October 22nd - Ananda to Corbett

Our route today was to take us on a 280 kms drive through the Himalayan mountains through which the Ganges River runs. We looked at the route and made the decision that we would do the first half of the mountain drive and then, after 120 kms, take a road south that would lead us to a small road at the edge of the mountains and then to our hotel at the Corbett Tiger Reserve. The plan seemed good but it wasn't how it turned out!

We left the hotel at 6.15 am and drove down into Rishikesh, where we crossed the Ganges. Rishikesh is a centre of Hinduism and we saw many pilgrims making their way to the river. When we drove up the eastern bank of the Ganges we stopped at a pedestrian suspension bridge and looked down on the pilgrims bathing in the fast flowing waters. Right in the middle of the bridge, on its own, was a monkey!

A view up the Ganges gorge at Rishikesh.

We continued on up the river and the road, I should say track, climbed higher and higher and then after another 12 kms we reached the peak and looked down into the Ganges gorge. A truly impressive sight.

We continued on this narrow and, at times, quite hair-raising dirt road for another 50 kms. Just before the junction where we were parting from the group we came across Jeremy and Felicity in Car 25, a Mitsubishi Pajero, parked on the side of the road with a flat front tyre. We stopped and gave a hand, and in about twenty minutes we were all back on the go. Tim and Jeremy changing the wheel of Jeremy's and Felicity's car.

Shortly after we came to the junction where we had chosen to head south while the rest of the group continued on the mountain track. We were now on our own. A beautiful winding mountain road descended through lush green tropical vegetation. With very little traffic we made quick progress on our way to our first town, Kotdwara. Just south of the town we intended to turn left onto the road we had seen on the map which would take us all the way to the Corbett Tiger Reserve. Then we rounded a bend and found the road blocked by a queue of cars and buses. There were a large number of people milling around. We made our way forward driving around the parked vehicles, to the front of the queue. We were immediately confronted by people shouting at us to turn back. I thought at first it was due to a landslide but then I looked down the road and saw a group of elephants pulling bushes and small trees down with their trunks! One of the Indians told me that as there were babies in the group it was dangerous to go past them and we would have to wait till they went back into the jungle. Unfortunately, I now find that I only took video of the elephants and no still pictures.

Car 23, Car 28 and Car 21 had also decided not to take the 'official' route. Their route was slightly different from ours, but we had agreed to call them when we arrived at Kotdwara. They were running about an hour in front of us and when we spoke to them they told us that they had been told the road we had planned to drive along, was either closed or not suitable for us. A quick decision was made to go about 25 kms further south and then take one of the main roads, the NH 74, to Najibabad, Nagina, Dhampur, Kashipur and finally Ramnagar. The roads were all good fast highways with remarkably little traffic. Once again we saw several examples of driving, with what we have come to call, the Indian Death Wish! Motorbikes coming straight out from side turnings without a look in either direction and cars and buses overtaking straight at you. Even with these hazards we made good progress and arrived at our hotel at 2.30pm.

Tomorrow we go on a tiger safari, leaving from the hotel at 5.30am! When we return to the hotel we will set off for our next stop at Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.

October 23rd - Corbett to Agra

Today brings us to Agra and one of the highlights of the tour, The Taj Mahal. Before we left Corbett we had a very early start to take a Jeep safari into the Corbett Tiger Reserve, to hopefully see the Indian tiger. The Corbett Reserve was set up by an Anglo Irishman who lived in India until Independence when he moved to South Africa and died in 1955. Initially he was a hunter but then he turned to conservation of wildlife and he set the park up, which is now named after him. We were with Wolbrand and Robert, both from Holland. Whilst everyone else had decided to take an hour's elephant ride, we four had decided it would be better to see the park in a Jeep. We entered the park at about 6.15 am and while we were waiting for the park to open I saw this notice in typical Indian English.

We took a two hour drive through a mixture of dense tropical vegetation and open deep grassland. We crossed several rivers and at one point the Jeep became stuck in deep mud. We all got out and waited while the driver managed to get the vehicle free.

