The forest looks different on every drive. The sun is high in the sky and the trees are bright green. After a quiet start, the forest seems to be coming alive again. Suddenly, the air is filled with langur cries. We sit up in our jeep and listen hard. Then, just as suddenly as they’d started, the yelps fade away. That means, unfortunately, that there aren’t any tigers in the vicinity. Sajith Ponnappa, our guide and naturalist, isn’t unduly perturbed. “Every day that I see or hear something new—whether it’s a leaf or a bird or an insect, I am happy,” he says. But I’m not. Our desire to set eyes on the king of the jungle had dragged us out of bed at the crack of dawn, and back again after lunch.
As we’re still dealing with the disappointment of the tiger that wasn’t, the naturalist in the jeep in front of us beckons. There’s a leopard lying between two boulders. The foliage is dense, the camouflage almost perfect. The leopard’s spots blend with sunlight-dappled leaves. We stare at the leopard and it looks back at us. After a while, it stretches and yawns. It’s our second day in Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh and we’ve been privileged to partake of the first leopard sighting of the season. We later learn that leopards are more elusive than tigers.
There are ten of us on this trip: my husband and kids, parents, and my brother’s family. As chief vacation planner for this gang, my task is always Herculean. Pleasing so many people across three generations is tough. This time, though, I have seized unilateral power, ignoring requests for soft beaches, exotic food, snow peaks, and, most definitely, shopping malls. It’s going to be a wildlife holiday in India and Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh wins for its easy access from Mumbai. All of us, from my seven-year-old niece to my 70-year-old father, are booked into Taj’s luxury lodge, which should provide some comfort, in case the jungle fails to impress them.
It doesn’t start out well. On the journey to the park from Nagpur airport, horns blare, brakes screech and everyone is tossed around as the packed car muddles along the bumpy road to Pench. Three rattled hours later, we arrive at our destination in the southern reaches of the Satpura Hills.
Here, we have to sync our body clocks with nature. We need to be in bed early enough to wake up at 4.30 each morning, before the sun, to make the most of our day in the jungle. It’s cold and dark when I wake up on the first morning. I resign myself to the futility of trying to wake up the teenagers before sunrise. Maybe they can just do the afternoon safaris, I think. Half an hour later, I watch amazed as Ayesha and Amaya, my teenaged girls, leap out of the warmth of their beds with neither moan nor whine. Within two days, all of us have slipped into a rhythm that feels natural. Bundled up in warm clothes, fortified with home-baked cookies, hot chocolate and strong coffee, we head to our open-air safari jeeps. Our naturalist reminds us to leave behind all electronic equipment at the lodge. The rules of the jungle safari are clear: cell phones and iPods are strictly not allowed in the national park. The girls roll their eyes, irked at the thought of being wrenched from their beloved cell phones but I’m thrilled at the idea of having the undivided attention of my children for several hours.
My trepidation melts into relief when I look back and see the girls excitedly pointing at a cobweb backlit by the sun, dewdrops strung on it like diamonds on a necklace. Amaya takes a photo and delighted by her new found skill, starts taking photographs of everything she can: monkeys mid-air between trees, birds in flight, a deer looking at us soulfully. In a short while, both the girls devise their own game of photographing each other and the forest. Giggles interrupt the clicking camera. Emboldened by their enthusiasm, I ask a dangerous question: “Not missing your cell phones?” I am thrilled by Ayesha’s reply: “Actually, it’s a relief. We have a really good excuse for not being constantly in touch.”
By the second day in the park, my ears tune in to the different frequencies of jungle sounds, all beginning to feel like an extraordinary symphony: langurs informing their troop that they are well, the distinctive sounds of a thousand different birds and insects, the warning calls of a deer letting its herd know a predator is on the move. Our naturalist points out all of this while driving with one hand, and looking backwards and talking. As the kids ask eager questions, he explains that it was the invention of the flintlock rifle that rang the death knell for tigers in India as Indian princes, British army officers and civil servants took to the jungle with their new toys. The disastrous result was the reduction in the population of Bengal tigers in India which has plummeted from 40,000 before independence to about 1,700 today.
We move along the jungle and I smell the dampness of the earth at daybreak. Occasionally an evanescent fragrance of an unseen flower wafts under my nose. Before I can say anything, the jeep moves and the smell disappears forever. I want to bottle that fragrance but the only way to capture it is by experiencing it deeply right then.
In the silence scattered among all the information we are receiving, I hear the morning dew dropping from the trees onto the lush undergrowth. The girls seem unusually quiet. They are busy craning their necks and looking at a jungle owlet that is meditating in the hollow of a tree. I discover that silence too has a sound.
The chilly wind blows in our hair, bites our cheeks and makes our eyes water. I struggle with the rough wool blanket on my knees. I look behind, expecting a whine, but the girls are absolutely fine. For the first time in years, I begin to understand what it means to feel fully alive.
