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PARTNER CONTENT FOR MADHYA PRADESH TOURISM


Light reflecting off their antlers glows halo- like, and groups of grey langurs sit like fat old men around their feet, bellies out, legs splayed, basking in the sun. “Where you find monkeys, you


find deer,” Uday tells me. “They’re the scouts of the wilderness, and the tigers’ mortal enemy.” I watch as a large male closes his eyes


and gives his crotch a good itch. It doesn’t scream lookout, but before I can comment, Uday pulls the car to a skidding stop and examines an ebony tree. Deep slashes run like open wounds up its trunk — the work of a tiger marking its territory. “The dominant male in this area is very


protective,” he says, stroking the scarred tree. “Last year, he killed two trespassing cats and ate their bodies.” Suppressing a shiver, I listen as Uday


recounts a comical tale of trundling after his father through Kanha’s bush as a boy, plastic binoculars hanging from his neck, a book on birds clutched in his hands. Images of tiger hunting tiger linger in my imagination, but I remind myself it’s something to be thankful for. These territory disputes come about as a result of rising population numbers — this is survival of the fittest.


Wild and wondrous The cry echoes sharp and urgent through the canopy. It bounces off the oak trees and reverberates through the underbrush, setting hairs on the back of my neck tingling and goosebumps running up my arms. “Tiger,” Vineith hisses. “Up ahead. The


langurs have sounded the alarm.” Until now, the tiger has stalked my


travels from the shadows, existing tantalisingly in paw prints, claw marks and local’s tales, but when I see one for myself, stories evaporate and all I can do is stare, transfixed by the flames that seem to ripple up his flank, the eyes that promise infinite patience and the muscular limbs so versed in the art of stealth and surprise. We’re in Satpura National Park, where


Vineith works as a naturalist, and the magnificent nine-month-old male is less than 50 metres away. He sits perfectly still in the long grass, watching us as we watch him. Then, an eternity later, or 10 minutes, or somewhere inbetween, he yawns an enormous, exaggerated yawn. “You’re boring me,” he seems to say, and, stretching luxuriously, turns and slinks out of sight. India’s wildlife is extraordinary and


diverse, but it’s the Bengal tiger that truly defines this country, ever-present in its art, architecture and religious symbolism. However, for the Gond tribe, living in villages on the fringes of Madhya Pradesh’s forests, it’s also an animal that has a huge


impact on day-to-day life. The hope of glimpsing a tiger draws travellers to India from across the globe and, as the tourism industry grows, many Gonds now work as guards or guides — like Ramavtaar — or in safari lodges close to the parks. For centuries, they’ve coexisted harmoniously with the jungle, harbouring an innate knowledge of the plants and animals with which they share this space. “It’s their forest,” Vineith says simply. This is the final stop on my tour of India’s


wild, wondrous heartland, and as we leave the park, it becomes apparent that Vineith’s love of the wilderness is matched only by his desire to become a racing driver. The jeep launches over bumps and flies across potholes, passing the Gond’s squat blue- and-white houses in spiralling plumes of dust and sand. I’m invited for lunch in one of these


homes the following day, the smoky aubergine chulha, creamy daal, catfish curry and warm, fresh-baked bati (dough balls) all spiced with centuries of tradition. Beyond the garden, a small boy laughs as he rolls a tyre down a dusty path, women raise water from a stone well and farmers sit on stilted platforms to protect their crop from boar, bears and deer, their cattle from big cats on the prowl. For Madhya Pradesh’s Gond tribe, the


wild isn’t something viewed from the comfort and safety of a safari truck. It’s a reality, a force to respect and to reckon with. When I head into the jungle for the last time, it’s on foot and, suddenly, the trees seem taller, the air closer and the possibility of coming face-to-face with a tiger is spine- tinglingly real. “A young male is just establishing


his territory here,” Vineith says cheerfully. “He uses that grassland over there to stalk. Oh, and try to stick to the track — we have a good population of saw-scaled snakes here. They’re deadly, and one of the fastest striking reptiles in the world.” Thankfully, no matter how much I scan


the forest floor, I see only gnarled roots and dead leaves, and fungus growing in strange, supernatural shapes. We pause to examine a pile of fresh dung: “Spotted deer,” says Vineith. “See how it’s cylindrical? Sambar deer poo is round — tastes sweeter, too.” Laughing a deep, chin-wobbling laugh, he


strides on, the jungle swallowing him up in an instant. I linger behind, lost in wonder at this intricate ecosystem, my fingers brushing past coarse teak leaves and the silky smooth bark of a ghost tree. I peer at some speargrass swaying innocently in the afternoon breeze. Perhaps a tiger walked there this morning; perhaps he’s napping in there now; or perhaps he’s watching my every step, coveting my scarf, and contemplating his next move.


Essentials


Getting there & around: Various airlines offer direct flights to Delhi from Heathrow or Gatwick, including Air India. It’s then a two- hour hop to Jabalpur, the gateway to Madhya Pradesh’s parks. Average flight time: 14h It’s possible to traverse the state by train, but a driver may be easier. Prices are around £500 a week, and cars can be organised through the Transport Department of the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation. E: transportsectionbpl@mp.gov.in


When to go: October-February is dry, with temperatures around 25C (dropping to as low as 5C at night). By April, temperatures can get to 40C; this is the best time to see wildlife, as animals gather around waterholes to keep cool. Parks close during the monsoon, typically from July-September.


Places to stay: Kings Lodge, Bandhavgarh Blending into the surrounds, this beautifully designed lodge is all dark wood and earthen tones. Lantern-lit pathways lead to the 18 cottages, where walls are hung with Gond artworks. From £121 a night. kingslodge.in


Courtyard House, Kanha For those after luxury on a smaller budget, this is an excellent option. The hotel has a homestay feel, albeit one with a pool, fire pit and sun-drenched courtyard. There are only four rooms, meaning getting to know the other guests is a given. From £121 a night. courtyardhousekanha.com


Forsyth Lodge, Satpura All eight rooms at this lodge are beautiful and enormous, with several featuring an upper level allowing guests to sleep under the stars. The nightly-changing menu is delicious, inventive and locally sourced. Nighttime and walking safaris are offered, plus there’s the option of a three-day camping trip through the Satpura Mountains led by Vineith, the head naturalist. From £205 a night. forsythlodge.com


For more information on lodges visit mptourism.com


To find out more, visit mptourism.com


IMAGES: GETTY; ALAMY


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