A bumpy dirt track leads us through a dense forest before arriving at a nondescript group of buildings. I’m at Samode Safari Lodge in Madhya Pradesh and I have no idea what is in store ahead. Priyam, the property’s manager dressed in khaki and olive green, guides me to the first-floor drawing room and lounge area. I scan the walls lined with books, a hearth, local art and craft, before my eyes settle on the central part of the lodge with rafter ceilings, which hark back to my memories of African safaris.
I walk along a meandering path lined by bamboo thickets, sal and arjuna trees, past a swimming pool with inviting loungers to my luxurious villa no 5. Great care has been taken to see that the 22-acre lodge—inspired by local villages and their architecture, featuring elements such as adobe walls and sloping tiled roofs—fits into native sensibilities. A living room with glass windows overlooks the forest outside, while a sofa and TV leads to a bedroom with a four-poster bed.
My favourite part is the vast bathroom space, the size of a large bedroom, with a tub and a romantic outdoor shower area. I particularly love the gargantuan Gond art mural painted by a local artist, depicting a forest scene with birds and animals. My bedroom also leads to a balcony with huge loungers and charpoy that has the forest with small termite mounds as its focal point, and bird sound hangs in the air. Over the next few days, it becomes the perfect nook for a bibliophile like me with a cup of coffee in hand.
The safari life has its own rhythm. I wake up to hot coffee and an alarm at the crack of dawn, and ride the Gypsy jeep with our driver Vijay and naturalist Anshuman Shah, to the Tala Camp area in Bandhavgarh National Park. The beauty of the region lies in the varied terrain: from wetlands and hills to forests, rugged cliffs, and grasslands. A bit of birdwatching is also on offer as we catch sights of the Indian roller, Malabar grey hornbill, lesser adjutant storks wading in the wetlands, and the greater racket-tailed drongo.
Anshuman is a fount of knowledge and a sharp-eyed spotter, who patiently points out creatures big and small, and helps identify different trees, including the sindoor tree and the Indian ebony or the kula. Tracking is a tough job; the guides and naturalists look at pug marks, scat samples, scratches on trees, and listen to warning sounds of langurs or barking deer, as we drive along.
The shrill calls of barking deer alerts us, and we are lucky to spot our first tiger, Tara. The tigress lopes magnificently in front of our jeep and makes her way to a waterhole. “She will now head to her cubs, who are probably tucked away safe in a cave nearby,” informs Anshuman.
Samode does things in style. Our breakfast hamper of slim sandwiches, cupcakes, aloo parathas with pickles, fruit, and French press coffee, is laid out on checked linen on the bonnet of our Gypsy jeep.
Back at the lodge, I unwind with a book in my room, watching the trees outside. The food at the lodge is delicious. Continental lunches with cold soups, breads, salads, and pastas are followed by an elaborate Indian thali at night with dal, roti and curries. The kitchen staff is accommodating, taking in requests for even gluten-free cakes.
To unwind from the bumpy safari drives, I have an aromatherapy massage at the tranquil spa, set around a small body of water with Gond artwork on walls. The masseuse is from Manipur and her hands work their magic on me, lulling me into a comfortable stupor.
Local culture, art and wildlife are recurring motifs around the lodge, from straw hats outside my room to a panel of many small paintings of Gond art in the dining room, and metal sculptures of animals dotting the property. Black-and-white photographs of the wild and portraits of local tribes line the walls in the library and lounge.
The retreat—modelled on African game lodges—engages with the local community and also ropes in the guests in that effort. Most of the staff employed at the lodge are from local villages. “We try not to change their inherent nature, and just train them in service. The local Gond and Baiga people are gentle and respectful of nature intrinsically,” reveals Anshuman. “Our guests also reach out, wanting to help the national park and its people, contributing to things such as a solar panel for waterholes or torches and shoes for forest guards.”
Sustainability is also woven into every aspect of the lodge. The property makes its own compost with all leftover vegetable matter and uses it in its organic garden at the back, growing almost everything from lettuce, ladyfinger, and tomatoes to French beans and broccoli. The lodge uses solar energy, grey water is recycled and plastic use is minimal. Efforts were taken to see that no trees were felled during construction.
Come night, the lodge takes on a magical aura: fairy lights drape the jamun tree in the outdoor deck of the dining room, small lamps light the pathways, and the sound of cicadas fill the air. Samode offers imaginative dining venues, which range from a documentary film with dinner near the swimming pool to a barbecue night. One of the best places to revive and relax is the large library lined with books on wildlife and nature, maps and images of the forest and its dwellers.
Anshuman’s infectious enthusiasm rubs off on the guests. One of my favourite parts of the trip is when he takes us to a stark Sal tree with bare branches, where flying squirrels have been roosting for some years. At the stroke of 7 p.m. as if by clockwork, the sky darkens to a bright purple, and the squirrels glide out, flying into the night, while we watch from our jeep below. On our drive back to the lodge, we spot a black sloth bear ambling towards a mahua tree laden with beehives. Further up a jungle cat slithers away into the tall grass. “Look for its black-tipped tail, it feeds on birds, smaller mammals, rodents and has sharp ears,” explains Anshuman.
One evening I take a walk with Anshuman around the neighbouring Mardhari village. I come across spotless homes built with mud and terracotta tiles and neat bamboo fences, women peeling mahua seeds and drying leaves to make disposable cups, and children poring over their books. Most of the people work with the lodge in some capacity. “The Gond tribe is very progressive. Many times brothers drop out of school and start working to support their sisters through school,” explains Priyam.
More than anything else I love the lodge’s attention to detail: one can expect a small box of white chocolate at turn-down service, a small bowl of almonds to be soaked in water for early mornings, bathrobes and torches, and a beautiful writing desk stocked with postcards. There’s no Wi-Fi in the rooms and phone signals are non-existent, but that proves more a blessing, giving me the chance to have a complete digital detox. “Not everyone is happy and some even get agitated due to lack of network, but eventually they succumb to the magic of the forest,” Anshuman smiles.
On my last night, we get caught in a downpour on the way back to the lodge from a night safari. I put away my camera carefully, and enjoy the rain, watching the sky come alive with brilliant lightning and the twinkling fireflies, as we trundle along the road in our open Gypsy. If it’s something that I could bottle, I would definitely take that moment home.
Samode Safari Lodges is located in close proximity to Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Fly into Jabalpur Airport and hire a taxi to reach the property, situated four hours away. Doubles from ₹60,000, including all meals, safari charges, and taxes. www.samode.com/safarilodge
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.