I can taste the jungle in my mouth as the morning wears on and the dew dries up, no longer keeping the dust on the ground. At 9 a.m. we start our return drive, towards breakfast in an open grassland called Alikatta. The rest of the family also arrives in their jeep. A feast is conjured up on the bonnet of the jeep: fig and date bars, orange muffins, sandwiches, freshly-brewed tea and coffee. The kids excitedly discuss the animal sightings of the morning with their cousins; we saw a female nilgai, they did not. They saw a jackal, we did not. We all saw birds: the Malabar pied hornbill with its massive beak, the Indian roller with its turquoise flashing wings and the majestic crested serpent eagle. We all saw herds of spotted deer and troops of grey langurs and rhesus macaques. But, the tiger remains mysterious. “It’s only the first game drive,” we console ourselves. For the rest of the morning drive, we see more of the same animals. As they fade into the background, we notice the dense jungles, open grasslands, watering holes and seasonal nullahs fed by rainwater. Because the monsoons ended late, the jungles continue to be luxuriant in October, says Ponnappa. This isn’t the best time to view wildlife. “The warm months of April and May when the jungles are dry and tigers come to watering holes to quench their thirst, is when tiger viewing is at its peak,” he explains. We hear snippets of information about animal behaviour, feeding and mating patterns of the predators, symbiotic relationships between deer and monkey. We try to identify the warning calls of the langur, the spotted deer, and the sambar. We see tiger tracks and smell the cloying odour of a decaying kill. It is an experiential lesson in botany and zoology. Ayesha and Amaya make the magical correlation between their textbooks and the jungle. I think I can hear the synaptic connections in their brains and see the flow of information from their short-term memories to their now-fertile long-term memories. They make eye contact with us. They ask questions, want to hear the answers, and are living in the moment. So are we.
Evenings at the lodge are filled with bonhomie. Ayesha calls the long hours we spend with the rest of the family a “hugely extended, but peaceful version of our Sunday lunch.” Guests meet in the lounge before dinner, have a drink and discuss their day. Naturalists mingle and answer questions and share their tales. They are passionate about their work, which makes our wildlife experience magical. The staff organise dinner each night with great fanfare in different parts of the 13-acre property: under a massive Mahua tree, by the poolside, on a machan by the stream. Most of the staff come from nearby villages and have been the beneficiaries of sustainable and responsible tourism policies.
Each new day at Pench blends into the previous one. We are in the forest, drive after drive, for five hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, seeing more of the animals we’ve already seen. Eventually, our eyes glaze over the ubiquitous spotted deer and monkeys, but slowly, the forest begins to speak to us. I begin to notice the small stuff. There are iconic boulders that dot the landscape and I analyse how I might sketch them. The girls are chatting with our naturalist about different kinds of rocks and how they are formed. “I had no idea that my Environmental Management class on geologic formations would ever have any use!” marvels Amaya. My parents are amazed that an Indian forest can be so immaculate. “The jungle paths are smoother than the national highway we arrived on!” says my Dad.
We settle into a nice pace—and my impossibly high expectations and anxieties about spotting a tiger are replaced by simple enjoyment of the jungle. On our game drives, we meet other travellers who have seen tigers. We seem to miss the sighting by a few metres or a few minutes. After several tense moments, the girls sit back. Our naturalist senses our disappointment and says, “The tiger shows himself when he is ready.” Strangely, my mind is not on the tiger any more. The forest has the power to make me feel small, but not in a bad way—I feel like I am part of the whole. I am awestruck and feel like I have new eyes for the perfection of nature. I come to the realisation that the earth is flawless and an interconnected and interdependent system—that I am part of. I feel like I have arrived at a moment in my life where I am not sure if I am in the jungle or the jungle is in me.
My head is in a spin as we return to the lodge. We are leaving the next day for Mumbai, but there is time for one last game drive in the morning. I say we should take a break and sleep in, but the girls are adamant that they are going back to the park, even without the adults. I cannot believe they really want that one more drive—our sixth one—at the crack of dawn. I decide to go with them while my husband sleeps in.
We feel like old hands now and drive along in complete silence. We hear the distressed calls of a sambar. We already know that the sambar is the biggest member of the deer family and that its repetitive calling is a sure sign that a predator is near. Our naturalist reverses the jeep and takes a small detour down another route. He drives a few metres and turns off the engine. “What, what?” the girls want to know. He points and puts his finger to his lips. We see her. A great, big tigress ambling towards us. She is bigger than any of us ever imagined. But that’s not all. We see a cub following her. No, four! We can hardly contain ourselves. There are five cubs of different ages. It’s a streak of tigers. We are not sure how to be excited quietly. The tigress and her cubs walk off the path into the undergrowth. We drive around to the other side of the road and are brilliantly lucky to see them again. We watch till they decide to move back into the forest. It is the day of Diwali, and I cannot remember a brighter and better-lit celebration.
