The warm afternoon sun, the sweet chirp of a golden oriole and the soft rustle of mahogany leaves – this is how nature greeted me as I entered Pench Tree Lodge. When I first set foot in my fancy tree house, I was worried that the pristine elements of the natural world would be screened off from my room. Perhaps I would see nothing of what Mowgli of the famed Jungle Book saw. But I was elated to discover how wrong I was. My suite, in the remote precinct of central India, was a picture of man’s harmony with Mother Earth!
The House Nestled in a Tree
After a long drive, I had found myself the middle of nowhere. I forgot how hot it was when a wait-staff offered me a cold napkin and a glass of chilled watermelon juice. The resort manager, Amit Mukherjee, extended a warm welcome and explained the ethos of this environmentally sustainable estate. Pugdundee Safaris’ latest offering in Pench is an eco-conscious retreat spread across 36 acres of greenery. The property is quaint and exclusive as there are only 6 tree houses, built on wooden stilts with bounteous trees all around. I let the rustic exteriors fool me into thinking my suite would be simple and bare, without any frills. However,I got a pleasant surprise as I climbed up three flights of wooden steps and unlocked the illusive, plain-looking door – the interiors were opulent!
Splendour in Every Facet
The passageway was lined on both sides by wooden slabs – one held an elegant lamp and a pair of torches (so I wouldn’t be afraid to step out at night), and the other had an array of fragrant teabags neatly stacked alongside an electric kettle, a water flask and two steel bottles. Further ahead, the open closet had enough hooks and hangers for me to get my world out of my suitcase. I changed out of my wedges (my feet had started to complain) and into the comfy grey room slippers before I took a tour of the tree house.
Frosted glass doors opened into a beautiful bedroom with mood lighting. My four poster wrought iron bed looked inviting with half a dozen fluffy cushions carefully placed on the impeccably-white sheets. A handwoven rug separated my bed from the writing table. On the other side of the room was a coffee table and a settee with cushions in all imaginable colours and sizes.
The bathroom was spacious, with stylish bath fittings and its own window to the view outside. The shower area had a stone floor and bath toiletries with a faint scent of lemon grass. I did not expect the bathroom to have its own fan. That only added to all the luxuries. Insect repellent machines ensured that flies and roaches would not try to get too friendly with me. There was more to my cosy chamber.
Window to the World
Cotton blinds hid floor-to-ceiling glass doors to the balcony. I spent the afternoon retiring in a chair in the balcony, a mug of cold beer in my hand, enjoying the sounds of nature. I saw parakeets flutter past the grills, heard the cacophonous call of babblers, and even saw a lone jackal walking somewhere in the distance.
Walking in the Village
On my first evening in Pench, we drove to Suktara village to see the local haat (flee market), quite famous for its silver jewellery. What really piqued my interest, however, were the bucolic sights I saw on the way – a dhoti-clad farmer taking his bulls to till his land, cows ambling about on the fields and grazing on grass, and brick and straw roofed houses with sun-bleached limestone walls. The ascetic, uncomplicated village life enamoured me.
In Search of the Big Cats
On this trip, we went on two tiger safaris – one in the afternoon, and the other, early morning. They say, you need luck to spot the majestic beasts of the Pench forest. If that is indeed true, then I must have had bucket loads of it! On the safari in the afternoon, I spotted the famous tigress – Collarwali, named after the now-defunct radio collar that she wears. She looked so graceful as she walked out of the thicket and stooped to drink from a pond! She then sat inside the shallow pond and walked towards the road, half her body now grimy from the muddy water. Not long before, one of her female cubs (from her second litter) had taken the same path. She crossed the road as scores of human-eyes from a dozen safari jeeps watched her without blinking. She soon joined her daughter and with a raised tail, marked the area with the spray of her urine. My day was made!
Next morning, we went on a longer safari of 6 hours. As we waited to glimpse a tiger, I pondered on how enchanting the very forest was. There were teak and mahogany trees, and the albino-like ghost tree which is said to glow on full-moon nights. Exotic birds such as the multi-coloured Indian pitta, kingfishers, barbets, hornbills, treepies, nightjars, peacocks and the Indian roller brought the forest alive with their unique calls. I sighted many jackals, wild dogs, wild boars, spotted deer, gaurs, langurs and rhesus monkeys. We were fortunate again that morning to spot Collarwali, this time, with two of her cubs!
Stories in the Night
The moonlight can turn any jungle into a poetic hideaway! For the better part of my stay, I had the opportunity to interact with the director of Pugdundee Safaris – Manav Khanduja. Over glasses of wine, beer and mahua (the local alcohol, brewed from the eponymous flower), he took me through his journey of starting and managing all of his wildlife luxury estates. He was accompanied by Karan Rana, a naturalist from Nepal who told us many a story of how he braved the wild. I met another interesting naturalist – Chinmay Deshpande, who took us on a night trek around the property in search of snakes. We did not find any, but we did see civets, spotted doves roosting in the trees, damselflies, spiders in their webs and beetles.
I stayed at the Pench Tree Lodge for a total of three days, and not one meal failed to delight me! The kitchen staff here takes care of your dietary choices just as your own family would. Pankaj, the head chef, is the mastermind behind all the delectable dishes that are expertly plated and brought to your table for you to devour on. Across eight meals and even more courses, I was served creative Indian and continental fares ranging from pumpkin and pomegranate soup, assorted lentil dals, parathas, phulkas, pasta and baba ghanoush to oreo-chocolate souffle, pistachio kulfi, mango custard and strawberry compote with musk melon ball.
Of all the dining experiences during my stay, two remain very special for the setting. On the day we had a morning game drive, our breakfast was laid out in the middle of the Pench Forest Reserve! Vegetable rolls and potato-and-egg tarts never tasted so good! Our last dinner at the property was another exquisite affair – we dined under the stars in the shade of a giant mahogany tree. It looked incredibly romantic with umpteen kerosene lamps hanging from the branches of the tree and lighting up the forest in an ethereal glow. I will never forget that night.
What to Know before you Go
- The Pench Tree Lodge is accessible only through road. The nearest airports and railway stations are at Jabalpur (3 hours away) and Nagpur (3.5 hours away).
- Best time to visit is mid October to June.
- They provide Firefox bicycles which you can ride around the property and on the roads around.
- There is no lift or wheelchair access. You must be fit enough to climb a couple of flight of stairs to your tree house and also to the tree-top lounge at the dining area.
- It can get quite hot in the summers, so pack scarves, hats or caps to protect yourself from the sun.
- Carry insect repellent gels and sunscreen lotion (SPF 40 upwards).
- Despite the precautionary measures (food is strictly prohibited inside the tree houses), I found insects in my room and even saw a rodent dart about at night!
- Regardless of all the unpleasant and scary elements of the forest, this place is truly a plush escape, suitable for adventurous, romantic and family holidays!
For reservations, click here.