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Off Screens and into the Green: A Family Safari Adventure in Madhya Pradesh, India

places to visit in Madhya Pradesh tiger kanha national park
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A mama of three recounts her family’s recent India safari adventure, from bustling Mumbai to tiger-tastic places to visit in Madhya Pradesh

Ghillie James and her family disconnect from their gadgets, phones and social media to recharge, reset and get back to nature. They split their 10-day trip between bustling Mumbai and India’s majestic central state Madhya Pradesh, home to the Jungle Book’s Sher Khan, Baloo and friends. They came home reconnected as a family.

We’re not packing any iPads’. A reasonably unremarkable statement in some households but, as many of you who are parents of 5+ aged kids will relate, in the presence of our three it is one which requires helmets, sand bags and full bullet-proof attire. We tried it once before, when heading to Sri Lanka last Christmas but, unprepared for the full force of the fall-out, we found ourselves flattened by a barrage of abuse pelted at us from all three kids. We buckled. This time, however, we threw the grenade and held fast. Best. Decision. EVER.

family travel india glamping tent reni pani camping
The kids with their fabulous safari guide at Reni Pani in Madhya Pradesh (credit: Ghillie James)

India’s central state of Madya Pradesh is reasonably uncharted territory for families. Gappies, honeymooners or retired adventurers visit but as one of our hosts commented, this is not somewhere many feel prepared to venture to with children. They fear that it will be hard to navigate, unsafe, or the rather cliched worry that everyone will eat a dodgy ice cube and get sick.

Our experience, however, was the opposite. Yes, you need to be prepared, and you shouldn’t cut corners or go cheap (and do keep your bag zipped up and a bottle of hand sanitizer close by). But, travelling to India is no more intrepid than a trip to Siem Reap or Laos. If you plan well and book with a respected travel expert you will have the trip of a lifetime. Our holiday was put together by bespoke travel consultancy, HYDE India Inspired. It’s run by mama of three Gemma Hyde, who as well as working in the travel industry and living in India for many years, has an enviable little black book of contacts for off-the-main-tourist-trail hotels, lodges, tour guides, shopping and restaurants which will cater to everyone’s interests — from adventurous to luxurious.

Gemma also has a watertight team on the ground, to make sure that flights and cars are met and the trip is bump-free. Before we left she sent us a beautiful fabric-covered book containing our itinerary, shopping and eating out tips, plus loads of fun facts and quizzes for the kids.

india family travel mumbai
Mumbai is filled with spectacular sights, sounds and smells! (Credit: Ghillie James)

Getting there, Weather & When to Go

You can start this trip in either Mumbai or Delhi (Singapore Airlines have regular flights to both – a reasonable 4.5 hours).  You can easily access Madhya Pradesh by air from either Mumbai or Delhi; read about our family’s last trip to Delhi and the Golden Triangle here.

While Mumbai is hot all year round (with temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius), December to March is when the weather is mildest, with warm days, cooler evenings, and little rain. Winter (November to January) in India’s jungle can get down to zero degrees. Our 5am safaris required ski jackets, fleeces, gloves, hats and scarves. February and March are prime times to go when it is warmer and sightings can be more frequent.

Our 10-night India itinerary in a nutshell:

  • Fly Singapore to Mumbai
  • Mumbai: 2 nights
  • Fly Mumbai to Bhopal
  • Drive to Satpura National Park, stay at Reni Pani
  • Reni Pani: 4 nights, including one night within the park ‘glamping’ under canvas.
  • Drive to Kanha National Park, stay at Shergarh
  • Shergarh: 4 nights
  • Fly from Nagpur or Raipur to Mumbai
  • Mumbai: 1 night
  • Fly Mumbai to Singapore

What to remember/take:

  • Visas for India – a reasonably straightforward online process
  • Book safaris well in advance. Parks sell safaris for the next season well ahead and get booked up fast. (Gemma helps with both of the above)
  • Take a good travel medical kit. Ours had unmixed antibiotics, bandages, steristrips as well as flu tablets, pills for upset tummies etc (we didn’t need any of it, but reassuring to have).
  • Take a bum bag/cross shoulder bag and keep it zipped. There are pickpockets in Mumbai.
  • Cash! India is a tipping culture and you will need Indian rupees to tip for drivers, safari rangers etc – we got through way more than we thought we’d need and ATMs are not on every corner.
  • If your kids are picky eaters then having a jar of pesto and a packet of spaghetti in your bag might come in handy.
  • Playing cards, small board games/colouring. If you don’t feel you are cheating on the gadget rule then take a laptop with a few films downloaded. We found a family movie quite a nice wind-down after a lot of early starts.
family travel india mumbai no footprints tour mumbai
Masala Chai tea is a must when visiting India — recipe below! (Credit: Ghillie James)

A bit of culture, Bollywood and cricket in Mumbai

Before heading inland to the jungle, we decided to explore Mumbai for 36 hours. It is a city of 23 million people, once home to many cotton mills and previously known as the Manchester of the East before strikes closed them down. Today Mumbai is still a fascinating and beautiful city to explore, packed with friendly people, architectural gems, Bollywood film sets, dabbawalas and incredibly tasty street food.

There are many options for hotels in Mumbai. The magnificent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Colaba area being king (I believe that’s where the band U2 stayed when we were in town – we bumped into The Edge just around the corner from the hotel!), through to the less-luxy-more-hipster Adobe Hotel. The Colaba area is brilliantly located for touring and it is only about 45 minutes from the airport.

We booked a day tour with No Footprints. The team are hugely knowledgeable, young and fun, and we were impressed at how our guide Adie managed to keep us all interested and even smiling at 5:15am when he started our Dawn tour to witness the ‘backbone’ of Mumbai.

family travel india mumbai
Touring Mumbai early in the morning as the city came to life (credit: Ghillie James)

At this time the usually crammed streets are free from traffic (India has 22 languages spoken and the 23rd language is said to be cars honking!). However it was still busy with the 60% of ‘Koli’ or Bombay natives who work in the unorganised/non-taxed sectors – the newspaper sorters, fish market workers, chai makers, flower stall holders and fruit and veg sellers. It was a fascinating feast for the senses.

As we watched the workers beavering away, sorting and marking the thousands of newspapers for delivery on bicycles around Mumbai, there was a wonderful smell of spice in the cold air. A fiercely bubbling pot of cardamon and clove-infused Masala Chai is poured into a large tea pot and distributed around the workers in tiny shots known as ‘cutting Chai’ – see below for recipe. The taste is rich and warming – Christmas in a cup!

Back to our hotel for breakfast then out again for a more traditional tourist morning of sightseeing but with the added fun of a time lapse video taken in the once named Victoria railway terminus, ice cream sandwiches, cow feeding outside one of the Hindu temples (said to be good karma), some Bollywood dance moves and a quick game of cricket with some local kids at The Oval Medan (about 10 other matches were taking place at the same time as our mini International!).

india safari with kids dabbawali in mumbai
A Dabbawala in Mumbai expertly delivering lunch (images: Joe Zachs via Wikimedia Commons)

The highlight of this day tour though was the glimpse into the life of the Dabbawala. Every day 30,000 hot meals are prepared in homes all over Mumbai. The lunches are put into tiffin containers (equivalent of a stacked metal thermos), collected by Dabbawalas and put onto trains into the city centre. Carts take them from the train to a collection point at each station and more Dabbawalas load their bicycles to deliver the specific tiffin box to the individual worker at his desk! Only one in every six million goes wrong and you can set your watch to their punctuality. Our kids loved meeting these white-hatted legends!

We had a fun lunch at historical Leopald’s cafe then back to the hotel for a well needed rest! There are lots of nearby places to go for cocktails/sundowners and western food, but we decided to stick with the Indian fare and headed to the street food mecca of Mumbai, again with wonderful Adie to show us the way. We visited Iranian restaurant Kayani for a masala omelette and then had a taste of Vadi Pav at Nigella Lawson’s favourite stall. My fave food was Pav Bhaji – a kind of Indian spiced veggie bolognese. Then back to our hotel for bumper sleeps after a very long but wonderful day.

places to visit in madhya pradesh include reni pani jungle camp in satpura national park
A crocodile at Reni Pani Jungle Camp in Satpura National Park (credit: Reni Pani)

Peace in the Jungle

Where Mumbai is chaotic and hectic, central Madhya Pradesh is the ‘Tiger State’, where Rudyard Kipling set his marvellous series of stories in lush green landscape, in what would become The Jungle Book. It is important to mention that the driving distances are lengthy. This has of course enabled the places to keep their charm and not get overrun with tourists – the harder-to-reach places are always the most special!

A quick word on cars. Depending on numbers you can opt for a larger mini bus style vehicle. However, they are a much slower option (we rather learnt our lesson on a previous visit!) so better to either pack light and squeeze into one car or opt for two vehicles –  one for transporting you and one for the bags. It’s sounds extravagant but transport is actually quite reasonably priced and much better to be comfy than cramped. Roads are pretty good, but a skilled driver is essential to weave through the carts, animals, people and enormous lorries on the roads – driving is certainly ‘interesting’!

Short haul flights are commonplace in India and tend to be pretty easy to navigate. Mumbai airport is clean and organised, the smaller airports, less so. But a good ground handler will guide you through and sort out your tickets/baggage etc. Everything takes more time than you imagine, so just come armed with a couple of games, a packet of biscuits and some tissues/hand sanitiser and you’ll be fine!

I’d recommend allowing 4 nights minimum in each place. The alternative is to choose one of the two jungle destinations and cut the travel – but I pity that decision making as both are so special!

reni pani jungle lodge in madhya pradesh
The welcoming lodge at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge in Madhya Pradesh (Credit: Reni Pani)

Our 4-night stay at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge on the edge of Satpura National Park was tranquil and harmonious. The conservation and wildlife focused lodge has a home from home feel with log fires, handmade furniture and warm Indian fabrics. The weather was crisp and cool and we drank in the fresh clean air on our arrival. Our kids really needed to step away from the hubbub of Singapore and this was the best antidote.

We were greeted by conservationist Jesan, who’s passion and knowledge of the area was fabulous. He has an enchanting talent of educating through storytelling (in our experience not something many guides possess), and he had all the children gripped from the moment we arrived. They were given their own books and pens to mark off the hundreds of birds and beasts that can be seen both around the camp and on the jeep, boat and foot safaris we experienced while we were staying. 

family travel india glamping tent reni pani
A bit of glamping at Reni Pani & a sloth bear sighting! (Credit: Ghillie James/Camilla Malvestiti)

We learnt how to track tigers, sloth bears and leopards by looking and listening to the jungle. A coughing alarm call from a monkey or the loud hoot from Samba deer telling other animals when they see predators approaching. Leopard paws in the dust, the smell of a new kill in the bushes, and fresh tiger poo by the track! We also took a boat ride to see more wildlife surrounding the nearby lake. All three children were mesmerised and our eldest in particular was smitten by our fascinating guide, his very cool binoculars, and the adventures he shared with us about getting close to tigers and bears!

Cooking classes can also be organised at Reni Pani, as well as use of the pool at the lodge – depending on time of year. We were wrapped up in scarves and hats for our December visit but temperatures can reach 40 in the height of summer!

There are two options for accommodation and fun within Reni Pani. The first is to base yourself in one of the cottages. Separate family lodges are built along pathways away from the central reception/bar/dining area. Or you can also opt for a luxury tent, which offers a slightly more glamping feel.

We also opted to enjoy ‘Satpura under canvas’ for one of our nights, an amazing opportunity to camp for a night within the park’s buffer zone. This was a highlight of our stay and highly recommended. Beautiful bedroom and bathroom tents are erected in a stunning area of forest about a two-hour drive away from Reni Pani. Definitely more glamping than camping; we had super comfy camp beds, hot water bottles and feather duvets! G&T’s are served from the coolest camp cocktail bar we’d ever seen as well as freshly cooked canapés around the campfire.

Read more: Where to Go Glamping in Asia & Australia

family travel india glamping tent reni pani campfire dinner
Overnight glamping at Reni Pani was a big hit with the kids (Credit: Ghillie James)

Dinner is a sumptuous candlelit feast (the chef comes too!) and we fell into our beds having had a day we will never forget.

The following morning starts with bird calls and jungle noises as well as a freshly brewed cup of tea and a delicious chance to try Indian flattened rice or ‘Poha’ for breakfast. Jesan then took us on a fabulous morning walk with the possibility of a sloth bear sighting. I must admit I was fairly relieved not to see one on foot!

‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night’
-William Blake

family travel india Shergarh
Shergargh Tented Camp Eco Lodge in Kanha Tiger Reserve (Credit: Shergargh)

Our next destination was Shergarh Tented Camp near Kanha Tiger Reserve. It’s hard to put into words how special this eco lodge is! Owned by Jehan and Katie Bhujwala, you will be welcomed like old friends and want to book to come again before you have even been shown your beautiful tented room. A rare gem where the constantly smiling staff make sure you have everything before you even realise you need it.

We loved our time at this intimate, homey lodge. ‘Camping’ in each tent is attached to a solid walled en-suite and our carpeted furnished bedroom under canvas felt just the right level of camping for me, but still ticked the box for the kids! The children played on the bikes provided to guests (you can also opt for guided bike rides and wildlife walks through the nearby villages), had a fabulous art class with local tribal artist Nilesh Kusram and even had fun balancing on the homemade raft on the pond – needless to say, they ‘accidentally’ fell in!

family travel india Shergarh main house
The cosy communal dining area at Shergargh Tented Camp in Madhya Pradesh (Credit: Shergargh)

Delicious meals are served ‘family style’ at long tables in the garden or by the fire, and hot toddies are handed around as you return from your safaris.

Satpura National Park and Kanha Tiger Reserve are leading examples in the conservation story of India.  ‘NTCA – National Tiger Conservation Authority’ (originally called Project Tiger) was launched in 1972, when tiger numbers reached an alarming low of under 1000 from the 40,000 at the start of the century when the parks were private hunting grounds for the Maharajahs. In July 2019 NTCA announced that the latest census shows an increase to 2967 and numbers are still rising (India is home to 66% of the world’s tiger population). It’s the biggest public Wildlife project ever launched by a government around the world. Habitat and animals are being protected from poachers and destruction and local communities are being educated and empowered.

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The kids learned a great deal about nature conservancy while visiting Shergargh Tented Camp (Credit: Ghillie James)

It was great for the children to learn about these fascinating things within the magical setting of the forest itself. Though tiger sightings are a distinct possibility, and there were many other animals to keep us entertained, there are no guarantees. However we were lucky!

A beautiful tigress emerged from the forest with her cub when we were on our final afternoon safari and we were able to watch mother and son wander along the lakeside then go for a swim as the sun was setting. This was the perfect end to our trip and the one thing that our 12-year-old was quietly holding out for (his iPad long forgotten). He needed no more convincing that his future career as a jungle ranger was set! This was reaffirmed later in the evening when I heard him discussing with Katie and Jehan the possibility of coming back to Shergarh to become a ranger when he finished school!

 places to visit in madhya pradesh include reni pani jungle camp in satpura national park
Ghillie James and her family had so much fun in Madhya Pradesh, they didn’t even miss their iPads

Our small family returned to Singapore feeling rejuvenated by our jungle detox and ready to hit a new decade together. The time we spent in India brought about a new dynamic for us as a family and a new way of seeing the world for the children that I’m sure will prove to last well beyond the ten days in India. All of the children agreed that they hadn’t missed TV or iPads one bit and what’s more, they noticed and appreciated that putting our phones away meant that they had their parents’ full attention too.

Family holidays that will inspire the children and build memories have become a more important feature for us, and we are already planning the next 2020 adventure.

There is no better time to immerse yourselves in the pristine natural world of India’s jungles to remind ourselves of what real beauty is and most importantly let our children see with their own eyes how they can be the conservationists of our tomorrow.

Email [email protected] at Hyde Inspired for more info on planning your tailor-made India trip!

Recipe: Shergarh’s Masala Chai
Makes 4 cups

3 cups of water
1 cup of milk
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
12 cloves
12 cardamom pods
2 1/2 teaspoons of Assam black tea

Put the water, ginger, cardamom and tea in a pot and let it boil
Add milk and continue boiling the tea for 5 minutes
Strain through a sieve and add sugar if needed

Lead image by Camilla Malvestiti; Mumbai Dabbawala image by Joe Zachs via Wikimedia Commons; Reni Pani Jungle Lodge image via Facebook; Reni Pani Tiger image by Arvind Singh Bati via Facebook

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