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Zubbie15

India 2019 – Christmas in March

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Zubbie15

Let me begin with a bit of backstory.  In 2009, when I turned 30, I made a goal of visiting all of the continents over the next decade (having only been in North America and Europe up to that point).  This led to our first trip to Africa, in 2013, where my wife and I discovered our love of safaris, and shortly after where I stumbled across this website.  During our return visit to Africa in 2016, we were sharing what is, to date, my best leopard sighting with a rather loud, but well-traveled, British lady in a separate vehicle.  As the sighting was ending, we looked at her and said how amazing that was.  She agreed, but then said it paled in comparison to seeing tigers in India. Well, an idea was planted in my head, and as my 39th birthday approached and we still hadn’t reached Asia (or Antarctica, but that’ll have to be for a later time) I started looking into trip reports here, and options for visiting India on safari.

 

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The result?  Well, I think we had a highly ST-inspired trip that I think would make @Game Warden proud.  We booked with, and in fact only contacted, Wild World India, based on the many positive reports on this website.  Our itinerary included full day safaris in Ranthambhore, which only came about after reading the great report from @janzin regarding her trip from the previous year.  In Central India, we were guided by Rajan, who has guided many of our members and, as Abhishek put it when he first met us, is “famous on SafariTalk.”  Not only that, but our stays partially overlapped with @jmharack, so I got to meet my first STer in person, which was fun.  And, to top it all off – while we were waiting for our connection in London, I was looking at old pictures of our last African safari, and decided to post one to Instagram.  When we landed in Delhi and I turned on my phone, the first notification was that hillaryhannphotography (aka @twaffle) had liked my photo.  So, it seemed like the safari gods were on our side.

 

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Atravelynn

Great India hoped-fors in post #1!  All because of a loud British lady!

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janzin

oh I have been waiting for this report!! Don't stop now :lol:

 

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michael-ibk

Gorgeous Tiger and Dhole, what a start! Really looking forward to this. How is Rajan these days?

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jmharack

So glad to see this report starting!  It was so much fun to connect in Tadoba and Kanha, and meet the famous Rajan too!  And, not to spoil any details of your trip report, one of my favorite memories from our trip with World Wide India was finally getting a good sighting of a sloth bear with you guys. And what a great sighting it was!  

 

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Zubbie15
19 hours ago, Atravelynn said:

Great India hoped-fors in post #1!  All because of a loud British lady!

 

We got pretty much all we'd hoped for, and in decent quantities too.  The dholes ended up being the most challenging, but what we lacked in quantity was made up for in quality. ;)

 

18 hours ago, janzin said:

oh I have been waiting for this report!! Don't stop now :lol:

 

 

I forgot to mention also - I ultimately managed to convince my wife to go to India by showing her your pictures from your last trip, Janet.  I might have to do the same for my hoped-for trip to Brazil next year, she hasn't signed off yet. 

 

5 hours ago, michael-ibk said:

Gorgeous Tiger and Dhole, what a start! Really looking forward to this. How is Rajan these days?

 

Thanks Michael.  Rajan is doing really well, and such a pleasure to spend time with. But more on him shortly...

 

4 hours ago, jmharack said:

So glad to see this report starting!  It was so much fun to connect in Tadoba and Kanha, and meet the famous Rajan too!  And, not to spoil any details of your trip report, one of my favorite memories from our trip with World Wide India was finally getting a good sighting of a sloth bear with you guys. And what a great sighting it was!  

 

 

Agreed, it was nice to meet you Judy.  I guess I won't bother trying to keep our sloth bear sighting a surprise! :P

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Zubbie15

Our itinerary:

 

After some back and forth with WWI, where I had originally thought to focus on the Central India parks (Tadoba, Pench, Kanha and/or Bandhavgarh), we ended up with the following itinerary.  This was largely based on Vikram’s insistence that Ranthambhore would be expected to be excellent for tiger sightings, and I was fairly easily convinced based on the report that @janzin had just finished around the time we were booking.

 


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Day 1 (March 4th) - Arrive Delhi very early AM. After sleeping, city tour.  Sleep Delhi.

Day 2 - Train to Sawai Madhopur in the morning, then afternoon game drive in Ranthambhore.

Days 3, 4 and 5 – full day game drives in Ranthambhore (requested in large part due to the report by @janzin).

Day 6 – morning game drive in Ranthambhore, then train back to Delhi

Day 7 – early morning flight to Nagpur, drive to Tadoba, afternoon game drive.

