“Dhatt dhatt dhatt,” said Jatan the mahout, pulling furiously on the tail of Smita the elephant, who was attempting to sneak off and dodge her daily bath. On a hot day, elephants love bathing in forest streams such as this one in Satpura Tiger Reserve, but the day was grey and cloudy, and it took Jatan some persuading and more tail-tugging to lead Smita back, bottom first, into the chilly stream.
We watched carefully as he proceeded to bathe all three tons of her 60-year- old frame. How does one bathe an elephant in five easy steps?
Step 1: Neatly place shoes on nearby rock to keep them dry.
Step 2: Ask elephant to lower herself into the water until submerged, except for tummy and trunk, which continues to stick out like a snorkel.
Step 3: Climb onto elephant and proceed to scrub stomach, neck and bottom, doing one’s best to avoid her spiky head hairs.
Step 4: Ask elephant to stand, shimmy down her nose and scrub her underbelly, splashing liberally.
Step 5: Release elephant and retrieve dry shoes.
Smita is one of the Forest Department’s working elephants, whose job it is to patrol the forest, looking for signs of poachers or trespassers. Our naturalist, Yogesh Ganu, said that Satpura’s rangers were very good, and each patrolling station was always manned by at least two guards. “There’s little poaching here,” he said, “because the Tawa and Denwa rivers act as natural boundaries to the park on three sides.”
Satpura Tiger Reserve is one of central India’s best-kept secrets. The rugged Satpura hills stretch across most of the park’s 1,427 sq km, creating a wonderland of undulating sandstone, deep ravines, narrow gorges, sparkling streams, tumbling waterfalls and dense forests. Although perfect for tigers, this habitat doesn’t lend itself to easy tiger spotting, as there are too many places for a cat to hide. It is this very characteristic that has been Satpura’s blessing, for it has kept the general populace away, leaving the park to the animals.
Entering the gates, we spotted a mugger (marsh crocodile) basking near a watering hole. An egret waded perilously close to its jaws, while a lone wild boar rooted around for tubers, head underwater. So single-minded was the boar in his search for submerged goodies that he didn’t even come up for air. I called him Old Bill as he reminded me of a salty sea captain, with not a friend in the world save for a foolhardy egret and a smiling mugger.
“Big cats love roads and use them extensively,” said Yogesh, as we drove down a dirt track in our jeep. “Roads offer them great connectivity and are soft on their paws,” he added. I was tickled to learn that so many man-hours had gone into building what was essentially a cat highway. At least here, in this tiny corner of the world, tigers and leopards had right of way. A deep honking, like a ship’s horn, sounded through the trees. “A sambar deer alarm call,” said Yogesh. Deep in the scrub sat a leopard, its broad golden head ringed with black rosettes. We watched it for 10 minutes. Then, as if exasperated that we showed no signs of leaving, it stood up and padded away, its limbs almost boneless. “You can always rely on sambar,” said Yogesh. “When they call, you can be certain there’s a predator nearby.” “Cheetal also make alarm calls, don’t they?” I enquired. “Yes, but they’re very unreliable,” he said. “They’re so skittish that if a male cheetal snuck up on a female, she’d shoot into the air and call out in terror!”
We drove through thick forest, accompanied by that rarest of feelings—of being utterly alone. Our forest guard gave a low whistle. “Reech,” he said, pointing upwards. At the very top of a tree was a shaggy black blob. It moved, revealing a large sloth bear, almost six feet long from nose to tail. The bear looked up, saw us, and began climbing down, using both paws to grip the trunk like a coconut-picker. “Hold tight,” said Yogesh, “sloth bears often charge unprovoked.” But all it did was mosey around, 20 feet away, ignoring us completely.
We were lucky that day, for around the next corner was another black shape—this time a mother bear carrying two cubs. They were perfectly at ease, tumbling across her broad back as if it was their playground. Satpura is famous for its sloth bears, who thrive here due to the vast variety of trees that provide them with fruit all through the year.
Dusk was approaching and we headed for the park gate, past Old Bill the boar and the beady-eyed mugger. We climbed into a motorboat that ferried us across the Denwa river—a tributary of the mighty Narmada and the only way in and out of the park. On the opposite shore, amber tiled roofs peeped out from above the trees. This was Denwa Backwater Escape, which was to be our home for the night.
Built over 10 forested acres along the waterfront, Denwa is the newest of Pugdundee Safaris’ suite of properties. Denwa has many comforts with which to entice you, but the single reason to visit the property is its location — every one of its 8 cottages, 2 tree houses, pool, library, bar and deck, look straight onto the rippling river.
