Tag Archives: Pench National Park

Pench National Park, India, is the Real Locale for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. Was Mowgli Real Too?

What luck: first morning, spotting a leopard at Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

(Our Royal Expeditions ‘Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure’ began with our experience cycling through villages and the wildlife sanctuary, itself. See: ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India and ‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park)

Royal Expeditions new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure” is set in the land of Rudyard Kipling’s fantastic tale of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, and his nemesis, Shere Khan, the tiger. During the course of our six days at Pench National Park and Kanha National Park, in central India,  we see many of the characters that populated his story and the landscape (“jungle” is the Hindi word for forest) in which they thrived. And much to my amazement, I learn that there may be some truth to the fantastical adventure.

Over the course of our six days – three each at Pench and Kanha – we are scheduled for four game drives, and I soon realize why you need multiple chances if your goal is to spot a tiger: they are really hard to spot.

Safari vehicle sets off at sunrise into Pench National Park in pursuit of a tiger © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Even without spotting a tiger, each game drive is its own adventure – the landscape of verdant, forest, the serendipitous encounters with animals not even a stone’s throw away, with nothing between you and them. And never knowing what you will encounter and when, or what’s beyond the next bend.

The “hunt” is thrilling: the way the guides track the tigers, looking for tiger tracks in the sandy trail, stopping where the trails cross to listen for “alarms” from the langur monkeys, or the signs of urgency from the herds of spotted deer (their tails go up when they are anxious). When the guides think they hear an alarm, they take off at fast speed, leaving us to bounce around and hold on to avoid being thrown out of the open vehicles.

Langur monkey sitting nonchalantly © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In all my years as a travel writer, this is my first wildlife safari, so the experience is completely new. I am told by my fellow travelers who have much more experience doing safaris in Africa (but never before in India), that there are certain similarities to the structure, the way you experience the animals, largely because of the topography, is very different.

The first thing that is surprising is how early we get up: 4:45 am for a 5:30 am departure, sending us off with hot coffee, tea and biscuits, in order to be lined up at the entrance to the park by the 6 am opening (we will have a full hot breakfast in the park at around 8:30 am, which is an experience itself). It is quite cold – we dress in layers and the Pench Treehouse Lodge gives us blankets (Kanha National Park, at a higher altitude, is actually colder and the Kanha Earth Lodge where we stay next gives us a hot water bottle along with a blanket).

Dramatic landscape in Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We line up with perhaps 40 other safari vehicles, while our driver (who is also the lodge naturalist) brings our permit (we have to be registered in advance) and shows our passports . We are assigned a park guide and one of four zones where we can explore (only 292 sq km of the 1180 sq km Pench Tiger Reserve is open to the public). Our vehicle comes from the lodge but when additional ones are needed, they hire locals who have their own safari vehicle.

Access to the parks is heavily restricted because they are already overrun with tourists – about 90% of them Indian people versus foreign tourists (and these are mostly British, with a smattering of Europeans and Americans).

Rhesus monkey, Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we enter, there is this incredible scene as we watch the orange globe of the sun slowly rising just in front of us and spreading its light through the moisture of the trees.

We are lucky on our first drive – my group gets to spot a leopard on a ridge poking out from bushes (the others in our group, in another vehicle, weren’t so lucky). The leopard is there for a few moments but I manage to get off some shots. Leopards are particularly hard to spot – they are called the “ghost” of the jungle – because they primarily hunt at night.

Breakfast served from the hood of a safari vehicle in Pench National Park © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Around 8:30 am, we gather at an appointed place for breakfast – a fantastic meal the lodge has sent along with sunny side-up eggs, pastries, coffee and tea, fresh fruits and juice – which we enjoy in an open area where we see the lake that separates the two national parks, and a vast open area where there is a herd of deer and an assortment of birds. (All the safari vehicles follow the same routine, stopping at around 8:30 am to provide breakfast for their guests.)

Continuing on, we spot a group of jackals – one has a bone in its mouth and makes displays of dominance.

