A Wildlife Holiday With a Side of Heritage

In a state that has 9 wildlife parks and one of the highest concentrations of the Royal Bengal Tiger in the world, Madhya Pradesh leaves wildlife enthusiasts spoilt for choice. Panna and Satpura are lesser known and easy to miss, hidden in the shadows of the more famous Kanha and Bandavgharh national parks. The upside? With limited jeeps allowed in and fewer visitors, it makes for a more intimate and personal experience.

Straddling the border, Panna National Park and Tiger Sanctuary is home to natural teak forests at the northernmost tip in MP, and stretches into the southernmost part of the  deciduous Upper Gangetic plain of north India. This rare geographic location has blessed it with a unique topography and flora, setting it apart from the other parks and forests clustered in Madhya Pradesh. Spread over three plateaus interspersed with several ridges and gorges, the flat dry expanses are great observation decks, though the tall grass does hide its famed inhabitants. Drives are permitted on two plateaus, and there are the usual clusters of deer, langurs lazily eyeing us from tree tops, Nilgai and the occasional wild boar.

Her lithe, sinewy form sauntered down the clearing in front of us; a sight that never fails to thrill no matter how many times you witness it.

Panna National Park is a fantastic conservation revival story; the tigers were almost poached out of existence. Today, their numbers are thriving; though there’s enough room for more. Home to nearly three dozen tigers, it’s all thanks to forest officials, guides and locals who are working together to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

The guides are all locals and passionate about their forests. Their training and intimacy is evident as we navigated the designated pathways. Despite the vastness of the park and relative paucity of tigers, we were fortunate to encounter the daughter of T2, one of the female tigers who was relocated to Panna from another park in MP. It was a clear sighting, her lithe, sinewy form sauntered down the clearing in front of us; a sight that never fails to thrill no matter how many times you witness it . Around you, the forest silent till that moment, comes back to life.

A Lapwing perches on one of the many rock formations on the smooth reflective Ken river. • Image Credit: Hoshner Reporter

But, as any guide will tell you, the jungle is much more than just the tiger and it’s hard to disagree. Whether it was chancing on a massive ghariyal basking in the mid-morning sun by the Ken River or our first sighting of the pale great Indian vulture, the wonders of Panna are many.

The Ken or Karnavati river, a lifeline for the region, runs through the park and onwards, forming a natural barrier to the core area in parts. At one end of the buffer zone is the Ken Ghariyal Wildlife Sanctuary. The vegetation around the river is lush and green which flows past the eco-lodge we were staying at, Sarai at Toria. A short walk down from the Sarai (ancient Persian for inn), the river was placid as we slowly glided across in a canoe. The clear waters had small, picturesque islands of smooth rocks and boulders. Around us the smorgasbord of birds had us delightfully distracted. From the striking blue roller to storks, herons, darters, lapwings and brilliantly coloured kingfishers, it was incredible. While Hoshner is the true-blue wildlife enthusiast between us, this time I was hooked. The still waters, the gentle voice of our boatman, and the thrilling proximity of the birds had me mesmerised.

Spread over 12 acres, Sarai at Toria is a luxury eco-resort that lives up to the moniker of being truly environment friendly as well as a perfectly run wildlife lodge. Solar power, biogas in the kitchen, plus, their staff is mostly local – generating employment and ownership. It helps that the hosts, Raghu Chundawat and Joanna van Gruisen, a wildlife scientist-photographer team, are wedded to the forest and region around. They probably know the jungle better than most and when asked will tell you stories of tracking and naming tigers, mapping the park here in Panna and conservation work in MP and other parts of the country. They bring their grounded earthy ideals and sensibilities to the eight spacious mud and thatch cottages, all built using traditional local materials in rustic shades, with all the modern amenities we’ve come to expect. Walks are aplenty, and for those looking for something beyond the jungle, the Bundelkhand region is rich in culture and history, making Sarai the perfect caravan stop.

The wonderful Sarai at Toria combines a sustainable luxury philosophy with warm service and a deep knowledge of Panna. • Image Credit: Hoshner Reporter

Short of an hour’s drive from the lodge is the stunning Khajuraho group of temples, a UNESCO site that needs little introduction. But closer to the lodge are smaller lesser known temples, palace ruins and forts of Bundeli and Mughal heritage, and make for fascinating tours and visits, all of which can be arranged through Sarai. As summer reaches its peak, the grass brittles and dwindles and animals frequent watering holes in the park, mornings are favoured for safaris and hopeful sightings. Bringing history and wildlife together, Panna makes for a great summer vacation, with evenings spent sipping a tall cool drink over the River Ken.

Know Before You Go:

Getting there: Panna National Park is located in northern Madhya Pradesh, about 45 kms away from Khajuraho, the nearest rail head and airport.

Wildlife: The park is closed during the monsoon, from July through October. The official website has all the details regarding timings. You can book a safari via the website, or through your hotel.  https://forest.mponline.gov.in/Index.aspx

Where to Stay:  Panna has a number of beautiful stay options for a variety of budgets, including Sarai at Toria where you not only get to relax in a beautiful, luxurious, eco resort right by the Ken river, but also get to spend time with Raghu and Joanna, leading wildlife experts, both of whom have worked extensively on studying and conserving Panna’s tiger population.

Ambika Vishwanath loves stories and believes that there is one to be found around every corner in India. She is the co-founder of The rediscovery Project and is always happy to swap experiences over coffee or whiskey.

Hoshner Reporter is a travel and documentary photographer and co-founder of The rediscovery Project. He is currently working on a long term project focus on capturing the history and culture of India, through its people, festivals and monuments.

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