I never take my shoes off during take-off or landing,” said Iain on our first evening in Panna National Park. “If the plane crashed, imagine how silly I’d look running on a tarmac scattered with burning debris in woolly socks?” “Very silly indeed,” I agreed, guessing at once that this unusual introduction was a sign of things to come. And I was right. What followed were several days of superb walking through Central India’s forests accompanied by Kenyan-resident Iain Allan’s easy humour and nuggets of wisdom that he’d gathered over years of tramping through the African bush.
In February, a group of us arrived in Panna at the invitation of Pugdundee Safaris, who had organised a pioneering walk through the stretch of forest that links Panna to Bandhavgarh National Park. The walkers included Iain Allan, founder of Tropical Ice (a company that initiated the concept of walking safaris in East Africa in 1978); Christina Pochmursky, a Toronto-based documentary filmmaker; and myself, fledgling conservationist.
The Ken River Lodge is perched on the banks of the Ken, and the river runs quiet and meandering for almost a mile within the 50-acre property. The dining area, a machaan of hewn wooden planks and rough beams, reminded me of an old hunting lodge; only of course there was no shikari. Enter stage left: Shyamendra Singh, or Vini, co-owner of Pugdundee Safaris, dressed in khaki fatigues and a charismatic moustache.
A short while later, we were bumping along in a jeep, Vini at the wheel, en route to Panna National Park. Stretching before us was 543 sq km of teak forest, sprinkled with acacia and tendu. “Arjuna terminalia,” said Vini pointing to a spreading tree. “In the Mahabharata, Arjuna hid the gopi’s clothes up in its branches,” he grinned. Then, a sharp sambar call. “A tiger?” I whispered. “Most likely a leopard,” replied Vini. Peering into the undergrowth, we spied a sambar stag standing rock still. “Follow the direction of the sambar’s gaze and you’ll find your predator,” said Vini. Sure enough, I saw a faint spotted outline, and then it was gone. “It’s still there,” whispered Vini, “Panna has about 25 leopards, but they are notoriously shy.”
Panna’s other big cats — its tigers — were heavily poached a few years ago, but are beginning to recover due to a successful relocation programme. At the heart of this success is a visionary park director, Sreenivasa Murthy, who has collaborated with scientists, locals and enlightened lodge owners like Vini to bring the tiger population back up to a total of 13.
We soon found ourselves on a boat on the Ken river, discussing the future of wildlife and wild spaces. Vini felt that the park’s admission fees should be distributed among local villages for building schools and other community works and a percentage ploughed back into the park for better management. As if in tacit agreement, two muggers (marsh crocodiles) surfaced silently from the depths. A mongoose scurried up the far bank and a nightjar heralded nightfall.
The next morning, we met our safari guides — Jonathan Peach, who’d cut his teeth working in conservancies across Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and Asha Ram, an experienced tracker. Our goal: to walk ten kilometres along the ridgelines of Panna’s northern corridor.
Flurries of little white-eyes flitted about the scrub, two vultures soared on thermals, and a stork-billed kingfisher with flaming red feet waited by a stream. “We’re heading for that ridgeline,” said Jonathan, pointing to a distant hill. So up we went, and up, Christina and I scrambling for footholds, Iain, Jonathan and Asha Ram nimble as goats. But the climb was worth every scratch and stumble, for the views at the top stretched for miles. “This way is Panna and about a hundred kilometres southeast is Bandhavgarh,” said Jonathan consulting his GPS. “Except for a sixteen-kilometre stretch of farmland and another gap, there’s almost continuous forest cover between the two parks.” So much tree cover outside park boundaries — a perfect corridor for tigers and other wide-ranging species, if the gaps were somehow reforested.
Panna and Bandhavgarh currently provide isolated pockets of refuge for wildlife. Every other year, young tigers are driven out of Bandhavgarh by dominant males and get stranded in the corridor forest, unable to reach Panna because of the farmland in between. They either starve or are shot for preying on livestock. Pugdundee’s Conservation Cell is attempting to create a continuous corridor to allow animals safe passage between the parks, as this is the only way to ensure the long-term survival of large predators and their prey.