We come to an area with langur monkeys (my favorite jungle inhabitant) – with black faces with defined, expressive features and silvery fur. One sits on a tree root, posing like an old wise man (Jack Benny also comes to mind). Later we find a group of langur monkeys together with a herd of spotted deer.

Langur monkeys and spotted deer are best of friends © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“They are best friends,” Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Treehouse Lodge, tells us. There is a symbiosis between them: the langur sends down leaves and fruit from the trees for the deer to eat and sends off alarms when a predator approaches, while the deer are easier prey than the langur.

Great wood spider. The female is immense and eats the male after mating © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive under a massive spider web with a giant wood spider (that’s its name, and for good reason– black and yellow stripes, perhaps 2-3 inches wide. Sagor tells us that the male is tiny by comparison and that the female eats the male after they mate (unless she has something better to eat). For once in my life, I am more fascinated than fearful seeing such a creature so close at hand.

Ghost Tree © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

He points out the “ghost tree” – it is starkly white, standing apart from the other trees. This tree changes color with the seasons– white, red, green; it gets its name because especially in the moonlight, it looks like a ghost walking in jungle, its tree limbs looking like arms flailing about wildly; the wood is used to make toys and musical instruments and the gum is used  as a laxative and as a thickening agent. “People used to eat the roasted seeds when they were hungry,” he says. He points out the “crocodile tree” – Saga- with bark that resembles a crocodile’s hide. “The tribe here worships the tree; if there is no water, they harvest water from the Saga tree.”

We come upon a pack of wild dogs – actually a rare sight – devouring a deer carcass. It is amazing to watch their teamwork: a couple stand like sentries, facing out, while the others tear at the carcass, switching off. Watching the dogs, I wonder why we don’t see more bones around – I learn that the bones are degraded by bacteria and fungus, taking about a year before they are reduced to nothing.

There are 60,000 spotted deer in Pench – the largest concentration in India – in fact, too many, we are told. But they provide the food source for the tigers, leopards and other predators.

Pench offers amazing bird sightings © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The profusion of birds is unbelievable: in the course of our visit, we see most of the “star attractions”: the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (my favorite, a blue-black bird with two hanging tails); the White-rumped Shama, the Gold-fronted leafbird, the Indian Roller, the streak-throated woodpecker, the Changeable Hawk-Eagle, the Coucal (big bird, brown and green, red eye), peacocks (they sleep in trees at night; the male loses its feathers during monsoon, then grows new ones), the white-eyed buzzard, the Indian Pond Heron (also called “magic bird” , it looks white when it flies); green parakeet; Crested serpent eagle (feeds on snakes); the Rufus tree pie (known as a tiger bird because has the same colors); and the Red Jungle fowl (the first chicken in the world) and the Crested serpent eagle (feeds on snakes).

Sagor says he has personally spotted over 100 species in Pench; there are over 200 in the region.

It is amazing to me what an eye Sagor, our guide, has – he spots two tiny Indian Scops owls the exact color of the knot-hole in a tree, and stops the vehicle. We can barely see it.

He tells us that Pench, which is named after a nearby river and was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1983, has about 43 tigers. That they are methodical (something that helps poachers): they are out until about 8:30 am, then sleep until evening in the winter. They only live about 13-14 years.

Male spotted deer finds some blue string to decorate his antlers in order to be more alluring to a female © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Only 292 sq km of the 1180 sq km Pench Tiger Reserve is open to the public as Pench National Park, on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states, where a number of endangered species are protected. The tiger is the dominant predator here, The other predators include leopard, dhol (Indian Wild Dog), wolf, hyena, jackal and jungle cat. The prey species include chital (spotted deer), sambar deer, muntjac, gaur, wild boar, langur monkey and rhesus macaques. There is a rich birdlife with over 300 recorded bird species, including parakeets, hornbills, kingfisher, barbets, minivets, orioles, wagtails, and a host of raptors; the crested serpent eagle, crested hawk eagle and white-eyed buzzard. (Amazingly, we see most of these during our visit).

