The cultural safari: luxury tented camping in central India
Some of the most beautiful and remote parts of India can now be experienced through high-end mobile camps. We head to Madhya Pradesh to try it out
Imagine you’re an Indophile traveller having already covered India’s vast array of sights. Perhaps there’s now a nagging feeling that you’re about to run out of worthwhile destinations and experiences linked to decent hotels.
I’ve staved off this dispiriting cul-de-sac for years, and most recently with Kaafila Camps. The brainchild of Hashim Tyabji, a veteran Indian naturalist and lodge operator, his camps’ neat strapline is “beyond the last hotel”. Kaafila, an Urdu word denoting a caravan, is an apt name that matches his considered off-beat destinations.
Combining a naturalist’s eye for the picturesque with an insider’s nose for the curious, Kaafila’s new camps offer what you might call cultural safaris at four destinations in Central India. Camping, or in this case glamping, not only resolves the practical issue of inadequate or non-existent hotels, but also lends a unique and exclusive experience of its rural heart.
Tyabji acknowledges the logistical challenges of finding suitable spots. “You need access, privacy, a beautiful landscape, security and availability of water; plus a solid local attraction,” he says. In practice, this usually means renting farmers’ fields – and several contenders have fallen by the wayside.
Using high-ceilinged and spacious emerald-green tents with attached bathrooms and sit-out porches, a crew of eight tend these camps. Three-course meals – generally Indian cuisine – are served in a dining tent fitted out with sheesham wood furniture, and there’s a good range of beverages. A discreet generator provides power and light, along with rechargeable lamps. Camps operate for a minimum of two and a maximum of eight guests. It’s all very civilised and comfortable without being overbearing.
Within minutes of my arrival and emptying the first much-needed sundowner beside a crackling fire on the banks of the Kuno River, I think about a crocodile I saw basking nearby earlier that afternoon. “Oh, don’t worry about him,” camp manager Rajan says breezily. “The staff have already been swimming in the river – we haven’t lost anyone yet.”
Book-ended with drinks, dinner adopts a set pattern: fireside chicken kebabs and crisp pakoras, followed by a sit-down meal with an array of unpretentious meat and vegetable dishes. The fresh rotis are, as they should be, oven-hot, and I’m offered a second kheer for dessert, washed down with a warm drink.
Winding through the Vindhya Hills in western Madhya Pradesh, next to Rajasthan, the Kuno River bisects the roughly 1,000-squre-kilometre Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s an obscure corner of the country, the profile of which was first raised in 1993 amid early initiatives to re-locate some of India’s Asiatic lions from their sole overcrowded redoubt in Gujarat. While that plan appears to have stalled (and another to introduce cheetahs has limped into the long grass), most of Kuno-Palpur’s endemic fauna has thrived, while its resident villagers have been relocated and their empty hamlets demolished.
Early the next morning, I set off for Kuno-Palpur with conservationist and wildlife expert Sunny Shah. Bumping along a pencil-thin road towards its southern Tiktoli Gate, Shah explains how the sanctuary’s “re-wilding” appears to be successful. Cheetal and particularly sambar deer have returned in significant numbers, leopards (with an estimated population of 40 to 50) seem to be thriving, and the prospects for tigers – there’s currently reckoned to be one resident – look encouraging.
Even by late February, the landscape is already bleached and its grass singed yellow. Elongated flat-topped hills stretch almost to the horizon. Strands of Indian frankincense and button trees share the plains and low ridges with acacia and tendu trees. We come across jackals and nilgai antelopes. Eagle-eyed Shah spots tantalising tiger-claw marks gouged into the bark of a tree.
Apart from herds of now-feral cattle, the most striking feature is the vista’s silence and stillness. Last year, barely a thousand people entered via Tiktoli (one of three gates); the sanctuary as a whole only received a couple of thousand visitors. Most Indian parks and tiger reserves see that in a week or two. On that first morning drive, we see no other vehicles and very likely have the place to ourselves. It’s this inherent isolation that suggested Kuno-Palpur as the ideal place to re-introduce lions.
Shah seems relieved that I have long lost my fixation on tigers. He rubbishes the notion – embraced by some to thwart the lions’ introduction – that both species couldn’t thrive in the same terrain. In his eyes, the bigger picture for successful tiger conservation actually involves people. Without a holistic approach addressing the needs of local communities, too, the tiger’s natural survival is probably doomed.
“Take the Mogiya people,” he continued, referring to the gritty hamlets we passed en route to Tiktoli from the main road. “They’re a hunting caste, very skilled, but often stigmatised as thieves and ne’er-do-wells since British times. Tiger-poaching gangs will probably use them for the difficult job of tracking, but they only get paid a fraction of a tiger’s worth.” Rehabilitating these marginalised communities is, Shah knows from first-hand experience, challenging work in difficult conditions – far removed from the comparatively glamorous image of tiger conservation.
Shah’s words ring in my ears the next morning as I prepare to join Hira Lal, a local Mogiya, for a morning hike. Tyabji has arranged for Lal to guide me, and he appears brandishing a small axe.
Off we go, first to the foot of craggy riverside cliffs streaked with the excrement of nesting vultures, before clambering up to a kind of plateau. It’s hard to tell whether he is following a near-invisible trail or his own sense of direction, but after several kilometres, Lal stops, lights a cigarette and casually points to faint marks in the soil. "Jungle cat", he announces.
We emerge by the Kuno River, where a troop of wary langur monkeys bound away at our approach. Nearby stands an ancient little temple in a whitewashed compound where Lal pays his respects. Then, overlooking the confluence with a broad side valley, we reach the crumbling walls of a small garrison. The faint remains of a cobbled trail weave through the undulating forest; veering off that, we eventually loop back to camp in time for lunch.
Later that afternoon on another sanctuary drive, I visit the atmospheric hulk of Palpur Fort. Perched high above the Kuno, its compact ramparts lend sweeping views across the wilderness. Now seemingly abandoned, there’s still an ongoing court case involving its original owners – Palpur nobility – seeking redress over access and compensation. We continue to cross the river, but I am denied the luck of Tyabji’s later group, who spot leopards and the incredibly rare melanistic jungle cat.
Cradled among low hills 140 kilometres to the south-east lies the small town of Chanderi. Like most Kaafila guests, I travel there via Shivpuri and its exquisite cluster of cenotaphs – memorials to Gwalior’s royal family.
Today, Chanderi is famed for its traditional hand-woven (and very expensive) saris, but historically it straddled vital medieval trade routes. By the 16th-century, this much-contested town reputedly boasted hundreds of caravanserais, plus many thousands of mansions and mosques. Judging from its muscular three-storey remains, the Koshak Mahal was likely its tallest building, the name suggesting it was once an ambitious seven storeys, though no one is sure it was ever completed.
Chanderi now wears a more modest air, with cheerful (and particularly friendly) bazaars, a clutch of old havelis and several impressive stepwells. Kaafila’s discreet camp lies outside town at the far end of a small lake, opposite a medieval hilltop hunting lodge. Nadeem Jafri, Kaafila’s locally-based urbane guide, whisks me here and there, but we begin at the town’s lofty and handsomely restored fortress.
Foreign visitors are relatively rare, yet a faint air of excitement in the town has nothing to do with my presence. Two Bollywood movies are being filmed here, and the novelty of hosting screen starlets hasn’t quite worn off.
“Rajasthan’s got so expensive for filming now,” Jafri explains, “and audiences like fresh historic locations. Like Chanderi.”
While the Badal Mahal Darwaza, a strikingly elegant 15th-century gateway to a vanished palace, is probably the town’s most famous monument, I linger longer at Kati Ghati on the edge of town. Here, in a deep notch in the hills – rather like a giant trench – stands a strategic gate with a tragic tale. Reputedly cut and built overnight in 1495 to impress a visiting sultan, its heroic mason-builder forgot to incorporate a hinged door to secure the entrance. An irked local governor refused to pay him, and the inconsolable mason killed himself; the gate remains unchanged and open.
Kaafila’s wildest camp lies in the state’s north-eastern corner, near Uttar Pradesh. Apart from exploring the nearby rugged ravines (and possibly the world-famous temples at Khajuraho), the region’s main draw is Kalinjar Fort.
Kalinjar means “destroyer of time”, and this vast ancient fortress has hosted countless dynasties and campaigns, together with numerous myths and legends. Only the Afghan ruler Sher Shah ever conquered it in battle (though he died in the process in 1545), and a British garrison somehow clung on to it during the 1857 rebellion.
Even today, it still feels satisfyingly remote and enigmatic, with about six kilometres of mostly intact masonry walls securing the plateau’s rim 300 metres above the plains. All this, and few visitors, make it a splendid place for walking.
I patrol the battlements, pausing at various nearby monuments – half-forgotten palaces, a step-lined and lake-sized water tank and a so-called museum (which is more like a guarded repository) securing nearly a thousand items of sculpture depicting gods and demons unearthed across the site. Set on a cliff-side shelf beside a natural spring, the distinctive Neelkanth temple’s mythology makes it Kalinjar’s most visited spot.
Even when Kaafila guests are driven up to Kalinjar, Tyabji usually arranges for them to walk back down to the plains. Once you are through the main padlocked upper entrance, another six arched masonry gateways mark the compelling route, with the part-cobbled trail long worn and smoothed by the tread and sweat of a millennium’s kings, soldiers, conquerors and servants.
Kaafila’s real luxury, I muse, is not so much the tents and the toiletries, but its notable curation of an unusual Indian experience, as much off the beaten track as it is beyond the last hotel.
Kaafila Camps operate camps in Ladakh (Kashmir) from June to August and in Central India from November to February. Central Indian camps are in Madhya Pradesh (at/near Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary, Chanderi and Kalinjar) and in Chhattisgarh (Maikal Hills tribal belt), from US$5,100 (Dh18,733) for two people for three nights, including all meals, drinks, excursions and activities with expert/local guides and camp host, vehicle at guests’ disposal, and transfers to/from nearest relevant train station or airport.
Updated: October 15, 2018 04:01 PM