Exploring India’s Central Highlands: Kanha, Pench And Rukhad

Dive into the experiences of days spent in India's enigmatic Central Highlands. Find out about the various flora and fauna entailing the forests and what to find there
A Trip To The National Parks Of India’s Central Highlands
Wild royal Bengal female tiger in Kanha National ParkShutterstock

"Over her lifetime, Collarwali, the famed tigress, gave birth to 8 litters before her death in 2022," Prabir Patil, the seasoned naturalist of Pench Jungle Camp, informed us before our morning safari. Instantly, I realised I was amidst a living legend’s legacy, a testament to the thriving biodiversity and conservation success of the Pench Tiger Reserve. The anticipation of potentially sighting one of Collarwali’s descendants filled me with awe and excitement, underscoring the profound impact of this remarkable tigress on the park's ecosystem. We had landed at Raipur International Airport under mostly cloudy skies with a temperature reading of 32 degrees. In the coming days, we would traverse the lengths and breadths of Kanha and Pench Tiger Reserves. Our first stop, where we were to spend two days, was Kanha Jungle Camp. Situated roughly four hours from Raipur airport, the Kanha Jungle Camp is ensconced in thick jungle terrain, cut off from the world with no phone reception and an overworked Wi-Fi that always runs at their reception.

Kanha Jungle Camp

Inside one of the rooms in Kanha. The art on the wall is Gond art done by a local artist
Inside one of the rooms in Kanha. The art on the wall is Gond art done by a local artistKanha Jungle Camp

Owned by Jungle Camps India, Kanha Jungle Camp spans 40 acres of reforested land near Kanha National Park's Mukki Gate. "Our property is nestled amidst the lush green Sal trees (Shorea Robusta), which dominate the landscape. Additionally, the camp is home to Harra trees (Terminalia Chebula), Saaj trees (crocodile bark trees), Palas trees, Dhawa (axel wood trees), Jamun trees, Bel trees, and various other vegetation types. This diverse flora at Kanha Jungle Camp attracts a wide array of resident and migratory birds, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts," informed Saurabh Garg, the General Manager at Kanha Jungle Camp and a passionate wildlifer and bird enthusiast. Emphasising conservation and sustainability, Garg stressed, “Kanha Jungle Camp prioritises sustainability by conserving water, managing waste, sourcing locally, conserving biodiversity, and engaging with the community. Though not perfect, we believe in continuous progress and adaptation. Our focus includes locally made amenities, responsible safaris, local and seasonal cuisine, and educational programs for guests. Sustainability for us is an ongoing process of learning and improvement."

A beautiful deck room in Kanha Jungle Camp
A beautiful deck room in Kanha Jungle CampKanha Jungle Camp

At Kanha Jungle Camp, morning safaris feature picnic breakfasts, while night-time game drives conclude with high tea. Sixteen luxury cottages, crafted with indigenous materials and organic toiletries, provide a genuine safari ambiance. The traditional dining room serves delicious buffets, featuring traditional cuisine and provisions for customisation with special evening meals available. Guests can relax in the lounge, swim in the outdoor pool, or enjoy a massage, with an electric car charging facility also available.

A tiger on a rainy day at Kanha Tiger Reserve
A tiger on a rainy day at Kanha Tiger ReserveShutterstock

During our stay at Kanha Jungle Camp, we experienced two safaris: a morning safari for familiarisation and an unconventional night safari. While tiger sightings were unlikely due to weather, we encountered various birds, trees, and other natural wonders. At one point, we paused next to a towering anthill where Bhupesh Taram, the experienced naturalist at Kanha Jungle Camp, educated us of the wonder that most of its structure lay hidden underground in a network of tunnels, like icebergs. “Birds like the red-wattled lapwing, Tickell's blue flycatcher, and brown-headed barbet have always flitted around us,” ruminated Taram, “however, my most memorable sighting was that Indian scimitar babbler; I saw a pair in mating, an utterly rare sight.” He laid out for us the basics of bird identification through their calls just when the melodious song of a black drongo prompted me to record its tune, a treasured memory. In a serene forest glade with a pond, we observed cows, deer, and goats drinking, while a fallen tree served as our seat to enjoy the jungle's sounds. On our way out, we spotted a herd of Indian bison, or gaur, drinking at a small pond, amusing us with their natural "socks."

The night safari was a unique experience. We were instructed by Chaitali Roy, a seasoned naturalist accompanying us, “to watch for any glitter of eyes in the dark, indicating lurking beasts.” As our jeep moved through the soft breeze, dry leaves rustled like a mini tornado. The jungle buzzed with cicadas and unfamiliar sounds, feeling like a vast game of hide and seek. Though luck wasn't on our side that night, we did spot an Indian scops owl sleeping tranquilly on a branch. Later, we enjoyed an outdoor dinner by candlelight, interrupted by a memorable rain shower, leaving a lasting impression on our final night at Kanha Jungle Camp.

Cost Per Night: Doubles from INR 16,000

Pench Jungle Camp

A room in the Pench Jungle Camp
A room in the Pench Jungle CampPench Jungle Camp

Standing at a stone's throw away from the Turia Gate of Pench National Park, the Pench Jungle Camp is set in fifty acres of lush foliage, sprawling lawns and untouched landscape. It is about 98 km from the Nagpur Railway Station. "Pench Jungle Camp is over a 20 year old property," Yash Rajput, the manager of the minimal concrete construction told me. "We choose tent structures over concrete," Rajput explained, "it's the best gift you could give to vegetation." In a rustic setting, the place offers an outdoor swimming pool, a massage parlour and a spa and wellness centre. The rooms here come in various types such as Luxury Safari Tents, Deluxe Safari Cottages, Standard Safari Rooms and Family Suites. Encamped in one of their Luxury Safari Tents, it felt like being in a lavishly brocaded canvas tent from the Mughal era, temporarily erected for royal hunting expeditions. In the arena of keeping things sustainable, they "strive to maintain sustainability by recycling the plastics we occasionally use, reusing wastewater for tree planting, and implementing extensive rainwater harvesting systems. Most of our employees are locals," Rajput explained with passionate detail.

