Welcome to my office,” says Karan as we screech dustily to a halt after bumping along a dirt track in an open-top 4X4. It’s 5.30am and a pale moon still lights the sky above Kanha National Park’s Khatia gate in the quiet before dawn. This is the godly hour when bleary-eyed wildlife enthusiasts must haul themselves out of bed, if they hope to see that most magnificent of cats — the Bengal tiger. We join the long line of safari jeeps, jostling nose-to-tail as we wait for the park gates to open. I’m here as the guest of Karan Modi and Isabelle Heini, proprietors of Flame of the Forest Safari Lodge, an environmentally-conscious boutique hotel situated just outside Kanha’s buffer zone.
Our designated forest guard, Dinesh, hops into the back of the jeep, kitted out in prescription safari green and rusty long-barrel shotgun. At 6am sharp, as if alerted mysteriously by ultrasonic waves, the jeeps all roar to life and make a mad dash through the now open gates. We’re heading to the Sarhi zone, one of Kanha’s three sections that are open to visitors. I’ve opted to visit Sarhi as it is the park’s least visited area, promising pristine forests teeming with birds and wildlife. And it doesn’t disappoint.
As we turn off the main road, two little grey jackals stand dead ahead, transfixed by our sudden appearance before scrabbling into the undergrowth. A flash of brilliance reveals itself as a scarlet minivet and, around the next corner, a four-foot-long python suns itself on a warm rock. “This forest is alive for those with a keen eye, a sensitive nose and a trained ear,” says Karan. I’m glad to be travelling with Karan’s eye, nose and ear because animals and birds soon rain down on us thick and fast, skilfully spotted by him despite their perfect camouflage. Red jungle fowls, purple sunbirds, golden orioles, green barbets and orange-headed ground thrushes scarper and flit in and out of towering sal, bamboo and ebony trees, dappled in early morning sunshine. Then, a determined tap-tap-tapping and a sharp call. “That’s a golden-backed woodpecker,” whispers Karan, motioning me to listen. He answers the call, mimicking the woodpecker perfectly. Karan’s repertoire of birdcalls is astounding — he is at once a blue jay, crow pheasant, tailorbird and oriole, thoroughly confusing the poor woodpecker drumming furiously in the distance.
Kanha is not just Karan’s office, but also his home, as he’s spent well over a decade living and breathing Madhya Pradesh’s wildlife. A fifteen-minute drive later, we reach our lodgings, tucked away in the quiet hamlet of Kuthwahi, set prettily on the banks of the river Banjar. Karan and Isabelle (Isa) named the Flame of the Forest Safari Lodge after central India’s iconic flowering tree, the flame of the forest, or palash in Hindi. It flowers in mid-summer and the stunning red and orange flowers dot the ten-acre grounds. The Indian naturalist-and-Swiss yoga teacher duo took pains to hire local masons to build every inch of the premises, using traditional techniques and materials: eighteen-inch-thick brick walls, plastered in mud and cow dung and coated with white limestone, provide excellent insulation from heat and cold as well as acting as natural insect repellents. The main dining area and lounge is open on all sides, providing stunning views of the Banjar River and forests beyond. It is styled in elegant ethnic-chic with bamboo mats on the floors and teak rafters overhead. We sit down to a wonderful meal of chicken curry, fried okra fresh from the garden and hot chapatis washed down with buttermilk and a fragrant mango-flower juice of Isa’s invention.
I cross a wooden boardwalk over a little stream to one of the four independent cottages, for a well-deserved snooze. Inside, I find more evidence of Isa’s personal style. A king-size four-poster draped with old-fashioned mosquito netting dominates the room; a striking black kadappa stone wall at the head end. Niches cradle tribal figurines, while the walls are embossed with friezes of vines and flowers, hand-crafted by Isa during construction. Framed black-and-white photographs, the works of local photographers, are up for sale after exhibiting here for one season. The bathroom is disabled-friendly and holds another surprise. An indigo cotton sari draped around bamboo poles rings the shower area, while an open-air alcove makes for a second, more secluded shower under the stars, water gushing from a faucet hidden cleverly in the slate walls.
Dinner is by lantern-light, set on the Banjar’s seasonally-dry riverbed with a handcart serving as a makeshift dining table. The evening is magical — fireflies frolic overhead, shadowy bats fly silently by, a dog barks across the river and the resident kitten stalks crickets under the table. Sipping gin and tonics served by young, smiley Pappu, Kuthwahi resident and waiter-in-training, the conversation flows. We discuss the couple’s active involvement with Kuthwahi village, the maharaj who runs the bidi shop and also doubles as the village priest, Isa’s concerns about the locals’ inadequate access to medical supplies and how best to increase the villagers’ stake and involvement in wildlife tourism. This is eco-tourism done right. The couple has no plans to expand beyond their current capacity of four cottages, in keeping with their environmental ethics and vision of providing an intimate experience.