Sadly, we didn't see any tigers but we had one exciting moment when we came upon the paw marks of of a big cat (panther/tiger?) and an area of flattened grass where the animal had laid down in the night. We stopped and listened for any warning sounds from birds or monkeys that could indicate the animal was still in the area. When we heard nothing we moved on through the park. We saw several different varieties of deer, here is a spotted deer.

The Sambhal the largest deer in India:

and the Barking, which is the smallest in India. Several groups of monkeys high up in the trees and a beautifully coloured kingfisher, that flew away before I could take a photo! The whole trip was very good fun and we all enjoyed ourselves. We returned to the hotel, had a late breakfast and we were the last to leave for the 360 kms drive, more or less due south to Agra, at 9.20 am.

We have now left the mountains behind and the driving was along quite fast flat and open roads. Not a huge number of trucks but lots of local traffic as we went through one small town and village after another. We are now in Uttar Pradesh, one of the most densely populated regions of India. This is rural India at its best. Very green and fertile farming land with large numbers working in the fields. At one point we went through a small village where they were having a cattle market. Livestock of all sorts was being herded along the road to and from the market. When we were at the market there were hundreds, possibly thousands of farmers with their animals - goats, bullocks, cows, and water buffalo. It was a fascinating sight to see. Shortly we after we passed this young girl herding her flock of goats.

And then we came upon a sight that is pure India. A group of workers operating an antiquated steam driven machine that was crushing the sugar cane.

In one of the many villages a sight you see time and again, woman carrying piles of grass on their heads.

We then came to a new bridge across the Ganges and as we crossed we saw hundreds of Hindu pilgrims bathing in the waters. It was a wonderful sight as we stopped on the bridge and took photos and video.

Our drive to Agra took us just over seven hours and as we approached the city we were held up in a massive traffic jam on the expressway. We were lucky as we were only held up for about 30 minutes, others in the group took 2 hours to get through it! We arrived at our hotel at 4.30 pm and took the decision that we would go immediately to the Taj Mahal, rather than seeing it at dawn tomorrow. We took a tuk-tuk for the 10 minute ride to the Taj. We paid our 1500 Rupee entry fee and went through the gates to, what is undoubtedly one of the great wonders of the world. Nothing can prepare you for the stunning beauty and magnitude of the Taj Mahal. I hope the photos below do some justice to this incredible place.

The sun setting at the Taj.

We just had time, as it was getting dark, to enter the tomb where Mumtaz, the favourite wife of Shah Jehan who died when giving birth to his fourteenth child, is buried. When we exited the tomb it was really quite dark but there was nearly a full moon and the whole place took on a ghostly glow as the white marble reflected the moonlight. What a wonderful way to end the day.

October 24th - Agra to Gwalior

Having been to the Taj Mahal yesterday evening, we did not join the majority of the group who went at 6 am to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Instead we went to see the Red Fort. It was following the decision by Akbar to make Agra his capital that the construction of the fort was started in 1570. It was then continued by Shah Jahan who built his palace within the fort in white marble. Shah Jahan was then imprisoned for the last seven years of his life in the Red Fort by his son, Aurangzeb. The Red Fort gets its name from the red sandstone used to make the huge walls as well as the first palace.

It has always been used as a military garrison and following the end of Moghul rule the British and then the Indian army, have occupied the majority of the fort. The palaces and other royal buildings take up less than 30% of the total area. As we walked up to the gates we were approached by a guide who, for 150 rupees (£2), said he would show us around. We decided to do this and Rashid then proceeded to give us a detailed history of the fort and show us how magnificent this building was, and is to this day.

The terrace from where Shah Jahan, whilst imprisoned in the Red Fort, looked out across Agra to the Taj Mahal.

Whilst walking around we saw these four Sikhs in wonderful dress.

A close up of a magnificent Sikh face.

At the end of the tour Wendy took this photo of me and our guide, Rashid.

Below are a series of photos of the Red Fort, starting with the main gates.

