SATPURAN DELIGHT

Text : Mita Dutta | Photographs : Pinak Dutta . . . . . . . . . .

Satpura | Bison


Text : Mita Dutta

Associate Professor in Chemistry for last 17 years, a nature lover, bird watcher, an ardent traveler, and a travel writer. Her works have been published in leading travel and wildlife magazines. Mita is travelling with us for more than 10 years. Mita is not only a guest for us, she has become an integral part of Wandervogel family over the time.

 

Photographs : Pinak Dutta

Pinak is a PHD and Associate professor in Chemistry, teaching undergraduate students for last 15 years, ardent traveler, bird watcher and an award winning wildlife photographer. His photographs have been published in leading travel and wildlife magazines.

 


When we decided to go to Satpura Tiger Reserve (with all arrangements made by Wandervogel Adventures as always), we never thought that it would be more than just another jungle. So our journey to Satpura was one to rejuvenate ourselves in the lap of nature: unique landscapes, evergreen forests, rugged terrain, cascading waterfalls narrow gorges and some wildlife if luck permits.

The first destination of our itinerary was however Panchmarhi, the queen of Satpuras as it is known as. Our two day stay at Panchmarhi was rewarding indeed with ample birding, hikes to enchanting and sometimes not so attractive waterfalls and wonderful natural caves turned into religious destinations. The old English flavour of Panchmarhi was enchanting.

The drive to Renipani our destination for the next three nights and four days first along SH 19 and then SH 22 took us around two and half hours (around 100kms). The drive was a delight through stretches of pristine green on either side of the road punctuated with occasional settlements. The last few Kilometres to Renipani was through a dusty road and as we drove in the property of Renipani Jungle Lodge a group of happy faced uniformed staff was ready to welcome us.

Greenish Warbler

We were guided to the gol ghar which was the meeting place with a dining area, a lounge, a bar and a library. We were greeted by Ali, the owner of the lodge and a naturalist, who briefed us about our activities in the following days. The 150 acre property is just outside the buffer of the Satpura Tiger Reserve. The twelve luxury cottages of Renipani (named so because of the abundance of particular type of berry tree called Reni) are set either beside a seasonal nallah or amidst stretches of teak or on a rugged hillock and the entire terrain closely resembles that of Satpura Tiger Reserve.

The luxury cottages had more than one could wish for – a spacious deck with a charpoy, cosy well furnished rooms, lavish bathrooms and an interesting out-shower where one could have curious monkeys or birds as companions. The room was also equipped with a tea maker for a quick cuppa of piping hot tea or coffee. A cookie jar added to the delight. A peep through the spotless glass panes of the windows was often greeted by stares from cheetals who leaped away from visibility as soon as one stirred at the pleasure of sighting them. The silence was broken only by chirping of birds and the murmur of the trees.

The untouched wilderness of the place kept us mesmerized till we realized it was time for lunch. The dining at gol ghar was ready with an enormous buffet spread which had both continental and Indian cuisine on offer.

We were introduced to Shantanu who would be our accompanying naturalist during our stay. We were delighted to know that there was a night safari on the cards for us that evening. Our only previous experience of night safari was at Manas National Park and at Namdapha,  both in the northeast.

Our venture started at around six in the evening and we drove in a gypsy outside Renipani. The drive through villages, sometimes through the backyard of houses sometimes almost through cattlesheds, took us amidst golden wheat fields glowing in the setting sun. The rugged landscape in the dimming light was a feast for the eye. Though the road through which we drove wasn’t in a pleasant condition but what our eyes saw compensated for all.

Leopard

As darkness descended we entered the buffer area. The deadly silence punctuated by the nocturnal echoes of the jungle and the ultra darkness made us feel lost and helpless. The powerful search light enlightened only a small part of darkness and we literally jumped in our seats as it shone on pairs of green eyes here and there. We spotted asian palm civet and frightened hares and the sheer eeriness of the dark jungle sent shivers down our spines. As if to dramatise the situation even more the thunder Gods started rumbling and the sky split in parts with immense flash of light. It is impossible to define how we felt but the entire situation definitely humbled us. How helpless we were at the hands of the angry weather Gods amidst a dense jungle and no one to turn to for help, no shelter to tuck under for safety.

