WE ARE SCHEDULED for our first game drive in the afternoon with our naturalist, Kartikeya. We go over some of the distinct differences between African and Indian safaris. For one, national parks in India are public - there are no private game reserves - and therefore are open to anyone and everyone. For another, the local guides, whom everyone entering the park must hire, do not carry weapons. (The local guides should not be confused with the naturalists, who are trained and educated by CC Africa but who still cannot enter the park without a local guide.)
As far as landscapes go, Africa is known for its vast, open savannas and grasslands, while India's parks are more jungly. (Though the word jungle actually derives from Hindi, a jungle is really more of a forest than what we normally think of as a lush jungle. But Rudyard Kipling's famous The Jungle Book was partly based here, so who am I to argue?) It's the last major difference, though, that strikes us as the most surprising: There are no fences along the park's boundaries.
Okay, I'll bite. "So how do you keep the tigers in the park?" I inquire, thinking of the nearby villages our driver left in a trail of dust only minutes before. Kartikeya smiles. "We don't," he says. He tells us that just last month, two local cattle herders were killed by a tiger. With that, we enter the park.
The first thing we see is a herd of chital, a kind of spotted deer that is by far the most common animal in Indian parks. Now, I realize that flying all the way to India to go on safari to see an animal whose cousin can be found in headlights from Connecticut to California might seem silly, but there is one important caveat: Tigers feed on chital. Their warning call, a sort of high-pitched coo, is the first sign that a tiger is nearby. Within the first 15 minutes of the safari, we see about 100 chital. They are everywhere. "I have a feeling I'm going to get very sick of chital," I say to my friend. "I already am," he snaps.
We also start spotting wild boars, which Kartikeya enthusiastically points out. This is especially amusing to us, since wild boars pretty much roam free all over Indian cities. It's like going to a zoo in the States and gawking at pigeons. It's at this point, though, that things quickly get more interesting. Normally, I couldn't care less about birds, with the exception of ones that talk, but an Indian safari could make a birder out of anyone. We spot plum-headed parakeets, black-hooded orioles, and Tickell's blue flycatchers within the first few moments. We riffle through the field guide to find out what we're seeing. It's endlessly fascinating - I'm actually shocked at my own level of interest - but a tiger it ain't.
Then, just as I find myself contemplating membership in the American Birding Association, there's a sudden commotion in our jeep. "Tiger on the road!" is all I hear from Kartikeya as he steps on the accelerator. We're there in seconds, along with about six other jeeps lined up like paparazzi. We were alone only seconds before, and I do a double take to make sure it's actually a tiger and not the future queen of England. "Some of the local guides carry cell phones, even though it's forbidden," Kartikeya later says in explanation of the surreal Us Weekly moment.
Nonetheless, we have a prime spot. The tiger is a nearly two-year-old cub, which is interesting because he is as full grown as any tiger I have ever seen in a zoo. He's about 15 feet away and completely oblivious to the gaping mouths and clicking shutters all around him. As he rounds a tree, he haunches up and begins to slowly creep - gracefully, gorgeously - toward some unforeseen victim. He's stalking.
Suddenly, he springs forward for a chital, though it turns out he is merely toying with it, as his hunting skills are not yet honed. The whole thing leaves us all quite jazzed. "Your first tiger in the wild?" asks Kartikeya. "Oh yes!" we say in unison. "Congratulations," he says. We would see two more by the next day (one from the vantage point of the back of a four-ton elephant), along with something called a sambar, whose clever name simply means "animal" in Hindi. I'll raise the ante here on specificity and say it looks a lot like a moose.
Mahua Kothi Lodge (www.tajhotels.com) is located 118 miles from Jabalpur's Dumna Airport and 142 miles from the Khajuraho airport. Baghvan Lodge is located 55 miles from Nagpur and 119 miles from Jabalpur. The staff at the lodges can arrange airport transfers for an additional fee.