NATIONAL PARKS OF CENTRAL INDIA - November/December 2018


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Asia » India
December 10th 2018
Published: December 10th 2018
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We flew from Udaipur to Mumbai (Bombay of old) and then an onward flight to Nagpur located in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The city is notable for its juicy oranges and extensive amounts of them are sent out to different parts of India and abroad.



Due to the long distances we had to rest here for the night before heading off to visit three of the National Parks. It was here in Nagpur that my Uncle, Ronald St John Groves was posted to a teaching seminary in 1937 just three months after being ordained in Devizes, Wiltshire. All was well at first and he enjoyed his first mission but when WW2 started he was the only Englishman for miles, the rest were German, Italian and French and life became pretty unbearable so he returned to the UK. He joined the RAF and was given the rank of Squadron Leader and served throughout India and Burma as a Padre. During his travels he managed to visit Sabathu, a small village in Himachal Pradesh where his mother, my Grandmother was born. Yet another connection I have to India the land of the birth of my Great Grandmother and Grandmother.



NAGPUR



After a overnight rest in Nagpur we were collected and driven to the first of the three national parks we were going to visit. I think my uncle would not recognise the city today now home to nearly 3 million people. On the way we passed many people walking along the roadside, although quite a natural sight in Indian there did seem to be a lot more people around than normal. Passing through a small town we were stopped and our bags were searched by local police and we had to show our passports but did not get detained too long. A little further on people were crowding around an official sat at a table by the dirty roadside. It was local election day, hence all the police activity, our driver said they were ensuring that no one was carrying alcohol which was banned during elections.





TATHASTU LODGE



About an hour later we turned off down a narrow lane before reaching Tathastu Lodge, our accommodation for the next three nights. Tathastu which in the Sanskrit language means 'granted as you desire', is a safari resort located close to Pench National Park. It had 43 rooms with restaurant, library, indoor pool, spa, garden and barbecue facilities. We met Rishwabh Kansara, the General Manager and Mukesh Kumar Patle who was going to be our Naturalist during our stay at the lodge.



We were then taken to our accommodation and introduced to Nitesh who looked after the villa and us during our stay. Our villa had a large living room with dining area, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, upstairs and downstairs balconied and large garden with a swing chair and hanging day bed. There was also a massive outdoor fire pit, so plenty of room for a very large family - we did not really need half the space but enjoyed it. The nearest villa was quite a distance away so lots of privacy too. One thing missing though was a room safe but they said they would bring us one - a little while later one was carried in - we did not use it in the end though, as thought if they could carry it in then it could easily be carried out!!



We settled in and Mukesh came and said he would give us a tour of the area looking for birds and also for a walk around a local village. We met our driver, Pravesh a young local boy who proved to be a careful driver on the rough roads. We set off and spotted several new birds straight away and particularly liked the the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. A medium-sized black Asian bird which is distinctive in having elongated outer tail feathers with webbing which flutter as they fly.



The village was surrounded by small fields where they grow rice in the monsoon season as well as wheat and maize. Every bit of land was used and there were small haystacks on the edge of the fields. The stacks were covered in bits of cloth to keep scavengers at bay and protect the food for the owners and their livestock. Chickens were definitely free range wandering around the village and into the surrounding fields. Goats and cattle were herded by youngsters moving them on when necessary. One young girl of about seven was sat in the middle of the track cuddling a young goat whilst its mother and others were feeding nearby. The village was tiny only a few homes, there were several newly constructed concrete low houses painted pink whilst others were traditionally thatched roof homes.



We walked through the centre of the village and were soon surrounded by smiling children. We stopped at the village well where one of the ladies was collecting water in large metal containers. The village had a small junior school - the guide told us there was just one teacher and all the children attended.



We continued on pulling over to let a tractor go passed laden with hay it only just fitted on the road touching the hedges on both sides. When we spotted a new bird Mukesh would point it out in his guide book. However a little while later he could not find his book, it had fallen out of the open side of the vehicle. He said not to worry as someone would return it to the lodge for him, they were very honest people in the area. Even though they did not have much they would not take another persons property.



Back at the lodge later we walked down in the dark to the restaurant for dinner spotting a couple of large sized tigers on the way … … thank goodness they were not real - but very realistic statues nevertheless … … …



The next morning we were awoken by Nitesh, the houseboy with hot coffee and cookies before Mukesh arrived at our door with a Jeep to take us on our first safari. We were surprised when Nitesh gave us some blankets - we nearly refused as we had our fleece, scarf and gloves, but we were so glad we did as it was really cold particularly when the vehicle was moving at speed. Our warm clothes were going to prove a godsend for us and we wish we had brought our base layers as well. I was so excited, looking forward to our first safari at Pench and seeing some more wildlife, particularly a Sloth Bear …. … … Most people come to India to see the illusive tiger but I really wanted to see a Sloth Bear.





PENCH NATONAL PARK - Madhya Pradesh



Pench National Park gets its name from the river that runs through it, dividing it into east and west. Like Kanha where we were going next, the forests of Pench are said to have inspired the much loved ‘The Jungle Book’. In the year 1831, a wolf child was found in these jungles and the accounts published spurred Sir Rudyard Kipling’s imagination and the rest is history.



