As the network signal on our mobile phones grows weaker, the dry, desolate fields give way to tall bamboo groves, mahua, tendu trees, signalling our proximity to the jungle. We are headed to the Barnawapara wildlife sanctuary, 95 km east of Raipur, Chhattisgarh, which falls just off the highway that goes all the way to Calcutta.
Gypsy Does It Jeep safaris to track wildlife at the sanctuary. (Photography by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
Two hours ago, we had landed at the shiny new Raipur airport from Delhi and been whisked away in a Gypsy by the gregarious wildlife enthusiast Zafar Khan, owner of Muba Resorts, our nest for the next two days. It had rained in Raipur earlier that morning, before we arrived, so the breeze was cool, and the sun, muted. Having left behind a drenched, wintry Delhi, we really couldn’t have asked for a more pleasing start to the day. By mid-morning, as hunger pangs began, we had a quick pitstop at Neta Jee Dhaba at Aarang, 45 minutes into our journey, for the most wonderfully crisp and peppery moong dal vada and kadak masala chai. Sure, now we really were all set to explore the wilder side of Chhattisgarh. Another hour or so later, we fell off the highway completely and took the dirt-track into the wilderness, all the way to the edge of the Barnawapara jungle in Barbaspur village, where our hotel for the night, Muba’s Machaan, is located.
To-Do May-June is the best time for sightings. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
With Zafar Khan at the wheel again, we get a bit of a background about our settings. The sanctuary is in the midst of a churn of sorts, where the villages within the zone are being gradually relocated to allow for a more robust variety of wildlife. A homoeopath by profession, Dr Khan, as we learn on the way, can hold forth equally deftly on djinns and other beastly tales, and he told us many, something I was to regret sorely later that night. Also tucked into the back seat is landscaping consultant Ajit Bharos, who spends all his free time studying and spotting birds. Luckily for us, even before we reach the sanctuary, he points to a range of migratory birds en route: open-billed storks, pretty little purple sunbirds, and a flock of black-spotted doves sunbathing on a bare tree.
The ruins at Sirpur. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)
When morning breaks, the clouds appear to have retreated, the sunshine strong and stable, perfect for a quick round of birding at a pond a quick drive away. Home to some 200 whistling teals, ducks and cormorants, it makes a pretty picture with the floating rani pink lotuses. Come summer, another wonderful outing in this part of world would be to take a waterfall trek, eight km away. Late morning, after a round of perfectly sumptuous aloo paranthas, I settle into a chair on my machaan’s varandah, book in hand. Another couple of hours doing just that would have been delightful, but it’s time to leave. Twenty km away, on our way back to Raipur, we halt at Sirpur, on the banks of the river Mahanadi, an ancient Buddhist centre dating back to 6th century AD. On a late Saturday afternoon, it’s fascinating to explore the remains of an old civilisation, the old red brick wells, the havan kunds, the ruins of monasteries, all said to have vanished underground after an earthquake. After about a dozen Buddh Vihars were excavated here recently, Sirpur is on its way to becoming a noteworthy heritage site. It certainly proved to be a fitting finale to our trip to Chhattisgarh’s jungles.
Betla National Park: Part of Project Tiger, 140 km west of Ranchi. Tropical evergreen fades into deciduous forest, expect run-ins with wild elephants, sloth bears, tigers.
Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary: A 100 km from Nagpur, Maharashtra, new tiger reserve for regular sightings of tigers, panthers, 160-plus species of birds and 30 species of reptiles.
Palani Hills National Park: Deep in the woods of Tamil Nadu, near Kodaikanal. Home to wild boar, elephants, wild ox. Intrepid backpacker has new rustic nests to choose from.
Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary: One of the best jungles to spot vipers and pythons, 70 km from Kollam, Kerala, set in a deep green valley by the Shendurney river.
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