In a captain's footsteps

In a captain's footsteps

This is one of those places where you pray that your prayers don’t come true. If you’re a tourist in the tiger reserves of India, there is always a prayer on your lips as you go about your safaris, rattling in jeeps over bone-jarring roads at unearthly hours of day and night, in search of the elusive tiger. You soon discover, however, that just prayer is not enough.

And as you despair, you begin to strike deals with God. You beg forgiveness for past sins, you trade in your indulgences, you cajole Him with promises of atonement that He doesn’t need. And then, if you’re lucky and patient enough, you get a glimpse in the end — a fleeting moment when all the pain and despair is forgotten, and a stripe of gold and black emerges from the bush and goes past you with all the nonchalance in the world — and you are left holding your breath till it is all over. And you get back to your praying and pleading, until the next time!

Wild walk

But out here in this jungle, these prayers are turned on your head. Out here you find yourself praying that you don’t see a tiger. And that’s because out here you are on foot. There is no jeep, there is no elephant, and should you see a tiger now, there is only the jungle and the bush and the narrow, dusty forest path between the two of you. Once you have actually been here and done this, once you have walked this walk, you realise that regardless of how cool and smug you are, in your heart of hearts, this is one encounter with the tiger that you don’t really want to happen.We are talking about Satpura National Park — in the heart of Central India — in Madhya Pradesh, 280km southwest of Bhopal. No other tiger reserve in India allows you to walk its trails — the privilege of walking was taken away from Indian tourists almost 30 years ago. 

A lot of it had to do with what happened in Corbett National Park in 1985. That year a British guide, David Hunt, was leading a tour group through the park when, heading back to their lodge one day, they came across fresh tiger spoor and tiger tracks, indicating that there was probably a tiger somewhere very close by. The group waited, but the tiger didn’t turn up, and so they decided to carry on. However, Hunt then happened to see a spotted owlet — a pretty common bird — but one that he particularly liked to photograph. So, in spite of the chances of the tiger nearby, he asked the others to carry on to the lodge while he walked off into the jungle to find his owlet. As it turned out, this would be a fatal decision. While photographing the owlet, he was confronted by the tiger, which then attacked and killed him. Quite what Hunt was thinking when he decided to walk off into the jungle on his own, knowing there could be a tiger nearby, no one will ever really know, but there is no doubt this incident went a long way in ensuring very little walking is allowed in most Indian parks today.

In Satpura, in a move thanks to some imagination from the Forest Department, the old pack-trails are now open for tourists to explore and soak in the jungle, reliving the privilege and pristine aura of a bygone era.

So, who was Captain James Forsyth, and what is the Satpura National Park all about?

Captain James Forsyth was a British officer who was assigned to survey and set up a forest department for Central India in the 19th century. He did more than just the survey; he fell in love with the land and went on to write The Highlands of Central India — a heartfelt and moving celebration of the terrain and its original people and the wildlife it is teemed with. That legacy of the land lives on, and when you walk the wooded paths, with the sun filtering through the trees and the glades opening up to the endless rocky meadows, it’s as if nothing has changed in more than a hundred years.

The Satpura National Park takes its name from the Satpura Hills that range across central India. It covers 524 sq km of forests and is part of the larger Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve, a protected region of 5,000 sq km, containing within it the tiger reserve, and the Bori and Pachmarhi Wildlife Sanctuaries.

 Cloaked by hilly terrain, veined by water and streams and rivers like the Denwa and the Sonbhadra, which have carved deep gorges and stunning ravines over millions of years, this landscape of unending, moist deciduous forests is one of the most stunning in India, and a haven for reclusive predators like the tiger and leopard. It’s also home to the Gaur — or the Indian Bison (the largest cattle in the world), sloth bear, several species of deer, Chausingha or four-horned antelope and the Nilgai (blue-bull) antelope, wild dog, wolf and hyena. And to see this scenery in all its glory and to have a river cruise experience of a lifetime, one should come to the park through the backwaters of the Tawa reservoir.

As for the walks, they are along the incredibly scenic yet gentle trail through the fringes of the tiger reserve that slopes up all the way to Pachmarhi, with small British-era bungalows set quaintly along the way that you can drop in when you are tired, the peace and the calm of the jungle wrapping itself around you.

Saving dance

Don’t be too cocooned, however, as your accompanying naturalist will warn you; the dirt path you tread on truly belongs to the sloth bear, a peckish creature that you don’t want to cross at the best of times, and you can only take so much comfort in the can of pepper spray and small signal horn that the guide always carries with him. And be prepared to spread your arms high and appear big, and do a mad waddle dance from side to side, just in case. It’s a sobering thought that not only have walking groups encountered bears during these trampings, an occasional leopard has also appeared around the bend in the road! Every day we cross the Denwa at the crack of dawn in a small motorboat, the jungle on the other bank drifting up to us, the sun being nudged awake, the water trembling and turning crimson. As we enter the park and cross the Madhai meadows, the birding turns spectacular — hornbills, flycatchers, kingfishers, shrikes and warblers at every fork of the road. The overlap of habitats is also the perfect invitation to migrant waterfowl in winter, including the bar-headed geese, pintail, garganey, pochard and ruddy shelduck. The park also offers other experiences to be savoured — boat rides for water birds on the Denwa, elephant safaris into the bush, night safaris in the buffer zone — all of which will enthrall the nature lover in you.

Another must-do activity is an overnight stay at the Forest Rest House (FRH) in Churna. It is an unforgettably charming place — two cozy bungalows that sit behind trimmed lawns in an open glade, deep in the heart of the tiger reserve and a half-day’s drive from the entrance at Madhai. At night, we huddle around the fire at the FRH, the night cloaks the forest around us, and as we peer into the blackness, we can make out the deer in the bush beyond the fence, their eyes little specks of gold flitting quietly in the inky dark. A Eurasian eagle owl’s hoot cuts into the silence and the deputy ranger joins us as the night wears on. 

Once upon a time...

There was a village here not so long ago, he says, there is the school still standing in ruin at the end of the forest road, which is now a favourite haunt of the area’s resident leopard. True to his words, he pulls out amazing camera-trap footage on his phone, which shows, of all things, a tiger at a buffalo kill a few nights before and then, like a ghost, a leopard visiting the site and running away with scraps when the tiger leaves it unguarded!

And then finally, as if on cue, on the way back from Churna the next morning, there is a turn in the road and there are two jeeps in front of us in an excited huddle. There is nothing more grand and more simple and yet more breathtaking at the same time like what we saw in front of us — a leopard sitting on the side of the road, young and curious, safe in the bush, a bit confused and surprised at all the sudden attention, fitting perfectly into the forest behind him, like a part of a painting.

Yes, Satpura is truly far from the madding crowd. It’s in a time and place that few have the privilege to go to. It’s a road not taken by many, but a wonderful path that beckons the lonely traveller with its isolation and mystery, and it rewards those who seek it with treasures and memories that are never forgotten.

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