Today we move on to our next tiger park in search of new safari pastures. The good thing about that, is that we don't have to be up at the crack of dawn to get to the park gates for 05:30 this morning. We can actually have a lie-in, and are woken at 7am by the barashinga deer shouting out a warning call to the other animals of an impending danger.
After breakfast it is time to say goodbye to Kipling Camp and the delightfully warm crew we have come to love. It is all very sad, but new adventures await us in Pench National park.
But first, the journey there. A road trip in India, especially in rural areas, is always an adventure in itself. I love photographing street scenes, and today's reoccurring theme is bullocks.
Pench 55 kms. We're on the map! Today is a five hour journey from Kanha to Pench, on mostly good roads with little traffic.
As we get nearer Pench, we turn off the main road onto country lanes through much more rural countryside.
Gotta love those telegraph poles.
It soon becomes blatantly obvious that Rakesh has no idea where he is going. It is also evident that the people he asks for directions also have no idea where he is going.
After stopping twice more to ask directions, we come across the entrance gate to the park. Although I cannot hear, nor understand, what they are saying, it looks to me something like “It's just over there, turn right then a few bends and then turn left. Seems simple to me.
The map below, which I photographed later on the wall in the lodge, shows how simple it really is. Or rather could have been.
We drive down through villages and the road does not seem that obvious. We stop again, and Rakesh asks an old man, who then comes up to the car and demands payment for – what turns out to be – giving us wrong directions.
We stop a couple of more times to ask different people, even flagging down a passing motorcyclist. We can see the type of person Rakesh chooses for his questions: well dressed, with an air about them that says the person has maybe been to school. Thankfully I printed out a list of all the hotel name and addresses before I left home, which was just as well, as Rakesh had not even been told where we were staying, let alone been given an address or directions; and out here in the sticks there is no mobile signal to phone the lodge even.
Each time we stop, we are sent in a different direction. We drive through some villages several times – I am sure we must have driven down every single road in this area by now. Twice, at least. Eventually we come across someone who reads the piece of paper with a look of recognition on their face. He sends us down a narrow country track, and we feel quite confident that this is the correct road, finally.
But no. It leads to a lodge, yes, but sadly not the one we are staying at. (It would probably have been a good move to pop in there and ask, but we didn't think about that at the time)
We drive around a few more country lanes, most of which we have already driven down at least once before.
The villages are getting to be rather familiar now, and I am sure I can see people laughing at us.
We reach another entrance gate to the tiger park, where three officials scratch their heads for a while, then write something in Sanskrit on my paper. Directions in Hindi, hopefully.
As you can see from the map, it really is a very easy journey from here. Of course, we don't have the map, and hindsight is a wonderful thing.
We cross the river for the fourth time. Or is it fifth? I feel intimately connected to each and every boulder by now.
This village looks awfully familiar. I begin to recognise individual people.
Rakesh shows the paper with the Hindu directions on it to a family who are just about to get on their motorbike. They nod and immediately start pointing. This is promising. I think the woman eventually says: “Follow us”, as that is exactly what we do.
We go through the same villages yet again.
Even the birds are looking bemused. I swear I can hear him tweet: “I am sure I have already seen that car at least five times this afternoon...”
We get stuck in a bit of a traffic jam (consisting of just us) at a construction site. The workers are not keen to move their vehicle for us to pass – they are busy unloading bricks, manually one by one it seems.
At an intersection the family we have been following dismount their bike and the austere and officious-sounding matriarch tells us to head off the road onto a very bumpy, not-really-suitable-for-this-sort-of-vehicle track. This is new territory to us this afternoon. How exciting!
After what seems like an eternity of pot-holed sandy track (also known as the 'Indian massage'), and a couple of little villages, we spot a very welcome sign. A big cheer goes up in the car.
Pench Tree Lodge
We are greeted at the reception with some refreshing wet towels with a difference: these are dehydrated into little 'tablets'; but with water sprayed on them, they come back to life! I have never seen this done before and I love it!
Another member of staff turns up with a tray full of powder for the traditional Indian blessing of bindi – a small red dot on the forehead.
The reception is a free-standing open area with some seating, maps on the wall, toilets and the office.
On arrival we are each given a rather splendid aluminium water-bottle (to keep, not just for the duration of our stay), and I am impressed by the bottle-filling station at the reception, using filtered water.
As it is already getting on into the afternoon, we go straight to lunch. A winding path leads from the reception to the restaurant, and although not far as such, it is considerably further than is normal for a lodge. You can barely see the restaurant from the reception area.
The path is pretty though, with some colourful grasses, a couple of small bridges and a pond.
Finally we can see the restaurant.
The restaurant is in another free-standing building on a raised platform, with two floors and an observation tower.
There is an outside covered terrace, and next to the main building is an inviting-looking infinity pool and changing room.
There are in fact two dining rooms, one either side of the kitchen.
The food is as classy as the rest of the establishment and beautifully presented.
After lunch, we are taken to our rooms, along another long and winding jungle path.
When I say rooms, these are in fact tree houses, some 18ft above the ground!
After climbing the stairs we are greeted with a small entrance hall, leading to another hallway connecting the bedroom, dressing room and bathroom.
Accessed through French windows from the bedroom is a large balcony overlooking the river – although the surroundings are fairly overgrown so you cannot see much. Lyn and Chris can see even less from their balcony.
Distant view from the balcony, through a very long zoom lens.
We sit outside for a while, looking out for birds (not many) and waiting for the sunset.
Female Plum Headed Parakeet
Red Vented Bulbul
The sunset is very much a non-event, as the sun turns into a red globe, then later simply dissolves into the mist.
I am woken up from a nice little snooze by a telephone call from reception: “We have dinner arrangements for you tonight, what time would you like to come?”
In order to get to our 'dinner arrangements', we have to walk past the restaurant to “meet in the welcome area”. From there we continue to the lodge's own Organic Farm, where a BBQ area has been set up. The path is very uneven, with gnarled roots and small trees in the way, and lit only by occasional lanterns and our torches.
The place is already full, and we are put on a table in the far corner. I had no idea there were so many people staying tonight, I haven't seen any other guests until now. The manager tells us they are all one group, from various countries, who have been on a cycling trip through the park.
We are all a little confused by what is happening, but the food just keeps arriving: salads, soup, small portions of grilled meat...
Again there is very little light, so it is quite hard to see what we are eating, and I am still rather full from our very late lunch.
The arrangements are all very well done, but have an atmosphere of being somewhat too formal for my liking, a complete opposite to our last three nights in Kipling Camp where we ate with the staff. We were also spoilt there, of course, by there being only two other guests, making it really personal and informal. I find this a little too impersonal and touristy. I have to confess that I find the whole eveing a complete waste of time and effort.
The mobile bar in an old hay cart
Despite the firepit near our table, we are all feeling a little chilly as the evening goes on. With no toilets down at the farm, we have to go back to the welcome area to use the facilities there, and we retire to the room for an early night as we have an even-earlier-than-normal start tomorrow.