Shantanu however knew exactly what to do and we immediately started our journey back. Rains started lashing at us and we had only enough cover to protect our cameras.

Soon we were at Renipani which seemed a safe heaven. A lovely dinner brought us back to our wits. We slept with happy dreams of anticipation for our first real safari to the park next morning.

At break of dawn we were again back in the gypsy with Shantanu at the steering. Our first visit to the core area of the park would start at 6:30am when the park gates opened. We speeded through the 11 kms that lay between Renipani and the banks of the gorgeous river Denwa. A motor boat took us to the other side of the Denwa while hundreds of bar headed geese flew overhead and landed in the green undulating meadow close to from where we had started our boat-ride.

A gypsy of the forest department which was waiting on the other side of the river took us inside the park. Beside jeep safaris, elephant safaris and even walking in the park are other options of enjoying the park. However Elephant safaris restrict you to a small area of the park and so it is more of a joyride. Walking is a good option but it is comfortable only in the early hours of the day as from around 9:30am the scorching heat no more makes walking pleasant. However another good option of enjoying the surroundings of the park and enjoying birdlife is canoeing in the crystal clear waters of Denwa for which we decided to keep at least half a day.

As we entered the park as the first gypsy of the morning (maximum 12 gypsies are allowed) we were greeted by a group of cheetals who ran to safety behind trees and tall grasses but continued to keep a watch on us. A pack of wild boars in a marshy water body however paid no heed to our presence. As we moved further in, a large group of wild bisons were grazing along the path through which we were supposed to move ahead. We had to wait till they had had their fill and thankfully moved aside.

Then for sometime the park seemed empty as if word had spread that some strangers had invaded the park. We however kept moving on through the undulating terrain sometimes through plain grassland, sometimes gliding down to rivulet beds and going up again to the other side after a bumpy ride over the boulders. The landscape of the park was just breathtaking and we steeped ourselves in the serene beauty.

After a brief stop for a breakfast of packed sandwiches and tea Shantanu was again driving madly in search of wildlife only briefly slowing down at waterholes and moving on again.

We were engrossed enjoying the beautiful forest scape when Shantanu suddenly braked our vehicle to a dead stop. He gestured his hands towards a black mound about 15 ft to our left. As we stabilized our eyes 

we realized the mound was moving – Oh my God a huge sloth bear furiously burrowing a termite mound! It was burrowing so fast that within minutes it seemed to disappear half underground. And then we noticed something more. There were two teddies on her back struggling to hold on to their mother’s fur.

What a show it was and they were not even bothered of our presence. The cute teddies took turns in falling off their mother’s back. Mother bear disgusted with their stunts grunted in rebuke and they like good kids climbed back again.

Licking clean the huge termite mound in minutes, the mother bear loaded with her kids crossed the roads right in front of us and stopped in front of another termite mound. The same furious burrowing with some active help from the toddlers was a visual treat for us. Then the mother and her kids moved further deep in the forest perhaps in search of more termite mounds outside our viewing range.

It was more than 20 minutes of pure bliss. It was time to move out of the park by then and a pair of peacocks bid us adieu.

We were back at Renipani for a satisfying brunch but the cute teddies had left us wanting for more.

By 3:30 in the afternoon we were again ready for our next safari. To our dismay the sky was overcast. This type of weather is not very suitable for wildlife viewing. But who knows when the jungle surprises you. Crossing the Denwa we entered the park with Shantanu. This time no inhabitant of the jungle was there to welcome us. We drove around the park but with no luck. It seemed all the inhabitants of the jungle had all been invited for a party elsewhere.

After an hour of drive we were truly disappointed. Shantanu tried to console us that this happens sometimes and on days as this you either have to go home thinking you have been to a botanical garden or at the end you may be lucky enough to see something so extraordinary that you can cherish it lifelong.

