Viva Varun: In Madhya Pradesh!

Answer to “Where am I?” : Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh

There are partnerships that were destined to work – Mercedes and Benz, Rolls and Royce, Bombay Sapphire and Schweppes Tonic and in this case, Taj, India’s leading luxury hotel & resorts group, and &Beyond, the world’s finest safari lodge operator.

In the past couple of years, I have worked with &Beyond in Botswana and South Africa. Not only are the lodges superb in service and accommodation, but the company has a social conscience, working with tangible local projects including schools and orphanages.

When I was offered the chance to film with Taj Safaris, which is the partnership company, I jumped at it. Arriving at Nagpur Airport, I was driven just over ten hours to the Kanha National Park and the Banjaar Tola Lodge. There are two halves to the camp – East and West – both with nine luxury tents, swimming pool, satellite kitchen (to minimise the effect on the environment), guest area, complimentary Wi-Fi access and a superb and unique view over the Banjaar River toward the National Park. Each tent is superbly furnished with pressed-bamboo floors, canvas walls, eco-friendly bathroom products and even toilet paper!

Of course safari is all about the animals and the only way you get to see the animals is with an expert naturalist. My naturalist (and now honorary little sister) was Ratna Singh. Standing at just over five foot tall, she possessed the hunting skills of a lioness and the driving skills of Ayrton Senna. She is, incidentally, the only female naturalist in India!

I was in India to film an episode of my television show “Inside Luxury Travel”. We showcase only the best of the best and on safari that means game that count, and in India that means the Royal Bengal Tiger.

Day one of our safari was fruitful. We managed to see gaur (white-socked bison), jackal, spotted deer (think Bambi), langur monkeys, elephants and swamp deer. Ratna was very excited to see wild-dogs, which she said were rarer than the tiger. Alas, day one was tiger-less.

Day two was appalling. I am not sure we even saw a cloud. But I did catch a cold!

Day three was turning that way. I had called it and was preparing to pack up my Leica cameras and binoculars, but Ratna insisted we stayed for another ten minutes. Suddenly other vehicles were moving in a pack; Ratna swiftly turned our vehicle around and headed to the commotion. Standing in the road was a female tiger, marking territory. While the other non-Taj Safari naturalists jockeyed for position, Ratna slipped between them to give us the best view. She then followed the most beautiful animal in the jungle for two kilometres at a respectful, but camera-friendly distance. The other vehicles were looking miserable as we had pole position until the end.

I remember my first lion sighting in the wild, on the plains of South Africa and I will never forget my first tiger sighting in the Indian jungle. My dreams that night were filled with tigers, but the next morning I had to be up early for the five hour drive to the Pench National Park and the Baghvan Lodge. Rather than tents, there are fixed accommodations here which boast indoor/outdoor showers, wide and private terraces and all the other accoutrements that you would expect from a luxury Taj Safari property.

On my last day on this trip, I spent the morning at the local village learning how to make clay pots! I joke not; I became a potter! The results were … erm … mixed!  Panchdar (“five streams meeting”) is a little village with a thriving industry. The women cook, clean, look after the house and children AND take the clay to the potter who is always male!

In the afternoon I went into Pench National Park for my last safari drive of the trip. There are no sal trees, only teak. The park is 1500 square kilometres in area and there are only around fifty tigers living there. I didn’t get to see tiger, leopard or panther although other guests did. But the Lodge did arrange for me to feed elephants with roti, which was such a wonderful experience for me as I deeply love Indian elephants. They are so calm, so serene, so gorgeous.

-Varun Sharma

Varun Sharma is the host of Inside Luxury Travel – a television show that focuses on high-end travel. The show airs in over 160 countries, in 18 languages and is beamed into 390 million homes worldwide. He has now stayed in over 500 luxury hotels & resorts … and has in the past year flown in a fighter jet, gone diving – without a cage – in Tiger Shark infested-waters, had dinner with a dingo and has cooked with over 50 Michelin-starred chefs! He likes nothing better than playing a round of golf with his pooch Gemima by his side, cigar in mouth and flask of single malt Scottish whisky to hand!