from where we had a two‑hour journey by taxi to Tala).
We had the India travel visa from our visit to Ranthambhore in April. The hotel and fourteen private jeep safaris were booked and the B.A international flights and India internal flights were finalised and paid. The next day, we were informed by B.A. they had cancelled their flight to New Delhi ‑ Unbelievable!. The jungle safaris are non‑refundable, as were the internal flights. The next scheduled B.A. flight to New Delhi meant we would not arrive at Tala till after the weekend, missing a large chunk of our holiday. It was beginning to look as if it was not worth going, as we would be starting our return journey from Bandhavgarh to the U.K. the following Friday.
Wednesday 15th - To cut a long story short, we eventually departed London Heathrow at 20:30 on a B.A. overnight flight to Mumbai.
Thursday 16th - We arrived in Mumbai late morning and transferred to the Taj Santacruz Hotel located next to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. We had to stay overnight in Mumbai as our IndiGo Airlines flight to Jabalpur did not leave till the Friday afternoon. This allowed us to recover from the nine‑hour overnight flight and sample the local cuisine of the luxury hotel and relax in our sixth‑floor room which overlooked the airport main runway.
Friday 17th - We eventually boarded our Airbus A320 IndiGo Airlines flight to Jabalpur two‑hours later than planned, due to the inbound flight being delayed. Upon arriving at Jabalpur after nearly a two‑hour flight, we boarded our private taxi to Tala. The 180km journey took approximately 3.5‑hours. We arrived at our hotel late evening where we were greeted by Rambeer Singh, or Ram for short, who would be our naturalist/tracker/driver for the next eleven jungle safaris. After a light snack we retired for the evening, as we had an early morning wake‑up call.
By travelling to Mumbai, we arrived at Bandhavgarh earlier than if we waited for the next scheduled B.A. flight to New Delhi. The downside was the travel took a lot longer than our original itinerary and we lost three jungle safaris.
The itinerary for the next seven days was as follows:
Up early (04:45) for our morning game drive. A cup of coffee and some biscuits in the hotel reception to help wipe away the tiredness. We then board our Maruti Suzuki Gypsy vehicle and travel into Tala to the Forest Department Centre, where Ram, would pick‑up the Forest Department guide/tracker, which is compulsory for all jeeps entering the park. The guide carries a GPS so that the Forest Department can monitor the location of all vehicles in the park. We then travelled to the entrance gate of our designated zone for the safari, which opened at 06:15, where we must present our passports. The passport details must match those of the original booking, or access would be denied. A picnic breakfast was taken in the park at a designated location. All jeeps must exit the park by 11:30, or the tracker and naturalist could be fined or given a limited ban. We then returned to the hotel where we had free time till lunch, which was served at 13:00. After lunch we had more free time till the afternoon safari. The afternoon safari was the same procedure as in the morning. The park opened at 15:00 and all jeeps had to exit by 17:45. Returning to the hotel we had free time till the evening meal, which was served at 20:00. After the evening meal we retired for the evening after a long, exhausting but enjoyable day.
Bandhavgarh, which is set among the Vindhya Hills was declared a national park in 1968 and became a tiger reserve in 1993. The reserve covers a total area of 1,536 sq. km, which is divided into a core zone and buffer zone. The core zone covers an area of 716 sq. km and is divided into three zones: Tala (zone 1), Magadhi (zone 2) and Khitauli (zone 3). The buffer zone cover an area of 820 sq. km and is also split into three zones: Dhomokhar, Johila (Kalwa) and Panpatha (Pachpedi). Our eleven jungle safaris were conducted between the three core zones.
The topography of Bandhavgarh National Park varies between steep ridges, undulating forests and open meadows. The habitat of the park is termed as ‘Moist Mixed Deciduous Forest with a predominance of Sal’. On the low‑lying areas Sal trees are the predominant species, but forests of mixed deciduous type gain prominence on the upper hills, and hilltops with shallow soil and rocky outcrops. Bamboo is found almost throughout the park.
Morning safari, Tala zone - Tala is noted for the fort which stands on a plateau overlooking the surrounding countryside. Halfway up the southern slope of the plateau is a large monolithic statue of the reclining Lord Vishnu, known as Shesh Shaiya, which is highly revered and a major tourist attraction. Tala zone is characterised by tall Sal forests, hillocks, grasslands and many large meadows, such as Chackradhara and Rajbhera. Many documentaries on tigers have been filmed in these meadows, such as: ‘The Hunt’ and ‘Dynasties’.
