For many of us today, trapped in the quotidian reality of a shrinking and globalising world, it is becoming more and more difficult to rediscover the romance, thrill and freedom of self-contained journeyings to remote and far flung corners of the Earth, to all the vanished Xanadu’s of our imagination.
The central highlands of Madhya Pradesh, forming a hard knot in the belly of India, is one of my favourite regions in the country for a quintessential Indian experience. This region harbours some of the greatest natural and man-made treasures of the subcontinent, many of which remain virtually unknown to the outside world.
The best-kept secrets of Madhya Pradesh offer a truly untrodden, remote experience in rugged jungle clad hills and lush valleys sheltering the remains of magnificent ancient forts, atmospheric medieval towns, colourful tribes still clinging to their age-old customs, and undiscovered wildlife sanctuaries - all well off the tourist trail, thus offering the joy of personal discovery and exclusive access, give added rewards for the intrepid traveller.
The best way to experience these remote treasures is from Kaafila’s private nomadic camps. These are small, stylish and truly mobile tented camps, set up just for you and your party. The best time to explore Madhya Pradesh is from November through to February, then in the summer months of June to August the camps move to Ladakh and Kashmir.
These unique camps will take you to exclusive off-the-beaten-track destinations, while ensuring access to clean, comfortable and safe accommodation with delicious food prepared using the freshest locally sourced produce.
Currently, four locations have been identified in Central India, and I am very excited about the two newest offerings, the Maikal Hills and the Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary. These together with the camps near Kalinjar Fort and Chanderi, offer a great mix of culture, history, architecture and wildlife in a truly untrodden experience…
Kaafila’s expert guides accompany guests to one of India’s greatest hill forts. Kalinjar has been settled for over 2000 years and contains the countless remains and ruins of the centuries. The Neelkanth Mahadev temple has stunning bas relief sculptures of Shiva and the giant ‘dancing’ statue of Bhairava.
Various other palaces and temples and water tanks are scattered in romantic isolation amongst the scrub jungle. Today the fort stands virtually forgotten, isolated and decaying picturesquely in its jungle fastness.
Apart from Kalinjar there is also the fort of Ajaigarh which can only be accessed on foot by a steep path, but is well worth the climb! For those who enjoy nature and geology, a full day walk can be arranged to take in the dramatic landscape marked by sheer escarpments, flat-topped hills and deeply incised valleys. The contrast between the lush green valleys below and the dry scrub forest of the plateau is interesting and the views are just stunning.
The campsite is set up in an attractive secluded spot looking out onto fields and forested hills that still support a fair amount of wildlife including blue bull antelope, wild boar, sloth bear, sambar deer, jackals and leopards. Birdlife, especially during the winter, is diverse and abundant.
The ancient town of Chanderi is awash with historic monuments that stand witness to the tumultuous but enriching history of the past 1000 years. The town is a veritable index of medieval north Indian architecture stretching from the time of the Imperial Guptas of the 4th century AD to the advent of the British in the early 19th century.
And yet today Chanderi is still a bustling, thriving market town overlooked by the remains of its magnificent past. Chanderi is also home to some of the most beautiful hand-woven textiles in India.
Modern India is unmindful of historical heritage but as you enter the walled town of Chanderi, there is a haven of medieval architecture still in everyday use – old mansions, temples, mosques, shrines, serene step-wells, ceremonial gateways and bustling bazaars. It can be crowded but it is wonderfully evocative.
The Maikal hills are the last refuge of the authentic Baiga tribes – an indigenous people who still retain their traditions in the face of the myriad pressures exerted by India’s rapidly changing social and economic landscape.
Central to their way of life used to be the cult of Bewar – shifting agriculture – that the British and Indian governments have banned supposedly for the protection of timber. Today the Baiga live in ‘settled’ villages in some of the most picturesque landscapes in Central India.
While some of the younger generation are abandoning the carefully tended long hair of the men and the intricate tattooing of the women that are the identity of the Baiga, enough still retain these to make our travels in their country a unique opportunity to experience the lifestyles of a people whose origins are lost in pre-history.
The campsite is stunningly located at the edge of a shallow escarpment looking out over a serene mountain landscape, giving a longed-for sense of isolation from the real world that many of us search for on explorations such as this.
Kuno-Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary
The Sanctuary lies in the arid north western reaches of Madhya Pradesh, separated from Rajasthan and the legendary Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve by the waters of the Chambal River. Once part of the hunting grounds of the erstwhile princes of Gwalior, the fort and river - the two main landmarks of this sanctuary - give the place its name.
Identified and intensely managed to create an alternative home for the Asiatic lions from Gir in Gujarat (still to happen!), the sanctuary boasts a high prey density, healthy populations of leopards, crocodiles, hyenas, civets, foxes and small cats, the occasional tiger, vast tracks of pristine and un-encroached woodland and grassland and most importantly, almost no tourism.
Here the focus is on walking in the beautiful surroundings, watching the birdlife and immersing yourself in the remote wilderness of Madhya Pradesh.
The Kaafila camp at Kuno is set on a raised field, on the banks of the Kuno River, right at the edge of the sanctuary. The deep waters of the river adjacent to the camp site make it an ideal place to scan for crocodiles and river dolphins.
In each of these locations, the camp is set up exclusively with a maximum of 4 tents. The destinations can be easily slotted into longer itineraries – or it is possible to combine two destinations with a two or three night stop in between at a comfortable hotel or lodge that complements the overall experience.
As the purpose of travel is increasingly being defined by modern frills, some of us still yearn for the intrepidness of accessing the unknown treasures, often beyond phone and internet coverage – the true measure of remoteness in our digital world! For those who enjoy exploring the great outdoors, Kaafila offers an unparalleled experience in some of the most remote areas completely off the tourist trail.
Images courtesy of Kaafila Camps