I’d call it the hot & searing wildlife vacation because of obvious reasons; if you are a wildlife lover, you would know, summers are the best times to spot animals in their own habitat. But hot it was, and we were prepared, not only because of the season but also due to the place we visited – Nagpur & then Madhya Pradesh.
The Journey was a visit to a wildlife National Park – Pench. Pench is a comparatively smaller National Park situated in Madhya Pradesh. It is connected via Rail to the closest Railway station Nagpur. A part of the same National Park is also accessible from Maharashtra. Pench is around 90 kms from Nagpur by road into Madhya Pradesh.
Mumbai to Nagpur
Day 1: The journey from CSTM (Mumbai) to Nagpur was a train journey, & it is what I love the most. Rail experiences provide rich & enthralling memories to the journey. Our AC First Class tickets in the Mumbai – Nagpur Duronto Express did a good job of ensuring, that this was no less than Luxury travel. Before we started, Google gave us a shocker, with a warning sign “NO Pantry” being available in the train, & the local Mc Donalds saved the day. It’s weird how train journeys make you feel more hungry. We boarded from platform no 18 -the last platform on CSTM station.
Comfortable Seats, 2 of our closest friends, privacy of clean cabins & the excitement of the Jungle didn’t let me sleep a wink. After a wholesome meal of Potatoes & Theplas, Wafers, Cakes, Soft Drinks, we started chitchatting. It wasn’t long when we heard our stomach rumble again, when a train vendor asked us if we wanted to have Tomato Soup. This scrumptious soup is a favourite with us during our train journeys & none of us could resist the temptation. Infact we additionally asked for more Pepper to make it spicier.
Eating to our heart’s delight, we resumed to rest, I volunteered to take the top seat for a little extra privacy. The only thing that was missing was my WIFI connection for my mobile games to load, but I shoved off that idea, convincing myself this was the much needed break (from the wifi too).
It isn’t often that I am not blessed with sound sleep; but the next morning was much awaited, not only cos there was little rest, but also for the built up anticipation to reach the destination.
Nagpur to Pench
Day 2: Railways, On-time performance by our train. We reached as scheduled 7.25 am, Nagpur station. Our trip was planned by several people who we were coordinating with. The driver who would be driving us for Nagpur to Pench was one of them. Looking for a safari suit dressed driver, we walked outside the station. It should be around 30-32 degrees at 7.30 in the morning, guessing we were to be barbecued by afternoon; I thanked myself for carrying enough sunscreen & adequate body covering clothes. Didn’t want to come across as the Black beauty, not that I looked like a princess presently. At the station, I noticed there was a Narrow-gauge locomotive on display. Thankful that the city was a Non-Veg eating city, 3 of us heaved a sigh of relief.
Through Nagpur city, we took a halt at a local tea stall, for a heavy dose of freshness to wake us up from our slumber. We moved on, until we crossed Maharashtra to enter into Madhya Pradesh. Pench was a 2.5 hour journey, approx 88 kms from Nagpur via Seoni. We noticed every passerby had covered their face to keep themselves from the burning sun.
Our arrangements were unique; we had initially planned to book The Village Machaan Resort & confirmed Safari Booking with them along with the travel to & fro. But our travel dates changed & due to non availability of rooms we booked The Tuli Tiger Corridor Hotel, but retained the Safari Booking & Travel bookings with The Village Machaan.
We reached our destination ‘The Tuli Tiger Corridor’ & it was love at first sight. We passed Trip Advisor’s Number one Hotel – ‘Tatasthu’ which looked in ruins & very artificial. Our hotel was beautiful; the lush green & huge entrance was welcoming. At the reception desk we were greeted & offered wet towels with a kiwi fruit drink. We had opted for cottages, rather than the luxury tents, keeping the temperature & climate in mind. Rooms were spacious; the bathroom was as large as the bedroom with a separate area for the bath tub, 2 washbasins, and a detached area for bathing, separated by curtains. The cottages had a large balcony with comfortable chairs & a beautiful view of the overlooking lake. Cranes, both white & black were perched on the bank of the lake.
