We wait with bated breaths as the leopard looks at us. Directly, fearlessly, his spotted coat shining in the evening sun. A little distance off a deer grazes unmindful of the danger that lurks. Held in the hackles of the leopard’s intense gaze we stand still in our tourist gypsy hoping to get a glimpse of the swift cat preying. After two endless minutes of breathless silence the leopard breaks the hold of his gaze, gets up swiftly and disappears in the knee-length grass. We snap out of the trance and the cameras begin to click again. Its our first day at the jungles of Satpura in Central India. We have already spotted the Chausingha (a four horned deer ) considered to be a rarer sight than a leopard in this sanctuary, an amazingly cute sloth bear while he was out termite hunting and uncountable number of deer, bisons and wild boars.
Ours is a large group of seven adults, and four children ranging from three to nine years. We have taken a fourteen hour train journey from Ajmer, and a four-hour car ride riddled with frustrating train crossing stops from Bhopal to spend the first few days of the new year at the Satpura wild life sanctuary as a gift to ourselves. Its our first day here and we are already happy.
The phones don’t work, there is no electricity or television in our fancy resort and yet we know this is going to be a holiday to remember. We are closer to nature than we’ve ever been. Sure we’ve been to Ranthambore, more than a couple of times and seen the tiger up close. But compared to those jungles the expansive jungles of Satpura seem wild and untouched. The tourists are fewer, the naturalists who accompany us more passionate and informed and even the driver who drives us more environment conscious. In all my trips to Ranthambore I have never come across a driver who stops the car to pick up a really (and I mean a really ) small sliver of blue plastic some careless tourist has allowed to drop in the jungle.
Here at Satpura, most tourists come in to see the big cats but end up falling in love with the lesser known but equally fascinating winged residents. We understand why, as we are lovingly introduced to the sanctuary’s many birds – the orange breasted thrush, the oriental magpie robin, , the white breasted kingfisher, the magpie robin, the black ibis, the jungle babbler, the sun bird, the crested serpent eagle and the woodpecker among many others. The long graceful tail of the paradise fly-catcher takes our breath away and the incessant song of the “did you do it” bird has us in splits! the children listen in rapture as they are told the difference between the fish owl and the jungle owlet and taught how to identify a high-flying bird by the way it flaps its wings.
In all we spend three days in Satpura. Going to the jungle every morning only to emerge for lunch and return again in the afternoon till the park closes for the night. We take many jeep safaris, a long boat safari and a very memorable elephant safari, when we ride on the back of “Priya”. Priya’s daughter “Lakshmi”, a one and a half-year old baby elephant accompanies us on the walk , much to the delight of the children. Like any toddler she keeps getting into mischief, stopping to smell a fresh clump of grass or wavering off the path to examine something new that interests her, much to Priya’s chagrin. Lakshmi’s patience gives way just as the safari is about to finish. She sets off full speed running to the base camp, all the while beseeching her mother to hurry up behind her. Much like a human child, expecting a treat at the end of a long walk, she just can not wait for the walk to end. We treat her to fresh apples, which she accepts politely from the children, all the while using her trunk to tickle their faces and play with them. They are charmed and so are we!
My favorite moments - Though seeing the leopard was special, of course! The moments I will treasure forever are many more. Like the one when I saw for the first time the giant Indian squirrel. I watched amazed as the orange and grey cutie jumped from one tree top to another almost giving the impression it was flying. Or the time we stumbled upon a group of dragonflies nesting on a slender tree stalk as we crossed them centimeters away on the back of our elephant. Another minute that is etched in my memory is when the crocodile we had been filming from our boat realized we were too close for comfort, gave a loud alarm like siren, did a sudden flip in the air and dove into the river millimeters from our boat. The moment we took our first look at the breath-taking ruins of an old Shiva temple estimated to be more than thousand years old by the local tribals. Or the time, on our third day, when during the boat safari my seven-year old son pointed out to three birds sunning on a sand rift saying” Mom look! a Grey heron, a Black Cormorant and an Egret.
Yes Satpura was magical. The days were spent in the jungle, the evening were used to star gaze and hear experts speak passionately about the mating habits of the frog or the dragonflies. We saw a silk farm, studied rock paintings of Bhimbetka and met Jingles and Bhalu – pet dogs at the resort. The food was good but the conversations were even better. There were no phones, television, not even face book, twitter or the newspaper to encroach upon our time with nature. Three days of complete relaxation and infinite learning , just the right way to begin the year.
Getting there: Madhai – where we stayed takes three to four hours by car from Bhopal. We reached early morning by train to Bhopal and stopped en route at Bhimbetka to reach Madhai by noon
We stayed at : Forsyth’s Lodge, Madhai, Satpura