It was still dark, and the rustle of leaves and occasional crackle of branches lulled me back to sleep. I was in a vast room, perched ten metres above the ground on the branches of an old banyan tree. Soft scrapings and hoots sounded outside my window, but I snuggled deeper, secure in the knowledge that solid wooden doors and old-fashioned latches separated me from the insects, owls and other nocturnal creatures outside.
I was at Tree House Hideaway, a unique wildlife lodge run by Pugdundee Safaris, set in twenty-one acres of mixed forest in Bandhavgarh’s buffer zone. The five luxurious tree houses had been ingeniously built by local craftspeople on the tops of five large trees that were sprawled across the grounds: banyan, mahua, tendu, palaash and peepal. Each tree house stood on stilts, and had a spacious bedroom, big windows, thatch and reed roof, cosy sofas, wooden writing desks, roomy cupboards, mini-bars, air-conditioners and mosquito netting. The bathrooms were enormous, fashioned out of local wood and stone with running hot showers. But the highlight was the glass-fronted doors that opened out on to a wooden balcony with wonderful views.
There’s no need to set an alarm when you’re sleeping atop a tree. Come dawn, the local residents go noisily about their business. Cak-cak-cak, said one, followed by tweet-tweet. I drew the curtains to a flash of blue and a flurry of wings: my sudden movement had startled a common kingfisher who’d been asleep outside my window. A caterpillar inched its way across the soft sofa. As I watched it, thinking huffily that it had no business being in my room, it dawned on me that, in fact, I was in its room.
Very soon, I was bouncing over potholes, seated at the back of a jeep, en route to the park gates. “Take a deep breath, what you smell is the sal tree; it’s flowering,” said our naturalist and guide, Pradyot Rana, as I got a whiff of the tangy aroma. Of all Madhya Pradesh’s parks, Bandhavgarh is arguably the loveliest, its hills and valleys covered in forests of towering sal, thick bamboo stands and grassy meadows that support bushels of birds. We saw red-vented bulbuls playing catch in the sunshine, a yellow-throated sparrow pecking at mahua flowers, and in the background the woop-woop-woop of a dove and ch-ch-ch-chhhrrrrrrrr of a golden-backed woodpecker.
Travelling with Pradyot was educative, as he knew every inch of the park and picked out plants and birds that were new to me. Two raptors circled above, scanning the horizon for prey: a powerful changeable hawk-eagle and a shikra, with its striking white breast. We espied a tree whose bark had been scraped away. “Porcupines nibbling at the bark,” Pradyot said. “This is jungle craft; you have to learn to read the signs that are all around you.” Around a corner stood a chital stag, looking unusually decorative with a bird perched daintily between his antlers, picking off ticks.
Bandhavgarh was the old hunting preserve of the Maharajas of Rewa, and their old fort still stands on a hill within the park’s boundaries. With one of the highest densities of Bengal tigers in India, the park also gives visitors their best chance of seeing this magnificent cat in the wild. “If we’re lucky, we might see Bamera, the dominant male,” said Pradyot. As it turned out, Pradyot was well-versed in Bandhavgarh’s tigerlore. In November 2011, Bamera replaced his father, the legendary B2, to become the park’s dominant male tiger (tigers are highly territorial, and males have large territories that encompass the smaller territories of two or three females). Since then, this nine-year-old, who weighs an incredible 200 kilos, has sired three or four litters and fought several battles to retain his stronghold. Recently, however, a mysterious new tiger (as yet unsighted) had been challenging Bamera’s dominance. According to Pradyot, Bamera was still king, but it remained to be seen for how long…
Bandhavgarh’s tiger chronicles had all the thrills of a Panchatantra tale and we finally came face to face with three of its main characters: the tigress Kankati (named for her cut ear) and her two sub-adult cubs. “Don’t make any sudden movements,” said Pradyot, inching the jeep closer. To picture the scene before us, you’d have to imagine two gambolling kittens and then magnify that image a hundred-fold. “It’s only when their mother is close by that they fall in line,” said Pradyot smiling, “Nahi to aise paagalpanti karte hein (otherwise they’re always up to mischief like this).”
Around the time they’re weaned at 5-6 months, tiger cubs begin to accompany their mother on territorial walks (such as the one we were witnessing) and learn to hunt. They are often skilled, adult-size hunters by the time they’re 11 months old, but it’s not until they are 2–2.5 years of age that they separate from their mother.
