I’m not much of a slow traveller. Time is always an issue and in most of my trips, I run from attraction to attraction, spending a maximum of two nights in one place. I still manage to catch moments of quietude where the pace ceases to bother me. Yet, to find myself at Pench Tree Lodge for a leisurely four days with endless hours to myself – it was a rare opportunity, and I meant to treasure it.
On a sunny pre-monsoon morning, I drove into Pench, Nagpur, one of the smaller tiger reserves in India. In another post, I’ll tell you all about the national park and the miracles I witnessed there. But this one is dedicated to the stories my tree house veranda whispered to me, the birds that perched on the railing and the goats that grazed in front of me, their little bells tinkling merrily.
The newly opened Pench Tree Lodge by Pugdundee Safaris already promises to be the best wildlife lodge in the forest. I had an entire tree house to myself, complete with modern amenities like air conditioning, coffee and tea maker and a fully fitted bathroom. Yet, the architects had retained the essence of a forest abode – creaking floor boards made of wood, civets and tree shrews pattering about on the roof and a balcony with a sweeping view of the surrounding country all contributed to the authenticity of living in a tree house.
Have you ever attempted to build a tree house by yourself? I haven’t, but through the copious books I read in my quiet, urban childhood, I dreamt of climbing one so many times. In retrospect, if I had known that one day I would be sleeping in one for three nights in a row, I would have been in a tearing hurry to grow up!
Pench National Park is not as hectically frequented as some of the other tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh but it receives its fair share of tourists. Thus, it made sense for Pugdundee Safaris, proud owners of several other wildlife lodges in India, to open one in Pench. The six tree houses in the lodge are all equidistant from the dining and reception area; yet spaced far apart to afford privacy and seclusion. Activities at the lodge include morning and night trails, cycling trips and walks to the Sarra-Hiri villages and of course, safaris to Pench National Park.
Jottings from my first afternoon in the veranda
Sometimes, the breeze begins in a far-off corner of the clearing and then the trees near my house begin to wave in response. In the distance, goat herders make calls resembling the birds.
A barbed fence was all that divided the lodge from the clearing with its little hut beyond my balcony. Every afternoon, I’d see the goats come out to graze and members of a village family including a man who seemed adept at imitating the birds and animals of the area and two women whose voices often carried till my balcony thanks to the absolute silence. Over the course of three days, I grew used to their presence and their daily routine. I still wonder what they think of the tree house in the distance.
If there’s one thing I’ll never tire of, it’s this swaying balcony, these billowing trees and a full glass of beer on the table. Before me, an idyllic paradise stretches – of grazing cows and bleating sheep. I’d never want this to end, but for the absence of a loved one. The babbler with its furrowed eyebrows ignores me until I move. In the distance, the unpolished voices of village folk sound closer to the sound of nature than mine ever did. I have a sudden urge to hear myself the way a bird would. I see birds where none exist, the leaves and spaces morphing into eyes, a beak and the semblance of a tail. How easy it is to be deceived by the mind’s eye – and how enjoyable.
Of gourmet lunches and candle-lit dinners
And of course, outdoor breakfasts overlooking the trees and the birds with the wind on our faces. The chef at Pench Tree Lodge was adept with both Indian and continental cuisine but his curries and kheers took the cake for me.
Afternoons in the month of May would often touch 38 degrees and I was more than happy to retire after lunch to my tree house and that magical place where I felt removed from the world as we know it – my veranda. Dinner times were spent either at the beautiful lounge atop the dining area or in the outdoors, when the weather mellowed into breezy coolness.
Without the aid of an alarm clock, I’d be up at 5 AM every morning. Watching the sun peek out shyly from the dense foliage and slowly unfurl its golden glow over the forest was an experience best teamed with a steaming hot mug of Chamong Darjeeling green tea.
With my camera slung around my shoulder and my feet propped up on the table, I was free to enjoy the morning song of the birds that can only be described as an orchestra of joy:
A parakeet is revealed
In a darting streak of green
And my footsteps leave an empty chair
Where a golden oriole had been.
A warm breeze
Rouses the somnambulant leaves
While invisible birds
Coo about their joys and pet peeves.
The stillness seeps
Into my willing heart
And the winged creatures
Play their own sweet part.
A definite yearning
They do seem to quench
These blessed forests
Of summery Pench.
An experience I cherished immensely at Pench Tree Lodge was the beautiful morning nature walk. We walked and trekked through the little paths etched into acres of billowing dry grasslands, secret silent woods and idyllic frond-lined entrances to spot the elusive golden oriole, a tunnel web spider’s web, an ethereal skeletal leaf and several pieces of bright marble and mahogany mahua seeds.
The lodge naturalist Sagar pointed to a mossy green growth on the plant stems and said that they were lichens, indicators of a pollution-free environment. How fortunate we were, to be breathing an air so pure and walking an earth so free.
If we thought the night trail would imitate the morning walk, we were quite wrong. After my last dinner at Pench Tree Lodge at a table set up in the thick of the woods, a few of us set off with naturalist Chinmay Deshpande on a quest for the creatures of the dark. The night was alive with the sounds of crickets and other insects and we felt like intruders, trudging through with our heavy footsteps, hoping to spot an exotic snake or two. Once again, we encountered a few expertly woven spider webs.
Chinmay’s powerful torch helped us spot a caterpillar swinging on a leaf and various types of beautifully coloured and patterned bugs and beetles on the ground. But the biggest surprises were a pair of turtle doves peacefully asleep in a tree and a cat-sized civet perched on the steps leading up to one of the tree houses. We chased the civet across a few trees, finally managing to catch a glimpse of its velvety self before it disappeared into nothingness.
Jottings from my final morning in the veranda
By the fourth day, I felt intimately acquainted with the forests and creatures of Pench and the veranda felt like home. But it wasn’t a bittersweet goodbye when it was time to leave. For the first time in all my travels, I felt satisfied with my time in that tree house. I had absorbed the serenity of the veranda and the jungle and it was a story I could re-read every time I opened the pages of my memory. On that final morning, as I looked at those trees I’d come to love and befriend, it struck me that tall waving forest trees are the Truth we need to hold on to. Cut them all and it’ll be lost forever. WE will be lost forever. Because there is no greater joy than to sway in a forest breeze:
Civets on our roofs
And the sound of bovine hoofs
Oh what fun
To sway in the forest sun.
Wild and free
The local decree
Oh what fun
To sway in the forest sun.
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