Endless pillars of teak trees stood like a silent army, their rust-red leaves thick on the crunchy ground. We could easily spot the sambar, neelgai and gaur that slinked through them. Closer to the roads, the denizens of the jungle seemed to be in exceptionally high spirits; the plentiful ripe fruit of the Mahua tree was indeed cause for celebration. Hanuman langurs leapt deftly between trees and twirled on vines.
Peacocks displayed, rattling their feathers open and turning full circle while vast numbers of spotted chital deer gathered to nibble at the fallen white balls under the trees. A strikingly beautiful pair of pied Malabar hornbills with outsized yellow beaks zeroed in on a fruiting fig under which we sat watching. It felt so very good to be back in the jungle, to be a part of their unspoilt world.
Pench National Park straddles southern Madhya Pradesh and northern Maharashtra. It may not be as well known as its neighbouring parks Kanha and Bandhavgarh, yet it is well managed and fast gaining popularity, especially with British tourists, for two reasons -- this is true Kipling country, his readers come here to be immersed in the forest of Mowgli and friends from Jungle Book. Kipling was based in a rest house nearby and he mentions the village of Alicutta which is inside the park. Pench is also a compelling destination for those who have watched the popular BBC documentary, Tiger Spy in the Jungle, where spy cameras hidden in logs carried by elephants tell an endearing story of tiger cubs growing up in the forest.
The Pench landscape
Driving through the MP side of Pench, the forest looked different from any other we'd seen before. A steep drive uphill to Chindimatha revealed sweeping views of the scenic plains below and Raiyakassa was a particularly beautiful lookout point where the large, charcoal boulders contrasted with the ethereal, stark white Ghost Trees, also known as the Naked Maiden Trees (sterculia urens) as they shed their bark in the dry season. The forest was constantly animated by the outlandish rutting calls of cheetal stags. Just before sunset we arrived at the wide open floodplains teeming with hundreds of foraging cheetal and langur. During the monsoon the backwaters of the Pench River spill out of the massive river bed, submerging the area. But this was April, and in the searing dry heat, we hoped to see a tiger cooling off in one of the shaded water holes.
Stripes in the jungle
Dr. Anish Andheria, a naturalist who has spent years studying the forests, expertly picked out alarm calls and directed the jeep to an area where we spotted two young tigers walking parallel to the road. Their royal passage was constantly announced by the bugling, trumpeting and twittering of the forest's creatures who tracked them keenly. One by one they crossed the road in front of us, tentatively at first, and then boldly. A grimace gave way to the relaxed sniffing of a tree. They were both young with a pale tan coat, exquisitely beautiful and in perfect condition. Our eyes followed them long after they disappeared, and I caught a glimpse of one of them through my binoculars minutes later, way back in the thicket, giving chase to a sounder of wild boar. If it wasn't for the chance of glimpsing these magnificent creatures, would we even have come to Pench, would these forests be standing, would the other creatures exist? It would be all too easy for us humans to take it all, the teak, saja, bija, lendia, haldu, bamboo and mahua, along with the Malabar pied hornbills and the animals. But it is vital to preserve the forests for our own future, so the land does not turn to desert. Such areas should be enlarged. Perhaps linking Pench to Tadoba and Kanha National Parks via green corridors is a good way to start. After all, tigers have been known to have made their way across during the monsoon.
Pench National Park facts
How to get there: Fly to Nagpur (one hour and 20 minutes from Delhi or Mumbai). Your lodge will organise a car to pick you up and drive you in two hours (80km) to the National Park. Both from Delhi and Mumbai, Pench can be reached in a total of five hours.
Where to stay: At the top end Baghvan resort run by Taj safaris and the African company, And Beyond, offer 12 air conditioned villas with rooftop machans. Meals and jungle safaris and guides are included. 1 800 111 825; 912266011825 www.tajsafaris.com/Baghvan
Affordable style: Pench Jungle Camp and Tuli Corridor
Best time to go: Feb to April to maximise tiger sightings when the forest is dry and thinly veiled. Closed during the monsoon. Madhya Pradesh parks are closed on Wednesday evenings. Try to go mid week, ideally arriving Sunday night as weekends can be crowded.
What to wear and carry: Dress in layers, wear natural tones to blend with the surroundings. Carry a camera, binoculars and hat. Most lodges provide water and snacks.