Treasures, Tigers and the Taj Mahal, India

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14550A, International


  • Get the opportunity to see tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and hyenas
  • Immerse yourself in India's melting pot of cultures, religions, and traditions
  • Spend three days with the tigers of Bandavgarh National Park


  • All meals and lodging
  • Professional guide service
  • All transportation on-trip


DatesMar 1–17, 2014
StaffKern Hildebrand

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Origin of great religions and one of the oldest civilizations in the world, India emits a ceaseless, nearly overwhelming energy. There are 4,000 years of history here. This is where the Buddha wrestled with the meaning of suffering and the way to enlightenment; where for eons Hindus have sought unity with God through reincarnation; and where the Moghul Muslims constructed the perfect edifice, the Taj Mahal. This ever-changing, yet timeless, place challenges all of your senses, greeting you with ornately carved temples; fakirs on beds of nails; sacred cows; gleaming, marble palaces from bygone eras; snake charmers; and the hustle-bustle of streets teeming with rickshaws and bicycles. India is a country of striking contrasts, and the diversity of its natural history easily matches the grandeur of its civilization. For many years Africa has been regarded as the penultimate continent for wildlife viewing; the world is beginning to realize, however, that India's range of wildlife rivals that of the famous African game parks.

Forests and fauna with a wide variety of trees, plants, and animals are found throughout the entire subcontinent in various reserves, natural parks, and areas fortunate enough to have escaped the crush of overpopulation. Here, we will look for Bengal tigers, leopards, and other smaller cats, along with the Asian elephant, the Indian rhinoceros, many primates and antelopes, and a variety of deer and bovine species. Also, with close to 1,200 recorded species of birds, India alone holds roughly 12 percent of the world's avifauna population. Finally, there are more than 400 reptile species in India and numerous fascinating invertebrates.

During our whirlwind swing through this ancient land we'll focus primarily on India's magnificent wildlife. We will also explore the country's history, beliefs, customs, and architectural treasures -- such as Khajuraho and the Taj Mahal -- along the way.

Our journey focuses on the central, west-central, north-central, and eastern portions of the country, where we will experience some of the best cultural and natural history sites in the states of Rajasthan, Madjya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Assam. We'll start in Delhi and then move on to explore the old city with its rich history and ancient monuments.

From here, we'll ride India's famous railway system to Ranthambore National Park, where we will have a good chance of seeing tigers (as well as other wildlife) in the wild -- amid the ruins of Ranthambore Fort, long-vacated mosques, and other ancient structures scattered throughout the conquering jungle.

Next, we'll reboard the rail system and travel to Agra to marvel at one of the wonders of the world -- the Taj Mahal. Words hardly do justice to the Taj, which seldom fails to move those who see it.

Leaving Agra, we'll take the overnight train to Bandavgarh National Park, which has one of the densest tiger populations in India. Here we will have three-plus days to look for tigers and other wildlife, both by jeep and from the backs of elephants. We can also hike up into the mountain plateau, at the center of the national park, and explore the old fort and ancient Hindu temples sometimes visited by tigers and other big mammals. Here, statues and rock carvings of Vishnu, Ganesh, and other Hindu incarnations from the 10th and 11th centuries protrude from the forest jungle and the mountain. There is bird life aplenty, too -- for example, we may see hornbills, the paradise flycatcher, eagles, minivets, leafbirds, and green pigeons.

From Bandavgarh, we'll proceed to Khajuraho, an amazing collection of 10th-century temples and erotic art created by the ancient Chandela civilization.

We'll finish our sojourn with a flight and drive to Kaziranga National Park, in the northeast state of Assam. Here, from the backs of elephants, we should be able to see the Indian one-horned rhinoceros. There are also sizable numbers of tigers, leopard, wild buffalo, and wild elephant in the area. The birding here, too, is excellent. The park holds Bengal florican, several species of fishing eagle, storks, and innumerable other species. We should feel quite sated by the time we return to Delhi.