Pench is located on the southern boundary of Madhya Pradesh, bordering Maharashtra, a place of wild natural beauty, it has open grassy hilly terrain, large teak forests, interspersed with striking Kulu trees, their silvery white trunks lending a ghostly appearance and our known here as Ghost Trees. The park is large, covering 758 sq km, out of which there is a Core Zone of 299 sq km and the remaining 464 sq km is the Buffer Zone.



In any protected area the Core Zone is the part most strictly protected. That is where biodiversity is highest and human economic activity is severely curtailed or prohibited. The Buffer Zone is less strictly regulated, but in order to protect the integrity of the core zone, there are still restrictions on economic activity. Hunting, logging, land conversion, infrastructure and so on are still curtailed but people can live there and engage in subsistence activities.



The most dominant predator at Pench is the Tiger and there are around 60 of them in these prey-rich woodlands. The Bengal tiger is found primarily in India with smaller populations in Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. It is the most numerous of all tiger subspecies with more than 2,500 left in the wild. The creation of India’s tiger reserves in the 1970s helped to stabilise numbers, but poaching to meet a growing demand from Asia in recent years has once again put the Bengal tiger at risk. The forest is also home to leopards, wolves, deer, wild dogs, wild boar and of course the sloth bear. Other rare species of animals include Chousingha, Chinkara, Barking Deer, Jackal, Palm Civet and Hyena.



It was still dark when we arrived at Turia Gate the entrance to the park which was just 2.2 km from our lodge. It was really cold and we so wished we had brought more warm layers with us but the blankets were put to good use. There was only a ranger station at the gate and an elderly couple were wandering around with baskets full of fruit for sale and a young lad was offering piping hot tea from a metal urn.



We had to change from our vehicle to a jeep driven by the park’s registered driver and also had to use their naturalist as well. There are around 94 gypsies registered at Turia gate but only 30 are allowed in at any one time during the opening hours. It was the weekend so it was expected to be at full capacity on our visit.



The NP is open from mid October to the end of June and safari timings at Pench National Park change according to the month. During the monsoon season, the park is closed for tourists as it is the main breeding season of wildlife. The gates are opened twice a day at 06.30 - 1100 hours and 1500 - 1730 hours during our visit but vary slightly according to daylight hours. All vehicles have to exit the park at the allotted time and the park is handed back over to its wildlife.



We boarded our allocated Gypsy, an 8 seater 4 x 4 jeep which holds 6 visitors plus a driver and naturalist. Unlike the large cantor we had at Ranthambore NP this was much more comfortable and easier to see the wildlife outside. We were joined by two other couples and set off into the park.



The naturalist did not speak much English and chatted away to the other copies in Hindi but he named all the birds and animals we saw with English names so that was fine. We were now well and truly thankful for the warm blankets and even more useful were out buff scarf which we kept across our nose and mouth for warmth as well as keeping out the constant dust blown up from any vehicle in front of us.



The most striking thing as you enter Pench is the sheer number of Spotted Deer that live amongst the undulating landscape plenty of food for the tigers here .… From the main entrance at Turia Gate small herds graze the red sandy tracks and forest edge whilst others completely disappear into the foliage their spots camouflaging their presence. We were however extremely surprised at the lack of diversity of wildlife that you see in the parks of Africa, particularly the bird life, it was eerily quiet.



We struck lucky straight away though and spotted a silent Jungle Cat walking along the track and then about about thirty minutes later we saw a large female Tiger and her four ‘very large’ cubs who we were told were over a year old and as big as their mother. We watched them walk through the forest bush with mum leading and the cubs all following before they all disappeared into the distance - oh my what a sight that was - seeing a Tiger in the wild for the first time is an awesome sight. How lucky were we, we had not expected to encounter tigers and now we had seen them in Ranthambore and Pench NPs. Our guide told us that this female is the princess of Pench, just 10 years old she has the reputation of mothering the highest number of cubs, over 22 in her life to date. Her four very large cubs did indeed look very healthy as they strolled along following their same size mother … …





We spotted lots more animals as we followed the designated trails through the park before stopping for a loo break (a three sided straw blind) in the forest - not much privacy. It smelt really bad so I just wandered off and found a quiet corner in the bush as did a couple of the other ladies. Later we stopped at a designated picnic area in the central of the zone we were in and had breakfast (prepared by out hotel). The driver and guide set it all out complete with table cloth on the front of our safari vehicle. The sun was high now and we started to warm up quickly with the hot coffee and stuffed flatbreads.





In the afternoon we shared the cost of a private game drive with a couple from Mumbai, Dipti and her husband Kunal and their 4 year old daughter Kaira who was really sweet. We used the lodge’s jeep driven by Pradesh and Mukesh the naturalist came with us which was great as his English was good and he explained a lot about the park which we had missed on the morning safari. We still had to pick up another naturalist at the park gate though. Keira the little 4 year was really good and slept most of the time the vehicle was moving, which was quite surprising as the rough roads within the park led to a very bumpy ride - but she seemed to like this to rock her off to sleep. Her mother said she liked dancing but always wanted to dance whilst on top of a small trampoline ……



We enjoyed some time riding around the trails and spotted lots of Spotted Deer, Sambar, Monkeys and a couple of Gaur. We had lots of chances of seeing the tigers as we spotted many footprints in the sand but they were all keeping well hidden from us tourists!



