We took the biggest camera lens we could get to spot the big cat in the forests of Pench!
We took the biggest camera lens we could get to spot the big cat in the forests of Pench!Rohit G Mane for evo India

2024 Hyundai Great India Drive: Exter goes to Pench and Kanha

Continuing on our quest to spot the tiger we head to Pench and Kanha on this edition of the Great India Drive

We are the most populous nation on earth, and while that might be cause for concern, it is also the engine that’s fuelling our growth – so there are two sides to that story. And there’s another story connected with a population boom and that is the Royal Bengal Tiger’s. Once in decline, primarily due to human population growth, deforestation, hunting and poaching – the launch of Project Tiger in 1973 made a dramatic difference in arresting the tide. This initiative focused on habitat preservation, stringent anti-poaching measures, and community engagement, resulting in a significant rise in tiger population from 1,200 to around 5,000 over the last five decades.

To commemorate this remarkable achievement, this year’s Hyundai Great India Drive has set us just one goal – spot a tiger in its natural habitat. But it’s not like the tiger is waiting for us in a national park, ready to pose for our cameras. Aatish was the first to take charge of the Exter, heading to Kabini and the Bandipur sanctuary, except the only thing he saw were pugmarks. Now it was my turn and I guided the Exter onto the fantastic Samruddhi Mahamarg connecting Mumbai to Nagpur, heading to the Pench National Park. This is a vast 758 square kilometre sanctuary between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s, Jungle Book. In 2023, Pench earned the Tx2 award for doubling its tiger population, now exceeding 130 tigers. I’ll have a big cat in the bag on our very first safari I told the editor before setting off.

Pench is home to more than just tigers; we saw a pack of jackals; several Sambhars and Langurs
Pench is home to more than just tigers; we saw a pack of jackals; several Sambhars and Langursevo India

My companion on the drive was our chief photographer, Rohit Mane, an avid wildlife enthusiast but one who has seen nothing but disappointment through the lens of his camera at every tiger sanctuary he has been to. Over the years, the Royal Bengal Tiger has become his Moby Dick. But this time was going to be different he told me as I took the ’wheel of the Exter for the first stint while Rohit caressed his bazooka-like 500mm lens. He spent his time either talking about how close he got to spotting a tiger or snoring loudly – a testament to the Exter’s ride quality even as some of the overbridges and surface changes on the Samruddhi Mahamarg are rather vicious.

No complaints though, the 540km on the expressway (from our home base in Pune we hit this road at Sinnar near Nashik) went by in a flash, and Nagpur was bypassed as we made our way to our night halt at the aptly named Mowgli’s Den. The next morning, we explored the buffer zone around the resort in the comfort of our Exter. While spotting a tiger in the buffer zone is fairly rare, it’s not unheard of. As I was driving along, enjoying the fresh air coming in through the sunroof, Rohit yelled. “Stop! It’s a jackal,” he said as he walked into the forest with his camera and its gigantic lens. He returned a few minutes later with a huge smile and a picture of a pack of jackals.

I have never been much of a wildlife buff but his enthusiasm was rubbing off on me. By noon, we were at the gate for our first safari, where I perhaps naively asked our guide what our chances were and received the most appropriate response: “Chances are 50:50; you either spot one or you don’t.” Nevertheless, we climbed into the open-top 4x4 and headed into the core zone, armed with our cameras and crossed fingers.

Our 1.2-litre AMT Exter was one of the smoothest AMT gearboxes
Our 1.2-litre AMT Exter was one of the smoothest AMT gearboxesRohit G Mane for evo India

A couple of kilometres in, the signs of civilisation faded away, and an eerie silence set in. The trail itself is fairly tame, and it would have been no problem for our Exter if it were allowed inside. It certainly would have a quieter way to do a safari, thanks to its super-refined Kappa engine. Soon, I found myself daydreaming about a lifted Exter on all-terrain tyres with spotlights and a roof rack. The alarm calls of a Sambhar brought me back to reality; it might have been indication that a tiger was near. Around the same time, we spotted pugmarks on the ground, giving us goosebumps.

All eyes in the vehicle were wide open, scanning the tall grass and dense forest for a glimpse of a tiger. The calls got louder, and spotted deer joined in. We must be close, the guide told us. I got chills thinking that a tiger might be lurking in the tall grass watching us, perhaps waiting to pounce. But tigers are shy creatures; guides rely on instinct to approach the tiger, the tiger, in turn, utilises its own to remain concealed. Ultimately, the tiger’s instincts won the battle, as we had to leave the core zone before sundown.

The next morning we headed back in through a different gate, one reputed to be one of the most scenic of the entire sanctuary. This part of the forest is also teeming with wildlife – Sambhars, spotted deer, and Nilgai by the dozen. However, the undulations in this zone make the tigers harder to spot and after a few hours of not hearing any calls, we reached the Pench river. There, a distant call from a spotted deer caught the attention of our guide. As we headed in that direction, the Langurs joined in with their screeches. We reached a clearing, and the calls faded away as we frantically scanned the area for a tiger, to no avail.

