I am on Day 15 of my adventure and I am sitting in a lovely Forest Department owned resthouse, built in 1903 in the village of Sukata about 40 kms from Pench National Park, and surrounded by thick forests. This was a famous hunting blocks of the Raj, with mentions of superb hunts for Tiger and 'Panther', bison and Sambar, and even great beats for maneaters in Captain Forsyth's classic book on these Central Highlands in 1863.
It is hard to believe that I have yet to meet another tourist in any of the swath of country I have been travelling, yet all is within and often open to tourism, both domestic or International - but unless you had intimate knowledge of these places and the odd good contact, you would never know this whole part of wild India even existed!
To be honest, bar Satpura, which is one of the very best National Parks reserves in all of India (but nobody knows it) we have travelled through huge swathes of forests, on both simple roads and often in real 4 wheel drive territory, in our Mahinda 2 wd urban excuse for an off road with Mobin the driver constantly having to check the road ahead, move rocks and break branches to avoid the scratches! Really a Gypsy vehicle in this terrain would be better.
Admittedly, most of this time however we have had to be content with the tracks and signs of animals rather than the views of them, but often this is more exciting, and one of my great joys is to be able to walk in these jungles and up some hills and along the 'Nalas' or riverbeds, looking for porcupine quills, sloth bear claw marks on the beautiful Arjuna trees, leopard scat and of course the huge pug marks of the elusive Tiger himself. Though we worry or get excited by Tigers in this terrain locals, most of the Gond and Korkus tribes, (the first people of these parts) are far more worried by Sloth Bears who are more aggressive than carnivores, and more likely to attack, and thus always carry an axe over their shoulder and only venture out in gangs.
We are in the Rukkad and Kurai area today, a landscape of about 250 square kilometres, and an area rich in wildlife from the evidence so far seen. It has been very well protected by the Forest Department, though selectively logged and occasionally clear felled for teak plantations over the last 120 years, but still harbours a variety of creatures. Its only drawback today is that in 2004 all its bamboo flowered, and this extraordinary botanical event that occurs usually every 40 years, not only means the dying off of the old bamboo clumps, that have been the building material of the forest dwelling villagers over the years, but also the mass dispersal of seeds of the plant which then grow as swathes of thick clawing undergrowth for the next 8 years, before survival of the fittest dictates the best ones (or the least eaten)into bamboo clumps and the forest floor thins out again.
I am travelling with a wonderful 'gentle man' Brahmin, a retired high official of the Forest Department, full of wonderful stories of his life in the forest of Madyha Pradesh, and we have affectionately called him 'Kapil Sahib', and decided he should be the next Prime Minister, so have been devising a variety of ways of achieving this - as a (very improbable) way of getting the country to appreciate its forests! Following closely behind him is Gitan, his smiley and diligent 'menial' who bring his masters slippers to him, packs his bags and a variety of other useful services, including the cameraman's lakey. He is teaching me some useful Hindi and we have the odd secret together while the master is not looking.
Next in my travelling band is our agnostic Sikh and overall 'good guy', Vikramjit, our cameraman, photographer and great birder, who I have taken to calling Che, as his newly acquired beard, habit of smoking while filming and camouflaged cap remind me of this revolutionary. He is constantly behind everyone else, so busy taking pictures, setting up his tripod, or sweating under his three layers of clothing that he still dons every day, even when it's been beautifully sunny and warm every day so far!
Lastly is our driver Mobin who I have already mentioned but along the way we are always accompaniued by others, very good, or quite useless Forest Guards, including one now infamously called 'Come in Gori', experienced and diligent Range officers and even the odd Divisional Forest Officer, in charge of these forests.
Breakfast of the usual paratas, omelettes and a potato curry have just arrived to be eaten under a mango tree in the garden of the once colonial rest house, so I must end here, and travel onto the once great Sal forests of Kanha and Jabbalpur so will keep you informed from here.