A little over five hours by road northeast of Nagpur into Madhya Pradesh, over single-lane roads low on traffic, through small towns half-asleep in their usual rhythms, past unexceptional fields somewhat wilted from road dust and then the occasional patch of violently green wheatgrass or mustard, the jungle begins to take over, and a little while later, we pull in over a bumpy dirt track into a little camp of pointy-topped, mushroom-coloured habitations that seem straight out of a fanciful dream (a feeling heightened if you arrive, as I did, on a misty night, when rows of paraffin lanterns line the paths).
Alongside the camp is the thin, boulder-studded Banjaar river that gives the Banjaar Tola lodge its name, and on the other side of the water begins the vast 750-sq-mile expanse of the Kanha National Park, home to about a tenth of India&rsquos tiger population as well as a brilliant array of other flora and fauna.
The lodge itself, unfenced, is discreetly attached to the forest (even at night its lights are muted), and offers an intricately plotted experience of adventurous days in the wild interspersed with mealtimes and nights of sumptuous comfort and indulgence. My night-time arrival meant that it was indulgence first. I was cold, tired, hungry and sleepy, but not so far gone as to not admire the opulence of the capacious lounge, while Ravi, the resplendently attired butler, somehow produced for me a bowl of hot soup and a satisfying chicken sandwich at 1am. We then wound our way again, lantern in hand and through a path itself marked off by lanterns, to my room, where I was left alone to sleep off my exhaustion and prepare for a morning on the trail of the tiger.
But even though everything about my surroundings was designed to support a state of restful ease, it was hard to sleep without admiring the place first. Although the rooms here are technically tents, they bear about as much relation to the average tent as the peacock that ran across the path of our jeep the next morning bears to the average pedestrian. There is, first of all, the size of the space about 400 sq ft. The large living and dining area, lit by a number of sources, is beautifully appointed with a majestic bed, cane furniture and Bastar depictions of human faces and figures in brass (indeed, local handicrafts, such as the wooden cart on which breakfast is served or the long chandelier in the lounge with ornamental leaves, are expertly integrated into the overall design of the property). The double-canvas walls, high ceiling, pressed bamboo floors, french windows and air-conditioning mean that this is the most extravagant tent you may ever camp in.
A cane door led me into an opulent grooming area, with a bathtub, a shower on wooden slats, a toilet, twin wash basins, a wardrobe, and enough mirrors to make the narcissist swoon and the paranoid feel he is being stalked. I banished my shivers under the steam and spray of the power shower and the pleasures of a plush towel, and then, diving into bed, was delighted to find it invitingly cosy as a result of the ministrations of an electric blanket. 1.30am soon the forest would be stirring. In a couple of minutes the book fell from my hands onto my face, and I slept.
Just before six, I was woken up by the most discreet of knockings on the door. It was Ravi again, miraculously fresh-faced as if he&rsquod been taking a bracing walk in the gardens all night long, and with a pot of Darjeeling tea in hand to cushion the transition from warmth to cold. Banjaar Tola is, after all, a lodge dedicated to wildlife, and how seriously it takes its outdoor activity may be judged by the fact that guests must actually leave an instruction if they wish not to be woken up at the break of day otherwise, it is assumed that you are up for the drive into the forest.
The excellent tea woke me up, and of course there is no such thing as a right or wrong time to be eating a platter of flaky butter cookies. As I put back the first of the day&rsquos five meals, I browsed through a small booklet about Banjaar Tola&rsquos &lsquostarbirds&rsquo&mdasha set of 10 local birds chosen for the beauty of their plumage, the qualities of their personalities and, indeed, the very ring of their names (wouldn&rsquot one want to see, even without a preparatory picture, such a creature as the racket-tailed drongo). This was the establishment&rsquos way, it seemed to me, of deflecting some of the fascination for that most glamorous of Kanha&rsquos stars, the tiger, towards the more low-key pleasures of birding.
Over a quick breakfast in the morning mist &mdash of a bowl of porridge spiked with a shot of warming whisky (what a good way to start the day) and more tea &mdash I was introduced to Payal Mehta, one of Banjaar Tola&rsquos resident naturalists. No tourist site in India is without its share of guides, but one of the pleasures of Banjaar Tola (and the three other properties run by Taj Safaris across Madhya Pradesh, in Bandhavgarh, Pench and Panna) is the availability of a group of articulate and enthusiastic wildlife experts, each of whom takes groups of three or four out on a safari in an open-air jeep. Given the lodge&rsquos remote location and its promise of a safari to remember, the naturalist is perhaps the central member of its staff.
A swift five-minute drive in the jeep (my gloveless hands huddling inside a thoughtfully supplied hand-warmer) took us into the dense sal forest, broken up every few hundred yards by the thin man-made clearings of fire lines. As the sun rose, the forest came to life deer nibbling on grass in meadows, peacocks hurrying for cover in resplendent tail-shaking haste and wild boar quaffing from water holes. Picked out by the eagle eye of Payal (who somehow managed to both drive and birdwatch) and the National Park guide who mandatorily accompanies every vehicle, there also emerged in the rising light of dawn an array of birds in their preferred surroundings of tree-hole or branch, swamp or water.
