Chapter One – 1986
Since I was quite small and cannot recollect all thus the key information have been provided by my parents.
The year 1986, the place Betla, my father in those days used to go around different places across Easter India in a Mahindra Willys Jeep with the canvas covering. All of a sudden my father and a group of close friends of planned to visit Betla forest driving all the way from Kolkata.
The plan was to drive from Kolkata -> Jamshedpur -> Netarhat -> Betla, night halts had been planned at each of these locations. The group consisted of my parents, my sister, myself, two friends of my father one accompanied by his wife and our driver. So we were a total eight in number in a very noisy and bumpy Willys Jeep.
The journey from Kolkata to Jamshedpur was smooth followed by another night halt at Netarhat. We had planned to reach Betla the next day by early afternoon but when we arrived at the forest gate we were not allowed inside as we required a permit from the Forest Department. To get that permit we had to go all the way to Daltonganj, when we returned back with the permit it was late evening and inside the forest it gets dark early.
Note that in the 80’s there were very few visitors to Betla and basic infrastructure was at its minimum. Electricity was non-existent and the forest was much wilder and dangerous. We were allotted two room, our family along with my father’s friend with his wife took the large room while other two took the next room. The dining area was not attached and one needed to walk a distance to reach it only with the help of pressurised paraffin lamp (Petromax).
My mother was visibly upset that she had to spend the night inside a forest with two young children and her fear reached a height when she was told by the guards that often wild animals come outside the guest rooms and one needs to keep the door locked shut at night.
Similar fear had already gripped into the minds of my father’s friend and any slight sound in the distance brought fear in to all. After finishing our dinner we headed straight back to our room and as informed earlier by the guards we locked shut the door and went straight to bed. We were on bed but sleep really did not come, we could hear every sound that to amplified in the dead silence of night.
And then it all stated, suddenly there was a scratching on the door as if someone was trying to come inside. All our fears were slowing turning into reality and what the guard told us earlier about wild animals roaming around the guest houses were falling into place. My mother was dead sure it was a tiger that was roaming outside the room and trying its luck to come in. Sleep was gone and it was only fear that was in everyone’s mind.
An hour later there was a knock on the door and a shout, it was my father’s friend and the driver who were staying in the other room, upon opening the door fear could be clearly seen in his eyes. Some time back they had the same scratching sound outside their door and they were so fearful that he did not want to stay in his room and requested to join us to spend the night together.
So we were all locked in a single room trying to spend the night with definitely some wild animals around trying its best to get to us. Hours ticked by and it seemed like a never ending night with no sight of the rising sun. Finally it was early morning and we managed to catch some sleep as we had a big day planned ahead, we were to go for a safari inside the forest.
We finished our breakfast accompanied by a series of discussion over dining table about the previous night’s experience. The guard again confirmed that it’s not unusual for wild animals to roam outside the guest houses at night.
My mother was still visibly shaken with the previous night’s experience and was somewhat reluctant to go inside the forest for a safari that too in a Willys Jeep which has very little protection considering the fact that most of the vehicle is covered by canvas cloth. The Jeep finally reached the watering hole and the guide informed us that wild animals are often spotted in the early morning hours for a drink.
The pug marks around the watering hole was loud and clear to anyone and seeing that my mother freaked out completely and wanted to return at once. My father on the other hand was just the opposite and quietly took me out of the Jeep to show me the watering hole. That was it for my mother, she started howling and was somewhat convinced that a tiger will leap out from behind the bush and snatch me away.
Somehow the safari was completed and my mother all the while hugged me tight, just to ensure that the tiger would not be able to snatch me.
Chapter Two- 2015
Let’s fast forward by around thirty years and I was back to Betla along with a couple of friends during Holi vacation for a Betla – Netarhat trip. The first part of the tour to Palamu (Betla) Fort was over and we were in a mood for a forest safari.
Nearly thirty years and many a things have changed, quite a few tourists can be seen around the park entrance. I desperately wanted to stay at the Forest Tree House inside the Betla forest but they were all booked. I had to settle for Van Vihar which is undergoing major repairs. Electrification has been done but still this location faces a lot of power cuts thus have to always depend on diesel powered generators. You are now required to buy a safari permit before entering the forest and a guide is mandatory which needs to be paid separately, additionally you need to pay for photography and videography. There is a fixed rate chart outside the park gate which you can refer to for all the different charges.
You also have the option now for an Elephant safari but for that you need to book early and being a slow animal you get to see very little of the forest. But if you have kids along with you I will definitely recommend you to go for this as they will enjoy it to the max.
The main reason however as to why I wanted to go for this safari was to see that famous illusive Betla tiger. I am sure in these thirty years many tigers have come and gone but for once I wanted to see that cat face to face. It was as if me telling the tigers of Betla forest that “I have come back, catch me if you can”.
We had booked our safari jeep earlier and the driver was knocking at our door at exactly 3.30 PM. Since we did not have Jeep or Sumo so we could not take our Tata Indica inside and had to hire this Jeep, else you can go on your own with a guide and park entry fee.
