Category Archives: Madhya Pradesh

A tigress’ glint at Pench National Park

During an outdoor dinner in the forest at Pench Tree Lodge, a naturalist called Karan Rana shocked us by expressing his desire to touch a tiger at least once in his lifetime. A death wish, by anyone’s estimation and Rana (perhaps fortified by the local mahua) would have done well to heed John Gardner’s words, “God made the cat to give man the pleasure of stroking a tiger.”

Tiger (tigress) at Pench National Park

On umpteen safaris through the better known forests of Kanha and Bandhavgarh, the great striped beast had eluded me. And it’s all very well to say that sightings are not just about tigers. Obviously, all birds, trees and animals in the wild are as breath-taking but the hollow feeling that a tiger-less sojourn leaves behind is undeniable. And that’s why, when I spotted the best known tigress of Pench National Park not once but twice in a span of two days and with nothing less than her two daughters in tow, I felt like I had been blessed. Because I had seen for myself, the feral magic of a tigress’ glint.

A bird at Pench village

Driving through the picturesque villages of Sarra and Hiri en route to Pench National Park, we felt like the safari had already begun. Several birds had perched themselves on the wires running through the village, their forms outlined against the evening sun. This was to my first introduction to the reserve that sits on the border between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Much smaller than the other national parks in India’s forest state at 293 sq km, Pench is still home to around 54 tigers and 285 species of resident and migratory birds. During the course of two safaris, we spotted an entire herd of wild dogs, several jackals, peacocks perched on trees, colourful Indian pitta, owls, osprey, waterfowl,  white-eyed buzzard, a Nilgai in the distance and beautiful chital and sambhar deer.

A chital (spotted) deer at Pench National Park

It was mid-June and the rains hadn’t begun their onslaught yet. In fact, temperatures soared to nearly 40 degrees and chances of seeing any animal wandering in the heat seemed slim. Then again, most of the ponds had dried up during the summer and it was inevitable that the creatures would frequent the remaining ones in their quest for water. The moment we entered the gates of Priyadarshini National Park as Pench National Park is otherwise called, we were enveloped by the familiar embrace of the forest.

Pench National Park

Tall trees tried valiantly to keep the sunlight out but the summer still found its sweltering way into the innards of the jungle. We spied a beautiful lesser golden-backed woodpecker that simply wouldn’t sit still long enough for a good photograph. Further on, we encountered a community of langurs, relaxing by the wayside and playing games with each other. A couple of other safari jeeps passed by, words were exchanged between the drivers and a sudden sense of tension stung the air. There were tigers in our vicinity. And in a complete turnaround of the natural order of things, we went in pursuit of danger.

I was prepared for a long and perhaps fruitless search, as had been the case in all my safaris thus far. But this time, destiny had decided to favour us. Within minutes of reaching the watering hole and joining the short line of jeeps in wait, Collarwali, the most famous tigress of Pench National Park made a majestic entry into my frame. It was a few moments before I fully absorbed the reality of her feline presence. She lapped up water from the pond thirstily and then proceeded to lie down in it to cool off.

A tigress at Pench National Park

We hoped she wouldn’t just doze off there. After what seemed like an eternity, Collarwali arose. Alas, her rear was covered with slushy mud. But she enjoyed the cool wetness no doubt. The tigress made her way along the forest path and disappeared into the undergrowth. But our guide knew exactly where she would emerge. We sped along and stopped at a curve in the road. Sure enough, a few moments later, the tigress emerged and I got a much closer look at her stripes.

A tigress at Pench National Park

During the drive back, our hearts were filled with joy. But we had no idea that more delights awaited us on the early morning safari the following day. Our groggy selves protested against the idea of embarking on a safari at the unearthly hour of 4:30 am but some great chai and biscuits courtesy Pench Tree Lodge sorted that out. The world beyond the gates was still in the grasp of night-time shadows and we watched with awe as the skies gradually brightened and the sleepy village shook itself from slumber. The forest seemed more inviting in this pre-dawn glow. And our adventures began with a sighting of a jackal couple. We followed them with our eyes and lenses but they only had eyes for each other. Who said animals can’t be romantic?

This time, we got really, really lucky. Thanks to our guide’s uncanny sensibilities, not only did we get to the spot of the tiger sighting first, we also had the closest view as there was no other jeep in front of us. I would have never dreamt of seeing three tigers together but Pench had great plans for me. To our right, we saw three graceful forms walking towards us. They were Collarwali and her two daughters, both remarkably different in their temperament.

