The experience: Day Nine – Travel to Bhandagavar

One week later and it was time to travel to the next park. I chose to leave at 9am so that we had a good start on the heat of the day and ensuring that we would arrive at the next hotel with time to visit the pool before dinner and preparation for the next days drive. The bags were loaded on to the blue hand cart and trundled down to the car.  My bar bill was settled and I made a large contribution to the staff tip pool. I gave both Raj and Neville individual envelopes with thankyou’s as they were both senior staff members and Raj as the Naturalist had shared so much of his knowledge and experience with me.

Another large packed lunch was put in the car and having said my goodbyes I climbed in as well, a little bit sad to be leaving, wondering if the next half of the trip would be as good as the beyond exceptional time I had already had.

The road trip took us through the very centre of India up and across the plateau, despite the air con I could feel the heat and became quite drowsy, the landscape was arid and bare so the roadside café stop was very welcome. The chosen stop this time had two shrines, a well and a blacksmith. Once again I was welcomed with a dusted down chair and a cup of Black Chia. After a few minutes I asked the drive if it was ok to wander and having established that I wasn’t going to trample on any religious / cultural sensibilities I went to photograph the shrines.

 Most memorable element of this journey was a huge tree in the middle of a village with 100 + roosting fruit bats – the Hindi word for fruitbat is  Ek Prakaar Ka Chamagaadad. My discussion with the driver must have looked / sounded hilarious as we established what they were and which sub species.

As soon as I was done, we were off again and the villages became more frequent and as we descended from the plateau it became a bit cooler. This drive was the only time that the heat got to me. Conversely, the travel instructions advise you bring a fleece or similar for the morning drives but I found the early temperature cool but not cold – short sleeves were comfortable.    

As we drove into Bandhagarh Park I could see that the surrounding villages were a tad more commercial. My hotel was in Kuchwahi Village and the main strip was a riot of colourful shop fronts, cafes and the odd shrine. Plus there were cows everywhere, in fact, the most I had ever seen. I was later told that they stayed on the road as it was warm at night and insect free during the day. By now I was used to traffic that chose the side of the road that was convenient rather than as per the highway code.

The hotel was at the bottom of a lane surrounded by small farms and we drove into a shady carpark surrounded by lush foliage with a lily pond and an Alsatian family – more of their funny exploits later. I bid goodbye to my driver who assured me he would be back at the end of my stay to take me to the airport. At this point I was a bit disconcerted as a young staff member watched me haul my bags out of the car boot and then led me on a long walk to reception – dragging my bags. A bad omen when I compared this to service levels at the Shergarh Lodge. To be fair this was one of only three incidents (2 hotel and 1 Air India) where I was disappointed with service levels and two of them were beyond Audley / the Hotel’s control. Check in was efficient with another explanation of how the drives would work and then I was escorted to my room (this time with a porter carrying my luggage)  

The room was like a little cottage, a private enclosed patio, the front door locked by a huge brass padlock and then an interior furnished with heavy hardwood furniture and lush fabrics. Dressing room, bathroom, outside bathroom and veranda with day bed complimented the double bedroom and HUGE bed.

The small touches constantly taking place throughout my stay kept this hotel from being impersonal and made up for the two hotel-based sins. I can pack / unpack at the speed of light and so was at the poolside very quickly and in time to see a baby from the Local Langur troop fall in and scramble out – soggy and suprised.  The troop were on constant alert and then I saw why, the hotel gardener wanted them to move on. He was very gentle in his efforts and I felt sorry for him as they moved into the vegetable garden and decimated his crop – but his attitude towards the wildlife  is a sign of the respect  / love Hindus have for animals. After an afternoon at the pool it was time for a shower and dinner – another memorable meal and copious quantities of Nimbu Pahni. Same routine as at Kanha – alarm on, kit and clothes ready and I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The Experience: Other Activities at Kanha

There was an option to take a cycle ride with a guide, to venture out for a walk by the river with a local Naturist and to visit the local market.

I opted for the last two. For the walk we discussed how long it should be (based on how well you can cope with the terrain and the heat) I opted for two hours and put the boots back on.  The Local Guide (LG) had just got married and interrupted his break to do the walk which was above and beyond the call of duty but also an example how far people would go to ensure my trip was fantastic.

We set off for the walk through local farmland and the first thing LG showed me was the resin in trees which goes into incense. LG lit a piece with his lighter and instantly it was as if I was in a temple.  The next natural history marvel was the Red Ant Leaf Nest – The Red Ants use their saliva to bond the leaves together. Further into the walk we found remnants of an empty nest and I was able to look at the construction in detail. The dried saliva joints felt like paper but were incredibly strong.

We arrived at the river after a descent on a path down the bank through light jungle. We then went immediately up again – up the fire watch tower via 5 flights of metal stairs but the view was more than worthwhile. The watch towers are for fire watch in the dry season (if there is a fire, everyone pulls together including the hotels who send staff and vehicles to help)

 There were several other things living up there but the most visible were two spiders, non-venomous but approx. a palms width in size later identified as a mouse spider.

Back to the river – there were several people performing evening ablutions but respectfully I deliberately avoided the photography opportunities, instead concentrating on the wildlife and the landscape. There was very little in the way of mosquitoes and other water loving insects. But I did meet several skipper frogs, no bigger than a 10 pence piece, they skip across the surface of the water. They are well camouflaged but I wasn’t sure if this was due to their colour or transparency.

