It’s July, and under the cover of monsoon clouds, our car continues towards Kohka, a village on the forest periphery. From Nagpur, we have taken National Highway 7, which runs from Varanasi to Kanyakumari. The road cuts through the Pench National Park, close to the Turia gate near Khawasa village in Seoni District, Madhya Pradesh.
After a three-hour drive, we reach the Kohka Wilderness Camp. Right behind it lies the Kohka lake, which sets the camp apart from the core forest area. Groves of bamboo and teak trees here create a haven for sunbirds and Asian Paradise flycatchers.
“We wanted to include the villager in our journey too, and we’ve tried to source material and labour locally,” says co-owner of the camp, the 36-year-old Shourabh Ghosh, who was born in Chhindwara. He met his co-partner Sanjay Nagar at a wildlife photography camp in 2009 and the camp was finally opened to the public in 2011.
The next morning, we set out in our jeep to spot a tiger or two. It is off season and our chances are close to nil, but the jungle has its way of raising hopes. The monsoons have covered the forest with an eerie calm, and its residents can easily camouflage behind lush teakwood trees and overgrown grass. Sixty-four tigers form the main attraction here, in the Pench wildlife reserve, spread across 1185 square metres.
Within 15 minutes, the langurs start making distress calls, and jump from branch to branch. Our jeep comes to a halt and before us is a fresh pug mark. “The tiger has seen you, madam,” our guide tells us sagely. While our hopes of seeing Collarwali and Badi Ma are pushed back till the season begins again in October, we thoroughly enjoy the night safari. The darkness gives an adrenaline rush, and the twinkling eyes of the deer and wolves are as exciting as spotting a tiger.
The next day, Ghosh invites us to a farewell party at Turia’s tribal government school, four kilometres from Kohka. Around 200 secondary students have spent the last six days picking up the moves of Radha on the dance floor, learnt the wordings of Sun raha hai tu, and drawn posters and cards. They have decorated the school hallways with streamers, complete with a ‘Welcome Aashi Ma’am’.
Aashi Sanghvi is a friend of the camp owners. On a sabbatical from her corporate job in Gurugram, Sanghvi has spent three weeks correcting the English of the school children and giving them surprise tests. When we meet her at the camp, she tells us how she offered to spend some time with the children of the village, and will return to the camp from September 24 to mid-October. “I have promised the kids,” she says.
That afternoon, Sanghvi offers to take us to Mohagaon Public School nearby. The classrooms are packed, but there is no teacher. “We encourage the children to dream, but how will they succeed without teachers?” asks Sanghvi.
Later, we also visit Pachdhar village, home of potter Laxmilal Prajapati. Bent over an electric potter’s wheel, his skilled hands caress the mud and pressurise it into a pot shape. Prajapati asks us to take charge of the wheel, pointing to a water bucket where we wet our hands. There is something therapeutic about plunging your hand in cold mud. “I started making pots at age 13. Today, I make 15 to 20 pots a day. These are simple ones, I can make around 100 of these a day,” the 50-year-old tells us.
The next day we go for a morning walk at 6 am. The sun is already out but the cloud cover keeps the heat at bay. The Rufous treepie with its black, yellow and white cloak is often nicknamed the tiger treepie, which we spot amidst white-bellied drongo, Eurasian thicknee and barbets. Mars dragon flies, the biggest size of the species, hovers around the lake.
During our two days at the camp, we also get a taste of the Gond community food. From wild beans (barbate), locally grown potatoes and pulses, to the pickles which are as colourful as it gets. Papad too, is unique here — a pumpkin mash and sesame crusted variation. Those within the community with a sweet-tooth indulge, as we do, on gulgulle — mini pumpkin fritters topped with local white honey and sesame, and white gujiya stuffed with caramelised jaggery sesame, served on a bed of cream shrikhand.
Looking back, it’s interesting how the idea of visiting a national forest revolves solely around spotting a tiger. But, as I started my journey back home, I could only remember the smiling school children, the potter’s hands at the wheel, the tribal life, and how some young thinkers are working to improve it.