Pashan Garh, A Taj Safari – Panna National Park, Madhya Pradesh

In a Nutshell:

A fabulous & memorable experience of a ‘cut off from the world’ jungle stay due to – great property, no phone connection, no wifi, no newspaper, no TV in the room, no library but soaking in just the jungle. This was topped with warm & efficient service by our butler Dilip, walks along the grass path with Lallan ji in the dark, lovely local food made from local ingredients by Chef Raj & his team, the invisible (to us) house keeping team who made up our room multiple times a day when we would go out, super patient, knowledgeable & absolutely passionate resident naturalist Tarun Mishra & of course the thoughtfulness & attention to detail to everything by the property head Dipu Sasi.

The most striking difference of staying here vs 90% of hotels/resorts is that this stay is so personalised & one on one human interaction is so high that it’s almost like a home stay. At every step we felt like we were guests at someone’s house.

Address & other details: Pashan Garh

Disclaimer: All restaurants / eateries / Hotels reviewed by YUMMRAJ were visited by YUMMRAJ himself & he has paid for the full Bill & tips also. http://www.yummraj.com

Each section of this post has headers, so that you can skip a section if that does not interest you. Here is a jist of all the sections:

·       How we got to know about Taj Pashangarh & Panna

·       The drive

·       About Panna

·       Story of panna tigers

·       Miscellaneous unrelated Stories from the jungle

·       Our experience at Pashangarh:

1.       Arrival

2.       About the property, the people & our experiences at the property

3.       The Activities 

v  Panna Reserve forest Safari

v  Jungle walk 

v  Night safari

4.       Food at pashangarh

How we got to know about Taj Pashangarh & Panna:

Jungle Safari was relatively new for us as a subject. For almost the last two decades ,we were doing historical places & cultural / food trips. We started wildlife tourism late last year with Corbett , followed by  Sundarbans, which was a fantastic experience. 

I had first heard praises about taj safaris from my friend Akshat who used to take his Jaguar land rover customers for driving trips from mumbai. It remained in my ‘back of the mind’.

While looking for interesting nature options to spend our 20th anniversary, we came across the site of taj safaris. Of the multiple properties of Taj safaris, we found the writeup about Pashangarh interesting – ‘Pashan Garh or ‘stone fortress’ is a cluster of 12 stone cottages huddled atop a small hill, with a sweeping view of dense foliage. Set in 200 acres of private wilderness; this luxury jungle safari resort in Panna National Park draws inspiration from the dry-packed stone houses of the Panna region.’

Panna is surely not the highest rated park among the 4 in Madhya Pradesh in terms of tiger sighting & other indicators, but we got a feeling that we would have a good time. And yes, in retrospect, it was a great decision.

The drive

 From door to door this forest is about 700 km from our home. Google map showed us 14 hours. Since we enjoy day driving more & more than 7 hours at a stretch comes in the way of fun of driving, we decided to break at Gwalior overnight & start next morning. 

The drive covered haryana (we started from here), delhi, Uttar Pradesh & Madhya Pradesh. At stretches we entered UP, then entered MP & again some time later UP & so on.

When we were kids, Truck drivers had a certain ‘tehzeeb’. They used to get to be a driver after years of playing assistant to the driver. So they had pretty good traffic rule compliance in general. That is mostly lost now. The trucks consistently were on overtaking lane, forcing cars to overtake from the left. At times trucks were not using indicators to change lane etc. 

Bikers all over UP & MP were right in the middle of the road!!! Most of them did not respond to horn as if they were born without ears. 

Overloaded tractor trolleys were all over on UP highways!!! Width of goods double the width of trolley…..

Holy cows were entering the highways from everywhere, at any moment, from any direction. 

 

In the trip we covered all kinds of roads – 

1.       narrow single roads, where one had to get off the road to give way to the vehicle coming from the front. 

  1. Toll highway with 2 x 2 lanes but no speed limit – Cattle could come in anytime from anywhere. 
  2. Under construction expressway between Gwalior and panna – Here, on large stretches one had to drive on the wrong side (coz the other side of the road was being made). 
  3. Delhi agra expressway is one of the finest roads I have driven in india with high cattle boundary & multiple lanes but strangely the speed limit had been reduced to 75 kmph versus 130 kmph last year (February 2020). 
  4. Roads where no one was in sight for many kilometers and also through densely populated roads markets. 