The next day we did two more game drives, well I did as Paul decided not to go on the afternoon one. There was some ‘important’ cricket match on the TV - but he said that the dusty bumpy ride yesterday put him off and he needed a break! It was a quiet safari ride but I did get a very slight glimpse of a Leopard before it disappeared over a rocky outcrop. I was joined by the Mumbai family again - they were so hoping to see a tiger but sadly they did not and were heading home the next day but I am sure they would be back one day as its not too far from Mumbai. Later I sent them some photos of the tigers we had seen at Pench on the morning drives - they were such a lovely family and we enjoyed some time together before they headed home. We had been lucky with 3 tigers sightings at Pench but no Sloth Bear which was what I really wanted to see.



On our second morning safari we were on our own in the lodge’s jeep with Pradesh and Mukesh as well as the park’s naturalist. We soon came across several tigers again near the track edge, but when we approached the area where they were languishing there were a large number of vehicles all jostling for a better view and not letting others get a look in. We kept back and suddenly we noticed a number of official park guides who proceeded to take photograph of the vehicles getting to close and not allowing others to view. Our guide said that these vehicles will be banned from the park for a period of time and rightly so. We did get to see the tigers, there were four of them lazing on the rocks and in the long grass before we moved on to let others get a view as well. The morning safaris were definitely the better time to spot more wildlife than the afternoons when most were sleeping.





Back at the lodge we enjoyed the food but we had a little difficulty communicating with the staff in the restaurant. They would bring us out so much food and we kept asked for much smaller portions and of course we were not eating any salads or fruits that you could not peel. On our second day we met another Chef who came out to ask us what we would like to eat so we gave him our choices for dinner that night and lunch and dinner the next day, only to arrive at dinner to have them all served at once!



Also on our second day we went down to the bar for a drink only to find a sign saying ‘Dry Day’, the bar was closed for two days due to their local elections … … … !



Sadly all to soon it was time to move on - we enjoyed our time at Pench and would like to thank the Mumbai family who made us feel very welcome and the staff of Tathastu Lodge as well. On our last night they cooked us a vegetable sizzle which was really delicious and piping hot (a lot of the food served is lukewarm here)



On our last morning as we were not getting up for an early morning safari we enjoyed our first breakfast at the lodge, as all the others were picnics on the bonnet of our jeep. All the catering staff lined up to say goodbye in dining room as we left, what a nice touch.



We would like to say a special thanks to; Rishwabh Kansara, the General Manager, Mukesh Kumar Patle our knowledgable naturalist, Pravesh our careful driver, Pawar & Ananto Ghosh the two chefs that cooked for us and not forgetting, Nitesh out houseboy.



We enjoyed seeing some new wildlife including a number of birds including; Crested Eagle, Grey Changeable Hawk, Indian Scops Owl, Shrike, the beautiful Indian Roller, Rachet-tailed Drongo, Black Drongo, Rufous Treepie, Woodpecker, Bablers as well as Red vented Bulbuls. We also saw several birds that we had last seen at our son-in-law and daughter’s garden when they lived in Dubai, the stunning Purple Sunbird which used to nest under their verandah and the Indian Hoopoe which used to dig up the sandy ground that was their garden for insects. We of course also saw many colourful Peacocks so lovely to see them in their natural environment.



In total we had 12 sightings of Tigers at Pench and 7 of those were different tigers so not bad for our first tiger hunt … … … If you get a chance to come and see tigers at Pench National Park then do stay at Tathatsu, the staff are really helpful and could not do enough for you. The next morning we were picked up by local transport and driven to our next national park, I wonder how different it will be.







KANAH EARTH LODGE - Madhya Pradesh



It was a really long dusty drive to Kanha and it took us just over 5 hours to get to our next safari lodge. Indian is beautiful and stunning with wonderful people but some sad sights greet you around every corner and the traffic on any main route was horrendous with lots of ‘multi’ passenger motorbikes and scooters or massive trucks heavily laden with good - some dangerously so or vying for space as well as cattle wandering in between … … … The constant dust, rubbish and noise on these roads and streets was deafening with loud tooting of horns, it does not make for a relaxing journey even in the luxury of our vehicle compared to what most people were travelling in.



On the country roads it was quieter and you hardly saw any other cars, you were more likely to come across a herd of cattle or goats than a vehicle, apart from a few bicycles and motorbikes. As everywhere in India we passed many people walking along the roads and working in the fields. As you passed through villages we saw old grandfathers looking after very young children obviously their parents were working in the surrounding fields. Little roadside markets with piles of fresh fruit and vegetables were being sold off blankets on the roadside. I must say it all looked fresh and delicious and was displayed as good as you would find in a fine supermarket back home. We had to avoid some large piles of corn and wheat which were spread out across the road to dry quickly in the sun. We saw a number of people on bicycles and at night you had to watch out for these as they did not have any lights and the nights were so dark with no light pollution - how they saw where they were going is beyond me.



