Pench Tree Lodge has been on my mind ever since I found out about it’s opening in February this year. I’ve been wanting to discover the park and couldn’t wait to do it through Pugdundee Safaris since they’ve already wowed me with their experiences in Satpura (Denwa Backwater Escape), Kanha (Kanha Earth Lodge) and Bandhavgarh (King’s Lodge). The prospect of staying in a tree house had me super excited. While the jury’s still out on whether Pench or Kanha can factually lay claim to being the setting of Kipling’s book, Seoni is Mowgli land. I imagined the experience would be much like Mowgli’s. You know, living in a tree, with just the bare necessities, like linen and air conditioning.
Pench is a 3 hour drive from Nagpur’s Airport. Which makes it among the most easily accessed safari experiences in India. I sat back and enjoyed the drive on a pretty decent road, past villages, fields, lines of eucalyptus trees, the odd bullock cart and truck. Driving in through a rather nondescript gate on a rather nondescript byroad, the setting for a remote getaway experience had begun. The first thing that hits you about Pench Tree Lodge is the sheer size of the property. Spread across – acres, dotted with just 6 tree houses, a reception and a dining hall, there’s mile and miles of grass and tree peppered land in between.
The Tree House
My tree house was a short walk from the main dining lodge. practically wrapped around a tree, it stood tall in its wooded magnificence. I clambered up the stairs and stepped out of the harsh mid-day sun, into a cool cocoon shaded from the elements, yet within full view of it. A small vestibule with consoles on either side led to a luggage and wardrobe nook straight ahead, a bathroom to the right and the bedroom to the left. I pulled open the glass and wood doors to the bedroom and gasped. A blast of cool air hit me since the air-conditioning had been turned on well in advance, and a canopied queen sized bed sat before me. I looked right and a languid, inviting reading nook with a coffee table laden with travel magazines fought for my attention as did a beautiful writing desk, with its wrought iron animals and lamp, complemented by the fabric patchwork bird artwork on the wood-panelled walls. But what did catch my full and complete attention however, were the double sliding glass doors that led to a sit-out. With tree-branches emerging from the floor and going through the awning, a pair of safari chairs and a coffee table, it seemed like the perfect spot to sit and just stare out into the sky, trees and grassland that spread itself out before me.
The prospect of retiring on my own to this lonesome tree-house in the dead silence of the deep dark night was intimidating. I bid goodnight to the guard to accompanied me to the foot of the stairs, looked up into the darkness, took one big gulp of fresh air and began my climb. Half hoping for and half dreading the prospect of bumping into some odd creature of the night. That’s the thing with nature isn’t it? The uncertainty. The fact that the only fact you know for sure is that you can never know for sure. The treehouse swayed as I stepped in, something I hadn’t noticed in the day. My senses on full alert, I quickly scanned the room for any nasty surprises, and found none. Perhaps the most incredible part of my tree house experience, was how well sealed off from the elements it was. Save for the one odd moth that I let into the room whilst taking too long to shut the door, (fumbling with the keys), I didn’t spot a single insect inside the tree house during my entire stay. For a place that’s set in the midst of raw, unedited nature, wrapped around a tree and all the life that resides on it, this was certainly a commendable feat.
There’s a constant chatter when you’re at Pench Tree Lodge. One that’s louder than the guests. It’s the local residents, the birds. And when you can’t hear them, you can see them, flitting from one branch to another tree. While there are several ways to indulge in a spot of birdwatching (like relaxing on the deck of your own treehouse or walking on an early morning trail), just strolling to and from lunch will have you spotting a vast variety of them from Orioles to Babblers and Bulbuls.
The neighbouring village that we passed on our way to and from the National Park was beautiful. Identical blue and white-walled houses with incredibly low thatched roofs, house adults, curious and friendly children, goats and sometimes even motorbikes! Equipped with cycles from the property, some of my companions ventured into the village to interact with the residents.
Night Walking Trail
After dinner, Naturalist and friend, Chinmay offered to lead us on a walking trail around the property. Curiosity getting the better of a need to sleep, I fell in line behind him as we strolled around, flashing torches, whispering and trudging gingerly looking for snakes, insects, civets, birds and more.
Safari Drive through Pench National Park
This is of course, the showstopper. The real reason we’re here. Naturally, it warrants an entire post of its own, but suffice to say, it’s a well-organised, well looked after safari experience when you’re in a Pugdundee Jeep accompanied by Pugdundee Naturalists. The best part is that Pench Tree Lodge is the only property close to the Karmajhiri gate of the park, giving you a headstart on a certain area of the park, that’s undoubtedly rich in fauna.
All the walking around at the property, early morning and late evening safari drives had us famished most of the time, so food was naturally a major focal point of our stay. The chef offered us a choice of Indian or continental food, and going by the fantastic Indian food I’d sampled at the other lodges, I chose to go with Indian. From the tiny chapatis to the delicious dal and simple chicken curries, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Dessert was always a spectacular surprise, from Mango mousse to a sinful dark chocolate Oreo concoction. Whether it was languid lunches in the shaded dining lodge, or a long and relaxed selection of drinks (which included a taste of the famous local tipple – Mahua) and appetisers followed by dinner on the sit-out platform, we were looked after very well. On the last night however, we had a major surprise in store. We walked back from the reception area, to discover a wonderfully laid out table under a sprawling tree, in a clearing between the grass. Candles flickered on the table and the ground, lanterns hung from the lower branches of the tree, and the staff waited to delight us. A fantastic dinner ensued, punctuated by laughter, recounting tales of the day’s drive and the odd firefly floating past. Surprisingly, the mosquitoes and insects were at bay, and we found ourselves undisturbed the entire time we were there.
Service, Staff and Intangibles
What has always stood out for me across Pugdundee properties has been the kind of service I’ve received. It takes a different mindset to work at a safari lodge. It isn’t your run of the mill hospitality job (which is stressful and demanding on its own), but being in a remote area, surrounded by the uncertainty of the wilderness has a brand new set of challenges of its own. To serve people with a smile, with a genuine desire to look after guests and keep them happy through blazing heat, harsh sun, very few hours of sleep, trudging through snake ridden grasses and constantly flicking insects off your body. To live away from family, and the life you’ve always known, it takes much more than what a regular job entails. Pugdundee, I’m told attempts to provide a livelihood for the local villagers, and I’m sure its a brand new word these locals are stepping into. Kudos to their bravery and open-mindedness. I had the privilege to probe into their lives with several questions, which were answered with alarming honesty and that I believe is the difference. There is no other face, that is who they are, simple honest to goodness folks who put their heart into their work. If we find the few nights of little sleep gruelling, imagine the ones who do this on a daily basis. Yet, I couldn’t fault their 4am wake up calls, 5 am tea service, mid afternoon pleasantries or dinners that are served with a “Have some more, you’ve barely eaten”. That level of attention, is something very few hospitality guests can boast of.
This post was made possible by Pugdundee Safaris. Opinions, as always, are our own.