NIGHT DRIVES IN PENCH
My wife, Ingrid, and I have recently returned from 9 nights at Tadoba-Andhari and 3 nights at Pench Tiger Reserves. Trip report will follow but meanwhile this may be of interest to anyone heading to Pench in the next few weeks. We added the 3 nights at Pench partly because of the opportunity to do night drives, which are usually impossible in Indian wildlife reserves. We were aware that these drives have not been very productive but since we were in the area it seemed worth a try. However, while we were in Tadoba we met a couple who had just come from Pench and told us that although night drives will continue to be offered, the authorities there have recently banned the use of spotlights. Which is a bit like paying for an exclusive after-hours tour of the National Gallery but not being allowed to put the lights on! Naturally, this was the first we had heard of it and our informants had only found out when they arrived at the gate for their night safari. They soon concluded it was a pointless exercise, cut their losses and went back to the lodge. Of course, there was no question of a refund. It seems the idea is that you just hope to catch something crossing the road in the headlights. Nonetheless, we decided to give it a go as this was one of the reasons we went to Pench and, after all, you never know. As it turned out, we had not been in the forest very long when our guide spotted a tiger! This is extremely rare; he told us that in about 6 months of night drives tigers have been seen no more than 10 times. Try as we might Ingrid and I could not see it and, of course, within seconds it was gone. So, to try to reposition the headlights, we are now trying to do a 360-point turn in a teak forest at night without hitting a tree. Naturally, this doesn’t work and the forest guide says we can neither reverse nor go back the way we have come, it’s more than his job’s worth apparently. So we carry on, reluctantly leaving this rare sighting behind us, when about 200 yards up the track we see another tiger! This is literally unheard of. But this time we can clearly see the tiger; robbed of his fiery daytime colours he moves silently through the trees like a ghost. I am just settling down to enjoy the moment when it’s over – once gain he has moved beyond the angle of our headlight beam. There follows another protracted attempt to reposition the lights with much revving, reversing, jolting and grinding of gears but unfortunately the driver is not very good at it and every time he engages the clutch he manages to stall the engine. Meanwhile, I have a 900 lumen taclight in my bag and could easily illuminate the tiger in a moment but our guide makes it clear this is absolutely out of the question. Around now it occurs to me that in the forest at night with tigers and possibly leopards prowling around it might be really handy to be able to see what is coming up behind us as well what is in front, but apparently this little safety feature has not occurred to the authorities. Once gain we are forced to give up and continue, even more reluctantly, down the track. Just then we are flagged down by three forest guards who apparently didn’t get the memo about night drives even though they’ve been going on for months. They shine their torches suspiciously in our faces before allowing us to move on. We then drive another 200m or so to a junction where we can turn round and go back to see if we can see the tigers again but of course they are long gone. The three forest guards are sleeping in the flimsiest imaginable shelter made of twigs and leaves and we realise the second tiger had walked right past them without their being aware of it. I am reminded of the three little piggies. Ironically there really is a ‘big bad’ wolf in the forest, if only you can find him – you know what might really help with that? A spotlight! Needless to say the rest of the night we see three thick-knees and a couple of nightjars. On top of all this, the timings for day safaris had recently been changed in line with the season but they are not synchronised with the night drives so that you have to curtail your afternoon safari to be at the gate in time and, needless to say, the park gates open and close at different times in different parts of the park because they are in different states! India is a wonderful country but, good lord, it can be maddening at times. Fortunately, however, we had an excellent guide and the rest of the trip was terrific!