There's a traffic jam in the middle of Bandhavgarh National Park this morning. One of the mahouts out on elephant patrol spotted a young tigress in undergrowth above the Gopalpur caves. Word quickly got out. Jeeps and private cars converged at speed from two sides of a narrow ridge and gridlocked facing each other. People climbed out on to the roofs of their vehicles to get a better look and shouted to each other in excitement. One person even honked his horn. It was a scene reminiscent of rush hour in Delhi. After a while the tigress had had enough. She got up and walked off towards the fort, which sits on a high rock above the park and is currently closed to tourists.
It was only when I saw her move that I realised with a jolt that this was my first tiger in the wild. She seemed to move slowly and yet she covered so much ground with each stride. Gone in a few seconds.
Now the cars had to disentangle themselves and there was more good-natured shouting. Everyone in India seems to be an expert on directing traffic. One guy in a rather dainty Hyundai with no four-wheel drive actually lurched up on to a rocky plateau at the side of the road in a crazy attempt to circumvent everyone else and pursue the tigress. Harendra, our guide, quietly put his Land Rover into reverse and wound back down the ridge.
I was annoyed. I've been on a number of wildlife safaris and I'd expected the same kind of David Attenborough-style hushed reverence you get in the Serengeti and Kruger. But I was on the wrong continent. I was in the world's largest democracy and game drives over here are much more democratic. The only Africans you see on safari in Africa are white South Africans. Here anyone who can afford 25 rupees per person (plus 150 for the car and 105 for a guide) can come in. The cost for a family of four is only 4.35.
"Harry" was ambivalent. He was trained in Africa and wishes his people would shut up too, but he's also proud that national parks over here are part of Indian culture, not just playgrounds for rich tourists. As if to make his point he diverted to show us a 36ft-long reclining Vishnu at the bottom of the road leading up to the fort. Water trickled over the statue into a tank centuries old. The fort above dates back to the first century. It was a very Indiana Jones moment.
Regaining the main road through Bandhavgarh we drew alongside another mahout on his elephant. These guys track the tigers as soon as the park is open; when they find one that looks as if he's going to stay put for a while, they start ferrying tourists out to look. Tipped off where there was a young male enjoying a post-prandial snooze, we joined a queue of cars lined up alongside a bamboo swamp. Two elephants were doing a steady trade, picking up passengers from the tops of their cars and taking them over for a private view.
You have to admire the skill of the mahouts who control their lumbering steeds by tapping the elephant's head with their feet. These creatures slip alongside you with the precision of a gondola and with an even tighter turning circle. We scrambled up top with Harry and an Indian lady who insisted on taking her handbag with her. Then we lowered the slender "safety" bar. The walk out to the tiger was very smooth, although I noticed the feet of our elephant sinking deep into the swamp which he'd churned up on previous visits.
We circumnavigated the bushes that were concealing our tiger and suddenly there he was, stretched out and quite unperturbed by the happy snappers on the second elephant. Our mahout took us in and the splendid creature sat up as if ready for his close-up. His face was magnificent; stripes like war paint he'd just applied that morning. Our elephant slowly rotated a full 360 degrees so everyone got a good view.
Then the tiger walked off into deeper cover. Just like his sister earlier in the day, he gave the impression that he was simply bored by the attention and wasn't going to get into an argument.
Our mount swung us neatly back alongside the Land Rover and Harry tipped the mahout. Two tigers in our first morning.
It was getting hot now. Bandhavgarh keeps different hours according to the season. In the last weeks before the monsoon no animals are out after 10 in the morning, so now it was time to leave. We passed a few black-faced langurs on the way but that was all. They were sitting in mango trees throwing down the last of the fruit to each other and at the white-spotted deer. According to Harry, there's a symbiotic relationship at work here. The monkeys feed the deer because they appreciate their phenomenally developed sense of smell. They sense a tiger long before anyone else.
That said, some of the tigers were learning to use the exhaust smells of our vehicles to mask their approach. This is the point. I may not like it but you can't pretend that we humans don't make a difference to the environment, even in a protected national park.
How to get there
Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com) offers return flights to Delhi from 468. Colours of India (020-8343 3446; colours-of-india.co.uk) offers 10-night tailor-made packages, taking in Bandhavgarh National Park and staying in Taj Hotels, from 2,924 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, international and domestic transfers, entrance fees for national parks, and b&b accommodation.
Further reading 'Man-Eaters of Kumaon' by Jim Corbett, Oxford University Press (14.95)