Being a tropic forest Betla is quite dense but we were there in March which is the beginning of the dry season thus much of the forest looked brownish golden. If you come during or after the monsoon this forest dramatically changes to lush green colour. We ask our guide to stop the Jeep and turn off the engine so that we can feel the forest. And it was a bliss, I could see trees and bushes all around, the silence was defeating, only a chirp of a bird would break the monotony.
Some sections of the forest can be seen burnt down, this according to the guide is done to control the growth of the forest on the marked roads. The burnt out ashes also helps as an organic manure for the new shrubs and plants that grow during the monsoon season.
Finally we reach the famous Madhuchua Watch Tower from here you get a good view of the forest from a vantage point. You also get an excellent view of the equally famous watering hole where animals usually come for a drink or two. And this is the same famous watering hole where my mother freaked out on the possibility that a tiger would leap out of the bush to snatch me.
Now I was no more a five year old, in my mid-thirties I am now more lucrative for a hungry tiger to devour and enjoy my fat laden body. Unfortunately the famous illusive Betla tiger was again missing today. It’s as if it has understood that I have come and gone into hiding somewhere deep inside the forest where the safari vehicle won’t take you.
The watering hole was almost bone dry and the Elephant footprints could be clearly made out. By March most of the watering holes dry up and the animals usually move much inside the core forest where some watering holes still hold water.
Suddenly the driver of the Safari Jeep slams the brake, he asks us to be quite and to look to the left. Initially I thought that it was a domestic cow that had strayed inside the forest but suddenly I realise that it’s not a cow but a juvenile Bison. Just when I thought it was a single Bison I saw another head behind it and realised that they were a pair of young Bison. The guide then turns our attention towards the right where we could see the mother Bison well hidden behind the bush but clearly keeping an eye on us as we were directly in-between the mother and her young ones.
The guide requested us to stay vigilant and stay within the vehicle, this warning did not stop us for venturing out of our jeep and take a chance in photographing the Juvenile Bison at a close range. I did manage to get quite a few close clicks but all these sudden movement made them scared and they dashed out to reach their mother on the other side. Luckily my camera was glued to my eye and could click a few while on their dash.
The guide kept requesting us to get back into Jeep and not to take risks like these, a full grown Bison has enough strength to overturn a Jeep and when it feels that its young ones are threatened they can resort to any means.
There is another watchtower called Seedha Pech Watchtower from here you can get a better view of the forest but the absence of a watering hole will have its own disadvantage. On the positive side from this watchtower you get a much longer view of the forest around you. If you are serious about wildlife photography then I would definitely recommend you to spend a couple of hours out here, you will definitely see something.
At a distance we suddenly spot a peacock, we ask our driver to switch off his engine and then proceed on foot as slow and discreet possible. Unfortunately I could not reach much closer before it got the hint of our approach and quickly disappear into the bush behind. But before it could vanish I could manage to click one shot.
Then we spotted this Langoor resting on a cut tree trunk, it was watching us as if we were a part of a circus and he was a part of the audience watching our desperate attempt to catch glimpse of the forests residence. This guy sat and just did not move, even when I approached it.
Next something completely bizarre happened to us, the road in front of us was blocked by a fallen tree, the tree was already dead possibly due to heavy termite infestation which had made its trunk weak and it collapsed. Now we were in a fix because we had to return back and this was the only way back else we have to completely take a detour which can be a real long way back. Both the guide and the driver was somewhat surprised as they informed us that they had come through this same route two hours back and this wasn’t there.
It was looking somewhat Bollywood style where the goons deliberately put road blocks in front of the jeep but in this case the goons were the termites. The driver showed his quick skill and managed to navigate the jeep around the fallen tree, this also gave us some additional time to experience the forest on foot while the guide and driver was clearing the path for the jeep to take a detour.
One thing you will definitely in abundance are the deer population inside the forest, right at the entrance you will find plenty of them and chances are there for them to come quite close to your vehicle.
As mentioned earlier you can also opt for the Elephant Safari but for that you need to arrive at a fixed time else you will surely find them booked. The shed for the elephants is just opposite to the main gate so it’s highly possible to hear a few trumpets while standing outside the main gate.
That Illusive Betla Tiger
Throughout the safari I only wished to spot a single tiger as it was in the back of my mind the incident nearly thirty years back. Unfortunately this time also I could not see a single tiger so I asked our old guide if he has been able to spot the tiger recently. Regretfully the old guide informed us that the tiger was actually tracked and spotted behind the New Palamu Fort the previous evening at around 5 PM and not only was it spotted but was involved in an attack on a herd of livestock where it managed to kill a cow and take it away.
We were speechless and knew we were really close to it the previous evening when we were there at the New Palamu Fort to photograph some additional sections. We had taken unnecessary risk staying back till 6 PM the other day when we should have been back much earlier. You can read that blog here https://subhadipindia.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/palamu-fort-a-close-encounter-with-a-tiger/
So this time also the tiger was scared to meet me face to face don’t you all think so? Don’t worry I will be back again and this time I want you to come along with me. And Mr. Tiger, you can run but can’t hide, so keep running I will catch up with you.
That’s me after Thirty Years inside Betla Forest – Courtesy Amitabha Gupta
Header Image Eye of the Tiger – sketchport
Header Image Jeep Clipart – freeclipartnow