Wild tigers, elephants and even the rhino – wildlife in India still thrives despite their booming human population, but unlike the African bush here you see wildlife in jungles, forests, marshlands and mangroves.
You can go by boat or jeep, looking for the glint of a lurking eye amongst the green - at some point you might even think that you’ve stepped right into Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
This itinerary lets you see three of India’s biomes, all with a high chance of spotting tigers. From the mangroves of Sundarbans, the jungles of Kaziranga and the wooded forests of Pench.
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Things to know before you go
How far in advance should you book: Most parks are only open from November to April and closed the rest of the time because of the monsoon. Book accommodation about three months ahead as you’ll only be able to go in peak season if you want to see the parks.
Visa: You need to apply for an e-visa online and is free for South Africans for a 30-day tourist visa. Apply no less than four days and no more than 30 days before date of travel.
Medical information: Be hyper-vigilant with mosquito repellent and sunscreen in the jungles where there is a risk of malaria.
Budget: Flights range between R4 300 and R5 500 from South Africa to Mumbai with Kenyan Airways and Ethiopian Airlines – there are no direct flights.
For meals and accommodation, according to Budget Your Trip, the average daily cost per person for luxury travel style is R1 370 – out in the bush accommodation costs are higher due to resort prices, but you’d still be able to go a lot cheaper if you opt to stay outside of the parks and in eco-lodges and backpackers.
It's faster to fly between the parks – your total budget for domestic flights are around R3 500.
Budget around R165 per day for day-to-day transport, but this can easily be lower if you opt for more public transport than private taxis – but in some instances you won’t have a choice.
For entry fees to the parks budget around R1 223, but these costs might be absorbed by accommodation and safari fees. Budget around R3 342 for safaris for the total trip, but again this might be absorbed if you book your stays in packages.
The best way to save money is to find a package for each park (many of which can be tailored) as entry fees, accommodation and safaris costs will go down considerably when booked together.
You can also opt to only do two of the parks – the recommended two would be Kaziranga and Sundarbans.
Bengal tiger in India. (Photo: Pixabay)
What to be mindful of: Tickets for safaris can sell out quickly, so try to book as much as possible in advance.
Like any game drive in South Africa, remember a water bottle, sturdy shoes and light, long-sleeved shirts and pants. Binoculars will also be super handy to spot tigers from far away.
In all of India’s national parks, domestic elephants rides are used to see tigers in the wild. These types of activities have fast lost their attraction in South Africa as it has been proved that it's really bad for elephants’ backs and domestic ones tend to be mistreated. As an ethically-conscious traveller, try to avoid this kind of safari.
READ MORE: Conservation win: More safari operators ending elephant-back rides
See our 13-day itinerary to see the best of India's wild.
Day 1: Mumbai to Kolkata
Travel: Arrive in Mumbai early in the morning and then catch a domestic flight to Kolkata.
Accommodation: Look for accommodation along Park Street for the most central part of the city.
Activity: You can recover from jet lag and see the city at night at one of the many trendy bars and restaurants on Park Street.
READ: Strolling through Kolkata's colonial past
Kolkata at night. (Photo: Pixabay)
Day 2: Kolkata to Sundarbans
Travel: Take a train from Kolkata to Canning, then grab a bus or taxi to Godkhali – the gateway to Sundarbans National Park.
Part of the Ganges Delta, this national park is home to the Bengal tiger and a variety of other species that make their home in one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. It’s only accessible by boat, and there are a few resorts within the park.
Accommodation: Various resorts do packages for two or three days which include safaris, tours, permits and accommodation. One budget spot is Tour de Sundarbans which has a rustic, relaxed backpackers atmosphere, or you can opt for luxury on one of the cruise boats.
You can also find accommodation in Godkhali on the edge of the reserve.
A deer in Sundarbans National Park. (Photo: Pixabay)
Day 3: Sundarbans
Go out on a boat safari to try and spot any tigers, indigenous birds and spotted deer among the thicket, as well as water animals like the estuarine crocodile, river dolphins and turtles. For food remember to try some traditional Bengali cuisine, which focuses on fish, vegetables and lentils alongside rice.
Day 4: Sundarbans
You can opt for another safari to a different section of the massive reserve, or you can plan a day trip to Kanak Island – a beach destination where turtles come to lay their eggs from December to March. Another activity to do is to visit one of the villages in the Sundarbans, which you can also book a tour for.
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Local boatman in Sundarbans. (Photo: Pixabay)
Day 5: Sundarbans to Kaziranga
Travel: Travel back the same way you came to Kolkata Airport and grab a flight to Jorhat Airport in the state of Assam. Find a bus or pre-book a shuttle from the airport to Kohora – the main entrance and tourist hub for Kaziranga National Park. The ride is about two hours.
This park has the biggest concentration of the Asian one-horned rhino, as well as wild elephants, tigers, buffaloes, leopards and wild boar.
All safari bookings are done at the Kaziranga Tourist Complex in Kohora, or via your accommodation. Please note you can’t book it online without a package deal.
Accommodation: To make it easier to access safaris book your accommodation in Kohora, which has many options ranging from budget to luxury. There is almost no accommodation within the park itself.
Indian rhinos. (Photos: Pixabay)
Day 6-8: Kaziranga
Split up the next three days between the different zones - it consists of swamp and grasslands and has four ranges – Central, Western (which has the most rhinos), Eastern and Burhapahar.
The Eastern range also has boat rides, while Central and Western ranges have a very different landscape to the rest of the park.
If you’re safari’d out, you can also visit the local Tribal Village, see the Kaziranga National Orchid Park or take a trip to the Kakochang Waterfall.
Asiatic buffalo in Kaziranga. (Photo: Pixabay)
Day 9: Kaziranga to Nagpur
Travel: This will be a long travel day - go back the same way to Jorhat Airport, catch a seven-hour flight with a stop-over in Kolkata to Nagpur in the Madhya Pradesh state.
Accommodation: If you think you’ll be super tired from the long day opt for a hotel close to the airport, or near one of Nagpur’s many lakes.
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Day 10: Nagpur to Pench
Travel: Take a pre-booked taxi or shuttle to Turiya – which is the main gateway to Pench National Park.
It is oft-touted that this was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Pench however is drier than the other reserves, divided into two by the Pench River and includes a tiger reserve.
Accommodation: Look at the accommodation option around Turiya, just outside and inside the park – here you’ll find some ultra-luxurious options if you feel like splashing out.
Bengal tiger in Pench National Park. (Photo: Getty)
Day 11-12: Pench
Unwind with more safaris to different parts of the park, looking for tigers and leopards. Bird watching is also a popular pastime in this park, and there are also walking trails available so that you can get up close and personal with the jungle (with a guide of course). They also offer night safaris.
Just outside the reserve there are a lot of cheap food options for when you’re tired of resort food, and lots of souvenirs will be sold to take back home.
Asian elephant in Pench National Park. (Photo: Getty)
Day 13: Pench to Mumbai
Grab your pre-booked shuttle back to Nagpur Airport (you can check if your accommodation offers this) and book a flight back to Mumbai to catch your return flight.
*Disclaimer: Pricing an estimated recommendation at the time of publishing.
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