Rising excitement was palpable as we hauled our luggage and made our way towards the log hut. The logged cabin was reserved for the next two days. The striking rays of the sun beamed down through the scattered trees above. We could hardly feel its heat as the winter wind caressed us. The self-contained log hut was a single storied outfit with sloping metallic tin sheets that were held together by a central cemented ridge which ran across the roof-line.
Stone walls met the wooden structure making it secure. Heavily iron grilled windows from the inside covered with hard glass looked out towards the forest. The roof was painted white and reflected the sun rays to form a dazzling effect. The next log house was about one hundred meters away.
When we entered the house, the innards of the edifice made us speechless. A master bedroom with an attached toilet lay on one side. The other side had a small space with a refrigerator and TV. The linen and the bed sheet with its colorful floral designs complemented the light yellow walls that went all the way up and met a white ceiling which had a single motionless fan.
Unbuckling our shoes, we jumped backward on to the bed and soft sheet consumed us with its coziness. Being famished beyond words, we refreshed and headed for the forest bistro which was about three hundred meters away to get some morsels to the tired souls. The uneven pathway was fringed by the forest with sal trees hovering above.
Little did we know then how the very same walk would be when the sun melted away.
The buffet lunch was wholesome and extremely tasty. About ten different dishes were of purely Indian origin, mainly comprised of rice, ‘chapatis‘, vegetable curry, chicken, and mutton. The sweet dish was a chocolate pudding, the flavor still sticks even after so many years. The minute hand of my watch was nearing the digit ‘6’ after two in the afternoon. It meant we were about thirty minutes from boarding the forest vehicle that will start its first round into the forest.
Anticipation, coupled with the forest sounds all around made us numb with a sort of nervous happiness. On our way back to get our jackets, water bottles, camera, we had our first glimpse of few wild animals roaming aimlessly. A stream flowed past the broken road with low bushes around its bank. Huge sized brown bison with tufts of white on their legs were seen grazing the undergrowth. Numerous spotted deer ran among the parked cars and Jeeps and they looked comfortable with the humans.
I asked the manager and he gave the reason – the deer know that the moving cars, human activities and light formed a safety net for them as the roaming predators would think twice before they hound them down amidst the humans. We were ready to leave for the central forest which was deep and big.
The forest vehicle was the trusted Maruti Gypsy, 4×4 which meant the car could tackle slushy and muddy roads as we would be venturing into the forest unevenness. High ground clearance will let it climb and descend jagged roads and ditches. Most importantly, petrol engine makes less sound, no chance of scaring away animals is nonexistent.
We clambered into the Gypsy. We had two people who tagged along – the driver and a forest guide, who was supposed to have immense knowledge and perhaps be trusted to show us the wilderness in its completeness.
I sat in the rear seat with my team up front. The soft topped Gypsy rumbled along the dusty and dried muddy road. Winter had dried it completely. Trees of all kinds stood like bystanders and waved in the morning breeze.
Kanha is a beautiful forest where one can witness the variety of trees in their full glory. Virgin grasses that stretched miles out towards the horizon. Huge expanses of land climbed over small hillocks and fell as the Gypsy drove along the two white lines in front.
The cacophony of birds and other animals transported us to a world of natural wonders.
A botanist would find this a treasure trove. The sketch of the forest was so brilliantly sculpted by nature, a layman like me remained enthralled with the sheer greenness, the towering sal trees and the interplay of colors.
Animals interestingly, become secondary seeing the vivacious flora.
After about an hour’s drive, the sun climbed high above. Beads of sweat lined our forehead. At every turn of the trees, we swung our heads from side to side, to catch any movement.
The Gypsy moved along the uneven track at a snail’s pace. The engine hardly making any note.
We covered this section very slowly when the driver’s reaction suddenly changed. Did he sense something? He switched off the engine and the vehicle rolled along an incline under gravity. He asked us to remain quiet. Apart from some bird calls, we did not hear anything different.
The sound of the wind through the trees perhaps hid ..was it a barking, or short squeaks. The Gypsy came to a halt as the road leveled off. Alim started her up and we climbed and turned as the road took a sharp right and then we come across a large waterhole.
We saw few animals yonder, grazing, and drinking.
We came across innumerable termite hills. They all looked like decayed tree trunks with the upper part narrowing up like a church spire.
Not far away from the pond, we got our first awakening of the presence of a predator. We had missed the big cat by a whisker.
Alim showed us the fresh pug marks that were large and ingrained on the dusty road we were driving on.
We had spent by now about two and a half hours. The western horizon and the trees that lined were glowing far more than they did in the morning.
The sun was about an hour away from ushering in the night and before that happened, the forest went on painting canvas after canvas of great views.
We drove further east and then skirted Kanha’s central grasslands, made a U-turn and went back towards the Kisli gate. Our first day’s excursion of the park dwindled.
We may not have seen the big cat, or any other members of the feline family; however, the forest was strikingly gorgeous.
To us, it seemed, the supreme creator had bestowed the districts of Mandla and Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh with overflowing natural beauty. We bumped along the track.
The silence of the jungle was punctuated by sudden drone of bees, or chirping of the birds returning to their respective trees for the night.
With a heart full of optimism, we planned to come back to Kanha the next day; however would be going to a different locale near Mukki. We had one full day to cover and two Gypsy trips were reserved to be with this great forest.
What unfurled would take your breath away…