Photographs - Dharma Giri | Shrilekha Venkateswar
There is something intriguing about the forests in Central India. Not just because one starts to recollect the 'Jungle Book' by Rudyard Kipling, but also because it nestles some of the best forests in the country like Kanha, Bhandavargh and Pench Tiger Reserves. We decided to camp in Pench Tiger Reserve (PTR) this time and after a long train journey from Chennai, we reached Nagpur, the nearest railway station to Pench (170 Kms). We were greeted by a friendly driver, who was giving us an orientation on the forest. Pench Tiger Reserve is shared between Maharashtra and Madya Pradesh states and one will find the forest check posts (referred as gates) to the left, probably 60 Kms after crossing Nagpur.
The drive from Nagpur to Pench, by itself was very pleasant. Almost half the distance has a four lane highway, with agricultural lands on either sides. One can notice different shades of yellow on the mustard farming, which happens to be one of the predominant crop in this area. Though the second half of the distance was a two lane road, the road was very well laid and has forests on either side. Monkeys and birds dominate this area with occasional straying of Leopard. It nearly took us two hours to reach WelcomHeritage Jungle Home Pench, a property owned by Mr. Rajiv Itkelwar and managed by WelcomHeritage.
The property, at first glance looked huge with a remarkably different architecture. Everything about this place looked elegantly rustic. We were very keen on meeting the owner, with whom we had scheduled a meeting the following day. The check-in process took just few minutes which was very impressive. Our room was overseeing the swimming pool on one side and a narrow strip of bamboo vegetation on the other. Every room has a verandah, from where one can observe the bird life and the constant play between the squirrels. The property has been built keeping the swimming pool as the centre and has a row of rooms on either side, with 26 rooms altogether. The rooms that are east facing are called the sunrise room and the rest which are west facing are called the sunset rooms. They also have two huge halls which can accommodate close to 60 beds and comes under the dormitory accommodation category. We learned that the property has the capacity to accommodate 150 people at a time.
In the afternoon, we met Mr. Dharma Giri, the Operations Head of Jungle Home Pench. Dharma Giri has over 30 years of experience as a Head Naturalist. He has trained several local tribes to be efficient forest guides and has also worked as a research assistant in few wildlife documentary movies made in Pench, including the renowned 'Tiger Spy In The Jungle'. On his own, Dharma Giri has been monitoring Tigers in Pench, and has identified almost thirty Tigers with their unique identification marks. He has also photographed and stored all his observation on his computer date-wise along with detailed notes. A very seasoned person filled with knowledge on wildlife and an excellent bird watcher, Dharma Giri is undoubtedly the biggest attraction of Jungle Home Pench. He has been working in this property for 7 years and is largely responsible for almost everything that is happening in the property.
WelcomHeritage Jungle Home Pench is spread across 25 acres and the owner of the property has been considerate not to construct buildings all over. Instead he has built structures only in 5 acres and has left the remaining portion of the land for wilderness. We learnt that when the property was bought, it was almost a barren land, and the owner took the initiative of planting saplings all over the property and today one can see thousands of trees supporting close to 80 bird species and animals like Deers and Macaques. We decided to walk around the property in the evening and it took us almost an hour just to look at the lovely trees that have grown under the watchful eyes of the owner. Dinner time came and we were looking forward for a soul filling food. We had already read other raving reviews about the food prepared here. One by one the dishes came to our table. Aroma from the food clouded around us and it would be an understatement to say that we devoured the food. The chef is from Nepal and he along with Mr. Dharma Giri is the only outsiders to be employed in this property. For the next three days, the chef amused us by preparing different cuisine right from Indian to Chinese to Italian. When we spoke to the chef, he said that he has had no formal training and it was only his survival instincts that have brought him to this level. He started his career as a cleaning person in the kitchen, washing utensils and slowly motivated him to be better and undoubtedly he is one. It was not just us, the other guests in the dining hall seemed to be high on food as well!
We were scheduled to have a safari the following day and were supposed to be ready by 5 AM. Having come from Chennai, we thought we will be able to 'manage' the chillness in the forest. The drivers certainly thought it was not a good idea but we still wanted to risk it, a decision we regretted deeply. The biggest advantage of Jungle Home Pench is its proximity to the forest gate (Turiya). It is just about 3-4 Kms and that means you get extra time to sleep. We heard from other guests staying in other places that they had to leave their resorts by 4 AM or 4.30 AM in order to reach the forest gate right on time. Forest gate is a place that has the ticket issuing office and the check post from where the core area of the forest starts. This is also a place where the Naturalists cum Guides get onto your gypsy and stay with the tourists till the end of the safari.
We were inside the forest by 6.15 AM and slowly as the dawn unfolded, we got to see the vegetation clearly. How remarkably Rudyard Kipling has described this forest, as if he had spoken to each and every tree and water body in Pench!