The massive walls of the fort.

Exquisite marble decoration inside Shah Jahan's palace.

A detail showing the Pietra Dura work on one of the dozens of columns supporting the myriad of roofs.

We spent about an hour there and then took our tuk-tuk back to the hotel, but not before calling at a marble shop to see some wonderful examples of Indian Pietra Dura craftsmanship. We were shown a small round white marble table with the inlaid design taken from one of the Taj Mahal's intricate patterns. It didn't take us long to decide to buy it and have it shipped back to England. Another memento of India for us to treasure when we return. We returned to our hotel, packed the car and left for the shortest drive of the tour, just 136 kms to the city of Gwalior. As we drove out of Agra we passed some road works where the road was being 'repaired'. On the way we passed through a village that was having a cattle market and we snapped the picture below showing some of the crowd with their livestock.

The road south was mainly on expressway and it took us just over two hours to arrive. Our hotel here is the Maharajah of Gwalior's guest house. It was built in the late 19th century and was used by George V and Queen Mary on their visit to India in 1906. When we arrived we learnt that Mick Jagger had just left the hotel after a night's stay. Apparently he is on holiday here. Later on we were taken to see the Maharajah's palace which was next door to the hotel. On the way we passed these three little tots sitting in a horse dawn carriage.

I showed them the photos of themselves and the happiness on their faces when they saw themselves was great to see. A few yards further on and we entered the palace gates. The palace is a huge building with a colossal bronze canon mounted in front of it.

Tomorrow we continue our drive south to the city of Khajuraho, which is the site of a deserted capital.

October 25th – Gwalior to Khajuraho

A wonderful day's drive through Uttar Pradesh and then into Madhya Pradesh and finishing in Khajuraho, famous for its Hindu temples that were built over a thousand years ago and are now a World Heritage Site.

We left Gwalior and drove 70 kms to Sonagiri, a hill holy to Jains that is covered with over 80 white temples. The Jains have been building temples on this hill for over three hundred years, with the latest only just completed. We walked through the temple site and it is an extraordinary place with temples everywhere.

We walked past about a dozen and then came across these strange white elephant sculptures at the entrance to the newest temple.

The newest temple.

Inside it there are 52 individual shrines and 5 larger ones. The building was domed in shape and our guide told us that the five shrines are for the religions of the Jains, Buddhists, Islamics, Hindus, Sikhs and the dome represents the Christian faith.

We left the temples and walked back to our car and were besieged by children and beggars. There were four very elderly women sitting on the ground by our car and we gave them a few rupees each.

It is very difficult to know what to do when you are asked for money. Most times we attempt to ignore the begging, but sometimes you feel you must do something to help, as in this situation.

We drove a further 40 kms to the abandoned city of Orchha. This is truly an amazing place to visit and is one of the highlights of the tour. The city was abandoned in the late 18th century when the inhabitants were defeated by the Moguls. The city was founded in 1531 as a Rajput capital and was a thriving capital for two and a half centuries. When you drive into the city you cannot believe that such magnificent buildings were abandoned by their inhabitants. The palace complex at Orchha.

Another huge building at Orchha.

The site stretches over a large area with the River Bewar running through it. As we drove over the bridge up to the palace we were approached by this man playing a musical instrument.

We left Orchha after about an hour and drove another 150 kms to Khajuraho, the site of 25 Hindu temples that were built over a thousand years ago.

The temples were discovered by the British in the middle of the 19th century. They are a marvel of Hindu architecture and construction. Each temple is intricately carved with thousands of sculptures, many of them erotic. One of the facades completely covered in exquisite sculptures.

One simply cannot comprehend how the ancients were capable of doing such fine work with the very basic tools they used. We spent a very enjoyable hour at the temples before heading back to our hotel on a bicycle rickshaw.

October 26th – Khajuraho – Bandhavgarh

As we had seen the temples at Khajuraho yesterday afternoon we did not have to leave the hotel before 9am for the 300 kms drive to the Bandhavgarh tiger reserve. We had to say goodbye to Wolbrand van der Vis who is leaving the tour today.