Our first Safari was planned in the afternoon & on coordinating, we were informed, our driver would pick us up at 2.45 pm, for an entry at 3.30. The Turia gate supposedly the number one area for sighting was what I preferred. We had reserved 2 bookings for Turia gate and our safari was planned for 3 days:
First Day – Evening Safari at Turia
Second Day – Morning Safari at Turia gate coupled with a night Safari in the Buffer Zone
Third Day – Morning Safari at the Khursapar gate
After a short rest, we were served lunch in an open lunch lounge, although there were water coolers & fans, but nothing could beat the heat at 45 degrees. Food was better than average, with a mix of traditional veg dishes, one Chicken dish & a scrumptious strawberry soufflé for dessert. While on our way to our rooms, we saw a group of Baboons come with their young ones for a drink in the Hotel swimming pool. Vigilant & possessive of their young ones, they didn’t let them out of their sight & fled as soon as they saw humans peeking around them. After the short afternoon rest, our Safari jeep was ready. We had safari reservations from the Turia gate through Tatkal service, which was at a distance of 3 kms from the Hotel. Taj Safaris was the closest to the gate. Ashish – Manager at Village Machaan met us although I didn’t realise this; I thought it was one of the Safari guys greeting us.
We entered the gate, driving into the core area. In the meanwhile, every local person we encountered was asked reviews on the sightings happening & we held our hopes high. Tatkal at Turia gate was a lucky catch for us since all online Safaris were booked & only 25 Jeeps were allowed through this gate. The driver was allocated & coordinated by Ashish & our guide was decided by the authorities at the gate. Having visited 2 other national parks – Ranthambore & Corbett, with this third visit at Pench, I had realised the quintessential importance of a good guide. Another aspect to visiting the Jungle was to soak into every aspect of the wild. Many come visiting the Jungle only to catch a glimpse of the Tiger, & are unsuccessful at realizing contentment from the journey & the experience. I have visited jungles before & had understood that knowledge & familiarity of the jungle along with the sight & sound alertness is a mandate. The guide was an arrogant fellow, of what I judged from the first meeting. Nowhere to my expectations but still decent. The jungle was a Sagun wood area with moderate vegetation & large plain fields. Roads were decently managed & there were very few spaces in the jungle that had a dense shelter kind of area due to the denseness being at the top & comparatively low at the bottom of the trees.
The Jungle drive was blistering; there was little wildlife as compared to what I have seen earlier, but as we approached the core area, we saw a herd of deer approaching the water reserve. We learnt that the water had dried up & the forest authorities worked hard to keep this water reserve fresh & full. Tourism also to a large extent depends on the water reserves in the Jungle, since the location is strategic for Tiger sightings.
Some of the birds spotting on the day were the Black Piper, Indian Roller or the Blue Jay, Neelkanth, Spotted Dove, a red jungle fowl, Kingfisher; Black-headed oriole and the most magnificent bird of all; the peacock. Infact we even stumbled upon the water reserve when one of them was calling out to mate & had spread its wings wide open to dance. We also had a chance to see jackals, sambhars, spotted deer, wild boar, Indian bison, and not to mention 2 of the elephants in the refuge area, which were kept by the jungle authorities for the Elephant safaris that were to be booked only during the morning safaris.
An interesting fact we learnt was that of the Kulu / Ghost trees. The Jungle at Pench had these trees in abundance. It was believed that on a Full Moon night if one were to look at the Jungle from a mountain top, these trees would shine in the rays of the moon. We returned from the Safari at 6.30 pm outside the gate, were greeted by the Hotel staff warmly in expectations that we would be lively only cos we saw the tiger. But in reality, we were elated from the journey & the learning. Dinner followed with beer was on our agenda, and we retired to bed early since we had a tiring day & would be having a long day tomm too.
Pench Turia Gate & Night Safari
Day 3: Our Morning Safari was early! The gates open at 5.30 am, so we were to leave at 5.00 am from the hotel. This was the fun part, morning journeys in the forest are always exciting & the probability of sighting animals increases. Our guide was Hemant for this ride. It was a practise followed in this jungle that the Guide would take the left side last corner seat of the safari jeep and every jeep was to be a privately booked one, unlike other forests where the Jeeps were shared with other tourists.
