Forsyth Trail – A Hike through Satpura’s Core Tiger Zone (Part 1)

Rhythmic gurgle – a sound that my mind associates with struggle. I heard the rhythmic gurgling of the waters that seemed to wrestle with a multitude of obstacles on their way. I could see no sign of water, but the sound was conspicuous. “We’ll find her”, my guide assured me, almost reading my mind. He handed me the steel flask which clanged against the carabiner fastened to his rucksack. I gulped copious amounts of water, hoping it wouldn’t be my last drink. We were in the middle of the core zone of Satpura’s Tiger Reserve, and I could hear my heart beat over the loud gushing of the Denwa River.

The enchanting wilderness of Satpura

The enchanting wilderness of Satpura

Don’t startle a tiger, they say, and he won’t startle you. I wonder how a human keeps himself from startling a tiger, especially in a forest where humans have no business loitering! The more silence I was trying to create, the noisier I seemed to be. Dry sal leaves cheekily crushed themselves under my trekking shoes. I couldn’t blame the dead for failing to realize the value of life! The men in our small group broke into a boisterous laughter over a silly joke somebody had cracked. Did they really think they were invincible in a jungle full of tigers? The constant rustle of leaves from the towering sal trees convinced me that it was useless to be on my guard. If I indeed was meant to die at the hands (paws, rather) of a tiger, there was nothing I could do to prevent it. Resignation writ on my forehead, I trod on…

Dwarfed by the tall sal trees

Dwarfed by the tall sal trees

Walking through the woods

Rocky was here”, Chinmay – our naturalist, announced suddenly, referring to a tiger. He was pointing at an Arjun tree with a deep gash on its bark. I saw the perfect “R” in bold orange against the off white trunk which the wild cat had marked. I couldn’t help imagining how it would feel to be scratched by Rocky quite the same way. Would I then be as famous as Harry Potter because of my scar?

We were retracing the path taken by Captain James Forsyth, an explorer who served in the Indian Army in the late 19th century – while we were still under British rule. The more I walked, the more I realized that this was less about tigers and more about the other secrets of a forest. We came across ornate shells that clung to the rugged bark of a gum tree. The shell was actually the egg of the gum-tree-shield bug. How beautifully the mother protects her unborn!

Insects know the art of taking life just as well as that of giving life. I could confirm this when I saw a colony of termites methodically murdering a tree. Life and death scenes apart, Satpura showed us riveting patterns on the barks of distinct trees. I clearly remember what I now call the alligator-tree – Indian ebony with its bark designed to look like alligator hide.

Picnic in the forest

After a few hours of walking in the wild, our elaborate lunch was served under the shade of Arjun trees. The kitchen staff had prepared a fresh, hot spread of roasted cauliflower with potatoes and beans dressed in masala, phulkas, steamed rice, a thick gravy of lentil, and fruits for dessert. We cooled our heels by the stream, sipping on some coffee before beginning the next part of our walking safari.

Filling up some fuel for the walk that still remains

Filling up some fuel for the walk that still remains

After lunch, our terrain transformed from brown, flat earth to white, uneven pebbles. I could not feel the afternoon heat under the canopy of lime and savage green leaves. To my naïve eyes, this part of Madhya Pradesh appeared to be a rainforest.

A path full of pebbles, a roof of green

A path full of pebbles, a roof of green

Carnivores and herbivores

We did not stop running into interesting forest finds though! My botanist grandad would be proud of me to know how many plants we spotted. I particularly remember drosera – the carnivorous beauty that knows how to attract unsuspecting insects with its bright red colours, and then trap them on its sticky surface. Drosera, also known as sundew, can cure respiratory diseases. I should have gobbled fistfuls of that flower to get rid of my asthma!

In all my excitement, I almost forgot to be afraid of the crouching tiger. This is precisely when we spotted tiger pug-marks on our route. Soon after, we saw some animal scat. “That belongs to a herd of nilgai”, Chinmay informed us. “Pooping is a group activity for them.” It is amusing how poop can be so important in tracking animals. You can tell how far the beast is, what he has eaten, if he is diseased, just by studying his excrement.

Campsite in the core tiger zone

As the evening wore on, we drew closer to our campsite. The Pugdundee Safaris team was already waiting for us when crossed our final river to the elegantly set up tents. It would be an understatement to say the backdrop was stunning. We had a solid chunk of the Sahyadris looking over us, and columns of mahua trees to cordon off the rest of the forest. We were going to sleep in the core zone of the Satpura National Park! I was thrilled and hoped we’d encounter at least a leopard at night.