Three tigresses at Pench National Park

While one stuck to her mother, the other one, more aloof, was determined to chalk a different route and walk on her own. She was the one I enjoy photographing the most. Her defiance shone through in her shapely eyes.

A tigress (tiger) at Pench National Park

The three of them walked for what felt like a really long time and we followed them across twists and turns. At one point, they crossed the road from mere feet away from our jeep and we sat frozen, delighted and daunted in equal measures.

Tigers walking in front of the jeeps during a safari at Pench National Park

I tossed my camera aside after a while because this was a marvel too momentous to be viewed through the lens.  We spent more than an hour feasting our eyes on these queens of Pench National Park.

On our way back to the entrance, we came across a large pack of wild dogs emitting strange high-pitched sounds. They looked and sounded markedly different from the domesticated variety.

A pack of wild dogs at Pench National Park

Our forest guide was a great mimic and imitated their call perfectly. The startled dogs paused and stared right at us. We knew how ferocious they can be, and I found myself wishing our vehicle had windows! But after a few moments, they lost interest and continued on their journey. We also saw a couple of owls cosily nestled in their hollow tree home and a little Indian pitta showing off its stunning green and yellow plumage. The Indian rollers were a ubiquitous sight in this part of India but I never tired of photographing their vivid forms.

Indian roller at Pench National Park
Indian roller

Friendly village children posed for me as we drove past and farmers with ploughs and bullocks made for archetypal rural photographs. A village woman carrying bundles of hay home was a particularly striking sight thanks to the goats that followed her in a neat row.

A village woman and her goats in Pench village, India

It was unbelievable but I was actually completely content with my safaris in Pench National Park. And I had the rest of my stay at Pench Tree Lodge to look forward to. Life had never been more perfect.

The luxurious Pench Tree Lodge will take care of your stay, meals, safaris and sightseeing. For bookings, call +91 – 124 – 2970497, 2571404, 2570404, +91 8800637711 or email sales@pugdundeesafaris.com.

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Pench Tree Lodge: Where the veranda spoke

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.

Pench Tree Lodge - veranda
My veranda at Pench Tree Lodge

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.

An Asian koel sips from the water bowl outside the dining area
An Asian koel sips from the water bowl outside the dining area

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.

Tree house at Pench Tree Lodge
The bedroom of my 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!

Tree house bathroom at Pench Tree Lodge
The spacious bathroom

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

Pench Tree Lodge - 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.

 A Brahminy myna outside my veranda
A Brahminy myna outside my veranda

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

An inviting breakfast table overlooking the forest
An inviting breakfast table overlooking the forest

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.

Clockwise from top left: Badam kheer, baba ganoush, carrot and jalapeno salad, masala omelette with tomato and hash browns
Clockwise from top left: Badam kheer, baba ganoush, masala omelette with tomato and hash browns, carrot and jalapeno salad

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.

Early mornings

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.

Early morning at Pench Tree Lodge

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.

Nature trails

Glimpses of green
Glimpses of green

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.

An ethereal skeletal leaf
An ethereal skeletal leaf
Clockwise from top left: Forest flowers, a spiderweb, a creeper coiled into the shape of a snail and some fruits
Clockwise from top left: Forest flowers, a spiderweb, some fruits, a creeper coiled into the shape of a snail

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.

The elusive Indian golden oriole
The elusive Indian golden oriole

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.

A spiderweb and beetle
A spiderweb and beetle

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

A lone leaf on the floorboard
A lone leaf on the floorboard

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:

Crumpling leaves
Cooing birds
Civets on our roofs
And the sound of bovine hoofs
Oh what fun
To sway in the forest sun.
Ploughing farmers
Bright-winged charmers
Wild and free
The local decree
Oh what fun
To sway in the forest sun.

A green leaf bird on my veranda
A common iora on my veranda

For reservations, call: +91 – 124 – 2970497, 2571404, 2570404 | +91 8800637711
Or email: sales@pugdundeesafaris.com

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Ghughua Fossil Park: A museum of plants

After a thorough exploration of Bandhavgarh’s wildlife and the 1000 year old Shesh Shaiya statue, we embarked on a long road trip to Kanha, where we would be staying at the award-winning Kanha Earth Lodge. But several adventures awaited us before we got there – the foremost of which was the marvellous Ghughua Fossil Park.