The Pench Tiger Reserve (PTR) is named after the Pench river. It was formed in 1992 by merging Pench National Park (293 Sq.Km), the adjoining Pench Sanctuary (118 Sq.Km) and the reserve forest around it (347 Sq.Km). The total area of the Tiger Reserve is about 758 Sq. Km. The Pench river, flowing north to south, bisects the Pench National Park into the western Gumtara Range (148 Sq.Km) and the eastern Karmajhiri Range (145 Sq.Km). The Park is located in the lower southern reaches of the Satpura hills, which constitute the catchment area of the Pench river and fall in the Deccan peninsula biogeographic zone. The southern boundary of the Reserve is contiguous with the Maharashtra state boundary. Although, the Pench river cuts right through the PTR, there are shortages of water inside the Reserve. Numerous streams flowing within the Reserve carry water only for 6 or 7 months in a year. The animals and plants have to bear the brunt of the severe dry months, when water shortages create havoc within and around the park. Years of protection have paid off and ultimately it was included in the Network of Project Tiger. At the time of the launching the Pench Tiger Reserve Project, the population of tigers within the park was 22 and according to the latest census done in year 2014, PTR has a record of 72 breeding Tigers. This increase in population was accompanied by a rise in the populations of other wild animals.
The rich diversity of flora and fauna has already found it a deserving place in literature dating as far back as 17th century. Besides 'The Jungle Book' and 'The Second Jungle Book' by Rudyard Kipling, the track has been mentioned by several famous naturalists like Captain J Forsythas who wrote 'The High Lands of Central India' and 'Wild Animals in Central India' by A.A Dunbar Brander.
The undulating topography supports a mix of vegetation ranging from moist-sheltered valleys to open dry deciduous forest. Over 1200 species of plants have been recorded from the area including several rare and endangered plants. The flora is dominated by tall Teak Trees and Kullu (Ghost) Trees. There are also considerable shrub cover, open grassy patches, great variety of herbs and palatable grasses for the wild ungulates to subsist on.
As with most natural forests, Pench is bird watchers paradise. There are over 300 species in PTR. In winter thousands of migratory waterfowl including Brahminy Duck, Pochards, Barheaded Geese and Coots visit the tanks and the Pench reservoir within the Park. Four species of the now endangered vultures namely, White-Rumped, Long Billed, Egyptian and King vulture can be seen in good numbers in the Reserve.
Our first ride in the jungle was remarkable. We had seen close to 15-20 bird species and Spotted Deer, Sambur Deer and Jackal. We were back to the resort just in time to meet the owner of the property - Mr. Rajiv Itkelwar. He comes from a family that has many members working for the Forest Department. He has also grown up visiting many forests right from his childhood. He admitted that he had always visited PTR in Maharashtra and not in Madya Pradesh and when he did for the first time, he decided to own a property. The local tribal community was involved in the construction process. Mr. Rajiv said he had not brought any skilled labour from anywhere but just made the local community to work on his dream project. The property has close to 70,000 sq.ft of structure and they have done the whole construction as 'load bearing structure' and not a single column or steel have been used. The architecture of the building is inspired by an old heritage fort. Mr. Rajiv used this inspiration and coupled it with the rustiness of a jungle tribal home. The owner has no prior experience in hospitality industry and when we asked him what strategy he had in his mind when he started the venture, he said “Guest Care. All we want to do is take care of our guests and give them an experience that they will have in their minds forever”. Currently Jungle Home Pench has associated with WelcomHeritage, where the former is responsible for operations and the latter for marketing and training the team members on hospitality.
When we asked Mr. Rajiv what does Jungle Home Pench offer guests who stay in the property, he said, “This place is meant for families to stay happy together. We offer a healthy space for the entire family to bond. We have 55,000 Sq.Ft of grass area for morning or evening walks, we have a in-house spa service, yoga and meditation room, recreation room for adults, a spacious outdoor play area for children, a very clean swimming pool, bird watching within the property, nature walks, screening of wildlife documentary movies and then comes the jungle safari”. Indeed this property has quite a lot of offer and if a guest has to choose from the options available to him that is asking for some serious decision making skills.
The following day we went for a safari - with some heavy blankets this time. Morning safari starts by 6:00 AM and goes on till 10:30 AM and evening safari from 3:30 PM and goes on till 6:30-7:00 PM depending on the time of sunset. Totally 51 vehicles are allowed to enter the forest on a daily basis. Morning safari has 26 vehicles and evening safari has 25 vehicles. There are two tourist routes (referred as Route # 1 & 2) and these vehicles are assigned to their routes at the forest gate (entrance referred as Turiya gate). The most crucial part of the safari is to book it in advance. Safari tickets gets sold instantly when the bookings are made available online. However, if you are staying in Jungle Home, safari booking is also done by them which takes away the biggest concern in any tourist mind.
It must have been 7 AM when we heard an alarm call. Our naturalist was quick enough to spot the origin of the alarm and we were patiently waiting in our jeep for almost ten minutes. Suddenly a roar cuts through the jungle and we saw a huge Tiger walking parallel to the road but quite far away. Distance did not stop anyone from admiring this magnificent animal. Our naturalist found it difficult to identify his name due to the distance. We kept following him in the jeep, driving parallel to his movement. He would suddenly appear and disappear behind the vegetation and this went on for almost 15 minutes before he finally decided to get inside his jungle. We headed back to our resort and informed Mr. Dharma Giri of our sighting. He has way too eager to see the pictures immediately so that he could make a note of this sighting in his obervation book. One quick look at the photograph, he said the name of the Tiger was 'BMW'. What a funny name to have, I thought, but he pointed to the Tigers stripes, where you can literally see the alphabets BMW!
We spent the rest of the evening bird watching in the property, visiting the local tribal school and a nearby village. Since it was our last night in the property, the chef cooked us Italian cuisine and we spent the rest of the night relaxing. It was indeed a remarkable three nights in PTR. This place is the perfect spot for a family. You can easily feel at home and stay connected with the wildlife around you.