The Real Jungle Book 

On the way into Pench National Park for our morning game drive, as we pass villages, Sagor Mahajan, the naturalist from the Pench Tree Lodge, tells us that though this is land is the setting for Kipling’s Jungle Book, Kipling never actually visited here –it was his father who spent time here and inspired his son with his stories. But then Sagor shocks me by saying that the story could have had a basis in fact, of an actual boy brought up by wolves.

“There are two stories about Kipling: in the first story, Rudyard Kipling’s father visited often, loved it, and would narrate stories to Rudyard – that’s how young Rudyard Kipling was inspired, but never visited,” he tells us as we rumble along the road.

“In the second story: two British guys roaming around a nearby village learned of a story about a young boy who was rescued, who had been brought up by wolf pack. He couldn’t speak human, walk like a human, nothing about him was like a human. The boy was actually found and rescued, but he died two or three years after. Both of them wrote separate books about it.” Kipling, he says, likely read the stories.

This is utterly fascinating – but surely, such a fantastical legend must be part of that village’s folklore, passed down from generation to generation?

I’m intrigued enough to do my own research, finding an article in the Times of India by a reporter who did trace the original stories and visited the village.

In his article, “Did Seoni have a Real Mowli?,” Sumeet Keswani writes:

While Kipling’s was a work of fiction, it’s said to have been inspired by Sir William Henry Sleeman’s pamphlet, An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens, which describes a wolf-boy captured near Seoni in 1831. Sleeman was a British soldier and administrator and is known for his work in suppressing thuggery. We found a mention of the wolf-boy named ‘Seeall’ in Mervyn Smith’s Sport and Adventure in the Indian Jungle, which describes his capture and behaviour in captivity. “I have reason to believe that he was the original of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli,” the author writes.

Mowgli is still a “pervasive theme” in the district – there are caricatures on bus stands, an annual Mowgli Mahotsav, Keswani finds, but is not, apparently, a folk story that is widely shared.

“The only clue is talk about a cave on the outskirts of Kanhiwada, a village that finds mention in the original tale,” Keswani reports. But in his investigation, he could not find any local people to give credence to it.

“In the book, Mowgli may have been the target of Shere Khan, but today the tigers of Pench are the ones in danger,” he writes.

Wild dogs devour a deer carcass © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While we don’t actually see any wolves, we do get to see a pack of wild dogs tearing apart the carcass of a deer, and over the course of our visits into the parks, see many of the animals that animated the Jungle Book characters. But after our three game drives in Pench, we have yet to see the tiger. But we still have our visit to Kanha National Park, where we go next.

Pench Tree Lodge 

My treehouse at Pench Tree Lodge provides the perfect ambiance and amenities for our Jungle Book Wildlife Safari and Cycling Adventure © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

What makes the experience all the more special are the accommodations: Pench Tree Lodge (www.PenchTreeLodge) which only opened in 2016, is literally a tree house, built of all natural materials, but with stunning design, local and traditional art, and every comfort and amenity you could crave. There are just six of these tree house accommodations spread over 16 acres.

Chef Pankaj Fulera of the Pench Tree Lodge shows his versatility and art © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a gorgeous dining lodge and the restaurant is headed by sensational chef, Chef Pankaj Fulera who was runner-up for Best India Chef) who is equally adept at traditional Indian cuisine as a fusion Continental (cooking classes and a tour of the kitchen can be arranged). Every dish is served with stunning presentation. The dining lodge has two different dining rooms, plus a lounge area.

One night, our dinner is served outside, under a tree that I have taken to think of as The Tree of Life. The atmosphere is breathtaking. We are there just as they are replanting the lodge’s organic garden, which supplies the kitchen.

Our tree houses have a balcony (mine has an enormous Mahua tree, the dropped leaves of which are turned into a liquor), and a stunning bathroom.

They both are absolutely perfect- luxurious, comfortable, sophisticated and gorgeously designed, but designed to blend perfectly with the environment, and support the local tribal people. They enhance the experience.

There is also a fantastic lap-size swimming pool (so much fun to swim and watch the green parakeets flying above).

