As a nature lover, I love shooting landscapes. For me, everything untouched by humans is beautiful. When I was invited by Forsyth Lodge at Satpura, I did not know what to expect in a national park. I had never visited Madhya Pradesh, and I knew from past experience that jungle safaris don’t offer opportunities to shoot landscapes. But at Satpura, the abundance of wildlife sightings made me an opportunistic animal and bird photographer over the course of the weekend. Armed with my full-frame 5D Mark III and Canon 100-400L lens, I had a good time shooting the small and big creatures of Satpura.
Getting to Satpura
We were 7 of us, bloggers, who were picked up from Raj Bhog Airport in Bhopal. We traveled by road to the village of Bijakhori, in Sohagpur. The closest town to the Forsyth Lodge is Hoshangabad. Train lovers can alight at Itarsi station. The journey by road took 3 hours, during which time we broke ice and got to know each other better. I loved whatever little I saw of Bhopal. The absence of morning rush on the streets of the capital city was enough to convince me that Madhya Pradesh is an awesome place to visit.
I hadn’t investigated on Satpura or Forsyth Lodge before my trip. This is very unlike me, because I believe in understanding my destination to plan my photography. Every minute of the trip was one pleasant surprise after the other because I went unprepared. Upon arrival, the naturalists at Forsyth welcomed us personally. After a quick welcome drink, we were shown our rooms. Srinivasa and I were staying in a nice cottage near the pool. The first floor doubled up as a machan or watchtower. Our cottage contained a folder with some welcome notes about Satpura and the Lodge. The wealth of information contained in those papers convinced me that I was among expert naturalists.
Lunch was served at a common table in the main building. We interacted with other guests who dined with us. On other days during our stay, the naturalists ate with us whenever they got a chance. These opportunities to talk over food were a great way to get exchange notes and get to know each other better. Post lunch, Surya and David, the two naturalists who were assigned to us, showed a small pictorial presentation on the flora and fauna of Satpura. I was struck by not only the variety of species that Satpura housed, but also by the photography skills of the naturalists. There was equal emphasis on both small and big creatures in their talk. I think they spoke about tigers and leopards only as a passing mention.
The problem with wildlife safaris is that there is too much importance on sightings. If you are in India, there is too much emphasis on big cat sightings. From the very first sentence, Surya and David set the expectations right – Satpura is not only about big cat sightings. True to their word, we had an all-round jungle experience over the next few days.
First Page of our Jungle Book
Our group was divided into two batches. That evening, Surya led ours, and took us owl watching. The open-top jeep drive was exciting. We drove beside an ancient man-made canal. Surya told us that the owls roost in the crevices of the rocky edge of the canal. The owls chose to remain elusive. Our first safari was a disappointment. Mother nature decided to make up for it by showing us a brilliant colors in the sky. The setting sun light up the sky like I had never seen before. After a quick stop to shoot some landscapes, we drove in a different direction, deeper inside the jungle. We were on a night safari.
It was in the night safari that I really felt the thrill of being out in the jungle in an open-top jeep. Driving through rugged terrain, we couldn’t help but notice how alive the jungle was around us. My human sense organs were unfortunately inadequate to understand what was going on. With the help of bright flood-lights, Surya and the forest ranger helped us spot various birds and animals. We saw Neelgai, Night-Jars, an Indian Thicknee and Hares. Somewhere inside the jungle we met the other group who were waiting to spot an elusive bear family. We felt like uninvited guests in the homes of these animals. But they were very kind hosts. They let us be, as we eagerly strained our eyes to see what’s lurking in the dark.
Back to the lodge, we freshened up and met for evening drinks. Post that, we gorged upon a sumptuous dinner. A star-gazing session by David awaited us. Far away from any light pollution, Forsyth Lodge is always under a brilliant canopy of stars.
