A low growl, leaves rustling, and a spotted deer’s alarm call. Yogesh, the forest guide on my night safari in Tadoba National Park, mulls, “There’s a kill on the other side of the trail; the tiger might cross over here.” The driver turns off the engine and Yogesh switches off his flashlight, and we wait. A swarm of fireflies twinkles in a nearby tree, some more alarm calls sound out into the night, and the collective buzzing of the cicadas is near-constant. But this is the closest I come to a tiger.
Over three safaris, I keep my eyes peeled for a glimpse of the jungle cat but waghoba proves elusive. The tiger (wagh in Marathi) is revered as God and called waghoba in these Gond tribal lands, hence the name Waghoba Eco Lodge. This is the seventh lodge by Pugdundee Safaris known for their intimate jungle lodges across Central India offering bespoke wilderness experiences.
Built over what was once barren land, the lodge was constructed using adobe bricks sun-baked onsite from the soil dug up for its foundation. Vaulted roofs feature tiles made by local potters and are designed to help with insulation. Each of the 14 cottages (one of which is wheelchair accessible) is spacious and comes with king beds where you wake up to bird calls and lush views, as Pugdundee has afforested the surrounding land and developed a wetland on the property. The large daybed in a nook is my favourite place to work and relax. Handcrafted teak furniture is contemporary and elegant, featuring animal motifs.
After a long day of safari, the lounge-cum-nature library is a good place to unwind, perhaps with a wildlife documentary. Or take a dip in the pool, which is 80% covered so you can swim even if it is a hot day (summers can be scorching with daytime temperatures breaching mid-40s).
Instead of run-of-the-mill buffet meals, you get generous thalis for lunch and beautifully plated Indian or continental dishes for dinner. Curated by Chef Michael Swamy, the menu celebrates local ingredients and regional cuisines. I was elated to see the breadth of Maharashtrian cuisine being highlighted—there was thalipeeth (savoury multigrain flatbread) for breakfast, fish curry, usal (legume curry), koshimbir (salad), sol kadhi (sweet-sour kokum and coconut milk dink), etc. for lunch. But my favourite meal was the Varhadi thali highlighting dishes from Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region (where Tadoba is located). Known for its fiery flavours, varhadi cuisine is not for the fainthearted; the succulent dahi mutton had a pungent pepperiness while patodi rassa’s chilli heat was somewhat cut by the patodi/patwadi (steamed gram flour cake).
Of course, the main reason to visit Tadoba is the jungle safaris. Well-trained and highly knowledgeable naturalists accompany you on all safaris, like Swanand Deshpande who is my de facto guide through the trip. My visit in early October coincides with the seasonal opening of the core* area; it’s towards the end of the monsoon and the jungle is lush green making a vivid contrast against the red mud trails that snake through it. I spot several sambar (the largest deer in the Indian subcontinent), chital or spotted deer, langurs, and numerous birds (including mottled wood owls on the night safari).
Boat safaris on the Irai Lake will commence in November, offering a whole different way to experience the jungle. Other activities that you can opt for include a jungle trail accompanied by the naturalist and a trained forest guide, giving you the chance to explore the forest on foot. The lodge itself is in the buffer* zone and has a biodiverse habitat where you can spot plenty of birds, butterflies, and insects.
It’s the fag end of my last safari and we are driving back to Khutwanda Gate of the core area (the closest gate to the lodge). Suddenly, we stop and to our left stands a female sloth bear gazing intently at us. After a few seconds, she wanders off into the thicket and starts walking parallel to the trail. We track her for a few minutes in our jeep until she heads deeper into the jungle. “Seeing a sloth bear is extremely rare; it’s like spotting ten tigers,” says Deshpande, no doubt consoling me. But I’m just happy to be in the jungle for the first time since the pandemic. Yes, seeing a tiger would have been thrilling, but there’s always the next safari to look forward to.
*Animals and villagers coexist in the buffer zone while no human activity is allowed inside the core area.
Waghoba Eco Lodge is a 140-km/2.5-hour drive from Nagpur Airport (www.waghobaecolodge.com); doubles from ₹15,000 including meals and taxes; safaris and activities are extra.