This trip is suitable for adults who enjoy nature, adventure, and cultural exploration. The sites on our itinerary are nowhere near border areas and provinces in which unrest (very occasionally) occurs. We will travel largely by rail, with one night in sleeper berth compartments -- a real treat given the history of the Indian national railway system! We'll also take several short flights on commercial airlines. The balance of our transportation is by private bus. We'll stay in first-class hotels and comfortable jungle lodges.

We plan to see as much as possible of India's incredible wildlife -- much of which is endangered -- and immerse ourselves in the country's rich cultural history. We will also explore Indian conservation, political, and religious issues, and discuss the ways in which they contribute to overpopulation. Finally, we will have an excellent opportunity to observe tigers in their natural state, and to understand the Indian subcontinent's complex ecosystem.


Day 1: All participants should arrive at the Indira Gandhi International Airport today and transfer to our hotel in New Delhi. We will get acquainted over a welcome dinner and orientation. Dinner will be the first meal provided.

Day 2: Delhi, the national capital of India, is a veritable museum of Indo-Islamic and British-influenced architecture. We will tour the old city and some of its many mystical wonders. Overnight: Delhi.

Day 3: After an early breakfast, we will head to the New Delhi railway station in time for the train to Sawai Madhopur, en route to Ranthambore National Park. As we travel into the state of Rajasthan, it might feel as if we are traveling back in time -- through the windows, we'll see mud brick villages, camel carts, and life as it always has been, unchanged for a thousand years or more.

At Ranthambore National Park, a former Maharaja's hunting preserve, we've got a great chance of encountering tigers. They are as active here by day as at night, and they seem to be relatively unperturbed by humans. (Photographers take note!) Ranthambore is also noted for its bird and other wildlife, such as the sloth bear, leopard, marsh crocodile, jackal, nilgai, wild boar, sambar, chital (spotted deer), and chinkura (Indian gazelle).

Ranthambore is a photographic marvel, strewn with ruins bearing witness to kingdoms, temples, and battles long forgotten. Ancient structures, walls, and forts stand overgrown with vines and trees -- mute monuments to man's follies, beliefs, and wars. Tigers and other wild denizens of the jungle roam these ancient cities as comfortably as we might stroll the main street in our hometown. The landscape here is varied: The main components are steep cliffs, great expanses of jungle (mainly dry deciduous and dry thorn forest), and five lakes. We'll do most of our exploring by jeep.

Day 4: Today we'll enjoy a full-day exploration of Ranthambore.

Day 5: In the morning we'll continue with a game drive at Ranthambore National Park, then take the train to Agra in the afternoon.

Day 6: We will spend the better part of the morning visiting and photographing the Taj Mahal. In the 17th century, Shah Jahan commissioned this remarkable building as a permanent resting place for his favorite wife, Empress Mumtaz Mahal. Though it took a workforce of some 20,000 men from all over Asia 21 years to build the Taj, the effort appears to have been worth it. Tagore, the Bengali classical poet and literary giant, described the Shah's project as a "dream in marble" and "a tear on the face of eternity." And while its architectural layout has a distinct Islamic theme -- representing paradise -- the Taj is really more of a monument to undying romantic love. Reportedly, the Shah spent his last years thinking of his deceased wife while gazing out at the Taj from the Red Fort, where one of his sons had imprisoned him. We will visit the Red Fort -- like the Taj, a UNESCO World Heritage site -- after we depart the Taj Mahal.

In the late afternoon, we'll transfer to the railway station for an overnight train ride to Umaria, our gateway to Bandavgarh National Park.

Day 7: We should arrive at our lodge in time for breakfast and the first of three successive mornings of game drives. Bandavgarh National Park is the former hunting preserve of the Maharaja of Rewa, who turned the area over to the government in 1968. Lying within the rugged western fringes of the Vindhyan Mountains in Madjya Pradesh State, the park is centered around a plateau known as Bandavgarh Hill, site of a 2,000-year-old fort and ancient Hindu temples. In addition to its main drawing card -- the tiger -- Bandavgarh is known for its wide assortment of mammals, reptiles, and birds, including the uncommon malabar pied hornbill, the rare blue-bearded bee-eater, multiple eagle species, and other avian specialties. Several award-winning documentaries on the Bengal tiger have been filmed in Bandavgarh. Mohan, the legendary white tiger who fathered a line of white offspring found in zoos all over the world, was captured here in 1951. Bandavgarh is generally regarded as the best place in the country to see tigers; consequently, our itinerary allows for three-plus days here.

