India is a mystical country—culturally fascinating, and wonderfully diverse in terms of habitats, scenery, and the wildlife harbored within. We will capture some of this diversity on this tour of northern and central India, which makes India a photographer’s dream. One feature which characterizes India from many other destinations both in Asia and further afield, is that the Hindi culture on which the majority of the country is raised, breeds a high level of respect for animals and birds, meaning that many are left unhunted in Indian society, meaning that nature and “man” often live, side-by-side, with complete indifference/respect of each other. Therefore, much of the wildlife having been left unharmed for centuries is approachable and abundant. This is further enhanced by the local farming methods, some of which date back centuries and are far less harmful to birds and other animals than larger-scale modern western farming practices. Indeed, some ancient farming practices are a boon for birds, which forage in these rich pastures. It is not uncommon to see people tilling their fields with birds like Indian Peafowl, plovers, and egrets feeding, unconcerned, right alongside. Aside from birds this tour offers plenty more besides; ancient buildings, and a suite of interesting animals from the giant Nilgiri (“Blue Bull”), and menacing Bengal Tiger, to the armor-plated One-horned Rhinoceros, and Asian Elephant to name but a few.
Day 2: Delhi to Bharatpur. This varied tour first begins within the vast wetlands of Bharatpur. A former hunting reserve of the Maharajas (Indian royalty), this park is littered with pools and swamps that are interspersed with dry scrub and woodland. After a good monsoon, it is home to immense numbers of waterbirds, making for a wonderful wildlife spectacle. Photographers rarely visit just once, as memory cards come back jam-packed with images of storks, herons, ducks, jacanas, and geese, as well as the many photogenic passerines and day-roosting night birds within this reserve. We will have the entire afternoon to begin exploring the area, traveling from our lodge just outside the reserve to gate within a vehicle, although once in the reserve we will take a series of rickshaws, as these are the only permitted vehicles within the core zone of the park. We will be cycled around, allowing us quiet approach to the many animals and birds that call this park home. Three nights will be spent in a hotel just outside the park.
Days 3-4: Bharatpur area. We will have two full days to explore areas both within and around the reserve In wet years it is likely we may not need to travel much beyond the borders of the reserve, as a myriad of pools will bring literally thousands of birds and their attendant predators (such as a high number of raptors) into the reserve. While in dryer years there are plenty of other close areas where we can target the same species. While in Bharatpur we will have chances to photograph such species as Gray Francolin, Bronze-winged Jacana, Greater Painted-Snipe, Sarus Crane, Spotted Owlet, Crested Serpent-Eagle, Painted Stork, Indian Roller, Black-rumped Flameback, and plenty more. Other targets include India’s national bird, the extravagant Indian Peafowl, the massive Nilgai or Blue Bull, and Asia’s largest deer, the Sambar. It is common for local guides, who will assist us in the park, to have stake-outs for roosting nightbirds, such as Indian Scops-Owl, Large-tailed Nightjar, and Dusky Eagle-Owl. We will not struggle for avian targets during our time there, whether it be in the open scrubland, the wooded areas, or in the wetlands that have made this sanctuary famous.
Day 5: Taj Mahal (Agra) to Chambal. No visit to northern India would be complete without the considerable cultural diversion of the Taj Mahal. This pristine white marble mausoleum stands prominently on the banks of the Yamuna River and is a wonder of exquisite architectural design. After shooting the Taj, we will return to nature and travel to a lodge close to the Chambal River, a vital sanctuary for waterbirds, which we will explore with cameras, and by boat, the following day. A single night will be spent at Chambal Lodge.
Day 6: Chambal River Cruise to Agra. The Chambal River is a globally important sanctuary for a number of species, which gather there due to the clean, crystal-clear waters, compared with a number of other large rivers in the country which have suffered serious pollution. The main bird for which the site is famous is the endangered Indian Skimmer, which can often be found perched along its banks, and often allow close approach by boat. Other birds we might find along the banks include some other large impressive species like Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Red-naped Ibis, and Great Thick-knee. The river is also home to other spectacular animals that are sure to keep our cameras active, like the menacing-looking Mugger Crocodile and the bizzare-yet-elegant Gharial. After a morning and lunch in the Chambal area, we will drive back to Agra and catch an overnight sleeper train bound for Central India, and the tigers of Bandhavgarh… the night will be spent on board the train, where we will have comfortable berths for sleeping.
Days 7-12: Bandhavgarh National Park. After arrival in the early morning of day 7, we will have the remainder of that day, and the next five full days to explore this fascinating tiger park. Located in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India, we will enjoy African-style adventures in Bandhavgarh, the world’s premier tiger reserve, boasting some of the highest density of Bengal Tigers on Earth. With plenty of time in the park we hope to have multiple chances to photograph this magnificent and fierce beast from open-top jeeps. Aside from India’s flagship animal, plenty of other Asian animals roam the park, from “holy” Hanuman Langurs to spritely Chital Deer and Golden Jackals. The myriad animals on site are also accompanied by a healthy bird population, which includes such species as Crested Hawk-Eagle, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Jungle Owlet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Rufous Treepie. Two jeep rides will be undertaken within the park each day, and other times we can spend relaxing and photographing around our lodge grounds just outside the park. On the night of day 12 we shall take an overnight sleeper train back to Delhi, arriving during the day of day 13.