Ghughua Fossil Park
Ghughua Fossil Park

Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in science class but it came as a real revelation that trees have fossils too, the way animals do. After a brief stopover at a roadside tapri (stall) for a piping hot cup of chai from a teapot bubbling on a traditional stone stove, we arrived at Ghughua Fossil Park, situated in the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh.

A brief stopover at a roadside tapri (stall) for a piping hot cup of chai
A brief stopover at a roadside tapri (stall) for a piping hot cup of chai

The Fossil Park sits adjoining a fossil museum and we suffered a brief moment of indecision before zeroing in on the real thing first.

A pink door brightens up the white walll beside the aged gate to the park
A pink door brightens up the white wall beside the aged gate to the park

A rusty gate creaked open when the friendly old caretaker opened it for us. He turned out to be a treasure trove of information on the plants that he tended to so lovingly. He told us that the fossilised plants in the quiet park were 65 million years old! What was the world like that many eons ago? It was a world where the last of the dinosaurs walked the earth, soon to be wiped out in a mysterious mass extinction. Among these enduring relics of the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary periods, the palm fossils are the most renowned. Come here, and you will be introduced to clusters of Eucalyptus fossils, arranged in familiar shapes like hearts and circles. We even saw the fossil of a dinosaur egg, reminding me of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park series.

A palm fossil
A palm fossil
A eucalyptus fossil
A eucalyptus fossil

Taking a break from the fossils belonging to 31 genera of 18 families (scientific classifications), I wandered off to enjoy the views of the landscaped green lawns. After all, they too dated back to the 1970s, when Dr Dharmendra Prasad, the statistical officer of Mandla district discovered the fossils and the park was built. Nothing here was new, including the wrinkly caretaker.

The green park
The green park

Ghughua educated me on the fact that fossils exist of leaves, fruits, seeds and shells as well. How exactly are they formed? They are basically mineralised remains of plants encased in hardened sediment. The process is called petrification and interestingly, for it to occur, the plant or animal must die in a watery environment. This is why plant fossils are actually more common than animal fossils.

A fossilised bark
A fossilised bark

After immersing ourselves among these ghosts of a bygone era, we browsed through more examples of fossilised remains encased in glass cabinets at the museum. For an average tourist, a visit to the park is more than enough introduction to plant fossils. But students and researchers of paleobotany benefit from a perusal of the museum as well.

A cluster of palm fossils
A cluster of palm fossils

Other fossil parks that you could visit in India:

  1. Indroda Dinosaur and Fossil Park, Gujarat
  2. Mandla Plant Fossils National Park, Madhya Pradesh
  3. National Fossil Wood Park, Tamil Nadu
  4. Salkhan Fossils Park, Uttar Pradesh
  5. Shivalik Fossil Park, Himachal Pradesh
A fence cordons of the living from the dead
A fence cordons off the living from the dead

Fast facts

  • Days to visit: Any day
  • Timings: Sunrise to sunset
  • Entry: You need to purchase a ticket
  • How to reach: Drive down from Jabalpur airport (110 km) or Umaria station (70 km). The nearest town is Shahpura (15 km).

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A brush with the wild in Bandhavgarh

Where do you begin a travel story? Is it when you arrive at your destination? Or when you are travelling there? Or as far back as when you begin your research about the place? Come to think of it, it’s really hard to define a clear starting point for trips. Because long before they actually materialise in time, they begin germinating in your mind, taking shape through Google, Lonely Planet guides and recommendations from friends. And so, every trip has a past, present and future; the past being the research and the anticipation; the present being the actual holiday and the future being the memories that will assail you over and over, encouraging you to do an encore.

I’ll begin the story of my first trip to Madhya Pradesh (Bandhavgarh and Kanha wildlife sanctuaries) from the part I love the most – the journey.

Katni station, Madhya Pradesh
Katni station, Madhya Pradesh

I board a train on Thursday night after bidding goodbye to my office and settle down for a relaxing solo journey in the Mumbai Mail.

26.6.15 Friday 9 AM. In the train to Katni, Madhya Pradesh.

I’m somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. Acres of farms pass me by, and just now, a family, already hard at work at a station called Bhairanpur (You Google it and there’s nothing – literally nothing. Yes, there are still a few places whose existence Lord Internet knows nothing of). The names are similar to the north but the feeling is somehow different. The people are slim and so are the animals. This is perhaps a thrifty land.

