Established as a National Park in 1981 and officially declared a Tiger Reserve in 1994, Panna National Park is spread over 542.67 sq km. The sanctuary was formed out of the hunting reserves of the princely states of Panna, Chhatarpur and Bijawar, and in 1975, most of this area became a part of the Gangau Wildlife Sanctuary. Fourteen out of 17 villages situated in the park have been relocated to make the park an outstanding habitat for tigers.

Tiger sightings in the park are now as good as in the more famous Bandhavgarh and Kanha national parks. Unlike in Bandhavgarh or Kanha, you don’t have to follow a queue of jeeps into the reserve and sit idling in exhaust fumes as you wait for a 30-min lumber through the bushes on elephant back or jostle for space with hordes of other visitors. This lack of tourists is remarkable, given the park’s wonderful location.

Trees common in Panna include teak, tendu, mahua and salai. Panna has had a checkered history as far as its tiger population is concerned. It had a thriving tiger population until the 1990s but lost them all by early 2009 due to poaching, infanticide by males and paucity of female tigers. However, in a global first, the park has regained its tiger population as a result of translocation of 6 founder animals from other parks, including two captive tigresses. The park now has over 25 tigers, despite the dispersal of several cubs and translocation of four tigers to Satpura, Sanjay and Van Vihar national parks.

Jitender Gupta
Storks perched on boulders in the still waters of the Ken river
Storks perched on boulders in the still waters of the Ken river

Orientation

Panna National Park’s topography is a splendid mosaic of plateaus, plunging gorges, vast expanses of teak forests and savannah grasslands. It comprises the upper Talgaon Plateau and the middle Hinouta Plateau and is fed by the Ken river, which runs for about 55 km within the sanctuary. NH75 cuts through the park; 80 per cent of the reserve falls to its right (west to east) and 20 per cent to the left. Your park safari will take you along the right of the highway, in the main reserve area. Among other attractions, Dhundwa Falls are located on the Hinouta Plateau and Pandava Falls are best approached from the Pandava Falls Gate, just off the NH75 to Panna Town and Chhatarpur Town. The gate is about 7 km east of the Madla Gate.

Most safaris enter the park from Madla Village, which is located on the main highway, 22 km from Panna Town. Both Khajuraho and Chhattarpur lie to the northwest of the park. There are a few lodges located at Madla that provide vital tourist services.

Driving up from the Madla Gate, you follow the Ken river for a few miles and then wind your way past an open grassland and thick, closed canopy forests on to the rocky Hinouta Plateau. From here, look down on the river and enjoy the expansive views of the park.

The other entrance to the park is from Hinouta, which falls on the eastern side of the park, 20 km away from the Madla Gate. The Panna diamond mines lie close to the Hinouta Gate, which was a convenient exit point for the safari to facilitate a visit to the mines.

Park Entry Indians 1,200; Foreigners 2,400; per vehicle per round, upto 6 pax Timings October 16-January 31: 6.30-11am & 2.30-5.30pm; February-March: 6.00-10.30am & 3.00-6pm; April-June: 5.30-10am & 3.30-7pm Guide 300 per round Jeep rental 2,000 per half day

MP Tourism
Deer sighting at Panna National Park
Deer sighting at Panna National Park

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

From safaris to boat rides, spotting crocodiles to tigers and sloth bears, Panna offers many exciting opportunities to the wildlife lover. Besides the big cats, which can be elusive, you can also spot several other animals including including sambar, spotted deer, chinkara, nilgai, langur, wild dogs, hyena, jackal, sloth bear, gharials, otters and crocodiles.

MP Tourism
A kingfisher at the sanctuary
A kingfisher at the sanctuary

Birding enthusiasts should bring their binoculars: the park hosts a large avian population as well, with 300 species of birds including the grey-headed fish eagle. A ride on the Ken River is a must and promises to be a rewarding experience – you are sure to glimpse many birds from your vantage point on the boat. The dense teak forests in Panna add to its many charms and lend it a wonderfully mystic touch.

JEEP SAFARI

The mainstay of any trip to Panna, jeep safaris in the park run in the morning and afternoon. There are no government jeeps available, so you’ll need to rent jeeps from a private operator or ask your hotel to arrange one, even though it can be rather expensive. Safari 6.30-10.30am & 2.30-5.30pm

ON THE KEN RIVER

The Forest Department offers an hour-long boat ride on the Ken river during Panna’s open hours. This tour will be especially worth your while in winter, when you can see scores of crocodiles basking in the sun. The Ken River Lodge offers its own boat tours outside the park for its residents. Because these trips can be arranged whenever you like, they can be more rewarding than the Forest Department tour. Sundown is perhaps the best time to spot and photograph the waterfowl.