We crossed several railway lines - if you got caught with the barrier down you usually had a very long wait for a train to pass, sometimes two or three very long trains full of passengers some hanging out of the door to get some air. Alongside one of these we saw our first chicken farm. All the chickens we had seen were in small cages outside little huts waiting to be sold alive or wandering the streets. Several dogs were outside the farm asleep in the middle of the road and our driver said that they were waiting for a chicken to be thrown out that had died at the farm … …





WARM WELCOME



We turned off the road on to a small sandy track and literally ‘bumped along’ for quite a while passing through a couple of isolated villages and across a small stream and several bridges before arriving at the gates of Kanah Earth Lodge. We were getting concerned about what the accommodation was going to be like but soon realised we had arrived in a little paradise … … The hotel was isolated though, surrounded by sixteen acres of natural forest and tucked away in a small hamlet bordering Kanha’s buffer zone. Its position well away from the glut of other hotels gave it a true wilderness experience and yet we were only about 25 minutes away from the Khatia/Kisli park gate, so not too far to travel to get into the park for our safaris.



We were greeted by the General Manager, Bharat Mandhyan who made us feel most welcome. With just 12 en-suite bungalows with open verandahs inspired by the Gond tribal architecture using local stone and waste wood, it truly was unique. With the absence of neighbouring lodges or any roads it was a true retreat. The main lodge had a dining hall, nature library and an eco shop. On our arrival we met a local artist who was painting a picture of a Sloth Bear, we do hope we get to see one here as we never did at Pench. The artist was extremely skilled and we later purchased a little painting of a Tiger which was amazing - a truly skilled artist.



The lodge had a small infinity pool set between mahua trees and its infinity edges merge into Kanha’s forests quite lovely, Paul managed a swim but again it was too cold for me.



In the evenings the lodge held talks and presentations in a small room, the first one was given by a photographer who was visiting and was about his experiences in Africa which was really interesting as he had visited lots of the places that we had and had similar fond memories of the countries of Southern Africa. There was also a lecture on Kanha National Park which was really good and of course relevant to our visit.

During the lectures they served up a starter and we sampled some great cuisine cooked with locally sourced, fresh produce from neighbouring villages during our stay. A special thank you to Vijay Nagi, the Restaurant Manager who was brilliant and always had a smile and a kind word. The lodge had its own kitchen garden and they have partnered with several local families to grow fresh produce for the lodge, and in turn, support them with seeds and technical advice.



We were introduced to Samrad, a resident Naturalist and Surjay who was going to be our driver. What was great at this lodge was that you kept the same driver and naturalist for the whole of your stay and you also had the same vehicle and did not need to change at the park gates although you still had to pick up another naturalist to enter the park.







KANHA NATIONAL PARK - Madhya Pradesh



Kanha National Park provided the setting for Rudyard Kipling's classic novel, The Jungle Book. Spreading across two districts, Mandala and Kalaghat, the park was declared a reserve forest in 1879 and revalued as a wildlife sanctuary in 1933. In 1955 it was upgraded to National Park statues. The Core and Buffer Zones have a total area of 1945 sq km, so over double the size of Pench NP.



The park is well regarded for its research and conservation programs, and many endangered species have been saved there. The Kanha’s hills and dense groves of vegetation include Sal and Bamboo. The reserve’s lifeline are its vast grassy meadows that sustain large numbers of Chital, Sambar, Barasingha, Gaur as well as Wild Boar, which in turn support its predators (tigers, leopards, wild dogs, jungle cats and foxes). Our guide referred to Wild Boar as ‘Tigers Chocolate’ (it being their favourite food)!



Kanha’s greatest achievement has been the preservation of Hard Ground Swamp Deer (or Barasingha) from near extinction (they numbered just 66 in 1970). Today, they number more than 400 and are the only surviving population of Barasingha in the wild. Recently a small herd has been relocated to Satpura NP where they are held in enclosures before being released. This will increase the chance of survival as being located in just one park could prove devastating if a disease wiped out the herd.





SAFARIS IN THE PARK



We enjoyed four game drives into the park, more early morning starts but we had become used to the format now. Awaken early by an alarm call and then coffee and cookies served around open fires before heading off on the drive and on our return hot towels and more coffee and cookies. Breakfast was a picnic in the park where the food was placed on the bonnet of the Gypsy.



Kanha was a really scenic national park, the meadows are what strike you most, soft golden grasslands, ringed by the indigenous emerald Sal forests, and grazed on by small herds of Spotted Deer, unconcerned about your appearance in their tranquil natural world. I loved the way they blended with the long golden grasses and hoped some of my photographs came out that would do the scenes justice.



At this park we struck lucky again and got some better views of several tigers, viewing them in the open meadows was so much better than when they were in the forest. We even sat waiting at a small stream as our guide thought he had seen movement in the forest nearby - after a long wait (others jeeps had left) we spotted one crossing a small stream with lovely reflection on the water - you need patience and you get rewarded. A while later we sat and watched a male and female ‘courting’ on the edge of the meadow for ages before they disappeared into the forest - looking around at all the other vehicles we saw huge smiles on everyones faces that day.



Sadly though we did not spot Munna, Kanha’s most loved tiger, this tiger is famously recognised with the letters C-A-T spelt on its forehead from the formation of black stripes. The artist at the lodge had painted him and you really could see the word CAT clearly across his head. We were lucky though adding three more tigers to our list which was now eleven different tigers in three national parks but still no Sloth Bear hopefully we would be lucky in our next park.



