Varanasi & Madhya Pradesh

The mention of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh had always conjured up images of pristine unspoilt National Parks, tigers, an array of birdlife and wildlife and ancient temples for me so when the opportunity arose to visit no-one else in the office got a look in; my flights were booked & my bag packed.

First stop was the ancient city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.  Crowded, busy, higgledy piggledy and just a bit crazy – completely as I remembered India from 20 years ago. The ghats (steps) leading down to the sacred River Ganges were filled with a jumble of dhobi wallas (laundry men), pilgrims and locals alike performing their daily puja (worship)and funeral pyres of the dead.  Hindus believe that if their body is burned at Varanasi after death then they escape the cycle of rebirth and achieve nirvana.  Every evening on the main ghat the mesmerising Aarti ceremony is performed by Brahmins who thank the River for her help and protection with incense, bells, fire, chanting and music.

An early morning trip by row boat on the river is an absolute must, watching the sunrise over the awakening ghats  is a sublime experience.

From Varanasi we flew to Khajuraho famed for its intricately carved Hindu and Jain Temples, particularly the ones depicting scenes from the Kama Sutra.

After a tour of the complex it was only a short drive to Panna National Park, the first of the Tiger Reserves we would be visiting.

Panna is situated along the Ken River –mainly deciduous forest with deer, antelope, sloth bear, leopard, tigers and excellent birding.  It’s a quiet park with few other tourists and a boat ride on the river with crocodiles basking on the rocks is wonderful. It has beautiful & peaceful landscapes & very pleasant driving. Our most exciting spots were the very rare four horned antelope as well as an enormous fish owl.

The night was spent at Pashan Garh about 25 kms from the park gates.  With just 12 individual stone villas set in woodland this is a fantastic property. Floor to ceiling glass windows and full length sliding doors in the villas mean you really appreciate the wildlife experience.  That set alongside the incredibly chic and contemporary décor make this an absolutely wonderful place to stay. Very welcoming &  friendly service, lovely food, exquisite accommodation, excellent guiding and good vehicles.

An early morning start for the drive to our next park, Bhandavgarh; the smallest of Madhya Pradesh’s National Parks but arguably the easiest to spot the elusive tigers.

We stayed at the beautiful Tree House Hideaway – a small property with just 5 rooms built up in the trees. All have sliding glass doors that completely open out the bed/sitting room & bathroom onto the verandah that allows you to really immerse yourself in nature.  For those less keen on getting so close to the wild then Samode Safari Lodge on the south side and much quieter side of the park, which has individual and extremely well-appointed cottages, is simply gorgeous

Game drives start early at about 5am. We were lucky enough to see 3 tiger cubs playing in a stream completely oblivious to the numerous jeeps nearby filled withover-excited tourists and a number of over-sized cameras all snapping away madly (apologies for my photo here, but I was one of those over-exited tourists and didn’t get a single decent shot). That afternoon we quietly stalked a huge Alpha Male tiger (from the safety of our jeep) as he crept silently through the undergrowth.

It’s a beautiful park with interesting mammals such as monkeys, goh, hyena, chattal and sloth bear  & the bird-watching is great.

Another long drive took us to Khana National Park, the biggest by far of all the 5 Madhya Pradesh parks so it doesn’t feel nearly as crowded as Bhandavgarh. It’s very pretty – mainly Sala woods with lovely meadows. We saw a family of Indian Foxes with cubs (it’s very rare to see the cubs) & a jackal chasing a hyena which was an entertaining comedy moment.

As with all the parks Khana is home to a diversity of both native and migratory birds. Another draw is that if there has been a decent tiger viewing by the parks rangers before the gates are opened then you can track the tigers on elephant back getting off the jeep tracks and into the heart of the forest.

Shergarh Tented Camp built and run by Jehan and Katie Bhujwala, a Parsi-British couple, is a wonderful property with just 6 tented units.  It’s a lovely, simple and comfortable camp with excellent guiding and they also offer many alternative activities such as village visits and cycle rides as well as being very pro-active in local community and education projects such as school safaris for local children.

Another delightful property is Flame of the Forest – intimate and beautifully designed with lovely views over the Banjaar River.

From Khana we drove to the train station at Jabalphur for our 3 & ½ hour journey to Sohgar by Express Train.  The train originates in Patna and continues to Mumbai taking 2 days for the journey so all human life is there (though we certainly wouldn’t put you in 3rd class with the chickens and goats – 2 Tier A/C Sleeper coach for our clients!). Indian trains are always a great experience and local travellers are always happy to have a chat.

On arrival at Sohgar we were driven the short distance to Forsyth’s Safari Lodge on the edge of Sapotra National Park,  one of the newest tiger reserves so really quiet.  There are very few lodges in the area and game drives are completely undisturbed by other vehicles. The park has a good amount of wild dog (the only park in Madhya Pradesh to have them), sloth bear & leopard as well as giant squirrel.  There are tigers though sightings are rare.

The boating on the Denwa River is an excellent activity with great birdlife and crocs.  It was definitely my favourite park as we saw no other jeeps out on game drives and it felt so remote and untouched.

Forsyth’s is an absolutely delightful lodge with 12 individual cottages set in 44 acres. The management, guides and staff are wonderful – incredibly personable and very knowledgeable and its eco-credentials are excellent. There’s also a fabulous pool.

There’s a danger with all of the Indian National Parks and Tiger Reserves to be far too tiger-centric and completely miss the other beautiful flora and fauna around and it’s the expertise of the guides in each park who make even the tiniest flower or insect interesting.

I can now add another India feather to my sub-continent cap and add yet another State to the ever growing list of where I must re-visit in the very near future.

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