About three quarters of the way into the walk there was an ominous blackening of the sky, thunder and lighting and then the heavens opened. I took my sunhat off and put it over my camera (rain cover and bag where back at the lodge) and we turned to head back up the bank and home. Within 20 minutes the sun was shining and it was all over. My camera was dry and so was I. I bid goodbye to LG after the ritual of the tip and the selfie and went to claim my cold towel and Nimbu Pahni.

Raj and Neville took me to the Local Market and I took my camera. There has been much consideration lately to the subject of Poverty Porn Photography and we also looked at this cultural development in photography  on the course. I am in two minds over the ethical argument. Certainly, many of the major street and travel photography competitions have winning images depicting African and Asian subjects in various states of poor quality or culturally representative clothes with characterful faces and poses. These winning images perpetuate how one might photograph one’s travels or is it that this is what traveling is about and the winning images are just the elite representation? What was I going to use the images for, to remember my trip and to demonstrate / challenge my personal skill with the camera because my ethos of making the most aesthetically pleasing image possible has not changed.  I do know that none of my people travel images will ever become icons as this is a genre that I am very weak at. Does that make it ok?

 Neville and I discussed this in advance and his advice was to ask first and then to show them the photograph afterwards. Some people said no, others were enthusiastic and even lined up their friends to join in. For those that gave me the privilege of indulging my passion the pressure was on to make an image they would be pleased with, the constantly moving and jostling crowd, the inconsistent light -it  was very shady in the market and dusty in the spice area all contributed to making conditions very difficult (for me). Technically this should have been no harder than working with wildlife but each subject wanted to present me with their best smile and pose even if it wasn’t the way to a best image. And I am pretty useless at posed family never minds strangers – at least with street photography its like wildlife in the city. Regardless, people were happy and smiled when they saw the screen and then insisted that their friends should also see the results. None of which will ever appear in National Geographic. Respect to those who are practised in this genre.

The market, as I said earlier was crowded but not chaotic. It was dived into sections: meat, fish, veggies, pots and pans, wedding stuff (May in the Wedding Month in India) silver and the jewellers, glass bangles etc. The smells were many and varied although hardly subtle in the spice area. The spices were in the air and within one or two minutes, like everyone else, I had a bad smokers cough. Despite the image opportunities I didn’t linger. The Glass bangles area had the most potential but a high proportion of the ladies said no to my request. One did give me the go ahead – as below

The fruit and veg area was the easiest, with more volunteers than I could cope with – but they all wanted to hold their produce, this plus my ineptness made for some very uncomplimentary images – which I eventually deleted.

Mingled in with the crowds was a cow with a deformed hip, obviously very hungry and I wanted to buy her some food, but there were also many hungry people there and I couldn’t help everyone so ended up helping no one, which I still feel bad about. The market was an experience and I would have liked more time there, if I went back this would be high on my list of additional activities       

The Experience Days: Four – Eight and the stars of the show, The Bengal Tigers – the animals that I had travelled so far to see

First some brief facts about Tigers:

There are six sub species of Tiger  ( there were originally nine but three have become extinct during the last 80 years:Bali tiger — extinct in the 1930s. Caspian tiger — extinct in the 1970s. Javan tiger — extinct in the 1980s. The remainder:

Amur Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica)

Northern Indo-Chinese Tiger (P.t. corbetti)

South China Tiger (P.t. amoyensis)

Malayan Tiger (P.t. jacksoni)

Sumatran Tiger (P.t. sumatrae)

Bengal Tiger (P.t. tigris)

Tigers are classified as endangered by the IUCN

The Indian sub-species is Panthera tigris tigris

Adult Males weigh between 180 – 230 Kg and are between 2.75 -2.90 m in length

Adult Females weigh between 135 – 185 Kg and are on average 260m m in length

Tiger height, to the shoulder ranges between 90 – 110 cm.

They have 5 toes on each front paw and 4 on each back paw with retractile claws.

Tigers can be right or left pawed just like people.

They reach sexual maturity between 2.5 and 3 years old.

Tigers like water.

Tiger stripes are like finger prints – unique to each tiger

They are fast  – up  to 65kph.

Gestation period is around 105 days and litter sizes range from 2 to 5 cubs which are born blind. Eyes open in approx. 10 days. Cubs leave their mothers between 20 and 24 months old    

Naming Protocol – they are given an id at birth e.g. DJ4 – the fourth daughter of Dhawajhandi and then a number when they obtain a territory  plus a name, based on local knowledge  / impressions of the Tiger e.g. Chhota Munna is the son  of the legendary tiger Munna  but he is also compact / stocky (Chhota)

My first sighting was on Saturday at a water hole. There, in the shade of a fig tree was Chota Munna, (T-29) a large male born in early 2012. Mum was Mundi Dadar (T-8) and he had two sisters– at this point  – further down the blog I will add a family tree as this all gets a bit complicated. T-29 is a confident   strong male who arrived at Mukki territory summer 2015. As if this wasn’t exciting enough, lying next to him was one of his daughters: DJ 4, 2 years old and the daughter of T-27 Dhawajhandi Female.

Over the course of the next few days I watched the interactions between these two. They were very friendly and whilst it is unusual for a daughter to flirt with her father (the cubs mature and leave to establish their own territory’s   and find mates – which avoids inbreeding) this is what was happening. Head rubbing, lying on her back and waving her paws etc. Raj said that the common impression was that she was getting ready to fight her mother for her territory.   I could detail my feelings and impressions, awe inspiring, beautiful majestic etc of seeing these animals but it has all been said before by better people. Instead: It was a privilege which I will think about for years to come.

On several occasions we saw both Tigers in the water cooling down but never together. The forestry staff had given Chhota Munna a nickname – Magaramachchh– the Hindi for crocodile because he was spending so much time in the water. DJ 4 was growing up like her father – normally females spend 30 or so mins in the water before they leave but she was in the water for hours at a time.

The other Tiger that I was privileged to see was MB 3 – daughter of Umparni Male who is half brother to Chhota Munna (Umparni’s mother was Umparni Female). She was lying in a stream in the shade in a typical feline pose but with water.  It is believed that Umparni female who had been missing for 5 days had just had a litter of cubs.

T29’s Claw marks
T29 and DJ4 under the fig tree
DJ 4 about to take a dip
T29 – ‘Magaramachchh ‘
MB3

The Experience: Days.Four – Eight, Elephants and other Animals

I didn’t see Tigers on every drive but the no tiger sighting drives were memorable for other creatures. A pair of copulating Indian Rat snakes (non venomous), she was bigger than him.

Copulating Rat Snakes

The pattern on both was subdued but perfect, if they hadn’t been on open soil you wouldn’t have seen them.  A male Sloth Bear – (the day after  an unexpected and unusual storm) a bear I had never thought I would see in the wild, was out taking advantage of the soft ground to dig into a termite nest for breakfast. He was watched by a crow who was ready to capitalise on this unexpected patron and gobble up the bear’s leftovers. When he had had his fill of termites he got up and ambled past the jeep and into the surrounding forest. When Kipling wrote Jungle Book, Baloo was the summing up of all the sloth bear traits, the shaggy coat, the laid-back amble and the feeling that this was a benign bear. But he was large and practically speaking I wouldn’t have interrupted his morning walk. The males stretch to about 6 foot when on their hind legs and the females have a hump for their cubs to clutch.  Kanha has between 80- 90 Sloth Bears in residence

And a hunting jackal, who after a successful kill, trotted a mile back to her 4 cubs and regurgitated her kill to the hungry youngsters. Raj knew where her den was and positioned the jeep both as she made the journey back and when she arrived at her den so that I could get photographs without disturbing her.

We also saw Blackbuck – the fastest Antelope who can run at 70-80 KPH – making them less likely to end up as tiger lunch.

And there were working elephants, Asian Elephants. Here Raj, once again shared his wealth of knowledge and experience.

Asian Elephant African Elephant
5 Front toes 4 Front Toes
4 Back Toes 3 Back Toes
Trunk has 1 finger Trunk has 2 fingers
Head has a double dome Head is sloped
Ears fold forward Ears fold backward

But the two most fascinating facts that he shared with me:

Bull Elllies have a short memory and will remember people they met from up to 3 months ago. A female Ellie will remember people from years ago.

How do you approximately measure an elephant’s height?  Twice the circumference of the foot will give you the height to the shoulder

The working elephants are let loose into the forest each night so they can forage and behave as wild elephants. They wear a long chain around one-foot which leaves drag marks, each morning the Mahout follows the track to his Elephant and then leads it back to the compound for breakfast. At the end of each day the Elephants are taken to the river for a wash and scrub before being let loose into the forest for the night. Early one morning I met Pavan (wind god in Hindi) as 25-year-old male that was born in the park. His Mahout brought up to the side of the Jeep (whilst in the park visitors are not allowed out of the jeep unless it is in a designated rest compound). I was invited to stroke him – this is the nearest I have been to an elephant since I was a child. As I stroked him, he rumbled from deep inside his body and shut his eyes. Pavan liked me and felt at ease and so did I, plus I felt privileged to have made an elephant happy for a brief moment.

I didn’t see the elephant baths in Kanha but I did at Bhandhavgarh. The elephant bath takes at least an hour, every part, intimate or otherwise is washed with river water and the tusks are scrubbed with sand and then rinsed. Some of the younger Elephants are quite mischievous during the bath, squirting water at the mahouts and often tipping them off into the water (as their backs are scrubbed). What I saw was a lot of love and respect between Elephant and Mahout, with the skills being handed down through the generations. It may not be the same everywhere but in these two parks I was confident that the working Elephants had a good life.             

The Experience – Drive Formats and 4am starts

The drives, in terms of format didn’t differ although the sights did. So, I will cover one drive as an amalgamation of them all. For the morning drive a gentle voice said good morning outside your door and offered a tray with biscuits and your chosen early morning drink. I had also put on the alarm just in case and packed my kit the night before. Clothes were already laid out (Initially: trousers, T shirt . boots etc which later changed to flip flops and shorts) and ready for when I came out of the magnificent shower. You were asked to be careful with water – which for a drench shower addict was hard but it was a small sacrifice when you consider what it means for the village to have no water.  Redbush tea consumed (I love trying local food but refuse to travel unless I have my Redbush tea). And I was ready.  Raj – the Hotels Naturalist was waiting on the veranda surrounded by the dog pack and we walked down the lane to the jeep. The drive to Kanha Park Gates was 15 minutes, it was still dark but warm and getting lighter – ISO was 5000 at f8  – 1/500

Kanha Park was a hunting park till 1910 and became a sanctuary in 1933 with the relocation of 27 villages. It became a National park in 1955 and a Tiger reserve in 1973. It currently covers 940 square kilometres- not the biggest park but the most intimate.