Sloth bear

And then we saw it – a grey headed fish eagle in a good position to be photographed. But before the camera could focus it, it decided to fly to a different destination across the river. We followed it but before we could reach close enough to it we saw him – a leopard sitting majestically across the river on a stony ridge. It was a blue eyed beauty looking as if straight into our eye. “That’s Nilu” exclaimed Shantanu, one of the two brothers. He was called Nilu affectionately by Shantanu for his blue eyes. His brother Pilu – the yellow eyed was however nowhere to be seen. But Nilu was enough for us on a day when we had assumed that we would go home empty handed.

‘Nilu is not going to budge’, declared Shantanu ‘ lets go and take a look at the fishing eagle’. We moved towards where the eagle was perched but our heart was with Nilu. The grey headed fish eagle gave us a chance to shoot it in action of catching a large fish. And then we rushed back to where we had left Nilu. He was still there in the same place and posture where we had left him.

As soon as we started getting bored with his sitting actionless, he decided to get up and move through the rocky terrain interspersed with thick grasses. His movement suggested he was after some prey but what it was, was behind our comprehension. And then we realized that a wild boar was present close at hand who we so long had thought to be just another rock. Nilu was only a couple of feet away from the boar when the boar realized that it was in danger and fled. Nilu stood there fooled and disgusted. We remained speechless spectators of National Geographic live.

Shantanu was after all absolutely right. We had had a lifetime experience. Nilu had made our day. To make things even more delightful, Nilu decided to settle there. We kept watching the big cat till we realized it was time for the park to close and we sadly had to bid Nilu adieu.

We went back to Renipani super excited and satisfied with our rare experience and full of expectations for the next day.

With the descend of darkness, the nocturnal echoes of the jungle took over – a strident chorus of crickets and frogs. The monotony of the chorus was sometimes broken by the melancholic howling of the jackals.

The following morning was bright and we decided to enjoy the forest scape instead of sulking at the absence of enough wild encounters. We drove through the Sal forests and beautiful undulating meadows on the way to Churna  gate (another entry point for safaris) where lucky people were able to catch a glimpse of the almighty Royal Bengal a few days ago. However safari in the Churna Gate area had to be booked online earlier which we hadn’t.  We were enjoying the forest drive in the pleasant morning breeze stopping intermittently on seeing groups of wild boars, bisons, cheetals and shy barking deers. Black storks stalking on the river bed and Indian rollers flashing blue in the bright sunlight added to our delight. As we drove towards our breakfast point our guide mentioned that the mahouts of the trained elephants had heard a tiger growl in that area but no one had spotted any.

It was then that something strange happened – our guide’s mobile started ringing. It was strange as there was no network available even in the lodge, leave aside the jungle. As our guide equally surprised, received the call we realized it was our luck calling. A simple message-‘tiger near breakfast point’ and it made our day. We rushed to the spot as instructed and then we saw the enormous royal beauty walking out of the crystal clear river water majestically, unperturbed by the awestruck viewers. We stood dumbfound watching the king climb up the rocks and lazily walk through the bamboo forest. The flash of yellow behind the young green bamboos is something we will not be able to forget too soon. The king vanished in the thickets but we could not move for sometime as if we were under some spell.

 

We moved to the breakfast point and settled on the rocks beside the river diagonally opposite where we had spotted the enormous black stripe. We fancied he may have had rested on the same rocks last night where we were having our breakfast then.

The remaining part of the safari was just a ritual before we went back to Renipani as nothing could supersede the excitement of seeing a tiger.

That afternoon as if to cool down our excitement the rain Gods poured in plenty and we had to call off our scheduled canoe ride in the Denwa for a relaxed birding.

Instead in the afternoon we went out with Shantanu for birding in the areas adjacent to Renipani specially in the areas where Palasa was in abundant bloom. The rain cleaned burning bright orange Palasas in the the undulating landscapes were a visual treat in itself and flocks of parakeets- the plum headed, rose ringed, greenish warblers, blue winged leaf bird and babblers- the tawny bellied, the yellow eyed all were stars of the fashion parade that followed.

We visited a village nearby where black bucks are usually sighted in plenty but we saw none. The windswept golden-yellow wheat fields soothed our eyes and a perfect sunset in the background was a cherry on the cake.

