We arrived in the evening at Jamtara lodge on the border of India’s Pench National Park barely able to contain our excitement. Our host Dimple gracefully led us through a candle-lit trail, over a small wooden bridge and under the huge aerial roots of a mighty bunyan tree that marked the doorway to Jamtara, the place we would call home for the next four days. After the first of many exceptional meals we wandered lazily back to our lavish white canvas luxury tents and fell asleep to the sounds of spotted deer alarm calls and a leopard roaring nearby.
Mornings started with a fresh cup of masala chai under the bunyan tree. Thereafter we were onto the safari vehicles and gliding through the mist on the outskirts of the forest buffer zone as we headed over the mighty Pench River and deeper into the heart of Kipling’s Jungle Book.
The forests were perhaps the most mesmerizing feature of Pench National Park. Endless groves of teak climbed into the misty skies, a legacy of the royal hunting conservancies of the past, their webbed skeletal leaves continually falling like confetti from their giant arms. In some of the more secretive corners of the jungle the teaks would leave a small clearing, almost respectfully, for the breath-taking white ghost trees or sterculias. Swarms of butterflies danced between the elephant grass and the silver cockscomb, and a giant wood spider spun her golden orb between the roots of an ancient strangler fig.
In between the giant teaks herds of chital grazed, surely one of the most beautiful deer species on the planet. When the shafts of light did break through the canopies it would illuminate the intricate antlers of the males and the white spots on their copper coats. Pench has the highest large herbivore density in India, and it certainly lived up to this reputation. Lord of the forest must surely be the sambar, a powerful deer with a dark coat and a truly majestic set of antlers. We spent an hour watching a female suckle her wobbly-footed week-old calf. The strange nilgai or blue bull appeared on occasion, eyeing us cautiously from deep within the woods before slipping behind the veil of vegetation. Sounders of wild boar trotted together seeking out tubers and grubs while their ears nervously scanned for the footfall of a tiger. We had one sighting of the impressive gaur, the body-builder of the Indian forest, a huge, muscular buffalo-like creature that can weigh just over a tonne. A flying squirrel peaked its head out of a tree cavity, and all around us we could hear the whooping cries of the graceful Hanuman langur monkeys.
The bird life was almost fictional. A red junglefowl, a hard-core looking descendant of a rooster, proudly emerged from the undergrowth. A group of the ever-present jungle babblers tried in vain to harass a changeable hawk-eagle. Greater racket-tailed drongos flirted their elegant tail feathers from their perches. We found an Indian scops owl hiding in its day roost, while the spooky calls of jungle owlets resonated through the forest. Black-rumped flame-backs shot from tree to tree in an explosion of colours. An Indian roller grabbed a nearby grasshopper. Malabar pied hornbills drifted overhead, rufous treepies cackled at us from between the foliage, and a flock of scaly-breasted munias kicked up a cloud of dust in the road as they took to the wing.
Our group had some exceptional predator sightings too. A tigress materialized and then disappeared into a stand of bamboo. A rarely seen sloth bear, nose covered in dirt slunk between the shadows hunting termites. Golden jackals abounded, and we witnessed awesome interactions between these canids at a couple of carcasses, fiercely defending their scraps from each other and chasing off white-rumped vultures. A flock of peacocks screaming alerted us to a magnificent male leopard that crossed the road in front of us. And perhaps our highlight mammal of our time in Pench was the dhole, or Indian wild dog. We had four different sightings of these beautiful athletes. A pack of 12 surrounded our vehicle, whistling excitedly as they finished off the remains of a sambar and then leaped into the air following each other between the trees. One evening we followed an individual dhole, going at a speed we battled to keep up with in our vehicle, for almost four kilometers before he paused to rest in a waterhole.
Our drives back to camp in the evenings took us through a couple of tiny hamlets, where ladies clad in ornate saris collected the corn they had been drying on their blue verandas, and children stopped their evening games to wave shyly from the pastures. An Indian hare bolted from in front of our headlights, a mottled wood owl bobbed its head inquisitively at us and a full moon rose behind a colony of flying foxes as they entered the night sky from their day-time roost.
It was a remarkable safari experience, and I look forward with relish to our next visit to Jamtara and Pench National Park.
A few notes on SAFARIS IN PENCH from a safari guide:
Nearest airports: Nagpur and Jabalpur
Size: The protected area is 760km² of which 300km² is the core National Park.
Best time to go: Pench closes for the monsoons during July, August and September. February to April are the driest months and make for the best viewing of large wildlife. November to January offer good birding with many migrants present at this time of year.
For tigers: although tigers are seen regularly in Pench, it would be best to combine your stay here with a visiti to Bandhavgarh, Ranthambore, Kanha or Tadoba to increase your chances of seeing this magnifiscent cat. Best time of year would also be February to April.
For an interpretive experience it is essential to book a private host guide if you can afford the extra price tag. Indrajit Lahey and Simon Bellingham are two highly recommended guides.
Vehicles: small, open 4×4’s with enough space for 4 guests. Minor adjustments to the vehicles can be made for serious photographers.
Recommended booking agent: Indri Ultimate Willife Tours. www.indritours.com