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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.
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.
Muba is not eco-friendly just in name. The dwellings merge well with the surroundings; the food is home-style.
We’re in Chhattisgarh at a time when tourists are just about trickling in, still a bit apprehensive as the Naxal unrest continues in certain pockets. The government and private tour operators are obviously keen to highlight the ‘exotica’ of the tribes of Bastar, the waterfalls of Jagdalpur, the palaces of Kawardha and Kanker, and the virgin forests across the state. As Chhattisgarh’s own touristy story unfolds, plenty of new resorts are beginning to show up on the tourist map. But Muba’s Machaan is special. For one, it isn’t ‘eco-friendly’ just in name. Walk up the winding tracks on its premises to your machaan-like cottage, cleverly constructed five metres above ground, and you realise just how well your nest blends in with its wild surroundings. If you’re a creature of the concrete jungle and guilty of taking too many lavish resort vacations, you may take a few minutes to get used to its more modest, but well-designed interiors. Wood rules outside, as it does inside: I note the charming, dimly-lit woven bamboo lamp shades in the spacious room, the wooden flooring, the dark wood-panelled double bed with two single bunkers to boot and even a wooden tissue roll holder in the bathroom! It certainly sets the tone for a real jungle adventure. The best part? Sitting up in bed, you look out of the glass wall to a sprawling, elevated view of the jungle around and beyond, and the nine other machaans peeking out from between the greens. You feel one with the trees; and you’re inclined to wonder—“If it’s this magical now, imagine this in the monsoon!” A delicious, home-style meal later, we set off to explore the wild.
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.
Whistling teals, open-billed storks, purple sunbirds, black spotted doves, the sanctuary is a paradise for birdwatchers.
By late afternoon, we’re deep into the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary. The sun plays hide and seek, as we circle 80 km of the 245 sq km jungle. Stately-looking bisons appear in herds, juniors in tow, looking at us suspiciously before moving about their business. Our car moves towards a large pond turned green with moss and weeds, and we pause to capture on camera a herd of deer moving gingerly towards the water body to take a few elegant sips, turn away, and disappear back into the forest. As the flurry brown hares hop about, and civet cats make their shadowy company felt, we’re granted a more dramatic presence: the sloth bear. He gives us a long, hard look, up from his elevated quarters, and then, rustling some leaves about, disappears. We have not a moment with the leopard, however, known to be the king of this forest. Do we sense his lithe movements behind a bush, watching as we drive away? Maybe. But it could very well be my imagination, for as evening falls, the tall ant hills begin to resemble humans huddling in a corner, and the silhouettes of the trees fade to black.
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.