The Heart of India is MADHYA PRADESH
On 2nd January we flew to Nagpur for the start of our official visit as guests of the MP State Tourism department. We were met with a warm welcome and were able to have tea with our good friend Aditya Dhanwatay whose family own the excellent Tiger Trails at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. We had visited there last year and it is an easy drive from Nagpur. This time however we set off for Pench. This was the first time we had visited Pench and it had much enjoyment in store for us. Being once again in an Indian wildlife park is always a joy for us and Pench did not disappoint. We were guests of the new wildlife resort of Tathastu and made very welcome. Indeed, it is the first time we have stayed in a cave......ah! But this cave comes with air conditioning and all expected comfort and ensuite shower room and lovely beds!!!!
At Tathastu, which is very very new, the owners are very keen to be responsible owners and to this end they have planted and continue to plant masses of trees and shrubs. It pleases me hugely and they have an organic vegetable garden and an Ayurveda garden of plants and herbs. This is more a resort than lodge and there are comfortable family villas, huge comfortable tented accommodation and two manmade caves and tree houses......so whether conventional or adventurous one’s tastes are met. A completely sound proof conference hall (an essential with regard to forest proximity) and, and a heated indoor swimming pool!
A heated pool is very good as MP is cold in winter but this allows for enjoyment and relaxation. By the time I arrived my neck and back was in a lot of pain but the very excellent masseuse gave me wonderful massage on my bed and with a pain killer I was back to normal.
Jeep safaris are good and first off we saw some exquisite Paradise Flycatchers and a variety of wildlife and birdlife. Tathastu as its name suggests does welcome and ensure comfort and enjoyment. We went on two further safaris which though enjoyable proved unsuccessful for tiger sightings. However, Anil Agarawal the owner persuaded the park authority to give us another entry on the Monday morning. I felt my prayers were answered, there was a different feel to the forest that Monday morning....it was alive and expectant. Then the roaring started....continued and grew louder.......totally enthralling, then a roar responded much to the naturalists' astonishment. Then ensued much conferring and decision making, an urgent drive in the jeep holding on over bump and track. Still the roaring continued and we were so excited. Then ....out he came cautiously at first, BUT followed by his brother and we in the four jeeps were silent and enthralled. They, the two adult males walked towards us.... Graham, Anil, the Naturalist and I just gloried in the sheer beauty and magnificence of these great beasts as they came right up and then crossed the road together in front of the jeep ahead of ours. Then they paused on the other side for quite a few seconds and then merged into the forest to join their third dominant brother to whom they had called. It was utterly fantastic and we were just over the moon. THANK YOU PENCH. I still think of these lovely creatures and am so grateful to have had such a spectacular sighting.
We left Tathastu with fond farewells and Graham and I just kept chattering on about the tigers and our lovely photos allowing us to relive the moment. We drove long hours to Pachmarhi which is a one-time hill station in the time of the British. It is located high up in the Satpura Ranges and as one arrives one is full of anticipation. Sadly we were most seriously let down by the accommodation hosted by MP State Tourism who had promised us one thing and then downgraded us to the sort of accommodation that low budget Indian families and western backpackers might find acceptable. It was an atrocious place we endured for two nights. Let me explain, in the morning from about 0500 hours buglers practice the Reveille for the army. The Indian Army Educational establishment is here. That goes on for nearly two hours. In the evening the Last Post is practised endlessly. .......dirty hotel, food that gave me a gastric upset, town littered with rubbish, infested with monkeys, architectural decay........no don’t rush to go there as even all the magnificent tourist sites are unkempt and littered. Mr Modi's Swachch Bharat has not arrived in the heart of India and most urgently is required. Cleaned up and renovated this could be a charming paradise. It has at its centre a lovely old Christian church that is decaying rapidly and its grounds are infested with aggressive monkeys, but renovated and maintained it could be charming….maybe a project for one of the big corporate institutions to undertake?
