The jungle was calling out to me again. Only this time, I went visiting another member of the cat family instead; the leopard. This time to a rather non touristy destination in Madhya Pradesh, one of the states in India with the largest number of wild life sanctuaries. The Satpuda tiger reserve located in the western part of MP was where we were to stay for 3 days.
Mumbai to Satpuda by Howrah mail leaving Mumbai at 09.30 pm, reaching Pepariya at 10.30 am. A road journey of 1.5 hours takes you to Satpuda Tiger Reserve located in Madhai district.
Return from Satpuda to Mumbai by Pawan Express, leaving Pepariya at 11.50 am, reaching Kurla, Mumbai at 04.00 am.
Other modes of travel: Closest airport is Bhopal, around 4.5 hours by road, approx 180 kms.
Although the closest train station is Sohagpur, most trains may not give you a choice to alight there.
Stay at: Madhai Riverside Lodge
This place is owned by Mr. Dubey who was an erstwhile field director in Madhya Pradesh & was entrusted the job of a forest officer of Satpuda as well. After his retirement he had known of plans to declare this forest as a tiger reserve & so he brought this piece of land & runs a lodge with basic facilities & great experiences.
There are 3 room types although the basic rooms offer everything that a wildlife enthusiast needs for a good night sleep. Food is average with basic yet tasty veg & if you insist, they’ll cook chicken too. But every person working there displays great customer service to the best extent possible. This is the oldest lodge here in Satpuda & is just a minutes walk to the safari ticket counter.
The lodge overlooks the Denwa river and has a beautiful view from all the rooms. During & a few months after the rains, the river fills up to the brim and the water gets really close to the lodge.
Other hotels include: Forsyth Lodge, Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, MPTDC satpura and many more.
Fast trains do not give you an option to board or alight from Sohagpur, which is the closest station so we opted for Pepariya. From Pepriya we had to pass through sohagpur again by car to get to Satpuda forest. A pleasant drive through villages like tekapar, we reached our destination soon.
One of the most unusual things about this forest is that it is covered by a river on 3 sides & to reach the forest you have to take a boat. On the other side of the river, lies the forest lodge, where only forest officials & their families are allowed although if there are rooms available it is rented out to public unofficially. The Forest spreads over 1500 sq kms & is a mix of flat grasslands & hilly-rocky terrain. The rocky terrain makes it one of the most inhabitable areas for leopards. Satpuda is the largest forest in Madhya Pradesh, has a lesser tiger density and hence each tiger has a 50-60 kms range area of its own making it difficult to track them. In other forests the area that a tiger owns is around 10 kms max.
Gypsy safaris take you through the Madhai zone which is divided in different routes, but has the same entry gate. Only 13 jeeps are allowed here, covering all 5 routes.
Routes include :
-Keriya (this is the most sought after route since wildlife including bears & leopards are found in plenty. Since the animals here are accustomed to humans around, the chances of spotting increases too)
-Lagda (this is a rather longer round, although sighting animals decreases. At the end of the road on this route is a great view point on the Sombhadra river. Large rocks carved naturally from the guzzling waters of the river gave the landscape a beautiful frame)
-Jhinjhinimahal (The route passes through and is an extended version of the Keriya route. Animals here are shy & may not give you enough chances to click. This is a great place for leopard sighting though, incase you wish to explore routes beyond Keriya. The route is named after a temple carved from rocks called Jhinjhinimahal)
-Chutkidev (This route has the most hilly terrain of all the routes & has lesser known wildlife count, although you have to be lucky to spot animals in any route here. The route goes through mountains & takes you to the top to enjoy a Panaromic Birdseye view of the Denwa river & the adjoining areas. This route will only be offered in morning safaris as it is a longer route & cannot be completed within the 3.5 hours allocated for the evening safari. Due to its hilly terrain, it is famous for leopard spotting)
-Churna (To visit this route, you will need to take a day’s safari, since this includes a 45 km distance to be covered one way. You can also include a night stay while on this route at the Churna forest lodge. There are plans to open up this route as a separate zone too.)
Other than the normal gypsy safaris, the forest also offers a boat, peddle boat & canoe safaris. Elephant & walking safaris are also available to enthusiastic wildlifers.
Until yesterday, night safaris were allowed in the buffer zone of the forest called Sehra, for as long as upto 3 hours, starting at 6.30 pm until 09.00 pm. A night safari is an experience in itself & offers you a chance to spot nocturnal animals. These are private tours organised by the hotel / resort owners. Ask your hotel owner for more information on the night safari.
Bookings for Safaris:
Booking for all these safaris can be done online, by paying a fee of Rs 1550/-. An additional charge for the guide & hiring the gypsy / boat follow, taking the cost of a safari at Rs 3960/- onward for Keriya for a jeep safari. The cost for Churna is highest as it includes a full day safari. The alternate safaris are less expensive than the gypsy safari. Birding enthusiasts should definitely opt for the water safari. We had booked 4 safaris as usual, 2 afternoon, 2 morning safaris. Since Satpuda is not developed as a tourist destination, there is chaos at the ticket counter. Currently there is only one current booking allowed with just one arrogant man managing the show. When you pay for the online booking you just pay for the safari booking. The cost for the jeep and the guide needs to be paid at the safari ticket counter, after you fill in the bonafide form with signatures & show original identity cards. This is unlike other Tiger reserves and is annoyingly unorganized. We had to be earlier than our safari time since this ordeal at the counter and the boat ride in total took about half an hour to 40 minutes each time.
