I joined the Royal Expeditions (RE) fam trip a few days late as I was flying in from the ATWS conference in Argentina. Yes, I was tired but couldn’t turn down another opportunity to visit Pushkar and the world-renown Pushkar Fair. Last year we stayed in the royal tented camp, a very fancy mobile camp owned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur (family), and this year the RE team had a different experience for us – a 5-room bed & breakfast in a lovely home with stunning views of Pushkar from the rooftop deck. With comfortable, en-suite rooms, delicious vegetarian meals cooked with Rajasthani spices, trips to the Fair, a large open-air food market and a local rose petal factory, we were either on the go or stuffing ourselves with 8 or 9 exotic dishes and 3 desserts for both lunches and dinner. Breakfast was served on a lovely outdoor pavilion, dinner and wine on the rooftop terrace, both charming experiences.
We were a day early for the opening of the Pushkar Fair but many camels and their herders were already in. Even early, the colors and chaos thrilled. We were shocked to hear the men drinking what we thought was their early morning tea, was in fact opium. Who even knew you could drink opium??
In Jaipur with its magnificent palaces and museums, the group wanted to shop so…shop we did! I now know who the dangerous traveling companions are. In typical fam fashion, we made a quick stop in Agra for the Taj Mahal. It was my first afternoon visit and I highly recommend you structure your clients’ trips to overnight in Agra and visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise when it’s less crowded.
We stopped in Bhopal for the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Mart, then on to four national parks for tiger safaris. Royal Expeditions knows how to create fascinating journeys! En route from Bhopal to Satpura National Park (approximately 4 hour drive) , we stopped at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bhimbetka. These painted cave shelters are decorated with paintings estimated to be 30,000 years old from the Paleolithic period. Cool!
Satpura National Park is one of the different parks where you have to boat across the Denwa River to start your game drives. You can actually walk in the park, hike and camp, canoe for birding or take game drives. Satpura, known for its leopards and sloth bears is quite beautiful with its rugged terrain, ravines and dense forest dotted with my favorite ghost trees. One of our vehicles had a great leopard siting – colorful birds, langurs and my giant squirrel were the wildlife highlights for me.
Denwa Backwater Escape, a Pugdundee Safaris’ lodge, was our home for two nights. Their eight cottages and two tree houses are spacious, well appointed, with river views. The dining room, pool and common areas have some of the coolest vintage furniture!
Pugdundee Safaris has formaly hired a corporate chef, Vijaylaxmi, who was a finalist on India’s Master Chef television program. Wow, is the food delicious! It has always been very good, but there’s more variety and menus have been taken to a new level. For lunch, she prepared the dish that won her a finalist spot with variations for carnivores, vegetarians and gluten free. All of us wanted to have that dish every day it was so good.
We had a lovely canoe outing on the Denwa River where many birds were spotted along with a stunning sunset followed by a surprise bush dinner artfully lit with many hanging lanterns.
Pench National Park (4.5 hour drive from Satpura) is the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’. We did miss 2 game drives one day for the spectacular jungle bike ride in the corridor connecting Pench and Kanha national parks. This 25 mile jaunt through the jungle on new Trek mountain bikes included a national park guide, professional biker, Pench Tree Lodge naturalists and Vishal Singh, Managing Director of Royal Expeditions, a lodge vehicle with staff, water, lemonade, snacks and a support vehicle for those needing a break, 5 tour operators, and me, quite the merry band.
In addition to biking in the jungle, we biked through a couple of villages on narrow roads with dogs, cows, goats and people who were curious about us. While I did bike every mile, I was horrified at how out of shape I was compared to my 2016 ride when the trail was even more difficult due to the rains. I brought up the rear….the last straggler, and could not have been happier to see the forest ranger house where we had a sumptuous lunch, then drove back to the lodge. Motivation to get back in shape!
Pench Tree Lodge, another Pugdundee Safaris’ lodge, hosted us here in their six, charming, rustic tree houses. The six new cottages are now completed for those who do not,or can not walk up stairs to the tree houses or wish to stay closer to the lounge and dining room. We had dinner at the organic garden one evening where their amazing chef, Pankaj, gave cooking instructions for a few local dishes. We were able to taste some of the unfamiliar spices before they were mixed together. Photo is of an unfinished cottage – imagine how charming they’ll look after fully decorated.
Kanha National Park (approximately 4 hour drive) is usually ranked 1st or 2nd for tiger sightings in Central India and noted for its beautiful sal tree forests. We saw our first tiger here – Neelam, a tigress with four cubs. Unfortunately they were not following her….. On our way out of the park that afternoon, we spotted an unknown male tiger that was both exciting to our guides (a new tiger!) and also of concern as there was a tigress and her cubs in the area. Male tigers will kill cubs that aren’t his offspring. All the Pugdundee naturalists are well-trained and engaging. They know their tigers, who has cubs, what males are in the area, their behaviors and personalities.
Kanha Earth Lodge, another Pugdundee property, hosted us again. This award winning property, India’s Top Wildlife Resort 2017, has 12 spacious, comfortable bungalows, large and comfortable common dining areas with an outdoor dining area for bush dinners.
Bandhavgarh National Park (a 5 hour drive) dukes it out with Kanha as the 1st or 2nd best park for tigers. I saw four tigers here! Spotty was the first – spoiler alert, she does have stripes. I saw a two-year old un-named male cub, as they are not given names until they move away from their mothers, and the next day, I saw Rajbehara, his mother walking across the field. Last but not least was Solo, a tigress who had recently lost her cub. One of our tiger sightings was with all 20 vehicles in that particular zone which is utter chaos (but fun) with drivers jockeying for the best position. It does not seem to bother the tigers as they simply walk between the vehicles across the road to continue their journey. You either luck upon a tiger walking on the sandy road, laying in the sun or at a waterhole or you follow the alarm calls that all the drivers hear. My vehicle was one of two to spot the male cub in the water so it is possible to have quiet, private sightings.
Pugdundee’s King’s Lodge has eighteen lovely cottages with spacious bathrooms and multiple outdoor areas for drinks or meals. Vijaylaxmi met us at King’s Lodge for more sumptuous meals and an authentic cooking demonstration in the organic garden. They built a fire and used local cooking pots exactly as one would find in the villages. It was fun to taste the mustard oil and different spices unknown to us.
Pugdundee Safaris has an intimate, 5 tree house property in Bandhavgarh called Tree House Hideaway. Guests are driven to King’s Lodge to use their pool and their veggies are from their large organic garden.
Pugdundee also has a lovely property in Chitwan National Park, Nepal called Barahi Jungle Lodge and a more rustic property in Panna National Park, India.
From King’s Lodge in Bandhavgarh we drove 5 hours to the Khajuraho Temples, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is a collection of Hindu and Jain temples, some known for their erotic sculptures. About 25 out of the original 85 temples still stand, reminding me of the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia. We unfortunately did not have time to explore the entire temple complex as we flew from the near-by Khajuraho airport back to Delhi for our international flights home.
kiki paris / october + november, 2017