The woods are lovely dark and deep. And it was our promise to keep that took us there. Sure, the journey itself—from Kolkata to Kanha and Bandhavgarh—seemed daunting despite my husband and I being hardened road-trippers. This was a long and arduous route, a round trip of over 3,000 kilometres, in a new untested car, with a little boy of four, two sprightly grannies, one well into her sixties and another 71.
We planned to drive from Kolkata to Kanha via Sambalpur and thence to Bandhavgarh with a night stop at Bargi dam in Jabalpur. While heading back home, we planned a halt at McCluskieganj, Jharkhand.
Our start was smooth, nearly 450 kms had gone by blissfully nodding to music. After 10 hours we hit the Kanjipani loops on AH 46 and the rolling green hills of the Eastern Ghats, the burnished highways hugging the valley, opening into a beautiful drive past the Brahmani river in Odisha, which glittered in the setting winter sun, was rejuvenating.
Three hours later we reached Sambalpur, our halt for the night.
The next day, our drive to Raipur, Chattisgarh was straightforward. However, I made a rookie mistake—that of taking the shortest route as per Google Maps, which in India is not the best indicator of motorable roads in India.
Sunset arrived just as we hit a deserted narrow road passing through dense forest, almost echoing a well-known Bengali maxim: “Jekhanay bagher bhoy shekhanay shondhey hoy.” (Dusk falls where tigers abound). An aphorism that seemed particularly eerie here in tiger country.
By then our Kanha hosts were worried as they hadn’t heard of any of the villages we were crossing along the way. Another detour on a pitch-dark road and a dug-up enclosure later we were well and truly lost.
Strangely none of the locals seemed to even know Kanha by name but once we figured out, that we had to ask for directions to the village Baherakhar instead of Kanha, we were back on track.
After a day’s rest, we reached Kanha’s Mukki gate just before dawn, ready for our safari. Home to more than 26,000 spotted deer, Kanha’s biggest feather in its conservation cap is restoring the population of Barasingha to a stable level. After sighting a herd of cheetal, while driving past the gate, a Barasingha crossed our paths soon enough. As described by Arkaprava Ghosh, a photographer who worked as a naturalist in Kanha till 2020, “Kanha’s beauty is offbeat. The landscape with that specific quality of light where it falls in shafts on the Barasingha and the forest floor… to me that’s magic.”
Soon our guide heard an alarm call. The langur which normally makes a whooping noise, calls out almost like a cough when it spots a predator. Our driver steered the gypsy creeping towards the spot. “Leopard” whispered the guide and miraculously within 15 minutes of entering, Kanha obliged us. To the untrained eye, it was a fleeting shadow that blended masterfully with its surrounding but my husband with his keen sailor’s eyes managed to get clear shots with his DSLR. Leopard sightings are rare in Kanha, even though they are comparable to tigers in terms of population. “In my sixteen years as a guide I have spotted them only five times,” said our guide, a member of Kanha’s indigenuous community.
During our stay we didn’t see a tiger but the mellow amber sunshine, the park staff’s reverence for all animals, be it a small red-faced cormorant, crested serpent eagle or tigers, left us with a sense of wonder about the natural world. Dhawajhandi, a tigress and one of the “queens of Kanha,” had given birth a fortnight ago. “She won’t stray very far from her cubs now,” said Yadav, our guide on our second safari. Umarpani was prowling a neighbouring zone and hadn’t been spotted in Mukki for a while.
A fox, wild dogs, gaurs, colourful jungle fowl, that moment when the sambar stood a few feet from our jeep with diffused sunlight falling in angles like a spotlight on a star performer, my son Neil’s excited voice pointing out “peacocks” as a vivid splash of blue flew past are all memories imprinted in our heads.
As we rode to Bandhavgarh on the wings of hope, we spent a night at the Bargi Dam. The imposing expanse of Dhuandhar waterfalls that seemed awe-inspiring 20 years ago when we had visited it seemed shrunken and underwhelming now. But our stay at the Bargi Dam more than compensated with gorgeous peach-pink ombre sunsets and sunrises.
The high population density of tigers in Bandhavgarh is also the root cause of man-animal conflict in this 716 sq km park with over 16 tigers per 100 sq km. A female tiger’s territory varies from 10-20 sq km and a male’s is between 20–50 sq km.
“Conservation efforts boosted tiger population but they are violent carnivorous animals. As they fight for territory, they push each other out. The borders are porous. A tiger does not know a national park from a village. They go where the food is. Often that means adjacent villages,” said K. Raman, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Green India Mission and the former field director of Bandhavgarh. Sometimes that results in loss of cattle and human life.
