Tag Archives: Wildlife

Encounters with the birds and the beasts of the wild

A walk in the wild at Chitwan National Park

(By Ankita)

It was during a wildlife sojourn in Pench, Madhya Pradesh that I first heard about a walking safari. Over a mesmerising bush dinner in the jungle, the naturalist Chinmay regaled us with tales of a German couple who quickly climbed a tree when they realised a tiger was nearby, and his own back injuries due to a surprise rhino attack in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. It was these accounts that played on my mind, as I embarked on my first walking safari in the very same park, courtesy the staff of Barahi Jungle Lodge.

Early morning boat ride across the Rapti River
Early morning boat ride across the Rapti River

We convened for some aromatic French press coffee and cookies at 8:30 AM. Even at that hour, the lodge was shrouded in thick fog, the cool temperature making us glad for the protection of our jackets. A quarter of an hour later, we were at the banks of the Rapti River, ready to cross over to the forest and begin our adventure. As we pulled away from the lodge, we saw what looked like dried logs lying on the slope leading to the river. But on closer inspection, they revealed themselves to be ghariyals, a crocodilian reptile known for its long, pointed snout.

A ghariyal
A ghariyal

The late winter fog hung over the river, turning the other boats into shadowy silhouettes and the way ahead into curtains of veiled mystery. But the boatman and the naturalist Saket – they didn’t fail to see a grey shape in the distance that spelt both danger and excitement. I grabbed the binocular beside me and feasted on the beautiful sight of a grown rhino sipping water from the river.

A rhino at Rapti River, Nepal

The only problem was that it was right on our path to the forest and there was no way to go around it, without risking a charge. We drew closer and closer, hoping against hope that the rhino would note our presence and move out of the way. I watched through my camera lenses as the rhino turned to look at us. There seemed to be a few moments of indecision and then the great horned creature went splashing through the water to safety, sending a million droplets of water into the foggy air. The whole surreal episode left us with renewed excitement for our upcoming tryst with the forest.

We climbed up an incline to plunge straight into the ‘rivering forest’, the part of Chitwan National Park bordering the Rapti River. The sheer thrill of walking through the wild coursed through me as dried leaves crunched beneath our feet, the trees formed a web of greenery whenever I looked up, and secret calls pierced the air intermittently. This was how our ancestors lived, I mused; wandering through forests and settling down for a meal of scavenged food in a natural clearing.

Wild flowers
Wild flowers

One cannot hope to spot too many birds on a walking safari, as the vantage point is not ideal for getting a view of them through the thick foliage. But we could certainly hear them. The ground was strewn with red cotton silk flowers, hill glory bower, poisonous giant milkweed and bright orange flame of the forest. Every now and then, we’d almost walk into a spider web, but for Saket, who’d stop and point out the little creator in the centre of the web. Spotting butterflies was a much more fruitful exercise and we pursued a fair few, including the cabbage white and the great Mormon. When you’re on a jeep or elephant safari, you barely look at the ground but on a walking safari, you are free to peer at rhino apples, called such because they are highly favoured by rhinos (but not fit for human consumption!) and little red sindure berries, which give off a colour akin to the ‘sindoor’ that married Hindu women smear on their foreheads. There are over 600 Indian rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park, so it came as no surprise that most of the ground was covered with mounds of their excreta! Incidentally, rhino excreta is supposed to have medicinal benefits for ailments such as cough and cold.

A clearing in the forest
A clearing in the forest

Presently, we reached a 360 degree clearing that allowed us an excellent 360 degree view of the forest. It was the perfect spot to assuage our rumbling tummies. Saket and the local guide busied themselves with unpacking the breakfast while we rested our walking sticks against an enormous fig tree and found a nice big log to sit on. Chitwan National Park is full of fig trees whose trunks are as massive as walls, and tall clusters of sal trees in patches. Interestingly, stranger figs are parasites, often wrapping themselves around the host tree until it is dead.

We enjoyed a charming breakfast of sandwiches, muffins and fruits, curated by Barahi Jungle Lodge, in the midst of the forest, possibly watched by creatures safely camouflaged by the vegetation. When we’d finished and packed up, careful not to leave behind any signs of our presence, the fog had cleared almost completely. It was mid-morning by now and we were halfway through our safari. And that was when we had the most exciting experience of the day – an encounter with a mother-daughter rhino duo! Our guide and naturalist spotted them in the distance, just in time to avoid a potentially unsafe confrontation. “Hide, hide!” they whispered, as we contemplated how we’d been sharing the clearing with the rhinos all this while without knowing it!