Day 13: Bandhavgarh to Delhi. Our overnight train will bring us into Delhi during the afternoon on this day. The night will be spent in Delhi, to recuperate after our long train journey and ready us for the next exciting leg of the trip.
Day 14: Delhi to Kaziranga National Park. In the morning we will take a domestic flight from Delhi to Guwahati, and then drive to Kaziranga National Park, the final destination of the trip. We will be traveling north into the seldom-visited realm of Assam, for another, very different, game experience. The following three nights will be spent close to Kaziranga.
Days 15-16: Kaziranga National Park. The most prominent animal in the park, and the principal reason for including it on this photo tour, is the robust Asian One-horned Rhinoceros, which will be a major target for our lenses, along with Eastern Swamp Deer and the rare Asiatic Water Buffalo. Vast herds of Asian Elephant also wander around this remote park. This game park is good for birds too, offering large, spectacular storks like both Greater and Lesser adjutants, the regal Pallas’s Fish-Eagle, and even the chance of capturing the beautiful Bengal Florican as it dances above the grasslands.
Day 17: Kaziranga to Delhi (departure). We will drive back to Guwahati, then take an internal flight back to the capital Delhi, to connect with international departures.
PACE: Relaxed-moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since we need to be out at first light (around 6:30 am), and we also will be using the late evening light where possible (6 pm). Because it is winter, days are reasonably short. On some days, like at Bandhavgahr and Kazirhanga, there will likely be a couple of hours of downtime after lunch. However, in places like Bharatpur, the cooler climate and often overcast conditions can allow us to shoot longer and there may be less downtime. There is quite a bit of travel on this itinerary, but the scenes and soundscapes of a passage through India are part of the experience of traveling in this incredible country. There will be drives of 3-5 hours on at least five days, and we will take overnight sleeping trains on two days (to and from Bandhavgarh). Most meals will be sit down affairs, but there will be a few packed breakfasts and lunches.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most walks are short and flat. At Bharatpur we also hire rickshaws to get to the key photo sites. In Bandhavgahr and Kaziranga, we will be strictly confined to open-topped safari vehicles when we are inside the parks, and we will do some opportunistic photography on foot near our accommodation.
CLIMATE: This tour is best in winter, when it is pleasantly warm and dry (mostly 71°-90°F, 21°-32°C). Rain is usually not a big problem, but may sometimes occur in the afternoons in the form of thunderstorms; occasionally tropical systems create rain for longer periods.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent, with private facilities throughout. All accommodations have private en-suite bathrooms, full time hot water, 24-hour electricity and internet (although it can be a little intermittent). Two nights are spent on overnight trains (to get to and from Bandhavgarh); on these nights there are no en-suite bathrooms, only public ones shared by the entire train carriage.
WHEN TO GO: This tour can only be run between November and April, when all the parks are open. The parks close during the monsoon season, when it is unpleasantly hot and humid.
PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: This trip has a roughly even split between vehicle-based photography and photography on foot. There are excellent chances to photograph birds, mammals, and landscapes. We may walk a bit outside the parks for opportunistic pictures of birds and small mammals. However, when inside the national parks we will be mostly restricted to the vehicle, which is open-topped but quite small.
GEAR: Long lenses (500 or 600 mm) are useful in the wide open spaces of India, where subjects like birds are often quite far away. On the other hand, the tame nature of “Incredible India” means we will be close to many subjects, particularly large mammals. So a flexible combination of lenses and bodies is best. Light is abundant, and we don’t do a lot of night photography, so a flash is not essential, and low f-stop lenses are not essential. A tripod will be occasionally useful, but far from essential unless you like to carry around very heavy gear. There is not enough room inside of the vehicles to set up a tripod. Bean bags and other ways of stabilizing lenses inside of a vehicle are recommended.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. A visa is required. It can be applied for online by citizens of the US, UK, and many other countries. The cost of the visa depends on your nationality, and ranges from $0-$60. This visa can be applied for only 30 days or less before your trip. It is also possible to apply for a visa through an Indian consulate or embassy. Travel requirements are subject to change.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides, drivers, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 16; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to lunch on day 17; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages during meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 17; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle(s) with local driver(s); 2 overnight train journeys (Agra-Bandhavgarh on night of day 6; and Bandhavgarh-Delhi on night of day 12); return domestic flight (Delhi-Guwahati-Delhi); entrance fees and local guide fees for all the birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.