On our last evening, our naturalist, Samrad gave a talk on snakes. we were not going to go but thought we should attend to support him as he had been so good on our safaris. I must say that even though we do not particularly like snakes we did learn a lot from his talk. What shocked us though was when he said that our houseboy checked our room for snakes each night …. … Samrad also told us many stories of his experiences at Kanha. One day he was out on a walk in the surrounding area of the lodge when he heard a tiger roaring and he decided to hide in the bush until it passed him by, he said he had never been so scared in his life but he still wandered of alone into the bush looking for birds and other wildlife … … …



We said our goodbyes to everyone and Bharat came out to wave us off on the next leg of our journey We were really not looking forward to this journey as the distance to Satpura NP was huge and was going to take between 7-9 hours by road with all that entailed as well … … …





FORSYTHS LODGE



In the end it took us 8 hours to reach Forsyths Lodge and we were shattered by the time we arrived. Our driver was then going to turn straight around and head back! Situated near the village of Sarangpur, just one kilometre from the northern edge of the Tawa Dam, the lodge was named after the British officer, James Forsyth, who established the Forest Department in central India and wrote about the highlands in the 1860’s. As we approached the lodge we passed a few thatched homes with large tracts of farmland. In each field we noticed little wooden platforms raised on stilts above the ground. We later learned that these were for the locals to sleep on during the night to guard their crops from wildlife - a wild boar would devastate their crops within minutes. What a hard life they had sleeping on these hard wooden floors with just a blanket to keep them warm.



We entered the gates of the lodge and were greeted by Deepanker Mukherji, the General Manager and some of his staff, he had a huge range of knowledge and experience and a keen passion for nature and wildlife. He made us feel so welcome right from the start and introduced us to some of his staff including Animesh Manna from Calcutta who was going to be our Naturalist whilst we stayed at the lodge. The lodge was quite busy with a local family and a group from the UK but they all left the next day and we had the place to ourselves.



The lodge and cottages all dotted around the grounds were surrounded by open bush with a natural fence to let the wildlife roam unhindered within the grounds - so peaceful. The main building was constructed of rammed earth and contained several rooms and a kitchen on the ground floor. Two large dining tables dominated the meal areas which were designed and handmade to fit perfectly in the rooms. Upstairs there was a lounge bar and pleasant terrace overlooking the jungle. Outside there was a swimming pool but we did not get time to use it and anyway it was far too cold … … we really thought India was going to be a lot warmer!



The lodge has twelve large cottages built using local materials designed to fit in perfectly with the environment. Our cottage was spotlessly clean and well designed with sitting areas, desk and a huge walk in shower the biggest we had ever seen. We also had a couple of outside areas with comfortable chairs, whilst a staircase led to a Macham (treetop viewing platform) complete with king sized bed open to the elements. They asked us whether we wanted to sleep out in the open but we said the bed below was just fine, although it would be nice to look at the stars! The night sky has been amazing and in the morning Venus shines so brightly in the sky here. Even thought we did not sleep outside the rooftop proved to be a great spot to observe the wildlife and birds. The focus of the lodge is based around nature and wildlife and the wilderness experience as well as a close interaction with the local people who live in the nearby villages - it truly was a little paradise benefitting us guests as well as the local community.



Once settled in we went on a walk with Animesh to see around the grounds. Lots of wildlife came up really close to the lodge and Animesh showed us a spot just behind our room where they had recently spotted a couple of Honey Badgers - now they would be good to see but I was still hoping for a Sloth Bear which had also recently been seen here. They used camera traps to see what was wandering around the lodge at night. We were soon completely lost and decided we would not attempt to walk around alone as the area was and it all looked the same. That night we slept soundly looking forward to our first venture into a new park and still shattered from our long drive.





SATPURA NATIONAL PARK - Madhya Pradesh



Satpura National Park is spread over 1427 sq km and was formed in 1981 after joining Satpura, Pachmarhi and Bori Wildlife Sanctuaries. The terrain is extremely rugged and consists of deep valleys, sandstone peaks, narrow gorges, waterfalls, rivers and thick dense green forest of Sal as well as large tracts of Teak forests.



Its fauna includes; Spotted Deer (Chital), Sambar, Nilgai (Blue Bull), Four Horned Antelope, Indian Gazelle (Chinkara), Indian Bison (Gaur), Tiger, Leopard, Wild boar, Wild dog, Sloth Bear, Blackbuck, Porcupine, Otter, Crocodile, Flying Squirrel, Giant Squirrel and Langur Monkey etc. I was looking forward to seeing a Sloth Bear as had been told that this was probably the best place to see them and they had recently been sighted in the grounds of the lodge. I had communicated with Deepanker before our arrival on Facebook and he had ‘promised’ me that he would find me one … .. ……



Satpura NP is one of only a few protected forests in India that visitors are allowed to walk through. Today it offers us visitors the rare experience of enjoying a tiger reserve not overrun by tourist vehicles with no more than 14 jeeps allowed inside at any one time.



The entry point to the park is from Madhai village with a small population of around 250 people, mostly forest staff. From there we had to cross the river as the main park zone is located there. We were awoken by our houseboy with hot coffee and cookies, as we had at the other parks and made our way to reception. We then drove with Animesh to the riverside and climbed aboard a small motor boat and crossed the Denwa River spotting a few birds along the way. The Denwa River is a lifeline river of Satpura National Park. This river originates from south-eastern part of the Hoshangabad district and flows from east to west direction before joining the Tawa River south of Rainpur.



