Nestled in the southern slopes of the ancient Satpura mountain range with the Pench River cutting across the sanctuary, the Pench Tiger Reserve is an unique ecological wonder, reminiscent of some of the most primal ecosystems on earth. The tall teak trees, the thick undergrowth, the undulating terrain, plethora of wildlife, ancient tribes and, above all, with fewer tourists pouring in, Pench is not only different from the rest of the forests in central India but has managed to retain much of the wilderness that had once inspired Kipling to weave his fantastic stories on Indian forests.
A two hour drive from the busy Nagpur airport and the landscape starts to change remarkably. There are fewer habitations along the highway, mostly red tiled huts, small hamlets, empty spaces and increasingly thicker vegetation. By the time we reach our resort, we seemed to have been miraculously transported to an altogether different world. Welcome to Pench – Kipling’s own country!
After a welcome drink and check in, we settle down for a sumptuous lunch in the spacious restaurant. Post lunch, we drive through picturesque landscape for 16 kilometres and reach Pachdhar village. Inhabited by the ancient Gond tribe who has lived here on the periphery of the great forests from time immemorial, Pachdhar is also unique as a potters’ village. As we engage with these simple forest dwellers and discover the ancient wisdom of coexistence with nature, we also learn how to make clay pottery on a simple potter’s wheel. With the sun setting as we start our return journey to the resort, we are delighted with the sight of a variety of birds returning to their nests.
After an early morning breakfast, we go for our first engagement with Mowgli’s forest – on elephant back! With 2 -4 people sitting on an elephant that is managed by a trained mahut (elephant pilot), we set out to explore the mysteries of the forest. Over the years, the elephant safaris have become the best way to explore the forests without intruding on the privacy of the wildlife. The elephants, with their fearless attitude and keen sense of scent, are capable of entering into those parts of the forests that can neither be entered on foot or by jeeps.
As we buy our tickets and enter the forest from the Seoni Gate, we are slowly drawn in to an altogether different world. This is a world where nature is at its best, where time has frozen a part of earth that has not changed perhaps from the prehistoric times. Manoeuvring our way through tall grasses, impenetrable bushes and tall trees, we engage ourselves in a real dialogue with nature.
We return to the resort for lunch. As we excitedly talk to each other about our very own discoveries, we get ready for a walk along the buffer zone of the forest. We undertake a 20 kilometre drive to the Bawanthadi River, which is one of the numerous rivers that feed the forest. We get down next to a rocky outcrop along the beautiful river and go for a 5 kilometre walk along the river bed and through the forest. This time we are accompanied by an expert naturalist who explains the intricate relationships and interdependency amongst the different aspects of the forest. As our eyes and mind get trained in the art of seeing beyond the obvious, we start to see the forest not just as an opportunity to spot the big cat, but as a delicate ecosystem that sustains the very core of all existence. Incidentally, the river bed is also famous for numerous medicinal plants that have been used by the local Gond tribes as a source of cure and wellbeing.
We wake up at dawn. After some hot coffee, we embark on an early morning jeep safari through the park. The forest changes its hues of colour and moods with every passing hour. The early morning, with everything drenched in the morning dew, presents an almost feminine aspect of the forest. The forest is calm, serene and naive, ready to open its secrets only to persistent travellers. Not a great time to spot largely nocturnal tigers, this is the time to feed for other animals, including deer, nilgai, langurs, variety of birds, sambar, gaur and wild pig.
After a refreshing trip, we return to the resort for breakfast. Post breakfast we drive to Sitakassa Dam and backwaters. Located at a distance of 30 kilometres from the resort, Sitakassa Dam is a fantastic place to explore riverine forest and bird life that includes tits, warblers, orioles, flycatchers and owls. This is also an excellent treat for fishermen. As we explore the riverine forest and indulge in catching fish, it is time for hot lunch to be served right on the banks of the backwater.
We reach at the resort for a lazy afternoon. As we relax and flip through the pages of a book on Indian forests, we immerse ourselves in the pristine natural surrounding and in the process perhaps get a bit more closer to ourselves. The early evening is spent relaxing in the spa and getting a body massage that rejuvenates and revitalizes.
The evening is reserved for a special adventure that is going to change all our perspectives about the forest. With the approaching dusk, we board the 4 wheel jeeps and embark on a night safari to the buffer zone of the forest. As we sit quietly in the jeep in the dead of night, the headlights are switched off. While our eyes slowly adjust to this darkness, we start seeing an altogether different aspect of the jungle - new sounds that we have not heard so far. For the night in the forest is meant for a different set of animals, much more elusive ones. And, as we slowly lose ourselves in this awesome adventure, perhaps we will develop a new and greater understanding for Kipling's novel.
We return to the resort at night for dinner around a campfire. While the flickering flames of the crackling fire create myriads of shadows, we hear a nightjar at a distance.