Our safari tents at the foot of the hills

Our safari tents at the foot of the hills

Luxury camping with creature comforts

This was my first glamping experience, and even though I love camping without frills, I thoroughly relished the luxury that was laid out before us. I was smack in the middle of nature, yet shielded from the unsavoury bits (I only mean insects). There was hot water in the wash basin in front my tent, private WC and even shower! The lever-operated shower bags were easily the most jaw-dropping piece of creature-comfort I’ve seen at a campsite. Weary from the long trek, my pleasure at being able to shower under the stars was immeasurable. In a  cloth-covered bathroom with nothing but the night sky for roof, I discovered what opulence truly was. I wouldn’t trade this for all the bathtubs at 5-star properties!

Campfire to warm the heart

We had joked all through the day, but it was at night when the serious conversations began. I cannot say whether it was the 22-year old Glenlivet or the chilly weather or the star-spangled sky or the enchantment of the wilderness, or simply, everything together, but we started talking about our lives, our sorrows, and the meaning of ‘love’. It is when your your trekking group is a close-knit one that you can talk into the night until there is no more wood to keep the fire going. (Okay, you can never run out of wood in a forest, especially when  you are glamour-camping. But it will kill the magic if I tell you Manav, Pugdundee’s co-founder, wouldn’t let us stay up any longer, because we had an early morning start for next day’s hike.)

Camaraderie by the campfire

Camaraderie by the campfire

I had planned on telling you the entire story in one blog post itself. However, my trip was so epic, that I had to keep the best bits saved for the sequel! 😉 My best moments from this walking safari was listening to the sounds of nature. I’m glad I did not have my earphones on (a bad habit I’ve picked up from the marathons I’ve been running).

 

The joy of doing nothing

The joy of doing nothing (Picture credit: Prabhat Verma)

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Have you ever tried glamping? Let me know of your experiences in the comments below!

Disclosure: I was hosted by Pugdundee Safaris. However, all views are entirely my own.

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Camping by the Tungarli Lake

This month last year, I happened to go on my first camping trip. It was a resolution of sorts, and I’ll revisit that weekend today. I had no tent, no sleeping bag and obviously, no experience in the wilderness. So, I went with Let’s Camp Out to tick one thing off my list of resolutions – at Tungarli Lake!

The Tungarli dam stretches over the eponymous lake

The Tungarli dam stretches over the eponymous lake

Getting There

The campsite is located about 5 km from Lonavala, which is a couple of hours’ drive from Mumbai. You can also take a train as I did. Once you reach the Tungarli dam, you’ll have to trek up and cover the rest of the stretch on foot. The dam is quite a charming spot! It was built in the 1930’s for irrigation, but that day, it appeared to be an abandoned watchpost up on the hill.

During the train journey, I met a group of trekkers who were getting ready to do the Rajmachi trek. Tungarli, is a nice stopover before you undertake that one. The view of the lake is refreshing.

Water buffaloes can be spotted cooling themselves in the inviting waters of Tungarli

Water buffaloes can be spotted cooling themselves in the inviting waters of Tungarli

Tungarli Lake

Somewhere in the Sahyadri range of mountains, the quaint village of Tungarli lives undisturbed by the city slickers. The lake is a watering hole for cows and buffaloes herded by the farmers from the village. If you are lucky, you can also spot some wild water buffaloes submerged in the waters of Tungarli Lake. This keeps them cool in hot afternoons. After drinking up the gorgeous view, we headed over to our campsite.

Our little green tents are all set to house us!

Our little green tents are all set to house us!

Camping amidst Nature

Our little green tents were already set up for us when we reached. They were Coleman sundome tents with a capacity of 3 each. When I first thought of camping, I imagined I’d have to endure hardships and sleep on thin tarpaulin sheets which would make me feel the stones and twigs beneath. But I was in for a surprise – a pleasant one.

Our tents were wind and water resistant, with a nice awning at the entrance. We could fully seal our tents with the double zippers. There were even two net-windows which could be zipped open or close a per our requirement for light and air. And some more air vents for cross ventilation. I could barely feel the ground for we had airbeds and inflatable pillows. Finally, there were a couple of pockets on the side-walls of the tent to stash our stuff.

If you are wondering where the washroom was, there was a toilet-tent (with ziplock) with a portable commode seat and a shovel inside. But because this is nature, you have bare earth beneath all this. Eco camping requires that you cover up your waste with earth (which you will have dug up to create a deep pit in the ground). Never forget to carry toilet paper if you are organizing your own camping trip.

