Jungle life with unforgettable experiences.
By Inder Raj Ahluwalia
It was a ‘walk on the wildside’ like no other. A week later it left me with as many thoughts as there are trees in the magnificent wildlife parks I’d visited.
I was in the heart of ‘the heart of Incredible India’ as Madhya Pradesh likes to call itself. Thanks to Pugdundee Safaris, at one fell stroke I’d been enticed into experiencing the wilderness of Satpura Tiger Reserve; Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve; and Kanha Tiger Reserve.
My first foray was to Satpura National Park, a wilderness area inhabited by the pride of Indian wildlife. Formed in 1981 after joining Satpura, Pachmari and Bori sanctuaries, and spread over 1, 427 sq kilometres, the park’s rugged terrain comprises deep valleys, sandstone peaks, narrow gorges, rivulets, waterfalls, and thickly dense green forest of sal and teak. Its unique eco-system and bio-diversity has made it home to fauna such as the spotted dear, Indian bison (gaur), tiger, leopard, wild boar, wild dog (dhole), sloth bear, sambhar, four-horned antelope (chowsingha), marsh crocodile, Malabar squirrel and special attractions in the form of the Indian giant squirrel and white bison.
The bush engulfed me immediately. In the distance, a series of misty hills reinforced the jungle feeling. As for the rest, there was silence. I started to feel the effect of the jungle and solitude. The park’s diverse landscape comprised patches of dry deciduous forest, low hills, escarpments, valleys and grassy meadows. Keeping constant vigil over things is the Satpura range. The sightings were averagely satisfying, with cheetal, sambhar, jungle fowl and gaur coming into view at every other turn. But it was the tiger, leopard and sloth bear I was yearning to see, and didn’t.
Patience is truly a virtue and our second afternoon drive provided dividends. Nearing the fag end of the drive, we’d almost given up and were heading towards the exit when our path was blocked, literally and figuratively, by a solitary male gaur. Mindful of the fact that one has to give ‘right of way’ in all forms to wildlife, and equally mindful of the animal’s enormous size, we backed off, side-stepped, and were about to exit when we saw a bit of ‘commotion’ to our left. We were there in 60 seconds and I got my first glimpse at a sloth bear, and one (short as it was) of a leopard in the distance.
It was all fine. Justice had been done. It was one happy group that converged for dinner in the cosy dinning room of the Denwa Backwater Escape, where we’d bedded down during our Satpura visit. Built on 10 acres of forested land, the lodge is located overlooking the mesmerising backwaters of a dam built on the Denwa River in Satpura National Park. With spread-out, well-appointed cottages, swimming pool, a cosy lounge-cum-dining area and a wonderful patio overlooking the water and forests the lodge offers stunning views of the Denwa River, grasslands across, and the rolling Pachmari hills.
We moved on and an eight-hour drive brought us to the confines of the Bandhavgarh National Park.
Established in 1968 as a National Park, and declared a tiger reserve under Project Tiger in 1993, Bandhavgarh is spread over an area of 448 sq. kms. Its vegetation is predominantly sal, sali and dhobin, and it also features vast stretches of grasslands spread over 32 hills. Owing to its relatively smaller size, the region features one of the highest densities of tigers in the world.
A bonus, if I may call it that, came courtesy my meeting Manav Khanduja, co-owner of Pugdundee Safaris. Shy, effusive, totally unobtrusive, and totally publicity-shy, Manav seems driven by one thing and one thing alone – his passion for the wilderness. Rather reluctantly (I had to literally prise the words out of him) he acknowledged that it felt good to have one’s dream translate into reality and a successful business model. You might call it ‘modesty in the jungle’.
The park’s terrain is ideal, with large tracts of flat land interspersed with low hills, small valleys, gorges and clumps of forest. Sal and bamboo proliferate. My first two safari drives in Zone 2, were frustratingly barren affairs, to the point where I was feeling ‘deprived’. They were focused totally on tiger-spotting, and the fact that we didn’t spot one took its toll.
Then things took a rather positive turn, and Safari 3 the next rainy morning finally yielded dividends. To start with, Zone 1 features superb wild country including two forested mountain plateaus. Then there was this business of finally seeing a slightly injured tigress (she’s got into a scrap with another tigress). The magnificent animal passed within 10 metres of our jeep. It was idyllic, but for the ‘crowding’, what with some 10 jeeps that had appeared out of nowhere, literally jumping on her.
As always, the sighting engendered a sense of satisfaction, to the point where I relished my lunch at the Kings Lodge just a little more than usual. The lodge is the perfect place to bed down. Nestled in a forested estate of 32 acres overlooking sal forested hills on both sides, and within touching distance of the park, the lodge is environmentally sensitive, harmonious with nature, accentuates natural daylight to all facilities, and is a fine blend of the rustic and deluxe. Fine cotton and handcrafted furniture enhance the visual and comfort levels. Well-appointed cottages, a lounge and dining area, a swimming pool and outdoor barbeque area create a comfortable ambience.
The next morning we were back on the highway, headed for Kanha. A bonus came in the form of a stopover at Ghughva Fossil Museum, a vast open-air repository of plant fossils dating back to millenia. Over the ages, the plants have turned into stone, and dot the vast landscaped garden area.
A couple of hours later we found ourselves in the sylvan surroundings of Kanha National Park. The whole area is green, with tall trees, dense vegetation, grassy meadows, low hills and escarpments, and narrow valleys. The tall sal trees are particularly beautiful and defining. The jungle closes in on you and the sky becomes distant.
My four drives in the park were about as rewarding as they could be, and the ‘jungle’ feeling I’ve so eagerly sought in India finally enveloped me. The sightings came thick and fast. Herds of cheetal, a few sambhar, wild boar, peacocks and jungle fowl, herds of gaur, the famed ‘hard ground barasingha’ that is endemic to Kanha and three separate encounters with tigers. But the sighting came about rather suddenly.
Coming our way was a convoy of three jeeps and, incredibly, in between the jeeps was a huge male tiger. With ‘right of way’ to be given to wildlife, the jeeps were moving in sync with the tiger, and we joined in. For all of 10 minutes, we reversed with the tiger literally 10 metres in front, matching our speed to his. It was real and true ‘eyeball contact’. Finally, he decided he’d had enough and side-stepped into the forest.
Shortly thereafter, our euphoria was brought down by the harshness of the jungle. Literally three feet from the road lay a huge python coiled around a langoor who he was stifling to death. The desperate langoor had inflicted a couple of deep bites on the python, but it wasn’t enough. We moved off, just a bit shaken, just a bit sombre.
With its gigantic, magnificent trees, Kanha impresses and awes. And with good reason.
Back at the Kanha Earth Lodge, I did what one is supposed to do after a jungle safari – eat a hearty meal. The lodge is wild and rustic, yet deluxe and stylish. Tucked away in a forested area of 16 acres adjoining the buffer zone of Kanha in a small tribal hamlet, the lodge is away from the tourism hub, yet close enough for easy access to the Khatia/Kisli park gate.
Well-appointed cottages, a spacious lounge, dining room, outdoor patio, and swimming pool ensure constant service. Its architecture inspired by the adjoining Gond tribal villages, and using local materials and manpower, the lodge blends effortlessly with the forest. The result is an exclusive wilderness experience.