Thursday, 2nd January, 2020
It was 8 am, I looked down from the airplane window and saw a storm taking shape. I hoped to see a city and an airport runway but all I could see were these thundering grey clouds. My flight kept circling high above those clouds. Somewhere underneath that thick blanket of clouds was Nagpur airport. Just half an hour ago a peek outside the window had revealed a bright sunny sky but the weather had changed drastically since then. It was very highly unlikely to see rain in India in the month of January. But the weather is changing rapidly all across the globe. I was more disappointed with the rain for a particular reason and that reason was ‘Tigers’. I was landing in Nagpur to travel to Kanha Tiger reserve, situated in Madhya Pradesh. But the untimely rains meant that the tigers would go back into the core jungle to keep themselves warm. The tigers come out of the jungle mostly in the hot and dry season. Even though January is not a particularly hot season for tigers to come out of jungles but it is a suitable season for me to travel out of the concrete jungle. December and January are my favorite months to travel in India as the weather is much more supportive for long travels. Let me go back a few days and explain how this solo travel plan took shape.
Coming Back Home after 30 months
I was going back home after 2 ½ years. In the summer of 2017, I moved to Canada. It was my first visit home ever since. Since the year 2007, I had spent every December travelling somewhere in India, and a few years ago I had acquired a taste for solo travelling. I was itching to do a solo trip when I made my booking to go back to my homeland. In the last 2 ½ years in Canada, I did manage to make one solo trip during which I was also making my very first vlog on it, but since the trip came to an abrupt halt due to an unfortunate event, I didn’t write about it. This was my trip from Montreal to Vancouver, from east coast to west coast of Canada.
Why did I choose to travel to Madhya Pradesh? It has to do with a preconceived notion I had about the state that it is a cultural capital of India. And also, I was very impressed with the Madhya Pradesh tourism advertisements. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have some of the best tourism advertisements in the entire country. Since I had already travelled to Rajasthan in 2009, I was longing to see the cultural capital this time. I believe, since MP (Madhya Pradesh) is situated exactly in the center of the country, it has little bit everything from all the neighbouring states, be it the food, costumes, lifestyle or languages. I think that is what has contributed to MP becoming the cultural capital. Even though it is not officially recorded to be the cultural capital, it is a broadly spoken aspect of MP as agreed upon by many travellers in India. And as I write this blog, I’m one of them to believe this to be true.
So I landed in Mumbai in the early morning of 2nd December 2019. After spending the first few weeks catching up with family and friends I started finalizing my solo travel plans. I got in touch with my very old friend Kumar Sambhav. He is a native of Bhopal, MP. We had started our careers together in the animation industry and after a few years, he had moved to his own town to start his own animation studio. I told him that I’m planning to visit MP and couldn’t think of travelling there without visiting him. He liked the idea and offered to help me out with the travel plans. Even though I was planning to start the trip in December, I ended up postponing the trip to January just to avoid the usual crowds. And it sure did work in my favour.
My initial plan was to travel to Aurangabad, Maharashtra first, to visit Ajanta and Ellora caves which had been lingering on my list for ages. I got in touch with another good friend of mine Sachit Deshpande, who happens to be from Aurangabad. He told me about the bad road condition of Ajanta caves. The highway construction that goes via Ajanta caves had been going on for the past few years without any significant progress. Instead of repairing the road patch by patch, the road construction authorities decided to work on the entire route at the same time. I went online to see the reviews of travellers travelling to Ajanta caves and was disappointed to see many complaints about the commute. The route which should be covered in 2 hours was taking upto 7-8 hours of travel time and hence travellers were getting very little time to see the actual site. Considering this, I cancelled my plan of Aurangabad and decided to go to MP straight.
The beauty of solo travelling is that I only have to decide the places I want to visit. The numbers of days for each place and the actual dates can be completely flexible. I don’t even make bookings in advance. I mostly book my travel and accommodation just a day before. This allows me the freedom of extending my stay if I like the place very much. And the unpredictability of the travel plans gives me a sense of adventure.
I had heard of ‘Bandhavgarh National Park’ as one of the best spots to see tigers in their natural habitat. Many of my friends and colleagues had been to the place and clicked amazing photographs of this magnificent creature. Few weeks before my journey I was paid a visit by my friend Satish Amberkar. I call him Satish sir as he is elder to me. I met him during the SOS (Save Our Sahyadri) campaign in December of 2016. Satish sir along with his other two friends had travelled the entire globe on a bicycle in the year 1983. His marathi book ‘Don Chaka Zapataleli’ is a narrated story of the same adventure trip in the world without internet, GPS and google maps. He is also an avid nature lover and photographer. When I told him that I’m planning to go to Bandhavgarh to see tigers, he gave me an advice to skip Bandhavgarh and go to a homestay near Kanha which he came to know about recently. Bandhavgarh, being widely known across nature lovers and wildlife photographers, is almost always busy throughout the year. Therefore I liked the idea of staying in a homestay, away from any city or villages and close to nature. When I visited the website of this homestay ‘Animal Kingdom’, I straight away sent in a query to make booking for several days. I had to make sure that the homestay was available during the days of my visit. After a few email exchanges, I managed to get myself a confirmation for the booking.
