What does a parent really and truly want out of a family holiday? Fun, obviously. Family together- time. Plus, things that will interest and captivate the children, and make them happy. Also a holiday that will educate the children (once a parent, always a parent!). A trip that will allow the parents to relax. No driving, no cooking, no shopping — just being together. If you mentally ticked any of the above, then why not think about a family holiday in the jungles of India? For once, let’s forget the predictable round of shopping malls, cinemas and amusement parks that simply hyper-stimulate children who are already hyper enough and exhausted from a year at school.
First and Foremost, Spot a Holiday
Think instead of nature and wildlife and the thrill of identifying creatures. Think cool, early morning jeep safaris, followed by an afternoon swim and siesta. Think a sunset drive through a noisy jungle, alive with birds and animals. Think of falling asleep in a tent (air-conditioned, don’t worry). And think of giving your children peace and quiet, far away from the city noise, surrounded instead by the sounds of the jungle. Tempted ? In which case, look no further — think of a holiday to Pench National Park.
The Real Jungle
Pench, in Madhya Pradesh, is home to Mowgli, and was the inspiration for The Jungle Book. It is altogether quieter, smaller and less hectic than the other bigger and, dare we say it, brasher national parks in India. The lodges are all in the buffer zone surrounding the park, away from any towns and villages, so there’s no village noise nor loud wedding partying that blight some of the country’s parks. In Pench, you hear only wildlife, no highlife.
Relive the Jungle Book
For anyone who has ever read The Jungle Book, a trip to Pench National Park is not only a visit to a fabulous jungle, but also a trip down memory lane, back to the source of a much-loved story. The jungles of Madhya Pradesh, and more particularly the forests of Pench, are the original setting and the inspiration for the adventures of Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo and all the cast of lovable characters. Kipling’s classics — The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book — were written well over 100 years ago, but they are still as fresh and enchanting today. Enjoyable as the Walt Disney film The Jungle Book is, the books are in an altogether different league. When they were originally published, these stories of the boy raised by wolves in the jungles of India were just as popular with adults as children. So, as a bit of pre-holiday prep, why doesn’t the whole family watch the film together and, better still, read the books?
Marking the Territory
Pench today is mainly in Madhya Pradesh, with a small part stretching over the state boundary into Maharashtra, which has separate entrance and rules. Most visitors enter through Touria Gate, and the lodges and hotels are all just a few minutes’ drive from the gate. Pench is home to tigers and leopards, bears and wild dogs, but strangely no elephants (other than the domesticated ones for jungle rides). So, you won’t see Kipling’s Colonel Hathi on your game drives. The reserve covers 758 sq km, of which 299 sq km is the core area, and is off limits to visitors, giving more protection to the wildlife. But that still leaves a whopping 464 sq km in which you can go on game drives accompanied by a guide from the forest department. There are no private cars allowed in the jungle, so your hotel will organise a vehicle. Thats quite like some eco-tourism destinations in India. These are always open-topped, allowing maximum game viewing possibilities, and with the local expertise of the forest department guide who accompanies you, all that remains is to drive slowly through the forest, quietly watching what nature has in store for you. The size of the vehicle perfectly suits a family, and there are no such thing as buses or larger vehicles allowed in.
Locating Shere Khan
There is, inevitably, a tendency to get fixated on seeing a tiger — after all, the name of the reserve is also Pench Tiger Reserve — but to focus only on seeing a tiger is not the way to approach game drives. You don’t want to ignore all the other wonderful sightings and feel disappointed if you don’t spot a tiger straight away.
The Law of Co-existence
Every single thing you see in the jungle is wonderful — and you will see lots and lots of animals, guaranteed, because the game is abundant in Pench. You will, for example, see huge herds of cheetal or spotted deer, that are usually accompanied by troops of langur, these two species having a symbiotic relationship for nothing exists in a vacuum in the jungle — from the humblest of trees to the king of the jungle, the tiger. Interdependence and the food chain ensure that all the plants, animals and birds and insects have a need for each other. The langurs, from their perch in the trees, can often spot a predator before the deer, and warn them, while the deer’s superior sense of smell allows them to detect predators too, that the langurs might not have seen. The langurs drop fruit from the trees, which the cheetal eat, and thus the two species live together in harmony. Witnessing this kind of interaction and understanding between the animals can be all too easily overlooked, if you are only chasing a tiger.