Sometime in the next three days, we will have the choice of hiking to the top of the steep mountain plateau. Here, we'll visit the fort and temples, seeking out the huge, rock-carved Hindu deities slowly succumbing to the forest's ever-expanding vegetation.

Days 8-9: We'll continue with game drives and other explorations within Bandavgarh National Park.

Day 10: After breakfast, we will take a bus or van to Khajuraho, an approximately six-hour drive through villages and countryside. Today should give us a good look at rural Indian life -- not to mention a greater appreciation of American roads!

Day 11: We will spend the day exploring some of the 22 surviving temples of Khajuraho, another World Heritage site. While the temples are superb examples of 10th-century Indo-Aryan architecture, the erotic carvings that embellish the stone are the real source of the site's fame. The carvings depict, in serial fashion, what Indian life was like 1,000 years ago. Warriors, musicians, gods and goddesses, real and mythological animals, and celestial maidens all adorn the temple stonework, which dates from the Chandela Dynasty.

Day 12: We'll begin the morning with a visit to Raneh Fall by jeep. Later this afternoon, we'll transfer to the airport for a flight to Delhi, where we will overnight at a hotel near the airport.

Day 13: Early this morning we'll fly to Gauhati, in the state of Assam. From here we'll have a long but interesting drive (about five hours) to Kaziranga National Park. The Brahmaputra River, with its expansive mosaic of swampy marshes, riverine woodlands, and lowland sub-tropical forest, offers a glimpse of what wild Asia must have been like before overpopulation and wholesale agricultural development transformed the land.

Kaziranga is arguably one of southern Asia's greatest wildlife sanctuaries. It is the last remaining stronghold of the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, which you should see from atop an elephant if not from the road. Tigers are also well represented here, but can be difficult to see given the thick cover. Our best opportunity for tiger sightings will come on an elephant game drive. We have a good chance of seeing the endangered wild Asian elephant; the extremely local and vocal hoolock gibbon; capped langurs; smooth Indian otters; water buffalo; swamp and hog deer; wild boar; and, if we are extremely lucky, we might even get a fleeting glimpse of the rare Ganges River dolphin, in the Brahmaputra or one of the other rivers in the park.

Birdlife abounds, too: three hornbill species; the endangered Bengal florican (a member of the bustard family); the endangered white-winged duck; six species of stork (including the severely endangered greater adjutant stork); three species of pelican (including the threatened spot-billed pelican); multiple raptors (including six eagle species); the threatened swamp francolin; the Eurasian griffon; fairy bluebird; and 350 other avian species recorded to date. We will stay at the delightful and very comfortable Wild Grass Lodge for the three full days we'll spend in this fascinating northeast corner of India.

Days 14-16: We'll continue our exploration of Kaziranga National Park.

Day 17: After one last look around, we'll depart Kaziranga en route to Gauhati. From there, we'll catch an afternoon flight back to Delhi. At our farewell dinner, we'll recap the trip and say goodbye to anyone returning home late this evening or early the next day. You are free to fly home late today or sometime tomorrow.



Getting There

The cost of air transportation between the United States and India is not included in the trip fee. All travel within India is included. You are responsible for making your own international flight arrangements. You will need to buy an Indian visa -- available through India's embassy or consulates in the U.S. -- prior to leaving home. Once you have registered for this trip, the leader will assist you in obtaining a visa.

Accommodations and Food

Our hotels in New Delhi will be of four-star quality; the eco-lodges will be comfortable but not luxurious, allowing us access to natural areas we could not otherwise explore. All of our accommodations have running hot water and showers. Vegetarian options will be available throughout the trip.

