It is afternoon and the sun is letting up slightly. There is no sign of mad dogs but one Englishman, khakied and pith-helmeted, emerges from the browning foliage, looking around him avidly. Up in the canopy, clutching a tree, and as curious about him as he is fascinated by it, is a sloth bear. The man trails his hand over the sal, tilts his head back to squint at a Malabar squirrel leaping overhead. A tiger skulks in the tall scrub to his right. He gives it a pat and makes to move on... but stops short on a suppressed oath at the sight of a magnificent leopard in his path. The cat eyeballs him and disappears quickly through the bush. Our man strides on, and arrives at a cliff. His view takes in rolling hills, a winding river and teeming jungle. He rests a foot on a rock as he surveys the landscape... and takes a deep breath.
Bear scratches on soft bark. That is my fond imagining of Captain J. Forsyth, the man who ‘discovered’ these hills of the Satpuras, the author of the engaging treatise The Highlands of Central India, the officer who went on to found the forest department here, in the heart of India. Also, as it happens, the man for whom is named Forsyth’s Satpura, a new jungle lodge in Madhya Pradesh that I found myself in.
Forsyth’s is a wonderfully cosy resort that is located at the edge of the Satpura National Park and perfectly equipped to show you the Satpura that the Englishman described in 1857. “In the very centre of India there exists a considerable region,” he wrote, “to which the term Highlands... is strictly applicable; and in which are numerous peaks and ranges, for which the term ‘mountain’ would, in any other country, be used.”
Picked up in Bhopal, we went through district headquarters Hoshangabad and veered off the highway; soon we rattled along choking on the dust we were throwing up. Soon even that pretence of a road was left behind and we were tossed and hurled as we negotiated deep ruts. We turned in at modest gates — no board or placard to announce our destination but we were there all right.
Hashim Tyabji, the director of Wild India Camps, met us at the door. Hashim is a noted naturalist and has worked many years in conservation hospitality; he also happens to be a grandnephew of the great Sálim Ali. Within five minutes I was sitting back in a glad haze of kinship. Hyderabad is one of Hashim’s homes as it is one of mine. We found common friends, and in the next five we were slipping into Hyderabadi.
I looked around at the still-fledgling resort — the prospect was pleasant but promised to be prettier still. The gardens were being landscaped, the construction was being given its final touches. The rooms were ready, however, and were perfectly formed. Twin beds neatly laid out, windows and look-outs in every direction, a charming back balcony with an inviting lounger, a spacious bathroom with skylights and a small writing table that begged to be sat at.
I sat at it the very first day to write my notes and to record a thrilling coincidence. For, at lunch, among Forsyth’s four other guests — a group of wildlife enthusiasts from the UK — I found a puzzlingly familiar face. I frowned over it for a while before conversation led to the click — this was Mary Peacock, a name more familiar to me than her face; a respected birder who had lived in Hyderabad many years ago. I had met her long ago and even, we remembered slowly, had travelled to the Eastern Ghats on a particularly fruitful birding trip that included scarlet minivets and chestnut-headed bee eaters. This was perfectly delightful!
I was looking forward to the first foray into the park. Forsyth’s is located in Bijakhori village, which skirts the boundary of the Satpura National Park. We hopped into a jeep that took us the small distance. I expected to be taken to the gates but the border turned out to be a bit more scenic. The jeep pulled up at the bank of a generous spread of river — the waters of the Tawa. Laden with bag, camera and binoculars, I stepped carefully into a bobbing boat. All in, it chugged slowly across the water and deposited us at the other bank. A green-roofed forest rest house stood to the left and a long line of stone stairs invited us to the Madai gate of the park. With such an entrance, what would the rest of it be like?
The forests of Madhya Pradesh have some of the most popular parks and reserves: the glamorous Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench. In contrast, the Satpura National Park is not quite on the tourist map as far as tiger-seekers go, but it is attractive for that very reason. If you curl a lip at coordinated tiger-shows or shake your head at the well-rutted jeep tracks that lend a certain showmanship and rigidity to wildlife viewing in these places, you will find Satpura’s informality refreshing. This is virtually the only tiger reserve in India that permits you to walk through it. This owes in no small part to Hashim Tyabji who has worked with the Satpura Forest Department in exploring trails and mapping the best areas. The idea, of course, is to permit the visitor to experience the land with no barriers at all. Indeed, there is a vast difference in sitting high in a jeep, hurtling at speeds that blur the landscape, and actually walking through tiger country, leaving the nape of your neck exposed to the sun, the elements and a possible big cat or bear. You might not cover very much distance and you probably won’t see a tiger but you will have experienced the tiger’s forests — a rarer treat.