 At the park gates we completed the paperwork – my passport was required as the park pass had been booked 120 days ago as soon as they came on sale. The pass, on each drive, was valid for a specific are of the park. This ensured that areas of the park were not overrun with vehicles and tourists thus contributing to animal welfare. It does mean that if a tiger is sighted in another part of the park, that is tough – you can’t go there – but the welfare of this endangered species comes first. The plus side was that Raj – who grew up in the Chitwan National Park, Nepal (his father was head ranger) has a lifetime of experience in Indian sub continent flora and fauna. So, if there are no tigers be prepared for the myriad of other creatures. At the gate Raj checked on updates (birth, deaths, sightings and ranger activities) and we picked up our Park Guide. His/her job is to help with identification and to ensure we don’t exceed the boundaries of our allocated area, timings etc. (we are required to be out of the park by 11am in the morning and 7pm in the evening). Fines for companies breaking any of the rules range from cash to banning for various periods from a day to a lifetime.

Once the gates open, convoys of vehicles head off in various directions to their allocated area of the park and once there, according to Guide / Naturalist intelligence.  

In Kanha park, out of 8 drives I saw tigers on all but 3.  On the drives with no sightings there were plenty of alarm calls especially at the known crossing points (roads and paths that intersect a tiger’s territory patrol route) and visible pug marks. There were also several tree with scratch marks – some of them nearly 6 to 7 foot up the tree)

The other reminder of the park’s heritage was the grave of Lapsi Sikara – January 1913. Lapsi Sikara was a well known Tiger Hunter who used the traditional tools of bow and arrow and ….his wife!

He would tie her to a tree as bait and hide in a bush waiting for the hungry tiger, shooting it as it pounced.  On that fatal day in January (exact date unknown  as it was a while before they found the remains) he missed and the tiger ate Lapsi Sikara. Then he ate Mrs Sikara.

On the morning drives the routine was to head for the allocated park area and track / search/ wait for tigers or anything else that looked interesting. At about 8am most jeeps started to head for rest compounds and after individual comfort breaks it was an opportunity to socialise with other visitors, naturalists and the forest guides. Multi coloured table cloths were spread across the bonnet of each jeep and out came picnic hampers and boxes.  The food was spread out buffet style and tea / coffee freshly brewed with hot water from flasks. I don’t know how typical of India my daily breakfasts were but I ate and enjoyed every morsel. Breakfast Chapattis filled with omelette, samosas, fresh fruit and cakes with seeds in the middle.  And if you wanted to sample the food on the next-door jeep you only had to walk past and you would be invited to help yourself – whether you were tourist or staff. Any that was left was parcelled up and given to the forest labourers who lived in the compounds.  The exception to this routine was if you were allocated the Central Area – in which case once you entered the compound, your breakfast picnic was taken into a canteen in a Forest Dept staffed building. I was told that this was because too many visitors had fed the monkeys etc and to avoid further dietary harm, food was banned from the outside area.  Inside, freshly made hot samosas were available and they were delicious. The facilities were slightly more sophisticated and kept clean by local ladies. Like attended cloakrooms in British Hotels it is customary to tip. There was also a souvenir shop with some very good books on sale and this was where I acquired both The Tigers of Kanha ( very essential reading as it’s a bio of each tiger past and present and Raj was also featured in it – he later autographed my copy) and a large coffee table book of Indian Wildlife photography ( a backup in case my efforts were not up to scratch)

Evening drives went through the same entry process, updates, picking up the forest guide etc. They also seemed a bit more frenetic possibly because of the shorter time – 4.00 pm to 7pam rather than 5am to 11 am.  At the end of each drive there was a return trip to the gate to deposit paperwork, book out and allow the forest guide to return to base. At this point it was customary to tip the forest guide (recommended min amount was 150 Indian Rupees per drive) and, always half of what you tip the Hotel Naturalist per drive and according to how hard he / she had worked.  This is what you need the small denomination notes for, although if you know you are staying with the same Naturalist for all your drives you can sort this element out on the last drive or another appropriate moment. I decided to add a bonus for each time was saw a tiger for both but gave the recommended base tip regardless for the Forest Guide. I don’t like the tipping palaver, especially the brandishing of the wad and peeling off of the notes – its demeaning and humiliating to the recipient. However, I do realise that it is a way or a means to life especially in third world countries and so over time I have perfected that handshake that passes across the folded note(s) – respect and discretion satisfied on all accounts

The Experience – Day Three

The City Guide and Driver arrived just before 10 am as arranged and first stop was a money changer as Banks / change facilities were going to be far and few between (I was expecting facilities at both hotels and wasn’t disappointed but the exchange rate in the city was better). After changing a suitable amount (I worked out in advance the recommended amount for tips plus personal spending) we then needed to get this changed to small denominations. Again, the City guide’s knowledge came into its own as we visited a petrol station and they were happy to swop denominations. At this point the City guide left us and we crossed the city to head up country for KAHNA National Park.

The drive across the Declan to the first park was almost entirely through rural countryside – a great way to see off the beaten track India. The roads ranged from well managed toll roads (with a huge list of payee exemptions) at each entrance, those under construction and roads that would just make Class B status. The car was comfortable and the Driver avoided the rocks and potholes. Early into the drive we got a phone call from Neville, the manager of Shergarh. He was checking on the time we would arrive and wondering if I would like a light snack and if so what – for when I arrived.          

There was plenty of opportunity for comfort breaks as road-side cafes which the driver had visited before so was happy with standards. (Be aware that this is rural India so high standards are based on local levels and perception – a supply of wipes and hand disinfectant will alleviate any hygiene concerns).