It did not take long to reach the other river bank and we made our way up some steps and Animesh wandered off to book us in at the small ranger station. A little while later he arrived with our jeep, driver and the park’s naturalist. We did not need our passports to book in as we had at other parks which was good as if you forgot them they would not let you enter the park.



We entered through the gate straight into a grassy meadow where a herd of Spotted Deer were grazing in the dim early morning light. As with our other game drives the tracks were bumpy and you had to hold on tightly - bit like being on a fairground ride really … … .. We found lots of pug marks including those of a Leopard but not many sightings but it was great to be able to drive along the river edge, although how the driver managed to manoeuvre over some large boulders still amazes me!



We stopped at Elephant Camp for breakfast which was alongside a river and a couple of elephants and a youngster were playing and feeding on the riverside. These are not wild elephants as there are no elephants in the central parks but domestic ones used by the forest workers. Apparently the youngster was born a year ago and was quite an attraction to the forest workers whom he loved to play with - now he was getting to big for fun and games.



Back in the vehicle we explored more of the park stopping for many birds as well as a small herd of Gaur. We even spotted a Giant Squirrel which we had not seen before but he was high up in a tree jumping from branch to branch. There were also plenty of Langur Monkeys, their old man’s faces framed in backlit haloes of silver fur, they would sit and watch you as you pass by. I loved the way they posed on the edges of branches or tucked into the trunks with their tails hanging down. Langur translates in Hindi as long tail and they sure did have a long one. Sadly though we did not see any Sloth Bears but we enjoyed our first glimpse of the park.



Back on the boat and we were soon heading back to the lodge passing many low roofed thatched homes alongside the track. Peering inside you could see that the villagers did not have much, many lived alongside their cattle and goats with just a small bed in the room, many slept out in the open on raised pallets and little fires glowed at night.



We often saw children playing at the village water pump which seems to be a social gathering place as it is in many of these rural villages. Several times we pulled the jeep over to let a farmer go by on his Ox cart with its wooden wheels digging into the sandy track. The carts were usually piled high with grain or branches and large twigs which they used to protect their homes and fields. Ox carts were a common form of local transport at Satpura and we came across them often.



Every time we drove passed a homestead a little voice would call across the rustic twig fence with ‘bye’ or ‘hello’, even if you could not see them. If they did spot your eye then they would wave until you were out of sight. It was not just the youngsters who wanted to wave but everyone we passed did too.





One day we came across several children, no more than six years old sweeping twigs and rubbish into a pile and were astonished when they pulled out a box of matches and set light to it - they just waved at us and said the usual ‘bye’ with a big smile and a wave.



Every little scrap of land around these homesteads had crops or cattle grazing. The cattle would also wander on their own into the Buffer Zone of the park when the gates opened to graze and visit the water holes before strolling out before the gates closed at night - they must have some internal body clock. We often saw them walking along the roads at night and settling down outside some homestead usually in the middle of the road. Early morning game drives meant you had to wake them to get them to move out of the way … … and soon as you got passed they would settle down again on the road.



During the day we saw young women walking down the road with their heads stacked high with wooden branches, Animesh said that they could weight up to 50 Kilos and they could walk as far as 20 kms with this heavy load balanced on their heads When we later ventured into the Buffer Zone of the park we saw many of these ladies collecting wood from the park itself. This they were allowed to collect wood but they were not allowed to take any form of vehicle into the park, hence it all had to be carried out on their heads. Some times they then sold it at a market or in the main they used it for heating and cooking.





SEARCHING FOR A SLOTH BEAR



In the afternoon we were scheduled to go on a walking safari until Animesh told us that we needed to ensure that we were well covered as their were loads of ‘ticks’ on the walking trails! On our return we would have to have a hot shower and hang all our clothes up for 24 hours. We have had bad experiences we these little critters before, so decided that we would prefer to drive rather than walk. We decided to explore the Buffer Zone of the park as you did not need to cross the river to the entrance to search for Sloth Bears instead. Again the forest was very quiet even at several watering holes we did not spot much wildlife and no signs of bears although a herd of cattle were drinking their fill.



On the way back we stopped at the edge of a forest where a farmer’s young calf had been killed by a leopard that morning, The leopard had eaten its fill and left the remaining carcass. Several rooks were sitting on the carcass when we arrived when all of a sudden two Indian Wild Dogs appeared followed by more, in all there was a pack of ten and they proceeded to tear up the carcass, whilst others stood sentry guarding the others feeding. It was interesting watching them communicating with each other making deep throated noises. Later we were informed that the dogs wandered off when they were full and the leopard reappeared for his kill only to be seen off by a Tiger who dragged the rest of the carcass off - just another day in the forest. The risk of a tiger killing livestock increased near dense forests and near the boundary of a parks core zone where human presence is restricted. The government does compensate farmers who loose their livestock to a tiger or leopard if they are able to prove the case.





We watched the pack for a while but then headed off looking for a bears, this time we did find a pug-mark and our hopes were raised … … A pug-mark is the term used to refer to the footprint of most animals. ‘Pug’ means foot in Hindi. Every individual animal species has a distinct pug-mark and as such this is used for identification. The Sloth Bears pug mark looks like the footprint of a human. Sloth Bears are a bit misleading by name as they are not related to Sloths at all and are not slow moving either. They are extremely agile bears that can run faster than a human and will attack if surprised. It was a European zoologist, George Shaw, who named the Sloth Bear for its long, thick claws and unusual teeth. He thought that the bear was related to the tree sloth due to these features. Sloth Bears sometimes actually do hang upside down on tree branches, much like a tree Sloth.



