India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
December 19, 2011

In Search of Shere Khan

Text by Shirin Mehta

Two fabulous jungle camps, joint ventures between Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and &Beyond, known as Taj Safaris – each one different from the other – provide the perfect draw to the heartland of Madhya Pradesh and a viewing of the majestic tiger in its natural habitat. Verve visits the wilds of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and returns refreshed, to tell the tale

This is the hour of pride and power, Talon and tush and claw. Oh hear the call! – Good hunting all That keep the jungle law!
 – The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling

Baghvan Luxe lodge
Our chauffeur-driven car slid onto a tree-lined driveway, having braved two hours of potholed highway, from Nagpur airport to Taj Safaris’ Baghvan resort on the edge of Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Baghvan is aptly named after one of India’s iconic symbols, the Bengal tiger, (bagh-tiger and van-forest) for it is this fearful predator that hotel guests crave to view in its natural habitat at Pench. My husband and I were welcomed with two-handed waves, a gesture that we learnt to associate with care and warmth, and ushered into the spacious and comfortable guest area, seemingly randomly decorated with woven hyacinth furniture, giant ebony chests and humorous tiger-inspired tables.

High ceilings and comfortable sofas beckoned but were put aside for a refreshing breakfast that had been laid out to one side. Indian breakfast varieties I deemed too heavy after the long drive and I made the wise decision of helping myself to some yogurt piled high with home-made muesli, crunchy with nuts, drizzled with fresh pomegranate seeds and pomegranate jus. A concoction fit for the gods. Head Chef Sachin Sharma was already out there showing off his large jars of home-made jams and achars, culled from local fruit and vegetables. Chef Sharma, we discovered is big on organic and fresh food.

Our butler, Raj, a young man from the area, led us to our very contemporary log cabin, one of 12 standalone suites with a cheeky ’50s ambience in hues of copper and pale turquoise, the blue echoing the colours of hut walls in villages we had driven past. The suite comprised two inter-linked cabins. The bedroom to one side, opened at the back onto a patio that seemed to lead into the endless forest depths. The bathroom to the right was large and spacious and an outdoor shower offered yet another option to be in closer proximity to the sky. Wooden steps led up to a machan that overlooked the forest and was inhabited by a huge lounge-bed covered with cushions. At night, this was enclosed in mosquito netting – our very own personal and romantic hideaway! Later, operations manager Brian D’Cruz, recounted to our amusement, how the black-faced monkeys, the langurs, loved to lounge ‘like little lords’ on these.

The jungle seemed to peep in from everywhere – through windows, from behind blinds and doors. Even the commode offered a view of the outdoors. Every detail was thought of, keeping the urban traveller in mind – insect repellent sprays, mosquito repellent cream, torches were lined up among the bathroom’s antique furniture and twin basins laden with sweet-smelling enormous bottles of natural shampoos and washes. This, I told myself, was paradise in the wild! Wildly luxurious too….

Chef Sharma loves the jungle life and was extremely proud of his organic meals. He took us for a walk around the property, pointing out the new vegetable gardens that he hoped would soon cover all his guests’ gastronomic needs. The old patches were overrun by deer one night and made barren by hungry grazing. As if to underline Chef Sharma’s story, a sambhar with beautiful antlers walked right through the property, under our baffled eyes. “There goes one of the culprits!” exclaimed our good chef! A bird cooed in the silence as we sat outside, on the common porch. Against the sky, I spotted the splayed silhouette of a giant wood spider, building its web that I am told, is strong enough to capture a small bird. That evening the conversation was all about animals and wildlife. The intimacy of the lounge is that of a home, allowing guests to mingle and exchange views freely. It was a close-knit family here at the lodge, the guests bound by the common purpose of sighting the majestic tiger in his natural home. Conversation hovered around sightings and near misses and in this hierarchy, those who had seen the majestic beast, stood tall, while others waited hopefully for the new dawn.

If you are looking for a relaxing holiday, this may not be it, with twice daily jungle drives, every day! Up the next morning at 5 a.m. we were at the park gates, 10 minutes away, with our trained naturalist Kaustubh Thomare, KT to us, by 5.45 a.m. awaiting the opening of the gates. A warden hopped into our converted Tata 4×4, this being mandatory for all vehicles that enter the park. As we drove in, the still energy of the forest gripped me and kept me captive for the next four hours. KT was full of energy and stopped every once in a while to listen to the jungle. I realised that this was no random dash around the narrow paths but a searching initiated by what he called ‘alarm calls’ set up by the spotted deer and tree-swinging langurs, reacting to the presence of a carnivore. A huge, prehistoric-looking Indian gaur walked laboriously past our vehicle, as we watched in silence. A pair of jackals sprinted past. We admired a stunning hawk with a crested crown, swoop.

It was the deep, persistent call of the langur that drew us to the leopard’s kill, a half-devoured deer beside a tree, some way from the path. We decided to wait for the beast and were rewarded an hour and a half later as KT’s practised eyes saw the golden, spotted silhouette sprint to the left. We charged along the road in our four-wheeler, watching the great animal. When it stopped, we viewed the magnificent spotted head behind a V in the trees. He seemed to be posing, aware of us, but shyly so. It was later that KT informed us that leopard sightings are rarer than tigers since the leopard is a shy animal while the tiger almost preens for viewers.

