By Urmila Banerjee
Urmimala Banerjee of The Wanderers travelled to Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh in Feb, 2007 and came back mesmerized and wiser..here is her story
“I am the only person who can show you the tiger”, said Atul. He was a confident man. It was barely two hours, since we had checked into the Pench Jungle Camp. The 6 kilometers drive from Khawasa to Avarghani Village had been back breaking. The kaccha road was bumpy and threw up dirt at every two minutes. It was a dry area with barren Sal trees and few villagers were working on the main road.
However, the resort was a complete contrast. We parked our Ambassador and proceeded towards the reception. The lawns were impeccable with flowers planted in neat rows. Butterflies fluttered about in gay abandon. A French family was waiting to check in, while the waiters stood in attention.
The drive from Nagpur had been good. En route we had stopped at the Dragon Palace at Kamptee. Built with Japanese aid, it was a big complex with a large prayer hall. We were the first visitors of the day. After a 15 min stop, we drove further. As we entered into the countryside we saw huge sunflower fields and villages homes painted white and blue. A considerable area came under the Forest Department and we could see rows of teak trees. This belt started in Maharashtra, while Khawasa came in the Seoni District of Madhya Pradesh.
After a round of hotel inspection, we were in the common dining area. And it was during a sumptuous lunch that we heard Atul speak about tiger sightings. He was telling the foreign guests that he was one of the few people who could guarantee a tiger/leopard on a safari. “That’s really great! I exclaimed, trying to be genuine. Before embarking on this trip, we were clearly told that spotting a tiger isn’t easy. It is by far the most elusive of wild animals in India.
The safari was at 2 pm. The foreigners rushed to their tents to get their cameras while we waited at the lawns. Atul and his colleague joined the foreigners while we were accompanied by a forest ranger. We were slightly miffed that none of the in-house naturalists accompanied us. Somehow, they seemed more pre-occupied with their foreign clients. We reached the gate of the National Park, where the board read “Indira Priyadarshini Pench National Park’. The park also includes the Mowgli Pench Sanctuary and a buffer. Young boys, picnickers, tourists and officials had formed quite a crowd. Our resort’s staff members did the entry formalities. We hadn’t expected this much noise, as this wasn’t a very popular national park (Atleast we thought so!).
We entered into the park. This was my first visit to a tiger reserve. The forest was dense and the chattering of langurs filled the air. We became alert and started looking around right from the word go! From a green-forested area, we moved slowly to a rougher terrain. The right side was an uneven plateau with dry Sal trees, while the left side was much greener. Our heads turned right and left in a continuous motion. A moment’s lapse and we could lose out on a sighting. My alertness levels had reached a new height. Few birds were chirping noisily. I simply ignored them and looked around for an animal. They were a flock of Jungle Babblers.
Finally, our guide pointed at a Collared Scops Owl sitting in a tree trunk. It was wonderfully camouflaged in shades of brown. Finally, we saw two beady eyes peering at us. It was hardly ten minutes and we could feel the excitement building up. The area had trees like Teak, Sal, Gagri, Dhira, Saja, Bija and Mahua trees. We then encountered a large male Chital (Indian Spotted Deer) lazily chewing the leaves off a tree. He was gorgeous with his big antlers covered in velvet. This beautiful animal is widely found in Northern and Central India. Another one was relaxing, a few meters away from him. But we couldn’t see it properly.
As we moved ahead, we saw more of them. They were walking leisurely chewing the tender leaves that had fallen on the ground. The guide explained that the Langurs dropped them from the treetops for the deer. All along the trip we could hear the langurs swinging from tree to tree. “The langur and Chital are best of friends. Everywhere you find a deer, you’ll find a langur,” said our guide. “Langurs warn the deer of the approaching danger,” he added.
A mention must be made of the ‘Sadhu Monkeys’ i.e. Common Langurs striking the most sagacious poses. Their perfectly crossed legs made for great meditative postures. We saw many of them throughout the safari, lost in introspection.
Pench is not particularly grassy, especially in summers. Now, we were driving towards the watering hole. This was a low lying area with dry grass. A lone Nilgai was grazing out here.Seeing us, the shy animal fled. The Blue Bull or Nilgai is found only in India, mostly in lowlands and plains. Moving ahead, we crossed a small path with a dry river bed below it. A Gaur (Indian Bison) was walking over it. He went a little further whereby we couldn’t see him clearly. Though we knew that the chance of spotting a tiger at Pench was low, we kept on asking. Somehow, the thought of spotting a tiger was always at the back of our minds.
Driving along the riverside we saw herds of deer, males and females with cubs in tow. A beautiful Indian Roller made a brief appearance, sitting for 2 minutes on a stone. We saw two Gaurs (Indian Bison) drinking from the waterhole. As we moved ahead, we saw a whole herd of them. The oldies kept to themselves while the younger ones drank in groups. We drove very close to a young male that was standing alone. After a few minutes when he seemed to get irritated, we moved away.
Pench has a rugged landscape of small hills and uneven plateaus. It was quite a roller-coaster ride driving up and down the forest routes. I got up from my seat to get a better view of the landscape. The deciduous trees were shedding their leaves and the whole park was carpeted with them. A family of wild boars was walking up the plateau. The guide told us that they are known to charge with or without any provocation.
It was almost 5 pm. We came near the banks of the river Pench and rested awhile. This area is known as Sitaghat and is a birder’s paradise. Species like egret, stork, cormorant and kingfishers could be easily spotted. Our British friends seemed particularly delighted. This was their second visit to India and they were on the ‘Tiger Trail’. We left our friends and moved ahead.
The sun was slowly setting in. We drove ahead and saw a couple of jeeps at a stop. The other guide said that they had heard the call of Sambhar Deer. This call is the most important signal for rangers and tourists that a predator is nearby. I stood up on my seat and looked at my left. A herd of deer was resting near some boulders. I saw them getting up slowly and moving away. More vehicles started congregating near us. Our 15-min wait was futile. The guide told us that most probably it was a leopard.
We now reached a different part of the forest. This was a mixed forest with bamboo thickets and dense undergrowth. The branches of the Indian Ghost Tree seemed to shine in the twilight. We spotted a creature behind a bush. It was a female Sāmbhar Deer. On spotting us, she retreated back into the bushes. As we moved further, we saw a mother and her cub. They were ambling along the road. We gave way for the pair to cross to the other side. A little later, we saw a lovely fully-grown female Sāmbhar Deer.
Besides the animals, we saw a lot of birds. Peacock and peahen were in large numbers throughout the forest. A long tailed bird flew over our heads. It was the Racket-tailed Drongo; a rare bird. We left the park in the next ten minutes. On reaching the camp, we were refreshed with tea and biscuits. As we sat before the bonfire late evening exchanging stories, we learnt more about the forest. The other foreign guests had a deep love and passion for wildlife. Different people from different walks of life all bound with a common love for Indian jungles. The starlit sky was simply gorgeous; we did a bit of stargazing. I don’t remember seeing a star lit sky in Mumbai for ages.
One of the waiters told us that the Chital as well as leopards wander into the resort grounds at night. We didn’t have a lock in our otherwise luxurious tent. At night, we heard a variety of calls and sounds. The forest never sleeps.