We learnt that the forest was around 700 sq kms but we as tourists were allowed only in around 400 sq kms. The Core area of the forest formed around 300 sq kms area, which itself had around 33 tigers. Only 20%25 of the Jungle was open to tourist. Hemant explained the importance of the Ghost Trees and how it would change colours from White to Pink to Green in 3 different seasons. We moved towards the Core area and before we reached the first water hole in the Jungle, Hemant asked the driver to halt suddenly. He pointed out towards a bamboo tree bush and mentioned there was a Russell Viper in it. Found often in trees of similar kind, the snake deceptively concealed itself by adapting it colour to the bamboo tree bush & moved away swiftly. At the water hole, we encountered the Hornbill, A jungle owlet, Greater racket-tailed drongo bird – said to have the ability to make 10-15 types of bird sounds. We also saw the Crested serpent eagle, perched on top of a tree looking attentively to catch its next prey. The other jeep drivers kept asking us if we managed to catch a glimpse of the mighty beast, but we were still on its trail. Then after a short while of waiting, we moved on to a different route & stumbled upon a pack of wild dogs. We learnt they always hunt in packs, were fierce & could kill a Tiger. We kept our distance, photographed & moved on. Upon moving just about half a km, our driver screamt out loud “There he is – The Tiger, it’s moving from there!” pointing to the left side of the jeep. We hastened ahead to catch a sight of his grand movement as he moved without any reticence or heed. He crossed the vehicle path ahead of us, without turning his head on the side, moved across the right side of our jeep & walked up a small hilly area in the jungle. In the meanwhile there were 3 more jeeps that had come to witness this sight & were rendered speechless. We were the first & caught the walk. My friends were ecstatic & flamboyant to the rest of the safari drivers & tourists, of what we witnessed. A moment I too believed in what they said “Our safari was accomplished now”. A tiger has an average life span going up to 15 years and the Tiger we witnessed was a male tiger approx 2 years of age.
The Jungle had a reserve area, where forest guards lived & where tourist could get down & stretch their legs or attend nature’s call. This place usually had a large banyan tree or some shelter area.
Also noticed something similar in all Jungles; there was either a tree house built somewhere like in Corbett, or a 2 storey terrace building like in Pench, where one could look at a vast expanse of forest land. Binoculars thus form an important accessory for us in the jungle. We learnt the jungle had fencing across the sides of the road tracks in some areas, so that during the rainy season, the grass is left to breed untouched. We learnt that the tigers go on to become Man-Eating Tigers, due to lack of animals in their prey area or human habitations trying to make way in their territory. The Sunderbans is a classic example of the human habitations. Full of pride and cheer, we returned to our hotel. Our next safari was planned as a night safari in the Buffer zone & was arranged at 5.30 pm. We had 7 hours to go, so we decided to indulge in a relaxing spa session after a swim.