It rained heavily throughout the night and we were a bit afraid if it continued raining in the morning we would miss our last chance to go canoeing in the Denwa as it was our last day at Renipani. The morning however cleared a bit and we were at the banks of Denwa by 7:00 am.

Two canoes were ready to take us for a ride through the inviting crystal clear waters of the Denwa. Each canoe could carry maximum three people including the boatman.

We boarded the canoe with life jackets on. It took us some time to adjust with the rolling of the canoe and overcome the fear of getting toppled. Once we adjusted with motion of the canoe we began to enjoy the ride. We rode close to the other side of the river where stood the pristine green tiger reserve. We were heading towards an island in the middle of the Denwa when we froze in our seats hearing a deep growl from the jungle. We kept close to the bank but could not see anything even after straining our eyes with our binos but we were sure whoever had sent shivers down our spines was keeping an eye on us.

Leopard

As we approached the muddy island we could see it was full of birds mostly river terns and a few little terns. Shantanu told us it was nesting time of the terns. There were hundreds of them and everyone seemed to be calling must be to attract its partner’s attention. There was a great hullabaloo and the island was full of action. We let them entertain us for a while but our eyes were hungry for a glimpse of the Indian skimmers. And then we caught a glimpse of a pair of orange scissor billed pair busy with each other. We rowed close to them and watched them bathe in the mud and wash clean in the water. They flew away only to land a few feet away. We were engrossed in their activities when it started drizzling. We rushed towards the shore where we were to have our breakfast. To our delight the rain stopped and we enjoyed our breakfast on the rocky bank as if it were a picnic. The scenery around us was simply stunning.

We would have loved to spend more time there but the rain Gods had other plans. The sky became dark and we knew we could not escape the rain God’s wrath. We packed up in no time and started our journey back to where we had started our canoeing. It started raining and we saw a grey heron and a couple of sandpipers and stilts enjoying the drizzle. We had only enough cover to keep our cameras dry so had no option but to enjoy getting drenched in the downpour.

The walk from the canoe to our gypsy was more like a tough balancing act. We had to watch each step as the slithery mud made walking an impossible act. There were times when we had to pull out our leg from more than ankle deep mud only to find the other leg drowned in the mud.

We returned to Renipani soaked to our bones and decorated with mud. A cup of piping hot coffee after a refreshing bath was all that we needed.

It was time to wind up our delightful Satpura trip with memories galore to carry back with us. We had indeed experienced nature at her supreme best.

Oriental White-eye

 

Malabar giant squirrel

About Satpura and adjoining landscape:

Located in the Satpura Maikal landscape on the central Indian highlands in the northwestern part of one of the ten critical bio-diverse regions in India (as declared by WWF), this biodiversity hotspot is spread across nearly 118,867 sq. km. About 34% of the total land area is covered by forests and is home to approximately 17% of the total world’s tigers. Besides Satpura tiger reserve, Kanha, Pench, Melghat etc lies in this region.

The forest type of this landscape is tropical and sub-tropical dry deciduous broadleaf in the Indo-Malayan realm.

The Satpura National Park along with adjoining Bori and Panchmarhi sanctuaries provides 1472 km2 and was set up in 1981 mainly for conservation of tigers.

Besides tigers, Satpura National Park is also home to leopards(Panthera pardus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), Indian wild dog(Cuon alpines), Malabar giant squirrel(Badi Gilhari), Indian marsh crocodile(Crocodylus palustris), Blue bull(Boselaphus tragocamelus) and many more.

The National Park and its buffer area has a rich avifaunal life and over 200 bird species are found here.

When to go:

The park is closed from 1st July to 15thOctober. Satpura has the capacity to surprise and please a visitor throughout the year. As in all parks high summers are good for mammal sighting but November to March can be equally rewarding as well.

How to go:

The closest railhead is Sohagpur which is around half an hour drive from Renipani. However Pipariya through which more trains ply, too is only about 55kms from Renipani. The closest airport is Nagpur.

Image © Pinak Dutta