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Indian Safari

Max Kim Bee A Bengal tiger rests on a riverbank

Photo: Max Kim Bee

Being the maharajah of Rewa used to mean not just the fun but also the necessity of killing 108 (or 109 or 111—no one seems to be able to agree on exactly how many) tigers before retiring your mustache wax, hanging up your pearls, and prancing off to your next incarnation. Apart from the pageantry and the opportunity to unleash vast quantities of hormones, bagging an "auspicious" number of the animals ensured the blessing of the Fates for the prince and his people. Not to mention the favors a viceroy might dispense if, as the honored member of your shooting party, he managed to "get" a tiger or two. The British thought the tiger a transgressive creature, one they smugly believed needed to be conquered to preserve the Indian jungle for grazing cattle and harvesting timber. Prodded by the raj, many maharajahs were all too happy to do business with bounty hunters.

All the back-scratching and perk-peddling in the Indian Empire ended in 1947, with Independence. As part of the deal struck with the new government after the raj dissolved and the British retreated, each prince was allowed to keep one shikargah, or private royal hunting reserve, from his former realm. Rewa’s kept Bandhavgarh, 435 miles southeast of Delhi in Madhya Pradesh, the central state with the largest sweep of forests in India. This is Kipling country, near to where the boy-wolf Mowgli ranged with the predators who raised him in The Jungle Book.

Today, Bandhavgarh is a rigorously run national park (don’t even think about going off track) with a holistic maintenance philosophy, a manned gate, strict hours (dawn to dusk, minus four hours from mid-morning to mid-afternoon), and one of the highest tiger densities—23 within the 40 square miles accessible to visitors—in the country. The other factors that make the chances of viewing a tiger so good are the relative openness of the tropical moist deciduous forest and the easy rapport the cats enjoy with the park’s passenger elephants.

The November opening of Mahua Kothi, Madhya Pradesh’s first luxury lodge, came not a moment too soon for voluptuary career safarists whose trips to Africa to track the Big Five, sad to say, don’t quite produce the goose bumps they once did. No one’s calling them jaded or blasé, but they are a demanding lot. (This group does not include me. No one believes me, but I am just as happy—maybe happier—watching a tawny Rajah butterfly as a rhinoceros.) Africa has more of the animals people traditionally want to see, and more spectacular displays of them, than India. But only India delivers the tiger.

Notwithstanding the wealth of flora and fauna at Bandhavgarh, compared to safaris in Africa—where it can begin to seem that there are prides and sounders of mammals around every corner—the expeditions folded into a stay at Mahua Kothi are more discreet and nuanced. The lodge is a joint venture between Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, the Nepalese industrialist Binod Chaudhary, and Conservation Corporation Africa, with CC Africa supplying the style, which it describes, not inaccurately, as "sophisticated simplicity," and interpretive wildlife expertise. CC Africa’s ethos also shapes the service, which manages the nearly impossible task of being human, subtle, and comprehensive all at the same time. The standards are the same ones the company has used to build an empire of 40 lodges in Africa. (Before this trip I’d stayed in Kwandwe Ecca Lodge, Phinda Vlei Lodge, and Phinda Rock Lodge.) At $600 per person per night in high season, Mahua Kothi is near the bottom of the company’s most exclusive portfolio of lodges, falling between Kirkman’s Kamp and Phinda Mountain Lodge, both in South Africa, and well below Mnemba Island in Tanzania, at $975 the most expensive property—and it has no safari component. Mahua Kothi is first in a circuit of CC Africa/Taj lodges on the edge of tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh and the state of Uttaranchal, to the north.

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