• Brick Lane

    The East Enders

    “Now this is the site where the body of Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was found,” declares Emily, my guide at the Eating London food tour. That gets our complete

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  • Poppies

    Remains of the day

    Among the stories at the ‘Voices of the First World War’ exhibition at the Brighton Museum, is that of Subedar Manta Singh, who served with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. Manta,

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  • Temple

    Ringing in the new

    On any given Friday evening, Mylapore is at its festive best. Men dressed in white dhotis (unstitched cotton garments knotted at the waist and allowed to fall free), with thick

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  • Hanging on

    Losing the fear of flying

    I had never thought I would find myself 65 metres above the ground, hanging on for dear life. And doing this of my own volition. I am not the particularly

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  • Raja's Palace

    Film trail in Chettinad

    At the ‘Periya Veedu’ (Big House) at Athangudi, the caretaker rubbed his fingers together as soon as he spotted me getting off the car. It took me a moment to

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  • Remarkable Rocks

    Roos of the game

    I so want the life Tim Williams has. He drives people around Kangaroo Island, showing them the local colour that comes in the shape of kangaroos and koalas, seals and

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  • The Lunchbox1

    Food for thought

    “Food is music to the body; music is food to the heart,” Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantaram, his 2003 novel commended by many for its vivid portrayal of life

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  • Crazy Alphorners

    The Swiss Sound of Music

    Matthias Ammann puts his hands into his pockets, smiles at us, and yodels effortlessly. Of course he would. He has been yodeling since the age other children learn to gurgle

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  • Tiramisu

    Roman banquet

    My food walk in Rome begins with a near death-by-dessert experience. It is a balmy summer morning and our small group has met in front of a bar in Testaccio.

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  • Ghent3

    Footloose in Flanders

    If Eat, Pray, Love was a town, it would be Bruges. So pretty, so picture postcard that some guidebooks have described it as touristy and a tad fake. Our guide

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Friday photo: Boudhanath

One of the (few) nice things about living in Gurgaon is being able to take off for long weekends. The husband had five days off for Dusshera – which came conveniently around Gandhi Jayanti and some other festival – and so we headed off to Nepal. More on the Nepal trip soon.

For now, an image from one of my favourite experiences: a morning at the Boudhanath stupa…

Boudhanath

Also see: Friday photo series

Burning bright again

Tigers are back in Panna, and how!

Panna

(Published in the special Wildlife issue of Outlook Traveller in October. Click on the image to read the story in pdf form. Photographs and video not part of the published story.)

On my evening safari into the Panna National Park, my companions are not happy. They have promised to show their three year old a tiger, and a tiger is what they demand. The peacock and the paradise flycatcher? The flighty langur? The gilded leaves of the Indian ghost gum tree? The flaming sunset? They have seen it all in their farmhouse back in Delhi, thankyouverymuch. Where is the tiger?

The tiger remains elusive, as is the nature of the beast. And we drive on and on, following the abundant pugmarks, the helpful tips from the patrolling park officials and our own guide’s nose. To a man, the locals are determined to show us a tiger today. It is Panna’s reputation at stake.

As the light begins to fade, there is a rustling in the dry leaves ahead of us and we collectively hold our breath. And a leopard crosses our path and in a flash, disappears into the brown slopes. My first leopard spotting and so I am still holding my breath (all those years of yogic breathing paying off). Our farmhouse family is still unimpressed. Said three year old has fallen asleep, empty Kurkure packet crinkling in his tiny hands, lips curved in a dreamy smile.

‘Show me the tiger,’ is a common – sometimes desperate, often demanding – refrain in our National Parks but it feels particularly poignant here, given Panna’s history. In 1994, when Panna was brought under Project Tiger, making it India’s 22nd tiger reserve, the count was a healthy 23. Just fifteen years later, in 2009, the tiger population was zero. Rampant poaching, poisoning by locals and natural causes, all abetted by governmental indifference, had killed off the entire lot.

This is a sad story, but not particularly surprising, given how we have been failing our tigers consistently across the country. The twist in this tail, if you will, comes from how quickly and efficiently the Park authorities responded to this situation.