We drove on to Reni Pani which is a most beautiful and well-designed wildlife Lodge on the outskirts of the Satpura Tiger Reserve. This place is a real treat and we were enchanted. Beautiful cottages with their own verandas from where we saw a chital hind and faun and many birds, lovely swimming pool, and library and restaurant and lounge area. Outside social areas....all lovely. Care was again taken with my food. I am wheat intolerant. We went on a night safari through the nearby buffer zone and villages and saw a variety of jungle cats and other wildlife. The early morning boat ride on the Tawar Sagar was so beautiful with glorious sunrise and birdlife and some animals. Having a picnic breakfast on a big flat rock looking out over the Lake will remain a precious memory for us both.
In the afternoon after a well-earned rest and shower we returned to the main Satpura Tiger Reserve. What a joy, immediately wildlife close by and the great treat....a mother Sloth Bear and two cubs. Oh it was wonderful as they rooted around ignoring us for about half an hour. Again glorious photography, but mainly on the high resolution cameras. We followed a tiger's pug marks but did not see it. Then we had some very good encounters with Gaur – the great bovines of the Indian jungles - really close up. This Lovely Park and Reni Pani are so worthwhile and more easily reached from Bhopal to where we were heading.
On the way to Bhopal we went to Bhimbetka. I had flagged up the importance of Bhimbetka in my second book India, The Tiger's Roar. It is a World Heritage Site and shows the drawings of India’s earliest humans, certainly 12,500 years ago but maybe even as early as 100,000 years ago. It was a special experience in November 2002 so we were keen to return. Sadly the Archaeological Survey of India have been seriously negligent of this place and all the visitor information and interaction is in poor repair with palm thatch shelters that are collapsing, paper printed material the monsoons have dissolved, litter and washroom facilities that made one gag. The WC cisterns have been stolen, no running water and totally revolting. I have brought the matter to the attention of the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India and the Secretary for Tourism as well as the Managing Director and his colleagues of Madhya Pradesh State Tourism since my return to the UK. Action is being taken and matters should improve.
We continued on our way to Bhopal and arrived at Jehan Numa Palace hotel. It is a gracious well run place with elegant public areas and glorious swimming pool. Our room had a veranda looking on to the pool. There are three restaurants and a bar and conference facilities and this is a busy successful hotel that made us very welcome. Bhopal sadly is a decayed city in parts and though it has several attractions nearby and excellent museums it needs to work at its image.
We revisited Sanchi which is about an hour and quarter drive from Bhopal. Sanchi is a beautiful site of Buddhist heritage which I delighted in on a visit in 2002. Thankfully the ASI maintain this well, but some of the inaccurate nonsense spouted by the guides is a shame. We went around extensively and it is comforting to see so many Indian tourists enjoying their own heritage....in 2002 we were the only people visiting. We went on to the Udaigiri Caves as well.
That evening I went, with our sweet Guide Pooja who had been provided throughout our journey, up to the ITC Noor as Sabah hotel to capture the sunset over the great Lake. Bhopal has a long distinguished history of Muslim rulers and the Begums of Bhopal were legendary.
The following morning saw us visiting the Museums of Antiquities and the Tribal Museum. Both are very good in that the visitor has much to appreciate. The antiquities museum seemed over populated with Babus who left one shaking one's head....... Here I am the VIP visitor and a foolish man completely ignores me and addresses himself to Graham.... India has to educate its males to grow up into the real world of gender equality, I write this the day after International Women’s’ Day! So much of the behaviour of the government employees fell short of what are the normal courtesies of the West.
The Adivasi Museum enchanted me and thankfully I took a lot of photos to illustrate its excellence. We were both in awe of the various Tribes of India and their innate wisdom which is pertinent to this day. Bhopal is worth the visit for these two museums, plus Sanchi, then Bhimbetka if it is tidied up and a quick two or more days at Reni Pani. Three if one can manage it.
After the museums we went to the Jehan Numa Retreat which is just on the outskirts of Bhopal. It is excellent and must prove such a boon to folk who want to have a rural week end. Spacious grounds, their own home grown vegetables, putting green, lovely food, shade, swimming pool and a spa and very good service. I totally recommend.
The following morning we departed Bhopal for Cochin via Mumbai. A long journey but the glorious anticipation of arrival at Kumarakom Lake Resort on Lake Vembanad in Kerala which is such a big favourite of ours spurred us on.