After a sumptuous lunch, we decided to take the jeeps back to the sanctuary gate. We were shocked to drive the 25-26 kilometer jungle trail we had spent almost 4 hours biking (with lots of stops). If I’d driven the route first, I would question my ability to complete that wild journey…….
That morning, we drove from the charming Pench Tree Lodge to our start point at the gate of the Rukhad Sanctuary that along with a protected forest and buffer zone comprise the 180-kilometer wildlife corridor that connect Kanha and Pench National Parks. Our merry group included Vishal Singh, Managing Director of Royal Expeditions who convinced the park service to allow this new biking trip, 2 tour operators and a spouse, a journalist, British ophthalmologist, a national park guide, one of Pench Tree Lodge’s naturalists along with a professional rider who would serve as our bike expert and mechanic, and me. We were followed by Amit, the Pench Tree Lodge manager, and staff in a vehicle along with another vehicle towing the bike rack should anyone want to ride instead of bike.
All set and ready to go on brand new Trek X-Caliber mountain bikes. Our trail through the sanctuary was the path created by vehicle wheels. Due to late rains, the park service had not groomed the route as we would soon discover. We biked on hard packed tire tracks, over big rocks, in deep ruts, over gravel, through waist-high grass with thorns and burrs, in deep sand, up steep hills, down winding hills, through water, often dodging tree branches. The air had that clean, fresh outdoor musty scent, the jungle dense and beautiful with wild flowers here and there, birds and monkeys. There was much to take in but the trail required my undivided attention. Anything less than laser focus would result in a wipeout. We had 3 spills biking in the jungle and villages that required care from “Dr. Amit” and the ever-present medical kit.
We stopped frequently for water breaks with supplied electrolytes if desired. The lodge staff in the support vehicle refilled our water bottles at every stop and even served cool lemonade and snacks on trays….in the middle of the jungle…very luxurious and unexpected! During these stops, you realized that you were deep in the jungle with nothing around you but the dense forest and its inhabitants…a little slice of heaven.
At one point, Vishal stopped, motioned for us to dismount and be quiet. I immediately knew why as I heard the alarm calls. Close by. Frantic. We spotted the two langur monkeys and knew the predator must be nearby. My heart beat a little faster as I wondered how far I could pick up and throw my new Trek mountain bike, or perhaps I should swing it as a weapon. I whispered my question to Vishal who was quietly laughing at me. He assured me the predator wouldn’t attack us and pointed to the support vehicle right there. The alarm calls got louder and more frenzied. I realized that I wanted to see that tiger or leopard peek out at us then go immediately back into the jungle. No such luck and the calls abruptly stopped. We determined the predator had most likely spotted us and laid down to nap, far less interested in us than we were it. Our little adrenaline inducing moment over, we pedaled on wondering what might be around the corner.
We finally arrived at a forest guest house where lunch was served. We had burned off some calories and chowed down on a delicious lamb biriyani (a vegetarian biriyani for me), veggie kathi rolls, a cauliflower dish, various chutneys and roti. For dessert, there was dark chocolate and local oranges. It was a unanimous decision to take the jeeps instead of biking back. Each of us was quite impressed with him/her self for having completed those 25-26 kilometers up and down hills, over rocks and through the bush!
I have a road bike and meant to get some biking in before leaving for our tiger safari and Jungle Book familiarization trip. Every time I walked out in the garage and saw the two flat tires, I walked back into the house, leashed up my dog and went for a hike instead. I’d never mountain biked before but I live in Boulder, am active so how difficult could it be? Turns out, road biking and mountain / trail biking are very, very different. Although every rock, bump and bounce reverberated through the titanium rod in my neck, I relaxed a little once I realized the Trek bike was built for the rough terrain and quite capable of handling anything I rode over or through. I was the problem – not the bike, and did slide-out quite a few times (maybe 9 or more) in what I’m calling SUDs, sudden-ungainly-dismounts, but never fell. There’s a distinction…. Would I bike this route again? Absolutely! It was a one of a kind amazing adventure and sense of accomplishment for me in the jungle of central India – who gets to do that?!
Remote Village Biking
All travelers are looking for “authentic experiences”, possibly the most over-used words in travel today. May I suggest visiting local markets and biking through remote villages as a truly authentic activity. The local people react to and with you differently on a bike vs. driving in a vehicle. You see things, get to experience life at a different pace and come across the unexpected as village life unfolds.
Three of my most ‘oh-wow-this-is-amazing’ moments were biking through a cattle herd with cows inches away, interacting with friendly and curious villagers, and an impromptu band playing in a courtyard. We stopped, went into the courtyard, listened for a couple of songs, clapped, then got back on our bikes thoroughly enjoying our “boy band”!
We biked through small villages at both Pench Tree Lodge and Kanha Earth Lodge. We loved the local farmers’ market in Pench, where villagers were selling or buying their produce and no one tried to sell us anything. It was nice to be able to walk through a market and not be inundated with pleas to buy. A few vendors did offer to let us sample their food. Several of the charming things about Indians are their colorful dress and expressive faces. The market was a profusion of vibrant color and stories waiting to be told!
Royal Expeditions is very creative with customizing unique itineraries including this tiger safari and biking through the jungle trip. Vishal created this ride as a fundraising effort to hire village guardians to protect the wildlife corridor. You can bike the entire corridor or simply do a day like we did. If booking this, they own and will provide the Trek bikes. If you want to only do game drives and village biking, most of the Pugdundee Safari lodges have short-ride bikes and will always send along lodge personnel to bike with clients.
Kiki Paris (Nov, 2016)
Photo credits: market photos by me / biking photos – Karen Rubin, Karen Cockburn, Vishal Singh, me.