On the first day, however, we toured the park by jeep. In spite of trekking in the Western Ghats where it is most commonly found, I had never seen the Malabar giant squirrel before. It is a furry creature some 15 inches long but its tail adds a full two feet; it does not actually fly, but has a parachute-like membrane that allows it to glide between trees — which makes its name only a slight extension of the truth. I had seen pictures but here this fellow was, spread in a comic, undignified sprawl over a fat branch, clearly in snooze mode. His lavish tail hung down, swishing in the breeze. Something appeared to disturb him and he scampered up to ward it off — only a false alarm, however. He decided on a spot of grooming before he settled again: he carefully pulled his tail up with his forepaws quite in the manner of pulling a rope out of a well and chewed at it rather thoroughly. The itchy enemy vanquished, he returned to his nap.
We stopped to admire some beautiful Gond-built temples in the forest — the idols are gone, the walls are crumbling but the afternoon sun backlit them and the ruins whispered mysteriously of other times. On our way back, I kept a sharp lookout for wildlife, in particular for the sloth bear which I had never seen in the wild. I was also keen on sighting dhole, the wild dog — of which there were two packs in these areas, Hashim told me. I didn’t see either but what I did made my heart soar — a Peregrine falcon, that speediest of raptors, the Usain Bolt of the avian world.
Forsyth’s dinners are elegant affairs. A pre-dinner drink mellows the mood, the glassware sparkles as much as the conversation and the food is varied and abundant. I made my way back to my room by torchlight, and then sat out in the balcony looking out at silvery scrub, soothed by the cool night breeze.
The next day we set forth on foot. The sandy paths showed all the traffic the track had seen recently — what seemed like an army of peafowl and, more freshly, civets. It was a particularly cute pugmark, a compact set of five circles and I wanted very much to see one — they’re determinedly nocturnal though. A flycatcher added some blue to the bird list and an orange-headed thrush added some glamour. We saw signs of bear everywhere — deep scores in soft bark where it had clambered up, scooped pits where it had foraged for roots. No bear, again. We stumbled, however, into the path of a wild boar. Not rampaging, I’m happy to say, for the tusks are not purely ornamental. We dived to crouch in the grass but he smelled us and detoured from his path, circling us now with a few yards to spare. We walked on to a small forest office building on the bank of the river Sonbhadra. The jeep was to come pick us up; in the meantime, we wolfed down cucumber and cheese sandwiches and looked out at the glowing water. We cruised the waterways later, watching river terns swoop and dart about, and followed, at a properly discreet distance, a flight of cormorants as they fished.
We were going to attempt another mode of transport the next day: elephant. We made the acquaintance of the resident pair. The male tusker was allotted to us and I tried not think of what I’d been told about him (he’d killed a man) and that Hashim — no doubt with the memory still fresh of having his four-wheel drive destroyed by this same three-tonne lump of aggressive grey — wouldn’t even go near him.
As the jeep approached the waiting elephant, we saw the mahout stare fixedly into the woods. A dark figure up in a tree clinging to the trunk. Bear! Finally. It bobbed its head at us, looking down its long nose and then as if considering jeep, elephant and assorted humans too iffy a combination, retreated, crashing about noisily. We guided the elephant after it but the bear only dived into deeper cover. So I lurched crazily to the giant’s rolling gait and amused myself by taking pictures of our mammoth shadows. From a clearing, I could see the river glide by, with its crocodiles and hawking, darting birds, the hills in the distance, the busy, thrumming forest around me. A century and a half later, it was still something like Forsyth’s Satpura.
Getting there: Forsyth’s Satpura is 180km/ 3.5hrs from Bhopal. Regular flights connect to Bhopal from Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Jabalpur. The lodge is within easy distance of other railheads as well: 1hr from Pipariya and 1.5hrs from Itarsi. The Bhopal Shatabdi connects Bhopal from Delhi (Rs 886/CC). The lodge organises pick-up from Bhopal (Rs 3,100 one-way). The road to Forsyth’s passes through Hoshangabad, which is the district as well as park headquarters.
Forsyth's Satpura: The property, a small stylish 12-cottage wildlife lodge set in 44 acres of jungle, is located in Bijakhori village at the northern edge of the Satpura National Park. Built primarily in mud and inspired by local village design and materials, the lodge recycles all waste water, harvests rainwater and attempts, in the manner of so many eco-lodges in India and elsewhere, to “tread as lightly on the earth as possible.”
Tariff: Rs 12,000 per person per night on twin-share; includes full board, beverages, laundry, Indian wines, spirits and beer, game drives, park walks and one elephant safari. Transfers, foreign liquors, camera fees, additional excursions extra. CONTACT 14/1, Bijakhori, Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh; 07575-213806, www.forsythlodge.com
Satpura National Park: The Satpura National Park (525 sq km) is the core area of the larger Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve (4,927 sq km), a unique ecosystem rather rich in biodiversity. The forests harbour tiger, leopard, bear, wild boar, gaur, civet and several species of deer and also the charismatic Malabar giant squirrel. The park is one of the few tiger reserves in India that permit visitors to walk through its trails and this makes for a very special experience. It is also possible to tour the area by jeep, elephant and also cruise its waterways by motorboat.
When to go: The park is open between October 16 and June 30 every year and closes during the monsoon months. Summers in central India are very hot, however, so the April-June period is best avoided.