Sher Khan was missed.
By Rupali Sinha
What did you say?” Pench National Park! My colleague raised an eyebrow and emphasised the first word. “But where is that?” I asked incredulously. On being told that it’s on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra my jaw dropped open. My in-depth knowledge of geography is confined to the etymology of this word but the fact that this place lies in the state we have chosen as a second home was disconcerting enough.
The uneventful flight took us to the nearest Nagpur airport. The ‘summer of February’ poured from our foreheads as we boarded the non-AC jeep en route to Pench. The driver reassured us that the scorching heat is limited to the first 20 km or so and once we reach the forest part, the weather would change. And soon the cool breeze of the open window bespoke the truth of his words. The winding lane through the villages and cultivated acreage at last took us to our destination.
The seething calmness and the row of ducks waddling on the vast grounds greeted us as we stepped into the premises of the Mahua Vann. The latter looked on non-plussed as we were ushered into our spacious rooms – or rather cottages. A couple of such cottages were given a common compound and the nearest such cluster was some distance away. A splendid dinner in the common open hall and a stroll around the property later I ventured back into my cottage. There was no TV in the room and the only thing I could hear was the sound of the night. Some crickets sang away in the dark which perforce acted as a lullaby as I slept peacefully.
The next morning was one of those rare ones on which I woke up before the rising sun. However, I was not the only one. The entire entourage along with the guide were up and ready when I reached the waiting vehicles. The jeeps were open. I had my misgivings as I boarded one. There is some distance between the resort and the sanctuary and the first rays of sun hit us as we reached the gates of the Pench Wildlife Sanctuary. The journey till now was a blur but as we waited at the gates for clearance I rubbed my eyes and fished out my camera.
After checking our PAN cards the guards let us in. The nagging feeling had not gone and I asked the driver if anyone had been attacked in an open vehicle. He simply looked at me and smiled. Our attention was diverted as someone in our group squealed. A deer had leapfrogged and crossed the road in front of our vehicle. The cameras clicked away as the entire herd came into the picture. Happy and satisfied with our exploits we moved further inside the forest.
Suddenly the guide motioned us to remain silent. He had sensed something. Without his naming him we understood that it was a big carnivore. A few minutes passed in utter silence and suspense. My heart thumped in anticipation. At times like these one can feel isolated even among a group of people. After a while the guide shook his head and motioned to the driver to continue on the trail. Meanwhile, a majestic flying carnivore caught the eye of one of my friends and he got busy with the camera angles. The eagle proudly perched itself on a branch too high for anyone other than the zoom lens to catch.
Pench National Park is a part of the Seoni Hills whose denizens crowd Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. In fact, Mowgli is the characterisation of a real-life boy nurtured by wolves. Lt John Moor caught the boy under the guidance of Col William Sleeman who also wrote books on the topic of wolves nurturing children. In fact, many of the locations in The Jungle Book are real like the ‘Seeonee hills’.
As the route meandered in the thick forest I ruminated about the jungle book. No Mowgli came in sight but his family members did. We came across a couple of wolves. A pack of monkeys frolicking at a distance that brought me out of my reverie. As usual the rest of my pack was busy pressing the buttons of their cameras. Just a few minutes later, the guide once again waved us into silence. “A big cat passed this way,” he said in a conspiratorial voice.
Nervously we looked around for that furtive glance through the thickets, or a dash of fur but soon our hopes were dashed and once again the vehicle trudged along the winding path. Although the beast-that-must-not-be-named was elusive, what kept us delighted was the variety of birds we saw. They would suddenly appear from nowhere. We saw grey partridges, white-breasted kingfishers, black drongos and purple sun-birds to name a few.
Our guide pointed towards a tree and said, “That is a ghost tree!” In the middle of an eerie jungle with a group of five people, that news did cause a bit of nervousness. But as we gazed at it, the reason was obvious enough. It was a gum tree with a smooth, white cream-coloured bark with a pinkish tinge. It could easily be discerned in the dim light because of the glow. I am sure if somebody had shared this information and pointed at that tree in the middle of the night with thunderstorms in the background, I would have easily believed the most unbelievable spooky stories about trees.
Back to the agenda
After two hours of such adventure we returned to our haven. The cook had especially prepared lunch for us according to our specifications. After indulging in the finger-licking sumptuous stuff we were back to the agenda of the day – some workshop we had come to attend and, then the open-sky bonfire after twilight. The more musical among us already had a song on their lips as we comfortably ensconced ourselves around the bonfire. As we chatted and sang away in close propinquity with nature, the tiredness of the day vanished and a buoyancy of spirit took us in. The next day as we prepared for the return journey, the driver and the rest of the gang busied themselves with the cargo. I took a look back at the vast lush grounds and the comforting fauna and resolved to come back. Once more for just that one carnivore which dodged us this time.