At the chosen stop on the roadside at the edge of a small village I was offered cold fizzy drinks etc but opted for Black Cha (tea) which had the added advantage of refreshing as well as made from boiled water. The hotel had given me a packed lunch – a huge amount of food which I shared with the Driver. Once again, the selfie seekers were out in force – very polite and enthusiastic. The food that was cooking smelt and looked amazing – cooked on a wood fuelled fire in very basic cooking utensils. Someone went into the back, brought out a chair, dusted it down and presented it to me to sit on. I really wanted to walk around, both for the experience and to stretch my legs, but politeness dictated that I smile and sit.

On our way again and it got hotter and even more rural as we passed through colourful villages and farm land. Rice is the major output for the region and everyone was waiting for the monsoon so that they could begin planting. After five hours we started to enter the Kanha region and head towards the first park, the surroundings started to get a bit greener and the langur monkeys more prolific and cheekier. We drove into the village of Bahmni and through a gate made up of two brick and stone buildings onto a mud lane. The lane led past a small but old shrine and then came to an end.

There was a young man waiting with a blue hand cart who took my luggage and led me through shady trees up to the lodge. We crossed a bridge and on my right was a small lake with a brick sluice gate. There were egrets, pond heron and a kingfisher. Although I didn’t see him, the lake also has an otter. Shergarh is on the site of an old Eucalyptus plantation – the lake was built to supply the tree who are very thirsty. 

As we crossed the bridge over the edge of the lake Neville and his staff were waiting with cold towels and a glass of Nimbu Pahni (fresh lime, mint and water) which was my favourite drink whilst in Asia as a child.  I had forgotten about it but the first mouthful brought back many memories. (I asked for the recipe and now I am making it at home) Neville explained that it was also a health tonic / spice barrier for stomachs.  We made our way up to the veranda to complete the paperwork and to meet the dogs – Shanti, Mowli and their son. We also discussed arrangement for drives, the dreaded wakeup call, dinner, etc.  More Nimbu Pahni and some cake and sandwiches arrived. Everything was beyond my expectations. My luggage was taken to my tent under some shady trees and I followed it anxious to unpack and get out and explore. Kingfishers in the grounds are a sign of the diverse species to come.

As I wandered round the grounds, I saw tracks from assorted animals, a jungle cat, deer, a snake and assorted insects and bird tracks. The dogs followed behind me at a distance and there were local cattle grazing in thickets. I was so excited and this was justified because it only got better. Dinner that night was outside by the side of the lake, a typical Indian Meal: chicken curry, lentils, salad, rice and Chapatis. The evening meals were made from local ingredients and really showed off the culinary traditions of India – the deserts were a Asian / wester fusion of sweetness. All to soon it was time to go to bed in anticipation of the 4am call.

The Experience – Day Two

On Day two of traveling I arrived at Nagpur City at 2.20 am – the airline staff neglected to give me an immigration form so that was the first thing I had to do. The airport was small but it didn’t take to long to get through or wouldn’t have done if there were not some curious things about my passport which I won’t cover here. But this is unusual and I would envisage no issues normally. Customs were very friendly but as I mentioned in part one, wanted to know about and examined ALL my kit.

When I got through to the other side there was a driver from the hotel with my name on a card plus the city guide and driver. They explained that as I might have been worried at just meeting a driver from the hotel, for added security they were there with official identities / paperwork. Wow – that was the first inkling that the attention to detail already displayed by Audley Travel stretched right down to their subcontractors.

I was quickly driven to the Tuli Hotel – described as a boutique hotel and it was. Furnished with hardwood furniture and sumptuous fabrics it was as you would imagine a palace to be furnished. The bathroom was big with a drench shower and roll top bath. Plus the hotel had a rooftop swimming pool. Once checked in the City Guide suggested a collection time for part one of the city  tour (11am) and I eventually crashed out  with the alarm on for 9am. Breakfast was a mix of European and Indian food with plenty of fruit – but best of all was  the newspaper – the Nagpur Times  waiting in a holder outside my room. A great way to start getting to grips with India.

The City Guide and Driver arrived on time and we set off through the traffic to the first stop – the Deeksha Bhoomi. This commemorates Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s return to Buddhism, his horror of the Caste Systems and his resulting construction of the Indian Constitution in 1956. The temple is also a Monks Seminary. The Temple was clean and calm but incongruously had CCTV over the alter with a laptop behind showing people at prayer.

Here, I was asked to remove my shoes and leave them at a small kiosk, but I could leave my socks on. Cameras are not to be used inside the temple. This was were I was introduced to the selfie craze – everyone wanted a selfie with me – it was no hassle to take part but I did wonder about how it would be explained on social media. And this was just the start of the very OTT selfie regime that I exerienced all through my trip ( I reciprocated with family pictures / portraits which seemed to fullfill my part of the process.

Next on the tour was the Zero Mile Stone which marks the geographical centre of colonial India.  The stone has distances to other towns marked on it and has four carved horses to the side. This is on a small patch of land in the middle of a busy traffic system – a short lense is best  -not the long one I had unpacked in error.