His place is being taken by Laurette, the wife of Robert, his co-driver.

It was an uneventful drive through some wonderful Indian countryside. Remote villages and busy small towns have become the norm for the tour. As is usual when driving in India you see numerous examples of overloaded vehicles, this one a tuk-tuk with people hanging on to every available place.

Then, out of the blue, we came across another example of the contrasts you see in India. One moment we were passing a bullock cart and the next a massive hydro-electric scheme!

The weather continues to be absolutely perfect. The temperature is in the high twenties, and occasionally, just over thirty degrees. We have had virtually no clouds since we left the Himalayas, with non-stop sunshine from morning to night.

We arrived at our hotel, The Jungle Lodge, before 2 pm and within an hour we were all loading up into jeeps for our game drive through the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. The two all-American crews in one of the jeeps.

According to the naturalist on our jeep there are approximately 30 tigers in the tourist area of the park, which accounts for about one third of the total area. We headed into the park on dirt tracks and I was quickly taken by the magnificent countryside. Quite dense bamboo and tropical vegetation, with mighty Sal trees, and then open meadows with deep grass. In the background were wonderful mountains.

Very soon we came across tiger tracks in the sand and we stopped to listen for 'alarm' calls from deer and monkeys.

After about ten minutes we moved on. The rest of the drive sadly did not produce a sighting of a tiger. We are having an early morning game drive tomorrow, which hopefully will be more successful.

When we returned to the Jungle Lodge, the hotel laid on a 'starlight' barbecue. It was a great way to end the day

October 27th – Bandhavgarh to Kanha

A very early start of 5 am to make sure we were at the park gates for the opening at 6 am. Everyone, or nearly everyone, was loaded into a dozen jeeps. Waiting for the gates to open.

We drove into the park as the sun was starting to rise. It was quite cold and we needed the blanket we had taken with us. After about half an hour we saw a few jeeps parked on the side of the track , with everyone looking into the jungle. We pulled up and our guide shouted to us to look up on the rocks above us. There walking slowly was a female tiger. She was about 100 yards away and walking behind trees and rocks, so it wasn't possible to take still photos, but I did manage to take some video which, with luck, will show the tiger. I played the footage back but on my small display it isn't possible to distinguish the tiger from the back ground. If we do not see another tiger we will be satisfied that we have seen one of the remaining 1200 tigers in the wild. The tiger then moved to much higher ground and deeper into the jungle. Unlike South African reserves, where you can follow the animals into the bush,you are not allowed to drive off the tracks, so the tiger disappeared from view.

We continued on our drive and saw numerous deer as well as packs of monkeys and then came upon this family of wild boar.

We saw many beautiful birds, including this magnificent stork.

Towards the end of the drive we saw a large number of jeeps and the guide told us that a tiger was resting in a dense thicket. In India you can only see tigers when they are away from the roads by transferring to elephants which take you to the tiger. The tigers are used to the elephants and are not disturbed by them. Several of the group went on the elephants but their view was not good as the undergrowth was so thick. Below is a shot of Terence English, his co-driver Billy and Bob & Thelma Howells heading for the undergrowth where the tiger was resting.

Our game drive came to an end and we returned to the hotel to pack and drive the 236 kms to the Kanha Tiger Reserve. On the way we came across Renger and Gerda Guliker who were stopped by the side of the road with a broken shock absorber. We stopped and lent them a hand to remove the shock absorber, so that he could continue to Kanha.

We arrived at our hotel, the Tulli Tiger Resort, at around 3 pm. There were no afternoon game drives so we could relax and get ready for the early morning drive into the park. When Renger arrived at the hotel I asked him how he had managed the drive without one of the rear shock absorbers, and he said OK. I had two spares for my Landcruiser and offered one to him. Amazingly it fitted, and now for the rest of the tour his will be the only Mercedes with a Toyota shock!

