There was no tiger spotting. But, the birds, a crocodile and a resort make up for it at the Satpura Tiger Reserve.

With a superb driver for a friend, it was a good time as any to take off on a road trip to the Satpura Tiger Reserve near Bhopal.

Our drive took us 840 km along the Mumbai-Agra Road (NH3) crossing over from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, and then along MP's State Highways 26 and 15. Winding past green pastures and forests and through villages where markets were in full swing, these unbelievably smooth State Highways were a happy look into vibrant rural India.

We arrived at Reni Pani Jungle Retreat at 8.30 p.m. Owned by brothers Faiz and Ali, the place strives to provide a seamless experience between the place you stay and a visit to the park. Away from the clatter of keyboards, the ringing of phones or the whine of the coffee machine, listen to the cracking of a dead branch as an animal stealthily steps over it or to the soothing notes of a flute as the wakeup call or to the urgent call of a monkey when he's spotted a leopard.

“The leopards don't really recognise the park boundary,” we were told, and at 5.30 the next morning, were asked to keep an eye on the road because leopards were often spotted just outside the retreat.

A lake marks the boundary of the Reserve, and we got into a boat to get across, just as the sun was coming up. It was magical because we stepped into the boat at dawn, and crossed across into day over waters washed orange, yellow and gold by the rising sun.

Natural splendour

The Reserve is lovely. But, be warned — if you're here to see just the tiger, you'll be disappointed. So, look for India's precious wilderness, and you'll be very gratified. What we saw that morning were sloth bears, deer, the gaur and flocks of birds, including painted storks, Indian rollers and vultures.

We headed back to Reni Pani, and after a brunch, lounged by the pool with a stack of interesting books from the in-house library and reading room — watching monkeys often leap across branches overhead and birds gracefully touchdown by the side of the water.

That evening we opted for the boat safari rather than the jeep safari through the reserve. This was even more fun than the morning's drive because we could get close to many birds, and very close (too close, perhaps!) to a mean old crocodile that was lazing in the sun. As we approached, he sprung up, spun around and slinked into the water with speed that belied his size.

We spent three days at Reni Pani, enjoying the retreat as much as the reserve, thanks to the roomy cottages, the outdoor shower dinner at surprise locations in candle lights!

For details, visit www.renipanijunglelodge.com