KT was so excited – this was his first leopard sighting of the season.

Top of the sighting pyramid now and having downed a couple of mahua cocktails (the yellow flowers of mahua trees are fermented into local liquor) with their distinctive sweet taste, we waited for our table that evening, to be prepared on the spacious verandah on stilts, overlooking the nullah, or perhaps at the swimming pool patio. An excited Raj ran up to inform us that a flying squirrel had been spotted outside our rooms. In the mood now for any encounter of the animal kind, we raced behind his swinging lantern, along the dark path to our room. We hurried through, to the patio behind and lo and behold, Raj had arranged a romantic table for two bedecked in rose petals with lamps and candles all around and proceeded to serve us our meal with great solemnity. In the wild, it is not only the animals that surprise!

Banjaar Tola Tented camp
The gate appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, as our car traversed a long driveway. Suddenly, over the tops of tall reed grass we glimpsed the tented silhouettes of Banjaar Tola, Taj Safari’s jungle safari lodge situated along the banks of the Banjaar River, overlooking the heart of Kanha National Park, the home of the mighty tiger. The camp comprised super-luxurious, lightweight ensuite tents designed in a contemporary style – two elegant camps of nine suites each, designed with a light footprint to protect the sensitive riverine environment. Camp host Amit Singhvi welcomed us with the now-familiar double-handed wave.

This was like no tent I had ever imagined! Designed, like the other Taj safari lodges, by South African Chris Browne of &Beyond, every corner spelled luxurious living but in a local context. Pressed bamboo wall panels and gorgeous bamboo floors highlighted locally crafted furniture hewn from the timber of exotic trees. The bed was mounted on a round wooden platform, to afford an uninterrupted view of the river and the deep forest beyond. Above, an enormous, stylised fan rotated slowly, another turning langorously in the large bathroom area. Here, twin basins, a shower area as well as a large tub made certain of adequate pampering. Rich block-printed Madhya Pradesh cottons and silks in soft colours added to the feeling of comfort. The tented room celebrated Bastar artworks including bell metal figurines while an easel held a painting by a local artist. The part that I loved best was the floating verandah, with its twin charpoys, that afforded a view of the jungle that filled the heart with peace, overlooking the partly dry river.

That evening, we set off on a refreshing nature walk with young naturalist Vineit who had us peering through his binoculars at spiders, birds and langurs. We headed down to the river bank where we stood on a granite rock and felt the call of the wild. Later that evening, dinner was served under the stars on the main terrace, with a large brazier burning coal to keep us warm. And then, it was off to bed in anticipation of our butler DD with the 5 a.m. tea tray and wake-up call.

General Manager, Harpareet Singh Gill informed me that Banjaar Tola prides itself on its organic kitchen, its system of recycling waste and other green initiatives. Bamboo baskets, locally made, are used instead of disposables for packed meals. The lodge Green Team implements, monitors and creates awareness. Programmes at local schools include eco-lessons and a visit to the national park. Better methods of sustainable harvesting of forest produce, such as honey, are looked into. Local artistes and artisans are encouraged. A major programme of relocating the Indian gaur was initiated and is underway.

We met with Sarath Champati, head of the naturalists, who has also compiled the slim books on the area’s wildlife and bird population, placed in each of the rooms. Everyone calls him Sir and he seems to know about anything that moves or flies in the jungle. This is over a pre-dawn breakfast of hot porridge sprinkled with nuts and laced with a generous shot of Jack Daniels (only to keep us warm, of course). Vineit and Champati led us off in the Tata 4×4, in the freezing cold, under blankets, in search of the tigress which had been frequenting the area. We also aimed to see the Indian gaur and the back-from-near-extiction, swamp deer or barasingha. It was peaceful in the wild with birds twittering, butterflies flitting, the meadows still and silent. After driving around jungle paths, distracted by a spider devouring its prey and a hawk doing the same to a duckling, we stopped for a picnic breakfast at the forest camp. Over chicken sandwiches, parathas with achar, hot coffee and muffins neatly laid out on the bonnet of our jeep, we heard of a sighting of the lioness on exactly the opposite side of the jungle, a little earlier. We set out with renewed vigour on our hunt for the elusive big cat which refused to materialise. We saw some silhouettes of gaurs and barasinghas with their spreading pink antlers in the distance. The jungle was beautiful, the air refreshing, the birds called, the sun slowly rose and all seemed well with the world.

That night, we had dinner by lantern-light at the poolside. My husband had by now perfected his joke about coming from the urban ‘jungle’ of Mumbai. Chefs Ajit Swain and Ashish Ugal’s well-prepared dinner simmered in clay pots was delicious, the company excellent and I fell in love with the wilderness, forever.

Far & Away
Where: The Kanha National Park is located in the Maikal Hills of the Satpura range in south-eastern Madhya Pradesh.

How: Via Jabalpur and then by road to Banjaar Tola.

Vegetation: Lush sal and bamboo forests and grassy meadows.

Achievement: Saving the hardground swamp deer, the barasingha, from extinction.

What to see: Tiger, leopard, gaur, barasingha, sambar, chital, jackal, wild pig, hyena and a myriad birds.

Closed: During the monsoon months from July to September.

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