Dinner served outside at Pench Tree Lodge © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pench Tree Lodge offers impeccable service, which you note immediately with the staff on hand as our van pulls up, with moist towels and a refreshing beverage – cold when it is hot in the afternoon and hot when it is cold at night. You really get some of that vibe as if we were a royal hunting party (okay, we are out for photos, not trophies).

Our rooms are supplied with coffee, tea and bottled water (flashlights, too). When we leave for our game drives at around 5:15 am, they have coffee and tea and biscuits on hand, blankets in the jeeps.

From my balcony, I can see how Pench Tree Lodge preserves the rustic, natural landscape © 2017 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Pench Tree Lodge, between dusk and dawn, we must call for someone to escort us to and from our tree house (the lodge is, after all, contiguous with the national park, and I think it also has to do with snakes) and each tree house has a device that emits a high-pitched sound that can’t be heard by humans, that deters rodents from entering. We are warned that at night we might hear the sound of monkeys jumping on the roof and when that happens, I am grateful for the warning.

The dining lodge has two different dining rooms, plus a lounge area. (Cooking classes can be arranged).

One of the reasons Pench National Park is so popular with tourists is that it is the closest tiger park to a well-connected commercial airport in India -Nagpur is about 3 hours drive. Karmajhiri gate (where we stay at the Pench Tree Lodge) and Jamtara entrance gate of Park are at the furthest points, so get fewer visitors. More significantly, you really feel immersed in local life.

Apart from the wildlife, the Royal Expeditions “Jungle Book” tour also provides distinctive opportunity to experience rural life in India – the “soul of India” is in its villages, where 60% of the 1.2 billion people still live -and meet with local people who live in harmony with wildlife. Just how much in harmony? We see thatched, raised platform shelters so that the farmers sleep in their fields at night to guard against encroaching animals.

Women working in the fields in Pench © 2017 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

On our way back from our game drive in Pench, looking out over the fields being tended by farmers, Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Treehouse Lodge, tells us that the villagers here have lived here for generations – they are descended from people who migrated from South Africa in the 17th century.

I’m thinking how interesting that is, because of his description of the dragonflies we see,  Wandering Gliders, which, he says, migrate back to South Africa, taking four or five generations to complete the trek, the longest migration of any insect.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.comtours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595. 

Next: Tiger, Tiger! On Safari in India’s Kanha National Park 

See also:

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park 

____________________

© 2017 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Through Local Villages of India’s Kanha National Park

Cycling through a herd of cattle on their way home © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our 25 km cycling trip through the Forest Corridor sanctuary between Pench and Kanha national parks in central India – literally the locale for Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 classic “Jungle Book” –  is the most challenging ride of the aptly named new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” offered by Royal Expeditions (see story). But the most colorful, scenic and interesting ride comes during our stay at the Kanha Earth Lodge (another fantastic ecolodge), alongside the national park, when we ride through villages and alongside farms.

Farmer in a field in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

After an exciting game drive in the Kanha National Park in the morning (still no sighting of the tiger, though) and lunch at the lodge, we set out on a 14.9 km route that circles back to the lodge. It is a mix of road and single-track off-road (though the cars don’t drive on anything better), and involves some technical riding (sand, gravel, rocks).

What is so special about cycling is that it brings you into local communities, at a pace and perspective, perched on the bike saddle, to really see things, to be in the scene, not just a spectator looking through glass, and with the ability to stop, look around, and interact.


Welcomed into a home in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Not too far from the Kanha Earth Lodge we come into a village, where our guide invites us into a home to see what it looks like on the inside. A father and son are there, looking a little mystified at this sudden intrusion. There are cows and goats in pens in a front courtyard (in this community, the animals are kept in front of the house and not usually in pens, as a sign of wealth and status, Vishal Singh, the managing director of Royal Expeditions who accompanies our small group, tells us). It is dark and spartan inside – there is electricity and a small, old television set. Most homes do not have indoor plumbing. There is a beautiful garden in the back.

We ride a little further and hear drumming so we ask to go inside and come upon a band of shepherds rehearsing with dancing and singing, getting ready for a competition that is part of the Diwali harvest festival underway.

