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Satpura National Park – India’s understated safari experience

When I think back to my time in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, it isn’t the tigers of Bandhavgarh or the romance of Kipling country that stands out vividly. It is a lesser-known, far more feral land that does. A raw tract of immense riches. One that lacks the popularity of resorts and lodges swarming with tourists. Instead, it exudes a silent sophistication that supersedes anything man- made. The land that introduced me to the wild, is one that I almost immediately fell in love with and instinctively learnt to respect.

Satpura National Park. I must confess I had to embark on a Google search to find out more about this place when I first saw it included on the itinerary of my first safari in India with Pugdundee Safaris. I found it odd that the one park (of the several in the region) named after the Satpura range (Seven hills) is the least popular. Trawling the limited resources scattered about on the internet, I found out why. Owing to the absence of India’s wildlife poster child – the Tiger, it is a region which albeit easily accessible by rail from Itarsi isn’t on every safari map. I was thrilled. Being a city girl with no concept of wildlife whatsoever, I was extremely wary about far too many things on this trip. Roughing it out, facing a tiger in the flesh, being in the middle of nowhere with limited connectivity etc. So I was glad that the first park would allow me to ease into this new experience.

Getting to the Satpura National Park

The dramatic vistas on that early monsoon afternoon drive from Itarsi railway station to Denwa Backwater Escape were an excellent prophecy of the days to follow. Lush crop fields on either side of a bumpy country road and stunningly backlit clouds in an otherwise clear sky had my eyes transfixed out of the window for a couple of hours. Waiting for us was a delicious lunch on the terrace overlooking the backwaters. Beyond this watering hole lay the Panchmarhi hills, looking lush and enticing with a misty haze over the peaks. The Denwa Backwater Escape was a fabulous resort, replete with the necessary luxuries to relax, take in the outdoors and build a curiosity for the wildlife experience.

Satpura National Park

 

Night Safari in Satpura National Park

After settling in and watching the rains lash down across the backwaters, we bundled ourselves into the safari jeeps. With 2 safari staff (naturalist/ driver/ spotter) in each we drove off beyond cattle pens and the odd farmer’s cottage into the buffer zone. The afternoons showers however had rendered the rich black soil useless for navigating our vehicles. After sinking in and skidding around a couple of times, the naturalists decided to change course and took us to an area with firmer ground. By now the light had begun to fade and a beautiful dusk had settled overhead. Shades of green leaves and blue skies began to blend into the darkness as we sat in silence, darting our eyes looking for some sign of wildlife. Once again, as if it was nature’s way of telling us this was not our night, we came across a fallen tree blocking our path. The naturalists backtracked and went down another path, by which time nightfall had closed in on us. My heart began to thud a little faster than usual as I caught fireflies glinting in the dark. I’m not sure why I was juxtaposing those with a pair of tiger’s eyes. Perhaps it had to do with Blake’s refrain running through my head. Several uneventful minutes later, the spotter whistled and shone his torch on a bush. Huddled at the bottom was an Indian hare. Sitting transfixed, stunned by the spotlight for a bit, he soon scampered off. Over the next half hour we spotted several nightjars sitting on the sides of the road, heard owls and collected several bugs in our clothing. On the way back to the lodge, we caught glimpses of several herds of spotted deer far within the trees. For the others, many of whom were serious wildlife enthusiasts and birders, it wasn’t much of a night, but for me, I’d sensed a transition with every creature we spotted, enjoying the little trivia that accompanied the announcement. I’d tasted a tiny hors d’oeuvre of the jungle, and I wanted to go back for mains.

