Our naturalist is the first to see the tiger's footprints in a sandy creek bed that is the preferred route through the jungle for these elusive predators. "K", as he prefers to call himself, cuts the engine of our jeep so that the only sound is the falling of the dew-covered leaves of the sal trees. And then it comes – the tiger's growl, short, distinctive and insistent from less than a 100 metres away.
Another safari jeep pulls up behind us and I hear the drivers repeating the Hindi phrase "bagh ki awaz" (sound of the tiger) several times. A little earlier we had heard an alarm call from a langur monkey coming from an escarpment to the east. The langur's call and the freshness of the footprints, suggest that a tiger is on the move. Consultations over, we drive slowly to a bend in the road that will give us a clear view of where the tiger might emerge. Engines are switched off, cameras made ready and we prepare for what could be a very long wait.
Bandhavgarh National Park has one of the highest densities of tigers of any wildlife park in India. But with the average male laying claim to 50 square kilometres of territory and females half that amount, spotting the big cat is not guaranteed. K, whose name is short for Kartikay, is careful not to raise our expectations. He assures us he has never gone into the park more than five times in a row without seeing a tiger. This is my third of four safaris I have booked, so I'm mildly hopeful.
Unlike my anxious fellow passengers, an Austrian couple who have never seen the animal in the wild and are on their first visit to India, I've encountered several of these striped wonders in national parks such as Kanha and Ranthambore. My priority is therefore to relax, take in the scenery and be satisfied with spotting some of the park's other spectacular fauna.
With the exception of the remote and rarely visited Namdapha reserve in the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Bandhavgarh is the most beautiful of the dozen or so Indian wildlife parks I have seen. Dominating the landscape is the 800-metre high Bandhavgarh Fort. Built by the Gond kings 2000 years ago and surrounded by precipitous cliffs, it reminds me of the dinosaur-infested plateau in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. As we skirt its edges on our safaris, I half expect to see Professor Challenger stumble out the jungle pursued by a pack of pterodactyls.
Any unexpected rustling noises, however, are likely to be from langur monkeys, sambar stags, sloth bears or wild boars, rather than anything human or prehistoric. Unfortunately, the fort is off-limits aside from two days a year when pilgrims can make the difficult eight-kilometre trek from the park gate to an ancient temple on the summit. The closest one can get is to the base of the fort where an extraordinary lichen-covered, six-metre long statue of the Hindu god Vishnu lying on a seven-headed cobra has been carved out of solid rock. More literary analogies come to mind, this time the monkey-infested ruined city, Cold Lairs, in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book.
For a country that will soon overtake China as the most populous in the world, finding tracts of unspoilt nature stretching as far as the eye can see is a novelty. And while India has no equivalent to the Masai Mara or South Africa's vast private game reserves, it is home to 70 per cent of the world's tiger population. After a hesitant start, it now has the accommodation infrastructure to match whatever Africa can offer.
The first luxury hotel brand to recognise the gap in the market was the Taj Group, which linked up with the safari specialists andBeyond to create five jungle properties in India. Four of these are located in the state of Madhya Pradesh where Bandhavgarh is situated. Approximately six hours apart, it is possible to combine them into a single package making this the ultimate Indian wildlife experience.
The Taj Mahua Kothi on the edge of Bandhavgarh National Park takes its name from the Mahua or butter tree whose fruit is used to make a particularly fiery homebrew by the Baiga tribe who live in the surrounding villages. Spread out over more than 16 hectares, the resort offers 12 individual huts hidden among clusters of bamboo and the twisted trunks of ancient-looking trees.
The layout and decor of both the main homestead and individual cottages bears the signature style of andBeyond's designer Chris Brown. Each cottage has its own private courtyard and is finished with mud-coloured exteriors that are repainted using natural lime washes after each monsoon. Inside roughly hewn timbers support the high ceilings and decorative niches are embedded into the walls. Locally sourced textiles, wooden sculptures and tribal art works are used sparingly. Ayurvedic massage is available on request and there are yoga mats for those needing to restore suppleness to their tired limbs after a four-hour safari ride. Laundry bags warn guests that monkeys have been known to snatch clothing off the lines.
The lodge's manager Amit Singhvi says he has regular guests who come to Mahua Kothi just to enjoy the serenity and might never go on safari. Three-quarters of the staff are recruited locally and most of the greens and vegetables come from the kitchen garden. The emphasis is on personalised service. Each cottage has its own butler and each jeep has a qualified naturalist trained in the Taj hotel group's own facility at nearby Kanha National Park.
Although it is late February and the worst of the winter has passed, extra blankets and hot water bottles make the drive in the open jeep bearable until the sun takes the edge off the cold. By 5pm the temperature rapidly drops again making the hot lemon and ginger tea served on our return even more appreciated. So too is hot bath that Rama, my butler, has poured without me even having to ask.
On my second morning I sleep through my alarm and get woken by a phone call from K telling me it's six o'clock and time to leave. I pull on my warmest clothes and sprint the 200 or so metres to where the jeeps are waiting. As I pass the reception, a thermos full of strong, sweet chai is thrust into my hand as if I were an Olympic relay runner on my last lap. Yesterday's preference for my morning wake-up tonic has been discretely noted.
I can now enjoy my chai as we wait for what K believes is a tigress named Dotty and her two cubs to emerge from behind a bamboo thicket. This time, however, we're denied a clear sighting. Aside from a momentary glimpse of Dotty's stripes as she shifts position, shyness seems to have gotten the better of her. Like so much in India, the unseen is often best left to one's imagination.
Air India operates daily flights to New Delhi from Melbourne and Sydney. The closest airport to Bandhavgarh is Jabalpur approximately 3.5 hours' drive. SpiceJet operates a morning flight to Jabalpur from New Delhi. See airindia.in; spicejet.com
Taj Mahua Kothi has 12 standalone luxury cottages on the periphery of Bandhavgarh National Park. t See tajhotels.com
Safaris must be booked in advance owing to limitations on the number of vehicles allowed in Bandhavgarh. Cost per jeep is approximately $50. The park is closed between 15 June and 15 October. See forest.mponline.gov.in.
John Zubrzycki travelled as a guest of Mahua Kothi.