The Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh might be less well-known than the national parks at Kanha, Pench or Bandhavgarh, but it’s second to none in terms of bio-diversity. Soma Das swapped the concrete jungle for the real deal while on a visit to this verdant escape, with a sustainable wildlife lodge set in 44 acres of reclaimed jungle as base
First things first: our prior experience of wildlife was restricted to school picnics in the forest where we ended up etching leaf/ bark patterns on paper. So, the idea of living amidst wildlife, in a forest lodge nestled close to the Satpura Tiger Reserve, was met with excitement.
On a chilly Saturday night in December, after a long transit from Bhopal, we reached the five-year-old Forsyth Lodge. On entering the premises, we were welcomed by a spotted deer caught in the car headlights (literally). He took a look at us before hopping away; we hoped other animals would oblige as well.
The terrace of Forsyth Lodge
Naturalist David Raju (28) welcomed us and gave us a tour of the space. Forsyth Lodge, set up by acclaimed naturalist Hashim Tyabji, has 12 adjacent cottages that are fully equipped (no TV sets, thankfully) and decorated with local arts and crafts and photographs of wildlife (shot by the naturalists in residence). Each cottage has a back door that opens to an idyllic view of the surrounding forest and is perfect to unwind.
After a quick dinner prepared using local produce, which included Rice, Roti, Kheema Mutter, Paneer Palak, and Lemon Souffle, we called it an early night.
Call of the wild
At 6 am the next morning, we headed to the jetty for a boat ride on the Dhenwa River to the tiger reserve, located on the opposite shore. The Satpura (translates to seven mountains) range is one of the major plateaus of central India and is home to varied species of animals, birds and plants.
Plum-headed parakeet. Pics courtesy/ David Raju
Early mornings are when the forest is silent (apart from a few animal and bird calls) and at it’s most peaceful. As the sunlight comes streaming from the dense foliage, we were able to notice a haloed appearance (akin to Thoreau’s spiritual experience amidst nature, as described in Walden).
In an open-air jeep, we set off for our first jungle safari with Raju. He pointed out that animal sightings being unpredictable, there are still a lot of fascinating birds and plants to observe on the ride. While Kanha National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park are crowded and a tad commercial, Satpura doesn’t get too many visitors. It turned out to be a blessing and allowed for a relaxed experience.
The law of the jungle
The beauty of an animal reserve is that animals are free in their habitat. The safari offered fleeting glimpses of them as they went about their routine. The next few hours were spent ticking off a mental checklist as we spotted animals like the Sambhar, Nilgai, Chital, antelopes, a lazing crocodile, langurs, giant squirrels; birds such as the Black Headed Bunting , Indian Pitta and the Drongo (which imitates sounds) as well as various butterflies, including the Satpura Dark Evening Brown.
Gaur or Indian bison
In between animal spotting, we were fascinated with the intricate web that the Brown Funnel Web spider crafts and the Ghost trees that look a spooky white and appeared dead but were actually alive.
After an invigorating tour, we had a breakfast of sandwiches and tea as we overlooked the majestic sandstone formations and the Sonbhadra River gently flowing by. In the afternoon, post a hearty lunch, we headed on a walking tour of the forest. After a short ascent, we reached the caves, which boast of rock paintings (see box above).
Along the way, we also had a sloth bear scare; we never came face to face with them though as they were always ahead of us. It was the same with the leopards (whose cries we heard and pug marks we observed) and the tigers.
On our way back, we witnessed a nightmarish sight: a baby deer had been mauled by a leopard and was lying on the ground. Its mother, after sniffing the body, emitted a heart-wrenching mournful sound.
As we moved through the jungle, it was fascinating to note the dynamics that the animals share. They call out to declare their feelings (desire to mate, approaching danger) and are always on guard for survival. The stronger ones subjugate the weaker animals and the system strikes you as ruthless, till you realise it’s a microcosm of the concrete jungle.
That night, we were offered an impromptu star gazing session; with barely any habitation the canopies of stars were the only illumination on offer and clearly visible. To end the perfect day, we had a memorable rustic dinner by the bonfire.
The next morning, we had naturalist Surya Ramachandran (23) as our guide and we set out for an elephant safari. While such safaris are no longer offered at most wildlife reserves, they are still offered here. Surya admitted that they don’t usually offer it unless visitors insist as the animals are held captive and end up giving rides endlessly. But the income generated is spent towards the welfare of the elephants, making it a Catch 22 situation.
The elephant ride helped us view things from a higher perspective, literally. As the elephant swayed and crunched its way through the forest, we spotted langurs as well as various birds from up high. At the end of the ride, as a gesture of goodwill we offered an apple to the elephant and were glad he gulped it down.
Overall, we loved the calming experience, the lack of commercial buzz, the knowledgeable guides and helpful staff. We’ll head back here, soon; this time, for the canoe safari.
Rock art in Satpura
While the rock paintings at Satpura are yet to be analysed by historians, the wall art depicting animals and scenes of battle are presumed to be at least 10,000 years old. Historically, this area was part of the Gondwana tract named after the Gond tribe.
Did you know?
> The lodge is named after James Forsyth, a 19th century British officer assigned to set up a Forest Department for Central India.
> The property stretches across 44 acres but the lodge is set up in just 4 acres; the rest is left to nature.
> At Forsyth Lodge, they train and employ locals, recycle water and old leaves.
> The property uses wild fencing instead of wire fencing to ensure animals can move unhindered.
How to get there
>> Board the Kolkata Mail that leaves from Mumbai and passes through Pipariya station. It is an hour’s drive from the Lodge. You can also reach via Bhopal (3.5 hours), Hoshangabad (2 hours) and Itarsi (2-2.5 hours).
>> Take a flight to Bhopal and then take a ride by bus or taxi to Hoshangabad.
At: 14/1, Village Bijakhori, Sohagpur, Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh.
Log on to: www.forsythlodge.com/
Cost: 13,500 per day