A band of shepherds rehearse for a festival © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we set out to continue on our ride, we find ourselves going against a massive herd of cattle (with horns, no less) that fills the narrow street, with no choice but to bike straight through. The cows, it turns out are used to people, and as we come mere inches in front, turn slightly to make way for us. There is a shepherd at the back of the herd, but we are told that the cows find their way to their own homes for the night.

Biking through a village in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

People cycle all over India, but not in the manner or style that we are riding, so we are curiosities. In fact, it is astonishing to see the loads that people carry with a basic bike, though scooters and motorcycles are extremely popular (and we’ve saw as many as four people on a motorbike). When you see people biking with a load of sugar cane or batches of wood or pipe on a regular bike – not the mountain bikes or hybrids with 24 gears that we have – it is awe-inspiring.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We become immersed in these scenes of everyday life and fields and farms: women are carrying massive loads on their heads, walking with the grace of a model in an etiquette school; men driving carts pulled by cows; school girls in their neat uniforms riding bicycles home (the government gives girls a bicycle when they matriculate to high school); a fisherman who has just returned with his catch.

Biking in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Then toward the end of the ride, on a berm overlooking gorgeous rice fields on one side and a small lake with water buffalo on the other, trees along the border completing the picturesque setting as the sun begins to set, the Kanha Earth Lodge fellows set up a snack using the front of the jeep as a table – offer soda, coffee, tea, water, a kind of fried onion (tasty!).

We snack leisurely while watching people cutting down the rice stalks with scythes; others take huge clumps in yokes on their shoulders to great mounds growing ever higher with each new contribution, to dry before being threshed. Soon, a woman comes along who we had met in the village earlier, engages in conversation and takes photos with us.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sun is a blazing red-orange when we set out on the last leg on a sandy road. I get one shot just before it disappears into a line of clouds. As dusk sets in, the temperature becomes much cooler as we make it back to the hotel just before dark – greeted with a wash towel and refreshing lime juice.

Scenes of the Kanha countryside © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Photo tip: For biking, I use a Canon G16, a small point-and-shoot I can keep around my neck and pull out with one hand. It is remarkably fast and responsive, has a terrific zoom lens that is wide enough for landscapes, long enough for close-ups, has an enormous ISO range plus built-in flash if necessary, sensitive sensor that gives rich color, and has image stabilization. It also takes video. I’ve taken shots in horribly low light using the Automatic setting.

Market Day in Kanha 

The Royal Expeditions trip is designed to really immerse us in the cultural experience.

On our third day, we have a morning game drive at Pench, then lunch at the Pench Tree Lodge, then drive a couple of hours to Kanha National Park, which will be our venue for the next three days for game drives and cycling. The drive gives us a superb view of local life – Vishal notes that in India, “Daily life is lived in public” as we see a fellow brushing his teeth in the street. Vishal times the trip so we arrive in time for a weekly village market underway, just at the base of the forest road to the Kanha Earth Lodge.

Women carrying a load along the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Madhya Pradesh is dominated by tribal groups, remarkably untouched by development in other parts of India.  The differences in the tribal community, spread over various parts of the state, are based on heredity, lifestyle and cultural traditions as well as social, economic structure, religious beliefs, language and speech.

This is most apparent in the market. It is a swirl of color, sound and activity.

Merchants spread out food produce and wares on cloth on the ground – have their scales to weigh. They hawk their wares. People crowd around to buy. Cash money is exchanged. It is a kaleidoscope of color: the women in vibrant saris, the fresh produce.

Weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Cows roam freely in the market- one snatches a potato from a pile and the merchant yells and reaches over to swat it with a switch to get it to move on.

We are here at around 4 pm and the warm light makes for gorgeous photos. Indeed, Royal Expeditions offers a photography tour that goes from village to village for their markets.

Weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are the photos I’ve seen in my mind –that I have wanted to take my whole life. The colors and contours of the bright saris against the brown fields, or the colors of the mud homes, newly painted in broad horizontal stripes – white and blue or pink or green – for the Diwali Festival, the Festival of Lights celebrating the last harvest before winter, against the field of bright yellow mustard (canola) flowers.