Watching the rhinos from our hiding spot
Watching the rhinos from our hiding spot

We stood among the trees, well out of the way of the rhinos. “They’ve smelt us for sure,” Saket said, as the creatures looked around curiously before resuming their grass munching. It was a while before they started moving and we watched in silent excitement as they walked by slowly, quite oblivious to the effect they were having on us. While rhinos look peaceful enough, they can weigh up to three tons run at 40 km per hour and cause significant injuries with their horns. So it was a good thing our friends that day were more intent on finding breakfast than chasing us way!

The eerie Nandbauzu Lake
The eerie Nandbauzu Lake

It’s not just the prospect of bumping into predators and being watched by strange pairs of eyes that make a walking safari at Chitwan National Park deliciously spooky. It’s also the presence of places like the Nandbauzu Lake, marked as the location of the suicides of two sisters in law. ‘Nandbauzu’ means sister in law in Nepali. The mossy, tree-framed lake looks peaceful and welcoming but chills are bound to run down your spine when you hear tales of the tragic deaths that occurred here and the subsequent haunting. One other story Saket told us was of the ferocious Kanchirua, a killer rhino responsible for the demise of at least ten people. He was such a terror that the forest department tried to relocate him. But Kanchirua returned, and lived to the ripe old age of 43. We were thus suitably awed when after some scouting and retracing of steps, we came upon the site of his remains. I had never seen a rhino’s skeleton so closely before, and nothing will erase the sight of the late Kanchirua’s magnificent skull and bones.

The remains of Kanchirua
The remains of Kanchirua

There are several military outposts in Chitwan National Park and we had to be ready with our permits whenever a group of patrolling officers accosted us. Poaching used to be a menace but the numbers have come down significantly thanks to their vigilance. We also waved at other guests occasionally. But by and large, it felt like we were all alone in the dark, whispering forest. Once or twice, we fell off the designated route in pursuit of a bird or animal but finding shortcuts and alternate routes was equally exciting. On our way back to the lodge, we glimpsed a herd of deer through the foliage. Our guides could hear their calls though I couldn’t. Thus ended my first walking safari. If you have more time and stamina, Barahi Jungle Lodge will arrange a day-long safari that takes you through the village as well, where you could enjoy a local meal. We however, thanked the forest for protecting us and returned to the lodge for a sumptuous lunch, followed by bathing in the river with Sundarkali, a grand old elephant.

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Barahi Jungle Lodge: Primeval Nepal

In another country
But one that feels like home
From the blankets of green to the drongo’s trajectory
Everything echoes of the forests I used to roam.

We move through life craving new experiences, but all the time unconsciously, seeking something that resonates with that which we already know and love. When I first encountered the forest, it wasn’t like anything I’d ever known. I’d been born and brought up in one of the world’s largest, richest and most populous cities after all. Yet, I knew I was home. The trees, the birds and the wilderness struck a primeval chord deep within my soul. That was when I realised that cities aren’t the natural habitat of humans either, a fact we are often lost to. And that’s why the mind quietens, the soul sings and the body rejoices in the scent of the wild when one is in the jungle. We’ve all left fragments of our selves with the trees but lucky for us, they are loyal gatekeepers.

I exited an airplane and found myself in Kathmandu airport, along with numerous other Indians, Nepalis and the odd white-skinned traveller. Catching a domestic flight to Bharatpur was like a mini-adventure. These are small and chaotic airports and while some staff speak a smattering of Hindi, you can’t really count on it. But the flight itself was twenty minutes of stunning mountain vistas and the best view of the Everest I could ever have hoped for. We flew higher than any bird and we towered over the highest creations known to man. I felt blessed to be in Nepal and even more blessed to be venturing into the Terai, the subtropical region known for its rich biodiversity.

A lilting breeze
Nudges the wooden chime into motion
The sweet cries of Tharu children
Enhance the rustic notion.

The first thing I look at when I enter any room, is the verandah. It is my own private window to the world, a limbo of sorts, where I’m home and still flirting with the outdoors. The verandah of my cottage at Barahi Jungle Lodge came with a pretty wooden chime that tinkled in the morning breeze and sent me rushing for pen and paper. I saw a jackal peek from between the bushes on one occasion and a bunch of local children enjoying boisterous games on another. Beyond the woods lay the Rapti River which is arguably the best part of the lodge. The ethereal boat rides in the morning fog and the dazzling sunsets unfolding over its shallow water will not be easily forgotten.

