It is afternoon. I am sitting outside my canvas tent, shaded by its overhang, looking out over a waterless creek. An ancient arjun tree, its pale, mottled bark gleaming dully in the afternoon glare, stands bare across the stream bed. From a perch on one of its branches, a black drongo makes desultory dashes back and forth searching for stray insects. Every now and then, a puff of breeze brings a sandpapery dried teak leaf spiralling down onto the roof of the tent where it lands with a thud. From the distance, the kdruk-krduk-kdruk of a brown-headed barbet floats across the still, shimmering air. Though it is only the first week of April, the heat is ferocious. And I love it.
Living in a metro, I scuttle indoors when the temperature hits the forties. When you inhabit a heat-island of baking concrete, tar and glass, breathing toxic traffic fumes, it makes sense to be a troglodyte and lurk in an air-conditioned cave. But here, in the forests of central India, summer has a powdery perfume even in the afternoon. Yes, it&rsquos very hot but, in the shade, that sere air cools your sweat and lulls you into lazy limbo. The very trees and birds, the whole world, proclaims the rightness of doing nothing but sinking into a deep sleep.
But this sense of torpidity is misleading. Early summer is when the forest is at its busiest and most beautiful. And there is no better time to visit a national park like Pench than in this season when the trees are shedding their leaves to make their display of flowers all the more nakedly spectacular. While the forest blooms, the rising daytime heat makes its animals move towards water, making them easier for visitors to spot. This is also when a number of birds and animals mate &mdash judging by the langur and jungle fowl we saw, there seems to be an impressive amount of copulation going on. All in all, it&rsquos an exciting time to be in the jungle.
The Jamtara Wilderness Camp sits on the edge of Pench National Park on the southern slopes of the Satpura range in southeastern Madhya Pradesh. The drive from Nagpur takes us past orange orchards before we ascend the ghat to enter a golden landscape of winter wheat being harvested. Palash, aptly called flame-of-the-forest, blazes by the roadside. But it is the signature smell of mahua flowers that overwhelms everything else. Each sprawling mahua tree has its complement of Gond adivasi elders and children underneath, carefully gathering the fallen bounty in bamboo baskets. Each mud-and-tile home that we pass has mahua spread out to dry in its courtyard, to be later made into liquor. Inside the park, where there&rsquos no competition from humans, we see bands of langur feasting on mahua, their black fingers daintily plucking the succulent flesh. A host of other creatures, feathered and furred, also visit the trees to eat the flowers the previous night, a sloth bear was spotted climbing a mahua in a field near the Camp.
Since the Camp is the sole lodging for visitors at the Jamtara gate of the park, ours is the only jeep to enter at dawn. It feels like we have the forest to ourselves. It is chilly before the sun comes up and the blankets in the jeep give welcome warmth as we head inside, away from the boring old teak plantations into the jungle. In the grey light, the distinctive shapes of two Malabar pied hornbills sail over our heads, their flight inaugurating a day filled with sighting all kinds of birds, from the crested serpent eagle to those impossibly tiny leaf warblers that flit away before one can focus the binoculars. Something causes a flock of green pigeons to whoosh swiftly from a fruiting fig, silently wheeling over the treetops as they catch the rising sun&rsquos rays, before settling down again to feed. Parakeets make their typical racket as they arrow across the sky, screeching to a stop at the nectar in the next flowering palash. Lower down, a pair of golden-backed woodpeckers hops up the trunk of a tendu tree, tapping for insects.
There&rsquos a sambar chomping on a cricket-ball-sized wood-apple, picked up from the windfall at its feet. We see large herds of spotted deer that take to their heels on hearing the jeep in this section of the park they are unused to vehicles. When we do spot a handsome male who is less shy, we notice that his antlers are in fuzzy velvet. Avijit, the Camp naturalist accompanying us, points out where the stag has scraped off the bark from a tree while trying to get the velvet off.
Pench is a tiger reserve and Avijit is keen to help us get a darshan of the great beast. So, as we zip along in the jeep, we scour the dirt trail for pugmarks and keep our ears peeled for alarm calls. It&rsquos confusing because the spotted deer, the sambar and the langur seem to be simultaneously issuing alarm calls and rutting calls. I give up trying to figure out which is which, whether it&rsquos panic or pleasure, fright or courtship, that&rsquos on their minds. If the others spot a tiger, they will let me know.
Meanwhile, there are the trees. Like the animals, they too are flaunting themselves, inviting the birds and the bees to come and pollinate them. The most striking is the imposing kulu (Sterculia urens) which poses dramatically on rocky outcrops, its bone-white limbs stretched out, bare, but for the blossoms that cluster at the tips. I have seen the tree in the Narmada valley in south-western Madhya Pradesh where adivasis collect a prized edible gum from its trunk, but the trees here are giants compared to those. Each time I see a kulu, I gasp it&rsquos so stunning. Another distinctive tree, also leafless, is the smaller salai (Boswellia serrata) with its pale papery bark. This too yields a resin, a highly fragrant one. In the summer, adivasi homes are redolent of this &lsquoIndian frankincense&rsquo while the trees bear gashes from which gum slowly oozes, some wounded to death. The bright white sprigs of salai flowers and sprays of bhirra (Chloroxylon swietenia) stand out against the deep blue morning sky &mdash a sight all the sweeter because it is so fleeting. Also white is the profusely flowering mahul (Bauhinia vahlii) the large lobed leaves of this creeper are pinned together to make disposable plates.