During the safari we observed tiger pugmarks and heard chital and monkey warning calls, but no tigers were seen. A jackal was seen scavenging in the tall grass, but it was too obscured to get any photos.
Afternoon safari, Khitauli zone - A zone comprised more of a dry‑deciduous forest.
We saw our first tiger shortly after entering the zone. Pujari, a large male was resting in a waterhole. His head was just visible, and by standing on the seat of the jeep I was able to get an unobstructed view for photos. Eventually he walked off into the jungle. He was seen crossing the road shortly after, but there were too many jeeps in front of us to get any photos.
Morning safari, Tala zone - Shortly after entering the zone we were informed by another jeep that a tiger had crossed the road in front of them and disappeared through the dense foliage down onto a dry riverbed. We slowly moved along the road and suddenly our Forest Department tracker spotted the tigress, Chakradhara, resting on the sandy riverbed. Amazing how he spotted her, as she was just visible. The tigress eventually started walking towards an area where the road dropped down and crossed the dry riverbed. We arrived at the crossing just as she appeared onto the road and started walking ahead of us. She walked along the road only for a short distance before moving off into the jungle. We pulled‑up alongside the area and observed her tree scratching and scent marking, before she walked down onto the dry riverbed and disappeared. The other three jeeps at the sighting departed to the park Centre Point for their picnic breakfast. We decided to wait in the anticipation she would reappear, but she did not. After thirty minutes we decided to depart for our breakfast. Travelling to the Centre Point we passed a lot of jeeps who had finished their breakfast and were heading back towards the area where we had seen the tigress. Nearing the Centre Point we saw a jeep parked on the side of the road. As we approached, they informed us that there was a tiger by the stream, drinking. Approximately 75m away on the opposite bank of the stream, partially hidden from view was the tigress, Dotty. For the next thirty minutes our two jeeps followed the tigress as she followed the stream, scent marking, drinking and occasionally entering the water to cool off.
She was quite distant at times, as the road did not always follow the course of
the stream. I overcame this problem by adding a 1.4x extender to my 200‑500mm lens, which gave me a total focal length of
700mm. The road eventually crossed the stream where we could park‑up and watch the tigress approach through the tall grass
bordering the stream and walk onto the road. She walked past our jeeps, less than 10ft away, before disappearing into an area where
we were not allowed to follow. Ram, our naturalist, informed us that, Dotty, had been ousted from her territory in the Magadhi zone
(near to where we first saw her) by her four daughters and that she was probably in the Tala zone looking to secure a new
territory. A late breakfast finished off a very successful morning safari.
Afternoon safari, Magadhi zone - A zone characterised as grassland with a mixed dense forest cover. The zone borders the Tala zone and some tigers who live in Magadhi also share their territories with the Tala zone.
We saw tiger pugmarks and heard the growling of two tigers mating, but no tigers were seen.
Morning safari, Magadhi zone - Immediately after entering the zone a deer alarm call was heard off to one side of the road, followed by a monkey alarm call on the opposite side of the road. We waited as the alarm calls continued. Eventually they subsided and stopped, meaning the tiger was lying down or had moved out of the area. We went to the area we had heard the tigers growling during the morning safari, but no tigers were seen. There had been no sightings by any jeeps during the safari.
Afternoon safari, Khitauli zone - A male tiger had been sighted in the zone during the morning safari, so we headed straight to the location where we soon found the male tiger, D1, walking along the road. D1, who was approximately four‑years old, was from the first litter of the tigress, Dotty. The tiger soon turned off the road into the jungle, but continued walking parallel to the road in the direction of a river that lay ahead. We went ahead and positioned ourselves behind two jeeps that were on the ford that crossed the river. We were in the perfect position for capturing photos as the tiger approached from upstream, walking down the middle of the shallow river towards us.
After the tiger passed us and carried on his route downstream, we quickly followed the road around to where
it crossed the river again. There were already jeeps on the low bridge awaiting the tiger's arrival, so we had to park on the road
where it started to drop down towards the river. It was not a problem, as it was a good vantage point and gave another good photo
opportunity. The tiger approached from upstream and stopped short of the bridge, looking confused by the jeeps blocking his path. He did
not appear to look distressed, because he calmly laid down in the water and started drinking. Eventually the tiger walked onto the
riverbank past the jeeps and continued his journey downstream.
