Ignore the cat call

It wasn’t the giraffes and the zebras which some tourists hope to find here or the tigers that make the Bandhavgarh experience special. The credit actually goes to the people manning Samode Safari Lodge, writes Nishiraj A. Baruah

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The blood is everywhere. The flesheaters pull out raw pieces of meat from the animal – it’s been dead for just a few hours now. The feeding frenzy over the carcass is unnerving. “Look Tara, vultures!” I tell my 5 year old, who looks wide eyed, her first sighting of these beastly birds. When I was her age, I literally grew up with vultures that hovered around the tea garden in front of my Dibrugarh (Assam) home everytime a cow, a dog or a goat died. I don’t get to see these scavengers anymore and it has been years that I now spot these near extinct birds. As we drive our way from the cute little railway station of Umaria to Samode Safari Lodge in Bandhavharh National Park, it is a gory sight for a morning.

By evening, things get worse. The 100 year old peepal (banyan) tree looks ominous and the 300 diesel-fuelled lanterns are not enough to puncture the pitch dark lanes of Samode. This, even as a woman commits suicide by jumping from the second floor window of an ancient bungalow. And a mysterious little boy, paper pale/near dead, is found seated, head down, on the pot of the bathroom. These two incidents – former from a horror novel called Lamplight and the later from Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep – freak us out so much that wifey is now even scared for a midnight visit to the ultra large bathroom (never mind the luxuries), the glass walls adding to the fear. The wooden floor creeks as she walks. “Pull the curtains,” she tells me. The jungle outside the large and cold glass panes is real and you never know what sinister forces lie beneath the deep dark. The jackals are howling and peacocks are on a full-throated cacophony throughout the night.

It is only in the morning that we settle down as the resort now reveals itself in all its green and brown glory: A woody, earthy affair built in the style of the local huts. Breakfast is under a tree. The open air restaurant serves spice-free fare as it caters to varied international tourists, but chef Shasat can whip out anything as per your requests, “as long as you don’t insist on paneer in every Continental meal”, like an Indian family did.

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Post breakfast, three olive green Scorpios are revved up for guests. We all climb in. But why just three when there are more seats left? “Oh, it’s the rule,” says Hitendra Singh Rathore (aka Hatsy), the Rajnigandha chewing naturalist. When the lodge introduced the comfortable Scorpios over the usual Maruti Gypsy, forest officials scripted a rule that since it’s a heavy SUV, only three passengers per vehicle will be allowed. “Dealing with forest officials is a pain. They impose too many restrictions,” he says. We spot dear, jackals and wild buffaloes, but as usual the tigers, which Bandhavgarh is known for, decides to play Yeti.

But who cares about the tiger really? I no longer go to Tiger Reserves to spot the stripes. I have never seen one and have no great expectations. I go for a forest holiday because of its ghost-stories-around-bonfire-over-booze-and-bar-be-cue experience. However, this time, it’s the people who are interesting. After all, Hatsy and his boys lead a far more fascinating life than ours. Besides, they and their colleagues are such a hospitable lot that you would be reluctant to venture out of the Lodge.

Articulate boarding school types – mostly from Mayo College (Ajmer), there are as many as six naturalistsall in their late 20s to late 30s. They have abandoned city life to settle down in this deep jungle. Two of them have just married and their wives have also settled down here to work as administrator or housekeeping in charge. They have their own Spartan quarters and when they get time off, they chat amongst themselves or cook for each other. In fact, they have their own kitchen garden and raise poultry. One day I find Hatsy slow cooking lal maans over an earthen oven (Chula). Sometimes friends come visiting.

And once when the resort owner Yadavendra Singh came visiting during his birthday, the staff had a surprise for him. “We were wondering what to gift him as there is nothing to buy in the jungle. Then we had an idea,” says Gauri, the manager. When Singh opened the gift box, he was in for a ‘fowl’ surprise. He was taken aback, but liked the gift, but left it there with a stern warning to the staff: “Don’t ever eat it!” So what was the gift? Why, a grand and majestic rooster, of course.

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Of course, the boys change colour as per the need of the hour. By day they don a sporty look in camouflaged pants, combat caps and binoculars, and by evening, they turn into a league of extraordinary gentleman. Dressed up in Jodhpours, bush shirts and bandhgalas, handlebar moustache firmly in place, they adopt the mannerism of an aristocrat. “They look good,” my wife eyes them approvingly and ignoring my arch eyebrows starts chatting up one of them. “Some tourist can be irritating or plain stupid,” I hear him telling her. “Why would anyone come to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and ask: ‘Are their giraffes here? What about zebras?’”

They also have a 4 month old Fox Terrier called Cloie – a pocket dynamite. Bought for Rs 45,000 “these dogs are ideal for farms and for hunting.” Easy to carry, they have strong sense of smell and often you would spot Cloie nosing about bushes and pawing porcupines –  is it an animal, is it a piece of dead wood or is it a thorny ball? He simply has to know. Cloie and Tara, sensing each others age, get along famously, and play catch-me-if- you-can.

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There is a lot actually for kids at the resort. Crayons and water colours in the room keep her busy. A black board has been promptly arranged when wife requests for one to complete school homework. Tara also wants to swim but the freezing water is recipe for cold. So, she now gets busy emptying all shampoo, cleanser and conditioner bottles on the stand-alone bath tub, works up a Tsunami of foam, and blows soap bubbles. Meanwhile, I cycle on the bumpy roads around the villages: The mud huts are neat; a 4 month old baby dangles from a saree hammock; cows and buffaloes are being milked; and tea is being brewed in a kettle over log fire.

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The simple living, the simple joys make Samode worth your stay. By evening the stars come so close that you don’t really need the powerful telescopes kept at the lobby for sky gazing. Technology, in fact, is a hurdle while enjoying nature. So why complain over nonexistent phone signals and email on snail at the Lodge! Wine and cheese follows, after which we are escorted out for dinner, which is always at a surprise location. Around a bonfire under a sprawling Banyan tree, we not only relish a great dinner but also enjoy a documentary on tiger poaching which bares the truth to such an extent that TV channels have refused to air it.

“The owner must be an interesting man,” says wifey. His choice of art and artifacts, the décor, the attention to details reveal an interesting personality. He is also a very lucky man. He has found the right people to man (and woman) the Lodge. Go there for them, not the tiger.

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Inspired by local architecture, Samode Safari Lodge is located in Tala range of Bandhavgarh, the only facility for stay in the area.

The suites or cottages are large and spacious with an open wooden deck with cherpoies to chill out and soak in the winter sun.

There is a spa as well.

Access

By air: From Jabalpur – a four hour drive; From Khajuraho – a five hour drive; From Umaria Airstrip – half an hour drive (only for private air charters). There are direct flights daily to Jabalpur and Khajuraho from New Delhi, Mumbai and Varanasi.

By train: We took the overnight Jat Durg SF Express from Safdarjang Station, New Delhi, at 3.20 pm and reached Umaria station at 6.43 am (this station is closest to the Lodge). There are daily trains to Katni and Umaria from most major cities. From Katni – a two hour fifteen minute drive; From Umaria – half an hour drive.

By road: From Jabalpur – a four hour drive; From Khajuraho – a five hour drive; From Kanha national park –  a five hour drive.
Best way to enjoy a Samode holiday is to visit with a bunch of friends. But mind you, there will be no DJ music here. Bandhavgarh is for the serious minded.

Address
Samode Safari Lodge, Village Mardhari, Post Dhamokar, District Umaria – 484661, Madhya Pradesh. Tel: 00-91- 7653280579; Email: pawan@samode.com

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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