The scenery around was mostly very good – plains, plateaus, hills, rivers, farms, forests etc.

We also saw huge stretches of roads where houses were being demolished to make highway. In few places we saw protests against that & bulldozers razing the houses.

Most of the drive to & fro was sunny & very enjoyable. Gwalior to panna stretch we had to drive through some heavy fog in the morning though. 

About Panna:

Panna is a Deciduous forest, with Gorges, Waterfalls, Vast plains & Plateaus. The visual memory that I carried back was of the Yellow grasslands & tall trees with thin trunks. Occasionally this view would be topped up with a plateau in the backdrop.

Patches of jungle grass was being burnt to avoid spread of wild fire. This is a regular practise here. that also meant patches of black amidst the beautiful golden yellow grass.

 

The national park has 2 gates – Hinauta & Madla. 12 vehicles are allowed to go inside the park per slot per gate (vs.75 in Corbett). 

Once inside, there is no fixed route /zones that the cars need to follow (most national parks in India have fixed routes). So once inside, the cars can go to any part of the jungle that is allowed for visitors. 

 

This area has a kind of natural stone that has been formed over millennia – multi coloured Conglomerate rock.

 

We also saw deposits of natural Slate in many places in panna.

 

Story of panna tigers 

In 1994 this forest was declared a reserve forest. By year 2009, the entire tiger population of panna reserve had been killed by poachers in alleged connivance with forest officials. Unlike a century back when tigers were killed to showcase as trophy, poachers now have a big market in China & Far East Asian countries where parts of tiger body are supposedly eaten by people in hope of fertility, cure of erectile dysfunction etc. 

 

Over the next few years tigers & tigresses were brought in from other national parks in MP & they were tracked thru radio collar. Over time they gave birth to cubs & thus the population of tigers began to increase. In the last decade the population steadily grew & today there are about 50 tigers in the jungle. We did not come across any of them during our safari though. 

We heard that for this forest this is the optimum number of tigers – this is a function of the total area & also the population of prey (deer etc) available. Coz if the forest is unable to feed the tigers, they will go out to human settlements & start eating domestic animals initially & in extreme cases may turn man eaters also.

Unlike the tigers of Sundarbans, human beings are not a part of natural food chain of tigers. The tiger attacks human only if they are themselves scared or if they think their cubs are in danger.

Miscellaneous unrelated Stories from the jungle

As mentioned, we had with us an amazing resident naturalist, tarun mishra, on the jungle trips. He is a qualified engineer but chose to become a naturalist & follow his passion (remember 3 idiots?).  This passion shows in his enthusiasm, his patience in answering all our questions. 

Tarun told us stories about the animals & birds of this forest & gave us good insights on the geography & flora of the area as well. 

Tarun reminded us that bear is omnivorous. That’s the one animal which tarun said he would not wish to face while on foot in jungle – they have 9 inch claws which can be deadly, unlike other predators, they give no signal if they will charge. Sloth bear eats termite, honey, fruits & sometimes deer & monkey too. Usually they do not hunt but scavenge the already killed.

Peacock’s distress call can be misleading as it does so seeing tiger & others big animals as well. 

Deers rest, they do not lie down & sleep like us. They eat mostly in the day & they sit in the night to rest, but not to sleep. 

Male boar eats meat from already killed animals

Whiskers give tiger a sense of direction of wind. So they go in opposite direction so that deer do not get their smell when they are on the prowl. The whole forest conspires against the tiger when it is out to hunt. It’s not an easy job. Birds & animals give out distress calls & alert everyone. 

Eagles hunt for meat. They eat Other birds including peacocks. 

Nilgai is not attacked by the villagers inspite of them eating the crop – due to the name ‘gai’ meaning ‘cow’.

 

This forest had way Smaller termite hills as compared to what we saw in Corbett. 

