A barking deer grazed its way leisurely through the vegetation, pausing periodically to listen for lurking danger. Its body, much smaller than a spotted deer, navigated low branches with ease, and its glossy skin shone in the afternoon light. Its reflection followed in the still water of the Banjar River.
Not an uncommon sight in the jungle while on safari, but a tad unusual while lounging on your bed, with a fresh pot of tea waiting at the side table. Watching the deer move on to other pastures and with the electronically heated mattress switched on as the temperature rapidly drops with approaching dusk, it becomes clear that Banjaar Tola by Taj Safaris at Kanha National Park is persistent in its endeavour to spoil you.
The electronically heated mattress and the gorgeous views just might keep you in bed. Photo: Sejal Mehta
Banjaar Tola makes the most of the natural light. Photo: Sejal Mehta
Nestled in the Maikal range of the Satpura Hills in Madhya Pradesh, Kanha National Park stretches over 1,945 sq. km (of which 300 sq. km is open to tourism). When you drive through Kanha, you feel its vastness in a way you don’t in many other parks. Maybe it has to do with the legendary Kanha meadows, rich open grassland that go as far as the eye can see. Kanha is one of India’s most beautiful national parks, all stunning meadows, clustered sal trees and the fragrant mahua. Though its popularity is linked to being inspiration for Kipling’s Jungle Book, the truth is that Pench National Park played a far greater role in that than Kanha did. However, the lodges in Kanha still hold that claim to fame close, with Bagheera, Mowgli and, of course, Sher Khan featuring prominently in their names.
Banjaar Tola decided to go local with its name – “tola” means settlement in the local language and the river Banjar runs right through the middle of the property, halving the cottage placements – nine on one side, nine on the other. The split also made it easier to have the cottages spaced apart, for more privacy enabling quiet lunches on the balcony right on the riverside, watching the wilderness on the opposite bank. The staff treats you to dinners under the stars and bonfires filled with stories of the forests. The architecture is mostly wood, with minimal use of cement. Following the local aesthetic, Gond art adorns the walls and the décor, a mix of the traditional and contemporary with tribal metal sculptures in the rooms. Two communities live in the area: the Gond and the Biga tribes. Though you can see many Gond communities near other parks in MP, the Biga – one of the oldest communities to have settled in this region – is seen only here.
The stunning Kanha meadows. Photo: Sejal Mehta
Riverside dining on the Banjar. Photo: Sejal Mehta
It might be the allure and the aura of Kanha that makes survival and sustainability easier. Kanha is home to the endangered and endemic barasingha, the beautiful 12-tined antlered deer. Once on the brink of extinction at a dangerous 66 individuals, conservation efforts in Kanha helped it grow to a now-flourishing population of 450 individuals found only in this national park. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot dholes, sloth bears, leopards and, if it so wishes, the tiger. Keep your eye trained not just to the forest floor but to the skies, for the racquet-tailed drongo, the jungle owlet, eagles, and vultures.
A sambar takes a drink. Photo: Sejal Mehta
The sal tree is popularly known as the ghost tree for its pale colour. Photo: Sejal Mehta
The park itself is divided into four tourism zones: Mukki, Kanha, Sarahi and Kisli. Access to these zones is through three gates – Mukki, Khatiya Kisli and Sarahi. Banjaar Tola is just 10-15 minutes away from the Mukki entrance of the park. This can actually be a wonderful thing. On an evening without a safari, let the naturalists take you for a walk along the river. Animals like the spotted deer, sambar, wild boar, and possibly the big cats, come right to the river when the stars come out. Follow the tracks, sit by the water, soak your feet and let the wildlife treat you to an evening you’ll never forget. And here’s the best bit: Your phone doesn’t work. That’s a sure sign that you’re in tiger country.
Parks in Madhya Pradesh work half-day on Wednesday, so there are no evening safaris.
Book in advance. Your hotel will make your park bookings for you, but tell them how many safaris you want at the time of booking. The park authorities do not allow last-minute entrants. Now would be a good time to book for the busy summer.
Summer is the best time to see wildlife, especially tigers. The weather is scorching, drawing the animals to waterholes. Temperatures can rise to 45 degrees Celsius, so if that’s too hot for you, travel at the end of February and beginning of March.
We stayed with the Taj Safaris on invitation. You can check seasonal rates here.
is an editor, writer, and the former Web Editor of Nat GeoTraveller India. An old travel hack with a bias towards big cats, Sejal has also worked for Lonely Planet and Saevus Wildlife. She tweets as @Snaggletooth_00.
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