After tramping for six hours (with a riverside lunch of kathi rolls, sautéed spinach, biryani, toffee-brownies and, that safari essential, cold beer), our destination was in sight — the Jhinna Camp — set among fields of mustard, ripening wheat and flowering arhar dal.
The Ken River Lodge jointly operates this camp with the community-run Sabbal Shah Society, whose members protect the surrounding forest from illegal logging and poaching. Vini adopted the Jhinna project in an effort to share the benefits of tourism with the community and support their conservation efforts. Guests visiting Ken can opt to spend a night in Jhinna, where Asha Ram and his staff accompany them on night safaris.
We were soon clattering on a dirt track, Asha Ram armed with a sturdy spotlight. The forest at night is a different creature, more watchful and still than in the day. An hour into the drive, all we’d seen were a few sleepy nilgai, when in a sudden burst of speed, we rocketed towards something large and furry. And there it was, a sloth bear bounding into the undergrowth. Moments later, we spotted a porcupine scuttling off the road, its white-tipped quills rattling defensively. I have a healthy respect for these nocturnal vegetarians, as they have been known to seriously maim leopards and even tigers by stabbing them with their foot-long quills. We startled one last unsuspecting creature — a beautiful mottled wood owl — and returned to bed.
After breakfast, we headed to our next camp in the southern Shyamgiri Pahar. And it was breathtaking. The Mamabahene Camp was set at the edge of a deep gorge, overlooking two freshwater pools. Across the gorge lay a wilderness of trees, shrubs and grasses in shades of yellow and green, with dry brown bracken and black cotton soil underfoot. The evening sun cast long shadows on our tents. We were officially in the middle of nowhere.
As dusk fell, a bonfire sprang to life and a crescent moon rose. Sipping jasmine tea and toasting toes in front of the fire, I considered the possibility of a morning swim in the pools below. “Watch out for the Goonch,” warned Vini. “It’s been known to drag swimmers down to a watery end.” I’d never heard of the Goonch catfish (Bagarius yarrelli) and neither had the others. Vini was waxing eloquent about the fearsome Goonch (all gnashing teeth and scaly fins), when a bone-chilling howl sounded behind us. Then, an answering cry — high-pitched and forlorn — from across the gorge. Jackals! Two families exchanging news on a winter’s eve; the rising pitch and frequency of the exchange suggested that they hadn’t met in a while, and the only thing separating them from each other was — us. “I wouldn’t drink tea if I were you,” said Iain. “What if you need to visit the bathroom at night?” I hastily put down my cup and retired to bed, where I discovered a hot water bottle awaiting me between the sheets. Bliss!
At dawn, a faint pink tinged the horizon and a crested serpent eagle circled overhead, calling to its mate. I spotted Iain outside his tent. “Have you found an opening sentence for your story?” he called. “Not yet,” I replied. “How about — ‘As I emerged from my tent, the sun was haemorrhaging in the sky like an open wound.’” “I’ll consider it,” I grinned back. And just like that, another wonderful day of bushwalking had begun.
Our trail was a nine-kilometre stretch through the corridor’s most pristine section — the southern Shyamgiri Pahar. At the drop-off point, we met our trackers — Mandira and Bhola, two old men with big smiles. Lodge manager Karan Rana also joined us, insisting that we each carry a bamboo stick. “This is sloth bear country,” he said. “In case you’re charged by a bear, make sure you hit it on the muzzle.” I gingerly practised my swing. Not sure I’d be able to hit anything, let alone aim precisely at a charging bear’s muzzle, I hedged my bets and walked next to Karan. Mandira stopped to smell, scrape and even taste bits of mud and leaves, pointing out wild mint flowers, civet tracks and sloth bear scrapes and diggings around plundered termite mounds.