Days 8 and 9 – morning and afternoon game drives in Tadoba

Day 10 – morning game drive in Tadoba, then drive to Kanha

Day 11 – morning and afternoon game drives, Kanha

Day 12 – full day drive in Kanha

Day 13 – morning drive in Kanha, then begin long road home by driving to Raipur for evening flight.

 

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Overall this worked really well.  The transit from Ranthambhore to Tadoba took a full 24 hours, which wasn’t ideal as we probably lost out on a game drive and the amount of travelling definitely tired us out, but it probably was a good idea.  @jmharack went to Bandhavgarh after leaving from Kanha, and I know she didn't get the sightings we had in Ranthambhore (although I believe @madaboutcheetah overlapped with her and had better sightings, so as always it depends on some luck).

 

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Alexander33

Great to see this report. I’ve put India off because, quite frankly, it’s so overwhelming, so I’m very much looking forward to see what your thoughts were of your first trip there. Looking good so far!

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Zubbie15

Thanks @Alexander33 for reading along.  I agree there are a lot of options in India and it can be overwhelming.  Having said that, for first-time, Western wildlife tourists there definitely seem to be a few common areas/parks to go to: Ranthambhore and Bandhavgarh are probably the best known tiger parks; Kanha, Pench and Tadoba somewhat less well known but still very popular tiger parks; Corbett or Kaziranga for elephants and rhinos (at Kaziranga).  Obviously there are a lot of other interesting parks, but I think some combination of the above would definitely give a good first intro to the wildlife of the country.  

 

There are are many good TOs who work in India, I think if you decide what your target animals are (and any cultural activities you want to do), they should be able to come up with an itinerary that gives you a good chance of seeing what you want.

Edited by Zubbie15

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Zubbie15

Guides:

 

In Ranthambhore, we had Ashlesh.  He was an expert tracker and really knew his stuff – he’d been guiding and based at the park for 32 years.  He definitely got us some great sightings, which we probably wouldn’t have had otherwise (more on this later). Having said that, we didn’t seem to completely mesh with him on a personal level, and had some challenges with communication.  This wasn’t the end of the world, given that he delivered us the sightings we wanted, but obviously it’s more enjoyable when you also become friends with your guide.

 

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There are 5 full day passes per day in Ranthambhore. There were three other cars, as shown here, that we saw and spent a lot of time with while there.  Two of them were a photo tour guided by well-known tiger photographer Andy Rouse, while the other had several Indian photographers.  The fifth must have rotated, as we didn't see the same people multiple times.  Here, the guides were trying to figure out where Arrowhead, one of the best known tigers in the park (and the tiger in the first post) might have gone.

 

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In addition to the regular discussions whenever we crossed paths with another vehicle, the guides in the park have a WhatsApp group where they report key sightings.  It certainly was useful, especially not being restricted to a single zone with our full day passes.  

 

 

In Tadoba and Kanha, we had Rajan guide us.  He’s well known on this forum, having guided amongst others @michael-ibk, @Atravelynn, @AndMic, @janzin, and so on.  As I mentioned before, he’s known in WWI for being famous on ST; he was also called, by the manager of our lodge in Tadoba, as the “King of Kanha.”  Rajan was not only incredibly knowledgeable and able to find the animals, but he was also a pleasure to spend time with.  I’d happily spend a longer vacation with him when we are back in that area, although that might be a challenge and Abhishek told us that WWI was already getting request for his services for 2020 trips!

 

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Ramesh and Rajan, after our last drive in Kanha. I didn't have any images, except for a very mediocre video, of Rajan in action unfortunately.  

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jmharack

We got to chat with Rajan a couple times, because we were also traveling with Wild World India (And loved working with Abishek and Vikram, except that I wasn't pushy enough in the beginning to ask about Rathambore and didn't request Rajan fast enough - ahem,  @Zubbie15)

  We could tell what a great guide he was, and how personable. If I was to return to India, I would for sure go with Wild World India, but would want to go with Rajan.  We had a very good guide, Harsh, for the whole trip, and he really knew his birds.  He was good company, and worked really hard for us. I know he felt bad about the end of our trip. But honestly, we had such absolutely terrible luck in Bandhavgarh (wild elephants had closed the best zones and then we had torrential rains for one drive.) We never saw a tiger, bear or anything, really, in 6 or 7  drives, and then flight changes cut off another scheduled drive.  A nice pair of owlets are the only picture I have from that park.  And before that, Kanha had been pretty thin too, the highlight being the sloth bear seen above.  The park was gorgeous and we had a fantastic stay at Kipling Camp, which we loved. Walking to the river with the rescue elephant Tara and swimming around and washing her was a real highlight.  And that camp is just really special, especially when Belinda Wright, a great conservationist, is in residence. And we did have a few great tiger sightings in Tadoba.  Really glad we went (and met great people), but I'm ready to go back to Africa now.  Well, Sulawesi's next, but it will be somewhere good in Africa next, if not Antarctica (ahem,

@Atravelynn.)  

