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Habitat

The Guide: Satpura National Park

There are three ways to explore this gorgeous Central Indian wildlife park of hills, rivers, wooded forests and rugged grasslands

Text by: Malavika Bhattacharya

In the 1800s, Captain James Forsyth of the Bengal Lancers regiment explored much of the Satpura mountain range and documented his findings in The Highlands of Central India. It’s a recommended read even today for those who wish to delve deep into the workings of this vast Central Indian forest. Of Madhya Pradesh’s many stunning jungle areas, Satpura is perhaps the most unique. It’s where moist and mixed deciduous forests of sal and teak converge. The Satpura Hills, the Denwa River, and the Tawa River form natural boundaries around this forest, so apart from densely wooded tracts, the region’s habitats comprise mountains, open grasslands where villages once stood, and a river ecosystem as well.

As one of India’s first protected reserve forests, the area continues to sustain a wealth of wildlife, from a large population of stealthy big cats spotted on forest trails to sloth bears hiding in cool, rocky crevices. For many tourists, the Bengal tiger is the main draw, but if you keep your eyes open for raptors and smaller species as well.

The larger Satpura Tiger Reserve is spread over 1,427 sq km and made up of three separate areas: Satpura National Park, Bori Sanctuary, and Pachmarhi Sanctuary. This is a guide to a safari in Satpura National Park.

Satpura National Park is flanked by two tributaries of the Narmada, Denwa and Tawa, which remain its lifelines. The Tawa is the largest tributary, while the Denwa follows the edges of the forest and eventually joins Tawa at the south of the park. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee  Cover: Most tourists visit Satpura National Park to spot the tiger, but its hills, rivers, and grasslands also harbour a wide variety of animals including graceful herds of blackbucks. Cover photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Satpura National Park is flanked by two tributaries of the Narmada, Denwa and Tawa, which remain its lifelines. The Tawa is the largest tributary, while the Denwa follows the edges of the forest and eventually joins Tawa at the south of the park. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee
Cover: Most tourists visit Satpura National Park to spot the tiger, but its hills, rivers, and grasslands also harbour a wide variety of animals including graceful herds of blackbucks. Cover photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

EXPLORE

Satpura National Park is spread over 524 sq km. The landscape of the park morphs from tightly packed jungle trails flecked with mahua and glowing ghost trees, to sprawling grasslands where herds of chital roam. Visitors can explore the wilderness on a jeep safari, but what truly sets Satpura apart is the availability of boat, canoe, and walking safaris as well.

Safaris into the national park begin from the Madhai gate, and all visitors must first cross the Tawa reservoir by boat to arrive at this point. The number of vehicles allowed into the park are strictly regulated, so at any point, yours is likely to be the only jeep on a forest trail.

Boat safaris follow the arc of the Denwa and Tawa rivers. Cruising into the core of the forest offers a chance to spot from up close the normally reclusive animals drinking at riverbanks and waterbirds.

On a walking safari, visitors can explore designated trails within the forest’s core area, led by experienced forest guides. Their experience allows you to interact with the forest through all your senses. See the trails left by an antlion on sandy soil and learn how to identify native trees like the tendu and crocodile bark.

(Left) Though Satpura has a healthy population of tigers, its hilly terrain and dense forests make spotting the feline extremely difficult. (Right) The termite and ant-eating sloth bear is equally elusive in these forests.
Photos: Davidvraju / CC BY-SA 4.0 (left), Dhritiman Mukherjee (right)

WILDLIFE

On drives through the park, visitors can spot Indian bison or gaur, sambar, and packs of wild dogs or dholes. Monitor lizards scurry across the rocks on steep hills, and sloth bear hide out in cool rocky alcoves, especially in the summer months.

With a healthy population of tigers and leopards, large cat sightings are fairly common in Satpura. The branches of trees are the habitat of the rather elusive Malabar giant squirrel, recognisable with its russet-hued body, bushy tail, and beady eyes.