The final stops for the morning were two Hindu temples where I removed shoes and then washed my hands and feet. Again – the shoes were left with an attendant in a kiosk – take a small flannel to dry your feet when you reverse the process to leave! These two temples were overflowing with friendliness – I was given so much food from people who had very little. (I redistributed it outside the temple gates to people the guide advised were genuinely in need). I wasn’t able to photograph the interior but it was beautiful with plenty of flowers and colour for each God and everyone was smiling. I also saw new vehicles coming to be blessed (all decorated with marigold garlands). In a previous existence I watched the Indian Ambassador decorate the nose of a Harrier Jump Jet with a similar garland when India took delivery at the BAE factory

After this I was given the option of lunch at a hotel or back to my own – the vision of the roof top pool and very large circular loungers guided this decision – easy. It was a wrench to go and get changed for the afternoon tour but it was worth it with a visit to two Mosques where the culture was entirely different.

Shoes off and left with an attendant or just outside for the second poorer Mosque.  The first Mosque  ( Bohra Masjid Mosque) was surrounded by a large market selling food and some household stuff – again very colourful and atmospheric.  The food smells were entrancing but with a 6 hours drive ahead of me the next day I took no chances with hygiene. It was very busy and is used as a community centre – there were goats and people seling things as well as praying. There were also seperate queues for men and women – here my large scarf was usefull as a cover up to respect local culture .

The second was mosque was just over 100 years old and being rebuilt so it was a bit chaotic. Similar queues for men and women but it did seem a bit more personal. On the way back to the hotel we saw a Buddhist Wedding procession – identified by the guide – everyone in white and with a white horse. An interesting day and a great introduction to the different facets of India – I was back as it got dark , in time for dinner and an early night

Tiger Safari – Planning / Trip Specification Part Two

Camera Care –.  I had both cameras serviced before leaving and took a cleaning kit with soft lens cloths, soft brush and a tooth brush plus a towel for cover ups whilst on the move in the jeep. I also used a harness so that one camera was always too hand but safely attached to my body. This is absolutely ESSENTIAL when there is a tiger scramble (fast driving over rough terrain when a sighting has been broadcast by text). Additional personal kit choices included – spare body and appropriate chargers, spare batteries.(Take them to the  airport fully charged – same with your laptop)  an old but spare 300mm, combined travel monopod/ tripod (both carried in suitcase) 100mm macro , 75- 200mm, 100 – 400mm, 24 – 105mm, spare memory cards, mac air and two backup drives  and a card reader  All carried in a top opening messenger bag as this is easier to work with in a vehicle but also fits in with cattle class hand luggage weight (8kg) and size restrictions. From a security view it is also less obtrusive. Again, budget allowing I would travel biz class next time but just for the weight. The Air Qatar seats are very comfy and spacious    

Clothes – I took too many. Some with the intention of leaving behind anyway (a form of recycling) but ended up leaving quite a lot behind as I overdosed on local carvings – high quality for a fair price by European standards. The clothes I found most useful were from Rohan as they washed easily, (after two drives in the dry season dust was a big issues) dried in a few hours and still looked good. Plus, my cherished and battered bush hat. Evenings were informal – so a few pretty T’s and capri leggings also fulfilled local / sightseeing cultural requirements. A big soft scarf was used for everything from making a handbag (knot the ends and make a sling) to a sarong for pool visits.  I started the safaris wearing desert boots and socks in case I needed to walk anywhere but changed to flip flops for coolness and convenience. I was often stood on one of the seats to get a better view / angle and bare feet kept the seats clean.

Personal Care – I have a standard travel meds kit – cold remedy, rehydration salts, upset stomach remedies and sealed surgery /dental kits plus ibuprofen / paracetamol and TCP cream /plasters. For this trip I also added sun cream and insect repellent but I didn’t need the latter. In fact, this was one of the healthiest trips overseas I have ever had. I mentioned temperatures earlier, it was HOT, and I am not always diligent about drinking. This time I bought a blue bead bracelet (I guess male readers could always wear a rubber band) and wore it constantly as a reminder to drink and drink and drink some more.

I took copies of A Naturalist’s Guide to the Mammals of India (Naturalist’s Guides) Paperback & Collins Birds of India (Collins Pocket Guide) Paperback so that I wasn’t completely clueless about the indigenous wildlife, both picked up second hand. Whilst on trips like this I make my own field notes – it helps with Bird ID and the subsequent scribblings are a nice reminder of the trip.

Charging batteries etc was simple, I did take adaptors but the lodge and all the hotels took UK plugs.

Air conditioning – on or off? I revel in the heat unlike my husband who melts, so we have a lot of discussions over this one. Personally, I acclimatise very quickly and believe this is helped by not using the Aircon (and it helps save the planet). As I was on my own this trip, I left the Aircon off – no worries about sleeping as the safari schedule means you will be in bed early and up early (4am morning wake- up call and India is 4.5 hours ahead at the time of writing). Take a small alarm clock to use as well!   

So, with suitcase and camera bag packed I travelled south to stay with relations and from there to overnight at the Premier Inn at Heathrow (check in at 5am on Day 1). I wore my waistcoat of many pockets as my camera bag was overweight (what a surprise) but unlike chartered flights – on a scheduled flight there is a degree of forgiveness and generosity.  I went and lurked in the Biz Class lounge (a privilege that comes with a specific credit card). Check in was trouble free as was boarding – next stop Doha with a break and then Nagpur. Doha Duty Free is very inviting but if you have purchases in mind – research the UK price before you get there – you may be surprised

Pause for Thought and the Tiger Safari (Part One)

The MA is complete (Distinction awarded – yes I know its bragging but I am so pleased and proud) and at the end of term I took my long-awaited reward – a tiger safari in India.