I spot a kid at Banapur dressed entirely in red – like a pop of colour in an otherwise earthy landscape. I contemplate what I might do for the rest of the ride. Read a book perhaps (Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck). And allow myself to be distracted now and then, by the panorama unfolding outside my glass window.

Some people have curled up again in their blankets after performing their morning ablutions but I cannot surrender to sleep and give up the wonders of this beautiful day.

Slowly, the landscape starts giving way to more of the green denizens. Ponds of water reflect the blue sky, dotted with greyish clouds here and then. The grassy, natural lawns are a lovely playground for the local children. To see them run across the field with not a care in the world fills my heart with joy.

By a divine stroke of luck, my train is only half an hour late despite the devastating fire at Itarsi station. The good folks at Pugdundee Safaris send a car to pick me up at Katni station, a two-three hour drive from Kings Lodge, Bandhavgarh, where I’m going to be staying.

A crossing herd of chital or spotted deer
A crossing herd of chital or spotted deer

26.6.15 Friday 4 PM. Khitouli, where the wildlife sanctuary begins. In the car.

The wiry young driver, Bhole Prasad Yadav reveals, “Sometimes you can see the tiger on the road here but they are harder to spot in the sanctuary!” That’s news. He tells me that once the parks shut for the monsoons, he will go back to farming. “I spend eight months driving and four months farming in the village,” he says proudly. I notice that it isn’t raining at all and ask him if that’s not a problem. “It is! But we get water from the tube wells,” Bhole says. Once he gets talking, he doesn’t seem to want to stop. He tells me that it’s very hot in the summers and very cold in the winters. “There are bears and leopards in this sanctuary. They stopped allowing trekkers in here after a leopard was spotted on the route,” he says. As if trekking wasn’t perilous enough as it was!

Suddenly, he stops and starts pointing outside the window excitedly. A lovely male peacock with his feathers in full display darts away as I fumble for my camera. I’m disappointed because I don’t know then that I’ll see many more of these beauties later! Bhole is determined to give me a ‘pre-tour’ of the sanctuary and manages to keep a lookout for creatures of the forest even while keeping an eye on the road. We spot jungle fowl, a monitor lizard and langurs along the way. I click a photograph of the ubiquitous tall trees and Bhole volunteers that they are sal trees. They are adorned with leaves all along their trunks and look like faeries cloaked in green. “The best tiger sightings are at gate 2. That’s where they’ll take you tomorrow,” Bhole says. I’m new to the concept of safaris and only then do I learn that there are three entry points into Bandhavgarh National Park and two of them are favoured for spotting a wide variety of wildlife. “One of the tigers caught a man,” Bhole says, with just the right amount of menace in his tone. “When the park is shut, they tigers prey on our cows more often and prefer to stay close to the village.” Poor cows.

Kings Lodge
Courtesy: http://www.kingslodge.in

I arrive at Kings Lodge in the evening and I’m greeted by Sapna Dhall, their marketing head and Manav Khanduja, the owner. Manav is so unassuming that I don’t recognise him at first! The lodge is welcoming and done up tastefully in décor that is elegant without being overbearing. The cottages are located a short walk away from the pool and reception area. Saket Shrouti, the friendly young manager who hails from Nashik shows me to my cottage.

Dinner that night is a sumptuous affair. I partake of one drink too many but still manage to be up at 3:15 AM the next day for the early morning safari.

Kings Lodge
Source: http://www.kingslodge.in

27.6.15 Saturday 4 AM. Kings Lodge: Poolside.

There are so many stars in the sky! The pre-dawn canvas is so thickly dotted with them that there’s barely space for any more. The undergrowth is buzzing with secret life even at this hour. Walking to the reception from my cottage in the darkness is one of the eeriest experiences I’ve had. I felt like I was being trailed by a feral pair of eyes. A haunting in this wilderness would be hard to battle. I notice how the pool glistens in the glare of artificial lights and how different it is from the glow of the sun.

The forest full of sal trees
The forest full of sal trees

The safaris

Safaris are exciting. They are also painful because of the rough jeep travel and tedious after you’ve been on several in a span of a few days. But you forget everything when you glimpse a peacock so high up on a tree that you can only see it through your binoculars. I didn’t even know they could make it to such heights simply by hopping from branch to branch. Your back ceases to ache from the ups and downs when you see a herd of graceful chital deer crossing the road right before you. You begin to feel truly fortunate when your more learned companions tell you about phenomena like brachiation (it’s when monkeys swing from tree to tree using their arms) and the diurnal nature of cicadas.