In these settings – even shooting from a moving vehicle and especially for wildlife – I use my new Nikon D500 DSLR with a 28-300 mm lens with image stabilization, which I find wide enough for landscape scenes, but close enough. The camera’s best virtue is how fast it responds, its enormous  ISO range (I even shoot village scenes at night as we drive back to the lodge). In general, its 20.9 megapixel CMOS sensor produces rich tones though I am still trying to figure out how to get the best exposure readings. It takes cinematic 4K UHD video and is WiFi capable. It is relatively light compared to other professional-grade cameras and fits ergonomically in my hand, which is a comfort when you are shooting for hours at a time.

Bangles for sale at the weekly market in Kanha © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Royal Expeditions’ new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” program combines all my favorite activities: biking, immersive cultural and wildlife experiences and photography.

It’s hard to overstate how unusual this trip is – the whole idea of being able to bike where wild animals can also roam, when people are not allowed to step out of their safari vehicles, normally. The trip is result of a creative insight as well as the tour company’s connections with the preserve officials to get the permits to bike into the sanctuary.

Indeed Royal Expeditions has royal connections: the tour company, which specializes in luxury, customized and special interest trips, was founded in 1993 by the Princess of Jodhpur, who served in Parliament and as the nation’s Minister of Culture (see http://royalexpeditions.com/)

Royal Expeditions has created an innovative “Jungle Book” itinerary that combines wildlife safari with cycling adventure through central India © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Notably, our trip, which covered about 25 km of the Forest Corridor, was immediately followed by a fascinating 160 km fundraising ride, produced by Tour Operators For Tigers (TOFT) along this same forest corridor that we traveled, linking Pench with Kanha national parks, where wild animals freely roam. Singh is a founder of the group which has about 150 members now. This year, about 20 people took part in the 4-day/3-night ride which raises money to hire local people as village guardians, providing them with smart phones so they can alert authorities to illegal poaching. But I see the ride as a major lure for cyclists from around the world because of its unique setting and challenge (the “road” is more of a mountain bike trail, especially so soon after the rainy season), as well as the opportunities to stay in guesthouses in these villages, not to mention the mission. “Authentic” doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

Kanha Earth Lodge

My villa at Kanha Earth Lodge © 2016 Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Like the Pench Tree Lodge which we enjoyed during our time at the Pench National Park, the Kanha Earth Lodge (www.kanhaearthlodge.com) enhances the wilderness experience. It is an ecolodge made of all natural materials that is stunning in its design that blends so perfectly without adverse impact on the environment, uses local and traditional art (there is even a fellow who paints tigers), has its own organic garden and a lovely swimming pool, a stunning lodge (WiFi available in the office), and each evening, during cocktail hour, the in-house naturalist offers fascinating presentations about the wildlife and the national park,.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.com, tours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

Next: Tiger Tiger! On Safari in Kanha National Park 

See also: Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

 

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

‘Jungle Book’ Cycling Adventure Into Tiger Territory of India

 

Cycling in India brings us alongside farms © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

When I signed on to Royal Expeditions’ new “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” in India, I couldn’t believe or even visualize the concept of cycling through a wildlife sanctuary populated with tigers, leopards, sloth bears, wild dogs, langur monkeys and jackals. And Royal Expeditions which devised this innovative, out-of-the-box trip, set in the same region as Rudyard Kipling’s beloved 1895 story, didn’t ask how fast I could ride (or, for that matter, whether I had any experience in single-track off-road biking). But here I am, on a rough cut, overgrown, rolling trail that serves as a forest corridor between the two national parks known for tigers – Pench and Kanha – where animals, including tigers, roam freely. This is confirmed when a naturalist who rides along with us points out tiger pugmarks (paw prints) in a sandy section of the trail we are riding.

Biking through the Forest Corridor linking Pench and Kanha National Parks in central India, populated with tigers, leopards, sloth bears, wild dogs, langur monkeys and jackals © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At one point, I find myself (inexplicably) well ahead of our group (which has as many guides, cycle experts and leaders as we tourists), including a jeep and a van loaded with supplies with snacks and our lunch that will be set up at the end of a ride in a guesthouse.

