The sweltering summer heat got the better of us and one sultry May morning, at the crack of dawn, we jam-packed our XUV-500 with all sizes of travel bags and humans to head to our summer retreat; some 660km drive from home. By late afternoon, post a lazy and scrumptious lunch by the roadside dhaba, under a shady tree; our excitement started waning as it dawned on us that some 8 long hours were left to be clocked to reach our travel destination. By late evening a bunch of grouchy people, exhausted and famished walked into the MTDC Resort at Mozari Point in Chikhaldara. The picturesque resort beneath the starry moonlit sky, atop a hill overlooking the valley took our breath and fatigue away. The cool breeze got the several wind-chimes in the garden clinking. After a hearty meal, we happily plonked ourselves on the garden couches only to be told to go inside our cottages as the night grew old. The guest house was frequented with night visitors; the sloth bears in search of food would wander around. The night was so windy that if any of the doors were left open in the cottage, it kept slamming or rattling….which was so eerie to say the least. Nevertheless, we went to bed with a lot of anticipation for the next day and slept with a contented little smile glued to our lips!!
Chikhaldara is a scenic, small hill station at an altitude of 1118m in the Amravati district of Maharashtra ,an Indian state. In the epic Mahabharata, it was here, where one of the Pandavas, Bheema fought a herculean battle with the villainous Keechaka and after defeating him; threw him into the ravine. It thus came to be known as Bheem kund and the place was called Keechakdara and eventually got the name of Chikhaldara. With lush and green, deep and misty valleys; breathtaking waterfalls, placid lakes the quaint little hill station is an ideal getaway from the mundane urban life. The Gawilgarh Fort on the Chikhaldara plateau was a mountain stronghold of the Marathas against the British, built by the Yadav gawalis and fortified by a Bahamani king. A trek on a bright, sunny morn to the ethereal relic will bring you at the threshold of an era gone-by. The ruins of Jama Masjid, the once intricately built mosque within the fort premise offers a grand view of the valley. Vairat point also known as the Sunset point is the highest of all the hills of Chikhaldara. It holds a spot of relevance in the Indian mythology as it was the ruling seat of King Virat with whom the Pandavas resided while exiled. The plateau is also the only coffee growing region in the whole of Maharashtra. The region abounds in wildlife too.
Melghat Tiger Reserve is just 2 hours (70.8 km) drive away from Chikhaldara. Melghat was declared a tiger reserve and was among the first 9 tiger reserves notified in 1973-74 under project- tiger. Melghat means “meeting of the ghats” which describes the region as a large tract of unending hills and ravines scarred by jagged cliffs and steep climbs. In 1985 Melghat Wildlife Sanctuary was created. According to the last census there are 73 royal cats habitating the reserve. Tapti river and the Gawilgadh ridge of the Satpura range form the boundaries of the reserve. Located in the catchment area of the river Tapti, Melghat, a water harvesting forest supplies 30% of the fresh water available to the population living in the vicinity. There are no villages in the dense core area of the jungle called Gugamal national park. Apart from the majestic royal cats the other beasts habitating the reserve are sloth bears, leopards, barking deers, hirons, wild boars, monkeys, gaurs, sambars, nil-gais, rabbits, rattle-snakes to name a few and innumerable species of insects and birds of which six belongs to the endangered species. The forest is mainly dry deciduous in nature dominated by teak and bamboo but some valleys and cliffs remain green for most part of the year. A safari in the open gypsies through these thickets is a paradox; nerve-wracking and breath taking at the same time!
Awoke with a start as the fleeting sun fell right across the face through the slit in the drawn-curtains. To have the morning cuppa’ in the sun drenched breezy balcony sets just the right tempo for the day. After a quick shower and a king’s breakfast headed straight to the porch dressed nattily in olive green/brown hues, a cap firmly in place, rucksacks carrying the basic necessities to where the open jeep had been awaiting to take us for the safari. We had hired one of the open-gypsies of Mr. Zakhir Siddique from his fleet. He rents out his vehicles for tours and safaries. The ‘jolly good fellow’, a naturist and an avid photographer himself drove us personally around the valley. We can never thank him enough for his hospitality. In case you are planning yours, here’s his contact number “+919021314160”. The road, long and winding brought us to Narnala. The imposing and intricately designed Narnala fort atop the hills of Satpura range in Melghat is of great historical significance. Standing lone against the ravages of time and nature bearing testament to history”….men may come and men may go…..”
The reserve encompasses the fort area. However, it is not advisable to travel all the way from Chikhaldara (127km) especially if you are traveling with kids as the journey will wear them out completely. Rather book the MTDC Resort at Narnala or try for accommodation at the forest bungalow by acquiring permission from the Deputy Conservator of forests Wildlife division. We collected our entry-permit from Narnala fort check point, Shahanur; and headed to Gularghat entry point accompanied by a forest guard simmering with excitement. Standing on the gypsy, with the wind on my face and the sun lightly embracing my shoulders; my eyes were soaking in the most it could. The mesmerizing silhouette of the thicket with the setting sun in the back ground etched a memory which will be cherished forever. The shrill cawing of the ravens, the chirping of the birds, the cacophony of the peacocks-peahens and fowls filled the crisp air. ….the occasional gibbering of the monkeys broke the stillness of the frame. With quivering hearts, we looked yearningly at the water holes and salt-licks at conspicuous spots. At one particular water hole, we were visually treated to a herd of bisons, a bevy of deers and three sloth bears; all in one frame and didn’t know which to click. The forest guard showed us several paw and pug marks on the beaten track which got us trigger – happy though we weren’t allowed to alight from our gypsy.
By now we were totally enchanted by the beauty of the jungle. Still waited with bated breath for just a glimpse of the elusive royal cats. We were taken to the heart of the jungle where from atop a watch tower we got a bird’s eye view of the rustic terrain. We even got a faint glimpse of a sloth bear climbing a mahua tree (bears are avid addicts of mahua;). To our much delight we even spotted three bear cubs from another watch tower. We had gone for two safaries one in Gularghat and the other in Semadoh. It is a hamlet in the dense Melghat tiger reserve with an abundance of wildlife and scenic landscape and has a beautiful lake, Semadoh.
The safaries did satiate us but for just one tiny glitch….the shy big cats did elude us on both occasions. Nevertheless, if not this time am always game for going back another time for just one glimpse. On the last night of our stay we opted to stay in Kolkas Rest house, a government guesthouse in Melghat tiger reserve by the Sipna river. The experience had been surreal. The rest house is just by the brook with a watch tower providing a wonderful panorama of the river bed. The place is a paradise for jungle lovers and ornithologists’. Lying on your back and star gazing would be beautiful which in today’s time is a rarity. Unfortunately, the property is definitely not well maintained and is in dire need of a renovation. Despite all odds, it was an overall pleasant and memorable trip to be cherished for life. Given a chance would always want to revisit this mystic valley in the realms of Mother Nature away from the regular conundrums of life!!