It is impossible to ignore the sweet fragrance that fills the forest air. I look at kids, some diligently collecting and others possessively guarding basketful of small yellow flowers in the heat of the day. It is as if they have the trees marked. Some even use bright cloth to tell theirs apart. This is Mahua, the intoxicating bloom better known for making local liquor consumed by the tribals in the central belt of India and the dwellers most prized/sought-after forest produce.
I am driving down the marked trails in the Magdi zone of the deciduous forest of Bandhavgarh National Park (known best as home to the Royal Bengal Tiger), in the Vindhya Hills of the Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh. The forest is a cover of thick grasslands alternating with dense sal forest. The green, broken intermittently with a riot of colour spread by the flame of the forest blooms, is a rich play of flora. Divided into three zones the other two are called Tala and Bamera zones. My naturalist guide Anshuman Shah from the Samode Safari Lodge has by now trained our group of five to identify short, snorty jungle calls that possibly indicate the movement of the “king” nearby. Only it continues to elude the visitors as the day ends.
CALL OF THE JUNGLE
The forests of Bandhavgarh were once known as the Shikhargarh or the private hunting grounds of the maharajas of Rewa. The ancient ruined fort, from which the park takes its name, can be seen at a distance as we come to a clean patch of land. The visitors to the fort must apply online for permission before taking the steep trek or drive up through the rugged terrain to get to the ruins. A small temple situated high on a sandstone plateau becomes their resting point as also does the “seat” built by the maharaja of Rewa that provides a spectacular view of the forest from the fort.
The national park is spread over an area of approximately 450 square km, with a core area of 105 square km. “There was a time when tourism promised 100 per cent tiger sighting,” Shah breaks my reverie. “But that is so wrong. The forest, being smaller than Kanha and Pench, definitely has better chances, but as naturalists we do not encourage the mad rush. Not good for the jungle peace,” he says. For someone who is trained in the jungles of South Africa, he understands the dependence on tourism but also knows the limitations of the area.
But then he is right and there is so much more to Bandhavgarh than just the tiger. The forest is a great place to study animal behaviour. It is home to leopards, wolves, sloth bears, wild boars, golden jackals, several varieties of deer, antelopes and monkeys besides as many as 276 different kinds of bird species and 515 flowering plant species. Shah points out the red-eyed eagle, black drongo bird and different species of kingfishers as we drive along. Another short bark of the deer close by indicates the possible presence of his majesty. We are close to a water body. Shah switches off the engine and we wait with bated breath. Is this going to be a sighting? Hope hangs heavy in the air.
FALSE ALARM AND YET…
A black ball of fur moves behind the rock on the other side of the water body. We train our cameras and telescopes to that point. It’s the sloth bear. It seems to have registered our presence but is too thirsty to be bothered. It walks down a few steps, drinks some more water and then retreats behind dense bushes before disappearing.
“Of all the animals, sloth bear is the most unpredictable in this jungle. While the tiger would acknowledge man as no threat, sloth bear eyes anything on two legs with suspicion. As animal behaviour goes, a bear stands up on its hind legs when it feels threatened. And so anything on two legs is a possible threat,” Shah educates us.
A peacock calls from somewhere in the jungle. Well, this is a bird you’d find in plenty here besides the deer and monkeys. We wait some more for the tiger to turn up and in turn are treated to deer herding by the banks. The sun’s coming down and we must head to the gates before the closing time. A movement along the route catches our attention. Three little jackal cubs run out of their den to greet the father who seems to have returned with food. He vomits out the treat for the young ones who are gladly wagging their tales. It’s a beautiful (and rare, as Shah points out) sight. It’s been a good day.
The Lodge is as deceptive as the forest — very unassuming as you drive in. Rows of lanterns hanging on thick log rows make for an interesting installation at the entrance. It is actually a series of some 12 villas built along the lines of African log huts — only the décor, feel about and hospitality are very Indian.
Open dining spaces on a machaan-like structure or deck make you feel one with the nature. Gond art murals and bronze artifacts reflect the rural-urban integration in each of the villas. “We took inspiration from the neighbouring villages of Maradari and Gohori while finalising the architectural language of the property,” shares Yadavendra Singh, owner of Samode Hotels. Use of wood, local hand-moulded bricks, solar energy panels and rainwater harvesting systems make for an eco-friendly model that this new entrant to the Relais and Chateaux fold follows to ensure minimum impact on the environment.
The magic does not end there. They have a surprise for their guests every night. My dinner is slotted at The Lal Chowk, done up in shades of red that make for the background highlighted by candles and lanterns that burn through the night. Politics is the hot topic of conversation as I enjoy the south Indian menu with some new-found British friends. Later, as I walk to my room in the night, I can hear strains of local music from the village nearby, apparently from a wedding party. Laughter breaks into the sound, peppered with Mahua. The jungle is heady and the lodge beautiful — all that you need for a perfect retreat.
By air: You can fly into Khajuraho or Jabalpur, which are the closest airports. The rest of the journey is by road — five and four hours respectively. There is also an airstrip at Umaria for private charters. Umaria is 30 km from Bandhavgarh
By rail: The two closest railway stations are Umaria (30 km) and Katni (80 km)