Edited by jmharack
typo

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janzin

Interesting that you had a similar experience in Ranthambhore with your guide. We also didn't quite mesh with our guide there (Mohammad was his name), and there were communication issues as well. I can't really say we ever got friendly, although like you, we ended up with great sightings.

 

Funny too that Andy Rouse was there when you were. He was also there with us, and his group was staying at the same hotel, the Ranthambhore Bagh, so we saw him a lot. I guess he gives tours there every season for several weeks at a time.

 

Of course, Rajen is something special and I'm happy that you got him as your guide. If we returned to central India we'd surely request him again!

Edited by janzin

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Atravelynn

Nice to see Rajan getting such good reviews.  I second that!

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Zubbie15

@janzin, interesting that you had a similar experience in Ranthambhore.  I wonder if it's related to the intense focus on tigers in the park, or something else.  Have you had any discussions yet with Vikram regarding who your guide will be next year?

 

Ashlesh told us that Andy Rouse had booked a large number of full day drives (it was either 15 or 18 days worth).  I saw he was advertising for next year a few weeks ago, he seems to have a very unique style of leading workshops.

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Zubbie15

Parks:

 

We visited three very different parks, which offered nice alternative scenery.


Ranthambhore: I knew going into things that the focus in this park was very strongly on maximizing tiger viewings, and that was definitely the case. This was fine with us – we wanted to go here first, so that we could get as many tigers as possible here and then slow down and enjoy the other animals later.  In early March it was quite cool in the mornings, until roughly 9AM, at which point it warmed up nicely.  The full day passes (only 5 available per day) were great, as not only were you essentially alone in the park for about 6 hours during midday, but we had free reign to go to any gate/section of the park.  The major issue I had with this park was that the singular focus on getting the best tiger sightings led to guides and drivers bending (and breaking) the rules; especially in the middle of the day when most people had left, we had a couple of experiences (high speed driving, going off-road) that left me rather conflicted.

 

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Fairly typical scenery for Ranthambhore

 

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Another typical scene for Ranthambhore, Sambar in a lake.  Lots of the trees in the park, as seen in the back, were devoid of leaves at this time of year.

 

Tadoba:  This park was very different, not only in vegetation (lots of bamboo) but also in that the temperature (mid-afternoon highs of 38-40C every day) was extremely hot.  Not only that, but the air was still, and with the sun beating down on you it got very hot by late afternoon (so much so that my wife had a heat stroke one day and missed a drive).  The game viewing technique in this park was very different, as in general, and especially in the hot afternoons, we would drive from waterhole to waterhole, looking for tigers in or near the water.  We saw a lot of really good things in this park, but the heat was borderline unbearable coming from North America winter.  Oddly, this is the one park where cell phones were banned, and we were told quite firmly to leave our phones in our rooms.  Apparently there were issues with tourists taking selfies when a tiger was around.  This was supposed to apply to guides too, but we definitely saw some guides sneaking looks at their phones.

 

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This is what you hope to see when you get to a waterhole - Maya and her young female cub.  

 

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The sunsets in Tadoba were definitely the best we had, although the thicker vegetation in many areas away from Tadoba Lake made them harder to appreciate.  

 

Kanha:  Kanha, in many areas, was much more of what I would envisage when I think of a forest in the North American sense, with many tall trees and dense understory.  This, of course, made animal viewing more challenging, as any animal that wasn’t on or right beside the road was likely to be missed.  Tracking tigers relied on finding and following pugmarks, alarm calls or roars – or just dumb luck in being at the right place at the right time.  This was contrasted by the Kanha plains part of the park, which to me was the most “Africa-like” area we visited on this trip.  This was a much more open area, where a variety of animals could be seen simply by scanning.  Despite the challenges that occurred in the forest area, I have to say I found Kanha to be the most visually appealing, in a landscape sense. 

 

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Kanha sunset

 

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Kanha is also really good for herbivores - about 750 of the southern subspecies of Barasingha are found in the park

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janzin
7 hours ago, Zubbie15 said:

@janzin, interesting that you had a similar experience in Ranthambhore.  I wonder if it's related to the intense focus on tigers in the park, or something else.  Have you had any discussions yet with Vikram regarding who your guide will be next year?

