Roaring success of tiger reserve

Mark Nicholls visits one of India's tiger reserves and comes face to face with the country's famous big cats – then samples the city bustle of New Delhi.

As the early morning train pulls into the small halt of Umaria, you find yourself in the heart of India. Few passengers descend into the semi-darkness after the overnight journey from New Delhi, where the contrast from the capital to this small, remote and rural community in Madhya Pradesh where life has changed little in decades, could not be greater.

It is quiet and the air is fresh as the road meanders away from the town and out into the countryside – into tiger country.

Barely 5.30am, the sun is just coming up and farmers are already at work in the fields, harvesting their crops by hand. Cows wander aimlessly across the road, while within the trees black faced langur monkeys sit, their eyes sharp and expressions alert, seemingly in search of mischief.

I was on my way to Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve, which while not India's largest or most famous, has a reputation as one of the best places on the sub-continent to see tigers. And I was soon to find out why.

As we entered the expanse of the park, but still on the main road en route to the Syna Tiger Resort and my home for the next few days, the driver suddenly slowed, beckoned to a halt by a wiry man on a bike. As he winds down the window, the cyclist whispers 'tiger.'

I could feel the tension in the air; this was unexpected on my routine transfer from railway station to resort.

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But within the trees there is movement, the unmistakeable orange, black and white stripes of a large male tiger, padding towards the roadside and then, without looking up, cross slowly in front of the vehicle. A beautiful, stunning early morning sight – seeing a tiger even before I'd checked in! And then, he was away back into the undergrowth, unchallenged in his natural domain.

Soon after arriving at the resort, Syna's resident naturalist Ajay Ghale explains: 'This is probably the best reserve in India for sightings of tigers. After a safari, the question is not 'did you see at tiger', but more a case of 'how many tigers did you see'.'

As guests returned from three-hour tiger safaris, that was clearly the case; all had seen one or more tigers, and in different locations, often observing them for quite long periods.

There are about 60 tigers in the reserve's four main areas and they are highly visible and while Bandhavgarh is one of the smaller tiger reserves in India – when compared to Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand or Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan – it offers great opportunities to see tigers in the wild at close quarters because of its open, undulating forest terrain and visible watering holes.

Venturing out early the next morning on a jeep, we sweep along the dusty forest route, pausing to look at tracks – the footprints of tigers heading in our direction of travel. The guides interpret the sights and sounds of the jungle, the warning calls of monkeys and samba deer and the flight of birds while constantly keeping a sharp eye out for the tiger.

Round a bend in the track, the driver pauses and then eases to a halt. Less than 50 feet from the roadside, a beautiful female tiger rises, glances behind and then walks slowly into the undergrowth. It is a remarkable, exhilarating, and a truly memorable sight.

'When people talk of Bandhavgarh, they talk of tigers,' Ajay explained, 'because the chance of seeing a tiger at Bandhavgarh is so much higher.

'That is to do with the topography of the forest – it is open, rocky and not so dense so wherever the tigers are, it is possible to see them as they move. There is perhaps a 70pc chance of seeing a tiger on a safari at Bandhavgarh, whereas at Corbett where there are 200 tigers, it may only be 40pc.'

Visitors can also see bear, various bird life such as the Changeable Eagle, vultures, peacocks, or the Indian Roller, and deer including samba, spotted and Indian gazelle.

By 9am, the sun – and temperature - is rising and the jungle goes quiet as the animals retreat to shade. The chances of further sightings diminish so we retreat to the Syna Tiger Resort where breakfast is ready and then relax by the pool out of the heat of the day before returning to the forest for an early evening safari when the tigers again emerge.

Care of the wildlife and of the natural environment is paramount with a focus on eco-tourism. Access to the reserve is closely regulated, with the number of jeeps on each tiger safari strictly limited and the routes carefully selected. It is a theme the Syna Tiger Resort embraces with its water conservation policies and organic farm within its grounds, growing herbs and vegetables for the kitchen.

Set in 67 acres with 15 cottages and one tree house with a pool, bar, restaurant and spa, eight of the cottages are themed on states of India with strong cultural identities and include Orissa, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Kerala, Karnataka, Assam, Tripura and Chattisgarh. That individuality is reproduced within the cottage context with d�cor, crafts, furnishing and design effectively incorporated within the accommodation.

Where Syna has an advantage over other similar resorts is that it is close to the tiger reservation – which is open from October to mid-June - and not too far off the road. It is quiet, discreet, comfortable, relaxing and rustic, with India's famed big cats only a few miles away prowling their domain unchallenged out in the Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve.

From the isolated wildlife setting of the Syna Tiger Resort, I headed back to the Indian capital for an exhilarating 48 hours in New Delhi.

New Delhi is an amazing city – hectic, bustling, fast-moving and developing rapidly. There are some incredible monuments to visit from the soaring Qutb Minar, the solidity of the India Gate memorial, the massive Red Fort and the Jami Masjid as well as colourful street scenes, exotic markets and great places to eat.

It is a city to explore, despite its apparent chaos and hectic pace and it is not too difficult to get about the main attractions. You may want to take an auto-rickshaw to one or two destinations – and haggle with the driver over the price of your journey on the three-wheeled mini taxis – but many of the best known tourist sights are now within easy reach of Delhi's new, cheap and efficient Metro system. So after popping above ground to visit an attraction, you can disappear beneath the city back into the calm and cool to take the underground train to the next.

However, Delhi is also a city to explore on foot; to absorb, sense, experience and enjoy, so take time to wander around the historic market of Chandni Chowk and the streets of Old Delhi.

Yet after all of this intensity – and that is what Delhi is about – it is great to step back off the street and relax.

One of the best places I've found in Delhi in recent years is the Metropolitan Hotel and Spa. Close to the Connaught Place/Rajiv Chowk area, it is set back on a quieter street but still in the centre of the city. As a member of the Great Hotels of the World (GHoTW) grouping, The Met – as it brands itself - combines as a five=star business and tourist hotel with its excellent Neo Veda Spa.

Not only does the hotel offer respite from Delhi's whirlwind of activity but the spa offers a range of relaxing and reviving treatments which allow you to submerge yourself in an hour or two of pure delight. The treatments vary from basic massages and cleansing through to longer and specialist treatments.

There is also a good-sized outdoor pool, gymnasium, craft house for shopping and business centre facilities.

And there are very good restaurants: Chutney Bar and Tandoor specialises in Indian cuisine and brings together tastes from across the nation; the Sakura Japanese kitchen offers an added international dimension with private dining areas within the main restaurant; while Zing offers all-day world cuisine.

Yet when you are refreshed and again ready to hit the streets of New Delhi, The Met is perfectly situated on Bangla Sahib Road with a Metro station close by and the pivotal hub of Connaught Place only a short walk away.

And if you want to shop – that's the place to be. The vibrant Janpath Market where you can buy souvenirs, clothing or simply browse and enjoy the atmosphere of an Indian marketplace that truly comes to life at night is five minutes away, while on a neighbouring street is the State Emporium complex with crafts, souvenirs and textiles. But don't forget to haggle for a good price. It's all part of the fun.