Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India
By Mridula Dwivedi
When I first heard from the Gonomad team about a possible trip to the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, I was quite thrilled. I finally went to Kanha in June 2009 and stayed there three nights with Taj’s Safari Lodge at Banjaar Tola.
The Taj Lodges are run in collaboration with the African luxury travel firm & Beyond.
And what a trip it has been. The lodges are made in tent style and are quite luxurious. You can check out their room rates here.
Not a Smooth Landing
The easy way to reach Kanha from Delhi is to take a flight to Jabalpur and then take a car transfer. This transfer can be arranged by the Lodge itself.
The closest rail link is Gondia. A transfer from Nagpur (which is closer to Mumbai) is also available. Kingfisher Airlines flies daily from Delhi to Jabalpur. It operates a small aircraft (ATR Turboprop) with 2X2 seating arrangements.
I mostly had a peaceful flight but the trouble began when we started descending at Jabalpur. There was a lot of turbulence and even though it has never happened with me before I threw up the excellent snacks they had served during the flight. So, I disembarked at the small Jabalpur airport quite disoriented.
I waited for my luggage, freshened up and exited looking for someone holding a placard for me. I spotted the driver Sricharan with his Toyota Innova quickly soon.
Jabalpur Airport is quite small and there are not too many taxies around. I would suggest anyone arriving there to prearrange their transfer. And in summer it is recommended that you use an air conditioned vehicle or it would be scorching hot.
I got into the car and told Srichanarn about my landing. He immediately asked (in Hindi), “Should I drive slowly?” I told him I do quite fine on straight roads, it is only the roads with twists and turns that give me trouble. I asked him to take me somewhere for lunch and he took me to Hotel Kalchuri. I was advised to have lunch at Jabalpur because reaching Kanha would take good five hours.
A Warm Welcome
When I arrived at the Taj Safari Lodge at Banjaar Tola, it was dusk. A flat tire and the delayed flight arrival contributed to this.
There was the staff near the car park waving with both their hands (they have this special wave with which they greet you every time you arrive back at the lodge) and immediately gave me a cool drink to freshen up with.
They took care of my luggage and inquired after my journey. When I told them about the flat tire and throwing up they commented that I must be really tired and they would immediately lead me to my room.
Ritesh, the young camp manager came up with me and gave me an orientation about my tent, how to turn off the air conditioning, not be afraid if a few insects come in, after all the tent is in the middle of the jungle and many other things.
He asked me to call the reception when I was ready for dinner. Guests are discouraged to walk on their own at night and every tent is assigned a butler. The paths are lit with lanterns and add to the charm of the place.
Later in the common area I met the naturalist Alger Fernandez who would accompany me to the park. Ritesh asked me if I have ever visited a jungle before. I told them about our treks in the Himalayas.
And for me tents usually mean a two-person tent that we pitch ourselves rather than a luxury house with air conditioning. Ritesh said then they don’t need to worry about me, I would be alright at Banjaar Tola.
Manish the Master Chef
I also met the master Chef Manish and he cooked the dinner in front of us. He said he tries to allay the fears of many of his foreign guests that all the Indian spices are hot. He asked me if I take spicy food or not.
I told him that at my home my younger nephew and I are considered the ‘Europeans’ as we can’t eat spices much. He prepared the food accordingly.
We ate in the beautiful open dining area in candle light, though there are covered rooms available too. The wine and the food were wonderful. Alger told me that we would move to the park by 5:15 am as there would be fewer vehicles and better chances of spotting a tiger.
That Elusive Tiger
So the good folks at the lodge gave me masala chai (flavored tea) with the wake up call at 4.15 am the next day. I was out near the common area by 5:00 am. I was the only guest going to the park that day and Alger let me take the front seat in the jeep.
We soon reached the barriers of the Kanha National Park and even the sun was not out by this time. But there was already a jeep in front of us waiting to get into the park.
Alger came back with the permission and asked me, “There is a local kid who wishes to come to the jungle with us but I told him let me ask our guest first.” I readily agreed to take the kid along.
Soon we were moving in the Mukki region of the Kanha National Park. The first thing we spotted were colorful jungle fowls but they are very shy creatures and I could never get a good picture of them.
The jungle is famous for its Sal and Bamboo trees. Alger showed me around with such enthusiasm that I am thinking of dragging my family to a national park in the future.
I saw Gaurs (resembles a bison), barisingha and cheetals (two types of deer), peacocks and even wild boars but there was no sign of the elusive tiger.
At one particular road Alger and the park ranger got quite excited as they saw the pug marks of a tiger and they tried to track it.
They listened hard for the alarm calls of other animals but there was not much luck. I was quite content with breathing in the jungle air and looking at green trees and the wildlife around.
Later we had a lavish breakfast in the jungle itself given to us from the lodge. It was good fun to eat cookies and vegetable rolls and have coffee along with the three others. I asked the young local kid if he went to school and he answered yes. But it is a pity they do not teach English at his school.
