The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness. –
The wilderness has a way assisting one in the journey of self-discovery. We all came from the wilderness, and we will always continue to belong to the wilderness. Just that our best laid plans changed with time and tide. With progress, we established our homes in the concrete jungles, replacing fireflies with flashlights and city lights.
It is when we escape into the wilderness, we experience an epiphany of sorts. A soul journey; where we find our true selves, embodied in the warm embrace of nature.
My longing for the forests is deep. I know the woods are where I belong, having spent my growing up years by the forests. My thirst for the wilderness can never be quenched. And however often I go into the wild, I continue to experience fernweh (the craving to travel yet again). In this case into the wild.
Love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach. It is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need if only we had the eyes to see.
– Edward Abbey
Late this August 2019, I was in Satpura for a unique, one-of-its-kind wildlife training program, PRONAT – Professional Naturalist Training Program, organised by Pugdundee Safaris, in association with Wildlife and Forestry Services. It was my best birthday gift ever. The gift of wilderness, all thanks to Pugdundee Safaris. I’m so glad that I curate content for them, and every single day is about new learnings on wildlife, conservation and it’s varied nuances.
I grabbed this golden opportunity with both my hands. My flight to Bhopal, the day after my birthday, propelled me on a journey to the lush Satpura forests. The Rains Gods had been abundantly kind. It continued to pour all through my five-hour road trip to Satpura. Our home for the next few days was Denwa Backwater Escape, one of Pugdundee Safaris stunning lodges; of the five others in Madhya Pradesh, Central India. The quaint property reclines languorously in the sweet embrace of the serpentine, Denwa River and Madhai forest zone, overlooking the stunning Satpura hills.
Most of the participants of PRONAT-2, in its second edition in 2019, had arrived, or were in the process of arriving. Post a lunch of local delicious “home-cooked” food, we gathered in the dining hall for our introductions. I was pleasantly surprised to see the plethora of participants who had arrived for this twenty-one day curriculum, from different parts of our country. Graduates, a senior high school student, passionate photographers, business analysts, bankers, aspiring naturalists, a chef, corporates, writers and keen wildlife enthusiasts.
The director of our course, Kartikeya Singh, fondly known as Dada, also the founder of Wildlife and Forestry Services, made sure we were all comfortable with his warm assuring words and calm demeanour. Dada is a knowledge bank and a force to reckon with in the wildlife circles. There was so much to learn from him in each interaction, as we were to find out eventually.
The course was to commence the next morning with a six-day module on Birds and Butterflies. Our distinguished trainer, Nikhil Bhopale arrived armed with his infectious bonhomie, and spirited attitude. The participants and trainers spent time mingling and exchanging pleasantries.
The morning began with our class room sessions, and the screeching calls of the Ibises that made their way to the river to grab their feast. The rain continued to drum rapidly against the rooftop, as Nikhil took us through an educative presentation on the ‘feathered bipeds” (birds). The rains refused to beat a retreat, so we spent most of the day in the classroom getting educated on birding and bird behaviour. A few participants had a chance to showcase their work as well.
A chance encounter with a Bronze Back Tree snake in our classroom wall, was replete with excitement. Nikhil very deftly caught it and released it into the bushy canopy, in the balcony verandah. Apparently this reptile is a resident of that hall, and seen pretty often lurking around in search of geckos or insects. That evening we had yet another brush with a highly venomous snake, a Common Krait, another resident of the lodge.
The excitement was building beyond birds and butterflies. In the days that followed we spent a lot of time going outdoors on field trips and jeep safaris, to identify the varied avian population. Satpura is a birders paradise and we saw Indian Rollers, Munias, Zitting Cisticolas, Francolins, Wooly Neck Storks, Ioras, Indian Silver Bill Munias, Bonelli’s eagle, Griffon, Oriental Honey Buzzard and so many others. Our knowledge curve was growing rapidly with all the classroom and practical sessions. Our transition to the Butterflies module from Birds was seamless. Brush-Footed, Swallow Tails and mud puddling became part of our lingo.
Every classroom session conducted by Nikhil was highly interactive and energising with group activities and a few fun games thrown in.
I had come to Satpura for exactly seven days, and was to return post the Birds and Butterflies module. I was not doing the entire course, as I needed to be back home to attend to my home-diva responsibilities. But little did I know that my plans would flip over, after being a part of Nikhil’s highly enriching sessions, and meeting our distinguished trainer for Reptiles and Amphibians, Nariman Vazifdar.
Since I was to leave before Nariman’s module I got the golden opportunity to go herping (searching for reptiles and amphibians) with him. My last few days and the herping experience had been just so enthralling, that I chose to extend my stay to finish the Reptiles and Amphibians module with Nariman. Thus my seven day schedule, got extended to twelve!
By now, all of us participants of PRONAT were spending over fourteen hours every day learning the fascinating details, sharpening our skills sets and knowledge on wildlife. But there was absolutely no sign of exhaustion, just sheer exhilaration. We had the privilege of going for two nature walks everyday into the wilderness, to spot the diurnal and nocturnal species that inhabited these glorious forests. We spotted a beautiful Bhraminy Skink, a Racer back, Cat Snake, Spectacle Cobra, Wolf snake, Checkered Keelback, Fan Throated Lizards, abundant Scorpions and plenty others; while learning how to distinguish toads from frogs.
The classroom session with Nariman on Reptiles and Amphibians were highly interactive and discussion led. As were the outdoor sessions where we learned how to bust many a myths and overcome our fears related to reptiles. We were fortunate enough to spot quite a few snakes and observe them in their natural habitat. We were taught the fine nuances of herping in the wild.
The modules that were to follow included Mammals and Trees, First-Aid, Conservation and a Guidelines towards becoming a Naturalist.
But my twelve days had already whizzed by in a jiffy, and it was time to return to the concrete jungle, from the pristine one. I was returning home with a treasure trove of precious learnings, experiences and memories; and of having met a bunch of distinguished experts and made a few wonderful friends. My heart was overflowing with gratitude at this remarkable, once in a lifetime experience that I had been privileged to be part of.
PRONAT had armed me with knowledge on wildlife. The forests had doubled up as an antidote to heal my being, and rekindle it with enchantment. I had returned to my roots and had become one with myself and my soul.
You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself. – Alan Alda