Come to Satpura, if you've already seen a Tiger and want an intimate glimpse of a forest!

Monday, May 29, 2017


Indian Skimmers flying over River Denwa in Satpura National Park
Indian Skimmers flying over River Denwa in Satpura National Park

Did you know apart from the usual jeep safaris, Satpura also offers walking, canoe and night safaris? You'd be spoilt for choice!
Waiting patiently at a watering hole that's known for leopard sightings, we sat quietly, observing the parched jungle bleed its amber appearance into a sinister darkness until the moon rose. Four vehicles waited in quiet anticipation without the obligatory "Kuch dikha?" exchange, a scene you'd be hard pressed to find in any other Tiger Reserve. The sun had almost set. A barking deer inched closer to the water, wary of the humans yet cautiously proceeding. Later, a tree pie got its fill. It was calm out there except for the occasional peacock's call. None shifted in their seats out of frustration or boredom. That is Satpura for you, quiet and natural.

Madhya Pradesh's criminally underrated national park, Satpura is stealthily coming up as an excellent escape for nature lovers. Those who can see the forest for what she is and not only as a sum total of its inhabitants, Satpura is where you should go once you've seen a Tiger. Because it is only here you'll be taught to see and experience the jungle as it is, without the pressure of chasing the big cat. But of course, big cats and big bears abound here along with pretty birds and sneaky reptiles.

Come with Forsyth Lodge and me as I tell you how I fell in love with this unlikely national park that's setting new standards for responsible wildlife tourism.

Walking Safari inside the core area of Satpura National Park
Walking Safari inside the core area of Satpura National Park

Being on foot inside a teeming forest is a great leveller; it takes away all our unjustified pride and fills us with deep humility.
The moon had risen as well behind us already. We drove though the buffer zone that night under a moonlit sky. Nightjars relentlessly called out. Indian gerbils scampered by our side and an Indian hare ran into the rocks startled by the sound of our vehicle. Green eyes flashed in the bushes; we strained our eyes and ears to see if we could find the creature. Nothing but the emptiness of a shadowed forest stared back at us. We drove later through a meadow; the stench of a dead carcass filled the air. Twice actually.

Now Satpura is one of the very few national parks in the country where night safaris are legal. Realizing the need to engage the wildlife enthusiast holistically and not just take them on a big cat chase, the folks working in Satpura have convinced the government to allow night safaris in the buffer zones. From screeching insects to metronomical call of nightjars and glowing eyes to rancid stench of a recent kill, the jungle felt through our other senses without the aid of sight is an inherently primal and deeply invigorating experience.

The next morning, we drove leisurely observing Spotted Owlets, Plum headed parakeets, White throated kingfishers, Scarlet Minivets, Serpent Eagle, Jungle Fowls as well as the blazing red leaves of Kusum tree, tightly-packed cream coloured flowers of Giriya tree set against the blue sky and the yellow Mahua blooms that filled the air with a sweet aroma. Meanwhile, a Honey Buzzard circled high above the trees, using the hot air thermals to rise up and look for prey.

Driving into the sun, morning safari in Satpura National Park

Indian Gaur crossing the track in Satpura
Driving into the sun, morning safari in Satpura(left); Indian Gaur crossing the track(right)

Canoe Safari on the Denwa River
Canoe Safari on the Denwa River

Come to Satpura for a more holistic experience of the jungle.
- Forsyth Lodge's General Manager, Deepanker Mukherji.
Almost wandering aimlessly, we stumbled upon one spot where the foul smell of a recent kill filled the dry air. We drove past the stench in a hurry, the forest uncharacteristically hushed. Neither a single bird song nor a distant alarm call pierced through the silence. Nothing except the steady rattle of the engine broke the silence of the forest.

Suddenly, Aadhar Singh, our expert forest guide lifted his arm and nonchalantly announced, “there’s a Tiger, let’s go back!”. To put things into perspective, there are probably 50 tigers spread over an area of 1200 sq kms of core area and we may have just gotten a chance to see one! Crouching between the dried undergrowth, white stripes and lazy eyes stared back at us. We stared back in quiet disbelief. "Mahina guzar jaata hai yahan ek Tiger dikhne mein”, Aadhar Singh grinned, quite pleased with the sighting. "Badi billi mili, badi billi" his voice cackled on the phone later. We stared in disbelief still; the rarity of the moment hadn’t sunk in yet. The Tiger, not used to the prying eyes of humans, quietly moved into the thicket and we left with a profound sense of gratefulness then. Satpura had already set unrealistic expectations at this point.

Moonrise in the barren summer jungles of Satpura National Park

Night safari in Satpura's buffer zone
Night safari in Satpura's buffer zone, one of the more exciting and offbeat things to do here

Forest Guide in Satpura Forest Guide in Satpura
Radhe Lal, in first picture, was our guide one morning and instinctively knew exactly where the leopard might head and retraced our way even though the rest of the vehicles raced ahead after hearing the alarm call. We arrived at a clearing where a cub was resting mere 10 feet away from our vehicle. We were the first to report the sighting and had a good 10 minute audience with the sneaky cat before others came along. Aadhar Singh, in second picture, spotted a Tiger hiding in the jungle with such a flair that it almost seemed as if he conjured it out of thin air. A Tiger in Satpura is a rarity yet the jungle was feeling magnanimous that day! It was the first Tiger sighting in a month and we were the only ones who got unbelievably lucky.

