Private trips with Nature Safari India

By Mary O’Donnell
This item appears on page 26 of the January 2018 issue.

Mary O’Donnell and her niece, Caroline, at the Amber Fort in Jaipur.

The travel urge grabbed me when, as a teenager in post-WWII England (which was grey, weary and still rationed), my father announced that we were going to Guernsey in the Channel Islands for a holiday, our first since 1939!

We had a wonderful time on those war-torn, previously German-occupied islands. My world suddenly became an exciting treasure trove to be explored and savoured. Travel became my passion, both as a volunteer and a visitor.

Whenever possible, I use travel companies local to the destination, as I believe they should reap the financial benefits from visitors. Also, local agents each help others see their country from a different and more personal perspective.

India had always beckoned. Back in 2009, while surfing the Web looking for something different and tiger-based, Nature Safari India, Pvt., Ltd. (51, B-3, Sector 11, Rohini, Delhi 110085, India; phone +91 11 2757 0446, popped up. 

I phoned and spoke to Sharad Vats, director of the company. I bombarded him with questions. He suggested private, land-only travel and said he would put together an itinerary. He emailed it the following day.

Detailed, thorough and comprehensive, it had many inclusions in the cost (per person, $3,000 plus $60 for one internal flight) and became the blueprint for a 25-day adventure that included several cities and four national parks. The main focus was wildlife.

A good friend traveled with me, Feb. 20-March 20, 2010. We found an enormous country of contrasts — traffic jams that defied imagination; great food but also gut-wrenching poverty; vibrant colours; spectacular scenery, and a strong underlying spirituality.

Our tour manager, Manjeet Sharma, took everything in his stride, no matter the time of day or night. Vijay, the driver of our SUV, was prompt, pleasant, patient and helpful. 

We saw many species of mammals, reptiles and fantastic birds, including India’s national bird, the peacock. One evening, returning to Tiger’s Den Resort in Bandhavgarh National Park, we saw a tree alive with a huge mass of feathers, sweeping tails and indignant clucks. It was full of peacocks settling down for the night.

In beautiful Bandhavgarh and Khana, we spotted several species of deer, monkeys, wild boar, reptiles and, gratefully, tigers. In Corbett, a herd of wild elephants sheltered their youngsters as they walked past the nose of our car. Bharatpur was a birder’s dream.

The cities were extraordinary, with magnificent buildings, including the fascinating Amber Fort in Jaipur and the Taj Mahal and Red Fort in Agra.

Fast-forward to 2016. In my mid-80s, another adventure in a long life beckoned, as did India.

Because my beloved husband, Guy, no longer flies long distances, I asked my niece, Caroline, if she would join me. We had traveled with each other before, which was a definite plus.

Schoolgirls leaving Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi (which I found to be very powerful) — New Delhi. Photo by Mary O’Donnell

Sharad was contacted and, with our input, a 16-day private, land-only itinerary was agreed upon. The tour would start in New Delhi and include Jaipur, Ranthambore National Park (for a 2-day safari), Agra and Varanasi, finishing with the hill city of Darjeeling, at that time the last item on my bucket list.

The cost for each of us was $2,150 plus four internal flights amounting to $395. Included in the price were four 3-star hotels, with breakfast, plus an SUV and the driver we had before, Vijay (big smile), in addition to a stay at The Ranthambhore Bagh resort (Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan), with all meals, plus a 4-passenger safari Jeep with trained guides who took us on five safaris.

Also covered were transfers from/to airports; daily guides; entrance fees to monuments and museums; a crazy rickshaw ride through Old Delhi; a boat ride in Varanasi; the Toy Train in Darjeeling, and the Dera Amer wilderness camp, near Jaipur, to bathe and paint elephants.

Our departure date was originally set for Oct. 21, 2016, then life happened. On Oct. 17, Guy had a heart attack. By some wonderful miracle, he received almost immediate intervention and not only survived but is doing well. What to do about our trip?

Sharad was called. He said that anytime we wished to reschedule, we could. We did have some monetary losses, but we had taken out insurance, which covered most of them. Ultimately, our trip took place Nov. 16-Dec. 5, 2016 (which included four days of travel to and from India).

A welcoming, smiling Manjeet met me at the Delhi airport at 3 a.m. and Caroline the following morning at 4. Sharad had emailed to say there would be an international phone for us to use for free, so contacting Guy, family and friends became much easier. This was a gift beyond price, one that was used extensively, and I am forever grateful.

Caroline and I had a great time in all of the cities, some of which I had already seen, though it was fascinating to share them with her. At Mahatma Gandhi’s last residence in New Delhi, which is now a museum, and at his national memorial, we were surrounded time and again by schoolchildren all wanting to practice their English with us, which we found a wonderful and joyful experience.

We didn’t see tigers, but on the safari we did enjoy other animals and birds and several enormous “muggers” (Indian crocodiles) sunning away the afternoon.

We shopped in Jaipur bazaars, some of the best in India, with Vijay providing subtle advice on when and how to bargain. We think we did well, and Caroline quickly became an expert.

The Toy Train in Darjeeling, with Mary O'Donnell and her niece, Caroline.

En route to Agra I was struck with a severe upper-respiratory infection. Vijay called Nature Safari’s Agra representative, and a physician met us at the Four Points by Sheraton (C-1, C-2, Taj Nagari Phase 1, Fatehabad Road, Agra). The doctor tut-tutted when he saw my throat. He left a number of medications and advised “bed rest.”

Caroline saw more of Agra than anticipated (without complaint). We had to cancel Varanasi.

We stayed an extra day at the hospitable Four Points, then drove to Delhi to take a flight to Bagdogra. (On the flight, the sky was richly blue, then the pilot announced that Mt. Everest could be seen. Much excitement all around!)

In Bagdogra, we were met by Pralay and Jayantha, who was our driver and also a guide. We were very glad Jayantha was an excellent driver, as nightfall came rapidly while he negotiated the narrow, climbing road with many hairpin bends en route to Darjeeling. Darjeeling was an enormous change from the flatter and warmer climates of India’s northern plains.

We stayed at the wonderful Cedar Inn (Dr. Zakhir Hussain Road, Darjeeling), where we had stunning views of the snow-clad Kanchenjunga mountain range and the city sprawled out below us… and that was just from our bedroom!

Pralay kept us occupied every day, with jaunts into the mountains, visits to out-of-the-way villages, a ride on the Toy Train (which we enjoyed enormously), a stop at the Japanese Peace Museum, a dawn visit to Observatory Hill to see the sun rise over the Himalayas and, perhaps best of all, time at the Darjeeling Snow Leopard Breeding Centre, where we learned of the efforts being made to prevent these magnificent animals from becoming extinct.

We feel Nature Safari India not only gives you value for your money, but the staff are professional, reliable and knowledgeable. They take take pride and care in what they offer and love what they do. I heartily recommend them. 

Wilton Manors, FL