A portrait of Rudyard Kipling
A portrait of Rudyard KiplingWikimedia Commons

On our second day in Pench, we went on a morning safari. Spotted and sambar deers welcomed us along with wild dogs on the prowl at a distance. On the safari, an accompanying guest and naturalist, Joydeep Mondal, broke it to my enchantment that the area of Pench is also the place where Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book'' locates itself. The idea of Mowgli comes from Sir William Henry Sleeman's pamphlet "An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children." In 1831, a wolf-raised child was reported in Satbavadi near Seoni, which inspired "The Jungle Book'' locations. Pench Tiger Reserve, noted for its natural beauty, won the "Best Maintained Tourist Friendly National Park'' award in 2006-07. Such history only seemed in alignment with the oldness of Pench Jungle Camp — it is so old, Prabir Patil told me in the capacity of being one of its earliest employees, that initially there were no telephones and they had to go a few kilometres out to the highway to take bookings; cars of all sorts would be allowed in the jungles, and only mahouts on elephants were the whistleblower of tiger sightings. You could also only witness a tiger in the wild from an elephant’s back.

Indian roller at Pench Tiger Reserve
Indian roller at Pench Tiger ReserveShutterstock

The Pench forest is a territory dominated by teak. In addition, trees of Mahua, Palash and Plum flourish in this forest, Patil related. Though less in number, the Ghost Tree (Sterculia urens) drew my attention in particular with its sculptural grey-white bark that made it stand out in solitude within a thin glade. Once the sun threatened to climb high on the sly, we made a stop and had breakfast. Our breakfast was spread out on the hospitable bonnet of the jeep as we snacked slightly, telling tales of previous tiger sightings in an unconscious drive to manifest one.

A leopard sits on a branch in Pench Tiger Reserve
A leopard sits on a branch in Pench Tiger ReserveShutterstock

After about a morning spent marvelling at the trees, birds and beasts, we finally caught a glimpse of the big cat — the animal that is emblematic of the Central Highlands. In a flat plain within the vast expanse of the forest dominated by low bushes and a water body, we spot an elephant at a distance being ridden by a mahout. It was the mahout who signalled to us from afar that a tiger lay resting on that soggy land in between the water body and the plain. Through the binoculars we peered and the fortunate ones were able to catch a glimpse or two of the big elegant cat. Moments later, zipping in and out with time on our hands from various tracks in the forest, we finally chanced upon a cinematic moment — a leopard hung from one of the limbs of a tree just below the crown, sleeping as its tail pendulated in mid air.

Cost Per Night: Doubles from INR 12,000

Rukhad Jungle Camp

The back side of the room in Rukhad Jungle Camp
The back side of the room in Rukhad Jungle CampRukhad Jungle Camp

Nestled in Pench's jungles, the Rukhad Jungle Camp offers a luxury stay designed for intimacy and immersion. It is one of the rare eco-lodges that allows you to stay inside a forest in India. Situated on a lake and overlooking a nearby highway, the cottages of Rukhad Camp are suitably named "Jal Mahal." Within the property, you retain the option from variously styled and planned cottages named Dudhiya and Daldali.

Once we checked in, we had lunch at a tree top deck and went for a relaxing siesta. The siesta, however, was terrorised by the langurs darting on the parapet of the rooms. Towards the evening when the temperatures had turned bearable, we sat around a lake within the forest and waited. Sitting ducks, we were entertained by the soothing clatters of an indiscernible woodpecker. The sound, unlike anything, felt like a glass marble being dropped in a hollow wooden cylinder. In the long wait, we observed various deers come and drink water from the lake. In our boredom, Patil broke it to us that Pench, whose part is Rukhad, is considered to have the greatest density of herbivorous population throughout India; it's a goldmine for predators with the largest prey base. Upon much petitioning, Patil revealed to us his most cherished moment in his glorious years in the wild: it was his sighting of the Collarwali with her five cubs, all of whom she’d meticulously raised. “It was a first of a kind instance, something that hadn’t been witnessed before at the time,” Patil rejoiced, suppressing a smile.

Zero Mile Stone, is a monument locating the geographical center of colonial India in the city of Nagpur, Maharashtra, India
Zero Mile Stone, is a monument locating the geographical center of colonial India in the city of Nagpur, Maharashtra, IndiaShutterstock

The next morning, we went on a short safari within the dispeopled patch of Rukhad. On our exploration, we caught a glimpse of a porcupine and trailed the prowl of a leopard until it disappeared. With this safari, I had come to the end of my own magical jungle book. Once in Nagpur around the Zero Mile, the navel of India, we stopped to buy some snacks and souvenirs to take home. Before stepping back into the car, I closed my eyes and all the sounds of nature that had been my companion for the past few days came flooding; I opened my eyes and the tyrannical sounds and visuals that dominate Delhi played in front of my eyes. Reluctantly ready to plug myself back into the metropolitan matrix, I bade adieu to central highlands and made my way towards the country capital.

Cost Per Night: Doubles from INR 17,000

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