Welcome to Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh. It is the one that served as the setting for the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. This is where the British writer places the adventures of Mowgli, the little man. It is one of the last sanctuaries of Bengal tigers.
Ever since I read the Jungle Book in my childhood, I have dreamed of visiting the descendants of Baloo and Sher Khan in their homeland of Madhya Pradesh. With Madhya Pradesh I reached the middle of the huge Indian subcontinent. Here beats the ancient heart of the country. We had plenty of time to observe Sher Khan, Baloo, Bagheera and King Louie.
It rained the whole night and always thundered. Nevertheless, we slept well. At 9 o'clock we are ready and meet our new driver. Finally, my driver, is responsible for the extra shot of adrenaline. I'm a very good driver, he says, smiling at me over the rearview mirror, demonstrating deepest inner peace as he pushes the accelerator and overtakes everything on the road ahead.
Sharp and unrestrained, our car not only scrapes past other vehicles, but also children, pedestrians, dogs and cows. I decide to look at the whole thing positively and get my camera out first. If my last hour was really over, I'd rather concentrate on the beauty of the area and capture some pictures for posterity. Passing by, so to speak. So I take down the car window and increase the ISO of the Camera, so that the shutter speed fits the local driving style. Let's go.
It rains almost continuously. Only after 120 km (50 km before Pench) does the rain stop. The windows has fog outside, and the driver uses the windscreen wiper only when absolutely necessary.
The potholes became unpredictable. There are puddles due to the rain, but our driver does not bother even in the heavy rain. He constantly overtakes despite oncoming traffic. Peppermint oil swirls through the entire car. We find it quite cold, but outside our car, people in the pouring rain ride moped and bike without any rain gear. They walk barefoot or in sandals on the street, drive their cows on the fields. Children run to school, and almost nobody has an umbrella.
We pass through improvised markets in charming villages. We watch the farmers return from the field. We peer into a tree full of fox-bats. Surprised by the beauty of the houses and farms, many stained blue, and such a relaxed atmosphere, we decided to get off the car to visit a village on the spot and satisfy our curiosity. And that nameless village really became something that would visit us.
A long blue street took us magnetized to a house where the oxen grazed in its yard in the middle of the afternoon. At that moment our loneliness was over because there started to approach children who looked at us as if they had not seen a outsider in their life. They hallucinated with our cameras and with the videos we made. But, unlike the tourist areas of India, they respected our space completely and their shyness became a border that gradually diminished.
They simply smiled. They enjoyed seeing their photographed faces and accompanied us to the different areas of a town. I see the stables where the cattle drink, the spaces to wash clothes, and an improvised market of fruits and vegetables about to close. I also see farms that did not lack a detail. It was all happening in a journey to which were joining more and more people.
Not only children, but also women, adult men and elderly people without a single tooth were merged into an experience that brought us back to authenticity in India, of which I recognize sometimes my heart had moved away. There was no one who did not want to take a picture with us. The mere fact of being reflected in the liquid crystal displays was enough to smile and blush. It did not matter if they were five or ninety years old.
We drive past a coal mining site, and a train station in a small village makes us amazed. It has a railroad embankment for thousands of travelers. A herd of cows suddenly blocks the entire roadway. We even cross a border between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. There is really a guarded turnpike and trucks have to pay a fee when crossing the border.
At a railroad crossing while waiting for the train it is time for a few pictures. There is an antediluvian iron used by the hustler while ironing puddles near the railroad crossing in his shop ironing a white shirt. There is a hairdresser and the railway crossing snack seller. When people see me, they are happy that they are allowed to pose for a picture. There is a shop that sells satellite dishes and any horns really does not know what the things are supposed to be good for.
Finding an ATM that works turns out to be cumbersome. Either it has no money or its operating system asks me to log it on to the network. I have no idea how and where. Only in a bigger city called Seoni we find an ATM with money. And again and again, colorful prayer flags blow in the wind in front of flower-decked sanctuaries. Until suddenly a mysterious rainforest opens up in which suddenly glittering rivers and huge rocky plateaus with caves and cascades show up.
When we arrive in Pench at the hotel after 3.5 hours, the driver tells us he should only bring us up to here. He's going back to Kanha now. After about four hours driving, I am finally at the finish, and it is incredibly beautiful. In the depths of the forest one can still find the scenery that Rudyard Kipling described about 120 years ago in his imaginative jungle book. One expects Mogli to show up with his animal friends from the jungle every moment.
Exhausted but blissfully lulled by the pictures of the ride, I check in at our new hotel that has a bungalow for us. There is a bathroom, outdoor shower and terrace. There is a fireplace by the pond that is nice to look at, but the temperatures should be a bit higher, that we can use that. For a small fan heater proves to be quite useful. In the evening it gets really cold and we have to refill something.