The Sloth Bear is a bit messy in appearance with a long, rough, unruly hair around its ears, shoulders, and neck that is cinnamon to dark brown in colour. The pale muzzle and a flexible nose sniff out interesting smells. The sloth bear often has a white patch of fur on its chest in the shape of a Y, O, or U. With a stocky body and powerful legs, this medium-size bear is able to climb trees. These bears are unusual because they do not hibernate like some bears. They often sleep in caves and near rivers when available. Sloth bears tend to be nocturnal when living around humans. But without human disturbance nearby, they are often active during the day.



It is not an aggressive animal. But the bear will defend itself against tigers, leopards, and other bears by standing on its back legs and using its teeth and claws. I watched a recent video of a Sloth Bear fighting with a Tiger and the Bear actually won. Sadly though we did not get to see one but hoped tomorrow would be more successful … …



The next day we set off into the park to explore some new 4x4 trails and Animesh told us that he had informed all the other naturalist that we were looking for a Sloth Bear and they would call if they spotted one. We did get one call and headed off to where one had been glimpsed but again were unlucky. We did spot plenty of Gaur though, one mother had a really young calf who stood and stared at us in the vehicle before bounding off after its hefty mother. We had seen these big wild cows in all the parks but usually only a couple together - the males are huge.



Known as the Indian Bison or Gaur it is the tallest species of wild cattle found in India and largest extant bovine. It is native to the Indian Subcontinent and listed as vulnerable due to habitat loss but the population is stable in protected areas of South India. Whilst eating breakfast at Elephant Camp I was watching the young elephant playing and drinking on the river bank when I spotted a Common Kingfisher and a Stork Billed Kingfisher their lovely blue feathers shining brightly in the sunshine.





BOAT SAFARI



That afternoon after another excellent Indian meal at Forsyths we headed off on a Boat Safari and we spotted many birds along the banks. We got our first sighting of a Grey Headed Fish Eagle that was chomping into a large fish on the bank. We also spotted a flock of Red Crested Pochard which Animesh got really excited by as he had only see them here once before. We thought he had said poachers and we were looking for humans! We spotted a lot more wildlife from the boat than we had on the forest safaris including many mammals that come down to the water to drink or graze in the meadows. We spotted several Marsh Crocodiles but they quickly disappeared under the water if you got near. Some of the other birds we spotted were Grey & Pied Hornbill, Shellduck, Great Thicknee, Black-winged Stork and Wooly-necked Stork, Cormorant, Darter, Peacock and River, Little and Black-bellied Terns.



We saw a large herd of Wild Boar feeding on the banks as well as several Spotted Deer and Sambar. The Sambar Deer is the largest antelope in Asia and as we approached the bank we noticed massive Sambar stag following a female. When he spotted us he proceeded to dig his antlers into the ground and then look up at us with bits of grass and mud hanging from his antlers. He looked so comical it was as if he was telling us to ‘go away’ - he was definitely marking his territory.



It was nearly time to leave the lodge and on our last night we mentioned to Deepanker how sad we were that we had still not seen a Sloth Bear, so he suggested that we do one more drive into the Buffer Zone before we departed for the airport the next day for a last ditch chance to try to find the illusive bear … … …



We again awoke early (no sleep ins on this journey) and headed off with high hopes - but yet again were unsuccessful. We covered some more new areas and stopped at the end of a long forest road and spotted some leopard pug marks on the edge of the track. A little further on was a small temple where Animesh said a recluse lived but we did not see him. Nearby was an open building with a group of about eight local forest workers, males and females. They told our guide that they had been awake all night as a leopard had been circling around them and as they were sleeping in the open they were afraid to go to sleep. Animesh told them that we had seen the leopards prints heading away from their camp. I did feel sorry for them as they all looked so tired and would probably be spending more nights sleeping in the open. Leopard do not generally attack humans but are very frightening nevertheless particularly when they growl.



Sadly it was time to head back to the lodge without any success, yet again . ..… We have been so fortunate with Tigers sightings during our venture into the central national parks of India but not so lucky with the illusive Sloth Bear as the total to date was still a big fat ZERO.



Out of the four parks we visited, we saw one tiger in Ranthambore, seven in Pench, three in Kanha but no tigers at all in Satpura, although we had been very close to one at the cattle carcass. So in total we saw eleven different tigers and had many more sightings of the same ones. According to the latest statistics, only 3,890 tigers are left in the world, out of which 2,226 are in India, we saw 11 of them which is not bad going for a first time.



It was really sad to leave this delightful lodge, our favourite out of all the places we had stayed in India. The staff at Forsyths is made up of conscientious locals who earn their livelihood by working at the lodge. Trained by the lodge and to some extend by their parents for their good manners, their service was impeccable, thoughtful and diligent and we could not fault one thing. The grounds of the lodge are dark and every time we stepped outside one of them would appear with a torch and guide us to the main lodge or back to our room after dinner.