Our experience at Pashangarh:

Arrival 

We were following Google maps & still we missed the corect entrance twice – First, Google map showed us the service gate of the property. We stopped & the guard asked us to drive further. As we drove, we saw another gate & drove past it. There seemed to be no signboard on the road. Later, we realized that there was a faded out signboard that is in need to a fresh coat of paint for the letters to be legible.

 

It was sheer Magic after we entered. After an almost 6 hour nonstop drive from Gwalior on metalled roads & traffic, we entered the campus of our hotel. It was a natural forest!!! Wow – We were Driving thru kaccha road in the forest in our car, for about 1.5 km. 

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I had Remembered reading about (on the internet) animals roaming around in the Pashangarh property. So when we suddenly noticed a small movement in the bushes, we stopped – there was a Herd of deer grazing. 

 

After some more time we saw a family of wild boars (1 adult, 2 kids). 

We had by the time turned off the AC & had our car window glasses rolled down. That let us enjoy the constant chirping of birds & the crackling of dry leaves as the car proceeded along the kaccha path.

As we entered the enclosure we were both surprised & touched – a full team stood there to welcome, Waving hands. Later we got to know that it’s a signature welcome of Taj Safaris.

 

After a lovely refreshing welcome drink, we were taken to the lobby by the resident Naturalist, Tarun, who had been assigned to show us around. As we sat at the lounge area, Tarun introduced us in person to the chef, the head of housekeeping, our personal butler Dilip for the days we stay at the property & the security head. 

 

About the property, the people & our experiences at the property

After a brief chat with Tarun, we headed for the room.

 

We got to know that the jungle camp / resort was started in 2008 with 12 guest cottages. They still have 12 cottages only. That ensures that there is not too much crowd at any point in time.

No loud speakers, no DJs – just guests & nature.

The Property is located next to the buffer zone of the forest. It is located near to the Hinauta gate (30 minutes drive) of the reserve forest. 

Each guest is allocated a butler. 

Housekeeping staff clean the rooms several times a day when guests go out. 

Chef asked us our food preferences in person also. They had called us a day before & asked about the same as well.

 

Wifi was there only at lounge, for very important work. Like I mentioned above, there was no phone connectivity (airtel, vodaphone etc. Jio & BSNL work occassionally). There was no TV in the rooms.there was no library in the property. No newspapers. 

The Idea is to enjoy the forest, we were told.

As we walked out of the lobby, we realized, that we had just walked over the last of the concrete slabs. The rest of the walk to the rooms was thru grass path – people constantly walk on grass in a certain line & then slowly that becomes a grass path. 

 

We also noticed that there were dead wood poles on the side of the grass path – from where traditional kerosene lanterns hung. We had to wait till the evening to see the magic of those lanterns unfold.

 

The cottage was amazing. From outside it looked like a stone house. 

 

As we walked inside, we realized that the walls & flooring – everything was made of stone. 

 

There was a Place to sit & chill indoors & gaze out at the nature outside (wall to wall glass window) & a lovely canopy to sit & soak in nature in the open area as well.

 

The cottages have no lock of door from outside. We were told ‘No one will take anything, don’t worry’. 

 

There was however 1 door lock from inside – for sleeping time, at night.

We had heard from people who have stayed here earlier, that the heating was not effective. But we were good with the new generation heaters (that work with a piped gas) that were there.

The pool area was super cool – in the middle of large trees. We were advised to silently sit on the chairs & watch the fun. Yes, a bit after we settled, loads of birds started coming there to drink water – the sound of the place was fab.

Dilip, our butler, was super warm, like a friend, yet he was very efficient. He treated us like guests at his home. He belonged to a place about an hour away. 

Can’t forget the chat with Lallan ji on our way back to room after sunset – he used to accompany us for every walk after dark, with a big torch light – Coz there are chances that one might encounter wild animals inside the campus, both predators (occasionally) & prey (always).

 

Dipu Sasi was too good a property head. No airs about him. Totally Grounded, yet always in control. He was constantly keeping an eye on things. Always updated. wow. Great to chat with – given his 12 years & 6 different taj jungle safari experiences.