In front of this backdrop of whites and shades of pale, a kosam (Schleichera oleosa) blazes a splendid red, its tender leaves glowing in the sun. Next to it, my eye catches the dark trunk of a tendu and follows it up to the top where a party of langur sits sucking at the juicy fruit. Watching all this feasting is making me hungry, and I&rsquom glad when we stop at Alikatta elephant camp to breakfast on still-warm samosas and cake, washed down with tea, finishing with those famous Nagpur oranges.
It&rsquos too late in the morning to see a tiger, so we head towards the dam reservoir that flooded large sections of the Pench valley&rsquos lower forests. The dry season&rsquos receding water has exposed dead trees that stick out forlornly, a sad reminder of the riverine habitat that was destroyed to provide Nagpur with electricity. A couple of river terns bank and glide over the water, dropping into a plunging dive to catch fish. There are storks and ducks and small waders, but we are watching a lone jackal plod up the slope, looking curiously vulnerable. In the evening, we see two jackals scuffling in the undergrowth, teeth bared in snarls and hackles raised, quite different from that meek-looking creature of the morning.
The evening drive through the forest takes us on a different route, climbing and descending through the hilly terrain, crossing wide boulder-strewn river beds, with streams just begging to be waded in. It is a gorgeous landscape the evening light softens the warm rocks and the surrounding forest storeys look cool and dark. When we are again on the jungle track, I glimpse something moving in the leaf litter at the base of a giant banyan tree. It&rsquos a ruddy mongoose, grey and silver-flecked, with a black-tipped tail. It stops and stares at us for a long while, its curiously pink eyes unblinking, before disappearing into the thicket of the banyan&rsquos prop roots. Further on, we see three dhole, or Indian wild dogs &mdash an endangered species. They hunt in packs, tiring out much larger deer, antelope and boar in long chases and then killing by disembowelling them. They seem relaxed right now, nuzzling and rubbing up against each other just like the playful strays in my city neighbourhood, but these are actually pre-hunt social rituals. Reluctantly, we leave the gambolling trio and head out to the gate to make the park exit curfew.
When we reach the Camp, there are cold damp towels and drinks waiting for us under the massive banyan tree that flanks the entrance. After unwinding, we walk over to the open-sided lounge and dining area with its beautifully irregular mango-wood table, salvaged from a tree felled for road-widening. Long after meals were over, we were still sprawled around that table, drinking coffee and talking, writing up bird lists, comparing photographs. It is a friendly space. Making it seem like home is Dimple Bhati, a naturalist who has authored a book on wildflowers and butterflies, but who is equally at ease ensuring that the Camp runs perfectly. Like the facilities in the tents, the food is simple and fresh, yet with creative flair. Each meal has a memorable dish cold tomato soup like gazpacho but blended smooth, potato salad with minced onion and coriander spiked with pungent mustard oil, bright green methi rotis, chikoo mousse for dessert. As a concession to foreign clients perhaps, pasta and Chinese also make an appearance, but are disappointingly generic. However, the salad with watermelon, mint and toasted pine nuts has me going back to the sideboard for seconds and thirds.
Dimple also organises cooking classes on request for those who want a break from jolting along jungle tracks. To explore the countryside and the forest at a more leisurely pace, one can visit a nearby village and take walks through the wilderness around the Camp. Jai, Dimple&rsquos son, guides me on my ramble round the Camp edge. Jai is only nine years old but he is lightning-quick at spotting birds &mdash he shows me golden and black-naped orioles &mdash and can identify trees and reel off their medicinal uses. He lives and breathes wildlife, from moths to leopards. I think of my nephew who is the same age as Jai, who also loves wildlife, but has only seen it on television and in the zoo. If only Jai could take him for a walk.
Tonight, I choose to leave my comfy bed in the tent to sleep under the stars.
In an open field beside the Camp stands a watchtower, looking out over the forest and farmland. Its high platform is open to the skies, furnished only with an enormous canopied bed. The romantic possibilities are endless. Alas, I am alone. I close the net curtains around me and snuggle in, gaze up at the heavens and the shifting winter constellations and I am utterly content for the brief moment before I sink into a deep sleep.
Indigo, Air India and Jet Airways fly daily to Nagpur (about Rs 6,400 for a round trip). From Nagpur, Pench National Park is about 92 km away. The drive takes close to two-and-a-half hours. There are also overnight trains from Delhi and Mumbai to Nagpur.
Accommodation in the Jamtara Wilderness Camp (Jungle Plan Rs 34,200 per night incl. stay, all meals and refreshments, two safaris, walks, cooking classes, services of the resi­dent naturalists, all fees and taxes American Plan Rs 18,200 per night incl. stay, all meals and taxes jamtarawilderness.com) is in 12 luxury safari tents with en suite bathrooms and private verandahs.
What to see & do
Activities in the camp include cooking class­es, walks around the periphery of the camp and bird-watching. You can also go for walks to the nearby village or in the buffer zone of the park. Safaris to the park are organised by the camp (Rs 4,100 per person for groups, and Rs 7,400 for singles).