Take time to savour the beauty of the jungle — fawns suckling, baby langurs playing and tumbling over each other, gaur munching their way through the sal trees. There are peacocks everywhere, and bee eaters and rollers, and look carefully for sleepy owls dozing the heat of the day away in the nook of a branch of a tree. Listen to the sounds of the jungle as you drive. A repeated tap-tap-tapping sound will almost certainly be a woodpecker at work, either advertising his presence to a potential mate or searching the tree bark for insects to eat. And if you heard the distinctive high-pitched whining of the cicada — of which there must be millions in Pench — then watch out. We drove through many stretches of jungle surrounded by the high pitched sound of the cicadas: but many of them also — well, there is no other word for it — urinated on us. Not that you would know it. We didn’t suspect a thing. It just felt like very gentle rain, until our forest guide told us with a laugh what was actually going on. It doesn’t smell or sting, and it really does feel like very gentle rain drops.
Game for a drive
A typical game drive begins well before sunrise. You pile sleepily into your vehicle in the pre-dawn dark and drive to the park gate — the entrance and ticketing procedure is possibly the only downside to Pench in the beautiful state of Madhya Pradesh. Bureaucracy seems to take precedence over game viewing, given the lengthy form filling process that has to take place before every drive. You (eventually) collect your allocated forest guide — whom you get on a strict rotational system, meaning a new guide for every drive — and then for the next three hours, you drive slowly, very, very slowly, along a route that you are allocated at the gate, to prevent overcrowding. On our visit to Pench National Park, we hardly ever had to ‘share’ a sighting with other vehicles, since the authorities never allocate too many jeeps to the same route. The drivers are often every bit as knowledgeable as the guides, and between the two of them they will point out birds, flora, animals, and explain the topography of the land. They told us that browsing animals and grazing animals require different kinds of leaves and grass and, so, are not in competition with each other for food. The seemingly random wanderings of animals and birds through the jungle are always based on food, water, and safety.
The Cheetal Show
Watch out for young male cheetal mock-fighting. They are still too young to have left the herd and started their own, so, like bored teenagers at any family outing, they fight and push each other around, but without any malice. Basically, they are practicing and trying out the skills that they will need later in life, when they leave the parental herd and go off and start their own. Then, there will be mock fighting: any clashing of horns then will be for real.
Less charming, but totally thrilling, is to see a carnivore, a predator at work. We arrived at the sight of a jackal kill about 20 seconds too late. The poor cheetal was dead, but literally just dead. Four jackals were on the kill, and had just begun the gory task of ripping out the poor creature’s entrails when we stopped. The killers were hyper-charged and nervous, constantly looking up, even though we made (or so we hoped) as little noise as possible. But they were wary, and one jackal would always be running around, almost surveying the scene. The four animals, their noses covered in blood, were ripping open the carcass which they kept dragging further and further away from the actual scene of the kill. They seemed to be working together, but occasional snarling would make one animal back off for a few seconds, before resuming the job of eating the cheetal before another, larger predator arrived. Sadly for us, a tiger didn’t come and steal their kill that day. But to sit all alone, as we did — with no other vehicle around — on a kill is a special moment.
Hot and Happy
Visiting in the height of summer, as we did, it’s fascinating to drive along dry river beds, and across what will be lakes, once the rains come. The forest guides would point out to us where the future water levels would reach, though to us, it was simply stretches of undulating green grassland, with deer and bison grazing as far as the eye could see. If your hotel has sent a packed breakfast, after driving around a couple of hours, you stop at a designated place. Get out, stretch your legs, eat breakfast in the shade of a big tree and, if you are in luck, sign in the register for an elephant ride to go see a tiger.
Ride an Ellie
Basically, if a tiger is deep in the jungle, and therefore inaccessible to vehicles, you can go for a closer look on elephant back. It isn’t cheap, and you only get a minute or so to see the tiger, so it’s your call as to whether you wish to spend Rs 200 (Rs 600 for non-Indians) for literally a minute’s view of the tiger. The people on the elephant in front of us saw a kill being made, right in front of their stunned eyes — the tiger killed a cheetal, leaving a terrified fawn beside its dead mother. Five minutes later, all we saw was the same tiger half-hidden by the bushes, stretched out, panting from the exertion of the kill. It’s all a question of luck and timing. This viewing on elephant-back is called ‘Tiger Show’ — it’s a quick, slick commercial exercise. One thing that is fascinating for children (and for their parents, of course) is to see mahouts making food for the elephants and grooming them after their morning’s work. For city children, to get close to a tame elephant is exciting and eye-opening.