I enjoyed wonderful French press style coffee in my room, thanks to the fragrant powder and plunger the lodge provided. Funny little frogs sat in sockets carved into the wall behind my bed, staying guard while I slept. The colours of the decor were borrowed from the earth and the elegant simplicity of the cottage gave me restful sleep and much poetic inspiration. The day we arrived, we caught a last glimpse of the luxurious pool before Meghauli found itself in the grip of darkness. But darkness was good, because it meant we’d get to sit by a bonfire and watch a series of beautiful Tharu dances, compered by the multi-talented in-house naturalist Saket Shrouti. They weren’t professional dancers – mainly members of the staff but their joyous faces and the stories interwoven into the performances were such a pleasure to witness. In the end, we broke into dance ourselves, while the women crooned softly into the night in lieu of recorded music.

Tharu dance at Barahi Jungle Lodge

A jackal peeks from between the bushes
While Chitwan forest stands sentry
Clouds of fog float over the Rapti River
What is this if not nature’s poetry?

Truth be told, we spent less simply soaking in the beauty of the lodge than we’d have liked. But what could we do, the treasures of Chitwan National Park were hard to resist and there were so many things to do, like bathing Ranikali, the elephant who enjoyed a good scrub, going on a walking safari and hunting for the remains of legendary rhinos, watching seabirds in flight and lazing crocodiles on a boat safari, visiting the local Tharu community and being treated to a peacock dance in the middle of the forest. But there was one night when I felt the spirit of the lodge come alive, as truly as the flames of the crackling bonfire. Varun Kumar, the respected manager of the lodge and Saket put together a glorious bush dinner for me and a few other guests. We tried the local beer Gorkha, talked about the transience of life and allowed the trance music to seep into our senses. It was my second night in Nepal and I was so glad there were two more before I left the Terai.

Sunrise at the lodge
Sunrise at the lodge

One morning, we took a birding tour through the lodge and in a clearing close to the river, we found a treasure trove of winged beauties, all fluttering around the cotton silk trees with their vivid red and orange blooms. Butterflies sporting enticing colours and patterns flew restlessly, pausing only for a moment or two, while we scrambled for our cameras. On our way back to the lodge, we chanced upon the living enclosure of the in-house elephants. They were feeding on their favourite ‘sandwiches’ rolled in hay that the elephants expertly untied and shook off with their nimble trunks. Food at the lodge was a melange of Indian, Thai, Chinese and Nepali cuisines but what I loved most was the sumptuous Nepali thali with many varieties of vegetables, rice, roti, the ubiquitous saag preparation, yoghurt, Nepali tomato chutney and dessert.

The blissfulness of Barahi Jungle Lodge extends far beyond the lodge itself. The neighbouring river, the surrounding forests and their exotic denizens are as much a part of the experience. While I’ll reserve the wildlife safari tales for another day, I’ll leave you with this beautiful video of a sunset we witnessed at the confluence of the Rapti and Narayani Rivers after a mellow boat ride. The wind blew fiercely, perhaps to compete with the passion of the setting sun. I stood on the edge of the cliff, listening to the merry sound of the water flowing between the pebbles. The river was far below me, flanked by a little stretch of white sand. It was enough to create the illusion of being at sea. But where we were was even more magical – the meeting point of two beautiful rivers, both reflecting the flaming sun. Two glasses of wine later, everyone else returned to the lodge. But we remained sitting there, unwilling to leave that world of glowing saffron behind. I might have never left, but for the promise of more adventures the following day.

Practical information

Barahi Jungle Lodge
Courtesy: Barahi Jungle Lodge

Barahi Jungle Lodge at Meghauli, Nepal is a premier wildlife luxury resort owned and operated by Pugdundee Safaris. All cottages at the lodge face the Rapti River and one has to cross the river to reach Chitwan National Park, a World Heritage Site. The park is best known for its rhino population. Read my concise TripAdvisor review here. All the activities mentioned in this post were organised by the lodge. Rooms begin at Rs 16000 per night.

  • Address: Andrauli, Meghauli-1, West Chitwan, Nepal
  • Bookings: http://www.barahijunglelodge.com/contact-us.html
  • How to reach: Fly to Bharatpur airport and then it’s an hour long drive to the lodge.
  • Best for: Wildlife enthusiasts and couples and families looking to relax in the lap of nature. A minimum of two nights stay is highly recommended.
  • When to go: Chitwan National Park is open throughout the year.

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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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The Terraces, Kanatal: A mountain paradise

Over a starlit bonfire in the thick of Kaudia Forest at Kanatal, Uttarakhand, a naturalist of Nepali descent regaled us with tales from his army days. Blame it on the several glasses of the good stuff but a few of my co-travellers imagined that they’d seen the fiery eyes of a leopard a few feet into the darkness. The unknown enveloped us all around, kept at bay by the leaping flames of our camp fire but only just. Who knew, perhaps the sonorous voice of our young guitarist had touched a chord in some feral hearts as well. This unearthly experience was one of many, crafted by Ravi Malhotra, the MD of a boutique spa resort called The Terraces and his team, comprising mostly of locals.