We drive back to the lodge in silence. We have to figure out how to break the news of sighting six tigers to the rest of the family, who have seen none on their route. Ayesha and Amaya show great restraint and sensitivity, deciding to tell their young cousins we spotted only the tail of one tiger. The other kids are upset anyway; we promise to come back on safari and find more tigers on the next holiday.
Soon it’s time for our hellish trip back to Nagpur. I’m not looking forward to it. The ten of us have spent many happy hours together in the past four days and the bond is hard to break. “We have to do this more often–it really was great fun!” says Ayesha. The jungles of Pench have mesmerized me and I just do not want to leave. Neither does the rest of the family. It must be the first time everyone feels the same way about a vacation.
Back home, I come across Yossi Ghinsberg’s book Laws of the Jungle. It relates many big truths that I encountered in Pench. Ghinsberg’s First Law of the Jungle is, “If you want to be human, be a beast first.” I think he means that humans need to connect with their authentic selves so that they can live fully. I feel compelled to go back. I want to learn more from the jungle. I plan a trip on my own, exactly a month after we return. For a woman travelling alone, the Baghvan lodge is perfect. This time I write, I draw, I paint and dream. Not only am I in the jungle, the jungle is and has become a part of me.
Pench National Park, recently renamed Indira Priyadarshini National Park lies at the base of the Satpura Hills in southern Madhya Pradesh. Some parts of the reserve are in Maharashtra. Nagpur city is 90 km to the south.
Air Nagpur airport is 100 km away from Pench. Direct flights are available from Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi and Kolkata.
Rail Nagpur Junction is the nearest railhead, around 92 km away. Hotel pickups can be arranged for upwards of ₹2,000.
Road Pench is approximately 1,150 km from Delhi and 950 km from Mumbai. Road quality varies widely through the year. Road trip recommended only to enthusiastic drivers.
Winter (Oct-Feb) offers the best experience at Pench in terms of weather. Days are pleasant, although evenings and early mornings are cold. Summers (Mar-June) are swelteringly hot, but the probability of spotting tigers is higher than the rest of the year. This is also the chital rutting season, when stags shed their antlers to grow new ones.
Pench National Park is closed during the monsoon (Jul-Sep). Also closed on Wednesdays, Republic Day and Holi.
Pench Jungle Camp organises hot air balloon rides to spot tigers from the sky (₹2,500 per head; only in Jan and Feb; enquire and book in advance). They also rent bicycles and quad bikes. Explore the periphery of the park by renting a car or following trails on foot. Visit the nearby Pachdhar pottery village, or spend a quiet evening at Kohka Lake. Pench Jungle Camp and Mahua Vann offer spa facilities. Many resorts have libraries and swimming pools and/or indoor recreation centres with badminton, carrom, table tennis and billiards. Note that most activities organised by hotels are exclusive to guests.
The beloved character of the jungle boy Mowgli, originated in Pench National Park, although his creator Rudyard Kipling never actually visited the park himself. It is believed that a 19th century British official wrote in a journal sent to the Queen, about a “wolf-boy” he found in the jungle. Kipling read this journal, which inspired him to write The Jungle Book.
Besides the safaris, most hotels have play areas and activities to keep kids busy. Most lodges have no extra charge for children below six. Enquire in advance before planning a trip.
Baaz Jungle Resort offers air conditioned rooms with basic necessities (0712-2544335; www.baazjungleresort.com; doubles from ₹4,500; includes all meals; safari ₹3,800 per vehicle).
Kipling’s Court is an MPTDC resort with a great location and simple rooms (07695-232830/50; www.mptourism.com; doubles from ₹3990; includes all meals; safari ₹4,000 per vehicle).
Pench Jungle Camp has rooms with modern amenities and a spa (07695-232817; www.wildlife-camp-india.com; doubles from ₹8,000; includes meals; safari ₹4,500 per vehicle; children under six free).
Mahua Vann provides guests with cottages that have large gazebos and open-air showers to bathe in the rain (07695290451; www.mahuaresorts.com; doubles ₹16,000, includes meals and two daily safaris; children under five free).
Baghvan, the luxury jungle lodge has bungalows with five star amenities (07695-232829; www.tajsafaris.com; doubles from ₹27,800; includes all meals and two daily safaris; elephant safaris sometimes available).
Tuli Tiger Corridor – Pench, offers luxurious tents. A flowing river on the property draws wild animals into plain sight (0712-6653666; www.tulihotels.com; doubles from ₹10,000; includes all meals; safari ₹4,500 per vehicle).
*Safaris are anywhere between three to five hours long.
Appeared in the August 2012 issue as “Jungle Fever”.
Mamta Dalal Mangaldas
lives in Mumbai. She is the author of children’s book "The Kidnapping of Amir Hazma" (Harper Collins India, 2007).
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