Early Morning Jeep Safari
The next morning, our group set off on a jungle safari in the heart to the Satpura forest reserve. The lodge staff gave us a wake up call sharp at 5 am with our choice of beverage. During my stay, I was amazed at how smoothly the lodge operated. The staff struck the perfect balance between leaving us alone and treating us like guests.
We had to cross the Denwa River to reach the entrance of the Satpura Tiger Reserve. Surya’s team had everything ready for us. We boarded our open-top Maruti Suzuki Gypsy and entered the national park with a great sense of anticipation. A few minutes into our drive, we saw our first sighting – a lone bear chopping on something on the ground. The sun had not yet risen, so I did not bother clicking pictures. Very soon, we heard distress calls from spotted deer. Surya sensed the presence of a big cat in the vicinity and instructed the driver to go closer to where the sound was coming from.
Like this, we spent the next 3 hours in the jungle, observing, chasing clues, and waiting for animals to reveal themselves. Surya kept the conversation going and shared the wealth of knowledge that he had. There were so many interesting things happening in the jungle that kept us engrossed. During that safari, we inferred the presence of at least 5 big cats. This high concentration of leopards is a specialty of Satpura. We learnt about unique trees like the Ghost Tree. We saw gaurs, crocodiles, langurs, giant squirrels, hoopes, owls, sambhar deer and wild boar. If you are unprejudiced, every moment in the jungle can be exciting – whether you see a big cat or not. The highlight of the safari was the picnic breakfast which we had by the river.
Back in the resort, we exchanged notes with the other group over brunch. I wolfed down the superb spread of in-house dishes. I had to pile up on calories for jungle walk which was planned for the evening. Post brunch, I reluctantly took a short nap. Reluctant because what I really wanted to do was explore the 44 acres in which Forsyth is housed. The property itself offers ample bird and wildlife sightings.
A Walk in the Park
For the jungle walk, we again crossed the Denwa river by boat. The route for the jungle walk is different from the jeep safari to keep the experience unique. The forest ranger who led the walk had a long staff and a bear horn with him. Before our walk, Surya instructed us on how to react should we see a big animal. Leaving the river bank behind, we walked into the jungle. Both Surya and the forest ranger kept us engaged with information about the flora and fauna around us. We observed tree trunks to understand animal behavior and saw abundant pug marks. A little into the walk, we heard the distress calls of langurs which indicated the presence of a leopard nearby. We experienced the jungle in a totally different way while on foot. The excitement of coming face to face with a wild animal was not lost upon us. After walking for about an hour and a half, we concluded the walk where we started. We crossed the river by boat again, and spent some time shooting the beautiful sunset.
Before dinner that evening, we watched a documentary on tigers. This 45 minute show helped us understand the gap between what tiger conservation in India is supposed to do, and the reality on the ground. Our group briefly discussed the sad state of affairs after the program. I realized that although all of us feel concerned, there is sadly very little we really do about it. Such is the trapping of city life.
Three Men in a Boat
The next morning, all of us left for the Denwa river for the last safari of our stay. This time we used canoes to experience the natural beauty of the river. Each canoe carried three people, including the boatman. From our canoe, we watched the breaking of dawn. A few us had fun trying to row. This was my first ever canoeing experience and I loved it. I was able to shoot more birds from the river than ever before. David, who was with us, kept us engaged with commentary on the bird sightings. There were 6 canoes in all, and the boatmen displayed their own knowledge by naming the birds that we saw. We even stopped by a small island to have breakfast. After the canoe experience, I did not want to leave Satpura. But sadly, our trip had come to an end, and we had to say our goodbyes.
Back in the Lodge, we refreshed ourselves and packed our bags. We left Satpura after brunch. Srinivas and I had a 4 pm flight to catch. If not for the time constraint, I would have loved to visit the other tourist spots near Bhopal. The trip definitely felt unfinished without seeing Sanchi, Khajurao and other famous destinations in Madhya Pradesh. Maybe next time!
To learn more about Forsyth Lodge, visit: https://www.forsythlodge.com/