“What we can moderate is the peoples’ reaction after such incidents,” said Raman. Working closely with the forest department to mitigate this is the NGO, Last Wilderness Foundation. “We were approached in 2015 when a tiger killed a village teacher and villagers burned down a range office in retaliation,” says Vidya Venkatesh, director, Last Wilderness, who are engaged in conservation efforts in Kanha and Panna too. One of their first programmes was to take local students on safaris and include them in awareness camps.
“We found that including locals instead of keeping them out of the forest helps change their response,” says Raman.
Through dialogue and awareness drives, things improved. “Occasionally tigers enter village homes but now villagers keep calm and alert forest officials who then relocate tigers to safety,” relates Raman.
“Now it is considered imperative that when local children come, they must see tigers. The drivers and guides go all out to ensure it,” says Vidya.
This positivity is also part of the park’s approach to tourism. On hearing we didn’t see tigers at Kanha our guide said – “In Bandhavgarh, you aren’t lucky if you see a tiger. You are unlucky if you see just one”. Soon we got an alert about a tiger sighting. Driver Dinesh barked “pakad ke rehna” as we hurtled through hilly, rocky and bumpy forest roads covered in dust. As prophesied three tigers obliged us with back-to-back sightings. “Looks like Spotty’s cubs,” our guide said. One perched itself on a tree trunk a few feet from us. The other cat walked past, oblivious to us commoners. As we crept ahead as we spotted the third one, reclined regally on the ground, obliging us by looking straight at the lens.
Bandhavgarh’s terrain is rocky. The twin hillocks rising above the forest giving the place its name have a strange raw earthy beauty… like Kabir’s poems who visited Bandhavgarh during his lifetime. We spot elephants, which are a recent addition to the forest, having made their way there from Chattisgarh.
“They are a source of distress for locals since elephants decimate the farms they raid,” said Gagan Gehlot, proprietor of Tigergarh resort. “The elephants have appeared like an out-of-syllabus question in an exam,” joked Raman. “Elephants migrate in herds which makes them difficult to take on. But they too will reach an equilibrium,” he said.
After two forests and days of early morning safaris, Amyra Homestay at McCluskieganj owned by retired Group Captain R. K. Prasad was all relaxation.
Even five kilometres away, the drive to the Gunj, outside Ranchi, gets pretty. A winding highway through dense sal forests is the stuff of dreams for the social media savvy folks, who could get countless sepia-tinted travel reels for the ’gram here.
As we drove in, two rambunctious retrievers Simba and Nara greeted us, going berserk at the prospect of new friends. The bungalow has a sprawling garden abloom with roses, hibiscus and countless other flowers, a fish pond, a vegetable patch and a mango orchard at the back.
The Prasad family’s hospitality was faultless. Simple but delicious Indian fare served in hearty portions by Mrs. Prasad made for soul-satisfying mealtimes. There isn’t much to do around McCluskiegunj but relax and rejuvenate. A drive to Patratu valley offered great views and hairpin bends, making for a fun day trip.
Our evenings were lit up with bonfires, single malt scotch and riveting tales from the airman Group Capt. Prasad and my husband, a sea captain. Perhaps because of the stories and forged connections McCluskieganj had stolen a little corner of the heart. Even as we journeyed back to Kolkata we worried about Simba and Nara. But all holidays have come to an end no matter how down our hearts, how turned around our heads, and how lovable our retriever girl (and boy) were, we had to head home.
Now we hear there’s an excuse for a second visit. Nara, our Jharkhandi Farewell’s heroine gave birth to a full litter recently. Is it the song of the road we hear calling or puppies’ yips? Who knows!
In Kanha, the writer recommends Salban Homestay (doubles ₹8000 per) while in Bandhavgarh, she stayed at Tigergarh (doubles ₹7000 per night). Amyra Homestay in McCluskieganj is a calming family escape (doubles ₹3,000-2,000 per night). Both the small towns Sambalpur and Ambikapur really impressed with their hotels. Both Regenta Inn, Sambalpur and Ambikapur’s Hotel Avalon Inn were not just well maintained proper business hotels but also had great food. There aren’t that many good dhabas along the route so being well armed with snacks, munchies and homemade food for a road trip like this is ideal.
Malini Banerjee was a reluctant road-tripper who got seasoned through trips with an almost-ancient mariner. She lives to eat, bake, travel and read, but thankfully does not attempt it all at the same time. Her work has been published in The Telegraph, Mid-Day and India Today.