It was my first morning at Pench National Park, and the forest was wide awake. Our safari jeep entered via Sillari gate (on the Maharashtra side of the park) and right off the bat we started hearing alarm calls from langurs, peacocks, and sambar deer. Over the next four hours, we drove around the park following the calls but the big cats eluded us. At one point, we stopped for a good 30 minutes since our guide had tracked a leopard — we could hear it in the dense forest, but it stayed out of sight.
Spotting a tiger is a game of luck; the other jeep from our resort saw both, a tiger and a leopard. Even if I wasn’t lucky this time around, the jungle did bless me with a sight I had never seen before — nearly a dozen Malabar pied hornbills feasting on fruit and elegantly swooping about! We spent nearly half an hour watching them tossing fruit into the back of their throats (hornbills cannot swallow food caught at the tip of the beak as their tongues are too short to manipulate it). It was an unforgettable sight, (almost) making up for not having spotted a tiger.
Pench became a national park in 1975 and a tiger reserve in 1992. About 40 per cent of the park lies in Maharashtra while 758 sq. km. is spread in Madhya Pradesh. Named after the Pench River, this forest reserve is said to be the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It was also home to Collarwali, perhaps India’s most famous tigress who led to a major surge in visitor numbers in Pench (she died in 2022).
The core area of Pench has three gates on the MP side, Turia, Karmajhari, and Jamtara, of which the first is the most popular and considered to be the best for tiger spotting. As I made my way from Nagpur airport, I saw scores of hotels and resorts on the road to Turia gate — my driver mentioned that there were about 40 resorts in the vicinity. Evidently, the government has stopped giving permission for new ones to open, although illegal construction seemed to be rampant.
I stayed at one of the newer resorts that opened last year. Spread over 32 acres, Saj in the Forest is a rustic-style resort abutting the buffer zone of the national park. Its 19 rooms are divided into three categories named after the tree species that thrive in the forests of Pench i.e. Mahua, Palash, and Sal. Rooms are spacious, well-appointed, and come with outdoor sit-outs, either a verandah or a private gazebo.
The two-bedroom Sal suites are perfect for families and have a fenced off lawn and outdoor area. All rooms and common areas have a statement wall decorated with colourful gond art (tribal art form of Madhya Pradesh). There’s a games lounge and a large swimming pool, while a spa is in the offing. The restaurant Maati Baani serves a mix of Indian and international dishes, along with a handful of local delicacies such as Saoji Mutton and Patodi Rassa.
While jeep safaris are the top thing to do in Pench, this is one of the few national parks in India that offers a variety of different ways to enjoy the forest. From the Kolitmara Gate (one of the seven gates on Maharashtra side), you can take a cycling safari through the buffer zone. This is a guided safari of approximately 50 km and mostly covers village paths with a few detours on forest trails. It’s particularly great for bird-watchers, although there are chances of spotting larger wildlife, including tigers. The cycling safari is not only a sustainable way of exploring the forest but you can also clock in some cardio. Another exciting way to safari in Pench is to take to the skies in a hot-air balloon or go para-motoring. The latter involves flying with a parachute with a motor strapped to the back. Both activities are offered from the Kolitmara Gate.
Night safaris are also possible in Pench National Park, giving you a completely different and thrilling experience of the jungle. They offer an opportunity to spot nocturnal species like owls and wolves, and even tigers and leopards, if you’re lucky. A limited number of permits are issued for night safaris, which only take place in the buffer zone. Pench Tiger Reserve has been recently certified as a Dark Sky Park, a recognition of its efforts in maintaining a pollution-free night sky. This title is granted by The International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) programme, and Pench is only the eighth place in Asia to be recognised. This certification will bring a host of infrastructure, particularly for astro-tourism in the national park.
Apart from the safari and resort experiences, one of the fun activities that Saj in the Forest organised for me was a visit to Pachdhar village (about 15 km/30 mins from the resort). This unique village with approximately 100 households is full of potters (kumhaars). As I walked along the main street that runs through the village, I was gobsmacked to see almost every house displaying a range of pottery items in their front yard, all handmade with the local black soil.
From cups, bowls, and pots of varying sizes to flowerpots, planters, wall décor, and more, you will find beautiful handicrafts for your home or for gifting. I was invited into several houses to watch the potters at work and was also able to try my hand at the potter’s wheel. It was harder than it looked but I eventually managed to make a small vase, although it turned out a bit lopsided. Here and there, fires were going in large open ovens where the pottery pieces were being fired (baked) into black or brick-coloured finished pieces.
At the last house in the village, I was stopped in the tracks by the artistic brilliance at a whitewashed house named ‘The Clay Pots’. Rajkumari, one of the pottery artisans proudly showed me her work — pots, cups, and jugs, yes, but also deities, animal and bird figurines, little elves, dolls, and much more. I picked up a couple of souvenirs but what I really wanted was a pair of planters with sambar deer heads on the rim — I should have carried a bigger suitcase.
Pench National Park is 100 km (2 hours) from Nagpur International Airport. Saj in the Forest (sajresort.com) is located 3 km (10 minutes) from the national park’s Turia gate. Doubles from INR 17,000 per night, including meals and taxes.