The pandemic had put a halt to our lives - work, business, entertainment, travel; life was simply at pause. For a travel bug like me, those were the toughest nine months of my life!
I was all thrilled to set off for my first post-COVID trip to the heart of India, Madhya Pradesh. And it was also the first safari trip of my life. No wonder the excitement was double fold.
Panna National Park is a highly under rated national park. There are bigger and better national parks in India but we chose Panna for its 'under popularity'. And definitely our stay plan also had a big role to play in our decision.
Our journey began with a flight from Bengaluru to Lucknow, followed by an eight hour road trip from Lucknow to Panna. As we entered the premises of our jungle stay at Taj Pashangarh, we were welcomed by a happily galloping deer crossing the forest trail absolutely in front of us. Couldn’t have expected a better welcome than this. Panna National Park is divided into three segments, our forest stay fell inside one of them.
So it was proven, I was going to stay in the midst of a real forest. After driving for some five minutes inside the forest premises of the property, we finally reached the reception area. And we see the whole team waiting there to greet us, a sweet gesture that will remain a part of my fond memories. Being a safari stay, it was a small and compact team, unlike the usual Taj hotels teeming with people and life. But there was no dearth of warmth and hospitality nevertheless.
Read: Into the Quiet
I heard their footsteps outside my cottage on one of the nights, I saw them playing around in groups while having our breakfast one morning, our four legged friends mostly deer, sambar, wild boars etc.
Night safari was one experience I was looking forward to anxiously. It happened on the first day itself when Tarun, our naturalist at Taj, was ready to take us on our adventure ride in a huge customised open jeep. It was dark and cold, we covered ourselves in blanket and set off for our joy ride. Driving through the bumpy forest path slowly and flashing our torches inside the jungle to spot a glowing eye or eyes can be thrilling, because I prayed for those eyes to not be that of a tiger. Not bragging about it but tigers do visit this property regularly to mark their territory.
We spotted many animals; the glowing blue and green eyes sitting with their family and friends, relaxing and not much moved by our presence. Just one herd of spotted deer got slightly vigilant and were almost getting ready to jump and cross the fence fearing for their lives. But they soon understood we weren’t their tiger to be feared of.
After driving inside the forest for almost half an hour we reached an open space. We found the pug mark of a tiger who might have walked along the path sometime back. Oh we missed it, thankfully.
Tarun was the one who asked us to just look up and sit in silence for some time. I looked up and saw magic! A dark sky full of twinkling stars, so many stars. When was the last time I had seen this kind of a magical starry sky? Impossible to remember. We mortals are so busy chasing money and managing life that we often forget that there’s a much bigger world beyond our own little world and we should be appreciative about it often.
The stillness of that night will be etched in my heart forever; surrounded by deep forest, watching the sky and feeling the moment, some memories can never be captured by a lens. The eerie silence often broken by the sound of forest, my overwhelmed heart fighting a duel, ‘can we spot a tiger’ and ‘the tiger should not be around’.
Now comes the real fun, the day safaris at the Panna Tiger Reserve. Here at Panna the number of tigers is much lesser than in other forests of MP but its appreciable that in the last ten years, the number of tigers has increased from zero to fifty. I also heard an interesting story from the manager of Taj on how the forest department brought two tigers from outside with the objective of increasing the number of tigers here when the number of tigers had gone down to zero due to poaching menace. But, what if they are wild animals, they have the right to choose isn’t it? Sadly, the tiger couple were not interested in each other, and how much the officials had to strategize to make them mate.
The entire forest is of an area of 543 square kilometres and only twenty percent of this area is allowed for visitors, rest is a ‘no visitor’ zone where animals can spend their day their way.
If I have to describe this national park in one word, it will be ‘picturesque’. In one single forest I got to see grasslands, dense forest, hills, rocky terrain, river and a splash of rainbow colours. I witnessed sunrise one day and sunset the next day. I had often gazed at the setting sun at beaches but never knew sunsets in a national park can be equally mesmerising.
Tarun, our naturalist, accompanied us during our safaris and took great care of our comfort. He takes Taj guests for this safari twice a day almost every day and yet never feels bored. I shared the same feelings, I can go round and round the place without getting tired. It was nature in its most raw form.
One more good thing about this national park is that there is no pre-decided route that needs to be followed by visitors. So we had the freedom to drive around like a boss on bumpy rocky roads, hilly terrains or amidst the golden hues in search of wild life. It was a different world! Watching animals in their natural abode is the most wonderful part of safaris.
On one such virgin path, we came across a sloth bear walking towards us. But unfortunately our presence scared him and he took a U-turn and ran for his life. We were conscious that we scared the poor bear, yet his funny action couldn’t stop us from laughing our heart out.
I realised that the little ones are the most inquisitive in the whole family. Every time a vehicle passes or stops by they will be the first one to gaze back and keep scrutinising with probing eyes till we start off to move ahead, bidding them goodbye.
Another thrilling experience in safaris is chasing distress calls. A distress call is given by ‘prey’ animals like deer, as a sign of the presence of a predator (tiger) nearby.