Downstairs we can see the reading area, where we also have Wi-Fi access, then our room, the terrace, the outdoor shower and the bathroom. All English style, but heck. Most of the items we see in India would be museum-ready in Europe (maybe outside England). And although there is hardly any strength left there, a real jubilation breaks out in me as one leads me to the guest huts, all of which are surrounded by dense greenery.
Today we have the afternoon off, so it is time to read. I have downloaded the The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling from Amazon. Once upon a time in India, Mowgli was raised in the wild by a pack of wolves after learning to communicate with animals. He was educated by the bear Balu, as well as other animals of the forest with whom he could talk. The fearsome Sher Khan, the great Bengal tiger, and their offspring continue to be seen occasionally in the thicket of what was always their territory.
The weather is sometimes rainy, sometimes there is the sun that surround us. We go for a beer and a whiskey to drink in the night, with spicy peanuts. When I ask for non-spicy nuts, I gets freshly roasted peanuts. Next to us, some other guys are talking, just coming back from the safari. One orders fries.
At 8 pm there is dinner, and I immediately order fries with ketchup and make a happy face. The temptation was really too big. Now a thunderstorm starts again and it rains. The waitress provides us with an umbrella for the "long" way to the bungalow. Hopefully tomorrow will be good weather during the safaris.
But then it comes. The page opens the heavy rough-drafted front door and as in the fairytale, a beautiful suite opens up behind it. This is jungle romance at its best. Of course, the temptation is to simply drop into the well-padded king-size bed or rest on the lounger in the front yard. It would be stupid of me, because the chef is already waiting with a deliciously scented diner creation. And with that, he sends me once more on a culinary high, before I sink happily into the realm of dreams.
At four o'clock in the morning a timid knock on my door brings me back to reality. Sleepy, I open and peer out into the darkness. Am I dreaming? By no means, there is actually a good spirit on the mat, who now bowed politely and presented me with a tray of tea and biscuits. The ghost smiles unperturbed: Ready for safari, sir? Safari? Sure! That's the codeword. Suddenly, all the fatigue falls away from me, and a few minutes later, I'm already sitting next to guide in the jeep. Here we go into the mystical realm of Sher Khan, the now so rare Indian Tiger King.
In the morning, at six we are ready at the entrance and climb the safari jeep. There are blankets, no hood though, and umbrellas. At the entrance of the park are only three cars, which seems to us great. Our driver picks up the first permit and every few cars come to us. But we have to wait, the gate opens at 7. Finally, it is time the door goes up for the first jeeps, the drive in and the directly in front of us, is one without a driver there.
There is a check behind us, of course, immediately and swoppers overtake us all and we look stupid. But then our driver can crank around and we also get to the checkpoint. Here we have to show our pass, because everyone have to have booked beforehand and that is controlled and strictly. Then we are assigned the obligatory guide and then we go.
At the entrance to the reserve, signs marked "Welcome to Mowgli Land" welcome tourists. The landscape here is very different than in the other parks. The many teak trees produce a morbid atmosphere. It is still quite dark and the leaves are all dark in brown to black. Most have already fallen off and cover the floor with a gray-black blanket. The leaves of the teak tree become almost transparent before they fall to the ground.
What an adventure. We have barely moved away from the main road, when the excited screeching of rhesus monkeys and black-faced langurs suddenly announces that his majesty is sneaking through the thickets nearby. Startled, the next moment a flock of antelopes bursts out of the thicket in front of us. Then a shrill scream and then spooky silence. Did the tiger strike now? Was that it?
Too bad, but the magnificent cat does not show up so easily. One needs a little bit of luck and above all time for the encounter.
It had rained all night. In the morning it was still pretty cold and foggy. But slowly the sun rises and it gets pleasantly warm. There is hardly any chance to see. Until a Gaur bull is right on the path, we look scared and then leisurely on the way trots.
Our driver seems to take us on a special route for a long time. It was dark, and pretty boring at the beginning and without us meeting another jeep. Well, the tiger does not show up, but a few photos will come off, until we arrive at the breakfast bar at half past eight. In the afternoon we learn that the area is the hunting ground of a big tiger named Tarzan.
No one has seen anything exciting so far. So it means first go to the shower and then eat some aloo paratha, because that is the breakfast that is served. I always use it to warm up my cold hands that is really good! A racket-tailed drongo sits on a branch and I can even take a picture of him in flight. The long pennants make it easily recognizable when it flies.
At the wayside we see a 2 m long Indian rock python. She has a big belly, so only recently was she successful in the hunt.