It was lunchtime when we drove back, this time to King’s Lodge, Pugdundee Safaris’ second resort, located ten minutes away from Tala Gate. Although more contemporary in design than Tree House, King’s Lodge nevertheless managed to blend in perfectly with its 14 hectares of forested surroundings. Earth and honey tones dominated the mud and stone façades and sloping tiled roofs of its ten cottage rooms and eight stilt cottages, while the interiors were a picture of elegance: chataai blinds, wide bay windows and verandahs with comfortable deck chairs. The en suite bathrooms had stark white fittings that contrasted nicely with the dark wooden rafters. Outside, a smooth circular pit with picnic chairs made a cosy setting for bonfires and bush dinners, while elsewhere a watchtower had been set up for staking out the occasional wild animal that was passing through.
I cooled off in the pool before heading for lunch, which was set around a dining table stacked with fresh salads and green vegetables grown locally at the neighbouring Rancha village. Outside, it was getting warm when the stillness was broken by a plaintive, repetitive call: kutroo, kutroo, kutroo. “That’s a large green barbet,” said Gudda (Naresh), the head naturalist at King’s Lodge. “Once one starts, others soon follow!” Sure enough, the otherwise quiet afternoon was soon filled with forlorn kutroos and answering calls.
Afternoon turned to evening and it was time to investigate the large lagoon inside the grounds of Tree House Hideaway. All Pugdundee Safaris’ lodges have been fitted with remote camera traps, but the footage recorded at Tree House has been particularly rewarding due to the large number of permanent residents and visitors who come to the watering hole. This list includes two or three resident jungle cats, a few nocturnal palm civets, and tiny two-foot-tall barking deer.
The watering hole was quiet as we climbed up the machaan, accompanied by Saurabh Kumar, who looked after operations. A flock of lapwings chased a pied kingfisher away from his perch, screeching Did-he-do-it? Did-he-do-it? “They’re very territorial,” said Saurabh, as we watched them use scare tactics on a few lesser whistling ducks, who paddled furiously away. All of a sudden, three little boar piglets rushed out of a thicket, tumbling down what looked like a well-worn animal trail. “They live here permanently, along with several other boar families,” explained Saurabh.
We walked to the centre of the compound, where another tree house was set around a mahua tree. The ground floor had open-air dining, while upstairs, a lounge with wi-fi, bar and library overlooked the forest. Fairy lights dotted the path to our ‘bush dinner’ that comprised great food, smiley staff and a starry sky.
Sipping Earl Grey tea in my tree house the next morning, I watched as golden rays made the yellow-green leaves sparkle. Little munias twittered in the upper boughs, and a golden oriole swooped down and settled close by, oblivious of my presence. There is no greater pleasure than spending a morning up on a tree. Or listening to a barbet choir at mid-afternoon. And it is encounters and experiences like these that make a visit to Tree House, King’s Lodge and Bandhavgarh endearing in the extreme.
Bandhavgarh is best reached via air to Jabalpur, followed by a 4hr/220km road trip to Bandhavgarh; or via air to Khajuraho, followed by a 6hr/280km trip by road. Taxis can be hired from Jabalpur and Khajuraho for the drive to Bandhavgarh. Or take a train to Umaria, followed by a 45min/34km trip by road to the park; or a train to Katni, followed by a 2hr/95km drive.
When to visit
November to February is the best season. The national park is closed from July to mid-October.
Where to stay
Tree House Hideaway Five tree houses spread across 21 acres of a forested estate. From Rs 13,000 per night per couple for Indian citizens with all meals, taxes and 1 excursion included.
King’s Lodge 10 cottage rooms and 8 stilt cottage rooms. From Rs 12,000 per night with all meals, taxes and 1 excursion included (8800637711, pugdundeesafaris.com)
Do it on a budget
MP Tourism’s White Tiger Forest Lodge (from Rs 3,700; 07627-265366, mptourism.com) not only scores with its location at a walkable distance from the Tala Gate, it fares better than most government-run establishments with staff who are hospitable in an old-fashioned way and no less well-informed. Bagh Sarai Resort (from Rs 3,100 for doubles on full board; 9136682828, baghsarai.com) offers tidy accommodation, caring service—and good value.
What to see & do
Go on jungle safaris on jeeps and elephants. The park’s prime viewing zone is Tala (Zone 1), but Magdhi (Zone 2) also offers great tiger sightings. Elephant safaris usually last an hour, but the forest department also organizes half-day safaris. Cycling and walking trips led by Pugdundee’s naturalists are a good way to explore the peripheral forests and villages. Bandhavgarh Fort is located at the park’s highest point: a picnic lunch offers great views. Tree House Hideaway has a lake within its grounds; it provides great birding and wildlife viewing and is a nice spot for intimate dinners. Lodge staff and naturalists organize village visits, workshops with bamboo weavers, bird walks and picnics at waterbodies and in reserve forests. A trip to Sanjay National Park offers a chance to sight sloth bears.