At 5.30, our driver picked us up & proceeded towards the side of the market which we passed on our way to the hotel from Nagpur. The gate for the buffer zone was near a check point. As we entered, we met our guide for the night Safari – Irfan Khan, as he introduced himself. On my first few questions, about how the night safari experience is, Irfan started explaining the jungle as his home and these first few moments of interaction left us in positive hope as we realised that this would be a delightful wildlife learning session for us. What more did we want! We moved on into the jungle and as we approached a man made water hole, Irfan asked the driver to screech to a halt. There were a pack of Wolves – 3 to be precise, near the water. We had to be careful so as not to alarm them. We also tried to get in close proximity to the water hole but they had walked a few miles away from our jeep. The night safari was deeply intellectual, as Irfan explained that he would be booked by VVIP for this safari & there were many who just loved his company, since his learning and love for the jungle was extensive. He was also one of the team members for the Jungle conservation activities & knew the chief conservationist at Pench. We noticed a blue bull & learnt stories of how it creates its own territory with its droppings, a herd of deer, the Eurasian Thikney bird among others. We travelled to a water hole, with his torch he pointed towards a herd of deer which was fascinating & exciting as we were in an open jeep right under the moonlight in the calm of the jungle. He took us to the river bed to show us a different kind of frog, 2 water snakes. He mentioned that leopards stay on trees at night, & we kept a keen watch on that hence forth. He also mentioned that he has been to all the 27 national parks around India, knows in depth details on all wildlife, reptiles or birds, can differentiate most of the male & female butterflies too. He mentioned, Tadoba, Kanha & Bandhavgarh were the same forests, separated by states. He also mentioned that there are other activities that he carries out like village pottery classes, nature treks, teaches in schools besides the wildlife safaris that he conducts as a hobby. He was the one to make us realise that Tuli Hotels, was Yukta Mookhey’s Ex husband’s hotel & that he was one of her favourites for the safaris. While returning, he explained the Jungle rules, described the Cat Family, the Carnivores, the scavengers and the herbivores and how the entire cycle of life depended on each one of these groups. On our return I happen to mention that I have never seen a flying squirrel, except for pictures in wildlife books. He went out of the way to stop across a river bed, where he was certain he would find atleast one of them & so we did. I was thrilled at seeing a flying squirrel with the strong illuminated torch light. It was perched on a tree & every time we would flash the light it would try to hide itself, but we did manage to capture a faint memory, more so in our hearts, than in pictures.
After the greeting & thank you session we moved on to our destination for Dinner that night; Ashish at the Village Machaan had arranged for dinner & to make conversations. I was surprised that he was the one I had met on the first Safari at the Turia gate & a little embarrassed that I failed to recognise him. The hotel property was good; the Tuli was better, but decent glass cottages & the closeness to the Turia gate & the jungle periphery was an advantage for bird lovers as exotic birds could be spotted in the vicinity during sunrise.
We were dropped to our hotel & waited outside our rooms for my friends to return to their room opposite us. The next second we notice an unknown girl opens the door of the opposite room where they stayed, looks upon us in a weird way & crawls back inside the room. We are perplexed & fail to understand why the hotel would shift their rooms without any notice and if they haven’t shifted the rooms, what would she be doing in that room. As soon as my friends walked down towards the room, I go ahead & request her to come outside. Asking if there has been any miscommunication, since this room belonged to my friends. She manages a weak answer & says isn’t this room number 112 & we affirm this is room no 102. She manages a call to someone named SUJI and confirms the room number, gives a name sake apology and walks out in her pyjamas saying the room was open. We are shocked, disgusted & irritated, but my husband sees the pun side of it & tries to crack a joke on his friend. We retire to bed, realising that the Hotel authorities would not be of help, except repair the door that we were unable to lock.
Day 4: We had hoped for our safari next day to be at the Turia gate but eventually since Tatkal was also not possible, we turned up at the Khursapar gate, in the Maharashtra area of pench. On our way to the gate , we saw Bidi leaves being dried out in the open. This gate had been operational for the past 5 years now, but there have been few sightings of tigers in this area & hence our inhibition to visit the jungle through this gate. Our guide this time was an average intellectual woman. This side of the Jungle was almost a sanctuary, which was what a normal person would believe it to be something between the Core area & the Buffer zone. The Jungle was a little denser that what we saw at the Turia Gate, maybe one of the reasons why we spotted millions and millions of butterflies in this area. No sooner had we entered the Jungle, 10 min through the journey, we spotted a jeep stand & watch the jungle side intensely. On asking they had just happened to locate a Leopard & we realised we missed it by a min & half. We stood there trying to understand the call made by the peococks and baboons but couldn’t see the leopard. The water body was called Bakhari.
We returned to the hotel, packed our bags & headed to the airport, taking with us memories to last a wildful year.
The experience of sitting next to butterflies, trying to catch them in your hands, the thrill of eating breakfast in the middle of a jungle, the journey & chase to catch a glimpse of the mighty beast, learning what you would never learnt from wildlife books and the pride of being with people who have Jungle Life in their blood, all together made our 4 safaris enthralling journeys.