Our first safari was through Keriya route. We witnessed the river turn & egrets on the way as we cross the river with a boat. During summers the depth of the water is up to 50 feet & increases to almost 80-90 feet during the rains. According to last years counting the tiger population in this forest is about 40. Keria is the smallest safari round and is almost the central part of the jungle with maximum possibility of wildlife being spotted; a viscous circle, with the herbivours, lie the carnivours. As we moved on with our first safari, we came across a large Eagret in an adjacent small lake. Moving a little ahead we spotted a crested hawk eagle sitting on a branch. While we clicked, it fluttered its wings to land on the ground for water. After a few sips it flew back to the branch giving us ample time for pictures. We then ventured into the forest while crossing paths with a herd of Sambhar deer. This was a great day for us. One such encounter was with an Indian roller, who posed gracefully for our pictures. The White throated kingfisher was spotted next along with a Motalled wood owlet sitting camouflaged by the dried leaves of a tree. On our way back we also spotted a Grey hornbill (The Malabar pied hornbill is the larger one), a Wooly necked stork and an Open bill stork.
This terrain is inhabited by a variety of trees; Dhawar or excel wood, crocodile bark tree, cotton silk tree, Indian ebony, satinwood, black & white sirus, teak, spartia tree and many more.
During winters the probability of spotting a tiger in this route is far more than in any other zone. The zone is a bit further away from Keriya & has a forest house of its own for guests willing to spend the night here. Leopard sighting is better due to the hilly terrain. We learnt that bears love berries & flowers from the Mahua tree & will wander far and wide to get them for their meals. The Mahua flower has a bit of intoxication which makes the bear feel drowsy and so it usually walks longer distances at night and sleeps during the day.
On spotting a Indian Bison, our guide mentioned that hungry leopards can attack this animal but the sheer size of an Indian Bison can injure the leopard’s neck hence this seldom occurs.
The jungle fowl made an alarm call, our guide mentioned, but this could be the result of seeing a snake too and shunted it off. A little ahead in the distance we spotted a Red Spurfowl and a Jungle fowl in a gap of a few minutes. We moved on deeper in the jungle. Our driver screeched the jeep to a halt, as he saw something move swiftly across the dry brown grass. So swift that I had to strain my eyes to catch its glimpse. It was a female Leopard. Very few people prefer to visit this part of the jungle, hence few vehicles, few jeep safaris, making the animals not used to human sounds & sights. Hence the leopard disappeared quickly, out of a scare. The zone is named after a stone temple called Jhinjhinimahal which is part of the safari. We spotted some very interesting birds including the Asian paradise flycatcher, the Shikra, Oriental magpie robin – which is also called as the singing bird, laser golden backed woodpecker and the yellow crown head kingfisher.
Satpuda is known for spotting Leopards and Sloth Bears and we were still to spot a sloth bear. And so we did. A little ahead in the distance, we spotted a large black spot in the brown grass and immediately recognized it was a bear walking towards the jungle. We believed it would cross our paths, if we try driving from the parallel road, but alas it had found some interesting things to munch on its way and may have stopped. While returning from the safari, we spotted an Indian Hare, hidden in the grass. The Hare is nocturnal and we were lucky to have spotted one.
My idea of a safari is very different. When I travel, I believe that we should try out different zones in the same jungle so as to understand the topography of each area and not restrict ourselves to the areas most tourist friendly. In line with this, our third safari was planned at Lagda, once again a very infrequently visited zone.
Since only 13 jeeps are allowed for safaris, the guides here, coordinate with each other in the jungle to understand if there has been any spotting in a particular location. This is largely due to the fact that there is network in the jungle as opposed to other larger forests. Our guide was quick to answer one call, he mentioned there has been a tiger spotted, but by the time we could make our way to the location, the tiger had already started walking in another zone deeper in the forest. We missed our chance. This area is known for its view point, which lies at the end of the road. At the Sombhadra river view point tourists were earlier allowed to be served breakfast but has now been stopped as there have been a few animals spotted in this region. One can view large rocks on the banks of the river, eroded by the force of the mighty river. It was a peaceful place. We spotted a white browed wagtail and an oriental darter too.
On the last day, we had little time for the safari, hence we opted for a shorter safari and closest to the exit. Keria it was. This time we saw a Brahminy starling. Happy, yet looking excited to catch a glimpse of the leopard, we moved further into the jungle. As we raced over a slope on a hilly terrain, i was loud enough to yell “There he is”. A large male leopard was sitting gracefully over a rock looking at our movements. It yawned giving us about 2 minutes of portrait photography time, before receding in the interiors of his territory. But we were lucky as we had realized he was with a female. The leopard was in mating. Although far away, we could spot both male & female through our binoculars. Happily we returned to base as we had an early train to catch to go back home.
Jhinjhinimahal area & Chutkideo are areas within the jungle which have been opened to tourists a year back and hence does not attract many visitors. There have been instances in the past where private vehicles were also allowed in the jungle, but the practice has now been stopped.
Places to visit nearby: A hill station – Panchmani, not known to many as a developed tourist location, it is a great breather for tourist looking at moving away from the arid & dry location of Satpuda. It is around 80 kms from Sohagpur.