A mahout with his elephant
A mahout with his elephant

On this trip, I remained a stranger to the tigers but I did see more birds than I had ever seen (crested hawk and serpent eagles, a drongo, golden orioles, kingfishers, rollers, cormorants, a coppersmith, turtle doves) and a wide variety of animals each of whom was beautiful in a different way (sambhar and chital deer, a mongoose, a monitor lizard, jackals, vultures). And though I did not see the beast himself, I did see the tiger’s pug marks hinting at his elusive presence and the naturalist from Kings Lodge also brought our notice to the tiger’s territorial markings on tree trunks.

The crested serpent eagle
The crested serpent eagle

It wasn’t just the creatures that held our attention; it was also the myriad trees, creepers and grass. A ghostly white entity with chalky bark revealed itself to be a gum tree. Ravi, the local forest guide regaled us with the gruesome tale of a foreign photographer who was attacked by a tigress in the 90s after he used the flash feature while photographing her. “The driver pulled the tigress off by her tail and the photographer escaped with injuries,” Ravi told us with gusto. So when you go, remember not to startle or nettle the animal in any way. Else, you might be another one of Ravi’s stories.

A sudden hush fell over the jeep when we spotted in the distance, a family of deer calming sipping from a largish pond, while a couple of jackals and a lone vulture lay on the surrounding grass. It was a frame straight out of a wildlife documentary and for once, even the cameras lay untouched as we drank in the sight of that perfect ecological balance. A bright caterpillar livened up the ride by landing on my companion’s arm. Imagine if we’d given it a ride straight out of the forest and into the lodge! I felt blind when my companions began chattering excitedly about what they called a Eurasian Thicknee in the midst of some dry foliage. After a few agonising moments of screwing up my eyes in concentration, I saw it. The cagey bird was exactly the same light brown colour as the surrounding foliage and blended right in with the background. Talk about a successful camouflage!

The Eurasian Thicknee
The Eurasian Thicknee

We saw tiny flycatchers and white-throated kingfishers that flew away the second we approached. I wondered whether humans belonged in that forest at all. I simply could not visualise a time when humans were a part of that landscape. The roar and the rustle of the jungle frightened me as I scribbled in my notepad. And to add to that, we spotted long stretches of strangler vines with trunks all twisting and gnarly like ropes.

We were quite famished when we returned to the lodge and I ate my scrambled eggs with cheese on toast with gusto. Our breakfast table was set in a garden full of various herbs such as basil, turmeric and lemongrass. There were a few amla trees standing guard as well. In the night, Saket the manager caught a poisonous common krait and managed to lure it into a sack; he would release it into the wild later.

An excursion to the village

We might have wasted away at the inviting pool or in the comfort of the soft beds in our rooms had it not been for the infectious enthusiasm of Siddhartha Joshi of ‘Tell me your dream’ fame. As a part of his series, Sid wanted to interview a few villagers from the nearby settlement and we decided to tag along. What we encountered were two best friends who shared the same name (Munni), a little girl whose shy curiosity charmed our lenses, breathtaking examples of hand sculptures and the differences in lifestyle between the Gond and Khushwaha tribes.

Here is a photo story of the heartwarming discoveries we made.

A Gond woman in Bandhavgarh
Munni of the Gond tribe gesturing in her cool stone house. She opened up once we began asking her questions.
Handmade art in a Gond house
Does this look like something you might buy at an art and handicraft shop? It might surprise you to know that Munni made and painted this all by herself. The Gond tribes are immensely talented and from the looks of it, have a great sense of beauty and proportion.
A Gond woman and her daughter
Munni with her small daughter whose innocence captivated us
A Gond woman with her daughter
And here they pose for Siddhartha’s camera, while we take our own pictures furtively
A Gond child
Don’t you think this lovely child deserves a frame of her own?
Drying grains and mahua seeds
The spread of drying grains and mahua seeds make for a colourful sight at Munni’s house
A half-finished Gond doll
In the backyard, we discover another example of Munni’s skills. This is a half-finished doll which Munni was yet to paint.
Toran at a Khushwaha house
The toran (sacred gateway) at the entrance to Munni’s home. And this is the Khushwaha Munni who stays next door to the Gond Munni.
The village folk at Bandhavgarh
Munni and Munni (the Khushwaha Munni has her face hidden here) with their children
A cow in its shed
A lone cow in its shed stares back at me curiously
Two young Khushwaha girls
Khushwaha Munni’s two daughters are struck by shyness when we ask them to pose. I love the little one’s bashful smile.
A hand cart
A hand cart bakes in the heat outside Munni’s home
A temple at Bandhavgarh
Temples here have turrets that resemble mosques.