Our every need was taken care off from putting hot water bottles into our bed at night when we were at dinner and even in the vehicles with warm blankets for the morning safaris as well. Our packed breakfast which we enjoyed by the riverside at elephant Camp were also delicious. Talking of food we sampled some of the best food ever and would like to thank Krishna, the head chef for his amazing skills in the kitchen. We often saw him wandering back from the kitchen garden with a basket of fresh salad leaves or vegetables. We visited their organic garden with Animesh and were amazed at the quality and different products they grew. We particularly enjoyed the paneer in a range of classic Indian dishes. This fresh, crumbly cheese is delicious served in veggie curries, wraps, spiced skewers and fritters etc - we are hoping they will supply us with a couple of their recipes. Every meal we had was carefully thought out and we enjoyed each one in a different location around the lodge from the swimming pool terrace, the rooftop area around a warm open fire, to the open meadows in front of the main building looking out at the nature all around us - we will remember it all.



One day at the lodge several local ladies prepared a ‘Village Meal’ for us outside using their traditional methods and ingredients - this was delicious. We watched them cooking on the open fire (just hot dung pats on the floor) and putting what I thought were potatoes into the embers only to find out later they were actually a type of bread. Paul ventured into their outdoor kitchen to thank them after dinner only to be shooed outside to take his shoes off. Animesh said that they always take their shoes off in their homes but he sometimes forgets and gets told off himself. We sat on the floor with the ladies and they gave us a demonstration on how to make a flat bread and then insisted that Paul ate it, he had just eaten a large meal so he struggled a bit but did not want to disappoint them!



Deepanker told us that his staff takes a much needed respite in the monsoon season when the park and the lodge closes. They all return well before the season starts though to maintain the mud cottages and main building, they were a very caring group of people. All of them were from the local villages apart from Raju who was the Dining Supervisor who was from Kanha - he was such a happy person always greeting us with a smile, we will miss him too.



A very special thanks to our naturalist at Satpura, Animesh who had such a zest for life and his enthusiasm naturally spread to us both in abundance. All the flora and fauna we saw with him he enthused about and had such a deep knowledge and understanding of nature he loved all life, apart that is from the geckos that inhabited the walls of the lodge!



We would also like to mention everyone else that worked at the lodge, the only lady who had just arrived as the new Assistant Manager and the four other young naturalists; Saee, Asim, Sidhanth and Vineith, who all contributed to making our stay so memorable. Our driver had arrived the night before and everyone came out to wave us off the next morning what a nice touch that was - thank you Deepanker.





TIME TO LEAVE INDIA



We headed for Bhopal Airport for our flight to Delhi stopping on the way at the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters and we had a quick guided walk around the many rock paintings. On the UNESCO World Heritage List, Bhimbetka is a natural art gallery. The caves have rock paintings created by man from about 15,000 years ago. The rock paintings have numerous layers belonging to various time periods, ranging from the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic Age to the protohistoric, early historic and medieval periods. It was a shame that we had such a speedy visit as we did not want to miss our flight. The traffic through some of the towns on the way was horrendous and one town was gridlocked, luckily our driver was from the area and managed to find a short cut around the main blockage. We were really lucky though as at one time we were completely surrounded by traffic and how he squeezed between those massive trucks I do not know but he did … …



We have really enjoyed our journey around India and will remember our time here for a very long time it was so captivating. If you think you have a hard life then come to India and see what a large proportion have to do just to survive another day it certainly was an eyeopener. The country is renowned for its poetry and verse, one I particularly though apt for this blog’s ending was written in 1975 by Rumer Godden:



Once you have felt the Indian dust, you will never be free of it …. … …’


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20th December 2018
Namaste

Family
I mentioned family in my last comment on India yes or no, so strange you then bring up the same things in this blog, I really can not remember Uncle Ronald only the few pictures I have seen of him. I do remember the stories from Granny Groves and Dad how disillusioned he became and the mental struggle to keep his faith. I must say the wild life you have pictured portray many things I was not really aware of!! Nice to see you Sheila with your hands in prayer also keeping the faith!!
21st December 2018
Namaste

Family links to India
Hi Malcolm and great to see that you managed to get into the blogs, hopefully the site will be up and running fully soon. It was also great to catch up with you at Uncle Les's funeral, although another sad occasion losing both of mums brothers within a few months it was nice to see so many of the family again. With regard to Indian curry I must admit that before I went I was not a a great fan of Indian cuisine but my taste buds have thoroughly changed since sampling some of the best foods I have tasted for ages during our month around India. Really enjoyed so many new tastes and flavours and particularly liked the Paneer and I am hoping that our last lodge will send me their special recipe. S x
20th December 2018

Hi Sheila and Paul, i am so glad that everything is fine now. Was so disappointed about getting the text but not the fotos. Thanks for the very interesting blogs, i am a follower from the very beginning! Have a nice X-mas a lot more travellings. Love Reiner und Christa
21st December 2018

Missing Blogs
Hi Reiner and Christa - So glad that you managed to see the blogs and photos with our email link. We are hoping that travelblog are able to resolve the issues soon, it will be a shame if the site closes like so many other travel blog sites have done recently. Thanks for your lovely comments we know that you are big fans of our blogs and that our travels bring back great memories of your travel too. Wishing you both a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year - Happy Travels from us both Paul and Sheila x

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