It is 6.37 pm. By now, the light has completely faded and we can just about make out a nightjar in the darkness. By the time Asim Zafar, the naturalist, points at it, though, it is too late for me to try and get a proper look in the flashlight, and it flies off right over my head.
A night safari through Satpura Tiger Reserve is a surreal adventure, as you creep along in the darkness and silence, decoding the sounds of the jungle. An Asian palm civet squirrels by, a hare hops away when the jeep approaches, we spot the rarer small Indian civet in the beam of Zafar’s flashlight, and the only way to detect if the twinkling eyes we see is of a deer’s or a leopard’s is by noticing the creature’s height, and the distance between the eyes. It is a barking deer. The forest is eerily quiet, with no birdcalls even — every rustling sound is magnified and could come from anything, anywhere.
At the centre of any wildlife park holiday is a jungle lodge — how well you experience the park is in the hands of the lodge operators. At Forsyth Lodge, I lucked out with a team of committed naturalists who understand that not everyone wants to see the same things in the jungle.
Most people come to national parks looking for the tiger. But for me, a jungle safari has never been just about the tiger. At first, I used to love just being in the forest, and, then, slowly, I grew to love watching trees and birds. In Satpura’s mixed forests, naturalists Sidhanth Narula and Vineith Mahadev ensured I saw many species of both. Local trees such as giriya, saja, tendu, mahua mix with the more familiar mango and teak trees to form a beautiful landscape. Every once in a while, you can spot the stark white kulu, called the ghost tree, because of its white spindly branches that shine in the night.
Back at the lodge, the machan at my mud cottage called for some lounging, but, in the Satpura reserve, there is so much to do that I couldn’t find the time for it. Apart from the morning, evening and night safaris, one can camp overnight in the buffer zone, do a boat or canoe safari on the Denwa river, separating the core and the buffer zones, and spend a whole day inside the forest with the lodge’s team. There were so many things to choose from that I went a little dizzy trying to do it all.
On the canoe safari with naturalist Saee Gundawar, I spotted a hundred different birds. We saw the rare black-bellied tern and the common river tern’s several failed attempts to dive and catch its prey. We saw the beautiful bar-headed geese that fly south over the Himalayas to visit India every winter, and the tiny Western yellow wagtail. There were greenshanks and the gorgeous ruddy shelducks and so many more to see everywhere I looked. The local boatman, clearly a highly qualified birder himself, knew all the English names of the birds. You don’t need training as a naturalist, I suppose, when you live and work among the birds.
Wildlife safaris are great when you are travelling solo. You meet likeminded people and, between all the safaris, you are too busy to get lonely. Krishna, the cook at the jungle lodge, dished out delicious preparations of fresh garden vegetables — from methi and crispy bhindi to perfectly sautéed beans. One evening, I ate junglee maas, a dry meat dish from Rajasthan, that could beat any Rajasthani version I’ve had so far.
On one morning safari, I saw a moving black boulder in the grasslands that turned out to be a sloth bear. My first spotting of a bear in the jungle, it was hugely exciting to see this large thing throwing itself about in an effort to find food. The next day, I saw the Indian wild dog, also called dhole, an endangered animal according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species and a ferocious little thing that can take down a leopard when hunting in packs.
One morning, I was supposed to go for a walking safari, but I gave in to the temptation of lazing around on my machan. I slept in, and later walked up to my “machan suite” — a living room and a bedroom — and sat down in the mild January sun. From there I could see the pool on one side and the wilderness on the other. Only four acres of the 44-acre property of the lodge is built up, the rest is all green and open. The breeze was mellow, the sun soothing, I had hot breakfast to look forward to, and another safari lined up in the evening — the very definition of a perfect day out in the wild.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Revelling in the enduring charm of the Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh’