I am in the land of Mowgli at Pench National Park.  The woods are dark and deep and the forests are wrapped in a dense fog of mystery. My date with the jungle begins in the wee hours before dawn. Century-old trees stand as guardians of the forests. As the first light of dawn seeps in through the lattice of leaves, the forest reveals itself, painted in shades of greens, yellows, reds, and browns.  Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book comes alive in the moist teak and dry deciduous forests with clumps of trees like mahua, palash,  sal, neem, and a plethora of fruit trees beside a smattering of grasslands and clusters of bamboo forests. It is mesmerizing, and enchanting as well.  Surrounded by hills, the River Pench flows through the woodlands, creating murmuring brooks and gushing forest streams, lakes, and reservoirs adding to the magical landscape. Amidst the mist, the ghost trees add to the drama. No wonder Kipling’s Mowgli was reluctant to leave his wonderful wild family and return to what we, humans call civilization. In many ways, I feel a bit like Mowgli, wanting to stay in the jungle and meet the endearing characters like Bagheera and Baloo and of course, Shere Khan. As a child, I was obsessed like most kids of my era with The Jungle Book, but it has taken me this long to be in this land that inspired Rudyard Kipling to create the immortal characters. And as I soak in the moment, I present to you a brief Travel Guide to Pench National Park.

Travel Guide to Pench National Park

This is my first experience at the spectacular Pench National Park. I have only been to Panna National Park and Sanjay Dubri wildlife sanctuary but I was hoping to explore more of the national parks in Madhya Pradesh soon. However, I feel that two days is not enough to appreciate the vast natural wealth of any wildlife sanctuary but I have created an easy and simple travel guide to Pench based on my adventure here with Pugdundee Safaris.

The heartland of tigers was declared a National Park in 1983 and almost a decade later, as a tiger reserve. Along with tigers and leopards, the forests are home to large numbers of animals like barking deer, spotted deer, nilgai, and sambar besides sloth bears, gaurs, langurs, wolves, and hyenas among others.

There are also 285  species of birds, including the four endangered species of vultures. In fact, it has always been the birds that had beckoned me to the forests. As an avid and amateur birdwatcher, I have always been fascinated by the winged species. But this time, I can feel the excitement of a possible encounter with ShereKhan himself.

Pench Tiger Reserve – Bordering Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra

Pench tiger reserve is unique as it is spread between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. While the larger tracts of the national park are in the Seoni and Chhindwara districts of Madhya Pradesh,  the rest are across the border in the Nagpur district of Maharashtra.  Named after the Pench river that flows through the Satpura – Maikal Range of Central India, the picturesque verdant woodland occupies a core area of 411 sq km and a buffer zone of around 768 sq km in Madhya Pradesh.

The Mowgli Pench Wildlife Sanctuary occupies about 118 sq km. and it is included in the core zone, although it is not yet opened for tourism. This post is more of a travel guide to Pench in Madhya Pradesh.  I haven’t explored the Pench Tiger Reserve Maharashtra across the border as yet.

Which zone is best in Pench National Park?

The first things that most wildlife travelers familiarise themselves with are the various core and buffer zones in each national park and the many gates. The zones and gates are essential to plan a trip to any national park and here is a travel guide to Pench to help you plan your safaris.

There are totally seven safari zones and eleven gates, of which five are in Madhya Pradesh and six in Maharashtra. The core zone in Madhya Pradesh has three main gates – Turia gate, Karmajheri gate, and Jamtara gate.  The other buffer zones are called Rukkad, Teliya, Khawasa, and Kumbhpani-Tekadi. Both Rukad and Kumbhpani – Tekadi buffer is close to Karmajhiri gate and offers night safari as well. The other gates are Saleghat, Kolitmara, Chorbahuli, and Surewani. Morning jeep safari starts at sunrise and ends at 11.00 hrs, whereas evening safari begins at 2.30 pm and ends at sunset and the timings may vary slightly depending on the season.

Which gate is best for safari in Pench?

Most wildlife resorts are located around Turia, which is located at the cusp of both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.  Sillari and Khursapur, located near Turia Gate are located in Pench Maharashtra. We are however staying at Pench Tree Lodge with Pugdundee Safaris which is located close to the Karmajheri gate. And our wildlife safari begins as we drive through the portals of Karmajheri with our naturalist Vishal Sharma. A forest guard jumps into one jeep and the adventure begins.

The Safari Experience

The safari for me feels like being on a treasure hunt. Sometimes it is a wild goose chase.  But the excitement is in the tracking and trailing. The jungles are both mysterious and magical. Invisible eyes watch us as the hunter becomes the hunted.  With the lush thicket of trees whizzing past me, I am a little enchanted like I am in the wooded territory of the Jungle Book. The dense canopy of teak forests greets us as we look for the elusive tigers and leopards.  This used to be the haunt of the legendary Collarwali who made Pench National Park her home for years. Many tigers and tigresses have come and gone but every story revolves around this late tigress whose spirit still lingers around the jungles.

The legendary Colarwali of Pench .. courtesy Caroline Radhakrishnan

The jungle finally starts to reveal itself to us as the denizens slowly come out to say a reluctant hello. In the beginning are the deer, the spotted, and the sambhar variety. In great hordes, skipping, frolicking, playing. We see gaurs and boars, rustling amidst the woods. The silence is occasionally broken by the bird calls as we squint through the mist and haze to spot them, especially along Sita Ghat which is parallel to the Pench River.

There are several waterholes and reservoirs in both these zones – Baginalla, Junewani, and Bodhanalla among others. However one of the fascinating trails accessed from the Karmajheri Gate is the Runi Jhuni Trail. The three km walking trail is also great for birdwatching as well,  A tigress that had recently given birth to cubs along this area is called the Runi Jhuni Tigress and we are now looking for her and her cubs on the safari.