Here I am, in a stretch of high, dense grass that reaches up to my knee, with dense forest on both sides. I decide this isn’t the place to be alone – after all, the naturalist said that the tigers who live here (there are 8 who live in the corridor, and about 120 between the two national parks) are craftier, more intelligent, because they have less food (that is, not as many deer and monkeys to munch), that they take advantage of the denser forest growth to surprise their prey, and are less used to humans (which I take to mean less afraid of humans and I am not particularly reassured that tigers don’t like the smell or taste of humans – how do they know?). Putting that together, I realize I am the slowest prey around, so I ride back to meet up with the riders, recalling that old adage: you don’t have to be the fastest, just faster than someone else.

Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Tree Lodge, points out tiger pugmarks (paw prints) in a sandy section of the trail we are riding in the Forest Corridor © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

That thought plays around in my mind, adding  to the adventure and sense of bravery – courage – that I’ve known only a couple of times in my life – that makes the exhilaration you feel after the ride- and not just from the physical challenge  – all the sweeter and richer. It’s a sense of personal triumph, of overcoming fear (of course, the danger was minimized by the safari vehicles which followed us and the guides who accompanied us, outnumbering our small band, not to mention we are here in mid-day when the scariest animals are least likely to be out and about and hunting. Still.

Fording a stream on the Forest Corridor ride © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

That 25 km ride proves the most challenging cycling of Royal Expeditions’ unique and creative “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling” tour. Vishal Singh, who designed the trip, said it was more challenging than expected because it was so soon after the rainy season. But it is exhilarating and thrilling and totaling fabulous – that sense of actual adventure and physical challenge – that also includes crossing a stream (I chicken out and find a place to walk across rocks).

Most of the rides we take are challenging in their own way, but go through villages and past farms, giving us a unique perspective on local life.

The itinerary is set in the same region that provided the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” which he published in 1895, in central India, cycling through the same jungles (the word is Hindi for “forest”).

Biking on the Forest Corridor between Pench and Kanha National Parks © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This corridor, we are told, plays an important part in the conservation of the tigers – by linking the two national parks, which between them have about 120 tigers, helps promote diversity in the gene pool, and provides protected habitat for their long-term survival. Other tiger habitats in India are fast becoming islands and there is little change in genetic pool of the tiger population. The landscape also supports diverse land use, and traditional forest dwelling tribal communities.

Our visit, we are told, also has the function of raising awareness among local communities of the part they play in wildlife conservation (indeed, just days after our visit, Vishal Singh is leading a 160 km fundraising ride that goes along the entire forest corridor linking Pench and Kanha, to supply locals with smart phones so they can alert authorities to poaching).

Time for a snack! Taking a break on our ride through the Forest Corridor © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A safari vehicle and van follow behind us (in case somebody can’t finish the ride). Every time we stop, a couple of fellows guys jump out, smartly dressed in their Pench Tree Lodge uniforms, and refill our water bottles, offer drinks in glasses, and offer snacks on a silver tray.

Our ride is accompanied by Sagor Mahajan, our naturalist from the Pench Tree Lodge, who stops along the way (as much as to give us a rest as to impart wisdom) to point out spiders interesting trees and plants, and tell us about work been done by conservation organizations to save this critical landscape.

The giant wood spider female eats the male after mating © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For once in my life, I’m more fascinated than afraid of these gigantic insects: he points to a funnel web spider which makes an elaborate funnel and lives inside; and a giant (really gigantic) female wood spider (the male is much smaller and the female eats the male after mating unless there is some better food available). He says they make bullet-proof jackets out of its web that is four times stronger than stainless steel. He points out Wandering Gliders – dragonflies that are the longest migrating insect, traveling from India to southern Africa, taking four to five generations to cover the distance; many bird species depend on the migrating gliders for food. As for how they know where to go? The wind temperature and humidity give them the direction and some suggest that the magnetic induction of the earth plays a part, like for sea turtles.

He points out lichen on a tree, which is a sign that there is no pollution in this forest (significant considering that while we are in India, New Delhi has had to close its schools because the air pollution is so severe); indeed, the clear, crisp air is one of the reasons so many Indian people escape to these parks for relief.

