G&J (Great Journeys): A midsummer dream safari
Reni Pani Jungle Lodge's existence is so expertly camouflaged that it seems to almost disappear into the landscape.
The best time to go on a wildlife safari is in summer. This is when waterholes deep inside the forest dry up and animals troop down to the few pools of water that are still around, to quench their thirst. Suckers for a unique experience, we bit the bait and set off at the end of April – a peak summer month in Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of India. Our destination was Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, located on the outskirts of Satpura National Park and Tiger Reserve, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Bhopal. Hello! But no one had warned us about what temperatures hovering between 45 and 47 degrees centigrade (that’s between 113 and 116 on the Fahrenheit scale) would feel like.
Once there, it felt like we had been pushed into a preheated oven by the wicked witch in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale; or perhaps like meat being skewered on a barbecue! Thank heaven for air-conditioning, and early morning and evening safaris when nature’s temper tantrums and hot flushes would cool down for a bit.
Reni Pani Jungle Lodge turned out to be a complex of luxurious dun-coloured cottages and tents that sprawl over 15 acres, and whose interiors seem to flow seamlessly into the Great Outdoors. Reminiscent of the luxe private game lodges in South Africa, the property is encircled by another 15 acres of wilderness. Done up in earth-friendly tones and extensive use of natural materials, Reni Pani has a light footprint. Its existence is so expertly camouflaged that it seems to almost disappear into the landscape.
During the hottest part of the day, we dawdled in our capacious suite-like tent, curled up with a book on the sofa while monkeys ran amok on the roof. Or lingered on our sit-out with views of a perennial waterhole where a handsome chital stag occasionally stopped by to quench its thirst, unafraid of human intrusion. At night, a civet cat would stroll past or a tiny hare hop away from the beam of our torchlight when we would head to the Gol Ghar for dinner, accompanied by a guard. For we had been warned by Siddharth Biniwale or Sid, our naturalist at Reni Pani, who was a walking encyclopaedia on the wild, not to head out of our tent, unaccompanied, at night.
Other favourite spots for cooling off were the star-shaped, wood-beamed Gol Ghar, essentially a dining area, lounge-cum-bar artfully done in the local idiom. Strung with striking portraits of Gond tribals and artefacts with a Bukhari at its heart, the Gol Ghar is suffused with a friendly vibe. A thatched gazebo overlooking the jungle pool and the library with its Bastar metal art were our other stakeouts.
Thankfully, our lodge had two perfect beat-the-heat options that only very few wildlife parks (Satpura being one) in India offer: night patrolling and an early morning wilderness trek. “Tourists are said to be the eyes and ears of the forest and must report any unusual happenings they come across to the Forest Department,” said Sid.
At sunset, we set off on a night patrol of a buffer zone in the park while a cool evening breeze caressed the parched forest like a soothing balm. Nabbing poachers was the last thing on our minds: we were on the lookout for the wild denizens of the forest, most likely slaking their thirst at a waterhole.
“Though there are tigers here, don’t expect to see any. Satpura is the place for sighting sloth bears, leopards, and wild dogs,” Sid assured us. The big prizes eluded us that evening even though we kept a silent vigil at three water bodies. But we did reap other rewards. A harem of peahens indifferent to a dancing peacock who in turn seemed to be more interested in his own reflection in the water. Squirrels, lizards and a procession of beautiful plumed birds stopped by to have a beak full. A sambar too with a not-so-velvety coat as she had shed much of it in an effort to keep cool.
The sun set. We waited in silence but the sloth bear with two cubs that routinely stops by for a sundowner played truant that evening. Suddenly, the forest choir burst joyously into song. Nightjars sang in full voice as they swooped through the post-sunset sky like ghosts on wings. Other songsters hidden in the dark foliage chirruped in the background. The bony branches of trees swayed in the wind like dancing spooks.
It was time to turn on the spotlight. Our safari vehicle purred to life, and as it cruised through the dark jungle, the forest guard holding the spotlight swept its beam across the thicket on both sides of the dirt trail, looking for the tell-tale signs of eyes that might shine like glowing embers. And sure enough, we came across a sambar, with impressive antlers, that glared at us! The forest interspersed with rugged hills was alive with nocturnal activity: a grunting wild boar, a confused baby hare, a savanna nightjar roosting in the middle of the road that refused to budge, compelling us to backtrack. It was an exciting midsummer's night dream safari.
That night we dossed down in our luxury tent like big game hunters without being ravaged by the guilt of having taken lives. And we were up at the unearthly hour of four the next morning! At the park gate, we met our Forest Department guide, who carried a mean-looking stick, a blow horn, and a pepper spray which he assured us were enough to discourage any animal that might object to our presence in its domain.
At sunrise, our spirits rose and our stride lengthened as we strode across the silt flats that caked the banks of the shrunken river. Binoculars glued to our eyes, we got to admire the velvet coats of a herd of gaur (mistakenly called Indian bison) munching on their grassy breakfast in the distance; painted storks sifting the water for fish with their long beaks; brilliantly plumed birds…
And then, we stumbled on a kill… a week old! Wild dogs had brought down a sambar and a group of trekkers battled with mixed feelings of fascination and revulsion as they watched the pack feast on it with savage intent. All that remained now was a bony hoof with the last of the maggots working through the little meat that was left on it. The walking trail furrowed through green meadows and rolling hillocks fringed by gangly trees – we love the bone-white Indian ghost tree with its twisted branches resembling the fingers of a gnarled ancient hand.
We had been on the trail for four plus hours and the temperatures were starting to rise. It was time to head back to the comfort of Reni Pani Jungle Lodge where we were received with a wave of the hand, cold towels, refreshing iced tea, and cheery smiles.
On our last evening, we dined al fresco in a lamp-lit glade where the silence was textured by the sawing of cicadas and the sounds of a parched forest whispering to itself. Gleaming napery and wine in nature’s theatre, anyone?