Travel

The law of the jungle

Going on a jungle safari is one thing. And then again, going into a jungle where Mowgli and Bagheera supposedly once roamed, legends were born and beautiful stories created, is an entirely different thing. BHUMIKA K. takes you through an experience when the summer sun meets imagination at the Pench Tiger Reserve

The rocky black outcrops, the withered trees of the jungle with their bare outstretched arms, the faint rustle in the thick dry leaf carpet on the floor... all feed into our vivid imagination as the safari jeep hits a dirt track and our eyes scan the forest.



We’re pretty sure that Rudyard Kipling’s Akela sat on one of those rocks up above and looked over his pack, that Baloo and Bagheera must have hung around with Mowgli around that tree, years ago…



After all, it is here — in what is today the Pench Tiger Reserve — in the heart of Madhya Pradesh that Kipling set his legendary story, The Jungle Book. With his 150th birth anniversary, and with Disney bringing out its new film this summer, there has been a renewed interest in this story made famous on TV with the “Chaddi pehan ke phool khila hai” wolf-boy.



Taj Safaris’ ‘Mowgli Trails’ package makes this experience ‘junglee’, yet luxurious, at their Baghvan Lodge in Seoni district. The sprawling wooden cottages (each with a personal butler!) are set on the edge of the forest. They come complete with a rooftop mosquito-net swathed machan for a brave night’s sleepover, outdoor ‘Mowgli’ showers, and wild back-to-Nature cookouts.



The bungalows are set in a lantern-lit property criss-crossed by bamboo-edged pathways; we are warned not to walk alone at night. We almost jumped in fright as we headed back from dinner one night and heard a loud hissing sound. When the torch was shone into the trees to find the source, we saw what looked like baby barn owls that hiss like snakes!



In the three days spent in Pench, and the four safaris at the Mowgli Pench Wildlife Sanctuary, we didn’t spot any of the “star” animals. Only the ‘bandar log’ of Kipling’s world were in copious numbers, as were chital deer, sambhar, gaur, and peacocks in splendid plumage for the mating season. There was disappointment in a sense, but one mustn’t go only in quest of tigers, we tell ourselves sombrely. So, most of the time was spent recalling and re-imagining The Jungle Book, and playing it out in the stark settings in front of my eyes. The summer has been so harsh, and the Pench River all dried up that the Forest Department has organised tankers to fill up the animal watering holes in the jungle.



Taj Safari’s strength is its team of trained naturalists from &Beyond (an experiential travel company) who know the jungle like the back of their hand and share their knowledge enthusiastically. Over three days, naturalist Tarun Mishra engaged us with the Pench forest as if it were a creature in itself. He doled out little stories and factoids as we drove through the rugged routes every morning and evening.



The Indian Ghost Tree with its changing bark colour stood freakishly white in contrast to browning trees, as did the Mahua, with lush green or red leaves. We were told that if we had come when the Mahua flowers were in bloom, we could have tried an intoxicating drink made of them!



We listened, amused, to how each of Pench’s famous tigers behaved, be it Collarwali, BMW, or Raiya Kassa. The silence of the jungle would suddenly be broken with the shrill “brain fever” calls of the common hawk cuckoo. Tarun’s keen eyes matched that of the guide from the State’s Forest Department to find tiger pug marks as we drove along, or bear paw marks. Listening to the warning calls of the langurs, interpreting them, guessing what’s happening, heading in what might be the best direction to find the tiger based on all these indicators… We went through the cycle of hope, anticipation, disappointment and frustration. Every encounter with another safari jeep would begin with the customary driver exchanges of ‘Kuch mila?’ (Saw anything?), followed by either a jealousy-inducing ‘Ek jeep ko tiger mila’, (One jeep spotted a tiger), or the more comforting ‘Sirf panje’ (Only pug marks).



At a pit-stop in the vast beautiful grasslands of Alikatta, Tarun pulled out a packed picnic breakfast of yummy sandwiches, muffins and bananas to keep us going. Once the spot from where elephant rides started, today, it’s an elephant camp for the Forest Department’s pachyderms that help patrol the jungle.



While man-animal conflict forms the underlying thread of The Jungle Book, the current picture is not very far from it. If anything, it has become more pronounced. We get a grim reminder of this ugly side: a site in the forest where tigress Baghin Nala lies in ashes with her two cubs. They died of suspected poisoning by poachers. Kipling’s poem, — “Now this is the law of the jungle…”— keeps playing on my mind.



One of the most beautiful sightings we had at Pench was of a large pack of dholes, Indian wild dogs. The pack of 17 led by an alpha couple, three other adults and playful pups were at the Beejamatta drinking hole, one of the best sites in the reserve to spot animals.



Pench also has abundant and delightful birdlife; it’s absolutely breathtaking to see the flash of the brilliant blue wings of the Indian roller as it flies by from a branch.



The Indian grey hornbill and the graceful Rufous treepie with its long, beautiful tail following it were seen everywhere. A rare gathering of six Malabar pied hornbills on a single tree made sure everyone got out their mammoth lenses and indulged in some Nature photography.



The evenings were delightful, as we wound down at the sprawling dining room, over cocktails and more stories from the jungle. It’s where all guests meet to share what they saw, show each other pictures, even as Amit Kumar, GM of Baghvan, takes us through the various versions of the legend of Mowgli, how and where he was found. The Mowgli theme runs into dinner, where there is much feasting over junglee maas, and paneer cooked in bamboo stems.



An invitingly yellow, almost edible-looking Mowgli body scrub awaits you to rinse off the hot and dusty jungle day. And the impeccable turn-down service includes an endearing note on a leaf from Baloo the bear and a copy of The Jungle Book to tuck yourself into bed with.



(The writer was in Pench on invitation of Taj Safaris.)



The village experience



Surekha Tumdam and her daughter Divya greet us with aarti and take us into their home in Khamba village, a Gond adivasi (tribal) settlement of over 105 families, on the outskirts of the Pench National Park. Subhash Bhawre is the guide for NGO Conservation Wildlands Trust; he interprets and introduces us to the life of these people who live life pretty much the old way. We are invited to cut wood, draw water from the hand pump, hand-pound and winnow rice, hand-grind masala on a flat stone, and crush dal that Surekha’s family has grown, on a traditional millstone! In short, we have an experience of her everyday life.



The chatty lady takes us to her backyard, where amidst her prized ‘reverse feather’ chicken, she shows off her greens and vegetable patch — they grow paddy in the monsoon and vegetables in summer. “We grow and preserve all our vegetables in summer, because, in the monsoons, we don’t have time to go to the markets; we are busy in the fields,” says Surekha. The field is strangely protected by saris: it apparently scares off the wild deer and sambhar that stray in from the neighbouring forest. Over more talk in the open front yard, Surekha treats us to ‘gugri’ and ‘kalee chai’, a spicy dal dish and excellent black tea with lemongrass.



Travel Notes

Taj Safaris Baghvan (Madhya Pradesh) is a two-hour drive from the nearest airport in Nagpur, Maharashtra. A stay at Baghvan can further be combined with a stay at the nearby Banjaar Tola, and a visit to the Kanha National Park.

The Mowgli Trails package is valid till June 30.

For details on stay and rates, check www.tajsafaris.com.

The wildlife sanctuary remains closed from July to September for the monsoon.

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 11:21:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/the-law-of-the-jungle/article8655161.ece

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