Forest Dept Boat Ride Entry Indians 150 (1-5 pax); Foreigners 150 per person Timings 6.30- 10.30am & 2.30-5.30pm

You can also go angling on the river. Permits are arranged by the Ken River Lodge for their residents for angling outside the National Park area, on the Ken.

ELEPHANT SAFARI

This is a requirement for any trip to the jungle. Lasting an hour or so, it is your best chance to spot a tiger. Safari Indians 500; Foreigners 1,500; per person per hour.

NIGHT SAFARI IN GANGAU

Some of the most interesting animals come out only at night, including rare jungle cats, porcupines and sloth bears. The tiger reserve is closed after dark, but Ken River Lodge arranges night safaris through the nearby reserve forest. The trip takes 3-4 hrs, and it’s almost certain you’ll spot animals that you can’t see in the park during the day. The price is a bit steep, so it’s best to form a group (of four) to fill up the vehicle if the trip isn’t included in your package. Fee 7,000, inclusive of camping.

Jitender Gupta
A tree house overlooking Ken river
A tree house overlooking Ken river

Where to Stay

Resorts and guesthouses are located in the villages of Madla as well as Majgawan on the periphery of the park. The most famous property is Ken River Lodge (Tel: 07732-275235/ 240, Delhi Reservations Tel: 0124-4222657-59, Cell: 09810024719, 09718637711; Tariff: 7,000-18,000, with meals and safari), about 2 km from the Madla entry gate. This sprawling, scenic property is situated next to the river. It has six pucca huts with attached concrete bathrooms running hot and cold water, and 13 attractive cottage rooms with modern bathrooms, living rooms, kitchens and open decks; spread out over 40 acres of jungle along the Ken River.

Another great option is The Sarai at Toria (+91-124-2356004, www.saraiattoria.com) situated in the sylvan surroundings of agricultural land just beside the Ken River and a stone’s throw from Panna Tiger Reserve. It consists of 8 large, independent cottages (16,600 on double occupancy per night/22,500 per night on family occupancy, including all meals and in-house activities, excluding taxes) with large bathrooms and verandahs and a private courtyard. The cottages are mostly fabricated with mud and thatched roofs. This means really good insulation in heat or cold. The Sarai has a large living area with a fire pit, as well as an extremely well-stocked library that covers both wildlife and monuments with equal aplomb. You can laze around with a book or go for a boat ride on the Ken. You could also go for a village walk to nearby Madla. Run by the knowledgeable and personable Dr Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen, you will not be short of interesting conversations, especially around the evening fire in the garden, by the river. The Sarai can also arrange for day trips around Khajuraho, as well as safaris into Panna Tiger Reserve.

The most luxurious place in Panna is Pashan Garh (Mumbai Reservations Tel: 022-66011825; Tariff: 87,200, with meals and twice-a-day safari) run by Taj Safaris and patronised mostly by foreigners and those looking to take a luxurious trip which also weaves in a visit to a national park. Surrounded by private wilderness, the lodge consists of 12 stone cottages spread out along a stream, each with a verandah offering stunning views.

Near the park gates on the main road through Panna, at Tourist Hut Madla (Tel: 252135; Tariff: 1,600), the Forest Department offers its usual hospitality – with a mug for the Indian-style loo and all – for a very low price. Two rooms are available, but keep this as your last resort. Mohan Raj Villas (Tel: 254439; Tariff: 1,500-2,100), in Civil Lines, offers 13 rooms. This simple, but comfortable hotel organises safaris and has an in-house restaurant.

You can, alternatively, opt for the many guesthouses and hotels in Khajuraho, located only 30 km away.

Where to Eat

Eating out in Panna will not be a great culinary experience, but the best option is the tree-house restaurant of the Ken River Lodge. The lodge also offers a good spread of fresh fruit, eggs the way you like them and excellent tandoori parathas for breakfast, and Indian buffet meals for lunch and dinner. However, it is only for guests.

AROUND PANNA

PANDAVA FALLS (6 km)

Rajesh Thakur
A group of small shrines at Pandava Falls
A group of small shrines at Pandava Falls

These waterfalls are an idyllic spot situated just a few minutes’ drive from Panna. It is believed that the Pandavas spent some time in the ancient caves here, which overlook the pool at the base of the 30-m high waterfall. The fall is perennial in nature, and can be visited throughout the year, but is at its peak during the monsoons.

The enjoyable walk to Pandava Falls takes a couple of hours, and is a good way for teenagers to burn off some excess energy. Entry Free with Panna pass

Alternatively, travellers can also opt for a package trip to the falls as well as Panna Town, which includes witnessing an evening aarti at the temple, diamond polishing or diamond shopping and a trip to the private mines. These mines do not use chemicals, and are located about 10 km from the town. The cost for a half-day jeep rental is approx 1,800.