It started with the entry of R Sreenivasa Murthy as Field Director of Panna Tiger Reserve. Murthy was a man on a mission, as he got together a team as passionate about the cause as he was. In late 2009, they introduced two tigresses and one tiger into Panna from the other Madhya Pradesh Reserves, and monitored their progress with great care.

Murthy remembers how tough the initials days were, given that tigers are creatures of habit and tend to seek out familiar territory. Surely enough, the male wandered off on his own, soon after being introduced into the Panna Reserve. He was headed towards home territory and had to be tracked for over 50 days before he could be tranquilised and brought back.

A couple of years later, in November 2011, the team added to the mix, two orphaned tiger cubs from Kanha National Park, which they had earlier rescued and raised for eighteen months. This experiment in “rewilding,” another first in wildlife conservation in India – and the first such successful project in the world – has also paid off. And earlier this year, tigress T6 has been brought in from Pench, purely to correct the skewed gender ratio within the Park.

(Source: HindustanTimes.com)

Today, 21 tigers roam inside Panna National Park.

I spot one of them during my morning drive into the forest the next day. She is introduced to me – from a safe distance – as T2. But more on her later. Unlike say, Ranthambhore, the big cats here don’t have cutesy names, but are known by their lineage: the T series and the P series, to signify the tigers that were brought into Panna and those that were born here. Tiger spotting is increasingly common here now, and tourists are slowly making their way here, away from Bandhavgarh and Kanha, which lie deeper in the heart of the state.

But it is not as if anyone believed tigers would be back in Panna. Travellers who found their way to this part of the country came only for Khajuraho, our original Sex and the City town. Even at Taj Pashangarh, where I am staying, the tiger motif is glaringly missing. Instead, on the floor mats and door handles there is the ghariyal, the water crocodile found on the Ken river that flows through this region and inside the National Park. “We couldn’t even have photographs of tigers here in the lodge when there were no tigers in the Park,” says Narayana, the senior naturalist.

Taj Pashangarh is in a quiet location far away from the main forest, and far far away from mobile phone signals and television sets. I insist on calling home, so the lodge manager points to a slab on the floor inside the dining area and says cheerfully, “Airtel? If you stand on those two stones, you may catch a signal.” The lodge is all stone and earth, 12 cottages set at a comfortable enough distance from each other to ensure that I get lost each time on the way to mine. My favourite location is the gazebo in the stone verandah adjoining the cottage. There, I am surrounded by my own patch of forest, its diverse noises filtering in through the night, sometimes soothing, sometimes scary.

The morning safari begins on a cold note. My teeth stop chattering only when the mist clears an hour later and a large herd of chital appears from inside the foliage. In the pale morning sunlight, the white bark of the aforementioned ghost gum trees take on an eerie quality. I am the only tourist in the jeep that morning, along with three of Pashangarh’s naturalists. They are gratified at my wide-eyed happiness at just being in the forest. And they are determined to show me a tiger.

The terrain inside Panna is flat and it is easy to spot animal movement. T2 puts in an appearance early in the morning, her catwalk lasting for over ten minutes. There is none of the usual drama that precedes tiger spotting: frenzied alarm calls in the bushes with corresponding hushed whispers in the jeeps.

With T2 arrival, there is excitement in the air; park officials are out in full force with their walkie-talkies and tracking devices. T1 has also been spotted in the area recently and we wait to see if she or any of the cubs will emerge. However, it soon becomes clear that the action is over for the day. And so we head off for breakfast.

Panna is one of the National Parks with designated areas for visitors to hop off and stretch their legs. Narayana stops the jeep at one of these nooks, overlooking the Reserve and the Ken snaking at a distance. The picnic hampers from the Pashangarh kitchen come out one by one, with fresh muffins, muesli, sandwiches and cookies. Fresh fruit and coffee. And the killer deal, warm parathas with two types of achar.

After a mandatory pit stop at Pandav waterfalls on way, we head back to Pashangarh. I have barely got over my jungle breakfast when it is time for lunch. And lunch at Pashangarh is what they call a light meal, which means a few cold salads, followed by rice, dal makhani and a couple of vegetables. Oh, and some succulent paneer which Chef Kanhaiya grills at the table.

