Where animals run on the roads, where you can see the sky for miles, where trees sway to embrace you, where innocent smiles and shy faces gaze at you—this is the world of the little village of Kohka near Pench Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh

Words, videos & photographs: Ambica Gulati

We clung to the railing of the Gypsy. The blues of the sky were fast turning into darker shades. The cool and refreshing fragrance of tulsi filled the air. In the far distance, our young guide Manoj sighted a deer herd. But we only saw tall green plants and trees. And then the glinting eyes in the distance, gazing apprehensively, had us almost screaming in delight. Dazed, we didn’t even notice that the forest was silent and dark now, sinister and eerie. This was straight out of a book, almost unreal if it hadn’t been for our hushed voices. This was my first time on a night safari in a jungle. We were in the buffer zone of the Pench Tiger Reserve. It was monsoon and the big, huge leaves of the teak trees gave animals room to hide. Summer safaris are the best, informed both our driver and guide, as the animals can’t hide.

Despite the thick shrubs, we did manage to catch sight of a baby hare. The guide pointed out something moving, said it was a wolf. Trying my best, eyes screwed, I peered into the dark, I didn’t see it. However, I didn’t miss the ‘ghost tree’. This white one shone in the moonlight, hence its name. An hour’s ride in this dark forest and we were back on the road to Kohka Wilderness Camp. Headlights off, the big leaves seemed to be coming towards us. But it was just the mind playing tricks in the dark, for we had seen the greens in the day.

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The brainchild of Shourabh Ghosh and Sanjay Nagar, the camp offers a simplified way of life. And the short road to the camp gives a clue to what life in village Kohka is like. While the young men and women work in the paddy fields, small children are left at home with their grandparents. Hens with their little chicks keep flitting about even as the rooster keeps one alert every few minutes. The goats laze while small children in the primary school walk in and out of the premises. Lunch for them is at the Anganwadi and they do come dressed in uniforms. Somewhere in the other lane was a temple and a lake nearby where one can catch fish or wash clothes. Sometimes, smaller animals do come there for water, more so in the summer, I was told. Majority of the tribals are Gonds and speak Hindi pretty well. They also have their own dialect which is a mix of Dravidian and Hindi script. The neighbourhood comprises Turiya, Teliya and other smaller villages.

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The mainstay of life here is livelihood related to the earth such as farming, pottery or becoming a naturalist. “The women in the village also make a line of products such as face wash, pickles, bedcovers, turmeric for us,” says Ghosh. A hospitality professional, he has worked abroad for over a decade. And Kohka is where he uses the natural resources and his training to offer a natural, simplistic and comfortable experience. As the area has abundance of bamboo, you find a lot of it in the camp—the lamps, the glass and bottle covers, the wall hangings, and even the shower nozzle is made of bamboo.

The bed is a raised platform with the most comfortable of mattresses. The food comes straight out of the veggies grown in the garden. There is no set menu, just what’s well cooked. Of course, guests can state their preferences. We enjoyed the tribal fare.

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The décor is earthy, unostentatious and birds keep you busy through the day, if you like them. We were there for two days and it revealed a stressless world of simple people. One evening, Ghosh took us to the neighbouring village, Pachdhar, where the potters live. Their lives are a revelation of what working with Mother Earth means. Try taking a lesson in pottery and you will know exactly what I mean. My first attempt at making a pot was more like breaking it. The entire family is involved in the process of making pots. The mud is first collected from the nearby forest, then the women knead it, tread upon it and finally the men make the pot. After that the women take over for the drying and colouring process. The pots are then sold to a middleman. The rains are harder for these people, as the pots do not dry fast. And they have to be kept safe too. There are two kinds of wheels—the traditional hand one and electric one, so different kinds are made on the two wheels.

Kohka is the place to recover from the trauma of being a city dweller. As it is a forest area, flora and fauna are abundant. On the road to Pachdhar, we saw wild dogs and a herd of deer. Of course, the fragile world of Pench does need care. So animals are under the protected sphere. If you see them on the road, do not disturb them. Wait till they go. Shouting, screaming or littering is not a grand idea here. Keep the noise down if you want to enjoy the natural world. The idea is to melt into the greens and flow with the breeze, not resist it and look up, not into the phone.

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The camp stands at the edge of the forest and that’s where we went for a walk in the morning with naturalist Anil who is a native. Spiders, different kinds of trees and plants and lots of insects and birds, this was the best way to wake up. The man was full of stories of the natural world—ants tend to kill themselves if they are unable to protect their homes from predators. Suicide bombers, my mind clicked. The big cats like to walk on river beds, he added as we crossed a passage carved out of a stream. And the trails are not marked, so getting lost in this maze is an easy task, hence I did not venture alone, though would have liked to be there for a longer period.

On another morning, the green safari in the buffer zone had opened the world of langoors, jackals, peacocks and rare birds to us. The black drongos at every corner could not be missed. This little fiery one could drive away the biggest of birds, which my research said was true. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of the elusive big cat, but alas, it sighted us first and went away. How did we know? We didn’t, the shrieks of the langoors told us that he was nearby. We only spotted a fresh paw embedded in wet mud.

All too soon, the days had ended and it was time to fly back to the concrete jungle. The thrill of the safari remained though and I carried back a bagful of memories and loads of pictures. But mysterious and rooted in nature, the world around Kohka Wilderness Camp is best explored with lots of time and that’s what I hope to do some time soon.

How to reach
Kohka Wilderness Camp is about 100km from Nagpur which is easily accessible by train, air and road. The car can pick you from there.

Best time to go
October to May when the Pench National Park is open. For safaris, it’s best to book in advance as tourists throng the area then. The bookings can be done online or through the camp.

Eat, stay and see

  • The area is a paradise for birders and animal lovers. Carry your cameras and walking sticks. Take a good pair of boots and cotton clothing. The camp has mosquito repellents but I advise you to carry some too.
  • The camp can organise trips to neighbouring areas as well as camping. You can enjoy a night at a villager’s home, on request, of course.
  • Meals are part of the package and you can state your preferences. Liquor is not available but you can buy on the way or ask the camp to help you. We had our pegs of mahua—a chilly and lime cocktail concocted by Shourabh Ghosh. In-room dining is not preferred here.
  • Enjoy your time in the recreation room where there are books, games and the sole TV. A swimming pool will soon be ready. Wi-Fi is available.
  • Play with MrD, the golden Labrador, and if you want to take your own pets, connect with the camp in advance.
  • The camp is solar empowered, so best to use the electricity only when needed.
  • The walkways are all sprayed with scorpion and snake repellants, so best to use those and flashlights in the night.
  • In case you do miss out on the essentials, the camp can help you with things like toothpastes and toothbrushes. The bathrooms have the soaps, shampoos and conditioners which are also especially made for Kohka.
  • First-aid is available but the nearest good hospital is in Nagpur, so do carry your  frequently-needed medicines.
  • If you make time, you can see the old churches in Nagpur too—one in the cantonment area and one in Sadar. And take a slow ride back, enjoying the greens and the breeze.

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