Whilst I was there, I had the chance to think about what happens next – I have enjoyed writing in my CRJ and it would be a shame to let that go. My time in India also highlighted that although I have come a long way there is even further to go in keeping with Kaizen. I also wondered about how to share what I have learnt. This blog is now going to morph into an informal source of information for other photographers and anyone else who is interested.

India then, I think it will take several posts to cover everything so I will divide it up into three bites:  – planning / trip specification, the experience and reflection

India – Planning / Trip Specification

My objective with this trip was to maximise opportunities to photograph tigers and any other wildlife that would pass in front of the camera.

October to December is the lush time for India when everything is green. February to April is the dry season – less greenery (less obtrusive leaves in front of noses and eyes). In May it is HOT- average temperature of 42 – 44 and even less greenery.

So if you can cope with the heat – that’s the time to go. The wildlife congregates around the waterholes and predator prey relationships, in the vicinity, are suspended in favour of satisfying thirst.

I went to a specialist travel agent (Audley Travel) to organise the trip. I could have gone with an expert photographer as part of group (this would have included some tuition) but it would have meant a shorter trip for the budget allowed. A customised trip cost the same but gave me greater flexibility in terms of time and more drives across two National Parks. This was my final itinerary.

Day 1 / 2:  Heathrow – Doha- Delhi – Nagpur.

Day 2: City Tour Nagpur

Day 3: Travel by road to Kanha National Park

Day 4-8: AM / PM Safari Drives plus trip to local market and a nature walk

Day 9: Travel by road to Bandhavgarh National Park

Day 10 -13: AM / PM Safari Drives 

Day 14: Travel by road to Jabalpur Airport for flight to Delhi

Day 15: Delhi – Doha – Heathrow

 The city tour in Nagpur was amazing, an experienced guide and a driver who constantly demonstrated his skills with local traffic and the inevitable cows made for a stress-free tour.

I was gently and politely guided around cultural minefields – covered hair in mosques, shoe removal in the Buddhist Temple and hand / feet washing in the Hindu Temples plus the polite way to manage the many gifts of food. It was amazing that people who obviously had so little gave me so much. I was also helped to decipher the difference between the genuine needy and those whose business it was to look needy    

The drives between parks allowed me to see great swathes of Rural India and experience rural communities. I think I might have been an unwilling Facebook star as the requests for selfies throughout the trip was mind boggling – especially if you are shy. 

The people I met certainly were not and this was my first surprise – how friendly people were. My personal security plans seemed OTT (door alarm, money belt, copies of essential documents and an obsessive desire to be in constant touch with my camera bag) but as they say, prevention is better than cure.  On the road (the same Driver from Nagpur) was concerned for my comfort with opportunities for frequent rest breaks.  I was a touch worried about hygiene, but hand disinfectant in my camera bag and a decision to drink black tea (boiled water!) at the roadside cafes dealt with that one. At this point I will add that I did not suffer with any health issues – due to the standard of accommodation and the usual personal diligence re ice/ food etc

During the planning I opted for shared drives and with my first park I got lucky – I was the only guest at the Lodge. So we tracked tigers and saw three individuals several times (T29, DJ4 and MB3) and several other beasties. I didn’t realise that the existence and infection of tiger fever meant that some folk didn’t want to look at anything else interesting whilst tracking the stripey felines. I met with this phenomenon at the second park.  This was my second lesson – if I did it again, I would go for solo drives.

When I planned the trip, I made a conscious decision to maximise wildlife / tiger time and minimise cultural time, on balance this was the right decision. I would have liked to see more culturally but the only way would have been to have a longer trip / bigger budget. The balance between culture / wildlife is a very personal one but no regrets for me.

I was originally booked to fly with Jet Airways – who ran into financial difficulties. Full marks to Audley Travel who monitored the situation (whilst discussing my preferences on a just in case basis) and promptly rebooked my first choice – Qatar Airways and Air India. This was all going on at the same time as Brexit – but the details of their emergency Brexit line enabled another worry to disappear.

The on-line DIY visa process seemed simple but effective to start with – till it came time to pay. The system was overloaded and wouldn’t accept funds. Simple answer – complete the process at an anti-social time.  And take a paper copy – not only do the airline want to see it but the rural airports did not appear to have access to the visa system. Customs at Nagpur wanted to know about my camera equipment – be prepared for questions on value and use (especially if you have any obviously unused kit) as if they suspect that you are going to sell it, they will charge you import duty (fortunately mine is all well-worn).  

The Rupee is a closed currency so you cannot buy any untill you get to India and you are not allowed to take them out of India. I took sterling and some small change that a friend had not been able to exchange – this kept me going till my guide took me to a bank with a good exchange rate. Relying on plastic is not a safe option even if you tell your bank – as I found out whilst in Delhi at the Holiday Inn Express. But my cash reserves meant it was not a calamity. And when you change money ask for small denominations – tipping is a way of life -as a well-educated resident of Bombay told me in advance – to fail to tip is impolite (unless of course the service has been unacceptable)

More to follow in part two.

Term 6 FMP: End of Project- End of Course Review

So it’s finally here – my assignments are complete and submitted and its time to do an end of project review. There are two to think about – the course itself and the Final Major Project Trophies.

The two are obviously inextricably linked – so what would I have done differently for Trophies and the course?

I would have like to have had the final FMP idea earlier in the course. At the end of the second module, in my assignment feedback there were suggestions that I look at different genres / mediums

Overall, the proposal while genuine in that it wishes to address a specific genre of photography, you need to experiment with different mediums within fine art to add rigour both to your study and practice.