Morning safari, Tala zone - Lots of tiger pugmarks on the road, but no alarm calls were heard. We exited the park with no tigers seen.
Afternoon safari, Tala zone - Lots of tiger pugmarks on the road, but the park was quiet. We were driving towards the exit when a
sambar deer alarm call was heard from the area we had just left. A sambar deer alarm call is a 99% guarantee of a tiger in the area,
but it was too far away to return, as it was nearing the time to exit the park. We learned later that a jeep did have a fleeting glimpse
of a tiger at that location.
Morning safari, Magadhi zone - One of the four young daughters of the tigress, Dotty, was spotted in the tall grass of a meadow. The tigress seemed to be limping. The injury was the possible result of a fight with another tiger. She disappeared into the long grass and was not seen again.
Later in the safari, we had to divert from our planned route due to wild elephants feeding on the side of the road. A jeep travelling ahead of us had made a hasty retreat due to being charged by one. The wild elephants which had arrived in the park last year could be aggressive (especially if they had young) and quite destructive. You could sometimes see where they had been feeding by the broken tree branches and vegetation littering the forest roads. On one occasion the road was blocked by a tree the elephants had knocked over. Ram, our driver, was very cautious of the elephants, because last year a female with a calf had chased his jeep for over a kilometre. The opportunity never presented itself where we could observe the elephants at a safe distance, so I never captured any photos of them.
On Wednesday afternoons the park is closed to the public, so we had free time to ourselves.
Morning safari, Magadhi zone - Spotted deer alarm calls were heard in a wooded area adjacent to the meadow we saw the injured tigress on Wednesday morning. The alarm calls gradually moved away from us over to the far side of the woods, so we decided to move over to that area. When we arrived in the area a jeep informed us that a tiger with a limp had just crossed the road and disappeared into the jungle. We had missed the sighting by two minutes ‑ Ah such is life.
Afternoon safari, Khitauli zone - In a meadow just a short distance from the entrance gate we found the male tiger, Dhamokhar, laid down in the grass. His head and upper body was just visible above the grass. We watched him for about ten minutes when suddenly the tigress, Ra, emerged from the tall grass, approximately twenty metres away from him. For the next hour we watched as they mated numerous times, the act always finishing with the tigress emitting a deep growl, as the experience can be quite painful for her. On one occasion she even turned on the male lashing out with her claws, with the male rearing up on his hind legs to defend himself ‑ An amazing and privileged spectacle to witness. Eventually the female wandered off, with the male following her.
Morning safari, Tala zone - We were in the park less than five minutes when we spotted the pugmarks of a large male tiger. We followed them for about a mile, when up ahead we saw two jeeps parked on the side of the road. Laid down on the short grass, approximately forty metres away on the edge of the jungle was the zones large dominant male tiger, Bajrang (which means, Monkey God, in Hindu). He was quite relaxed, and for the next twenty minutes we watched as he kept calling out for a female partner with a deep throaty growl, which resonated throughout the jungle. It was only 06:30, so the light was not ideal for photography as the location was in the shade and the sun was still low on the horizon. Nevertheless, it was a nice sighting for our last jungle safari. Eventually the tiger rose to his feet and started walking. By now more jeeps has arrived on the scene, so we decided to leave, as it was starting to get chaotic with jeeps jostling for position.
Today we were leaving Bandhavgarh to start our return journey to the U.K. so we had to cut‑short our safari. We left the zone at
09:00 to return to the hotel to pack our luggage and bid our farewells to Ram, and the hotel staff. We left the hotel at 10:00 to
make the journey back to Jabalpur by private taxi, where we caught a mid‑afternoon IndiGo internal flight to New Delhi. The flight was
delayed by two‑hours, again due to the late arrival of the inbound flight, but this was no great drama as we had plenty of time to spare
when we arrived in New Delhi.
We departed New Delhi at 03:00 on a B.A. flight back to the U.K., arriving at London Heathrow early Saturday morning. Our return travel arrangements were as the original itinerary, which thankfully went without a hitch.
To conclude: I was very surprised how many tiger sightings and the quality of sightings we had compared to our visit last October/November. Wildlife is never predicable and I realise some of the sightings could be luck ‑ happening to be in the right place at the right time, but I also think a lot of the sightings were attributed to the knowledge and tracking skills of Ram (our naturalist/driver) and the Forest Department trackers, to whom we send our sincere thanks.
Photographs from my trip can be viewed at 2023 ‑ Bandhavgarh, India.