Also read: My adventures in Kanha National Park and the forest fantasy that was Kanha Earth Lodge

Kanha Earth Lodge: Forest fantasy

There are theme resorts and then there are resorts that are practically indistinguishable from the theme. Kanha Earth Lodge is the forest, you realise, as you step into the stone flooring in your cottage and drop your bags on the table fashioned out of a rough-hewn timber stump. The forest springs up all around you, in the muted lighting reminiscent of a foliage-shadowed dusk and the door-less wardrobe hollowed into the wooden wall. Shades of ivory, beige and auburn dominate but the settee in your bedroom with its multi-coloured cushions comes as a vibrant surprise, rather like the sweet invasion of a patch of flowers into a verdant landscape. Its many-hued comfort can be an excellent alternative to the four-poster bed when you settle into your afternoon siesta after a sumptuous meal of dal bukhara, murgh masalan and other decadent Indian delicacies, followed by umpteen glasses of wine at the tastefully done-up bar, where Karan, the proprietor may drop in for a friendly chat. Even if you’re not in the habit of sinking into post-noon slumber, you might just succumb at Kanha Earth Lodge because the reception will give you a wake-up call at no later than 4am for the morning safari.

Kanha Earth Lodge
The multi-coloured cushions on the settee
Kanha Earth Lodge
The four-poster bed

As you trundle down to the Khisli Gate in a jeep that makes you long for a cowboy hat, the rain-awash air and mahua-scented breeze will slowly nudge you into reluctant wakefulness. Kanha being one of India’s best known tiger habitats, you’ll no doubt have your eyes peeled for a glimpse of the striped beast. But you might not be as prepared for the peacocks perched high up on the ubiquitous sal trees; and the rare and endemic herd of Barasingha (Hard Ground Swamp Deer) sipping from an idyllic moss-ringed pond, in the company of jackals and vultures. You’ll come away from the forest with a new-found respect for binoculars and a deep desire for nourishment, even after the picnic mini-breakfast at a clearing in the forest, complete with tea out of thermos flasks and shiny red apples wrapped in paper.

Kanha Earth Lodge
The outdoor eating area (Courtesy: http://www.kanhaearthlodge.com)
Kanha Earth Lodge
The spacious veranda (Courtesy: http://www.kanhaearthlodge.com)

A welcome party consisting of rolled up hot towels, wide smiles and glasses of cool fruit punch will almost convince you that the lodge missed you as much as you missed its rustic embrace. Breakfast is a lovely affair in the al fresco dining area with a tranquil view of the surrounding 16 acres of forest. Once you’ve partaken of the croissants and rolls to your heart’s content, you can head back to your cottage for a refreshing shower in the spa-inspired bathroom and a leisurely drink at the spacious veranda where you’re literally in the lap of wilderness. What makes Kanha Earth Lodge special is that the luxury comes combined with a green conscience, sourced as it is from recycled wood and local stone and terracotta tiles.

Kanha Earth Lodge
The dining table (Courtesy: http://www.kanhaearthlodge.com)

Lunch is served in a vast dining room, where if you’re seated at the head of the table, you can imagine that you’re presiding over the royal meal to follow. The chefs will ply you with endless tureens of steaming hot delicacies and you dare not offend them by giving the cold shoulder to any. This might make it difficult for you to stay awake during the afternoon safari but a tiger or two along the way should help your case. When you return with your camera loaded with photographs of wild boar, crested hawk eagles, chital deer duelling with their antlers and a python lying exhausted with a langur in its grasp, make your way straight to the glorious infinity pool where there is nothing to separate you from the creatures of the forest. If you stay back till the stars come out, you might see them twinkling back at you from the depths of the water.

