The Epic Centre
We’ve been driving for about two hours and save for some birds of prey, elegant blackbucks and crocs in the distance, our wildlife sightings have been fairly underwhelming. Having spotted a tiger seven years ago in Bandhavgarh, I am eager to get up close and personal with India’s favourite jungle cat. Unfortunately, the cat in question isn’t in the mood. “I can hear some alarm calls, but they’re very distant,” says Aly Rashid, naturalist and co-proprietor of the Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, my home for the night. “The tiger’s probably walking somewhere deep inside the jungle,” he adds.
Spanning an area of 524sq km, Satpura National Park is located in the heart of Madhya Pradesh. It is a relatively lesser- known park, as compared to Kanha, Pench and Bandhavgarh, and the tiger reserve here is not known for its sightings of the cat. However, most wildlife junkies swear that it embodies the essential safari experience: the breeze, the play of shadow and light, the kaleidoscope of greens and browns, the sounds of a life that is entirely unlike mine. Aly, too, urges me to just listen. I strain my ears, but apart from the hum of the jeep’s engine, I’m completely deaf. “My ears aren’t tuned to jungle frequency,” I joke, but no one is impressed. “Tough crowd,” I mutter under my breath as I make my peace with the thought of not spotting anything that will earn me bragging rights back home.
And then, as if almost on cue, I hear the soft rustle of leaves underfoot. I whip around and a pair of sambar deer walk daintily across the grass. A few metres away, a civet scrambles to take shelter beneath a tree. Shutting my eyes tight to take in the sounds, I pick up on the beat of the wild. I recognise the deep bass of the gaur, the high-octave chirruping of the crickets and the tenor of the tawny-bellied babbler. It’s a perfect, seamless jungle symphony.
Later that evening, we’re on our way back to the lodge when Aly gets word that a leopard had killed a cow. Excited by the prospect of seeing some kill, we head back to the depths of the jungle. We drive around the area for what feels like hours, but finally, we’re forced to admit that our bloodlust is not going to be sated. Still, I think, as I stare up at the darkening inky sky punctured by tiny pinpricks of starlight, it’s all quite beautiful.
By the time we get back to the lodge, it’s cold and I’m exhausted after a long day in the car. Named after locally abundant wild reni berries, a favourite with local sloth bears, Reni Pani is an eco-lodge dedicated to conservation and preservation of its surroundings, visible in the eucalyptus beams and bamboo used to build the lodge. Still shivering, I enter my cottage and am relieved to see that despite the emphasis on environmentally friendly practices, creature comforts don’t take a back seat here: there’s a hot water bottle tucked in my bed. Gratefully, I sink into my mattress and pillows, looking forward to a deep, well-deserved sleep.
It’s 5.30am and we’re just setting out on the Denwa River in our canoe. The cold air whips through my hair and stings my face. I curse myself for not wearing a fifth layer. I yawn, raising my hand to cover my mouth, and my fingers turn numb. Aly senses my discomfort, smiles and tells me, again, to just listen.
Dawn is breaking. Pale patterns of pink, purple and blue dance across the water. The morning is silent, save for the dull rhythm of oars hitting water. Above us, a noisy flock of bar-headed geese soars past in a near-perfect V formation. To my right, lapwings, herons and egrets call out to each other, scanning the water for food. I automatically reach for my camera, but something stops me. I realise no photographs or words will match up to what I see.
Getting There: Fly to Bhopal with Jet Airways, from Mumbai or New Delhi. Satpura is a four-hour drive away.
Where To Stay: Reni Pani Jungle Lodge. The lodge and Satpura National Park are closed from June to October.