Crickets chirping, frogs jumping, leaves falling, birds gliding and our hearts racing. When our gym instructor asked us to do some cardio exercises while on vacation, we’re sure even he did not think of this sort of heart workout. We’re standing in the buffer area of the Kanha National Park, with the possibility of any wild animal springing in front of us at any time. our only comfort — deputy naturalist Dipu Sasi’s presence by our side.
We had arrived at the Taj Safari’s Banjaar Tola lodge at around 2 in the afternoon, after an almost seven hour-long drive from Nagpur airport, to be greeted warmly by the staff. After freshening up inside the private tented lodge, which offers a fantastic view of the Banjaar River and the jungle from the balcony, we had decided to go for a nature walk with the naturalist. And that is where we are. With Sasi’s warning of being prepared for any surprise greeting by some wild animal ringing in our ears, we tread cautiously on the path, which is still slippery from the recent rainfall. Tiny frogs and grasshoppers leap between our feet as we make our way through the jungle, while the muddy Banjaar river flows steadily by the side. Sasi draws our attention towards the tall, dark trees that seem to dominate over the rest. “Those are Sal trees. It’s a hardwood tree with vertical cervices on them,” he tells us, adding that the British used to cut them for making railway sleepers. He informs us that although there is a large variety of flora and fauna to be found here, Kanha is mainly a Sal forest.
On our way, we come across huge termite hills, weaver ants’ nests dangling from trees, and giant wood spider webs. Sasi suddenly spots the shedded skin of a snake lying across a plant. “Look at the pattern of the scales and the size of the skin, which is at least 7 feet long. It is the skin of a common rat snake and he probably shed it yesterday,” he says. With the added knowledge of a seven feet long snake somewhere in the vicinity, and the possibility of a sloth bear, wild dogs, deer, or even a leopard or a tiger springing up from anywhere, our heart beat refuses to slow down. But Sasi tells us that the best thing to do if we do come across any wild animal is to not do anything. “If you don’t panic, they will just go away,” he adds. Easier said than done, we think.
The nature walk is about to come to an end, and we still haven’t encountered any wild animal and we wonder if today will be our lucky day. It’s pitch dark by now, and except for the chirping of the crickets, it’s dead quiet. Suddenly, we hear a pitter-patter of leaves and twigs falling on the ground. A flying squirrel, Sasi whispers and we get excited. “You rarely get to see them, as they are nocturnal animals,” he says softly, pointing at the tree above us, where we can make out a small shadow moving upwards. Our naturalist informs us that flying squirrels don’t actually fly but glide using the translucent membrane between its limbs. “It’s feeding on the tree at the moment, eating leaves and nuts. Just wait, it might glide at any moment and you will be able to see it properly,” he says. We wait patiently, looking over our shoulders once in a while. We don’t want a nasty surprise after all. Then the flying squirrel decides to reward us, by spreading its hands and legs and gliding smoothly towards the other tree. We can’t make out the colour as it’s dark, but can clearly see its shape. Happy with our nocturnal encounter, we head back towards the lodge. The wonderful hospitality of the staff has already won our hearts and after a hearty Indian meal and lulled by the sound of the Banjaar river flowing next to our room, we fall into a deep slumber.
And it’s good that we did, because we’re up and awake at the crack of dawn, for our morning safari on the jeep. This is the day we hope to catch sight of some bigger animals. Today, it’s naturalist Rajneesh Paradha, who accompanies us. The early morning mist makes us huddle closer inside our warm jackets, as the jeep heads inside the park. Tall Sal trees emerge from the mist inside the Kanha national park, which is nestled in the Maikal range of the Satpura Hills. Early on, we startle a wild boar, who sprints inside the jungle on spotting us. A herd of Chital (Spotted deer) ahead of us forces us to stop in our tracks and admire their beauty. With the sunlight slowly streaming in between the trees, we can spot thousands of butterflies sunning themselves on the plants and shrubs. Spider webs glitter in the sun like silver strands spread across trees. Spotting a tiger or leopard is foremost on our minds, no doubt, but how can we ignore all this natural beauty around us?
A call of a barking deer followed by the chattering of monkeys makes us alert and our naturalist turns the jeep towards the direction of the noise. “These animals are like our spies in the jungle. This kind of noise means there is a wild animal nearby,” Paradha says, as we look around fearfully , half-hoping that we spot the elusive cat somewhere. The forest is dense at this time of the year, and it’s difficult to make out much between the thick undergrowth. Alas, no sign of the tiger or leopard, even after waiting patiently for a while. Langurs sit scratching themselves on the sides of the path, while a jungle owlet hoots high above us somewhere. The driver of another jeep crossing us informs us that they spotted a tiger chase ten minutes ago and we speed away in that direction. We wait near a watering hole but again, the tiger chooses to play hide and seek, with us being the eternal seekers.
A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo flies past. The winding pathways and the heady, pungent smell of the jungle is almost trace-enducing. We catch sight of peacocks and are almost about to turn when we spot a jackal slyly following a small herd of deer. The deer have also spotted him and they move away. The jackal looks on and then cuts across from another side to meet the deer head-on. Will he be lucky today, we wonder aloud, as our jeep turns away. On our way back, we spot a Barasingha sitting amidst the grassy meadow. The Barasingha is one of the park’s success stories. “There were approximately 65 of them left in the 1970s, but a major conservation programme by the park management ensured that there are more than 450 of them here today,” Paradha says, an unmistaken note of pride in his voice.
By now, we have given up on spotting the striped cat. But the jungle never ceases to spring surprises. As the jeep heads back towards the camp, an Indian Bison, also known as Gaur looms large ahead. Paradha slows down the jeep, so we can take a good look at what is the largest bovine in the world. We watch from a distance, as Gaurs have been known to attack for no reason. This one, however, looks disinterested in us and goes about its business of feeding on leaves. We turn around after some time, but not without a slight glimmer of hope to catch sight of a tiger. There’s still time, come out now, we think in our heads. But no, the elusive cat chooses to stay hidden. “Maybe it’s giving you a reason to visit again,” our naturalist suggests with a smile. We will, we tell him, the jungle has given us enough reasons already.
How to get there
By air: Kanha can be accessed by airports in Jabalpur, , Nagpur and Raipur
By train: Jabalpur is the nearest railway station
By road: From Jabalpur, the Khatia gate can be reached via Mandla. From Nagpur, the Mukki gate can be accessed via Seoni, Balaghat and Baihar. From Raipur, take the Simga, Kawardha, Chilphi and Gadhi route to access the Mukki gate