From my vantage point, I could see the Tungarli village, Rajmachi, and also some parts of Lonavala

From my vantage point, I could see the Tungarli village, Rajmachi, and also some parts of Lonavala

Evening Trek

We had some tea and biscuits before setting out west on a trek to explore these hills on the Western Ghats. Our trekking guide took us to the very top of our hill and we stood there for a long time, taking in the view of the villages in the valley. From up there, we could also see Rajmachi and perhaps, Lonavala.

I feel treks are rewarding. Not only for the panoramic sights you get to see but also for the interesting plants and insects that you come across. Tungarli’s terrain is arid at places, and this has resulted in the growth of a variety of cacti.

Oh, my! What a giant cactus this one is!

Oh, my! What a giant cactus this one is!

I came across several cactus plants and also some buds which were yet to bloom. Nature gives you a nice lesson in botany if you care to explore and be inquisitive.

Cactus flower buds before bloom

Cactus flower buds before bloom

Not far from all the cacti were ant nests. You can identify these by the circular patterns they have around the burrow. I later found out that those belonged to harvester ants which are common in sandy soils. These ants mainly collect seeds as it is difficult to find honeydew (which the ordinary ant would normally go after). Ant nests are good for the soil as they provide aeration and help in mixing different layers of soil.

An ant-nest hides close to the cactus vegetation

An ant-nest hides close to the cactus vegetation

Sunset in the Sahyadris

The sky turned auburn as the sun signalled it was about to set. We sat on our elevated seats and watched the city pull up its dark blanket. Despite the altitude, the absence of daylight and the winter season, the temperature barely touched 20 degrees Celsius. But it was night, and we had to head back to our camp.

The sun sets over Tungarli

The sun sets over Tungarli

Bring Out the Barbecue!

After the trek, it was time to eat, and we had a portable barbecue to get the party started! 🙂 We grilled sliced pineapples, paneer cubes and potato halves on the burning charcoal. I had never had so much fun drizzling oil over starters and coating them with pepper. I realized that day that food tastes better when you have helped prepare it. After a filling meal of appetizers, we tightened our shoelaces again – for the night trek! 😀

It's fun to barbecue your own dinner :-)

It’s fun to barbecue your own dinner 🙂

The Night Trek

I don’t think I can ever get enough of trekking, especially if they’re short and easy. The weather was so lovely that night, that we decided to trek again. This time, to the east. We strapped on a couple of solar-charged torches and set out to explore the hills’ beauty in the night-time. This one was a tad bit difficult as compare to the evening trek, but the moon shone brilliantly and made it worth the effort. We indulged in a lot of stargazing and constellation spotting that night. Wintertime is the best to spot a lot of stars which one will miss in the summers, and also to clearly see the zodiac of the month. If you have a stargazing app, don’t forget to use it on night treks!

Solar lights are handy for night treks

Solar lights are handy for night treks

Campfires are for Singing

When we started getting hungry again, we found our way back to our camp. Our tents were visible in the warm glow of the campfire. The crackling of dried leaves and twigs in the fire made for some nice music in the otherwise silent night. The time was perfect for some old melodies. We sang as our dinner was being unpacked. We were floored by the eclectic mix of home-cooked Maharashtrian dishes from the village below. All that singing, trekking and good food made it very easy to fall asleep. I used to worry I’d never be able to sleep in the wild with the threat of animals attacking me in the middle of the night. But I was so wrong! I slept like a baby.

It's time to sit around the campfire and sing some good old songs! :-)

It’s time to sit around the campfire and sing some good old songs! 🙂

Waking Up In a Tent

I awoke as the sun rose and filled my little green tent with light. I zipped open the door and went out to watch a morning scene I’d never see in the city.

Insects are early risers, and get to work real quick. I spotted ants sucking on the cactus flowers. These harvester ants contribute to seed dispersal and improve cactus population.

A couple of ants suck on a cactus branch

A couple of ants suck on a cactus branch

Desert plants are not limited to cacti. I also came across what looked like wild ground berries.

These cute orange fruits look like physalis or wild ground berries

These cute orange fruits look like physalis or wild ground berries

My overnight camping trip came to an end with a delicious breakfast of poha, bread and jam with tea and biscuits. We helped each other dismantle the tents and fold them back into the portable bags. We carried all the non-biodegradable wastes with us to leave that spot of nature untarnished. I walked away from Tungarli Lake content to have finally camped in a tent.

We left Tungarli Lake just as we found it

We left Tungarli Lake just as we found it

I am hoping to go camping again this year. Have you ever camped out? How has your experience with nature been?