Our dominant male tiger has taken a liking to sloth bears,’ said lodge manager Erwin D’Rose by way of greeting. “He’s eaten six so far!” Jungle news travels fast. Especially in Satpura National Park, where myriad safari jeeps manned by forest guards criss-cross the reserve each day. I had just arrived at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge to attend their 10-year anniversary celebrations.
I was soon perched on a retrofitted Gypsy, accompanied by proprietor Aly Rashid and naturalist Omkar Shelke. Aly doubles as head naturalist and regularly accompanies guests into the park. It is this ethos that sets this place apart from Satpura’s other boutique lodges, it is naturalist-led and naturalist-owned, with a strong focus on conservation.
We were off on a night safari in the buffer forests of Parsapani. The forest at night is an unnerving creature, all stealth and beauty and silence. Wielding a powerful spotlight, Omkar whispered, “a rusty-spotted cat.” Through my binoculars, I saw what looked like a miniature leopard, perfect in every detail down to its striped forehead, spots and large nocturnal eyes. Weighing upto one and a half kilograms, it is Asia’s smallest wildcat. Around the next bend, we saw a jeep parked in the darkness. It was Erwin. He motioned frantically, “go back, go back.” We reversed at top speed, switched off our engine and waited. A full moon rose above the trees and I thought I heard a rustle. It was almost imperceptible; perhaps I’d imagined it. Then, a soft crunch. “There’s something behind us,” I whispered, swinging around. Out stepped a male leopard, barely 12 feet away. Unperturbed by our presence, he walked down the road in slow, languid steps, disappearing into the thicket. “It’s still very close,” said Omkar. “Do you think it has climbed a tree and is going to drop on us?” I asked, my imagination getting the better of me. “Leopards only climb trees if they’re escaping tigers or wild dog. Or hunting langurs,” he said. This didn’t help my nerves, as realisation dawned that I was a close relative of the aforesaid langur.
We returned to a star-lit dinner under a spreading neem tree. Twinkling lights shimmered around tables set in a pretty courtyard. Aly is a descendant of the begums of Bhopal, charismatic women who ruled for over a century, so the food at the lodge is a mouth-watering mix of old khandani recipes and world-class fare. Today’s meal included potato and leek soup, Bhopali gosht biriyani, mutton korma and filfora (meat minced with spices), rounded off with homemade cheese and chocolate ganache.
Next morning, pale yellow rays struggled through the mist as we headed to the park for a ‘tree walk’, led by tree expert Pradip Krishen. Each of our group clutched a copy of his field guide, Jungle Trees of Central India. Tree-novices all, we were to tramp through glade and glen learning about trees. “We’re going to play a bit of a game,” said Pradip, eyes twinkling. “It will be terribly boring if I walk around pointing out this tree and that. So instead, I’ll teach you how to use my book and then you can do the identifying.” It was an intriguing start to a delightful morning.
Pradip’s book is a work of art. And so simple to use that any child who can read can enjoy it. Trees are segregated by types of bark, types of leaves, types of fruit and types of flowers, with photographs identifying each one. After a quick lesson—rough/smooth barks, simple/compound leaves—the fun began. Pradip would point to a tree and we would race to identify it. Some plucked leaves, others scraped bits of bark. Before long, we had identified mahua (on whose fermented fruit bears and monkeys get drunk each year), ber and jamun (whose berries we know and love), aamla (nature’s richest known source of vitamin C), tendu (from whose leaves beedis are made) and bhirra (with its flame-resistant corky bark). As with several areas in the Satpuras, the lodge borrows its name from a watering hole named after the reni bush. Pradip pointed out several reni bushes, their berries similar to ber. He stooped to crush leaves from a slender stalk. “Indian lavender,” he said, passing the leaves around for us to smell. We listened spellbound, for Pradip’s knowledge extended far beyond trees to birds, beasts, people and places. “The adventure begins when you start recognising trees,” said Fazal Rashid, fellow botanist and organic kitchen garden expert. “That’s when the forest stops being amorphous and comes alive.”