WE WILL REMEMBER FORVER THE SURPRISE DINNER IN THE JUNGLE PLANNED BY DIPU  – without knowing (we did not tell him about any occasion), he gave us such an experience on our 20th anniversary:) Will write more about it in the next section (activities).

The Activities 

Panna Reserve forest Safari

We entered thru Hinauta Gate. We were the first to enter that day from that gate. It was 630 AM in the morning. Quite cold – We were wearing down jackets, more because there was wind chill than due to the temperature.

 In the car was a driver & a forest guide – There is a test that one has to pass to obtain a license for being a forest guide. The government mandates that local people be employed for this, specially those who have grown up in this region. Our resident naturalist Tarun was with us too & he narrated all the stories of the jungle. 

 

We were in the safari till 11.15 am when it shut. 

As soon as we entered, we saw a big bunch of spotted deer grazing. 

 

A little away we saw a male Sambar deer with huge horns.

 

Later we saw another make, a female & kid sambar deer at different times.

Twice during the day we slowed down seeing a movement in the bushes & stopped – once a herd of deer crossed over & on another occasion a baby nilgai crossed the road with its mother – the mother quickly crossed over seeing the jeep. The kid, not aware of potential danger, stood & kept posing for us.

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In addition to spotted deer, sambar deer & nilgai, we saw many wild boars & a leopard. While all the deer posed for us enough to be clicked, the boars (on at least 5-6 occasions) ran away as soon as we stopped to click. 

As we were on our way back from the park, our jungle guide spotted a leopard tail disappear to the bushes on our left. Our car sped & stopped in front of the leopard. We looked left. The leopard was looking straight into our eyes, assuming that it had camouflaged itself in fairly long grass. I stood up to get a top shot & reached out to the camera. Within a flash the leopard turned back & disappeared into the much taller grass ahead. The whole sequence from the first sight to the turning around was about 5-7 seconds…… no pictures clicked but what a memory 

In addition to the above mentioned mammals, we saw a host of beautiful birds, many of whom we do not remember seeing before. 

Oriental white eye

Griffon vultures

Jungle bush quail

Indian roller

Red vented bulbul

Shikra

Orange headed thrush

Asian paradise flycatcher

Rufous treepie

Jungle babbler

Indian grey hornbill

Brown rock chat

We also stopped near a gorge to have Bonnet breakfast. This one was super interesting. There was both cold & hot food. Hot aloo parathas. Cold ones included fruits, muesli, curd, sandwiches (egg & veg) etc. Coffee & tea were also there.

 

All the food was laid out by Tarun & the two gentlemen on the bonnet of the jeep. All 5 of us ate from there. I insisted we eat together. Loved the food & the whole concept. As elaborate as it could get in a real jungle.

A walk up to the observatory was fun. Clicked some top view pictures from there.

 

Jungle walk inside the forest in the campus. 

At 430 pm on the same evening we went for a jungle walk in the natural forest around the hotel. Our naturalist Tarun accompanied us & Bopanna, another naturalist was in charge of another family. We took different routes in the jungle. After a while we heard some deer cry that sounded like a distress call (when deer senses that there is a predator around’. So we thought we will go to the same direction on foot. The other group also started going in the same direction. 

At some point we saw Dipu with a pair of binoculars & he suggested that we take the jeep as the sound came from a distance. So we took an old safari jeep & went after the direction of te sound. Did not see any predator but saw lots of prey. A huge sambar deer jumped in front of us suddenly…..

Great fun it was & the experience was good – no matter that we did not see a predator.

Night safari

This was a first time experience for us ever. We did not know what to expect. Tarun drove the jeep himself & was talking to us. He had two light torches with him, which he was flashing all around – one red & one white. The jeep was going thru the huge wild grass. 

 

In the pitch darkness, we could see a pair of glowing eyes when the light would fall on an animal. 

After about 45 minutes, we came to an area which seemed open (no trees around). I requested Tarun to stop the car engine & switch off all lights. That was the best moment of the evening safari. In the jungle, pitch dark, nothing visible, except the stars & a half moon. Only the sounds of the jungle & its smell. Tarun was showing constellations thru an app in his phone – he would point to the sky & the app would read the star formation & show the shape of the constellation & show its name.

