STAR OF THE FOREST
WORDS HARDIKA PANCHAL
PHOTOGRAPHS HASHIM BADANI
GREAT FROM Hyderabad, New Delhi, Mumbai
GREAT FOR Wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers
Being in Kanha National Park is an incredible experience, but, when you visit it in the winter, especially in the wee hours of the morning, when the sun has barely risen and the trail is enveloped in fog so thick you can’t tell where sky ends and land begins, the experience is something else.
And, if you happen to set up base at Kipling Camp, the experience of returning to your room, too, is quite special. When you come back from your safari all icy-nosed and in need of a warm drink, you’re greeted by Tara, the cheeky pachyderm, stationed outside the lodge with a friendly trumpet or a tinkle of her chains. The star of British author Mark Shand’s novel Travels on my Elephant easily steals the show at this camp. And one of the most memorable things you can do here is give up your afternoon nap to follow this adorable creature, as she ambles, her big bum swaying comically, down to the river, which is clearly her favourite spot. Allow her some time to gambol in the water, where she flops down with a huge splash, before jumping into the river yourself (but keep your distance – nobody likes a crowded pool). When the mahout calls out to her for a scrub down, you, too, can join in, and later feed her biscuits as she stands elegantly on a rock to dry in the sun.
Keeping pace with an elephant is hard work, so, when you return to the camp, go ahead and sprawl out on one of the cots (whose legs are thoughtfully placed in small cans of water and kerosene so that pesky termites don’t join you in your siesta) placed under the mahua trees. With lots of outdoor spaces, like verandahs dotted with stone benches and chairs set up in many interesting spots, you’re encouraged to spend less time in your room and more time outside. Whichever spot you pick, two things are guaranteed – friendly interactions with other guests and close encounters with birdies. While this eliminates the need to step outside for bird-watching, do sign up for a session, as there’s nothing more tranquil than a walk in the woods.
Bird-watching with the naturalist brings you close to the forest in a way noisy jeeps simply cannot. Follow the pugdundee (beaten paths made by animals), stopping to peer at anthills, sneak up on owlets dozing in tree holes, or gasp as the racquet-tailed drongo glides from tree to tree.
Kanha is one of the prettiest forests in India, and there are many opportunities to stare at sun-dappled trees while you wait for the birdies to surface. This probably explains why Gond artists in this region choose the forest as the main theme in their artwork. Bring back a painting from one of the visiting artists at the camp as a beautiful reminder of your time here.
The movie screening at the camp, supplemented by pakodas and cheese toasts, is a great way to learn more about the biodiversity of this jungle and have a dialogue about conservation. The conversations continue to the dining shed where everyone sits around the fire-pit sipping hot soup from mugs (or something stronger, if you so prefer) only to be interrupted by a herd of curious chital that strays into the camp for a midnight snack. It’s not often that a property manages to merge into the forest so seamlessly, but Kipling Camp does it so easily and that’s what makes it so special.