The hills of the heart of India
Sitting on a Mac and writing about my experience at Pachmarhi and Satpura is quite a torrid affair. The experience of Pachmarhi and the Satpura range should have been written while walking through the forests, or lazing around eating Poha, or while almost dozing off under a Banyan tree, or while watching two Rockagama lizards battle it out in their quest for mating rites. To stare at a neat blank screen and pen this blog while the sun shines bright and the cars honk loud, is doing injustice to the forests and rivers of the region.
Honestly, I was smitten by this part of India. The Pachmarhi, Satpura and Bori sanctuaries that form part of the Satpura Tiger Reserve are now quite known – for the tigers of the Satpura Tiger Reserve and more for the leopards and Sloth Bears of the reserve. Towards the end of the May, with the park just about to close and the migratory birds having migrated back, it was more so. I had been to Satpura before. But that was again, on one of the walking safaris through the park where we could see Bison and the cheeky funnel spider.
This time promised to be different. We started off from Bhopal visiting the cave shelters of Bhimbetka enroute. To see how man is the planet’s biggest pest, you must travel to the closest human inhabited caves. Back in the day, there were rhinoceros, elephants, numerous tigers, and other huge mammals. As we devolved and brought in industry and greed, the rhinoceros and the elephants disappeared from this part of the land and the number of tigers shrunk. These days, they say that the number of tigers have increased. The cynic in you though, would think that this was a statistician’s trick.
We learnt that there were rhinoceros and elephants from the cave paintings in Bhimbetka that increased in complexity as man evolved and learnt more about tools and art. The line drawings turned to curves showing muscles and movement. The curves started depicting the ruffling of wind in the hair or the semblance of action. Today some art is moving back towards the lines in what seems like having come a full Karmic circle.
We ended our day at Pachmarhi – a haven for refugees from the heat of lower lying areas like Bhopal, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Pachmarhi is mild – a kind of mild that does not require you to turn on the air-conditioner in the day nor hide under a duvet in the evening – the right kind of mild. The small town with an army presence seemed quite neat – and as expected, the Government Hotels had the best location.
In the day, we decided to stay away from the waterfalls or the other tourist traps. I cannot imagine who would want to be there amongst the crowd munching on Lays and jumping into the water with wanton abandon. We decided to go for a hike. And nature had designed the perfect hike for us.
We started off near the cliffs of Pachmarhi gazing at Indian Vultures, their disgusting nests, and their graceful flights as they took to air looking for carrion and other sumptuous meals. Today, almost all species of vultures are bordering at extinction. Diclofenac, used for cattle health seems to be the primary cause. But vultures – graceful as they are in flight, need altitude and wind to take off – luxuries that are scarcely available when they are devouring roadkill. As a result, a lot turn into roadkill themselves. We will lose our vultures one day – one of nature’s scavengers. Others amongst nature’s beings will then succumb to disease as anaerobic bacteria take over the work of the scavengers.
We then went down the gorge to where the rivulets were flowing. Somewhere we heard a Malabar Whistling Thrush. One of our newer colleagues saw the thrush. When I heard about it, I could think of only the choicest of curses. Somewhere we looked for a red-whiskered bulbul. Above us, a Bonelli’s Eagle swooped down to catch prey. Life should have been more like that. I remembered a Facebook post where the author wished that the trees gave out wifi instead of oxygen so that we did not cut them down. It was an oft shared post. I couldn’t help chuckle at that.
The raw mangoes, with their tangy taste were out.
After breakfast, the trail wound around a bit and I lost my way a bit before a small uphill came. The day had turned hot and my shirt was drenched with sweat.
One of the reasons for the trek being perfect was half an olympic-sized swimming pool at the end of our trek. Just like the kids already there, we dove into the pool without thought for anything beyond. I did not even worry about taking off the shirt… or my glasses, and was worried half the time of them slipping off.
It was good to see that I wasn’t the only one. The eyes of all tired souls sparkled at the sight of the pool and almost in an instant, all worries of life were shrugged off. We then walked back our last stretch to the hotel – like children lounging around a tank and then returning home on a beautiful summer day.
The afternoon was then spent at the Interpretation Center of Pachmarhi before some thrills to be gotten Paragliding. The nights were Indian – in the sense that we were all supposed to don ethnicwear of a particular region of India.
After a night of revel, we moved down to Madhai, the beautiful lodge of Reni Pani and the village of Reni Pani. For ages, cooking over traditional stoves has been a problem. Due to incomplete incombustion, the stoves emitted a lot of smoke and women were specially affected by the smoke – with cooking almost being a synonym for coughing. We took some clean cooking stoves that funnel the fire, emit a fraction of the smoke, and burn less fuel. We went to 10 homes to show how the stove was run and then handed over a stove to each household. Some seemed enthusiastic – while some were skeptical. In India, the lowest income households have rarely been treated well – having to face hurdles for the smallest of administrative matters and showered with burdensome freebies during election campaigns. There have been reports of televisions being given to households without electricity and handpumps being given without having bored down to the acquifier. Villages thus remain skeptical. Hopefully, we have been able to convince them into using the stove and that “onboarding” would not be a challenge. It would be nice to travel a few months later to see how our efforts have been adopted.
A sumptuous lunch, and we were on our jeeps into the Satpura National Park. To enter the park you have to cross the Denwa water reservoir a dammed portion of the Denwa river that would be a heaven for birdwatchers arriving at the park in winter. We gazed as terns flew by and looked for pied kingfishers that we had seen the last time we were there.
Once in the park, I relaxed a bit. Though a tiger reserve, the tigers are quite well hidden and the park is better known for leopards and sloth bears. So no pressure. We could wait as long as we wanted as a Serpent Eagle posed and looked sternly at us. We could search and find the Mottled Wood Owls. We could wait near a lake for half-an-hour while a grand wooly necked stork stood and fed its chick.
But then our naturalist got a call (naturalists in Satpura are allowed to use their cell phones) and we rushed in time to see a mother and two cubs ambling through the woods, onto the tracks and then again in the woods. Sloth Bears are a sight to see – no matter what stage they are in life. The sights which always remain are the ones where you get to see a mother with its cubs lying across its back. But to see the cubs walking and playing around and the mother with its shiny coat looking happy as though singing “Bare Necessities”, was a nice sight in itself. We came out of Satpura exhausted, but running on pure adrenaline.
It’s always nice to be in nature and amongst nature’s creatures. There are instances there when you can forget about overdue bills, or pending deadlines, or revenue targets, and can just lie back on the rock – and enjoy being disconnected. Pachmarhi and Satpura are one of those places.