Pench had been on our list for quite some time. Using the long weekend, we found ourselves on a flight to Nagpur early Friday morning. We had initially toyed with the idea of taking the overnight train on Thursday but eventually this worked out well since I was working till the very last minute on Thursday (continuing with the crazy amount of work I have been doing the whole of this month). For once in the time I have known D, he actually had his packing done before me.
On Friday morning, we landed bright and early in Nagpur and were picked up by a prearranged taxi. The drive to Pench is about two hours (can be much longer if you are unlucky enough to be caught in the long line of trucks crossing the border to MP).
We had made reservations at Kipling’s Court, MP tourism’s neat little abode near Pench. I must say that I never expected a tourism department’s accommodation to be so nice but indeed it was. The service was quick and efficient. The hordes of people actually did some work instead of walking around in a desultory manner (this has been my experience in other tourism homes). The cottages themselves were built quite cleverly. Each cottage had its own path to the common area, so you did not have people walking past your open doors and windows at all hours. The food was good and there was a serviceable pool in which all the male Indian guests flaunted their round bellies in the mornings.
On Friday afternoon, we set off on the first of the two safaris we had prebooked. There are two safari slots every day – at 6 a.m.and 3 p.m. Only 50 vehicles are permitted at a time and during peak seasons and public holidays, it is better to do the booking through your hotel/agent beforehand to ensure you find a slot. (Our safari agent, Ajay Bhavre 09424364217/ 09770732319 came well recommended on the net and was quite friendly and efficient)
Pench can get very hot in the afternoon, even in March. It was forty degrees as we set out in the open Gypsy van. I tried not to move around too much in the vain hope that staying icy calm would be the way to beat the heat. The forest itself was brown and stark, the green leaves appearing in rare and welcome patches. D and I gulped down water regularly. Even as we stopped at the first watering hole to wait for the tiger, I was seriously tempted to go and lie down in the water myself.
After two hours, the sun began to grow more tolerable. We had seen a few birds and a lot of deers and monkeys and hardly any of the bigger animals of note. But honestly, I did not see which animal in its right senses would want to be prowling the forest at this time. However, as evening came and the temperature began to drop we could feel the forest stirring to life.
We were driving on yet another route filled with deers and monkeys when we spotted four vehicles parked around the same spot. The guides in each of them were standing with their bodies tense and alert, listening to the sounds of birds and deers screeching away. This usually means an ‘alarm call’ is out for a predator. We joined the parked vehicles. As the calls got more intense and louder, more and more vehicles converged on the spot, all waiting with eager anticipation.
Finally, someone spotted a striped creature among the trees. A hushed whisper ran around the parked vehicles. The guides began to hiss to each other their prediction of where the tiger would go. No one really had an idea though if the tiger would walk away into the woods or if would it show itself more fully.
We waited. And suddenly, belying even our wildest hopes, the tiger began to majestically stride forward. It crossed the road between two vehicles which had been parked at a good distance from each other. Everything was quiet except for the steady clicking noise of cameras. As she (for it was a she) retreated into the forest on the other side of the road, some of the vehicles started and began to go further down the road.
We had seen ‘Badi Ma’ as the tigress is fondly known among the guides. The oldest in the region at 11 years, she had spawned several new generations of tigers and was still in good health despite approaching the end of a tiger’s life span (usually 13 – 14 years)
We were really content and happy on the drive back. Spotting a tiger is luck of the draw. You could go on 3 – 4 safaris during a stay and still not see one. Or you could just get lucky like us and see it on your first evening.
The good thing about having spotted the tiger was that we could now just stay in and chill for the rest of our stay. So that is what we did the whole of Saturday. I steadily finished reading the book I had been carrying. Then moved onto the next one and finished it that evening. And began the third one post-dinner. Some reading days are just perfect.
Sunday morning, we set out into the forest again for our second and last pre-booked safari. I was quite looking forward to this since the weather would be much cooler. It was indeed cooler. And there were tons and tons of birds around. We (or rather the guide) spotted beautiful woodpeckers, rollers, hornbills, black orioles, serpent eagles, ibis’, herons and so on. It was lovely being in the forest just after day break and watching the birds.
We also saw a couple of jackals looking most annoyed by our morning perambulations. However, we did not spot anything bigger than that. The usual deers and monkeys were around. No tiger though. Certainly there was no sign of a leopard, which a few people had spotted the earlier day and which we were really hoping to see.
Safaris are strange activities when you think about it. Fifty vehicles go up and down the same routes, passing each other at regular intervals. The guides nod to each other to indicate that they have not spotted anything. The city-bred passengers meanwhile sit in their sun glasses, carrying expensive cameras fully expecting to see a tiger or a leopard. It takes a while to realize that just because we have made it to the Reserve does not mean that the tiger/leopard has an obligation to show up and pose for photographs.
Still, we had seen the big cat and had something to say to the folks back home if they asked about the trip. We had also seen a few other animals and birds of great beauty. Baby bisons (weighing a mere 500 kilos unlike their parents who weighed a ton each) were my favourite. Their coats were absolutely lustrous and the little patch of fur on their heads provided a beautiful base for the pink and white horns. The peacocks we saw had coats that sparkled like jewels in the sunlight. Being in its natural environment certainly does wonders to the skin! We saw baby boars with squirrel-like marks on their backs to help them camouflage themselves. We saw Nilgais looking dangerously huge for an herbivore.
Yup, it is good to get away from the urban jungle once in a while.