Kanha Earth Lodge
By the poolside (Courtesy: http://www.kanhaearthlodge.com)
Kanha Earth Lodge
Courtesy: http://www.kanhaearthlodge.com

On your final day here, if you’d rather spend your time with people than the elusive denizens of the forest, go for a guided village walk where you’ll see how elements of the Gond tribe’s architecture have been incorporated into the lodge as well. Don’t be surprised if the village folk ask you to take a picture and send it to them through the naturalists at the lodge. The desire to see oneself captured for posterity unites all of humankind.

Great from: Mumbai, New Delhi

Great for: An unforgettable wildlife holiday or honeymoon

Go during: June, to see the forest flushed with rain or any time from October-June (the park stays shut from July-September)

Kanha Earth Lodge
The cottages (Courtesy: http://www.kanhaearthlodge.com)

Fact sheet

Getting there

Closest metro: Nagpur (260km)

Closest city: Jabalpur (170km)

Closest airport: Jabalpur is only a four hour drive away from Kanha Earth Lodge. However, only SpiceJet operates direct flights from Mumbai (return fares from Rs 8500) and Alliance Air and Spice Jet fly directly from New Delhi (return fares from Rs 5200). For more flight and city options, head to Nagpur airport, which is a five hour drive away from the lodge.

Closest railhead: Jabalpur. From Mumbai LTT, the fastest daily train is 12141 RajendraNagar Patna SF Express (leaves LTT 11:35pm, arrives JBP 2:15pm; Rs 1290 Third AC). Take the 12142 RajendraNagar Patna SF Express (leaves JBP 11:10pm, arrives LTT 3:15pm; Rs 1290 Third AC) back to Mumbai. If leaving from Delhi, take the daily 22182 Hazarat Nizamuddin-Jabalpur SF Express (leaves NDLS 5:50pm, arrives JBP 8:20am; Rs 1220 Third AC) and return by 22181 Jabalpur-Hazrat Nizamuddin SF Express (leaves JBP 3pm, arrives NDLS 5:15am; Rs 1220 Third AC).

Getting around

The lodge will make bookings for safaris on your behalf; so please book your stay sufficiently in advance. I used and liked the pick up and drop service provided by the lodge from Nagpur airport and back.

Where to stay

Kanha Earth Lodge (www.kanhaearthlodge.com): 00-91-124-2970497, 2570404, 2571404; 00-91-08800637711, 00-91-9810253436; enquiry@pugdundeesafaris.com; Mandla, Madhya Pradesh; Rs 16000 per night for a double room with all meals and no safaris, Rs 27000 for a double room with all meals and safaris. The lodge is located in the buffer zone; a half hour drive from the main park.

What to eat

There is a fixed menu for all meals, consisting of predominantly Indian cuisine. The dishes tend to be a little heavy on the stomach but can be altered according to your taste. High tea in the outdoor dining area and barbeque dinners are worth experiencing.

What to pack

Bright colours and patterns can irritate wild animals; so make sure you pack light coloured clothing in non attention-grabbing prints for the safaris. Also carry a scarf or hat, sunscreen and a pair of sunglasses to protect yourself from the elements during the safaris. Swimming gear is a must to enjoy the infinity pool. Closed shoes are not imperative but definitely advisable during the nature trails and village walks. The lodge will provide you with a torch and blankets and raincoats in cases it gets cold or rainy.

Shopping

Pick up jungle souvenirs such as T-shirts, keychains and caps at the Kanha National Park shop. A short distance away from the park is Aranyak Art Emporium, where you can lay your hands on tribal-inspired handicrafts and other Indian souvenirs. Kanha Earth Lodge also houses a small eco shop and 25 per cent of its proceeds are donated towards conservation activities.

Clean loo guide

The loo at the national park is not very clean and the queue tends to be very long. So the bushes might be a better option unless you can wait until you reach the lodge!

Medical aid

The in-house naturalists are equipped to deal with minor mishaps. For serious emergencies, head to Government Hospital in Balhar (00-91-7636256344; main road, PO Baihar, Balaghat).

Child friendliness

Children might get a little restless unless they love the outdoors. But they can always splash around in the pool or read at the nature library.

Good to know

  • Kanha National Park is shut on Wednesday evening; so opt for a nature trail or village walk if staying at the lodge on a Wednesday.
  • Make sure you carry the same ID proof that you provided to the lodge for the safari bookings as you will have to present it while entering the gates of the park.
  • There is free WiFi in the reception area but the network connectivity in the cottages and other areas of the resort is next to non-existent.