The garden at The Terraces, Kanatal
The garden at The Terraces, Kanatal

The Himalayas are a far-off place for those of us who reside in the city of dreams, Mumbai. We must undertake the long and arduous journey to New Delhi and thereon to legendary places like Mussoorie, Manali and Dharamshala. Yet when I opened my bleary eyes to the mountain-ringed view at a chai stall in Dehradun, I knew that I would travel many times that distance to be treated to this. This was my second encounter with Asia’s most majestic mountain range. The first was at Manali in March this year. Then, the landscape was draped with the last of the snow, sending chills through my gloved hands and booted feet. Now, the pine trees stood tall, braving the summer sun which still played second fiddle to the northerly winds. We were full of expectation and excitement for the days to follow, no doubt filled with breathtaking moments and memories to be treasured. Now when I transport myself back to that morning, I can almost convince myself that the trip isn’t long finished but just about to begin.

The view during the trek through the mountains at Kanatal
Stunning views assuaged our exhaustion during the trek

On our very first day in Kanatal, a picture-perfect hill-station a short drive away from Dehradun, we were driven to sweet exhaustion thanks to a gruelling trek over narrow hilly paths strewn with pine cones and slippery grass. Our destination? Vinod’s humble abode where we’d be having a healthy mountain lunch on the terrace, with the food laid over a straw bed that many of us had earmarked for a nap, later on. During our three-hour long trek that involved a decent amount of climbing and unseemly scrambling, we spotted deer and local plants like kidney beans and something resembling mustard. More than once, Vinod, a hardy local duped us by saying “We’re nearly there! Just five minutes more,” or “This is the last difficult stretch! From here on, it’s a straight route.” The icing on the cake came when we realised that his house was just a stone’s throw away from The Terraces and we had adopted this circuitous and at times precarious route just to have a taste of the mountainside. But a few bites of the scrumptious dal and vegetables that Vinod’s household had prepared, and all was forgiven.

View from The Terraces, Kanatal

Have you ever noticed that mysteries are more prone to unfold in the wee hours of morning or night, rather than the harsh light of day? I noticed it anew as we assembled in the beautiful garden at The Terraces, with dusk casting a saffron glow over the mountains behind us. A dhaba-style set-up served up hot tea, pakoras and even pani puri. Sitting around and chatting over food and beverages seemed like a great idea after the long train ride and trying trek that we’d undertaken earlier. But my attention was drawn to the pretty little lamps lighting up the lawn as the shadows of night took over.

Little orbs of light
Nestle within fluttering floral masses
A garden of nightly secrets
Whose gatekeepers are the mighty mountains. 

Countless stars in this Himalayan sky
Twinkle at us from a bygone era
And a cheery crackling bonfire
Sends sparks to meet their lofty silver cousins.

A silence broken only by the whispering wind
Drifts through the lawns and shrubbery
Wraps itself around errant leaves
And lies in wait for the morning dew.

Later in the night, when our frayed nerves had been suitably smoothened by the happy conversation and endless cups of chai served in earthen cups, we headed to the bar and discotheque for a night of unforgettable revelry. The monk, soulful Coke Studio tracks and the company of good people make for a beautiful combination when you’re holidaying in the mountains. From jugni to madari, we danced on songs that I’d loved and lived so many times in front of my computer screen at home and at work. Most of us never made it to the buffet dinner spread but those who did, vouched for its deliciousness on the morning after.

My cottage in the morning mist
My cottage in the morning mist

Mornings at Kanatal are cloaked in curtains of mist, ranging from gossamer light to heavy enough to obscure visibility completely. We were lucky enough to confront a morning that let us commune not just with the birds of the Himalayas but also the stoic peaks in the distance. Ajay Ghale, the aforementioned Nepali naturalist led the birding tour and pointed out long-tailed minivets, thrushes, magpies and Indian turtle doves that we struggled to capture in our slow lenses. They looked like darting flames of colour as their vibrant wings flew from tree to tree, only to be veiled by the foliage in the end. We walked over the shaky Burma Bridge whose stability seemed to dangerously decrease with every extra pair of feet that hopped on. Our rumbling stomachs roared with ferocity as the enticing scent of poha filled the air. Some of the staff was enjoying an early breakfast in their quarters and they generously shared a portion with us. That didn’t diminish our appetite when it came to the actual breakfast though.

