Eye of the Tiger

Written for Little Black Book (LBB), Delhi and RARE Destinations and Experiences.

The quest for a meaningful travel experience leaves you exhausted but completely jubilant! When my almost combustible desire to wander found an unexpected door in a travel contest organised by LBB and Rare Destinations, I had no idea that a. travel contests were legit and one could actually win! and b. that I would be headed to one of those places for which the written word would never be quite enough! Over the years, I’ve found a reliable way to assess the impact of any of my travels – if it elicits that one, goose-bump inducing moment when you see yourself as but a speck in a world so much larger, it’s the real deal. Nowhere did this resonate stronger than during my three-day stay at the beautiful Forsyth’s Lodge in the Satpura Tiger Reserve.

Jitterbuggy!

It took us three hours to get from Bhopal to Forsyth’s Lodge. In that time,we had stopped at every railway crossing in our path, driven through a scenic highway lined with endless wheat fields, and gaped at beautiful teak forests. My emotions raced back and forth between mad joy – “This is really happening!” to sudden panic – “Will they even know who I am when I get there??”.

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This adorable mum and baby kept us company at two railway crossings. I loved the colourful, handmade baby bonnet!

As we inched our way closer, it felt as though we were inadvertently playing a game of hide and seek with the bushes when suddenly, the flora magically parted to reveal a charming lodge in the midst of all the green. Waiting to welcome us was Rishi, the manager, Varun, the Naturalist who would be showing us around, three other staff members, and the Lady of the Lodge – Jingles, the regal Basset Hound! It was quite the Welcome Committee, and as the Lady and the affable staff led us into the Lodge, we felt at home instantly!

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Jingles. She had me at ‘Woof’!

Forsyth’s Lodge

The Lodge and its compound were breathtakingly unobtrusive in their beauty. Twelve individual cottages that were quaint, cozy, and tastefully decorated, blended perfectly with the forested surroundings. Delicate art work adorned the walls of our cottage. We found out later that these were made by Ravi, a member of the staff at Forsyth’s. Some of the intricately-made furniture in our cottage was courtesy Ravi’s father. Most of the property is forested and the lodge itself occupies a very small portion of it. We were told that walks around the compound can turn into quite the adventure, especially in the mornings.

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One of the gorgeous room in the cottages at Forsyth’s
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The verandah
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Canoe turned into a one-of-a-kind shelf
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The inviting pool situated in the middle of the property

The folks at Forsyth’s ensured that we were well taken care of and were a delight to interact with! Apart from escorting us into the jungle, they also kept us entertained in other ways – bonfire and stargazing sessions with David, walks to the picturesque village nearby, or arranging the screening of a Tiger documentary. A day in the forest does wonders for the appetite, and nobody seemed to understand this better than the chefs at Forsyth’s! We were treated to delicious king-size meals, mostly Indian and Continental cuisine. Whether it was brunch at the table, bonfire and barbeque in the terrace, or a candlelit dinner in the bushes, the service and ambience were exemplary! There were also times when we enjoyed brunch made by the village women; dal batti cooked the traditional way and baingan ka bharta!

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Meals on Wheels
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Lunch under the Mahua tree, whose leaves are used to make local liquor. The Mahua and the king-size lunch soon conspired to knock me out for the rest of the afternoon.

What I always came back with from all my interactions was the honesty of intention infused everywhere in the lodge – of people who take their roles as caretakers of the guests, the forest, and the community very seriously. It was an experience that was anecdotal and personal, with less glib and a lot more soul.

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Little Deepika, whose father works at Forsyth’s Lodge

Hush!

598854_10200613303352589_1043120695_nThe forest came to life for us in many ways, especially with the help of the Naturalists at Forsyth’s and the park guides, who are passionate and devastatingly brilliant at what they do! They’re a motley crew, each with diverse interests in their own field – birds, trees, dragonflies, bull frogs, star-gazing.  It wasn’t uncommon for them to suddenly lose track of a conversation, squint hard into the distance, and rush for their binoculars or cameras for that one, possibly rare sighting!