Trip Difficulty

Potential trip members should be aware of the demands of adventure travel. You do not have to be in excellent physical condition to make this trip, but there will be bumpy jeep and elephant drives over rough terrain, as well as some long stretches of bus and train travel on days 10, 12, and 16. Our opportunities for walking will be restricted when we are in tiger habitat. (Remember -- the tiger is at the top of the food chain in his territory!) Otherwise, we will be on foot for a fair amount of time each day. Emotional balance, flexibility, maturity, and a spirit of adventure are essential to making this an enjoyable experience. There might be some itinerary variations depending upon our flight and train schedules; however, these are not expected to occur.

We will visit India when the weather is optimal -- after the monsoons and before the summer heat returns with a vengeance. Nonetheless, we are likely to have 90-degree temperatures in the midparts of some of the days we are in open, non-forested areas. It will be a dry heat, however, and should be tolerable. The weather should mostly be in the 70s and 80s by day, but could drop into the low 40s at night when we are in our forest lodges. Occasional rain is possible, but heavy and prolonged rains are rare outside of the monsoon season (June-August).

No inoculations are legally required for entry into India. A vaccination against Hepatitis A, however, is recommended, and a vaccination against meningitis should be considered. Typhoid fever outbreaks are rare outside of the monsoon season, so vaccination against typhoid probably isn't necessary -- it's up to you. Make sure you have had a tetanus booster within the last 10 years, and that you have had the usual "childhood" vaccinations, such as polio.

Malaria is not highly prevalent outside of the monsoon season. Nonetheless, it is a serious health risk, and you should consider taking prophylactic medication. Consult your physician. The leader will send complete health recommendations to registered participants well in advance of departure (or upon request by prospective participants).

We will drink bottled water, which is widely available throughout India. We will eat and stay in places where good hygiene is the norm and not the exception.

Equipment and Clothing

The leader will provide a detailed equipment list.


The last century hasn't been good for India's natural heritage. The sheer size of the country's ever-expanding population -- currently a staggering one billion people -- has led to increasingly destructive environmental practices. Fire, the ox, the plow, and now the bulldozer and chainsaw have transformed vast areas of pristine forest into agricultural plots, or, worse yet, wasteland. Indeed, India has lost almost 90 percent of its forest since 1900. According to current estimates, there are only about 2,500 critically endangered Bengal tigers left in the wild. A century ago, India had more than 40,000 of them. The cheetah has already become extinct in India, and the Asiatic lion may be next -- there are just 250 left, all confined to the Gir National Park in the state of Gujarat.

It is a sad irony that so many species are disappearing or endangered in the land that fostered three of the world's most compassionate religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. However, not all the news is bleak. Since the early 1970s, strong government legislation and programs such as Project Tiger have resulted in increased wildlife protection and critical habitat preservation.

Compared to Africa or even South America, India's wildlife sanctuaries and national parks have received remarkably little international attention -- mainly due to the extreme remoteness of many of the areas and their lack of suitable facilities. The Indian government has only recently increased its efforts to open these areas to eco-tourism, in the process revealing the country's incredible richness and biodiversity. Clearly, more eco-tourism is needed to reinforce government support for habitat preservation and the protection of endangered wildlife.

On this outing, we will see firsthand how overpopulation and poverty affect not just humans but the entire natural world. Perhaps nowhere else on the planet are man's impacts on the natural world so readily visible -- from scant protections for water and air to deforestation, poaching, and overhunting. In India, as in most of the world, conservation can only work if culture, socioeconomic realities, and the human psyche are taken into account. There is much fertile ground for discussion when one immerses oneself in the frothy, aromatic cauldron of one of the most complex countries in the world -- India!



For over 25 years Kern Hildebrand has led, assisted, or cooked on many Sierra Club Outings; river rafting, sea kayaking, backpacking, and international trips that have taken him to every continent. In the past few years Kern has traveled to Nepal, Greenland, Antarctica, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. According to Kern, “I love sharing with trip members the experience of world citizenship that comes from a land, such as India, which is so rich in culture, architecture, interesting landscapes and wonderful people.” When not traveling Kern can be found hiking in the Sierra and tending his five-acre California foothills woodland.

Assistant Leader:

Kathie Fowler

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