Perhaps because I have come without any expectations, Panna is full of happy surprises for me. For one, there is Dhundwa Seha, the stunning 200-metre gorge formed by the dozens of small canals flowing through the Park. The only sounds here are that of a couple of waterfalls trickling down the muddy face of the gorge and the buzz of the vultures high above.

In the din about tigers, Panna’s forest officials have not neglected their native avian species. The latest vulture census has shown that seven types of residential and migratory vultures – including the endangered white-rumped and long-billed species – call Panna home. Their numbers now stand at an encouraging 1300 and are increasing steadily every year.

Then there is the (almost) secret route through the Hinauta gate – most visitors use the Madla gate off the main road – which, as Narayana promises, is more secluded and spectacular. The undulating terrain on this path with its sharp ups and downs. The tiny river islands where red-wattled lapwings sun themselves in a lazy manner.

And finally, the Ken – Karnavati, corrupted by lazy British tongues – itself that plays hide and seek with me throughout the safari, like some of the more friendly fauna. There is also the boat safari on offer but I give it a miss, having no intense desire for up close and personal encounters with the ghariyal.

Keen to treat Sunday morning with the respect it deserves, I skip the safari on my last day at Pashangarh and lounge over breakfast at my own private verandah. I look up from my book at a sudden sound to see a deer scrambling into the dense shrubbery. Pankaj, the private butler for this cottage, is smiling when he comes by with more coffee. Fresh leopard pugmarks have been found just outside the parking area; at Taj Pashangarh, it’s all in a day’s work.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there

Your best bet is to fly into Khajuraho from Delhi or Varanasi and take a taxi to Panna (1/2 hour, 25 km).

Where to stay

~ Taj Pashangarh is luxury set in 190 acres of wilderness; tariff Rs. 43,600 per person, including all meals, two jungle safaris and taxes.
~ Ken River Lodge overlooks the river and offers a choice of 6 huts (all inclusive tariff for two Rs.18,000) and 6 cottages (all inclusive tariff for two Rs. 16,000)
~ The Sarai is an environment friendly project close to the Madla entrance of the Reserve. There are 8 independent cottages spread over nine acres; double occupancy Rs. 16,200 including all meals and taxes.

What to see and do

Take along a good pair of binoculars, since Pashangarh’s naturalists take great pride in pointing out Panna’s “ten star birds” – it also comes handy when the big cats choose to stay hidden in the shrubbery. Boat safaris and occasional elephant-back safaris are available inside the National Park, so check with your guide about timings. The usual suspects on the sightseeing circuit at Panna include the UNESCO world heritage site of Khajuraho, Raneh falls and Pandav falls.

Need your help

I got a big scare related to this blog yesterday – a fake blog which is identical to this (an exact mirror image) has sprung up in the last few weeks. This person has copied all my content, including my profile photo(!), blog posts from ten years, descriptions of all my journalism work and ever single thing that this Itchy Feet blog has. I did some research and found that they have bought the url using my first name – and on the fake name, my name gets linked back to the url of the fake site. They have even copied my line asking for writing assignments based on the strength of my work, giving their email id. I have complained to the url provider but I have no other way of dealing with this.

I am writing this blog post now also to check if this gets picked up immediately on that site.

If you have been a reader of this blog, or if you like this blog – I request you to go to that site and leave comment asking them to remove that blog immediately. Any other suggestions or ideas from you also most appreciated.

Update: October 27

It’s been about three weeks now since I discovered the fake blog and I have taken a few steps. My direct request to the site owner did not get any response (I can’t really say I was expecting any) and strangely enough, the url provider (godaddy) and the hosting company (Host Key) did not respond either. I have not yet sent a DMCA complaint but tried other measures to get the site off. The fake site has been taken down in the last few days and I hope it stays that way. I have moved my travel blog to my own domain and installed security measures (closing the stable door after the horse has been stolen, I know). I’ll now be keeping my eyes open!

