Scurrying feet and an excitable squeaking kept me up late into the night. Built into the sinewy branches of two solid mahua trees, the roof of my tree house at Pundundee Safaris’ Pench Tree Lodge, was the prime stomping ground of an active little critter. “It was probably just a gerbil or civet,” said in-house naturalist Gaurav Dhotre when we assembled for a dawn game drive into Pench National Park. The next second, he was identifying the calls of an Indian scops owl and a nightjar from somewhere on the premises.
Close encounters with small animals are a common occurrence at this lodge, where the six stilted tree houses, built of local sal wood, are perched in the canopy 18 feet above ground. Each room has a wilderness-facing sit-out, a day bed, and lavish bathrooms. Floor-to-ceiling French windows are all that separate the cosy bed from the lodge’s 40 acres of wilderness. This proximity to the wild is the lodge’s greatest luxury, beyond its supremely comfortable rooms and elaborate meals.
When rain hampered our plans to go on a cycling trail to Sagar village, I settled down with a cup of tea in the elevated sit-out. Thunder reverberated through the open grasslands. The tree houses are artfully concealed in this relatively untouched wilderness. All I saw were birds and butterflies huddling for shelter. Fat raindrops lashed at the jamun and mahua trees, and windswept wild grass undoubtedly concealed the resident jungle cat and family of snakes.
To avoid contributing to the heavy tourist footprint at the more popular Turia Gate of Pench National Park, Pench Tree Lodge is located near the quieter Karmajhiri Gate. Unlike other national park gates, where lodges abut each other, and jeep activity is the norm, the lodge’s wild grounds are surrounded by endless cornfields and a handful of blue and green mud homes of Sarrahiri village.
The lodge’s commitment to minimally impact the delicate ecosystem only adds to the wonderful wilderness experience. Wild meadows have been left to prosper and host animal life. At night, the paths are minimally lit with oil lamps. A no-plastic approach means, on arrival, guests are presented with travel-friendly stainless steel flasks, which can be filled at the water station and carried on safari.
Pench was the setting for the famous BBC documentary, Spy in the Jungle, on the region’s tiger cubs. For interested guests, the lodge screens the movie in the cosy wood-panelled upper-deck of the dining area, lined with books and photos of the wild. After watching that fascinating film, I went straight to dinner—a hearty, four-course affair. The meal featured Chef Pankaj’s innovative use of their kitchen garden’s fresh cauliflower, served with pesto, a sprout salad, ravioli, and a strawberry-based dessert.
As I hurriedly walked back to my tree house in the torchlight, I felt hidden eyes upon me, peering out of the branches. It’s an inexplicable sort of thrill, sharing space with the residents of the jungle, especially when you know it’s probably just a gerbil or a civet.
Getting there: The nearest airports and railheads to Pench Tree Lodge are Nagpur (130 km/3 hrs) and Jabalpur (210 km/4 hrs). The lodge is situated 10 km from the Karmajhiri Gate of Pench National Park, in Sarrahiri village.
Pench Tree Lodge
Address: Pench Tree Lodge, Pench National Park, Gram Sarrahirri, Tehsil Kurai, Seoni, Near Karmajhiri Gate
Tel: +91 124 2970497
Tariff: Tree house doubles cost ₹16,000 per night inclusive of all meals and taxes; add-on one (shared) jeep safari for an additional ₹4,000 per night. Safaris cost ₹8,500 per jeep (accommodates six). Six additional ground-level cottages are expected to be up and running from November 2017.
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Pench National Park