 

 

 Not for Ranthambhore...I'm not sure how far ahead he secures those guides. But given that he's (and his brother Aditya) have worked with them there for so long, I have to trust they will secure the best. Right now I'm just concentrating on trying to get our Corbett/Himalaya guide secured :)

 

I'm surprised that you had issues with your driver going off-road and speeding...we didn't see or experience any of that. I wasn't crazy about our guide/driver but they never broke any rules that I saw.

 

Great photos so far!

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Zubbie15

Ok, time to start the actual trip report!  I think in general I'll start with a summary paragraph, and then photos with captions to supplement that - let's see how it works.

 

Day 1.

We arrived in Delhi quite late (3AM or so) due to the airspace restrictions around Pakistan, which had just gone into effect a few days earlier.  I thought that would at least mean the airport would be fairly quiet, but everywhere was packed.  Welcome to India! After going through all the formalities, we finally hit our beds at 5AM.  At 11 we met our city tour guide for the day, and headed off into chaotic and fascinating Delhi.  Not only did we see many interesting historical monuments, but we also started to see new birds and a couple of mammals (Three-striped palm squirrel and Rhesus Macaques).  However, we fairly quickly began to lose steam, and were back at the hotel by early evening.  Below are some photos of our day – it’s probably worth noting now that apart from a “nifty fifty” we didn’t bring any lens wider than a 70-200, so most landscape photos in this report will be from my phone.

 

Around Qutb Minar:

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And around Humayun's Tomb:

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Zubbie15

Day 2.

Up and out early, leaving the hotel at 6AM to get to the train station.  Along the way, our driver got a phone call, and he handed the phone to me.  It turned out the train we were supposed to take was 4+ hours late, so Abhishek had hired a driver to drive us to Sawai Madhopur, the gateway to Ranthambhore park.  I had wondered, when booking this trip, why highway travel between cities/parks seemed to be predicted to be so slow – well, this trip certainly showed me why!  After a 7 hour drive, during which my wife decided to close her eyes for a while because she was so stressed, we arrived at our hotel just after 2PM.  Our guide, Ashlesh, arranged to meet us at 2:45 to start our first safari in the park, so we didn’t have long to get settled before we were off.  We were assigned zone 4 for the afternoon, where the “target” for the afternoon was a tigress, Krishna, and her 3 almost adult cubs.  They had been seen that morning, and were in the area, but at some point they had made a kill and were quite far from any road, so we didn’t have any luck.  Still, lots of new animals for us – spotted deer, Sambar, ruddy mongoose, wild boar, and a partial view of a sleeping leopard.  Sooner than we’d like, our time was up, and we had to rush back to the gate to avoid being late.  Even if we struck out on tiger, it was great to be out on safari for the first time in roughly 3 years.

 

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First Sambar!  

 

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Our first chital - his antlers were impressive, but he wasn't too impressed with us. 

 

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We spent a lot of time looking in one area for the tigers that had been seen that morning. Unfortunately no luck, and sooner than we'd have liked the sun was getting low in the sky.

 

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Any area that wasn't near some form of permanent water was really dry by this time of the year.

 

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Sunset on the escarpment was quite beautiful this evening, the rocks just glowed. 

 

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janzin

Glad to hear that Krishna and the 3 cubs are still doing well--it has to be the same 3 young cubs we saw with her last year!

 

Lovely photos of Ranthambhore. It definitely looks drier than it did for us.

 

Bummer about the delay with the train, but on the other hand, it speaks well of Wild World India that they were on top of things and made alternate arrangements at the last minute.

 

 

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Zubbie15

Day 3, morning.

Ranthambhore was definitely not hot early in the morning, especially exposed in the back of the gypsy.  Today would be our coldest day, and I actually at times wished I’d brought gloves with me.  Things would definitely warm up by 9:30 or 10, though, and be quite warm by mid-afternoon.  We set off from our hotel with packed breakfast and lunch (unlike @janzin last year, we managed to bring both with us, so no need to return to the gate mid-day to get food).  We had full day safaris planned for the next 3 days, which allowed us free reign to choose any zone(s) we wanted to visit. We started at zone 4 for about ten minutes, hoping to find Arrowhead and her two young cubs.  In the days prior to our visit, the cubs had been very visible and photographing amazingly, but Arrowhead had a fresh kill far from any roads, and so they were tough to see.  This ended up being, unfortunately, a theme for us, as the three mothers with cubs that were showing well this season (Arrowhead, Krishna, and T8) all had relatively fresh kills far from the roads, and so were difficult for us to see.  When Arrowhead wasn’t around, we returned out that gate, and entered via Zone 1.  This was quite quiet, so we (with the help of a key Ashlesh picked up from the guards) travelled into Zone 6.  We ended up in T8’s territory, and had fairly good views of one of her male cubs.  We spent 3 hours in the area, with it just being us and a couple of other full day vehicles after 9:30, until the cub got up and headed into the forest.