When we come upon tiger pugmarks, he shows us how to identify that it is male (more rounded toes), while the female’s is more pointed.

I learn that tigers are endangered while leopards are not, and it has a lot to do with the way they have evolved. Leopards can climb trees so have access to more prey like monkeys, and hunt mainly at night. A tiger male will only mate with a few females, and if she has cubs, will kill them in order to mate.

A village within the Forest Corridor © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The last 5 K of the 25K ride takes us through villages and passed farms where we watch people working in the fields, using scythes to cut down rice, and plows pulled by bulls. Our ride ends at the Sakata Forest Rest House, built in 1903 for the officers who patrolled the area (tourists can rent rooms here), where the staff of the Pench Tree Lodge sets up a fantastic lunch which we enjoy under a thatch-covered pavilion.

Watching the flow of everyday life © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are among the first to do this cycling trip through this sanctuary – when you think about it, people are not allowed out of the safari vehicles otherwise, but here we are, on our bikes, or walking about with nothing between us and the wild animals who live here. Vishal Singh, the managing director of Royal Expeditions, who accompanies us on this trip, has used his personal connections (his company was founded by a royal family of Jodhpur and connected to a Princess who also served  in Parliament and as the Minister of Culture), to convince the officials who control the sanctuary to issue permits for our cycling adventure.

Biking through a village © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Some experiences are billed as “adventure” and wind up being as tame as a Disney themepark ride (though I have new respect for Disney’s Animal Kingdom safari ride). This really is adventure – even more than I had imagined it would be – actual mountain biking where we need to navigate rocks, sand, gravel, ruts, tall grass, descents and some climbs, and a small stream.

Lunch at a 1903 guesthouse, prepared by the Pench Tree Lodge is our reward after our 25K bike trip through the Forest Corridor between Pench and Kanha National Parks © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After lunch, Vishal offers us the option of biking back along the same forest corridor – that is, 25K back, and this time, mostly uphill through the same high grass and broken, sandy and gravel trail. Not to mention it is already about 3 pm in the afternoon and it took about 4 hours to get here. We are really quite tuckered from what we have done, so everyone opts to pile onto the safari vehicle which has followed after us, along with the van that has been carrying the bike trailer (in case someone couldn’t finish the ride). We take satisfaction in the fact that it is even a difficult, rumbling ride back in the vehicle – and really can’t believe we did this by bike.

Pench Tree Lodge 

What makes the experience all the more special are the accommodations: My room at Pench Tree Lodge (www.PenchTreeLodge) which only opened in 2016, is literally a tree house, built of all natural materials, but with stunning design, local and traditional art, and every comfort and amenity you could crave. There are just six of these tree house accommodations, spread over 16 acres (including a fantastic lap-size swimming pool (so much fun to swim and watch the green parakeets flying above). Meals, prepared by a sensational chef, Pankaj Fulera, (he was runner-up for Best India Chef and is equally adept at traditional Indian cuisine as fusion Continental, are served in a charming dining lodge where there are also lovely sitting areas. One night, they set up a dinner outside, under the boughs of a tree I call the Tree of Life, with firelight.

 

Our own treehouse at the Pench Tree Lodge © 2016 Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Pench Tree Lodge is located near the Karmajhiri gate into Pench National Park, which is gets a lot less tourist traffic and you really feel immersed in local life.

The forest region (“jungle” is the Hindi word for forest) is where Rudyard Kipling set his story of Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, and his nemesis, Shere Khan, the tiger. During the course of our visit in Pench, which includes game drives into Pench National Park, we see many of the characters that populated his story and the landscape in which they thrived. Later, I learn that there may be some truth to the legend.

For more information, contact Royal Expeditions Pvt. Ltd. www.royalexpeditions.com, tours@royalexpeditions.com, or Royal Expeditions’ North American representative: kiki@wanderlustportfolio.com, 720-328-8595.

Next: “Jungle Book Wildlife Safari & Cycling Adventure” in India continues

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures