Come on by the L.A. Times Travel & Adventure Show this weekend and say hi! I’m speaking both days: Saturday, February 14 and Sunday, February 15. L.A. Times Travel & Adventure Show details.

Namaste from Pench National Forest! We are just wrapping up our incredible trip to India and what better way than by going on a tiger safari for our second to last stop? As I wrote last week, I didn’t even know India had safaris and getting here was an adventure in itself. It turns out Central India is the best place in the world to spot tigers in their natural habitat and thanks to the posh African safari company andBEYOND (formerly called CC Africa), visitors can now stay in a plush game reserve while out in the wild and that’s just what we’re doing! To top it off, this is the very area that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. How cool is that?! Mowgli, here we come!

From the moment we pulled up to the Baghvan Pench Jungle Lodge, I knew we were in for a treat. Anytime a slew of workers are waiting for you with welcome drinks and cold, scented towels, you know it’s got to be good. The greeting reminded me of Fiji where high-end resorts sing songs to arriving and departing guests.

The Baghvan Pench Jungle lodge is situated just five minutes from the entrance of Pench National Park. India has strict national park rules so no lodges are allowed to be built inside its borders. However, this lodge is as close as it gets since the other accommodations (mostly budget) are miles away. There are some fences but they don’t always work so basically, the lodge is in the park. We were told that tigers, leopards, deer and other wildlife have been spotted roaming freely around the property. Exciting isn’t it? Not!

The Baghvan Lodge has 12 secluded suites; six on each side of the main house and all a good distance from one another to ensure privacy so nobody would hear passing guests’ yelps of fear. The rooms don’t have televisions or Internet access but they do have a phone. If you want to stay connected, there’s a media room with a large flat screen TV, hundreds of channels, a DVD player and a laptop free to use 24/7 with satellite Internet. To download my Outlook e-mail, I would disconnect the cord and plug it into my computer. It was slow at times but at least they had it and it was free. FYI: I have a T-Mobile Blackberry and cell service came in and out so I could download emails. AirTel seemed to be the best service provider available.

When Natalie and I pulled up at the lodge, we were already freaked out that two city folks like us were going to be out in the jungle. Those sentiments quadrupled after seeing the resort’swarning sign. It clearly states that under no circumstances is a guest to walk around the lodge at night unless accompanied by security. And, it warned, venomous snakes and some dangerousinsects are to be found everywhere in and around the lodge. YIKES! Also, signs said that the lodge accepts no responsibility whatsoever for injury, death, loss or damage. Gulp. Natalie and I looked at each other, thinking, What the heck did we sign up for? This is supposed to be relaxing?! I was about to think up an excuse to get out of this and just make our way on to our last scheduled stop in India; Mumbai. But, I didn’t think I could take that harrowing drive back.

We were escorted to the main house, which is like a thoughtfully designed home with a comfortable living room, communaldining room table and kitchen with an eclectic 1950s refrigerator. There are also several patios surrounding the main house but the main one at the entrance is where guests register, get a run down of the lodge and formally meet their butler. That’s right: The service here is so top-notch that each suite has a butler available 24/7. Natalie and I were both hoping that his duties also included sleeping on our pullout sofa to protect us if necessary but sadly, they didn’t.

Our butler was named Desu . Desu is the sweetest, most soft-spoken Nepalese man you could ever imagine. He might also be one of the bravest. Of course, with my mad, paranoid obsession with snakes and other poisonous creatures, I looked like a complete wuss to him and the rest of the staff. But I didn’t care as long as nothing bit me. Desu’s job was to walk us to and from our suite at night, armed with just a flashlight on an unlit narrow,worn path to keep us away from the wildlife. This “worst job in the world” includes moving any snakes (cobras) out of a guest’s pathway.

Thank goodness we were there during the dry season since Desu informed us snakes only come out of their holes when it rains. He also said that they’ve never found them in any of the suites. Even if he was lying, that was just what I needed to hear so I could get even a little bit of sleep. The first night after dinner, he was walking us back to the room, with us acting as his shadow, practically stepping on the heels of his shoes. When there was a loud rustle in the bushes just a few feet away, Desu stopped and slowly shined the flashlight around. We didn’t see anything and he said very calmly, “Oh, it was probably just a deer”. I was thinking: Why are we standing here? Why the heck aren’t you carrying a gun, a laser taser, a machete or something besides atorch?! If I were Desu, I would be dressed in full body armor and would be carrying at least a machine gun and possibly a flame thrower.

What’s crazy is that Desu and the other staff walk to and from their hidden quarters all by themselves at all times of the night in all weather conditions. And you know the paths to their rooms can’t be as well groomed as the guests’ and ours was nothing special. Besides protecting guests from Shere Khan and Kaa, mostly their duties are to greet you each time you arrive back from game drives with either lemon water (essentially lemonade — the best you’ve ever had!) or a hot concoction of ginger, honey and lemon, serve all the meals and be a human wake up call by bringing juice/tea/coffee/hot cocoa and biscuits to your doorstep each morning at your requested time. What a great way to wake up instead of to some annoying and jarring noise.

When Desu opened our bedroom door for the first time, we both exhaled a huge sigh of relief. The bedroom wasn’t open air and the windows were all shut and sealed. Praise the Lord that the room was bug-free and it had all the luxuries of home like heat and air conditioning. The room featured a warm Indian-style interior and there was a small working desk to write notes. There was the couch that Desu didn’t sleep on and a big ol’ comfortable and cozy bed in which I’m happy to report I slept like a baby. There were plenty of small details too that made this place unforgettable. On cold nights, we came back to our room to findhot water bottles under the covers for us. What a thoughtful touch and a great (and simple) thing to do at home.

The 12 suites are the size of a small house and come with a lot more than just a bedroom. When I looked around the room, I saw only one door, which led to the back deck with a private sit-out and a rocking love seat . There didn’t appear to be a door to a closet or, more importantly, a bathroom. What the heck? Where’s the bathroom? It turns out, it was down a long, covered (but still exposed to the elements) wooden hallway . Seriously, if the architect had showed us his plans before it was built, I might have slapped upside his head! What the heck was he smoking when he designed this place? I would have said, “You want me to walk a good 30 feet outside to the bathroom in the middle of the night in the middle of the jungle?! What is this? Some kind of IndianCandid Camera“? Of course, the bathroom alone could be featured in a glossy design magazine as it is beautiful and was built strictly for nature lovers in mind. But for city slickers, it’s the equivalent of an outhouse in the 1800s.

I gotta be honest: when you wake up in the middle of the night with nature calling, you really debate if it’s worth the trek outside or not. I lay in bed and did my best psyching myself out for as long as I could but it only delayed the inevitable. In fact, it did two things: kept me awake longer and actually toughened me up because when the pain eventually grew so bad, I didn’t even care if there was a streak of tigers, a bed of snakes or a scourge of mosquitoes waiting out there for me because I was going. The bedroom doors don’t have knobs or locks — just latches on the inside and out and each time I opened it to the outside — it was completely silent. No horns, no highway noise, nothing manmade. Just an occasional chirp from the crickets, tree frogs and the sound of the occasional moth or other large bug bouncing into the glass windows. Sometimes I’d also hear the faint alarm call from either a monkey or a deer.

Fortunately, the hallway has plenty of lights and the outdoor trek really wasn’t bad after the maiden voyage. The bathroom hastwo sinks and two showers (one indoor and one out … like I’m going to use the outdoor shower at night! I don’t think so.) But it was invigorating during the day and they both provide decent water pressure and hot water, though the shower takes about two minutes to warm up. In addition, the bathroom comes equipped with necessities like bottled water (it’s not advised that you drink or brush your teeth with tap water in India), bug repellentand a flashlight.

The flashlights are essential for when the lights go out on the property, which they did a few times but only for five seconds or so until the backup generators kicked in. The first time it happened, I almost had a coronary as I was sitting on the loo around 3am. In that nanosecond, I debated if I should scream for Desu or cry myself to sleep on the bathroom floor. But after a while it created a sense of excitement and was kind of fun. FYI:The bathroom is where the closets are located and you can leave your laundry to be washed free of charge.

Being out in the jungle, Natalie and I were prepared for bugs and mosquitoes. However, we went against our doctors’ orders and didn’t take the prescribed malaria pills when we found out it was the dry season. We still wore plenty of bug spray and I even wore an Insect Shield Repellent Apparel shirt and wristband each day. I saw maybe 15 mosquitoes the whole time and the rooms were all pretty bug-free except for the occasional escapee, probably from the night maid leaving the door open. We still acted like a pair of vigilantes before turning the lights out each night, searching the room and hunting them down. As a secondary precaution, we also kept the overhead fan on which keeps them away – they can’t fly in the wind. FYI: The entire trip I didn’t get one bite. Natalie wasn’t as obsessed and got bit once — in the bathroom.

Above the bathroom is what they call a machan, an open rooftop or covered platform that’s billed as a place for romantic sleep-outs. I don’t think so. At first, I thought it should be used in an episode of Fear Factor. But after spending some time up there, it turned out to be a really nice haven. There’s a roof and curtains and a day bed, which can be made up into the same bed as in your room. My outlook changed after taking an unplanned napup there while reading a copy of The Jungle Book, which the lodge keeps bedside — another nice touch. Even if it was warm out though, I definitely wouldn’t have slept out there the first couple of nights but possibly on the third. It must be an amazing experience being out in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no light pollution and the sky is miraculously bright and filled with stars, planets and galaxies. The machan is also where the resort’smasseuse gives their treatments, which are not as high priced as in the United States. A 30-minute treatment is included in everyone’s stay – I had a head massage.

Like most guests, we arrived in time for a late lunch but before we ate or went to the room we took a quick tour of the resort. There’s a tranquil pool with plenty of chaises longue, the most reasonably priced gift shop around and that’s about it. It’s pretty rustic but you are out in the jungle here to relax, get in touch with yourself, loved ones and nature. What else could you ask for? If you say good food, this place does not disappoint.

The lodge is all-inclusive so that means all the game drives, accommodations, meals and drinks are included in the price (prices begin at $349 per person a day). They feed you well here and all meals are Indian influenced like chicken tikka or curry. But it’s not like the Indian food you get back home. It’s much lighter, flavorful and tastier. The first course of every lunch and dinner is soup. In the four days I was there I sampled a variety of delicious soups like: tomato coriander (cilantro); green pea, lentil and cumin; and roasted pumpkin, ginger and carrot. All were delicious. The moment we finished eating, Desu would time it perfectly and always be there carrying a large tray with the next course. No matter where we were dining on the property, one of the chefs would be following him so he could explain exactly what we he’d prepared, which always consisted of four dishes(at least one vegetable, rice and meat dish) accompanied by different flavors of naan bread, chutney and pickles. BTW:When you first arrive, they ask you what your likes and dislikes are and I never had one meal that I didn’t like … and I’m a picky eater.

This lodge might be the one place in India where it’s okay to eat salads and not worry about getting sick. And boy were the salads good. The food is simple and Desu was like an artist, dishing out the servings one spoonful at a time, turning our empty white plates into a colorful palette of food. Our lunch venue was almost always somewhere different from one of the four decks or pool area. Most dinners were in the main dining room at a largecommunal table with the other guests. Only three other couples were in house and they hailed from South Africa and San Francisco. Dinner followed sundown cocktails. Guests can eat privately, even in their room if they like, which one night we did. Desu set up a table so romantically on the back deck it should have been featured on Oprah. Rose petals and candles were scattered all around and two charcoal fires kept us warm in the chilly night air. It was surreal as we enjoyed the romantic setting, listening to wildlife and each silently praying they didn’t make us their prey.

Guests definitely don’t go home hungry because there’s food everywhere. In the morning safari vehicle, there’s fruit, muffins, cookies and drinks and when you return from the evening drive they have afternoon tea with all kinds of snacks and goodieswaitingBreakfast takes place after the morning safari which is a full blown breakfast with all the comfort foods from home plus Indian delicacies like kathi rolls stuffed with chicken orvegetables, or homemade pancakes with potato, paneer and cauliflower called paranthas. More often than not we had breakfast with David, our safari guide who was full of interesting stories and facts.

What brings everyone to this lodge and part of the world are the game drives. Most guests go on both the morning (6:30am to 10:30am) and evening drives which leave at 3pm and return by 6pm. The open-air safari jeeps are the same as in Africa except they don’t have a spotter seat on the hood. In the winter mornings, it’s freezing so bring your scarf, sweater, winter jacket,hat and gloves, all of which you’ll want, even though they supply blankets and hot water bottles. I recommend dressing in layers because after the first two hours, as the sun rises, it getswarmer. The opposite is true during the evening drives.

To get to the entrance of the park, it’s literally a four- to five-minute drive down a dirt road from the lodge. Pench National Park is open to visitors between the hours cited above and closed during the months of July, August and September. The park has an area of 750 square kilometers (466 square miles) and 292 square kilometers (181 square miles) are open to tourists. The park takes it name from the Pench River, which runs through it. The topography ranges from hills, valleys and forests (lots of teak trees interspersed with bamboo and shrub species). Obviously, the park is rich in wildlife. Some of its animals include antelope, badgers, chital, fox, gaur, hyena, jackals, monkeys (macaque, langur) muntjac, nilgai, peacocks, porcupines, sambal, sloth bears, wild dogs and wild pigs. But everyone comes here to spot the elusive tigers and leopards. It’s also a birders paradise with over 200 species of birds. In two drives one of the birdersstaying at the lodge said she spotted 54 different types. Impressive.

Every time we entered the park we needed to pick up an official park ranger – the driver tips him (100 rupees = $2 USD) at the end and you only have to pay an entrance fee if you are driving your own car. The lodge arranges everything else. The lodge has multiple safari vehicles and when the hotel is not filled to capacity, they arrange for private tours, which they did for us. That meant we could go back whenever we wanted but seldom did we go home early. I had no idea how exciting and difficult it is to track tigers until this trip. I didn’t think it was going to be so hard but unlike in South Africa, drivers aren’t allowed to use radios to alert colleagues where the animals are. Instead, they rely on old-fashioned techniques like tracking paw printslisteningto the alarm calls of the spotted deer and monkeys and sharinginformation while driving past other guides.

We saw a ton of deer (there’s over 10,000-15,000 in the park),monkeys and peacocks. But unfortunately, we didn’t see a tigeror leopard. One of the other groups saw a leopard but since the grass was really high and there’s plenty of water this time of year, it makes it difficult. The best time to spot them is in the warmer months (March, April and May) when there’s not a lot of foliage for them to hide behind and it’s so hot they just hang out at the watering hole. David, who was such a joy to be around since he clearly loved what he does for a living, said the park has around seven to 10 tigers plus 10 cubs in the tourist zone. In total, there are between 32 and 35. He didn’t say how many leopards there are but he did tell us that you usually spot tigers in the morning and the leopards at night.

The highlight would have been spotting a tiger while riding an elephant. That’s because the government has two elephants, which they trained to track tigers. If they find one, one elephant will stay with the tiger while the other goes back to the main road to pick up visitors, four at a time. This is crucial since visitors aren’t allowed out of their cars except by the elephants, their headquarters or by the lake. Cars also aren’t allowed to go off-roading, which is why they require a ranger to accompany each automobile. Unfortunately, even the elephants couldn’t track the tigers on this trip.

-The back of the safari vehicle is the bumpiest, but offers better views since it’s higher.
-I thought it would be mostly Westerners on safari but the majority were Indians – and their cars were packed.
-Going on a tiger safari is like looking for Easter eggs or lost golf balls but the prize is bigger and definitely worth the wait.
-When it’s cloudy, it’s warmer.
-Monkeys and deer are friends; they alert each other of prey and the monkeys pull food off the trees for the deer to eat.

I’m bummed I didn’t get to see a tiger or a leopard but andBEYOND just opened two new properties and the pictures of it look insane — I can’t wait to go back. This area was nothing like I’d imagined – it wasn’t as colorful as the Disney pictorial ofThe Jungle Book but it was an incredibly beautiful and eye-opening experience. I grew as a person on this trip. I walked in a scared city boy and left with my pants a bit tighter. Don’t tell Desu but by the third day, I was walking back and forth by myself to and from my room, even in the dark.

Here’s a four-minute Johnny Jet video of this trip to central India(click “watch in high quality” below the video player on the right). We also have all the Johnny Jet videos ever made on YouTube, too.

Natalie and I ended up staying at the lodge an extra day because our next destination was Mumbai and while we were there, the unthinkable happened: India’s 9/11. One of the scariest parts was the fact that we had a reservation at the Taj Palace where scores of people were killed. The staff at the lodge could not have been any more accommodating and left it up to us to decide if we should go on to Mumbai and continue with our around-the-world-trip or go back to the States the way we’d come – via Europe. Join me next week to find out what we decided to do.


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