Back to the main story
Now, let’s get back to the main story. My plane landed at the Nagpur airport after circling in the sky several times. It landed far from the terminal and hence there was a bus waiting for us right outside the plane. Just in a short sprint from the flight to the bus I was soaked in the rain. I received a call on my cellphone while I was waiting for my bags. Swapnil Chaudhary was calling me from the terminal waiting area. I had told him that I was landing in Nagpur to go to MP. He had come to the airport to see me. We both had worked together in the same animation studio for several years. In the year 2012, Swapnil me and other close friends of mine had come to Nagpur to make a trip to Hemalkasa especially to meet Dr. Prakash Amte. Swapnil left the animation industry long ago and now owns his own business and is running it successfully. I was also expecting Deep, a guy from the ‘Animal Kingdom Homestay’ team. Deep was going to pick me up from the airport in his car and take me to the Animal Kingdom Homestay in Kanha, MP. I received a second call and this time it was Deep. Swapnil and Deep, both were waiting for me outside the terminal. The rain was pouring as if it was a peak monsoon season. Swapnil insisted that I had breakfast at his place and then continued with the journey ahead. I agreed to the plan. I had been to his place before. We all had made a stop at Swapnil’s place before travelling to Hemalkasa on our last visit. I asked Deep to follow Swapnil’s car. Deep had to go and pick up a friend of his who was also going to accompany us at the homestay. This friend of Deep was also the son of the homestay owner. I had hot tea and breakfast at Swapnil’s place. Met his parents, kid, wife and brother. Swapnil explained to me everything about his business. We had a long conversation about the old days and our trip in 2012. The forest department of Nagpur is also one of the Swapnil’s clients and hence he knows many forest officers. Swapnil offered me to help plan my next visit in Nagpur especially for tiger sightings. I bid goodbye to the Chaudhary family as Deep and his friend Sarthak were waiting for me downstairs. The heavy rain had now turned into a light drizzle but Nagpur city had already started to flood. It was 10 in the morning, Deep introduced me to Sarthak and three of us sat in the Swift Dezire and started our journey towards Kanha, MP.
It was going to take us six hours to reach the homestay. The rains had turned the skies grey and dull. We travelled through many towns and villages, hills and crossed the Maharashtra border and entered Madhya Pradesh. After driving for 5.5 hours, we had lunch at a small town named Balaghat in MP at around 1 pm. On the route we also picked up some local fruits to eat while travelling. We still had around 100 kms to cover. We travelled through the Baihar forest region and made a quick stop at the town called Baihar to pick up some groceries requested by the homestay cook. We spent a considerable amount of time at the grocery shopping and by then I had made friends both with Deep and Sarthak. Deep was the guy I was having correspondance with for homestay bookings. Since Deep’s father and Satish sir are friends, Satish sir had already told Deep about me. Deep had started addressing me as sir since our first conversation on a phone call and I insisted not to call me sir. Even though I asked him to call me by my name, both Deep and Sarthak had now started addressing me as dada, which means elder brother.
After finishing the shopping at Baihar we left for the homestay. By 4:15 pm we reached the homestay. The route to the homestay was a complete off road. We even drove through a small water stream and a rocky patch. Deep was skillfully driving the car on the route even though the car wasn’t made for off-road driving. The homestay was just what I had in mind. There was dense vegetation all around the premises. Very close by there was a small pond which meant there were good chances of sighting some birds or even wild animals. Behind the homestay stood a tall machaan – a wooden watch tower. I decided to spend an afternoon on the machaan all by myself. Deep introduced me to the homestay staff. They were all local people from the nearby villages and were very humble. I was feeling welcomed by the nature around the homestay and by the people in the homestay.
Deep discussed the next day’s plan with me. He had booked a jungle safari early in the morning. We were to leave from the homestay at 6 in the morning and catch our safari. We had dinner early. And I must mention that ‘Prem Bhaiya’, the cook at the homestay was an exceptionally talented cook. Every dish that he cooked during my entire stay was amazingly delicious. His food gave me another reason to remember my stay here.
To be Continued…Tweet