Satpura National Park

Morning Safari in Satpura National Park

To say I’m not a morning person would be an understatement, so finding myself awake before my alarm went off was a definite indicator of just how excited I was about going into the core area of the forest. Sleepy guests gathered around the reception, rubbing their eyes and tumbling into the jeeps. The crisp morning breeze woke us up almost as soon as we exited the gate. We passed the same farmer’s cottages we did the night before, this time the cattle and children were all asleep. We reached the Madhai gate of Satpura National Park where our naturalists hopped off and presented our ID cards for the officials to verify. We waited, looking around, still gathering our bearings. There was a river before us, and we were taking a quick ferry ride to cross over to the other side where jeeps would then take us into the forest. I watched as a herd of water bison lazily crossed over in the same amount of time it took us to to cross over and disembark. Entering the forest, an unmistakable smell assaulted my nostrils. Green is possibly the only way I could describe this lush, sharp scent. It wasn’t until we had gone much deeper that it also carried notes of musk. We spotted Gaur; which is often incorrectly referred to as the Indian Bison. In all its muscular glory, with its beautiful deep chestnut coat and curved horns. With my camera, I zoomed in on its veins dancing as it flicked flies off its back, and grazed in a deceptively calm manner. Over the next few hours we saw several groups of Sambar deer all grazing rather photogenically. The spotted deer looked splendid with their pretty speckled coat and lyre shaped antlers. A smattering of langurs, with their matte charcoal faces staring out of their white fur. The real pièce de résistance however, was the birds. I was thrilled that by the end of it, I had photographed (and learnt to identify) several species including the Indian Roller, Cormorant, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Serpent Eagle, White Crested Eagle, Ducks, Greater Coucal, Indian Pita, Owl, Peacocks, Pied Kingfisher and Weaver Birds among others. Over the drive, the jungle was constantly alive with a symphony where all of these creatures would get zero points for synchronisation, but were still wonderfully melodious nonetheless. With a short breakfast stop at one of the outhouses in the middle of the forest, we continued and managed to spot a Sloth Bear at a great distance within the foliage. Well, all I managed to spot through my zoom lens was a black dot that seemed to be on the move and the naturalist assured me it was a bear.

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

 

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Evening Safari in Satpura National Park

Dejected to have heard stories of my companions on other jeeps who had spotted several sloth bears, we set off after lunch and an afternoon nap for an evening safari. Now the route seemed somewhat familiar in the beginning, and I was beginning to enjoy this little understanding of the region that had begun to seep in. I could now identify the birds overhead, the trees they sat on, and was beginning to have conversations with the naturalists. Light showers only egged us on, and I was thrilled to have spotted the one albino Gaur that was said to be a rare sight. A kingfisher posed for us for the longest time, twisting and turning ensuring we got his best side. Monitor Lizards walked territorially around, foraging for insects, Woodpeckers flitted about, as did Golden Oriole, Indian Roller, Sambar and Spotted Deer. As the time drew to a close, we began making our way back to the gate, happy with what we saw, but dejected that the bear remained elusive. Until the forest guard stood up to attention. We followed his vacant gaze, and realised it was the strange choking sound echoing from the distance that had caught his attention. He asked the driver to speed up, explaining that it was alarm call of the langur and there was possibly a leopard on the prowl. His words charged the atmosphere and we zipped through to a clearing, where we could see the valley. Several minutes of bated breath, binoculars changing hands, additional jeeps joining the watch, a herd of bison running for safety, and finally, the leopard surfaced. Just about. Invisible to the naked eye, in the far distance, through binoculars and zoom lenses we spotted a leopard. Sitting under a tree for just long enough to be seen by everyone before he walked off. It was exciting, and while all I got was a hazy brown creature in my camera, I was happy. Happy enough to have missed getting up close to a sloth bear who had appeared behind us in all that commotion.

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park

Looking Back at Satpura National Park

That night, both satisfaction and yearning played a strange yo-yo with my soul. I knew this was the beginning of something wonderful. Exchanging notes with others on the trip, reading articles and posts by other writers who were with me, I’m reminded of a famous quote by Albert Camus – “You cannot create experience, you must undergo it.” So while the wonderful Pugdundee Safaris created the perfect setting, the gorgeous Denwa Backwater Escape, the wonderful game drives, the experience was different for each of its guests, because that, my dear reader, is the way of the wild. It has a will, that will bend for no-one and a charm that works differently on everyone. I’m glad the lush terrain of the Satpura National Park was my first wildlife experience, and I’m glad she showed me so many of its secrets. And to thank her, I promise that I will return.

This post was made possible by Pugdundee Safaris. Opinions, as always are our own.

 

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