A bright red spot appeared, disappeared, and then reappeared once more out of the folds of the brown, cracked earth. Chasing after it, I finally managed to corner the brilliant red velvet mite. Sitting on my haunches, I peered at it, my nose almost touching the ground. Raju, the naturalist I was with, was a bit startled by my unbridled joy at finding such an obscure insect, but I couldn’t hide my happiness at the astounding biodiversity found in Satpura National Park.
This gorgeous Satpura forest reserve covers a surprisingly large area of nearly 524sqkm in Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district. Together with the Pachmarhi and Bori forest reserves, it forms the landscape of the Satpura National Park. Despite its vast area, this park isn’t on India’s popular tiger tourism circuit, nor is it one of the country’s most-visited parks. This is perhaps why it hadn’t figured on my must-visit list, despite the fact that I am a keen explorer of India’s wildlife.
I finally decided not to waste any more time. Though the park was closed on the evening I arrived (a Wednesday), I was able to explore the buffer area around it. We drove past the mud and stone-tiled houses belonging to the Gond tribe, many of whom were rehabilitated to these areas as the park area expanded. Several have found employment opportunities with the rise in tourism.
As dusk fell, I spotted stones that turned out to be motionless nightjars, jungle hare darting through the undergrowth, and a spotted owlet. On our way back, I saw a shiny black cobra curled by the entrance to our lodge—and we were still in the buffer zone.
The next morning, as we entered the mixed deciduous forest, I was surprised by the hilly terrain; so far, the jungles of central India that I had traversed had largely been flat. Among birds such as woolly-necked storks, kingfishers and bee-eaters, I was most happy to see the Indian pita, a rare and extremely colourful bird, and the grey hornbill, which is common here but an uncommon sight for me. We came across a herd of gaur, and while I have seen these massive wild bovines before, I saw an albino for the first time. The off-white calf stared at us like a no-nonsense landowner frowning upon intruders, while the sambar deer around it sat unfazed, twitching their ears to ward off flies.
Satpura rewarded me with two more rare sightings. I had heard a lot about the Malabar squirrel, also called the Indian giant squirrel, and I finally saw one, with its beautiful rust colour and glove-like paws. The last time I saw a bear in the wild was a decade ago, and I had given up on ever seeing one again, but towards the end of the safari, I was lucky to come upon a female sloth bear and her two cubs. I stood on my seat and watched them frolicking for a long time—I’ll keep the image of the cubs riding on their mother’s back as they returned deep into the forest close to my heart.
I decided to stay another day, simply to watch the Denwa River silently flowing, carrying its vast body of water with as much grace as the leopard I had spotted on my third safari. I walked in the surrounding jungle and learned to identify jamun and chiraunjee trees. Contemplating the park from across the river, I recalled the abundance of the forest, felt thankful for the conservation of its varied wildlife, and wished Satpura many more starry-eyed admirers.
Summer (April to June) is a good time to spot wildlife in general, but winter is best for spotting sloth bears as they are less nocturnal at this time of year. Flocks of bar-headed geese, ruddy shelducks, and other winter migratory birds can also be seen during winter. The park is closed from 15 June to 30 September and there are only morning safaris on Wednesdays.
Bhopal is the closest airport (about 200km/5hr) and Itarsi railway junction (91 km/2.5hr) is the best option for train travel. There are three entrances to Satpura National Park: one is closer to Pachmarhi hill station, another is near Tawa Dam Madhya Pradesh Tourism guesthouse, and the third (and most popular) is called the Madhai Gate. Pick the gate closest your accommodation.
The government-run Madai Forest Rest House has six non-AC rooms with a great location by Tawa Dam on the Denwa River (₹1,000 per night; not inclusive of meals. Bookings can be made through the forest department office in Hoshangabad. Call 07574-254394, 07574-254838 or email firstname.lastname@example.org).
For those seeking barefoot luxury, Denwa Backwater Escape has intimate cottages with large French windows and private sit-outs to enjoy the view. The resort has sumptuous food and, most importantly, knowledgeable naturalists (www.pugdundeesafaris.com/denwabackwaterescape-satpura.php; doubles from ₹15,000, including all meals). Forsyth Lodge (0124-4062481, 93026 25334; www.forsythlodge.com; doubles from ₹24,000, all inclusive) and Reni Pani Jungle Lodge (0755-2661100;www.renipanijunglelodge.com; doubles from ₹18,000) are also fine options.