Pugdundee has a clear vision for the development of the Panna-Bandhavgarh corridor. Left to itself, the area will probably lose much of its already degraded forest over the next few decades, as local communities depend heavily on forest resources such as firewood. “Due to the pressure on land, corridor areas have to be shared between people and wildlife,” said Vini. This is where well-managed tourism can make a difference. Low-volume–high-value tourism (such as a small walking safari) is the perfect solution for protecting and promoting interest in corridor areas. Low visitor numbers mean that ecological impact is minimised while still giving locals incentives to preserve the habitat.
A final journey by car the next morning and we were nearing safari’s end — Bandhavgarh. Panna’s teak had given way to sal, and our naturalist, Pradyot Rana, was driving us to a spot where the Patiha tigress’ cubs had last been seen. And there they were — two male cubs almost fully grown. Stalking half-crouched, bounding and pouncing with unbelievable grace and speed, the two cats held us spellbound. One of the cubs took a swipe at his brother, who ducked and hid behind a tree. I wondered where they’d go once they were adults, as Bandhavgarh’s dominant males would almost certainly drive them out. “Hopefully the Panna corridor will soon be secure,” said Pradyot. I fervently hoped so too.
By air Panna is best accessed by air from Khajuraho (26km/30min by road) or by train from Jhansi (176km/4hrs). Air India flights connect Khajuraho to Delhi via Varanasi. The return trip from Bandhavgarh is best made via air from Jabalpur (190km/4hrs) or Khajuraho (245km/6hrs). Air India connects Jabalpur directly to Delhi.
By train You can also return from Bandhavgarh via train from Umaria (35km/45min) or Katni (100km/2hrs).
The walking safari
The safari includes 4 full days of walking, 1 day at Ken River Lodge, Panna and 2 days at Tree House Hideaway, Bandhavgarh. DAY ONE: Arrive at Ken River Lodge, evening jeep safari in Panna and boat safari on the Ken DAY TWO: Full-day walk covering 10km in the northern Panna Corridor to Jhinna Camp, and night jeep safari DAY THREE: Half-day walk in the Jhinna Reserve Forest, then 3hrs by car to Mamabahene Camp DAY FOUR: Full-day walk covering 9km in the southern Shyamgiri Pahar forest DAY FIVE: Full-day walk covering 12km in the southern Shyamgiri Pahar DAY SIX: Transfer to Tree House Hideaway, Bandhavgarh DAY SEVEN:Morning and evening jeep safaris
Full-day walking safaris with moderate to tough walking in the Panna-Bandhavgarh corridor are slated to kick off in Oct 2012. Currently on offer are Pugdundee’s Mobile Safaris, with shorter walks, village visits, jeep safaris and camping in the corridor forest. Pugdundee’s newest safari is in the Satpura hills along the scenic Forsyth’s Trail, with two campsites inside the park. Tariff Mobile Safaris: Rs 30,000 doubles per night, inclusive of camping, meals, naturalist fees, transfers, park entries and taxes. A minimum of 3 nights’ booking with 4 persons required. Forsyth’s Trail: Rs 20,000 per night, with the same inclusions. A minimum of 2 persons required. Contact 0124-4222657/58/59, 9810024711, pugdundeesafaris.com
What to see & do
Cycling and walking trips led by Pugdundee’s naturalists are a great way to explore Panna and Bandhavgarh’s peripheral forests and Gond villages.
The Khajuraho World Heritage temple complex (30min from Ken River Lodge in Panna) makes a great excursion. Raneh Falls is home to the Ken Gharial Sanctuary, where you can see these endangered crocodilians.
Bandhavgarh Fort is located at the park’s highest point, and a visit with a picnic lunch offers great views. Tree House Hideaway has a lake within its 21-acre grounds that provides great birding and wildlife viewing.
A moderate level of physical fitness is recommended as most days entail six-seven hours of walking over 10-12km in hilly terrain. Carry a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, personal medication, T-shirts for the day and a jumper and woolly cap for the nights.