 

As we started from there, we heard something like a distress call. Tarun said ‘let’s follow the sound’. The jeep rushed towards the sound thru long grass & winding roads & as we entered the clearing, the sounds were still there – Dipu & 4 members of his team were standing there, clapping & waving at us, making those distress calls. It was a surprise ending to the night safari & we were at a special part of the jungle where they had set up dinner for the two of us. Wah.

 

The whole set up had a couple table-chair, surrounded by kerosene lanterns,

A bonfire was there with two seats next to it. 

 

A refurbished bullock cart (no bullocks) was also kept there – one could sit inside it……

What an awesome set up

Absolute unexpected. What a beautiful way to celebrate our special day.

Food at pashangarh

Chef Raj understood what we wanted (conceptually) & served us local food of his choice, made from local ingredients. We were very impressed to see that the in-house bakery churns out everything from normal breads & cookies to complex baked products.

There was no tea & coffee set up in the cottage. Every time we wanted tea / coffee, we had to place an order & someone used to come & deliver to the cottage. They would keep it in a hollow space which could be accessed & locked from outside & also from inside. Then they would tap the window & wait. Only when we respond they would leave & then we would open the hollow space from inside the room & access the coffee.

 

The only coffee available here was French press – we just loved it.

However, when we had the coffee at Bonnet breakfast during safari, the Coffee acted funny – maybe it was acidic or the milk was not Ok due to the jerk. The Milk curdled as soon as we mixed it with the coffee. I drink coffee round the year at home – With Starbucks (again a Tata enterprise in India) ‘Indian estate coffee’ this over acidity problem never happens.

With it came excellent in-house baked cookies of different kinds.

 

The tea offering was very sad – There was option of only dip tea. I would not want to have a Darjeeling tea with a dip (they all taste watery & shallow). Rather a 3 minutes (light brewed) to 4 (medium) Darjeeling tea from makaibari would have been great (now that Taj has tied up with Makaibari estate in kurseong & has opened Taj Darjeeling).

The tea in general & coffee sent to the safari were the only two food & beverage items that could have been improved. Incidentally for both of these, the best solution is already available in the tata group.

 Loved the fresh orange juice served on both the days

We also had hot toddy on both the evenings to beat the cold – it was good (light flavors) but the one served at colaba social / the Bombay canteen (robust) is much better.

 

We had both the lunches & the hotel breakfast at the beautiful open air restaurant next to the wilderness. 

 

The dinner on day 1 was indoors.

 

Day 1 lunch

Tomato & coriander leaf Soup was good. Felt refreshed after having this, after a 6 hour non stop drive from Gwalior. Rate it 3.5/5

 

After we had the soup, the rest of the dishes came in a tray, all together. 

 

Palak Paneer was good. Liked the palak. Mild taste, balanced on oil. full flavours of palak. Rate the palak 3.5/5

As we bit into the Paneer, we realized that this was not the normal one. So we asked. Yes, we were right – the paneer had been made inhouse from scratch. Loved it totally. Rate it 4.95/5

We were served an Excellent, fresh salad that was crunchy & juicy. Rate it 4.5/5

Aloo gobhi with green peas was very good. It was cooked Home style, with care. Unlike the commercial ones, there was no masalas on the face & no flowing oil. Rate it 4/5

 

Chholay was very good. It was again, good on flavors, balanced on oil, no spices on the face, not hot. The chickpeas were soft – a little more bite would have made it outstanding. Rate it 4/5

 

Kadhi pakoda was superb. Medium thick kadhi that was sour enough to be enjoyable. Pakodas were soft & flavorful. Rate it 4.25/5

 

Homestyle (MP local) Chicken curry was excellent. Loved every bit of it. The spices used had a faint similarity with what is used in parts of Maharastra but they had their distinct differences as well. Rate it 4.5/5.

 

For dessert we got Mahua kheer. Mahua is a fruit with which adivasis make an alcoholic drink. The fruit of that plant was used to make kheer (cooked in milk over long time till reduced). We did not understand the mahua much. It tasted like a different kheer. The mahua itself did not have any distinct taste or flavour. Good to taste overall. Rate it 3.5/5