And so it continued. Two safaris on the next day. One more, the day after and yet not a tiger in sight. Rohit’s hopes were dashed, but truth be told, I was thrilled by the whole experience. Whether or not you encounter a tiger is secondary to the feeling of venturing deep into an unmolested forest, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you experience it for yourself. Over now to the editor.

The Exter has an 8-inch infotainment screen, 4.2-inch info cluster, a wireless charger and paddle shifters as well!
The Exter has an 8-inch infotainment screen, 4.2-inch info cluster, a wireless charger and paddle shifters as well!Rohit G Mane for evo India

I’m not taking Rohit, that's for sure. I have had enough bad luck spotting a tiger and I don’t need another unlucky charm. Over the years – 25 years – I’ve done stories in wildlife parks all over the country. I’ve walked behind a lion and lioness in the middle of the night, until the big cats got pissed off with our photographer using the flash and roared at us – those were the days you could do such things. I’ve woken up to a pack of wild dogs chasing prey. I’ve had wild elephants cross in front of our car. Had a leopard stalk our own 4x4. Got the fright of my life when a bison snorted through the bushes an inch away from my window. I’ve had adventures aplenty but never seen a tiger. Not once. Secretly I’m happy Aatish and Lenny have been unlucky because now I can legitimately disappear for a few days in search of the tiger.

I retrace Lenny’s route over the excellent Samruddhi Mahamarg (boring, but excellent – this is the most stress-free 590km you will do anywhere in India), then bypass Nagpur and a further 250km to Kanha in Chhattisgarh. Google Maps will show you two routes, I suggest you take the longer one that passes the gates of Pench – immediately after the dual carriageway snakes and winds its way through forests and then you turn off onto a state highway which then narrows down into a single-car -width road that’s spectacularly beautiful. It’s a road trip that is highly recommended.

At Kanha we stay at the Taj Banjaar Tola near the Mukki gate – one of the finest wildlife resorts in the world. Nestled by the banks of the Banjaar river, our room overlooks the river and on the other side of the bank is the core area of the sanctuary. The food, particularly the local cuisine is fabulous, the rooms lavish and best of all is the ever attentive staff.

Shikhar Mohan is our naturalist who takes us on our first safari – a lawyer by training he quit after six months in the Supreme court and came down to Kanha to indulge in his passion for wildlife. It’s been five years and he has no intention of ever going back, except to use his bazooka of a lens at the BIC on track days during the off-season. A proper enthusiast then and it makes all the difference. Kanha is an evergreen forest with majestic Sal trees and the views are out of a fairytale, I can’t help but think how spectacular the Exter would look in such a setting, how great it would be to drive over the trails, but only registered park vehicles are allowed inside.

Kanha is home to the Barasingha, this is its only home in India, and that’s the first spot we make, the deer grazing by the banks of a small lake. Shikhar points out birds, Sambhar, herds of spotted deer, and then I notice a barking deer in the bushes not even

10 metres from our vehicle. So far so good. And then he hears warning calls. Other naturalists have also heard the call and a whole bunch of vehicles head towards it and there she is in all her glory. A tigress with her two cubs! Shikhar tells us that the tigress, named DJ after where she was first spotted, is the reigning queen of Kanha, and she looks majestic lazing about on the grasslands. Her cubs seem to be oblivious of our presence, playing with each other, at times harassing her, and they are in no hurry to go anywhere. I don’t have a 500mm lens with me, don’t even have a camera – didn’t want to jinx it – but the tigers aren’t that far away and my iPhone does a decent job of bagging pictures and reels.

We spend half an hour here, gawking at these beautiful creatures and then Shikhar takes us to the other side of the forest to see if we can spot another tiger but that’s it for tigers on our first safari. The next afternoon we head back into the forest and this time we spot DJ walking on the jeep track. We actually drive behind the tigress, so close that we can smell her! Today DJ is busy. She’s on the prowl, stalking her prey, and her cubs aren’t close. Shikhar tells us that a tiger makes a kill only once in nine or ten tries; a hunt takes a lot of effort and most often the older tigers pass away as they’re unable to hunt. It’s the way of the jungle and the park officials do not intervene with the ecosystem. Fifteen minutes later DJ smells something and dives into the forest, going about her business, and my iPhone is again stuffed with evidence of my second tiger spotting. As soon as we get into network Rohit’s WhatsApp will be flooded – he isn’t going to hear the end of it! – but for now we relax, soak in the beauty of the forest, and marvel at the conservation efforts of Project Tiger that have ensured the majestic animal has not only survived but thrived. India knows how to grow its population very well indeed.

Read the Part 1 of the Hyundai Exter: Great India Drive here!

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