It is activities such as tree walks and night safaris in the buffer zones that Aly and his team of naturalists worked so hard to help pioneer. Looking back on Reni Pani’s journey, Aly talked about what he called Tourism Beyond the Tiger, where he worked alongside locals, lodge owners and several enlightened Field Directors to initiate canoe safaris, wilderness camping, jungle walks, bird watching and cycling, which have helped take the pressure off tiger sightings and reduced the visitor burden inside the park. “Erstwhile fishermen, whose livelihoods depended on netting the Denwa river now work as canoe guides, leaving the fish to the cormorants and herons,” he said. “And instead of the tiger, we focus on Satpura’s iconic five—sloth bear, leopard, Indian wild dog, Malabar giant squirrel and gaur.”
I retired to my tent, which overlooked a waterhole frequented by chital and langurs. With black Khadappa limestone floors, large netted windows, white drapes and khaki canvas walls adorned in Gond art, it personified elegance and exquisite luxury. Designed in the Gond style, they used local materials, especially visible in the lipai or cowdung plasterwork on the cottage walls. Encompassing 32 acres of forest, the grounds were lush with indigenous trees, many of them planted by the owners themselves. Leopards and sloth bears occasionally entered the grounds, so after dark, a staff member would accompany guests to dinner.
On our last evening, we visited the park with Wildlife Tour Leader Indrajit Latey. We came upon a herd of gaur, almost 25 strong, with tiny suckling young still covered in baby hair. The babies chewed noisily on leaves. “They have no idea what they’re eating,” said Indrajit. “At this stage, they’re just copying their mothers.”
Sure enough, one of the babies spat out a leaf before lunging for another. The dominant male walked up to us, fixing my mother in his gaze. She froze. Male gaur can weigh up to 1,500 kilograms and are deceptively fast when roused. She told me later that she had tried communicating telepathically—“we come in peace”—and he eventually moved away.
Just then, we heard a sound as if something was clearing its throat. “A langur sounding the alarm,” said Indrajit. The game was afoot. From then on, it was Operation Predator. Our hitherto sedate driver pelted down the dirt track, other jeeps joining him in haste. “Everyone’s scrambling because I heard a monkey call,” said Indrajit. A family of agitated langurs greeted us, scampering up trees, making sharp coughing calls. “Langurs have three calls,” he said. “A deep whooping communication call; a sharp coughing predator call; and a chick-chick call specifically for leopards.” Tree-climbing leopards are their nemesis. We watched the langurs, who watched the predator. An hour later, we gave up the wait. “You need three things to spot a predator”, he said. “Pugmarks, alarm calls and luck.”
In a nearby grove, we spotted a sambar stag with magnificent antlers. He ran towards a young female, and then leapt away honking loudly. “Is it an alarm call?” I asked. “No” whispered Indrajit. “It’s a mating ritual. He has separated the female from the rest of the herd and is honking to ward off any would-be suitors.” We watched enthralled as the stag stamped his hoof, honked loudly, then darted towards the female, who hesitantly stamped her hoof in return. We left the pair and turned homewards. An Indian roller or neelkanth flew past in a flash of blue. Rollers get their name from their hair-raising breeding display, where competing males fold their wings and plummet to the ground in a twisting ‘roll’. “The most daring male—the one who drops closest to the ground before pulling out of his dive wins the female,” he said. Our jeep screeched to a halt. A tiny flap-shell turtle was making its way across the road. We waited patiently for it to pass. At least here, in this remote corner of the world, animals still had right of way.
Bhopal is well connected to different parts of the country. Getting to Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, which is situated 25km from Sohagpur in Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district, is a 4.5- hour road journey from Bhopal’s Raja Bhoj Airport. The closest railway station is Itarsi Station (60km/1.5 hours).
Where to Stay
The lodge has 12 cottages and 4 luxury tents built with local materials. The lodge’s nerve centre is the Gol Ghar, its unique design featuring a dining area, a bar, a library and a lounge. Rooms from `18,000 per night; luxury tents from `22,500 (American Plan All Inclusive i.e. all three meals plus all applicable taxes included in the room-rate; +91- 9981997714, +91 9407558253; renipanijunglelodge.com)
What to See and Do
>Satpura National Park & Tiger Reserve prides itself on being one of the few Indian parks to offer a range of activities apart from jeep safaris. These include mobile camping and walking safaris, overnight camping at a British-era Forest Rest House at Churna; cycling and village walks.
>Satpura is a birder’s paradise with over 350 species found here (including residents and seasonal visitors). Jan-Feb is a great time as scores of water birds arrive in the winter. For birders, a motorboat or canoe ride on the Tawa Reservoir is a must.