It’s 5am. I’m supposed to meet the naturalist only at 5.30 but I have woken up half-hour earlier and come out of my cottage to be by myself, outdoors, in the noisy silence of the jungle. I’d take this noise any day: I can hear the crickets, of course, and some other insects, and a few birds are up early. The wind is whistling through the trees. It sounds like it’s raining but I know by now that those are dewdrops. Occasionally, some animal yawns. There is layer upon layer of natural sounds and there is me — nothing else. This week has been beautiful.
When I had checked in at Singinawa Jungle Lodge a week ago and was told by the hotel’s naturalist, Yuddhishthir Daspan, that we have to start the next morning at 5.30, I wasn’t this peaceful. Waking at the crack of dawn has neither been my habit nor my idea of a holiday. Loosely, you can compare me with the sloth, though perhaps the latter would beat me in the desire to move. Neither was I too kicked about doing seven safaris in a week. I had agreed to that in a moment of madness, and now they were all booked and paid for. But even before I went on the first, I was determined to cancel at least a couple.
Though you can take your own car to the forest, the paperwork is long and tedious. The best thing to do in Kanha is to check in at a hotel and let them take care of the boring tasks. So Singinawa was my home for the week and there I was, up before the sun, driving in a grumpy silence towards the forest. I felt particularly cheated when the first rooster crowed almost an hour after I had woken up.
Anything I say about my first moments inside Kanha National Park will be inadequate. We drove quietly on the gravel path leading into the forest, which was covered almost entirely by towering sal trees. The path led deeper inside, on to thicker green areas, past waterbodies, bushes, grasslands, open meadows, bamboo thickets, and back to areas thickly covered with sal. At various points, the path turned left or right, and I felt certain that if we took one wrong step, I might end up trapped here forever. By the third safari, I was wondering if that was even a bad thing… I have been to other national parks in India and abroad but I have never seen one look so close to magical land — like Narnia come to life.
People who can recognise bird and tree species at a glance always impress me, and between Chain Singh, the forest guide, and Daspan, I was in good company. (You get assigned a guide at the park gate.) Over the week we spotted an overwhelming number of beautiful birds. The majestic Malabar pied-hornbill with its beautiful gliding flight; the tiny grey wagtail that kept taking short flights in front of the jeep; the stunning racket-tailed drongo that makes over 20 different sounds; the migratory Oriental turtle dove; the Indian scimitar babbler, which can be heard constantly through the forest, but is still a rare sight. There were tens of rare bird sightings, half of them I can’t recall names of, but they will all remain in my mind forever.
I also spotted many animals including the barasingha that Kanha is known to have conserved successfully. Apart from sal and bamboo, I came across local trees with comical names such as lendia , girchi and haldu . But my favourite moments were of stopping in one corner and listening to the sounds of the forest — that itself was worth waking up at 5am. On one such stop, we heard the barking deer alarm call and we, along with the entire forest, every bird and animal, sat silently, holding our breaths. The tiger was on the move. The energy was electric. The silence was so thick you could hold it in your hands.
The tiger is, no doubt, special but it is not the only rare sight in Kanha — there are extraordinary birds, and trees, and flowers, and other animals like the wild dog. Chasing the tiger can make you lose out on other beautiful gifts the forest holds. I learnt this at my expense as two Americans joined us on the second day; they had come determined to spot the tiger. The irony of this was obviously lost on them and, despite my pointing out quite plainly that the whole excitement of the tiger is in its elusiveness, they made Daspan race up and down the forest in the hope of being where someone else had seen or heard or thought they had heard the tiger. Two of my safaris were thus spoilt, rushing past all the beauty.
When they left, everyone heaved a sigh of relief and we went back to our slow meandering ways through the forest. Rain came and cancelled my last but one safari, making me — who had planned to skip two safaris — sad beyond words. I didn’t want to skip anything now, I wanted more and more. I realised that this is the right way to travel to a national park, not the hurried weekend trips that I would make earlier.
Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based freelance writer