Postcard pretty Appenzell

In a country that is littered with jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery – just think Interlaken, Jungfraujoch and Zermatt – Appenzell stopped me short. No towering mountains here, all that snow sprawled on top like it belongs there. No icy blue waters or Bollywood heavyweights (although Yash Chopra is mentioned ever so often in hushed, revered tones ever so often).

No sir. This village, in the picturesque north-east of Switzerland, remains far away from the tourist trail. In some ways, it feels nice to have those narrow lanes and stone benches to yourself. Yet, it’s a pity more people don’t know about it.

Appenzell

Appenzell marches to its own drummer, this region even speaking its own version of Swiss German (unfamiliar to “normal” Swiss German speakers). It is what the Swiss proudly call the repository of living traditions. And even to my cynical eye, it never felt that Appenzell was putting on a performance for the benefit of tourists.

In early autumn, for instance, the alpine herdsmen make their way down from the mountain pastures in a ceremonial descent, wearing colourful attire, which includes tight yellow pants, richly embroidered red waistcoats and hats decorated with flowers. Think our own Bollywood’s Govinda clothes but on extremely fit and handsome Swiss men.

Herdsmen(pic courtesy: myswitzerland.com)

Come festivals and weddings, women take out their traditional costumes, and locals would rather carry the secret of their special Appenzeller cheese to the grave than share it with outsiders. There are advertisements about it and local nudge-nudge-wink-wink jokes that I can never hope to understand. But never mind, the cheese is the important thing, not its recipe.

BetrufAnd much to my amazement, they love their music: the yodelling, which seems to be made for the mountains. And the very special Betruf, which is an evening prayer. Sang through a wooden funnel, it is haunting and moving, a call to the gods to protect and bless their loved Alps and cattle. As I listened to it, I realised that it can be a lonely life out there in the high mountains, when the cold sets in and darkness falls in the middle of the day.

It was in August last year that I visited Switzerland for the first time. I skipped the usual suspects and made my way to Appenzell, changing a couple of trains – which, unsurprisingly, ran like clockwork.

The only annoyance in an otherwise perfect three days was that it rained almost continuously in my time there – and this was in the end of August. I had gone there expecting a nice, summery time and instead found myself shivering in the wet, miserable cold – and those burnt out, dull sky in the photographs, every one of them. Ah, well.

HeidiBeing in Appenzell is a bit like being inside a fairytale. Narrow lanes perfect for aimless strolls, 16th century houses with brilliantly painted facades, shop windows with absolutely twee yet alluring souvenirs. Cows are an integral part of their lives and the cow motif is everywhere – from shiny cowbells to smiling moo faces on soap boxes. And I am not joking when I say that in the Appenzell canton, there are more cows than people. They take their bovine friends very seriously indeed.

The Heidi story is also immensely popular around this region and finds its way into most of the souvenirs displayed in the shops – at prices that made me want to weep and laugh at the same time.

There isn’t much to do in Appenzell village – there is a museum that showcases the crafts and culture of this canton. The best thing is to walk up and down the main shopping street, admiring the buildings, choosing your favourite and looking up at the painted windows.

Then, there are the ‘tafeen’ – from the word tavern – unique metal signboards hanging over commercial establishments, that clearly indicate the nature of the business.

Tafeen1

Tafeen2

A tiny church bang in the middle of the village – the Heiligkreuzkapelle with its stunning stained glass. This was my absolute favourite among all the things I saw in Switzerland on this trip. Unassuming and unique, unlike any stained glass work I have ever seen.

Stained Glass

And towards the end of the main road, the Church of St Maurice with its gilded and imposing interiors, more stained glass windows – opening out at the back to a churchyard lovingly tended by locals and surrounded by mountains.

Church

Postcard

I stayed at the cozy Hotel Santis (don’t miss the ‘Romantik’ in front of the name), with its fiery red exteriors with wooden floors and beams inside.

Village

Santis

You can see why I didn’t want to leave, can’t you?

***

Read my other stories from this trip:

~ The Swiss sound of music – published in The Hindu as Notes on a mountain
~ High up in Heidiland – published in Mumbai Mirror as Rooting for Heid

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