On boat safaris, keep an eye out for stealthy crocodiles in the water and on riverbanks. You can also spot birds like egrets, woolly-necked storks, and lapwings, as well as raptors like ospreys and fish eagles.

Caption: Satpura National Park has over 300 species of birds. In the dense forests of mahua and sal you can spot, among many other birds, the plum-headed parakeet (top left) and the changeable hawk-eagle (top right). The backwaters of the Denwa River are popular with birders trying to spot waders such as woolly-necked storks (above right). Thanks to its vivid colours — black, cream, purple, red — the herbivorous tree-dwelling Indian giant squirrel is a popular attraction at the park (above left).
Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

SEASONS

Satpura National Park is open from 1 October to June 30 and remains closed (July-September) for the monsoons. During the warm summer months (April-June) when animals venture out in search of water chances of sightings are higher.

SAFARI COSTS & TIMINGS

Satpura National Park offers three kinds of safaris: jeep, boat, and walking.

Jeep safaris: There are 5 routes available to choose from. Prices start at Rs 4,160 per vehicle, depending on which route you take. Each vehicle seats six. This price includes entry permits to the park, vehicle and guide charges.

Full vehicles or individual seats can be booked online at https://forest.mponline.gov.in

Vehicle and guide charges are payable at the gate, shared by all occupants of the jeep.

Boat safaris: Starting at Rs 2,760 per boat (6 visitors) per hour. This price includes the boat fees (Rs 2,400) and guide charges (Rs 360).

Walking safaris: You have to take a boat to access the park’s core area for a guided walking safari. Cost is Rs 400 per person (includes entry permits and boat fees) and additional guide charges of Rs 700, shared by all members of the group.

Carry government-approved photo ID.

Many wildlife lodges will organize safaris into the park, for an additional fee.

Timings: All safaris operate twice a day from 6-11.30 am and 3-6 pm. Full day Jeep safaris on the Churna route start at 6 am and last until sundown.

• All parks in Madhya Pradesh are closed on Wednesday afternoons.

(Top) The Indian gaur is the largest and tallest species of wild cattle found in India.
(Above) Prehistoric cave paintings that are at least 10,000 years old, are visible in some of the rock shelters of the Satpura mountain range. The paintings depict animals and birds, and scenes of hunting, dancing, and social life among other things. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

(Top) The Indian gaur is the largest and tallest species of wild cattle found in India. (Above) Prehistoric cave paintings that are at least 10,000 years old, are visible in some of the rock shelters of the Satpura mountain range. The paintings depict animals and birds, and scenes of hunting, dancing, and social life among other things. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee

GETTING THERE

By Air: The airport closest to Madhai, Satpura is at Bhopal, 166 km/5 hours away.
By Train: Itarsi Junction, Hoshangabad, Piparia and Sohagpur are railway stations that are all under 70 km/2 hours from the park.
By Road: The route from Bhopal to the Madhai entrance is a 130 km/4-hour drive.

STAY

Denwa Backwater Escape: Located on the riverfront, Pugdundee Safaris’ comfortable lodge has a host of resident birdlife. Rooms are cosy and built with local materials like stone and mud. Doubles Rs 20,300, includes meals not safaris (www.pugdundeesafaris.com/denwa-luxury-hotels-in-satpura).

Bison Resort: MP Tourism runs Bison Resort which sits at the edge of the Tawa reservoir, from where all boats depart for daily safaris. Rooms are comfortable and surrounded by gardens. Doubles from Rs 5,500, includes meals, not safaris. (www.mpstdc.com/properties/mpt-bison-resort-madhai/).

Forest Rest House, Madhai: Situated right at the Madhai entrance to the national park, this forest department run riverside accommodation has basic double rooms surrounded by open lawns and a canteen for meals. Doubles from Rs 2,000, room only (contact +91 7574-254394).

Malavika Bhattacharya
Malavika Bhattacharya

is a travel and culture journalist always looking for an excuse to head into a forest or an ocean. Find her work at www.malavikabhattacharya.com.

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