The next morning, after a fond farewell to the staff and Isa, who plies me with freshly baked orange-glaze biscuits (for sustenance on my short but surely arduous journey), Karan ferries me to my next destination, Kanha Earth Lodge, twenty minutes away.
Run by Pugdundee Safaris, this property is set amid sixteen acres of forest adjoining Kanha’s buffer zone. Upon arrival, signs of habitation aren’t immediately obvious. Slowly, shapes begin to emerge — warm, honey-coloured walls and ochre-tiled roofs merge seamlessly into the surrounding scrub. Inspired by traditional Gond tribal houses, the twelve low-slung bungalows are built with local stone and open out into wide wooden patios, ideal for bird-watching and copious cups of tea. The interiors are dressed in woody earth tones — burnt sienna upholstery, rust floor tiles and champagne walls. The en suite bath — and dressing rooms are a treat — circular cubicles kitted with state-of-the-art plumbing, slatted wooden floors, open-plan cupboards and piles of fluffy towels. I wrest myself away from the sumptuous décor and venture out to the main lounge.
I meet Karan Rana, wildlife lodge manager extraordinaire. He ran the renowned Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park for eighteen years until the country’s Maoist troubles forced him to relocate. As we sit down to a buffet lunch of aubergine in sweet tomato sauce, tandoori chicken, spicy dal and homemade chocolate fudge, I learn that the owners of Kanha Earth Lodge are among a handful of enlightened lodge owners who are truly committed to conservation and local people’s well-being. Their community project with two neighbouring villages involves training and hiring locals, who make up seventy-five per cent of their staff. They’ve also refrained from installing washing machines, and depend entirely on village washermen and women for guests and staff alike. Their kitchen garden project partners with five local families to grow fresh fruit and vegetables for the lodge. The lodge provides them with land, seeds and technical know-how and then buys back freshly grown supplies from them.
The clock strikes an ungodly 5am and I’m rattling in a jeep once more, this time en route to Kanha meadows, a section of the park where we’re most likely to see tigers. Today’s forest guard is the intriguing Sadan Yadav. Upon my enquiry about our chances of spotting a tiger, he replies, “Every minute in the park counts — it only takes a second to see a tiger, so Positive Thinking.” Boosted by Yadav’s exposition, we break on through the gates. A herd of gaur breaks through the undergrowth straight into us. They pass in twos and threes, females, bulls and calves, all with matching white socks.
It is closing time and still no sign of a tiger. We spy a herd of chital accompanied by a troupe of langurs. Langurs are the eyes and ears of the forest, and are usually the first to sound the predator alarm. As if on cue, they begin calling frantically and the chital become increasingly skittish. Three jeeps roar past us, drivers motioning “ahead ahead”. We race after them and join the five-six jeeps parked single file in a clearing. “There are two cubs sitting in that grass,” whispers Yadav. I squint and peer at the designated spot just fifteen feet away and see absolutely nothing. Much to everyone’s amusement Sadan Yadav begins to make short, sharp tiger calls. After five minutes of keeping this up, an unmistakable reply. And then…another. Two tigers! “They think it’s their mother calling,” Yadav informs me. “She’s gone hunting and they’ve been alone for two days.” In a breathtaking moment, the cub, if that’s what you call an enormous sixteen-month-old female tiger, walks purposefully out of the grass. For anyone who has never seen a tiger in the wild (including myself), nothing can prepare you for the absolute awe this graceful predator inspires. Sinews rippling gold, her sister dramatically follows her sibling. They both silently vanish once more into the yellow and green grass. How an enormous cat can disappear entirely in an instant, when common sense tells you that its still there, is one of nature’s great miracles. “See,” says Yadav practically hopping with glee, “Positive Thinking.”
Where: Kanha National Park. The closest airport is Jabalpur (176km; 3hrs by road).
Accommodation: Flame of the Forest: 4 cottages. Kanha Earth Lodge: 12 bungalows
Tariff: Flame of the Forest: Rs 15,000 doubles (includes meals). Kanha Earth Lodge: Rs 10,000 single/Rs 11,000 doubles (includes meals and taxes)
Contact Flame of the Forest: 9669555339, flameoftheforest.in. Kanha Earth Lodge: 9810024711, kanhaearthlodge.com
Also new in MP
The Syna tiger resort, sprawled over fifteen acres in Bandhavgarh, includes fifteen well-appointed cottages and one treehouse. Unlike classic wildlife lodges, the property features every modern facility expected of a city hotel: banquet/conference hall, spa, gym, pool, bar and a multi-cuisine restaurant. Guests can also enjoy fresh vegetables and Ayurvedic herbs from their organic farm.
Tariff from Rs 20,000 Contact 9165510651, synatigerresort.com