On the 10th anniversary of a unique jungle lodge, RARE India Founder and T+L India & South Asia A-List member Shoba Mohan celebrates its sustainability ethos by re-discovering the virgin beauty of Satpura’s forests. By Shoba Mohan

It was a sense of déjà vu each time our little ‘jungle party’ ventured into the forests of Satpura or sat by the fireplace in Reni Pani Jungle Lodge’s cosy library. Whether we were trampling though undergrowth—dense from a late monsoon spurt—or dodging overhanging webs of the golden orb-weaver, or trailing behind a line of excited tree lovers lugging the voluminous first edition of Jungle Trees of Central India, we were celebrating Satpura. It was Reni Pani’s 10th year of lodge operations in 2019, and it made me revisit lessons on what wildlife safaris should be like. We followed author Pradip Kishen around and tried to find a spot in the right jeep with an articulate and/or sighting-lucky naturalist.

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Reni Pani Jungle Lodge is a conservation and wildlife-focussed property located close to the Satpura National Park.

It was the summer of 2008 when I first realised that a jungle safari was not just about chasing the big cats. A fairly new wildlife enthusiast then, I was quite convinced that if I did not see a tiger or two during the rather regulated morning and evening safaris, my expedition into the forest would amount to nothing. Evenings at the bar were dreaded when “Kuch dikha kya? (Did you see anything?)” led to competitive discussions on who spotted a tiger, how many of them, and for how long, and who got the best shot. Then, Satpura happened. Sometime during exploring the young forests with enthusiastic naturalists, who were still decoding the way to hold people’s interests in a landscape that yielded sightings of gaurs and flying squirrels, and discovering the jungle in ways other than on a 4X4, my perception of a wildlife safari changed forever.

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Satpura is one of those rare Indian forests that can be explored on a guided walking safari.

Buffer-zone safaris in Satpura take you inside the forest at sunset and should be included in every safari itinerary. On my latest visit, in early December 2019, the highlight was beholding a handsome male leopard walking on the same track as us, as we trailed behind him at a discreet distance. For all my excitement—this was my first comprehensive sighting of the big cat—he didn’t seem to care much for the humans gaping at him from four jeeps. Looking into the wide amber eyes of a rusty-spotted cat, identifying several moths, and spotting a couple of barn owls made up the rest of the exploration of the Parsapani buffer forest.

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The writer, Shoba Mohan, found a new way of looking at safaris in these woods.

Not many forests in India can boast of a park entry or exit that takes you on a boat over the tranquil waters of a brimming reservoir. At Satpura, this boat ride over Tawa is your window to stunning sunsets or iridescent dawns. Once across the river, the idyllic scene featuring a cavalcade of safari jeeps is almost always the same. The entry on misty winter mornings is almost like a photograph in my mind that I may or may not have captured. The fresh waterbody at the entrance, where a strip of mist hangs low, always has a few herons and, sometimes, a beady-eyed mugger. Once, a very alert sambhar with one hoof mid-air made for a picture-perfect moment. Another time, it was a bonanza of bambis in a meadow, when every second doe had a fawn beside her. What never changes, though, is the abundance of birds and grazers. It’s a very healthy forest.

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The Indian giant squirrel or Malabar giant squirrel is a resident of Satpura National Park.

A personal favourite is the alarm call, the tense ‘watch out’ moment when the jungle’s insistent morse code between the langur, peacock, and sambhar saves many gentle lives and costs irate predators their meal. I was quite lucky to have my first walking safari in Satpura. I approached the prospect with disbelief as a lanky naturalist and a lodge manager assured me that a wall of five people (two were guards with sticks) standing very close and hollering together with their hands high over their heads would dissuade a hungry leopard or tiger, or a protective mother bear. We must have walked a short distance when there was the unmistakable ‘tut’ and thump. My first alarm call on foot, and we seemed to be right in the sweet zone. Satpura is one of the few parks in the country that lets you explore the forest on foot, and with a well-trained naturalist, you can teach yourself to read the forest like a book. What did the jackal have for dinner? Is this tiger territory? Has the bear been digging or is that a porcupine dwelling? Who are the ‘little five’, those mighty restorers of the forest equilibrium? What remedies does the forest offer a sick macaque? Is that trail of a slug or a snake?

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You can also spot the big cats if you are lucky.

Satpura also allows you to skirt the forest while treading the reservoir in a hand-paddled boat or a canoe, and the reward for all the hard work—besides the obvious workout—may be several species of birds, wild boars, and muggers sunning themselves on the river bank. For this reason, Satpura National Park is as close to the perfect forest for tourists as possible. It also offers other wooded areas in the vicinity for better tourist distribution. Bori Wildlife Sanctuary in the Pachmarhi Biosphere Reserve is one such forest, and Reni Pani’s new lodge here is set to create interesting new safari opportunities.

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The Luxury Tents at Reni Pani help you enjoy the serenity of nature without compromising on amenities.

A result of unwavering dedication and the vision to take the long road to success via preservation and awareness, brothers Aly and Faiz created the idea of Reni Pani traversing many miles and spending hours in the forests sleeping under the stars. The lodge came up on either side of a seasonal stream, with a hilly forest on one side and a grassy meadow on the other. In its 10 years, Reni Pani has evolved and thrived just the way a vibrant ecosystem and a sincere sustainable lodge must. The cottages are spread over a wide area to afford privacy as well as views; they are spacious, warm, and well-lit. A short verandah on one side leads you to a spacious en suite bathroom, thoughtfully fitted for a safari couple: twin vanities with enough counter space, and indoor and outdoor shower area. Four safari tents have been added around a watering hole to mix it up. The central lodge was the happy space where we gathered every evening to share our safari moments over G&T and dinner. The library next door was a popular nook, not only because it connected us with the rest of the world and allowed us to post Instagram stories, but also because some of the best stories and initiatives in re-wilding, conservation, and Indian wildlife were shared here.

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Buffer-zone safaris in Satpura take you inside the forest at sunset.

A lodge that has many legendary tales around its inception, naming, and conceptualisation, Reni Pani stands out for its location—a diverse ecosystem of its own. The villages around Satpura and the prime habitats in the forests have a charming logic to their names, denoted by a shrub, tree, or grass in the vicinity of a waterbody. Aampani near a mango tree, Babapani near a wild grass meadow, and of course, Reni Pani is spread in a 35-acre wild garden dominated by the reni shrub. In the days when hunting was a legitimate sport of royalty, the forests of Satpura were noted for the size of the sambhar and their heads. Inspired by the history, Reni Pani’s logo is a tribute to the elegant stags, whose population in the Satpura jungles today is a testimony to their revival. It also symbolises the needed shift of focus from the usual stripes and roars, a true commitment to conservation.

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Gol Ghar at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge is a good place to kick back with a drink.

GETTING THERE

The nearest airport is Raja Bhoj Airport in Bhopal (144 km), Madhya Pradesh, and the nearest rail junction is the Sohagpur Railway Station (24 km).

STAY

Reni Pani Jungle Lodge is a conservation-focussed wildlife lodge that offers luxe cottages and tents near Satpura National Park. Apart from motorised safaris on jeep and boat, the lodge offers eco-friendly ways of exploring the wilderness including walking, canoeing, cycling, and camping safaris. From INR 22,000 per night.

Related: Explore These Mesmerising Forests That Seem Like They’ve Come Straight Out Of Fairy Tales!