Pleasant Jungle Noises
The park’s closed for several hours during the day, so you go back to your hotel to rest, have lunch, and come back for an evening game drive. Leaving our lodge in the burning summer heat at 2.30 pm (to be ready to enter the park at 3 pm) was a bit of a shocker, but once you’re driving through the trees, you quickly forget the heat. Then comes that magical sunset hour, when the light is soft and perfect, and the animals and birds are settling down for the night. The hour between 4.30 pm – 5.30 pm is bliss. The light is perfect for photography, the air gradually gets cooler and all around you are the sights and sounds of the jungle readying itself for the night.
Striker Tiger and Dhole Drums
Tiger is the obvious star of Pench Tiger Reserve, but bear (which sadly we didn’t see) and Indian Wild Dog, or dhole, are also high on the list of any keen wildlife enthusiast. We were lucky to see dhole, for they do not stay in any one place for a long time, and when we revisited the same area the next day, hoping for a second sighting, the pack had moved on. As if the dhole excitement wasn’t enough, we all heard the alarm call of a barking deer. Then there was a second alarm call, a little way off. There was a third alarm call, apparently, but we didn’t even pick it up. “Quick,” the forest guide told our driver, and off we bounced through the forest for quite a distance. “Stop!” he suddenly whispered fiercely. And there was a tigress lolling around in the grass, as relaxed and lazy as could be. We wouldn’t have spotted her, if our guide hadn’t triangulated the three alarm calls.
Capturing the real PenchNational Park
As well as its Mowgli connection, Pench was also the co-star, along with a family of tigers, in a BBC three-part documentary that was filmed in the jungle and narrated by the well-known Sir David Attenborough, a British broadcaster and naturalist. For months, the BBC crew used, in their own delightful words, “the ultimate all-terrain camera vehicles — elephants — kitted out with the latest high-definition ‘secret weapons’ of wildlife filmmaking — trunk-cam, tusk-cam and log-cams.” The tigers, unfazed and unthreatened by the elephants (and clearly unaware that there were cameras on their trunks and tusks) allowed them to get very close to their litter of cubs. And yes, that documentary can also be part of the pre-holiday prep.
How to Reach Pench National Park
By rail: The nearest railhead lets you reach Nagpur (92 km) with quite an ease. By road: From Nagpur (80 km) and Jabalpur (190 km), one can drive on NH 7, and reach Khawasa, from where the park is just 12 km.
Where to stay near Pench National Park
Baghvan, a Taj Safaris property, is located just five minutes away from the entrance of the Pench National Park and offers well-appointed cottages. For reservations, dial toll free 1800 111 825 (non-MTNL/BSNL customers can call +91-22-66011825) or log on to www.tajsafaris.com.
The other stay options include Mahua Vann Resort (Tel: +91-11-42648436, Mob: +91-85859-83456, +91-97680-58727); Tuli Tiger Corridor-Pench (Toll Free 1800 209 9050, Tel: +91-712-6653666); MPTDC-run Kipling’s Court (Tel: +91-7695-232830/232850/232855, [email protected]) and Pench Jungle Camp (Tel: +91-11-32988460/26119096, www.wildlifecamp- india.com)
What not to forget:
Binoculars, camera with the longest lens you have, water, identification books or animal and bird guide-books, and a notebook to keep a game list.
What to wear:
Loose and comfortable jungle-y coloured clothing, i.e. beige, khaki, dark green; and a hat, especially in the summer.
Pench Jungle Camp
This clean and well-run camp is a five-minute ride from the Touria Gate, and offers air-conditioned tents, a swimming pool and a pleasant garden for candle-lit dinners. The resident naturalist is happy to explain anything and take you on nature walks. You can while away the hot afternoon gap between the two game drives at the small library full of wildlife books and videos. There are mountain bikes and horses for those who want to go riding.
Long before Mowgli
Way back in the late 16th century, Abul-Fazl, the vazir of Emperor Akbar, wrote a detailed series of reports, known as the Ain-i-Akbari, in which he put down details and statistics of the kingdom’s administration. Amongst all the facts and figures, there is detailed mention of Pench’s natural wealth. Serious scholars could, perhaps, decide to read Ain-i-Akbari as pre-holiday reading, but it’s probably enough just to know that for over 400 years, Pench Tiger Reserve has been known for its natural beauty.
Rudyard Kipling never forgot the country of his birth, India. His happy childhood in Bombay (as it was then called) and his later years as a young adult, working as a journalist in Lahore (then part of undivided India) marked him profoundly. His teenage years in school back at “home,” in a cold and grey England that was alien to him, were miserable. He missed everything about India, the place he always considered home. When he eventually left India as a young man, for England, then the US, he carried with him India’s smells, sights and stories. It’s hard to believe, but Kipling wrote The Jungle Book in 1894, sitting in the snows of Vermont, in the US.
Phew!! Too much to explore, experience and cherish at one place.