That evening, we ate a masterful meal: beetroot salad, cheese and spinach ravioli, sautéed greens, baby corn and mushrooms. And the final flourish — oreos topped with creamy custard. Then it was time for bed. My cottage was a picture of elegance, honey-coloured walls hung with Gond art. In a corner sat a beautifully crafted leather writing desk and chair. Outside, there were deckchairs overlooking the river and a shaded terrace where staff would string up mosquito netting if you wished to sleep outdoors.
Pugdundee’s lodges never disappoint because the proprietors, Vinnie and Manav, are among a handful of entrepreneurs who offer a certain kind of wildlife experience — one that stems from their obvious love of wildlife and wild places. They employ mainly locals, source ingredients from nearby villages, construct using indigenous materials and build a modest number of rooms so as to minimise their footprint — all this without scrimping on luxury.
A pale dawn greeted us next morning as we boated across the river towards misty hills that rose from the opposite shore. There, we met Kathryn and Martin Henton from Devon, Siddhanath the tusker and Lakshmi the baby elephant, who was three years old and weighed 200 kg.
Lakshmi walked straight up to Martin’s shirt pocket and pulled out a banana that he’d put there for safekeeping. While she munched on the remains of Martin’s breakfast, we climbed onto Siddhanath’s back and lumbered off across green valleys and grassy hills. We spied a mother and baby sambar standing stock still, staring at a mound. In an instant, the mahout swung Siddhanath around and charged up the mound, following the direction of the sambars’ gaze. “Tendua,” he cried. Leopard!
“Did you see it?” I gasped to Kathryn, who was in front. “Only the leopard’s bottom as it ran away,” she replied. We spent the next hour scouring the tall grass for it, but no luck, although we did find the remains of a freshly killed boar.
After the morning’s excitement, we set out on our next adventure — a two-day walking safari through the tiger reserve. Our start point was the Pachmarhi plateau, 84 km away, from where we would retrace the old trail used by the British officer, Captain James Forsyth, who wrote the classic The Highlands of Central India in 1870. Our safari leaders were Pradyot Rana, lead naturalist at Denwa, and Bahadur, a guide with the Forest Department.
“Today’s hike is just 10 miles (16 km) and its all downhill,” said Pradyot cheerfully in greeting. “I’d advise you to carry a stick, as we may encounter a sloth bear. With their pea-sized brains and poor senses, they’re prone to charge, so if one comes at you, hit it squarely on the nose.” Only Kathryn agreed to carry a stick “just to help with the walking,” and Pradyot cut her a stout branch with a beautiful machete. We set off through the sal forest, scrambling over rocks and tree roots. At first, it seemed almost devoid of animals, quiet, save for the crunch of leaves underfoot. But our guides soon brought the forest to life. A cinnamon-coloured bird sailed over our heads. “That’s a rufous treepie,” said Yogesh, “it reminds me of a big lemon meringue pie.” I spied a little brown squirrel with five white stripes. “Legend says that Lord Rama ran his fingers across its back, marking it for eternity,” said Yogesh. “Aha!” he added, crouching over a rock as we rushed towards him. “An Indian skink,” he said pointing to a tiny gecko.
Whether great or small, all creatures elicited the same excitement and respect…even the ones we didn’t see, like the white-bellied drongo. “See the green tree?” said Yogesh, as we peered wildly about the scores of green trees around us. “On it is a white-bellied drongo.” We didn’t see a tiger either, or a leopard or a boar for that matter. But we did see plenty of signs that they had walked this way. Fresh leopard scat, porcupine scrapings, wild dog paw prints, even the hoof prints of little boar piglets.
Red-bottomed macaques rattled the branches above us. “Did you know they’re omnivores, while langurs are pure vegetarians?” asked Pradyot. In March and April the mahua ripens, and monkeys, cheetal and bears get drunk on the fermented fruit. “There’s chaos,” said Pradyot describing the scene: “Cheetal sounding alarm calls any old time, monkeys hanging from their tails, tigers doing the catwalk — strutting up to trees and simply waiting for drunk monkeys to plop down.”
We first glimpsed our camp from across the river that flowed along its edge. A row of lanterns glistened, their light reflecting prettily off the water. After hot showers, we sank into cosy deckchairs around a bonfire and ate masala peanuts and hot kebabs straight from the tandoor. We were miles from anywhere and yet the staff had miraculously produced a three-course meal: tomato soup, paneer makhni, yellow dal, bhuna gosht and the chef’s own creation, a milk pudding pie.
BOOM! I awoke past midnight to a roar of thunder. CRASH! My tent pole was down. It was a magnificent storm, with frog-sized raindrops and gale-force winds. I leapt out of bed and managed to right my tent pole. Pulling my deckchair under the safety of the tarpaulin, I looked out into the night. Sheet lightening lit the sky, bright as day. I finally went back to bed, where I was snug as a bug and dry as a bone.