October 28th - Kanha (rest day)

Today has turned out to be one of the highlights of the tour. We saw one of India's few remaining wild tigers at close hand.

But first, we were lucky enough to see a rare sighting of a pack of Indian wild dogs. They are roaming animals so it is quite unusual to see them. The tiger on the other had is territorial, so with any luck you have a reasonable chance of seeing one.

As we drove on our guide told us that a tiger had been located. It had been tracked by the park elephants. We drove for about 45 minutes to the place. There were several elephants being used to take people to see the tiger. We climbed up onto one of the elephants and were carried to within a few feet of this magnificent predator. It was lying close to the track in a bamboo thicket.

Two close ups of the tigers head from just 10 feet away.

The mahout manoeuvred the elephant so that we could take photos from both in front of it and from behind it. As we did so the tiger lifted its head and growled at us! What a moment to remember!

The rest of the drive was very interesting, but all I'll remember is being so close to such a beautiful animal.

I decided to stay at the hotel for the remainder of the day, whilst Wendy is going on the afternoon game drive. I haven't mentioned much about the tour group for a few days. We have 'lost' two of the group who have decided to move on from here. Hopefully we will meet up with them towards the end of the tour. Richard Smith (Car 20) is, we think, heading for Goa and Nick Thake (Car 18) is heading for Hyderabad. One of the great things about these events is that you are free to do what you want and are not constrained by the organisers in any way. The only thing about 'going it alone' is that you do not have the support of HERO.

Tomorrow we drive to the city of Nagpur for one night and then on to one of India's principal cities, Hyderabad.

October 29th - Kanha Tiger Reserve

Apologies to all those following the blog but for the past three days, at the two tiger reserves we have been staying at, there has been no Internet access, hence the lack of posts.

I have just managed to get a GPRS connection here in Kanha which is incredibly slow, so there are no photos at the moment. We are driving to our next stop at Nagpur today where there is a connection. I will then post all that has happened over the past four days. Until then I'll keep everyone in suspense about what we have seen!

October 29th - Kanha to Nagpur

After all the excitement of yesterday we decided not to go on another early morning game drive. When those who had gone on the morning drive returned they told us that they had seen two tigers, a mother and her three year old male cub. Perhaps we should have gone! No, we are both very satisfied with our time here in India's tiger reserves and we will leave feeling that we have been very lucky to have seen such wonderful creatures in their natural setting: the Indian jungle. We had breakfast in the hotel and I couldn't resist taking a photo of the sign at the breakfast buffet!

Before we left we said goodbye to our marvellous Indian naturalist, Sanjay. He was tremendously informative on our drive through the park and he added an additional dimension to the experience of seeing tigers in the wild. Thanks Sanjay for making our stay a memorable one. Sanjay outside the Tuli Resort Hotel, Kanha.

Our drive today was only about 260 kms, a six hour drive to Nagpur. As we left the hotel John Brown had selected an 'interesting' track to lead us back to the main road. Within a couple of hundred yards we were fording streams and going through quite deep mud and water!

Then we had three hours of driving through beautiful green tropical Indian countryside with lots of children going to school. It will be one of our lasting memories of India, the children in their magnificent school uniforms walking and cycling to and from school. It never ceases to amaze us how smart the children are. English children could learn something from the way Indian school children dress! Below are some of the children going to school this morning.

We stopped by a group of boys and they were so happy that we couldn't leave without taking a photo of them.

Another sight that we have become used to seeing are women walking along the road with large bundles of sticks on their heads. How they manage to stay so upright with such large loads is a mystery to me.

We then came across a huge flock of egrets and flying foxes - fruit bats. You could see the bats landing in the trees and then hanging upside down from the branches. Here is one in flight and you can just see others hanging from the branches.

The rest of the drive was comparatively easy and we arrived in Nagpur before 3 pm. This afternoon has been spent trying to get the blog up to date and now I think it is!

Tomorrow we continue our drive south for over 500 kms to Hyderabad where we spend two nights. We are rapidly approaching the last week of the tour and neither of us wants it to end!!