The Satpura Tiger Reserve is unspoilt and the jungle experience here stands out from the circus-like shenanigans that characterise so many other parks in our country. To begin with, there are a myriad peaceful and non-intrusive ways to explore the park. A traditional gypsy safari allows you to cover more ground and chances of spotting wildlife are higher. “They don’t really hear you coming until the last moment”, remarked Surya, one of the Naturalists from the Lodge. And he was right! Our encounters from the gypsy among many others included a herd of Sambar that watched us very carefully, colourful jungle fowls, Egyptian and Indian vultures, Eurasian Eagle Owl, a graceful Nilgai, the rare Chousingha (who we spotted twice!), an aggressive Gaur. A moment that will forever remain etched in my heart is the forty seconds in which we stared into the eyes of a Mama Sloth Bear with her cub! She could’ve been mistaken for a big rock in the midst of all that tall grass. I was told they’re short-sighted, so I’m not sure if she peered through the foliage to size us up or simply to make sure that we were actually there.

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Thick forests suddenly gave way to a burst of expansive grasslands.
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The Crested Serpent Eagle
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Of course, what’s a safari without a little unexpected adventure. Our Gypsy soon decided to break down so we took a walk down to the river in search of some Crocodiles. “Heeeere Crocky, Crocky!” yelled Martin, our safari companion. His partner, Sarah looked at me and muttered “Ignore him.”

While the gypsy ride is usually the highlight of most other safaris, the caretakers of Satpura take the concept of exploration a little further. They encourage travelers to get out of the gypsies and take to their feet to explore the wilderness! “We seem to think that the only way to see the forest is in a vehicle. That’s a norm we’ve accepted, but we forget that there was a time when the only way to explore the forest was on foot. That is the natural way.” said Varun. And there are specific areas in the park where one can do this. The minute we got off the gypsy and began walking into the green, I no longer felt like an outsider looking in. As our feet crunched on dried leaves, pretty much announcing our presence, I realised that we’d been stripped of all our illusions of safety and grandeur. This was what it truly felt to be one with the jungle – exhilarating and completely exposed!

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The highlight of our little walk, though, was when it turned into a trot, then a sprint where we proceeded to chase after the tail end of a pack of Wild Dogs! They outran us of course and all we saw were some paw marks by the stream! In all this time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched. “You might not have seen me, but I have seen you” the sign with the tiger had said at the entrance to the park. Fancy remembering that on our walk!

On day 3, we decided to opt for a canoe ride on the picturesque Denwa river, also home to many Crocodiles. There were numerous cracks – presumably for my benefit – floating around the dinner table the night before. My favourite was this one- “If anything happens, just make sure you swim very fast”. We got up bright and early to make our way to the riverside. It was a beautiful morning (to die on). The tiny canoe looked suspiciously like the one Rekha was pushed out of in Khoon Bhari Maang! I managed to quell the theatrics and got into the canoe. I’m not sure if it was the sparkling blue of the river, or the rhythm of the paddles hitting the water, but 15 minutes into paddling and I’d never felt so at peace, and free.

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The serene Denwa river. “It’s early morning and cold so the crocodiles are at the bottom of the river. They’ll only surface much later to sun themselves”, someone reassured me.
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Something about water that’s both a little frightening and exceedingly calming.
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Thirty minutes of paddling and we spotted these fellas. My morning only picked up from here.
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Some illegal fishing on the river. These men sat on rubber tubes, all connected to each other with ropes and a trail of fishing nets. This exact moment was when they began scrambling to escape after spotting a patrol.

As we silently glided forward, a gazillion species of birds soared above us, or stopped to adorn the banks. Some flew so close to us that I was tempted to reach out and touch a wing. I was still on the lookout for our reptilian friends though. I was fortunate to have spotted one in the water from a safe distance, while on land at our breakfast spot! The joy!

Parting is sweet sorrow indeed!

Go to Forsyth’s and Satpura if you appreciate a complete jungle experience. They will help you see that the way to spotting big players like the tiger is through understanding everything else around – the alarm calls of a Sambar, a distressed group of Langurs, or the claw marks on a tree. It’s a place where the little stories of the forest will be pieced together for you; where you can spend an entire day in the wilderness and meet only three other gypsies! Take in the beauty of the park – a monkey’s playground in its interconnected strangling vines, crocodile bark trees, and eerily-white ghost trees, along with a sudden explosion of expansive grasslands. And if you’re lucky, you may find what you came looking for while discovering so much else along the way. I hope to go back someday and meet the elusive leopard.

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The proof of the pudding! This was my ‘I’m petrified but I NEED to keep it together’ face.
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