Pench National Park is the place to be if you want to get up close and personal with the big cats. A guide for first-time visitors .(stock photo)

It’s 5pm on a hot and sultry afternoon. The jeep is parked along a dusty, muddy trail; the driver trying his best to ensure we have the best view of the incredible scene unfolding in front of us. A tigress and her three cubs are splashing around in an artificial pond, much to the delight of their captive audience. They play wrestle, chase and tease one another, all under the watchful eye of their mother. The tigress indulges their antics, but as the sun begins to set on the horizon, she gets up to head home. Two cubs follow her almost immediately. Their feisty brother lingers by the pool.

“He’s fearless,” the jeep driver informs. “He’s always walking on the trail alongside jeeps. The tourists love him,” he quips. Mum’s had enough. A low growl from her, and he runs along to join his sisters.

We’re on our first safari at Pench National Park, named after the river Pench that flows through it. It is also one of India’s most-visited tiger reserves, since big cat sightings are rather frequent here. It also happens to be the setting of renowned English author Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic, The Jungle Book. Every year, thousands of wildlife enthusiasts flock to the national park for a glimpse of Raksha (the Indian wolf), Baloo (sloth bear) and of course, menacing Shere Khan (Royal Bengal tiger).

Trip on this

Planning an outing to Pench can be a daunting experience for first-time visitors. It is spread across two states, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, and has multiple safari gates on both sides of the border. So, while tourists may feel like they have more opportunities to indulge in a wildlife experience, it also means booking safaris on two completely different websites. A common mistake made is to book multiple safaris at different gates to increase the odds of spotting a tiger. But the distance between gates can vary between 2km to 80km. And if you factor in that these are forest roads and not national highways, just getting to the gate in time for a safari can turn into a nightmarish experience for wildlife enthusiasts.

Not that we are complaining, after an amazing experience in the very first safari. With the “tiger sighting” box ticked, it’s time to sit back and immerse oneself in the beauty of the sprawling park. The tiger reserve is home to several wildlife species besides the tiger. Morning and evening safaris in its many core and buffer zones could bring you face-to-face with jackals, wild dogs, wild boars, a sloth bear, the Indian leopard, fox, striped hyena, monkeys, gaur, barking deer and the Indian wolf, among others. Bird lovers will not go home disappointed, too. The park is home to several migratory and resident species such as spotted dove, flame-backed woodpecker, white-throated kingfisher, red-wattled lapwing, Oriental magpie robin, Asian pied starling and more.

Sights and sounds

Over the next two days, a variety of wildlife and birds are “oohed” and “aahed” over. While we missed out on spotting a leopard in Madhya Pradesh’s popular Touria zone, driving through the old forest full of sal and ghost trees is therapy for the soul.

Our last safari is in Maharashtra’s Khursapur zone, where we spotted the tigress and her cubs on the first day. A storm is brewing, and one can hear the thunder roll in the background. It starts to drizzle and a few jeeps begin to leave. “Let’s wait for some time,” the driver says. We curse silently, but our patience is rewarded. Just as the sun sets, a tiny dot can be seen walking towards the pond in front. The jungle comes alive. A monkey gives a call. Then a deer. Yes, it’s a tiger! The young male walks elegantly to the pond, ignoring the ruckus around him. He sips some water, cautiously watching the jeeps as we watch him. Once he’s had his fill, he lies down on the sandy bank, lazing in the cool breeze that has begun to blow. “Should we go?” asks the driver. “Five more minutes,” we say, hoping to capture this moment and add it to our memory forever.

Getting there

Pench National Park is easily accessible

By air: Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar International Airport in Nagpur is located at a distance of around 130km.

By train: Seoni railway station is located around 72km away.

By road: Pench National Park is located on the Nagpur-Jabalpur highway, so connectivity isn’t an issue. If you are travelling by bus, Seoni is your best option. Taxis are also a good option to get there.

Keep in mind

Summers are a good time for tiger sightings since they step out to visit watering holes in the national park. But you can plan a trip in winters too, if you wish to explore the region without sweating it out in the sweltering heat.

The park remains shut in the monsoon season, i.e. June end to October 15, since it is the breeding season of animals.

Safari timings differ in summer and winter months. In winters, the morning jeep safari is from 7.30am to 10.30am, whereas, the evening safari starts from 3pm till 5.30pm. In summer, it is scheduled from 6.30am to 9.30am in the mornings and 4pm to 6.30pm in the evening.

There are plenty of budget hotels to choose from. Pick one that is equidistant from the gates you choose to visit. That way you reduce on travel time to reach the gates.

Best gates for safaris

Tiger sighting is pure luck. But there are ways to improve your odds. We contacted local experts to understand which gates to include on the itinerary. Tigers wander, and an expert can tell you if a certain big cat has made a zone his/her home around the time you plan to visit. This increases your odds of spotting it there.

The zones falling under Madhya Pradesh are Turia, Karmajhiri, Rukhad, Jamtara and Telia while Khursapar Zone, Kolitmara Zone, Sillari Zone and Chorbaoli Zone are popular on the Maharashtra side.

Touria is hands down the most popular gate at Pench and is part of the core forest. This means it gets booked out faster. We recommend going on at least one safari in this zone, just to get a feel of the forest and admire the topography and sal trees. Incidentally, this was also the only gate at which we did not spot a tiger.

Khursapur lies on the Maharashtra side. In recent times, tiger sightings have been more frequent here. We took a safari twice in this zone, and were successful both times.

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