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It's Up There!
By Amit Mahajan

I am on a Banyan tree, are you on the Peepal?” At the Tree House Hideaway this is an everyday question you might ask other visitors. To my ears I sound like a ghost from many a haunted childhood story — living an existence simultaneously impish and sad. However, if our stay at the Tree House Hideaway was a sample of the life beyond, I’m eagerly looking forward to it. And why not? If my after-life offered stay in a spacious, cosy room made of lovely polished wood atop a tree with a hot shower and nothing but wild country in view, it would be a significant improvement on any living arrangement I can aspire to in this one!

This advertisement to the after-life, the Tree House Hideaway, borders the Bandhavgarh National Park and is a secret part of a small hamlet that combines a cluster of families engaged in a diminishing small-scale agriculture and an increasing number of hotels and resorts. The resort exists in the twilight zone between forest and human settlement; it is well and truly hidden and occupies a large plot of 21 acres. The hideaway is very green, in the understated manner of greenery in Madhya Pradesh — not the shining emerald and wet abundance of the tropics or the colourful riotousness of the wooded hills, but a sparse collection of trees and some grassy undergrowth on an essentially brown dry landscape.

On a cold full-moon night, this canvas glowed softly and seemed to stretch endlessly, and among this vastness we knew there were six trees of importance. One Mahua, which had the dining hall built around it, and five of Banyan, Peepal, Mahua, Tendu and Palash, each with its own tree house. (The centrality given to the Mahua is not accidental — a lot of life, traditionally, in this region revolved around the Mahua, especially around its intoxicating flower.) The best way to describe the construction is that each tree house is built not just on a tree, but under and around it as well. The tree houses (big double rooms with attached bath and balcony) rest on stilts. There are wooden stairs leading up to the room, and you can fondly pat the trunk and the branches on your way up and play with the leaves out in the balcony.

There are two lives possible at the Tree House — the one in the snug warmth within the resort, and the other in the tiger-infested wild. Choosing the first, you can spend your time unseen and undisturbed in the intimacy of your room. The rooms are big and the wall to the balcony is made of sliding doors; opened, it makes a large platform where, even if you stay put all day long, you will never feel hemmed in. The tree houses are far apart and do not infringe on each other’s space and there is nothing else in the vicinity to bother you. For a breather, you could take a walk in the grounds or outside in the village. There is a waterhole within the property — next to it you feel you are deep inside a jungle — take a book or a board game and sit under the bamboo clusters (in fact, they plan to put a machan here). If you are lucky, a deer might come drinking water and spot you.

Night is the time to exchange notes with the other visitors around a bonfire next to the dining hall. The day was warm but as soon as the sun disappeared a surprising biting cold set in, with little warning. And so, the bonfire is particularly welcome. “I have tasted blood!” our fellow traveller confides. She had seen a tigress the previous afternoon and she is off on a safari again the next day, just as we are. Something more than just the bonfire warms us.

So. The other life here is lived outdoors, chasing tigers. Bloodthirsty is the only way one can understand the eagerness with which humans stalk tigers in Bandhavgarh, keen and fervent in the game of scoring “sightings” — that magical glimpse of the royal inhabitant of the wild. As soon as you reach Bandhavgarh, you become familiar with stories of Charger (the erstwhile dominant male), B2 (its presently ageing successor), Chakradhara (the female), other females… and the feline rivalries for territory and amorousness make you feel part of a particularly spicy soap opera.

The Bandhavgarh NP allows two safaris in jeeps daily, one in the morning, another in the afternoon. The Hideaway organises both these trips for us; everything (fee, entrance, packed snacks and tea) is taken care of. The resort’s naturalists help us get conversant with the terrain, animals, plants and jungle lore.

On our first day, Jigme, the resident naturalist, had told us proudly that Bandhavgarh was perhaps the best place in the world to see tigers in the wild. His reasons: a high density of tigers, appropriate vegetation — the undergrowth is not too dense, the park is not too wet, thus limited waterholes and the tigers are used to jeeps carrying humans who ogle endlessly and harmlessly at them. The tigers prefer to walk on the dirt tracks to save their soft footpads, and we’d heard of stories where tigers walked unconcerned on the road while jeeps followed.
We had come to Bandhavgarh during the peakest of the peak season, the last week of December. On our first afternoon we had a lovely time familiarising ourselves with the spotted deer, monkeys, langurs and the occasional barking deer… all the time subconsciously waiting for a warning call of a cheetal, a glimpse of orange in the bushes, or a message on the driver’s network about that elusive “sighting”. None materialised, till a mahout on an elephant spotted a tigress sleeping inside a gully. Soon the news was all over the park and more than ten vehicles were parked to await the tigress waking up. We decided it was too much of a circus and came back.

So, the next day, there we were again, only half an hour left for closing time. The gods of sightings decided to be kind. Three villagers were standing next to a dirt track and one of them told us that a tigress had killed his cow at that spot a couple of hours earlier, had dragged the kill to the nearby copse and had later got her four cubs there… footprints on the tracks confirmed the tale. That meant the family was having a feast only 100 yards away. Our guide reasoned that the tigress would need to drink water after the meal and there was a good chance that she would walk through the grass next to the track towards the stream. We waited.

News spread. Jeeps piled up. Time stood still. Time flew. Only a few minutes to closing time. May be she will come out only after we all left. A near miss. And then a whispered “tigress” echoed throughout the company and a hush fell. A yellow orange lazy arrogant hesitant curious being emerged from the trees and walked that incomparable walk past us, looking towards the enchanted crowd once, and then again, and smoothly disappeared into another clump of trees.

About The Tree House
At the time of our visit, it was the first season for the Tree House Hideaway, and while a few details were still being attended to, the resort was all but ready. This venture is part of a group that also runs King’s Lodge in Bandhavgarh, and Ken River Lodge in Panna National Park. The resort is run with a fresh air of informality and its personnel include naturalists, guides and safari drivers.
This article appears in Outlook Traveller Getaways’ Romantic Holidays in India. For more about the book, and more excerpts, click here.

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