The next morning, Radhe Lal, a lean man with a keen understanding of the forest and an air of assurance about him, was our forest guide. Little could surpass the previous day’s sighting but the forest was feeling generous with the poor humans who braved the searing summer heat of central Indian jungles. In quick succession, we first spotted a black bear scurrying into the bushes and minutes later we also happened to track a leopard cub crouching by the grass.

When we set out on an evening canoe safari on the brimming waters of Denwa River later that day, river terns and many other water birds created quite a spectacle on the islands trapped between the flow. But there was one standout, the spectacularly orange-beaked Indian Skimmers. Their long bills glittering like jewels in the evening light, we were told Skimmers are only seen here apart from the risky Chambal river region, their primary breeding ground. So it was quite special, to be able see them skim the waters here in Denwa.

One of the more exciting things to do in Saptura is to take a walking safari inside the core zone. Being on foot inside a teeming forest is a great leveler; it takes away all our unjustified pride and fills us with deep humility and an awe of the great wilderness. That particular morning during our short walk, we knew for sure that a leopard saw us move through its territory and stealthily walked past us. How do we know? Fresh pugmarks on the trail we treaded just minutes before. Relief was the bigger emotion than missing the action then.

Tiger resting in the bushes with its kill, Satpura National Park

Leopard looking for a hunt in Satpura National Park
Tiger with its kill(left); Leopard cub looking for a hunt(right)

Sunrise over River Denwa
Sunrise over River Denwa


Satpura's many folds of mountains stretching as far as the eye could see

Nightjar with its egg right by the side of a jeep track
Satpura's many folds of mountains stretching as far as the eye could see(left); Fantastically camouflaged Nightjar with its egg right by the side of a jeep track. The guides in Satpura are attuned to observing all sorts creatures because they're not focussed on Tiger alone.

Satpura’s landscape, the forest and its inhabitants are definitely special. But it was something else that left a lasting impression on me - the strong sense of ownership and a great respect for the wilderness in the community that worked in Satpura. It was Deepak, a young naturalist from Kerala interning with Forsyth at the time of my visit, who first offered a shining example of the ethos of Satpura and the wonderful way the tourism is managed here. Observing the bear frantically move deeper and deeper into the bushes one morning, Deepak said, “The bear is stressed. Let's not worry it more now that we've had our sighting.”

It was nice to hear those words; see that concern for wildlife. “When there's a Tiger sighting, all the other animals go into hiding for fear of the apex predator. The forest goes eerily quiet for 2-3 days right after. So we're not always excited about a Tiger sighting”, he helpfully added. Not just that, all the forest guides here are all part time workers and villagers who grew up in and around the national park. During a walk along the banks of Denwa one evening, I casually commented to one of the forest guides, Khet Singh, about the trash in the river. He personally felt responsible for it, apologised and collected the plastic trash lying around, stuffed it in his pocket to dispose later.

These guides could spot a big cat or a small spider with equal and admirable effortlessness as well as interest. They are all young and their energy is palpable, what they're missing in wrinkled experiences balances out with their high enthusiasm! It was surreal, to see how much these guys were in sync with the forest and her cues. I only wish more of us could learn to understand nature so intimately.

If I have to think of one phrase to describe Satpura, it'd be “a box full of surprises"! Once you’ve had your fill of Tigers, head to Satpura and see what the jungle feels like in all its glory.


***


Spotted Owlet peering through the blooming branches of Mahua tree(left); Indian Giant Squirrel deftly leaps between the barren branches(right)

Make it happen

Stay at Forsyth Lodge in Satpura

Forsyth Lodge near Satpura National Park

Forsyth Lodge near Satpura National Park
Situated at the edge of Satpura National Park, Forsyth Lodge is an eco-friendly lodge spread amidst 44 acres of reclaimed jungle. There are 12 cottages, featuring an earthy style that offers great comfort and luxury within the wilderness but built in ecologically responsible ways. From your room, you can watch the stars at night as well as observe wildlife during the day. The folks at Forsyth are one of the pioneers of conservation-based wildlife tourism model in Satpura which makes a visit with them all the more pleasurable.  More details here - http://www.forsythlodge.com/

Spend you time between jeep, walking and canoe safaris as well interacting with the knowledgeable naturalists as well as guides at Satpura National Park.

Note: My trip to Satpura was sponsored by Forsyth Lodge, opinions are my own nevertheless.

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3 comments

  1. Wow,looks like you had some real thrilling moments.The concern shown for the wild animals is really inspiring.Loved that pic of that boat.

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  2. I can feel every word written here, Neelima. Beautiful narration and brilliant habitat pictures with its inhabitants. Am excited to know that night safari is allowed in here. Thanks for all the info.

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  3. Hello
    Satpura and Forsyth's are close to my heart. I went there with my wife when Forsyth's had just opened and Satpura was a completely unknown entity. This is where we tracked a leopard first time on foot. Finding fresh pugmarks of wild dogs on my own footprints is something that I will never forget. I even got a cheesy shot of my own footprint next to pugmarks of a tigress.Since then it became our yearly pilgrimage destination. We felt it safe enough to take our 1 year old son on his first safari and this is where he saw his first sloth bear and his first leopard. After canoeing was introduced, I never came back without at least couple of canoe trips. Satpura offers much more than all other tiger reserves and there's no better place to stay than Forsyth's.

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