And

However, more reflective research into the work of fine art nature and fine art wildlife photography within your CRJ would be advantageous as you move forwards.

Initially I found the advice odd as I was studying with the intent to improve my chosen genre competence.  The course buzz at this time was about contemporary causes usually involving people / landscapes – neither of which excited me. There were suggestions on where I could find inspiration but the sources did not inspire. Partially I think , because at the time I was constrained by  the parameters of seasonal wildlife behaviour and the  Natural History image editing ethos (shttps://alexandra421.wordpress.com/2018/01/30/royal-photographic-society-event-to-inspire-and-explain-the-fellowship-standard-for-the-rps/  (every interesting behaviour shot seemed to have an errant leaf or  inconvenient branch)  

I struggled with confidence issues about my course practical work – the financial returns from my practise were on target but I could not see a clear direction- a concept for coursework to grasp. I understood the theory, I could apply it to other images but I could not make my module portfolios reflect it to a high degree.  My attempts to document a Natural History cause (Connections and Consequences failed dismally when the connections were too subtle for non-natural history viewers to identify) 

My breakthrough was in the middle of term 4, when a tutor, recognising that I was struggling, invested personal time to help. Some gentle encouragement took me down the road of Renaissance art and that was the trigger for the studio-based work, which eventually constituted   Trophies.

I am happy with my contributions to the on line debates and I am content with the effort level and my overall work ethic but not with my personal management of practical / theoretical work balance. For the first three terms, I struggled with time to take course photographs, as the theory / analysis / writing took up most of my spare time. Practise work, whilst successful financially, was not course successful. With hindsight, a better personal balance of experimental practical / theoretical might also have helped me to arrive at my FMP idea sooner.

There was, not surprisingly an enormous amount of reading, in term one I struggled with the dryness / vernacular of some of the set pieces – frequently referring to my trusty dictionary to ensure I had the correct context.

I found it easier to read the specified set pieces, then research similar writings on the module concepts by writers not necessarily on the recommended reading list but whose style was more personally appealing. Bate (Art Photography and Photography Key Concepts) were the start swiftly followed by anything by Obrist.

  • Barrett, T. (2006). Criticizing photographs

made me more confident in my feedback to others on the forums

  • Crow,D. Visible Signs, An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts  
  • Eco, U. 1962. The Open Work

Both helped with image meaning and reading

  • De Jongh. Questions of meaning, theme and motif in the Dutch seventeenth Century Painting,
  •  Grootenboer, H. The Rhetoric of Perspective – Realism and Illusionism in Seventeenth Century Dutch Still – Life Painting
  • Pope-Hennessy,J. The Portrait in the Renaissance

These were essential to understanding how to make the Trophies Images speak and were well written and easily digestible

  • SLEIGH, Charlotte.  ‘The Paper Zoo: 500 Years of Animals in Art’

More Art theory / history that was a joy to read.

These are just a few of the books I picked from my very extensive Bibliography spreadsheet. Every book I read, every meaningful quote went into the spreadsheet, which made referencing / quoting for assignments a bit easier.

My Programme / Project Management skills kept my work on track, with time built in for emergencies there were no last minute panics and I was able to manage essential time away in my usual haunts for stock images. However, as I said earlier, I could have / should have made time for more practical work, there was a basic flaw in my desire to get to grips with the written theory.

The online CRJ has been a useful tool and I am glad I was thorough / timely with the contents – it helped for each assignment as well as overall learning / reference. I also used it as a diary but never forgetting the security / privacy elements of social media – post when you return from a trip etc. Conversely, I found the work connected with SM difficult, as I do not respect the SM space and its impact / truthfulness. Understanding that for some it has value, I absorbed the theory and read further: 

GLADWELL, M. The Tipping Point.2001. Little Brown. London.

Fuchs, C. Social Media – A Critical Introduction. Sage.London

were both helpful and readable. Despite my increased knowledge, for the moment, I choose to take a conservative and considered view in my use of the same.

Now, at the end of two years’ work and the completion of Trophies I have benefited from several outcomes:  I have realised that my practise can be more than the vanity service (specific images for my own use and for commissions where a pet owner wants a specific outcome) I offered at the start of the MA. I have developed a wholly original piece of work with a recognisable style DNA. Just as importantly, I am confident that now I have broken down my own barriers, I can create work that is original. Next steps for me are to nurture that originality and to use the expanding skill set to further my conservation causes.

The feedback I have received to date tells me that I have achieved both Crow and Barker’s success criteria:

‘As readers, we receive a work of art as the end product of an intended message. This message has been assembled and organised by the author in a way that makes it possible for the reader to reassemble it for themselves as the author intended.’ (Crow 2010. p165)

‘Arguably, one of the most important functions of contemporary art is that it may promote critical or even moral discussions among its viewers.’ Barker (1999. p113):

My thanks:

To all the Tutors – especialy those who went several extra miles.

To my peers for both giving and accepting contributions

To everyone who leant me ‘stuff’

To DS Colour Labs for thier expertise and support

To WWT for hosting the Installation Trophies

And lastly to my husband who has cooked, brought me wine / coffee, driven me round, attended to my IT issues, acted as an audiance and kept me going when the going got tough.

Bibliography

Barker, E. (1999). Contemporary cultures of display. New Haven: Yale University Press in association with the Open University.  

Crow,D. Visible Signs, An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts. 3rd ed. Bloomsbury Publishing. London