There are those who are keen to step outside their comfort zone and embrace the bewildering and breathtaking range of landscapes, cultures, cuisines, religions, people and wildlife that India has to offer. For others, the country’s climate, huge population and reputation for being a more rugged travel experience than one might be used to is a barrier.
It’s certainly not your average sun, sea and shopping destination – but that’s why I wanted to go. I knew India would be like nothing I had ever experienced before and I was keen for this travel experience, despite being warned by well-meaning friends about food poisoning, personal safety, marauding mosquitoes and oppressive heat.
My holiday certainly didn’t disappoint, and I’m happy to report there was no illness, next to no mosquitoes, the dry heat never topped more than 40ºC, I felt safe during my entire holiday and I didn’t experience one travel delay.
As it was my first visit to India I decided to give myself a very soft landing at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. It’s the most opulent hotel you could imagine, and your arrival here is like stepping into a fairytale.
Built more than a century ago, the Taj has hosted everyone from maharajahs to cricket teams to Barack Obama. The hotel’s architecture is stunning – a mix of Moorish and Byzantine design. Located next to the Gateway of India, it features the original Taj Mahal Palace as well as an additional wing, the Taj Mahal Tower, which was constructed in the 1970s.
The only drawback is that the hotel is so spectacular it’s hard to leave. It has fabulous restaurants, a lovely spa offering Ayurvedic treatments, shops and even an in-house astrologer.
But Mumbai was merely a stopover for my true destination, two safari parks in Central India. After a 90-minute flight from Mumbai to Nagpur, then a two-hour drive through dusty, rural areas, I arrive at Baghvan, a luxury Taj &Beyond safari lodge that perches on the edge of Pench National Park.
Baghvan is captivating. Twelve stand-alone, rustic lodges sit on a dry riverbed surrounded by forest. A short walk from your private lodge brings you to a sprawling communal area complete with beautiful indoor and outdoor dining and lounge areas. While I’m at Baghvan to go on safari, I would come back just for the food. I’ve always been a fan of Indian cuisine but the food at Baghvan is nothing like I’ve tasted before, with flavours so clean, delicate and mild that every meal is a real treat.
Most main meals start with a light soup, salad and roti, followed by a selection of meat and vegetable dishes and finished with a light dessert. It is clear that a great deal of effort goes in to every meal as well as a real talent for combining flavours.
Before my trip to India, I would have never considered a safari as my holidays usually involve shopping, beaches, restaurants and more shopping. Now, I’m a convert.
Sitting in an open jeep, driving through the jungle in the crisp morning air as the sun starts to rise and wake the animals from their sleep, is an amazing experience – as is watching a leopard claw at its kill.
Peacocks strut by, displaying their vivid colours, while deer graze peacefully. Monkeys swing through the trees up above acting like excited school kids, while wild dogs run past in a pack. There are more than 170 species of bird alone and I’m grateful for our knowledgeable guide and naturalist Sangita who is able to provide information on everything the park has to offer.
Pench National Park is the forest said to have inspired Rudyard Kipling to write his famous collection of stories The Jungle Book. Even if you aren’t an animal lover, it’s impossible not to be moved by the place.
Finding yourself a long way from a grimy, modern city, watching different types of animals co-exist in their natural habitat and consumed by a different type of survival, offers an interesting perspective on life.
It’s a privilege to be able to experience safari life with Taj &Beyond. They are experts in the field and know how to run a seamless operation. Guests are offered an early wake-up call, which is delivered with a steaming pot of coffee. It’s a good idea to start the safari early, while the temperatures are cool and the animals are busy. A picnic breakfast is served mid-morning, before the drive ends at about 10.30am.
When the day starts to heat up you retreat back to the cool of the lodge, or take a swim in the pool. Lunch is served at leisure, and we meet in the afternoon for a sunset drive, once again in the cool air. The day ends with drinks and dinner on your own or with fellow travellers.
Taj &Beyond has four wildlife lodges in India and apart from sharing an exceptional level of service, each lodge has its own unique offering. My final destination is Banjaar Tola safari lodge, which overlooks the Kanha National Park. There is little wonder as to why this lodge has won a host of tourism awards. Designed
by renowned environmental architect Sanjay Prakash, the spectacular lodges leave a small ecological footprint while still providing luxurious accommodation.
Banjaar Tola consists of two camps, each with nine suites. The suites are designed to look like tents with canvas walls and roof and bamboo floors, but are spacious and beautifully decorated.
Kanha is known for being prime tiger country, which is of particular interest as the beautiful animal is constantly under threat of extinction. After World War II forests were felled in India at an incredible rate to clear land for agriculture and provide timber to world markets.
While prime minister Indira Gandhi launched Project Tiger in 1973 to protect them from extinction, by 1980 forests covered only around 14 per cent of Indian territory, with tigers confined to small, protected areas. In 1980 the Forest Conservation Act was passed to restrict deforestation, but by that time tiger numbers had dropped significantly.
Tigers are also threatened by poachers who sell their body parts on the black market. According to the latest tiger census report, the total tiger population is estimated at 1700, down from an estimated 40,000 tigers at the turn of the 20th century.
My first tiger sighting at Kanha is thrilling. It’s 7am and we have been in the park for about 30 minutes when our guide spots the beautiful beast quietly watching a herd of gaur.
The tiger is young and full of bravado as he stalks into the open field. The gaur use the size of their herd to let the young tiger know he is out of his depth, and after contemplating the scene, he walks away.
The sense of anticipation is great, and it’s surreal to be able to watch the law of the jungle unfold. It’s a far cry from everyday life and a vision I will savour for a long time to come.
Taj &Beyond has four lodges in India. See andbeyond.com and tajsafaris.com. Air India flies directly from Sydney and Melbourne to Delhi. See airindia.com.