I sat as still as I could in the tiny canoe, clutching the sides as my husband and I glided softly through the Denwa, the sun warm on my face. It was already late afternoon as we pushed off from the shore and made our way through one of the many streams that flowed into the core area of the forest. The forest guide, who was also our boatman, kept a steady pace despite the heat. The small two-person canoe rocked precariously and I was convinced that any sudden movement would tip me over, which was a concern, considering Denwa was home to a healthy number of marsh crocodiles.
The guide seemed nonplussed though. We’d entered a sort of estuary, full of different birds and their lively chatter broke the late afternoon air. I didn’t know the names of all the birds but did recognise my new favourite, the long legged black-winged stilt and the bar-headed geese that migrates from Central Asia. Satpura finds itself on a natural migratory path between the Eastern Himalayas and Western Ghats and is full of birds, many of which you can get close to from the canoe.
With nine national parks, a tourist in Madhya Pradesh is spoilt for choice, from the more famous parks of Bandhavgarh or Pench to the lesser known ones of Van Vihar in Bhopal or or Sanjay National Park. However, my favourite is Satpura National Park, a couple of hours from Bhopal. Spread over 524 square kilometres, the forest is hemmed in on one side by the serene Denwa river and the Satpura mountain range on the other. The number of visitors are tightly controlled, with only 12 jeeps allowed in per visit. The few number of jeeps and the fact that there are only 45 tigers in this jungle meant that the chances of seeing the other, more reticent, animals increased exponentially.
We spent four days in this gorgeous park. The largely hilly terrain with many deep gorges, jagged sandstone peaks and narrow ravines forms a picturesque reserve, full of sal, teak, mahua and other trees. The forest guides are all local, not unlike other parks in the state, and work closely with the superb naturalists from Forsyth Lodge, where I was staying. Satpura has been particularly successful with conservation efforts in partnership with local villages, with village committees actively managing the buffer zones around.
Along with the usual jeep safari and night safari in the buffer zone, Satpura also offers an elephant safari, a canoe safari down the Denwa, and a unique walking safari in the core area. It is one of the few parks in the country to do so and I was extremely excited to partake in the walking safari on my last day.
I had never been walking in a jungle before. In most tiger reserves you aren’t allowed to get off the jeep except in designated zones, and here we were strolling through the core area of the park with nothing but our cameras and binoculars, and a forest guide armed with a stick and a blow horn. The thought of walking in the heart of the jungle, where a certain cycle of life plays out between the animals, birds and nature, seemed a bit strange but also incredibly fascinating.
I had the good fortune of spotting a sleek lithe female leopard on the morning jeep safari, a large furry sloth bear at dusk, and a massive crocodile basking in the sun only a few feet from us during the canoe safari. But that morning, walking in Satpura was an inimitable experience, exciting yet intimate.
It was on the walking safari that I learnt how to measure the height of an elephant from its foot print. I learnt that the soft bark of the satinwood tree can slow down the advance of forest fires and picked up the basics of tracking an animal, which we put to use when we encountered a skittish wild dog. I learnt the medicinal value of many plants, known to the villagers and locals. As Adhar, our guide from a village nearby called Sehra, pointed out, the jungle holds a beautiful and complex universe within.
Among my many firsts was the sight of a fan-throated lizard engaged in a funky mating dance with a female lizard. I never quite saw myself as someone who would get excited by a lizard, but watching their ritual, I was enthralled. They blended well into the dry bush around us and I marvelled at the male’s unique ability to expand the throat when attracting a mate; hence the “fan-throated” moniker. As Aristotle once said, “Nature does nothing uselessly”, which one truly understands during an intimate experience like the walking safari in Satpura.
Ambika Vishwanath is the co-founder of The reDiscovery Project. A junkie for new places, she loves random chats over coffee (or whisky) and believes that there is a story to be found around every corner. She tweets @reDiscoveryProj and @theidlethinker.