 

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Waiting at the gate for the park to open, with the sky just getting light.

 

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Ranthambhore Park getting the first rays of the sun.  The gate was just about to open.

 

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Our first tiger - sometime's you've got to have sharp eyes.

 

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We managed to get reasonably close to him

 

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Edited by Zubbie15

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ice

I noticed some of you are talking about "communication issues" with your guide...what exactly does that mean? His English was not too good? Or are you talking about "verbal clashes"?

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janzin

 

23 minutes ago, ice said:

I noticed some of you are talking about "communication issues" with your guide...what exactly does that mean? His English was not too good? Or are you talking about "verbal clashes"?

 I can't speak for @Zubbie15 but in our case, our guide spoke English fairly well (the driver not so much.) Nor verbal clashes. It was more about what we wanted to stop and see, and getting us into better positions for photos (within legal limits of course.) They couldn't understand (at first) that we wanted to stop for birds at times, or interesting action, say Sambar fighting. They would just drive right by, not paying any attention! But after the first day or day and a half--after we explained it--he was a little better and we also just got more chill with accepting that we were just focusing on tigers. And I got more confident in telling them we wanted to move to another position for a better photo, etc. They didn't just do it "organically."   I guess we are used to African guides who are usually very well trained to know what photographers want. Also our guide and driver spent a lot of time just talking to each other, showing each other photos on their phones, etc, and ignoring us completely, which was irksome.

 

That said, we had fabulous tiger sightings in the end so we couldn't complain about the final outcome! Hopefully @Zubbie15 did too, waiting to see more :)

 

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Zubbie15
46 minutes ago, ice said:

I noticed some of you are talking about "communication issues" with your guide...what exactly does that mean? His English was not too good? Or are you talking about "verbal clashes"?

 

Similar to @janzin, it was often hard to get the driver and guide to stop for anything that was “common” in their mind, like sambar, chital, and so on.  Only if they didn’t feel much was going on, particularly tiger wise, would they want to stop.  It’s just the focus of the park is very intensely on tigers, and I think they forget for foreigners in particular a lot of the other wildlife is interesting.  We also experienced them talking a lot to each other and not us - especially at lunch they’d take their food and head off ten meters to chat alone.

 

The other thing we had a lot of was a lack of explanation of what was going on. One example from our last day, we were following a male tiger along a road, at the front with a few vehicles behind us. At one point we pulled to the side, let everyone pass, and then turned around and sped off in the other direction. Only when we stopped  twenty minutes later did we find out why, and then only by us asking, and the reason given (that we were reaching the end of the zone) didn’t seem to make sense since everyone else continued along.  Similar events, although perhaps more subtle, seemed to happen multiple times per day. I guess I’m just used to guides pretty much everywhere else being much more open with what’s going on, and why we are doing anything.

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janzin
15 minutes ago, Zubbie15 said:

 

 

The other thing we had a lot of was a lack of explanation of what was going on. One example from our last day, we were following a male tiger along a road, at the front with a few vehicles behind us. At one point we pulled to the side, let everyone pass, and then turned around and sped off in the other direction. Only when we stopped  twenty minutes later did we find out why, and then only by us asking, and the reason given (that we were reaching the end of the zone) didn’t seem to make sense since everyone else continued along.  Similar events, although perhaps more subtle, seemed to happen multiple times per day. I guess I’m just used to guides pretty much everywhere else being much more open with what’s going on, and why we are doing anything.

 

OH! We had that too and it made us nuts. I'd almost forgotten. They were always chatting in Hindi, of course, and many time we'd stop and they'd be chatting to other drivers...sometimes 10, 15 minutes it seemed like forever. And we'd have no idea what was going on. Were they discussing sightings or talking about their kids or their annoying guests? No way to know. We constantly were asking our guide--what was that about, what's going on. Also, he never explained much about the tigers or any of the other animals. We constantly had to ask questions, which tiger is this, where are we going, how old are these cubs, what zone are we in....etc etc. Information was never volunteered, it was like pulling teeth.

 

One thing I did notice was that guides that were provided from the really pricey resorts--like Vanya Villas or Sher Bagh--seemed much more open and communicative with their guests (we saw and overheard many interactions while sitting and waiting.)

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Botswanadreams

Maybe you should ask for Shakir Ali as guide next time. He works offen with film crews or photographers. Very knowledgeable and communicative.   

I don't think that the Sherbagh is a pricey resort. We stayed there. All was very well but Shakir is a free guide and not a resort guide. He was booked for all our safaris through WWI.   

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