The muddy, rutted path was bumpy. It stretched interminably across the flat rocky land. That March day started out pleasant and even a bit nippy but turned hot and dry by early afternoon. The road, if it can be called that, rattled my bones and resulted in slow progress and much discomfort. When we reached the gates of the Ken Gharial Sanctuary, my relief was palpable.
Just past the bridge on the Ken river on Khajuraho-Panna Highway (NH39), a large board indicates the turnoff to the sanctuary and Raneh Falls. A narrow, metalled road weaves through scattered villages and hamlets separated from each other by vast expanses of crop and farmland. But the road abruptly ends a dozen kilometres later and deteriorates into a mere suggestion of a path. A vehicle ahead or an oncoming vehicle results in a thick cloud of dust. Fortunately, the road inside the sanctuary leading up to the falls and the forest trails beyond are well laid and maintained.
Spread over 45.2 sq km, Ken Gharial Sanctuary lies about 25 km north of Panna Tiger Reserve’s entry gate at Madla. It sits on a plateau that overlooks the Ken River with a series of escarpments that fall 100-150 feet into the river valley. The most spectacular part is a canyon, dubbed the “Grand Canyon of India”, that snakes continuously for 5 km. Its igneous rock is rich in colourful granite, dolomite, basalt, quartz and jasper, easily distinguishable on bright days when they shimmer in the sunlight.
A safari through the sanctuary is usually under two hours, with two main stops. The first is the Raneh Falls viewpoint, which is the sole attraction for many visitors. While the sanctuary is named for the gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), another highlight is a series of waterfalls that plunge into the canyon over colourful rocks. The falls are spectacular during the monsoon when the water volume increases dramatically to form a continuous sheet of plunging water. At other times though, narrow streams rush through a few crags, making it equally magnificent. A boardwalk connects a few vantage points from where the falls and rocks can be viewed from different angles. During the dry months, it is also possible to see a volcanic crater that is believed to have erupted about 460 million years ago and created the series of gorges. Along the edges of the cliffs are beautiful kullu trees (Sterculia urens, also called ghost tree), their bark white and shimmering in the bright sun. Other species of trees such as tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon), salai (Bosswellia serrata) and kardhai (Anogeissus pendula) are also visible.
About 5 km north of the falls is the sanctuary’s second viewpoint, Crocodile Point, near the juncture where Ken and Khudar rivers meet. Here, there is no canyon and the sides slope down gently. The banks are packed with rocks and rocky formations providing plenty of relatively flat surfaces for muggers and gharials to sun themselves.
The mainstay of this sanctuary is the critically endangered gharial, a fish-eating crocodile whose snout ends in a bulbous knob (ghada or ghara), which is how it gets its name. Gharials are only found in some rivers of India and Nepal. There are only about 800-900 in the wild, and guides estimate about 105 live in the Ken river, following a successful reintroduction programme with gharials from Chambal. Yet, it is not easy to spot them. On the other hand, muggers (marsh crocodiles) are easily sighted on riverbanks. When driving to and from vantage points, or on forest trails, various animals come into view: nilgai, sambar, chinkara, chital, wild boar, and monkeys. Big cats are rare in this sanctuary, though leopards have been spotted a few times. The sanctuary has a variety of birds, but it is the vultures that are abundant and most eye-catching. The vertical craggy surfaces near Raneh Falls act as nesting sites, especially for Egyptian vultures. At a couple of spots within the sanctuary, a mix of Indian and Himalayan vultures can be spotted atop trees.
Open year-round. The best time to visit is from December to March when muggers and gharials come out of the water to soak up some sun. October to February is also the time that several species of migratory birds arrive in the region. Temperatures range from 5-28 degrees C.
Summer begins to set in by March and lasts till June. The park rapidly dries out and animal sighting increase. However, as summer progresses, it gets very hot and humid and safari drives can get uncomfortable with temperatures ranging from 25 to 45 degrees C.
From June to September the monsoon rain makes rivers full, and you are least likely to spot gharials.
Timings: The sanctuary is open from sunrise to sunset (approximately 6 am to 6 pm; last entry 5 pm). There are no specific safari slots and it can be visited at any time; allow 1-2 hours.
Cost: An individual entry permit for a vehicle costs Rs 600. A vehicle can be hired for the round trip from Madla Gate or Panna for around Rs 1,500-2,000. Each vehicle should compulsorily have a guide allotted by the sanctuary, for a fee of Rs 100.
By Air/Train: The nearest airport/railhead is at Khajuraho (30 km) to the Ken Gharial Sanctuary. It is connected with trains to Delhi and Jhansi.
By Road: Khajuraho is connected via NH75 to major cities in Madhya Pradesh including Bhopal, Jhansi, Gwalior, and Indore.
Sarai at Toria is a luxury resort that overlooks the Ken river. It has eight independent cottage-style rooms. The resort’s sprawling, grassy grounds are punctuated with tall trees and the overall effect is of being one with the outdoors. Doubles from Rs Rs 17,700 with breakfast and dinner. (www.saraiattoria.com/;+91-124-4062480/1)
Ken River Lodge is located on 50 acres of wilderness on the Ken riverbank. It’s eight village style huts dot the uneven forest terrain. Enjoy meals with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape in the resort’s machan-style dining area. Doubles from Rs 12,500 with all meals. (www.kenriverlodge.com/; +91-9009771964)
Tendu Leaf Jungle Resort taking its name from one of the most abundant trees in the area, has 24 chic cottages built with local materials and showcasing local culture. The highlight is the al fresco dining area with unhindered views of the river. Doubles from Rs 6,500 with breakfast. (www.tenduleafjungleresort.com; +91-9630815708 )
MPT Jungle Camp by MP Tourism is located next to the Madla gate, and sharesa boundary with the reserve. It has beautiful birdwatching opportunities. Rooms are large and comfortable, each with front porch and rear balcony. Doubles from Rs 3,000 for AC rooms, with breakfast. (www.mpstdc.com/properties/mpt-jungle-camp-madla-panna-1/; +91-7732275275)