For a moment they are here, the next moment they are there. Whispers about their whereabouts can be heard. And finally, I see amidst a clump of bushes, a blurry outline, some stripes, and a whisk of a tail as he disappears into the undergrowth.  Eventually, in a blink-and-miss moment, we see another cub hop, skip and jump across the road in front of a dozen jeeps. It all happens within a jiffy. The excitement is still at an all-time high, as I finally break the jinx of seeing a tiger in the wild, even if it’s for just a fraction of a second.  A hazy shot from a clip taken by friend and blogger Caroline Radhakrishnan who had the quickest reflexes among all of us.

How do I book a jeep safari in Pench?

I was hosted by Pench Tree Lodge and Pugdundee Safaris but they book safaris for all their guests as well. Most resorts and lodges will book your safaris. However, if you want to book a jeep safari on your own, you can book online as well through the website: mponline.gov.in.

How much does a Pench safari cost?

Pugdundee Safaris at Pench Tree Lodge charges around Rs 10000 to Rs 14500 for both Indian and foreign guests who stay with them

If you are booking through the government website you will have to pay separately for a ticket and then hire a jeep and driver. The total cost would be in the range of Rs 7000-Rs 9000

Pench National Park ticket price can be around Rs 2500-Rs 3000 for Indians and RS 5000-Rs 6000 for foreigners.

Weekend rates are expensive compared to weekdays.

Dos and Donts for safaris

A simple guide and a checklist for your safaris

Carry your ID- Aadhar, cameras and lenses. Put your phone on silent mode. Pench allows mobiles unlike Tadoba.

Wear neutral and muted colours that can camouflage with the forest hues. NO bright reds or oranges.

Carry your cameras, binoculars and if you are a bird watcher, a bird book as well

The temperatures are extreme. So if you are visiting in winter like we did, wear adequate winter clothing.

Wear ample sunscreen and carry a bottle of water.

If you are going on a walking trail, ensure that you wear good walking shoes as well

Be careful while taking photos. NO taking selfies with animals or getting close to them. Tadoba has banned mobile phones for the same reason.

Please do not throw your thrash or litter the National Park

There are designated areas to have breakfast for all the jeep safaris

Toilets are available in designated areas as well.

Alcohol and smoking are strictly not permitted in the National Park and Wildlife Sanctuaries

Most importantly, maintain silence and don’t get off the jeep unless you are on an authorized walking trail or cycling route, and listen to your guide.

Pench National Park Activities

While morning and evening jeep safaris are the main attractions, here are some other experiences

Go for a nature walk around the Runi Jhuni Walking Trail

Cycle around Rukkad Sanctuary or go for a day trip which includes safaris as well

Plan a night trail or night safari along the buffer zone

For those who like to explore tribal hamlets, you can go for a village walk,  see the weekly fairs and learn more about rural, tribal cultures and crafts like painting and pottery.

Getting there – Which is the nearest airport to Pench National Park?

Nagpur in Maharashtra is the closest airport and it is about three to four hours by road depending on the location of your resort. It is an international airport as well and is well-connected to most of the cities in India.

How long is Pench from Nagpur ?

Nagpur is located about 145 km away and you can book taxis from the airport or ask your hotels to arrange for transfers. As Pench National Park is located on the Nagpur Jabalpur highway, there is a smaller airport at Jabalpur as well.  The road journey from Jabalpur is longer at about five hours. Some tourists combine a trip to Pench and Bandhavgarh or Kanha National Parks as well as Tadoba on the Maharashtra side. We drove from Pench Tree Lodge to Waghoba Eco Lodge in Tadoba and it took us about five hours by road as well.

How to reach Pench National Park?

If you are visiting Pench by bus, then there are hourly buses available from Nagpur to Khawasa, which is closer to Turia gate. For Karamjhari, you can get off at Suktara and transport will be arranged by Pench Tree Lodge which is 20 km away.

If you prefer a train journey, then the closest railheads are at Nagpur or Jabalpur or Chhindwara and then you can take a taxi from there or ask the resort to arrange transfers.

However,  as recommended by every travel guide to Pench , it is easier to fly into Nagpur and then drive down from there.

What is the best time to visit Pench?

Winter is the best time to visit Pench National Park, between the months of October and February when the national park opens after the long hiatus after the monsoons. It is also the best time to do some bird watching, especially for the migrants. While summer is a great time to see tigers, it can get very hot in the months of  April and May. Pench National Park is closed during monsoons.

Can you stay inside Pench National Park?

You can stay amidst the woodlands near the gates and the villages in the buffer zone. Most properties are located near the Turia Gate of the Pench National Park. I was hosted by Pugdundee Safaris at their Pench Tree Lodge which is located near the Karamjhari Gate. But there are several jungle lodges, both luxury resorts, and budget stays. There are eco-friendly jungle camps like Pench Jungle Camp located near the national park. MPT ( Madhya Pradesh Tourism ) also has wildlife camps and lodges near Pench National Park. You will also find luxury resorts managed by Taj Safaris and other five-star wildlife resorts near the park.  There are also boutique lodges and homestays as well.

How many days do you need in Pench National Park?

Ideally, a minimum of three to four days is recommended although some wildlife enthusiasts prefer to stay even a week.  If you are a wildlife enthusiast, a typical travel guide to Pench would suggest at least four safaris to improve your chances of sighting a tiger or a leopard. You can also combine your wildlife jaunt by adding nearby wildlife parks like Tadoba, Bandhavgarh, or Kanha as well.

Do you have any other questions or recommendations or tips regarding a travel guide to Pench National Park? Please share in the comments below

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