What if you biked through the land of the Jungle Book, had an inspiring experience and helped to secure the future of the tiger in the wild?
Soft, golden light caressed the long swaying grasses in the grounds of our lodge as we washed the sleep from our eyes and prepared for an early morning drive through Pench Tiger Reserve.
Tantalising alarm calls from the symbiotic partnership between deer and monkey signalled the presence of a tiger. Shafts of light pierced the native sal trees casting mottled patterns on the ground as our eyes scanned the forest for a glimpse of the king of the jungle. This day, he eluded us, but the forest was magical experienced from our open topped jeep as we met some of its other inhabitants - jackal and gaur, a vulture perched high on a tree, a rarity now in India – and clusters of jungle babblers, well named for their vocal chatter amongst a host of other birdlife.
This was just the start of a six day adventure in rural Madhya Pradesh with a mission to bike almost 180 kms in the vital wildlife corridor between Pench and Kanha Tiger Reserves to raise money for TOFTigers Village Wildlife Guardians programme.
Would I be fit enough? Would I keep up with the other 16 fellow travellers embarking on this shared journey? A warm up bike ride on our second afternoon in the mellow temperature of late November was reassuring. Then with emerging comraderie, after two days in the comfort of a jungle lodge, we were off on impressively new mountain bikes along verdant forest tracks in the buffer zone around Pench heading for Kanha.
From shade into sunlight, along sandy tracks and through the occasional stream, we sped along paths with fresh PUG marks and the spoor of tiger evidence of the area’s wild hosts. Were we being watched?
Interspersed with the wild landscape was the panorama of rural India which made this such a fascinating journey. Stacks of straw so eloquently captured in paint by impressionist Monet peppered the landscape as though the clock had been turned back over 100 years. Bullocks and cattle ploughed the land and threshed crops. Traditional houses remained in abundance, the warmth and colour of saris so evocative of India along with the crisp plaits, ribbons and immaculate dress of local school children.
Lunch, an impressive feast of hot dishes was served with style by our lodge hosts next to a stream. The journey continued, the final leg of the day a thrilling descent along a stony jungle trail – some choosing the support vehicle to admire the scenery in more leisurely comfort - as afternoon stretched into the longer shadows of early evening.
As we burst out onto flat ground adjacent to a river, there to greet us was the welcome sight of our destination for the evening, a beautifully located temporary camp complete with walk in tents, hot water, drinks around a camp fire and a feast seated around an elegant table. The first sixty kilometres covered, a massage to sooth any tired muscles and a hot water bottle for the cool night air.
Setting off in the cool, fresh morning air after a hearty breakfast, memorable on the second day of the bike ride were the friendly requests for ‘selfies’ by residents in market towns – an equitable quid pro quo for the images taken by us elsewhere. A relaxing lunch by a forest rest house lulled those warned about taking the afternoon’s impending challenge instead of a place in the support vehicle.
A steep rocky, sandy track winding its way up a through the forest – was this a mistake I momentarily asked myself, as gasping for breath, I resorted to pushing my bike up a difficult stretch of terrain? With collective encouragement between three of us left at the back by the fittest of our pack running this gauntlet, we emerged victorious at the top with the satisfaction of knowing we would complete every step of the challenge.
Day three cycling after a second glorious night camping under a canopy of stars – and the shortest and most relaxing leg of the journey arriving at our destination, Kanha Tiger Reserve, mid afternoon. Afternoon tea at Kipling Camp to meet the Village Wildlife Guardians already funded by TOFTigers around Kanha Tiger Reserve - our mission to help fund more. Afterwards a memorable visit to the river for a turn scrubbing Tara, the elephant made famous by Mark Shand's journey across India on her back.
Our memorable parting dinner and night was spent in a wonderful PUG eco-rated lodge but the story was not yet complete. A finale awaited us the next day.
The elusive creative who had spurred our journey finally made his presence known. An evocative roar in the jungle in the distance as we drove through the crisp early morning air in Kanha Tiger Reserve announced his presence – then suddenly he emerged from the forest onto the track, majestic and imposing, as he strolled on his way uninterested in those who had tried to play a small part in helping to secure the future of tigers in the wild.
177 kms over three days, 3,282 calories burnt according to my Garmin tracker. Would I do it again? A resounding yes! A truly fascinating and magical experience with the satisfaction of knowing that thanks to my supporters, my efforts raised enough to pay for almost three Village Wildlife Guardians to help prevent poaching and animal-man conflict in this vital wildlife corridor. A celebration also of the power of exercise – positively life affirming on a journey through cancer treatment back to positive health earlier in the year.
So as they say - on your bike!
Laura Downer, TOFTigers 2016
For information about the next Bike4Tigers Challenges in autumn 2017 contact email@example.com
Click here for more information on how you can support the Village Wildlife Guardians Programme
Photo Credits: Charles Fraser, Julian Matthews, Emma Barber