The train was moving out of the station and there they were – waving goodbye. What was I doing, going off alone with a bunch of women I had never set eyes on before? But now it was too late to back out from this only-women trip to Khajuraho, Panna and Bandhavgarh organised by Wonderful World. An advertisement on Facebook two months ago had prompted me to sign up for it on a whim.
The group was split into two locations in the compartment, in an unequal ratio. The sound of laughter guided us to the larger group where we were invited to sit till it was time to sleep. A round of introductions later I was surprised to find myself at ease with these unknowns. They all seemed very much to be PLU (People like Us). This little group of nine women (one had dropped out at the last moment) had a loud voice, though! Our neighbours however, did not seem to be complaining…in fact, we made friends right away with two other women in the same compartment who were foreigners, immediately had an oops! moment, realising they could follow Hindi, and followed it up with an exchange of cards.
So, well begun is half done, they say. The chatter continued the next day when we reached the Ken River Lodge, about 25 kms away from Khajuraho. It was picture perfect! The dining area had a superb view of the river and was populated by friendly dogs, some abandoned, some stray. And out came the cameras-first for the cute doggies and only then for the view The cottages were mud coloured and blended seamlessly into the overgrown jungle-like surroundings. But the insides were modern (thank God!), with facilities you’d find at any modern hotel and delicious food at every meal to boot!
And then we were off to see the temples. And they didn’t disappoint! The thousand year old temples build by the Chandelas had carvings on them that were so intricate we could see the folds in a dress and visualise each dancer. The group of temples remained hidden till the 19th century when a Britisher accidentally chanced upon it. The erotica of course seemed overrated and the few images we found were repeated in patterns. Being in a women’s only group kept the comments coming, though!
The evening saw us taking a boat ride on the river in the mellow evening sun which set in splendour. The river is home to crocodiles or magars but we were told that the water level being low, they had migrated upstream for the season. Nevertheless, we kept an eye out for the one that did not follow the crowd! The iridescent wings of the stork-billed kingfisher caught our eye as it flew past our boats as also a crow pheasant. A number of snake birds or cormorants could also be seen as well as herons and wagtails. We got off mid-river at a little rocky outcrop and what a view of the sunset it was! Cameras clicking away furiously, we tried to capture the beauty of nature.
Later in the night, while having our dinner out above the river, the subject somehow turned to ghost stories. Ajeet, the manager of the lodge, obliged us with some chilling tales. Sitting in the darkness (we had switched off the lights to discourage insects), listening to the night sounds of the wilderness with the river glistening below us in the moonlight, it was the perfect end to a lovely evening.
By the second day, the group had become comfortable with each other. The two sisters, the pretty one, the garrulous one, the silent one, the loud one, the granny with an attitude…we all had our mental pictures about each one. The plan was to visit the Panna sanctuary to try and see the tigers and be at Khajuraho for the dance festival in the evening. The group was in two jeeps in the cold morning as we entered the sanctuary. Friendly banter about who in the group would be our lucky charm to be able to spot the tiger kept us warm. The contest was between two ladies, both of whom had had tiger sightings multiple times. Luckily for us, both were in separate jeeps and both of us got to watch not only a tigress but two cubs too as bonus! Our luck held and we were able to see a croc also as well as two cute chinkaras. The good mood continued as we discovered we had a birthday girl in our midst! An impromptu cake and a terrace party with the gang were the highlights of the day. We tried to get a gift from the local village but discovered the markets were closed on account of elections but perseverance paid and we were able to get a locally made ghanti. The whacko idea of ringing the bell and singing “Tune maari entry aur dil mein baji ghantiyan..” was unique to say the least.
The evening saw us at the temples once again where we were treated to beautiful renditions of Bharat Natyam and Chhau/Kathak. The gentle evening with a balmy breeze, sitting in front of ancient temples that formed the backdrop for the performances left us mesmerised. And of course, a bit of souvenir shoppping kept our spirits up! Dinner at Raja Cafe rounded up a perfectly happy day.
And then it was time to move to Bandhavgarh for the final leg of our trip. We started leisurely and reached our home for the next two nights in the afternoon. And what a resting place! The King’s Lodge lived up to its name. The unobstrusive but luxurious surroundings in the midst of a carefully cultivated jungle took our breath away. And none of those buffet lunches; we were served at an enormous table and ate our fill of the most delicious foods. A little paddle pool near the entrance looked cool and inviting which everyone noted for later. Even the 500m walk to our respective cottages seemed exciting! Stories of tigers and leopards straying into hotel areas, sightings of snakes etc kept us on our toes while walking to the dining area in the night. The light of the lanterns hardly seemed enough.
The Gang of Girls became notorious with the other diners though for our uproarious laughs and loudness. The noisy game of guessing sun-signs, the heated no-holds barred debate on Amitabh Bachchan did not endear us to the rest of the visitors, I guess, but we were having so much fun it didn’t seem important enough.
After a night punctuated by jackal calls and owl hoots, it was at the crack of dawn that we were at the Bandhavgarh National Park. The lushness of the surroundings, the purity of the air and the flora were like soothing balms to our city sensibilities. The two jeeps again kept up the banter on who is going to be the lucky one but it turned out that neither of us were able to spot the great beast -the tiger. However, the spotted deer, the blossom headed parakeets and boars and an almost invisible sand grouse kept us entertained. The strangler vines, the ‘ghost’ gum tree and the stories of animal-human interaction added to the atmosphere.
A surprise awaited us that evening-dinner in the outdoors with a bonfire. What fun! And as the logs burned, songs were played and dance was done and as we moved towards the table, another surprise- a memento of the trip! A mug with our names printed on it and the Wonderful World logo on it, with a little note that said a few words about each of us and asked for our feedback on handmade paper. It was so sweet!
And it was almost time to go back. We were already feeling nostalgic – about Parul’s coffee press, Charu’s bandana, Vandy’s inimitable dancing style, Asha and her cat stories, Medha and Chandra-the two sisters, Rohini’s ghost imitation and most of all Shibani’s gentleness. The ride back to the station saw us exchanging numbers and forming a WhatsApp group, with promises to meet again.
I felt like Goldilocks-the group size was just right, the age group was just right too and the trip duration was the correct fit. Hats off to Wonderful World for getting it all correct. I now have a group of people I know much more about than so many of my so-called friends, I had a great time and went to all the places I wanted to. Looking back, I wonder why I had any misgivings in the first place!
Blog Credits: Shalini Narayan