Next morning, we surveyed the damage: we’d lost a few lanterns but not much else. An immaculate breakfast table laden with fresh juice, fruit, eggs, toast, muesli and poha stood out in the open, under jet-black clouds that threatened more rain.
Unperturbed, we set off. The sky cleared and the sun shone. It was a sparkling day. We walked along the river’s edge, sometimes on soft sand, at other times clinging to sheer rock. And then we saw it: a tiger pugmark, less than a day old. It was incredible to be in tiger country — on foot. “The tigers here aren’t used to humans, and will avoid us if they can,” said Pradyot. I fervently hoped so. “A guest once asked me how many tigers there were in Satpura,” he added. “I told him there were 47, according to the previous year’s census.” “But we’ve only seen two today,” said the guest. “Where have all the others gone?”
After one more night at camp, we headed back to Denwa, where I stayed in a treehouse, 30 feet in the air. It was our last evening and we set sail down the river. Shy muggers slipped into the water as we approached, never allowing us more than a glimpse. Scores of waterbirds congregated here and I lost count of all the species we saw. Black and orange brahminy ducks, river lapwings, cormorants and funny little birds called stilts, who stood on the longest pair of legs I’d ever seen. Bar-headed geese flew over us, winter visitors from far-away Tibet. These were the highest-flying birds in the world — some reports suggested that they flew higher than Mt. Everest on their journey over the Himalaya. “After a hard day’s work, where do bar-headed geese go?” asked Yogesh with a grin. But by far the most dazzling was the black and white pied kingfisher. It hovered for a minute, then dropped like a stone into the water, swooping up again with a fish in its mouth. We watched as it smashed the fish on a rock and swallowed it whole.
Gliding silently, we passed the watering hole near the park gates. Old Bill was still there, nose stuck in the water. “Sar utha de, mere bhai,” said Yogesh, hoping for a peek at the lonesome boar. And though we waited some 10 minutes, we never did see his face. I hoped that he wouldn’t walk absent-mindedly into the jaws of his affable pond-mate, the mugger.
Satpura Tiger Reserve is best accessed by air from Bhopal (140 km). Satpura is very well connected by train and can be reached from Itarsi (70 km/2 hrs by road to the park); Hoshangabad (70 km/2 hrs by road to the park); or Piparia (40 km/1 hr by road to the park).
Taxis can be hired from all four towns to reach the park. Denwa Backwater Escape (Village Sarangpur, Satpura Tiger Reserve, Hoshangabad) offers pick-up and drop services in comfortable four-wheel drive vehicles on prior booking.
When to visit
The best season for Satpura is from mid-October to end-June (although May and June get hot, these are also the months that offer the best wildlife sightings). The park closes between July and mid-October for the monsoon.
Where to stay
Denwa Backwater Escape (+91- 9810024719, denwabackwaterescape. com, pugdundeesafaris.com) comprises 8 deluxe river-view cottages (from Rs 14,000 doubles including meals and taxes) and 2 river-view tree houses (from Rs 17,000 doubles including meals and taxes) spread over 10 acres of forested land at the edge of the Denwa river. The property remains open through monsoon.
What to see & do
Denwa Backwater Escape organises jeep safaris inside the national park. Safaris inside the park are operated by the village society and Denwa provides a naturalist to accompany guests for all activities. You can explore the jungle via elephant safaris offered by the Forest Department’s trusty working elephants. Boat safaris are another wonderful way to explore the Denwa’s inlets.
You could even take a three-man canoe onto the river. You can also do a day-walk inside the park and explore tiger habitat on foot! The lodge also organises visits to nearby Gond villages, bird-watching, camping, cycling, and night safaris in the park’s buffer zone.The Unesco World Heritage Bhimbetka caves (45 km south of Bhopal), with their prehistoric paintings dating back 12,000 years, make for a great detour.
The walking safari
Between November and March, you could take the four-day walking safari (Rs 35,000 per person per night inclusive of road connections, meals, full camping, naturalist fees, park fees and guide charges; +91 9810024711, pugdundeesafaris.com) along the scenic Forsyth’s Trail, which includes three nights of camping inside the park.
The safari starts at Pachmarhi and retraces the trail taken by Captain J. Forsyth of the Bengal Lancers 150 years ago. There is no electricity at the campsites of Daheliya and Manakachar, and accommodation is in tents furnished with twin cots, blankets and pillows. The camp staff provides wonderful service, while the cooks turn out delicious meals. A team of experienced naturalists accompanies all safaris. Minimum of two people required.
Carry a sturdy pair of walking shoes, hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, personal medication and a pair of binoculars if you own one. T-shirts for the day and a jumper and woolly cap for the nights.