We checked out the water holes on our way back but there was still no tiger. By 9:30 am it was getting really hot and we headed back to the camp.
I was once again greeted by the cool drink and they requested me to spend the day in the tent as much as possible because of the heat and the lunch would be served there too.
I had a very luxurious room to myself overlooking the river Banjaar. Even though the river becomes just a thread in the summers there were a lot of birds with occasional cows and villagers coming along to use the water.
I kept moving to the deck of my room even though it was hot and clicked a kingfisher along with a treepie there. Most of the time I just lazed around in the air conditioned room that had numerous pillows and read a book.
Lunch had a lot of salads and kebabs along with a sweet dish and the Indian fare of roti (Indian flat bread), sabzi (vegetables) and daal (curry).
I asked Manish what does he cook for his foreign guests and he said he would customize the food to suit his guests. If you get a chance, ask him for his cold pineapple soup, it was amazing.
After that heavy meal, sleep was the natural outcome. And after an hour it was time to head back to the park again in quest of the tiger. We came back later after viewing a lot of wildlife including wild dogs and a dancing peacock but still no tiger.
A Great Swim
The best part of my stay was the swimming pool at the camp. I went swimming after seven years and what fun it was! Actually, Manish was feeding us such good food that I asked them the way to the pool on the second day. I told them, “The way you guys are feeding me, if I don’t swim, I would gain 3 kg by the time I leave.”
And Manish told me that as there was a poolside dinner that day, the pool was lit with lanterns and I could use it at night too. So, imagine an outdoor pool, lit by lanterns and flanked by trees with a few fireflies on it. And I had it all to myself that night!
That was followed by a great dinner cooked in clay pots, all procured locally.
Manish also mentioned that they try to involve local kids in engaging with the jungle so that they can tell their parents about its importance.
Another Ride into the Jungle
Another ride into the jungle brought more of the same. I was joined by a few other guests from the Taj reservations team on this day and all of us were eager to start.
We saw footprints again but not the author of those footprints, as Alger often said.
We also met a jeep which came from another area and had seen the tiger. You could have seen the wonder in their eyes when they talked about their experience. They animatedly told us, “It was a big male tiger that just came out of the grass and was in our view for quite some time.”
Alger remarked that many guests would declare him useless by this time as we had not seen a tiger. Then I told them the tale of my fellow blogger Arun and what he wrote about the obsession with seeing tigers after visiting Jim Corbett National Park:
“After we had spent a few hours driving without sighting, the impatience was becoming more and more evident. Someone barked to the driver from the back – “What is this? You are just showing us forest and only forest. Where is the tiger? Show us the tiger!”…
The poor driver, who was probably used to this in every trip he made gently remarked – “Well, tigers live in the forest, where else could we go?”
Another few hours, and before the safari was about to end and we were heading back to the town – they seem to have realized that they had lost the game. By the time we returned, no one seemed to be happy.”
Fortunately no one in our group was like that. I told Alger that it was alright and we understand that tigers cannot be produced on demand. But I had many other ‘wow’ moments.
In the evening a jackal was running in front of our jeep for quite some distance and then two peacocks spread their plumage and danced. The best was watching a Malabar Pied Hornbill at very close quarters and clicking quite a few decent pictures of it.
All Good Things Come to an End
And so did my trip the very next day. I was starting at 6:30 am to catch my flight back from Jabalpur. I had Sricharan as the driver again. The good folks a Banjaar Tola had packed a breakfast for me.
I and Sricharan were chatting now (in Hindi) and I asked him what does he feels about the resort as a local. He said, “They buy most the things from Baihar (a village that is close by) so the market is seeing more trade and they also try to hire as much they can from nearby.”
We chatted for quite sometime and then I fell quiet. I was thinking of the time I spent at Banjaar Tola and how much I enjoyed myself. I must say the place is full of luxury but for me what mattered most was the genuine hospitality I got at the lodge.
As I was alone they always made sure there was someone from the staff who had dinner with me and also knew when I would like to be left alone. I mean maybe someone can copy the luxury they provide but I really doubt if it would be so easy to match the hospitability provided by each and every employee.
Soon sleep took over and I woke when we were quite near to the airport. The most magical moment for me on this trip was clicking the sunrise on the second day.
I can’t remember when it was last that I got up at dawn instead of working till dawn to meet some deadline!
And even now when I close my eyes, I can see the green jungle out of the my room at the Taj Safari at Banjaar Tola.
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I am Mridula Dwivedi and I started blogging on ‘Travel Tales from India’ in June 2005. I renamed it Travel Tales from India & Abroad in 2016. Within a few months of the launch my travel blog found a mention on both the BBC and The Guardian. I also featured in a National Geographic Skoda Yeti Video. I was recently featured on Via.com
I quit my job as a professor in May 2015. I am having a blast ever since. I do not miss my work but sometime I do miss my salary! Somewhere along the journey I ended up acquiring a Ph.D. from IIT Kanpur! I now wonder why?