LUXURY IN THE WILD
Words: VARDHAN KONDVIKAR
Photographs: JEREMIAH CHRISTANAND RAO
GREAT FROM New Delhi, Mumbai
GREAT FOR A luxurious, romantic wildlife holiday
“To think that I, the son of an untouchable, a humble sweeper, would be honoured this way,” weeps Prince Jeejeebuoy (not a prince), one of the best characters in the Gerald Durrell books, after a lavish birthday party.
“Nonsense Jeejee, your father was a barrister.”
Still, it’s easy to feel the same way at the Samode Safari Lodge in Bandhavgarh, after you’ve returned from a game drive to find not only hot towels to wipe the dust off your ears, but also a hot foot bath for your feet. With rose petals. And then a Champagne breakfast. And that is after you, reluctant to get out of bed in the first place to drive off into the icebox that is Bandhavgarh at 5.30am, have been handed a thick poncho. And a hot water bottle. It’s a little overwhelming.
Jeejee would have felt at home here, at this modern interpretation of a royal hunting lodge. Built into a patch of forest adjoining the Bandhavgarh National Park, this Relais & Châteaux group property pops up suddenly after a long (very pretty in the daytime) drive from Jabalpur – you turn off a forest road and are almost instantly swamped in a nice, rustic sort of luxury. Hurricane lamps light up paths that lead you to a large cottage, done up to mimic the local Gond tribal architecture. You pounce, appropriately tiger-like, on the Ferrero Rocher placed on your bed, gawk at the Gond mural on the wall of the huge bathroom, and try to decide whether you’re going to have a shower or a soak, and whether you want to do it indoors, or outdoors with the sounds of the jungle around you. You walk to the main lodge and plonk yourself down in front of a fire for quite an exceptional meal, all the more surprising for being in the middle of a tiger sanctuary. Chicken in pomegranate sauce. A thali that combines both North and South Indian food. Secret-location dinners in the bush that you have to be taken to, while you’re told about the tiger who lives just outside the property. And a fantastic masala-chai crème brûlée.
Given this level of service, it’s a bit hard to drag yourself out of bed to go into the park. But go you must, because Bandhavgarh is beautiful. Whether it’s the haunting, hilly Tala Zone, or the suspiciously open-plan and friendly-looking Magadhi, it’s a great place to be. The problem is that since Bandhavgarh is known for tiger sightings, you go in thinking you’ll see a line of them doing the hula as soon as you enter the gates. Naturally, you might find yourself a little disappointed. The trick is to go in for the beauty of the forest itself. Even the drive to the gate, along a bizarre government road-works project, is beautiful, especially on a chilly morning. And when you go in, watching the sun slant through the sal groves, it’s quieter than you expect, as if it’s holding its breath. And then you hear alarm calls, langurs announcing that they’ve seen a cat on the prowl, and the mood is set. Yes, you can get physically pretty tired, with the jeep bumping along on forest roads, but trust me, you’ll never get tired of those moments when you hear the coughing alarm call, and everyone goes silent and all you can hear is your rising heartbeat.
If you do get tired, there is French-roast coffee. With muffins. In the jungle. In a government jungle camp, to be precise, where you’ll be asked whether you prefer Earl Grey or English Breakfast. It makes your head swim, it does.
And then, because you’re so dusty and tired and such a good person, you deserve a spa treatment. Yes, it’s in the middle of the jungle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get your feet pampered, or get the aromatherapy treatment – the orange oil is wonderful.
Then, take the afternoon game drive, because you’re in Bandhavgarh, and you really need to get back into that forest. And there, with a wild boar walking in the rose-gold sunlight, the smell of the forest rising in the nippy air, and a masala-chai crème brûlée waiting for you, you really do feel a bit like royalty.