It starts to rain suddenly. Our car has no hood. The driver conjures up 3 green and white striped umbrellas and then just sit there and continue slowly. The driver has only one hand free. All other cars met us with a big smile. Slowly we drive back and at some point the rain stops, the weather improves and gives hope for a second rainless safari. The weather forecast had actually announced thunderstorms in the afternoon.
In the afternoon, our driver manages to be the first to enter the park. For this we get a head turner as a guide, who points out to every peacock and deer, as if that were something very rare. And the whole thing in a completely incomprehensible hindi. I see more than he does, through our binoculars all the time. Our driver whistles at us in Hindi, you understand what he said. Now the comments are becoming rarer. The guide tell us that chital and other animals emit warning cries to warn when a tiger is nearby. We have to be very attentive!
Suddenly this jackal appears, struts without noticing us to a tree, and does what dogs do so, he marks his territory. There is a small jungle owlet and a scops owl on her knothole. She found a super cozy sleeping place with only one eye she turned us on. Everywhere there are big deer on the way. Unfortunately, despite intensive search, we no longer see a tiger, but this is the cat tree of a tiger. There are quite impressive scars that it inflicts on the tree.
This wooded landscape that likes to haunt the mist has a quantity of fauna that, even if there were no tigers, would still be worth it. But it has them well, it does! And in the one that is counted was the reference of Rudyard Kipling to create his history and to bring Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan and company to the world.
From dawn to sunset going through each and every one of the possible paths, we listen to false clues, being aware that the tiger escaped us by meters or seconds of difference. When I almost gave up hope, the big moment comes for me. After a few hours of tracking and unsuccessful attempts came a warning voice of an antelope that warned of the presence of a tiger in the area.
Out of nowhere, Sher Khan appears in a clearing, and I can look deep into his amber eyes with the telephoto lens. It is a moment that I will never forget and that as such is certainly unbeatable. But this journey continues, leads me again and again from the national parks, to palaces, temples and cenotaphs. It takes me into a world full of fairy tales and myths and makes me dream with open eyes.
We arrived just in time to see it pass in front of us, who showed us the most beautiful of his sharp teeth. After snorting our car it continued its way to find the cubs that should not be far away.
In fact minutes later we would find the family gathered around a lagoon where they were drinking and enjoying a short but relaxing bath. We will never forget the scenes we could live there. Because not every day you can look into the eyes of the great Bengal tiger in her home in the heart of India.
Almost at the end of the safari someone had a very good eye and spotted a leopard. It was sitting on top of a rock, almost 100 meters away, and has been nagging his catch. We only saw it for a short time. Then he lay down behind a tree and it was very difficult to take a decent picture.
During the evening a thunderstorm comes down, it bangs, rains and winds take off. The electricity keeps falling off. Lucky it did not catch us during the safari.
After breakfast, we depart in the direction of Satpura. The rains have stopped and the sky is cheery. Upon arrival in Satpura, we stay at a small lodge nestled in a part of the reclaimed jungle on the edge of the Satpura Tiger Reserve.
The closest town to Pench, an hour's drive away, is Seoni, strikingly similar to Seeonee, the name of the clan in which the wolf child grew up and whose leader was called Akela. And if all the animals evoked by Kipling actually populate the area (except for Bagheera the black panther, only spotted Leopard cousins roam here), it is mostly the tracks of Sher Khan the tiger and his family that seek visitors.
Here, open forests, dense forests and green meadows extend into a series of hills and steep cliffs of red sandstone from the banks of the Tawa reservoir to the Pachmarhi Plateau and the summit of Mount Dhoopgarh. It is an incredibly beautiful landscape, made of steep gorges, impetuous streams, ruined temples, ancient caves and rock paintings dating back to the Stone Age.
In the afternoon, an exciting elephant ride awaits us inside the reserve after which, we depart for a boat excursion on the Denwa river. Although it is tiring, we visit a variety of villages and towns, giving us a glimpse of culture and local lifestyle.
At night, the jungle regains its rights and resonates with the spellbinding concert of nocturnal animals in search of prey. A whole tribe of macaques invests the place to pick up the crumbs of the aperitif of the day before. How not to think of the turbulent Bandar Log imagined by Kipling? Only Baloo is missing for the painting to be complete. But if there are still many in the area, the bears hide to sleep. We see them very rarely.
We met Kaa the hypnotic python, whereas a flock of spotted deer graze quietly unconscious of the danger.
After breakfast we leave for Bhopal, an ancient city nestled between lakes and hills, enriched with the valuable monuments that the many dynasties of nababs have erected over the centuries. Along the way we stop to visit the archaeological site of Bhimbetka, included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are more than 500 caves whose walls are covered with rock paintings dating back to about 10,000 years ago, during the Stone Age.