Thus it was that, over two six-hour mornings in the woods, this writer, who hitherto could only recognise such two-legged creatures of his native urban habitat as the Jostling Traincatcher, the Horn-Happy Motorist, the Beautiful Passing Lady and the Common Loafer, suddenly became alive to the beauties of the leaping air-dashes of the white-tailed paradise flycatcher, the hushed and monastic vigil of the crested serpent eagle, the breathtaking mid-air halt of the black-shouldered kite, the mellifluous call of the white-rumped shama, and the whooping of the racket-tailed drongo (the great mimic of the forest). There were also, on the ground, a variety of fascinating deer spotted chital no bigger than calves, little barking deer, enormous sambar and, lastly, Kanha&rsquos biggest success story the fawn-coloured hardground barasingha, who are found in India only in this particular forest, and now, after careful conservation, number above 400 after slipping down to a low of about 60.
These deer, as well as boars (and in times of scarcity, the occasional langur), serve as the food pool for Kanha&rsquos tigers. Early morning is the best time to spot tigers, and all morning we were in communication with the park&rsquos base camp, from where tracking elephants set out with their mahouts to pursue clues about tiger activity, such as the alarm calls of other birds and animals. Suddenly the air had a buzz tiger Every vehicle made a rush for the area in which the sighting had occurred, and there we mounted, in ordered turns, the pair of elephants whose labours had borne fruit. We lumbered off the main track into the vegetation, hurrying, stopping, turning, doubling back, scanning. Then there was a flash of stripes in the undergrowth, and there it was
A big cub, not yet full-grown, lithe, sleek, regal, the ripple of every muscle a thing of grace and beauty. Even in the face of such scrutiny, it was almost insolently self-absorbed, as if working out some private puzzle. A sight worth every labour in the world, hovering around indulgently for a minute or two and then suddenly, swiftly, gone.
After the pleasures of the wild (not only visual and aural but, happily, also gustatory a breakfast of rolls, sandwiches, muffins and coffee on a windy highland table rising above the rest of the park), we returned, once again, to the pleasures of civilisation, all worked up to a high polish. The french windows of my room led out onto a private deck with recliners and a view of the river, just the place to enjoy a drink from the mini-bar and reprise the morning&rsquos sights and scenes.
Lunch, buzzing with talk of the tiger, was by the side of the lodge&rsquos small pool, and featured a clear soup, kababs of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian persuasions accompanied by kulchas, kaali dal, matar paneer and then orange phirni for dessert. Chef Manish Tyagi&rsquos dinner (some of his ingredients sourced from the lodge&rsquos own gardens) was to outdo this almond and cardamom soup for first course, and then lamb biryani, chicken korma, sweet-and-sour brinjal and urad dal, all cooked dum-style. A nap naturally followed lunch, and then there was the option of a second trip into the jungle or a cup of tea, conversation and a bit of reading by the river or in the lounge till night fell and the sky became bright with stars. After dinner, the labours of the day brought sleep on quickly, and then again at daybreak there was the call of the wild.
Banjaar Tola offers a satisfying, comprehensive bouquet of experiences, although the scale of its energy consumption and its invitation to lavish water use seemed to me slightly in conflict with its claim of &lsquosustainable ecotourism&rsquo (luxury by very definition involves a touch of decadence). Of the establishment&rsquos many pleasures, the most striking is the quality and sociability of its safari staff. I took away memories not only of superb creature comforts and of close encounters with birds and beasts, but also of hours of good conversation about animal behaviour, tiger lore, conservation and migratory patterns, all well-digested because of the live presence of the subject matter. The lodge manages to be both school and sanctuary, gently ushering guests across states of happy relaxation and educative, well-supported and structured rambling. If the drive back to Nagpur seemed less arduous than the journey in, it was perhaps because it was a much more contented, pleasure-saturated person now going out.
Getting there Banjaar Tola can be accessed from two airports Jabalpur (175km) and Nagpur (266km). Kingfisher Red flies from Delhi to Jabalpur (from approx. Rs 4,000) and there are several flights to Nagpur (from approx. Rs 2,500). From Mumbai, there are several flights to Nagpur (from Rs 2,000). The lodge provides a car to drive guests from Nagpur airport to Kanha.
Banjaar Tola The luxury camp has 18 tented suites, divided into two camps of nine each.
Tariff Rs 32,000 in high season (January 1-April 15), Rs 30,000 (October-December), Rs 19,000 (April 16-June 30). The tariff is per person per night, and covers meals and drinks and the two daily safaris. Private safari vehicle costs extra.
There are currently also a couple of special packages on offer the Limited Jungle Plan at Rs 12,500 per person per night (till April 15), inclusive of all meals, non-alcoholic beverages, laundry, park fee, one safari per day and taxes and the Full Jungle Plan at Rs 15,000 per person per night, which includes an additional game safari every day. CONTACT 1800-111-825, 022-66011825, www.tajsafaris.com
When to Go Winters and early summer (December to April) are a good time to visit. Winter nights can be cold, so warm clothing is required, ideally in several layers since the day quickly grows warm. Banjaar Tola is closed during the monsoon months, from July to early October.
Where to see & do Extensive morning (6.30am-noon) and afternoon safaris (4pm sundown) in the national park fill up the entire day at Banjaar Tola, leaving time in between for lunch, drinks by the river and a nap. Meals massages (one to one-and-a-half hours long) that cost between Rs 2,500 and Rs 4,500.are long and luxurious, with three courses and a different menu every day of the week. The lodge has a safari shop, where a variety of books, garments and local handicrafts can be bought, and the sitting area has a small library of books on subjects like Indian wildlife, culture and weather patterns. The lodge also provides a range of head and body