April 1, 2020
Treat 3: the wildlife reserves of Madhya Pradesh and Sarai at Toria.
Just south of the Unesco Temples of Khajuraho on the edge of Panna Tiger Reserve is the owner-run lodge Sarai at Toria. Whilst everyone wants to see a tiger there is so much more to observe and absorb in these rural parts of central India. Here are some extracts from my notes to get you in the mood for a visit.
Sarai at Toria’s atmosphere is one of relaxed, faded rustic charm, and Joanna van Gruisen, who with her biologist husband Raghu set up the lodge some ten years ago, is similarly relaxed and understated in her welcome – a refreshing change from the sometimes almost overwhelming bonhomie of many Indian meet-and-greets!
After lunch in the cottage garden under the shade of a large East Indian ebony we re-group for an afternoon walk to the village. We pass fields of mustard, wheat and barley and cross over dried river beds; we wait for herds of emaciated buffalo driven by eight- or nine-year-old children, including a long-haired girl who wields a stick with gay abandon, to pass us; and we enter the village with its single-storey, white-painted adobe dwellings, their open porches giving onto immaculately swept courtyards.
Children cycle by on very impressive-looking bikes – donated by the government, we are told, so that they can access schools lying farther away. The sun is lowering as we amble back and casts a silvery sheen on seas of wheat.
A guide from the lodge intercepts us and insists we meet a local man who is employed to protect the crops but is renowned far and wide as a bone-setter. We visit his humble dwelling woven out of sticks with its bedroom loft and the piles of offerings he has been given in lieu of payments below.
The next morning on a nature drive we are told that it is highly unlikely that we will see a sloth bear, and yet moments later we spot one in the forest who crosses the road in front of us – a wonderfully shambling, shuffling black creature with a great bare snout. We then drive quickly to a spot where tigers have fairly recently made a kill and in quick succession see two cubs and their mother padding stealthily between clumps of grasses. We spot a jungle cat – and not long afterwards when up on higher ground we see a female leopard quite near us on the verge. All this in the space of an hour!
In the afternoon we go for a boat trip on the Ken River. We trek across the stones of the river bed to a rowing boat where an old boy from the village awaits us. He propels the simple vessel seemingly effortlessly across the water which is as smooth as a mill pond and remarkably clear without the slightest splash or jolt. We weave our way between islands of rocks which are browny-red topped and greyish white below – an indication of the height to which the waters rise after the monsoon.
The islands are covered in vibrant green reed and trees, and the vegetation on the banks looks lush and verdant. Our boatman says nothing except to announce the name of any bird he spots – ‘cormorant’, ‘robin’ – and we drift along in blissful silence. The boatman is expert at spotting a bird and then guiding the boat as close to it as possible without disturbing it, so we have brilliant sightings of kingfisher. A magically calm and soothing outing, miles away from the noise of the roads and heat of the forest.
There are a number of other special small properties where one can stay on a journey through the wildlife reserves of Panna, Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Pench and Satpura.
Pictures courtesy of Jack Merlin (Unsplash), Jay Patel (Unsplash), Syna (Unsplash) & Sarai Toria.
NB prices shown were current at the time of writing the newsletter and are not necessarily current now.
Please ask for an updated quote.
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