The guides understand these sounds well. The moment we heard a distress call, all the vehicles would change their direction and run to spot the tiger.
It seemed as if the entire burden of making a safari successful is on the shoulder of the tiger!
The chances of spotting a tiger in this national park is not as high as in Kanha or Bandhavgarh, the reason being visitors are allowed only in twenty percent of the forest where there may be only eight tigers out of the fifty (rest live in the eighty percent forest area). And out of those eight, just two to three tigers/tigresses are people friendly, the rest will vanish hearing a vehicle around.
But chasing the distress calls to spot ‘the tiger’ is one fun activity of safari, I realised. The thrill and adrenaline rush is unimaginable.
So, did I spot a tiger in my two days safari? No, I didn’t, though I experienced the thrill of chasing distress calls many times. Alas, the shy animal couldn’t be spotted. I was told that if we manage to go for a five-day safari then we could definitely spot a tiger at Panna. Only a day back, a tigress with her baby cubs were seen strolling around near the main gate. Luck matters, you see.
Yet I loved my overall experience of this national park. It is so divinely beautiful.
I had not gone there with the hope of sighting a tiger but for the mere fun of experiencing safari life, hence I returned contented. But yes, my next safari trip will be to a place where I will finally meet the royal wild animal.
The Ken river flows through the heart of this national park. it is full of crocodiles. Due to COVID restrictions, boating is not allowed as of now. But we got lucky and spotted a crocodile basking in the sun at peace. The animals seemed happy to have been spared from curious onlookers in the form of humans for at least a few months.
Not only that we also got lucky to have our breakfast by the riverside in a cute little hut. This itself became a joke that went around for the rest of my trip because having breakfast here was not in the scheme of things. They have a pre-decided place for that but Tarun had to give in to my demand of having breakfast by the riverside.
This weird wish of mine had taken birth due to an image that I had seen on Taj’s website describing their safari stays. The only difference was that it was an image of Kanha National Park and I have been dreaming for months of experiencing it myself at Panna.
And by the time we were ready to leave Panna, the whole team knew that I will visit Kanha soon only to experience that riverside breakfast.
It was a simple, sumptuous and delicious spread. Tarun took special care of us and did everything himself, starting from laying the spread to wrapping it all up. The personal attention given to us by each of the members of this small Taj family was simply heart touching.
How can I forget Ramadai? My story will remain incomplete without him. His task was to oversee our stay there, to ensure that our requirements are taken care of, to look into our food, what we would like to have, if we liked what was served, if we ate well etc. And during every meal, he would be around us to look into it, religiously. Ramadai is from Nepal, he has been in India for the last ten years or so. Everyone called him Ramadai, though his name is Ramakrishna. 'Dai' in Nepali means 'big brother'. So we too called him that way and he would always be there for us with a smile on his face, quite hidden behind the mask yet quite visible.
The food at Taj Safari stay was another attraction. Simple and homely with a local twist. We thanked God that we were saved from the rich and spicy spread of hotels for all these days and felt quite at home even when it came to food. It was good to know that they encourage locals to be a part of their kitchen. We got some really delicious and simple chicken curry full of local flavours. And a mouth-watering Bundelkhandi thali was given to us on our anniversary night. The team there surprised us with a special cake and beautifully-lit terrace dinner on our anniversary.
I almost lived through the trip once again as I wrote this story. I might not have been able to bring each and every aspect of this beautiful trip to life but as I reach the end I almost feel the same pain that I felt while bidding adieu to the whole team and coming back to our mundane city lives.
It is sad that Nature can never be captured as we see it and even worse is the feeling that our rendezvous with Nature will always be short lived. We have to come back to our city lives, always. We couldn’t get as lucky as the whole team who experience this beauty every day. Tarun left his comfortable engineering job to become a naturalist for the love of nature and wildlife. He joined Taj, got his training and has been living here for a few years now. The entire team has sacrificed their city lives to spend their life with nature and wild animals.
I will end my story with an interesting anecdote that happened on the last evening of our stay. The team heard some distress calls coming from somewhere nearby, signifying the presence of a tiger inside the property. Tarun called us in a hurry and gave us only two minutes to get ready for a late evening safari again. We got one extra safari thanks to Tarun, also because he was unhappy that he couldn’t show us the royal animal and this can be his chance to compensate the loss.
We rushed outside and the huge jeep was ready to vroom. He didn’t drive the jeep, he almost flew it to catch hold of the tiger. We reached a spot from where we could trace the fresh pug marks on sand. He was here and we missed him by whiskers! Let me share an honest confession at the end. I prayed hard for the tiger to keep moving and leave the property before I traced him.
We had chosen Panna National Park because we chose Taj Pashangarh over other safari stays, but at the end, it was difficult to decide which one of the two enamoured us more, the stay or the safari experience. This one was a travel story that I will remember and cherish forever.
This article is a submission by a reader, and part of our series #OTReadersWrite. Have a great travel story to tell? Write to us at email@example.com.