As the jeep moves forward slowly on the dirt track, my husband and I keep our eyes peeled. Twice we’ve driven up and down this stretch leading to Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, trying to spot the pair of leopards that frequent it. The pugmarks tell us that one of them walked here just minutes ago, in the brief time it took us to take a U-turn and come back.
There’s a thrill in this just-missed sighting. It leaves us with a sense of being surrounded by the jungle, where an interesting encounter is possible at any turn. This feeling stays with us even when we are at the lodge, where we’re staying for two nights. A snaking path leads to our cottage, from where it is hard to see the 11 others that are spread out over this 30-acre property, hidden from one another by a veil of trees. After sundown, we’re always accompanied by a member of the staff when we walk to dinner and back, since there’s a chance of encountering a snake or other animals from the surrounding woods.
Located in central Madhya Pradesh, near Satpura National Park, Reni Pani Jungle Lodge is like an old-world royal outpost. Gol Ghar, the common area where drinks and meals are served, is an inviting space that exudes comfort and warmth. Wooden beams line the sloping roofs of the star-shaped structure. Old and new photographs cover its walls and it’s full of stone specimens from the forest and handicraft knick-knacks from around India. Different corners of the space house the lodge’s bar and library. Besides the Gol Ghar, meals are served in several other places around the property: Barbeques are organised in the open space right beside Gol Ghar, and candle-lit dinners take place beneath trees strung with lanterns and fairy lights. Individual dinners can sometimes even be set up right by the seasonal stream.
My favourite time of day at the lodge is the early afternoon, when most people lie down for a nap having woken up early for a safari. Sprawled in the charpai on the cottage’s porch I peer into the canopy of the trees growing around the stream, where I can hear the chatter and cheeps of birds. They hide from sight; their presence revealed only by the way a bough bends and moves when they settle upon it or take flight.
Owners Aly Rashid and his wife Shefali Alvares live at the lodge with their young daughter. Aly is a naturalist who enjoys taking guests out on safaris and showing off the forest he knows and loves. Shefali, a Bollywood playback singer, supervises menus, service, and decor. Together they lend a personal touch to the stay, and are always available to advise guests on how best to experience the national park.
There are many ways to explore Satpura. Unlike most other national parks in the country, here visitors are also allowed to walk through the jungle and engage more deeply with the forest. The lodge offers multi-day walking safaris with two-and -three-day options under its Satpura Under Canvas programme. The hike begins from Pachmarhi, the area’s well-known hill station, and provides plenty of opportunities to see animals. It is especially rewarding for birders. But if that seems like too much work, there’s also the option of spending a single night camping in the forest under the stars. The lodge organises night jeep safaris in the buffer zone, with the chance of spotting nocturnal animals. Visitors can also opt for canoeing and motorboat trips in the reservoir that wraps around the national park, offering an unusual point of view of the forest and its residents.
Getting There Reni Pani Jungle Lodge is located in the buffer zone of Satpura National Park. It is 132 km/3.5 hr southeast of Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal and 300 km/5.5 hr northwest of Nagpur.
Accommodation Setamongst 30 acres of trees and a seasonal spring, the 12 cottages exude old-world opulence. There are three kinds of cottages: six set by the property’s seasonal stream, four enveloped by forest, and two atop a hill, with a view of the surroundings. Cottages have walk-in closets and indoor and outdoor showers. The wooden furniture and handloom furnishings give the rooms a cosy air. Between the cushioned window seats and the sit-outs, there are plenty of spots to linger with a book or a mug of chilled beer. Meals featuring Bhopali cuisine are exemplary. (99819 97714; www.renipanijunglelodge.com; doubles from Rs 36,000, includes all meals, safari, and buffer zone activity).
Neha Dara is a travel writer and editor. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.