The portly chef Mahatam had whipped up an array of baked and Indian delicacies for our breakfast in the restaurant, which also had the option of outdoor seating with an alluring view of the green lawns and mountains beyond. I’ve observed that mountain folk are really good at baked and western delicacies as compared to traditional Indian delights like upma, dosa and idli. This belief was reconfirmed at The Terraces where I enjoyed the cardamom tea, muffins and spinach egg the most. Once we were suitably fortified, we embarked on a long drive to Saur Cottages, a cluster of cosy pastoral apartments set in the midst of cabbage patches and farms.

A rustic scene at Saur Village
A rustic scene at Saur Village

It was to be our venue for a lavish lunch but visitors to the Terraces also have the option of staying overnight in the cottages equipped with all modern amenities. I was sorely tempted by the idea of waking up to the sun rising over those endless green fields with so little civilisation to blot the untouched landscape. But Ravi and his team had more adventurous plans for us in store.

Bonfire at Kaudia Forest, Kanatal
A staff member subdues the bonfire

That was the night we became one with Kaudia forest with guitarist and singer extraordinaire Ashish Kaur’s rendition of ‘Gulabi aankhen’ mixing with the sparks from the hearty bonfire and lending the forest air a special fragrance. We sat in a circle around the bonfire, the flames reflected in our eyes and setting the liquids in our glasses aglow. The music inspired many to loosen their heartstrings and speak of matters that had troubled them for a long time. The music inspired the rest of us to empathise and often a listening ear.

Guitarist Ashish Kaur was kind enough to dedicate a song to each of us
Guitarist Ashish Kaur was kind enough to dedicate a song to each of us

There was laughter, good food and conversations that would never happen again, at least not at a night-time bonfire in the middle of a forest frequented by only a smattering of natives. All too soon, it was time for the last song, the final drink and an unforgettable look around the velvety black wilderness. It’s strange but I feel much more civilised in the wild than in the city; everything is so much more real and unfiltered.

Birds at The Terraces, Kanatal
I was so happy to capture this fire-tailed sunbird (thanks Aditya) in motion!

When holidays begin to draw to a close, sadness usually makes an entry much sooner than it should. Not so in Kanatal. On our final morning at The Terraces, impenetrable swirls of fog had taken over the mountainside completely. But after an invigorating session of yoga and meditation, we found that the Himalayas had allowed a little beauty to seep through. A co-blogger and I managed to capture a vibrant bird (soon to be identified) in motion and the sheer joy of that accomplishment sent any untimely depression scuttling. Besides, there was lunch by the Satyun River to look forward to, before we departed for Dehradun railway station.

A picnic by Satyun River at Kanatal

Our lunch tables were set up inches away from the gurgling Satyun River, sheltered by a cliff and waterfall. The sight of the sudsy water crashing over the rocks and descending into cool green ponds sent me searching for a pen and paper.

Gurgle swish swoosh
Fingers of liquid mist
Set the rocks adrift
Race over the cliffs
To join the lazy lagoon. 

There in the innards of the forest
Conifers stand tall
And keep watch over the bubbling froth
Like nature’s broth
For all of modernity’s ills.

This constant music
And ceaseless movement
Like the turn of the world’s wheel
An eternal tireless dance.

In a stroke of nature-inspired genius, the staff had set bottles of cold drinks below the waterfall for ultimate cooling. The food tasted particularly delicious with the gushing of the water for background music and occasional sprays wetting our faces and hands. The more adventurous members of our group ventured further into the rocks and posed by a bigger waterfall beyond which the mountains towered like they did throughout Kanatal. After our meal, a friend and I took a walk along the cliff and soaked in the views of the hillside in the manner of someone about to return to the hubbub of the city. It was so silent, so peaceful and so utterly perfect.

(I visited The Terraces as a part of a bloggers/writers’ meet. To invite me on a similar trip, email Ankita@trailstainedfingers.com. To book a room and experience all this for yourself, visit http://www.theterraces.biz/)

About The Terraces, Kanatal

How to reach: Take a train from Delhi to Dehradun and then drive down to the resort. You can also drive down directly from New Delhi.

Best time to visit: Between October to March (if you can handle the cold, come when it’s snowing or plan a trip in October or March for more temperate weather)

Activities and amenities: Trekking, bird-watching, forest camps and safaris, village homestays, a spa, gym, adventure sports and yoga centre at the resort

Tariff: Rooms begin at Rs 14500 per night (on twin-sharing basis). Lower rates are available for longer stays.

(Photos courtesy: Team Trail-stained Fingers)

We’ll bring you many more gorgeous destinations and resorts!

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