A langur’s warning call emanated from deep within the forested grounds of Taj Baghvan, a safari lodge at Pench National Park. Before I knew it, I was running down a dark, wooded path illuminated by torchlight, with passionate in-house naturalist Sohel, and enthusiastic-about-the-wild personal butler, Raj, speculating on what it could be. The langur calls got louder, and then chital joined the fray, warning of predators. “Maybe a leopard or dhole (wild dogs)”, said Sohel.
When an alarm call rings out through the jungle, it stirs every living thing into action. Animals usually freeze and strain their ears, trying to identify the direction of the sound.
I was at once terrified and thrilled, and had no time to consider how I’d react to seeing a predator on foot. Then suddenly, we stopped short at a lantern-strung clearing in the woods.
Game over. I’d been had.
A table was set under the stars. Tejas, the lodge’s manager, stood there stirring a pot on a coal fire, while Chef Kanhaiya, clearly a man of many talents, effortlessly imitated animal calls. An elaborate prank had been devised to break us out of our post-safari reverie, and lure us to an ever-changing dinner location.
Being at Baghvan is a lot like being at a friend’s extremely lavish home. The staff goes out of their way to make you comfortable, but also try to foster a bond with guests. Through practical jokes and stories of their own experiences in the wild, they invite you to engage with the forest in ways you wouldn’t have thought of.
Such is the effect of employing mostly local staff, and playing to their talents. Like Chef Kanhaiya who hails from Turia village, the staff’s innate familiarity with the forest, local traditions, and cuisine, enhances the jungle experience.
I’d expressed an interest in the region’s local food, and at dinner, I sampled kuduk— besan-coated stir-fried colocasia leaves; and paneer cooked in a bamboo stem. Over a lavish meal, as fireflies buzzed overhead, Sohel and head naturalist Shreenidhi shared fascinating stories of the lesser-known creatures of this wilderness. By the end of that meal, I wanted to spend the next week in this jungle just tracking the elusive pangolin.
Mid-meal, a re-enactment of their theatre ensued when Raj spotted movement in the branches. I followed, suspicious this might be yet another prank, but no, there truly was a palm civet in the trees, staring us down with her beady eyes.
Knowledgeable and sociable hosts raise the value of the safari experience several notches. The hosts at Baghvan gently nudged me towards aspects of the forest well beyond the famous striped cat, inspiring me to return better informed.
No comfort is spared. It seems almost a shame that a vacation in the jungle is mostly about the time spent away from your luxurious accommodation. Rooms here have both indoor and outdoor showers, accessible through an outdoor passage.
The meals at Baghvan are lavish. The packed breakfast while on safari, included the house-special crunchy muesli, freshly baked chocolate chip muffins, chicken sandwiches, and French press coffee.
Animals are free to wander the lodge’s wild grounds, which are unobtrusively lit at night. Twelve secluded cottages feature luxurious rooms in turquoise and earthy tones, a sit-out facing the forest, and the nullah (small river bed) beyond it, where the big cat sometimes roams. Thoughtful accessories include torches, mosquito repellents, and little vials of orange and mint squash.
There is another, very special feature at Baghvan, but one I did not have the courage to experience: an overnight machan experience. In your villa’s upper-level machan, you can choose to sleep amidst the trees, on a bed open to the forest on four sides, separated by nothing but a mosquito net. A tempting prospect, but maybe for the next time: I’d had my fill of wild adventures for the night.
Getting there: Baghvan is located five minutes away from the Turia gate of Pench National Park, in Awargani village. The closest airports are at Nagpur (90 km; 2 hours) and Jabalpur (192 km; 4 hours).
Baghvan – A Taj Safari Lodge
Address: Baghvan, Pench National Park, Village Awargani, Post Duria, Tehsil Kurai, District Seoni, Madhya Pradesh – 480881.
Tel: +91 22 6601-1825
Tariff: Doubles from ₹37,920 plus taxes per night, including all meals. Rates are dynamic and also vary by season. Shared safaris cost ₹3,000 plus taxes per person.
Tip: Chat with the mostly local staff about weekly village haats, local food, and their encounters with the wild. They are a storehouse of information and anecdotes about life on the fringes of the wilderness.
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