It is a cool winter afternoon as we sit in the back of our roofless safari vehicle. The guide in his MP accented Hindi had been regaling us with tales from the forest when suddenly he silences us to indicate that the signals for a big cat has been sounded. Suddenly two other jeeps come flying past us in the other direction. In a blur of dust and engine roar, we hear the words ‘Tiger mil gaya, ghumao gaadi ko!’ In a flash our driver has done a 360 and we are racing down the road hot in pursuit of the elusive tiger that we have been searching for since we entered the park.
But hang on. I’m an auto journalist and searching for a tiger in the pristine forests of Pench, Madhya Pradesh seems far away from my comfort zone of supercharged V8 engines, push-rod suspensions and which compact sedan has the deepest boot.
So what am I doing there then? Well Honda invited my colleague Abhishek and me to participate in their seventh edition of Drive to Discover where we would travel across the heart of Madhya Pradesh. Our mission was to visit a quadruple of national parks to savour the very best of what Gaia has to offer and of course spot the elusive kings/queens of the feline hierarchy. At our disposal was the entire Honda range (offered in India) and in front of us lay 890km of rural heartland waiting for us to drive across and discover.
The big journey with the big H was flagged off in Nagpur with our first destination being the Pench National Park. Our car for the day was the Brio hatchback painted in a shade of silver. It was uneventful journey across the 110kms of national highway and save for a few diversions en-route, we reached our first destination without much fuss. The Brio, with its peppy little 1.2-litre four-pot motor and light steering kept us calm and comfortable the whole way. After a quick lunch, we hopped into the back of our safari vehicles and set off to explore Pench.
Honey, there is a tiger in my mirrors, what I do? Take a photo dummy!
Now this is a sentence most people would utter if they were stuck in Mumbai’s choc-block traffic ahead of Jackie Shroff’s sons car. But this was no joke and we were witness to the real deal (feline not actor).
We had been roaming around the park for a while and had spotted a plethora of birds, deer and even a trio of jackals who were basking in a patch of sunlight like they were sleeping off an afternoon round of beers. Around 45 mins in the tiger adventure began. We raced along the forest trail and in tow behind us were…15 other jeeps! It wasn’t the Jim Corbett(ish) sneak up and observe moment as I had expected. This was because the tiger is the celebrity of the park and with 16 jeep loads of people all pursuing the same goal it is hard to control the human sense bedazzlement when a famous star is around.
We waited and watched as the Tigress, christened C21, slowly but surely walked through the foliage and onto the pathway for the jeeps and my god what a majestic sight it was! We may see these cats in zoos or on the big screens but to see one up close is an unbelievable blessing! It seemed that Lady Luck was in a really good mood as we got a second opportunity to watch C21 lounge around, frolic and even attempt to scale a tree to mark its territory letting me tick an item off my bucket list.
Day-2 The long haul to Bandhavgarh
If the start of the trip was exciting then day-2 was the bit where reality kind of struck in. It was a 510km drive to Bandavgarh and we had to leave a bit early to get things moving. Carrying us on this part of the journey was Honda’s latest blue-collared boy-the BR-V and that too in the quite efficient 1.5-litre i-DTEC engine option.
It was a day filled with good roads, bad roads and ‘Abhishek why does it feel like we are driving on the surface of the moon’…err…roads all of which the BR-V managed to conquer despite crashing around in the craters and having a stiff clutch pedal.
The drive gave us an opportunity to witness the simple rural beauty of MP and enjoy some unique sights and sounds like cows resting on the tarmac, vegetable markets setup within inches of the roadside and plethora of people with questionable sense of guts when it came to crossing the roads. Sarcasm apart, we passed many fields of sunflowers and cereals invoking a sense of beauty seen in the highway shots of the Hindi movies from the 1990s.
We finally managed to reach our hotel in Bandhavgarh well after the sun had set a feat that might have taken longer if it had not been for the fancy projector headlamps fitted on our car. They lit up the road well but made our pursuit of photographing a lone fox quite a task!
Day 3- A missed chance
We ventured into the Bandavgarh sanctuary the next morning but returned empty handed as lady luck, which had showered us with blessings in Pench, decided to take the morning off. Despite having a stronger reputation for cat spottings, we didn’t see any animals at all and suspect the bone chilling 5C cold may have played a large part in this. What we did get to enjoy was some cold fresh air and the peace that comes with a place untouched by the catalysts of human ‘development’.
Closer to the afternoon, we set off for our final destination which was the heritage town of Khajuraho and this time around in the petrol powered Amaze compact sedan. It provided us with the same fun driving experience that we got with the Brio.
Day 4- Khajuraho- History in stone before heading home
On the final morning of our trip, we visited the Khajuraho, a UNESCO world heritage site that originally comprised of over 85 temples of which only around 25 remain today. They are Hindu and Jain temples which have for generations held many spellbound thanks to their beauty and of course extremely well preserved erotic sculptures.
It had been phenomenal action packed four days driving a troupe of Hondas across Madhya Pradesh. The best part was that we could tick everything off our list, including a tete-a-tete with the elusive wild tiger, India’s rural heartland and the fresh (but quite dry) weather. Of course the unbelievable chance to see a beautiful and majestic Tigress at a distance too close for comfort was the cherry on the top.