iWild | The Kanha – Pench Corridor Walk 2015

“You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you” - Vandana Shiva

I was catching up with emails after a week of part forest-induced and part self-imposed exile from the digital world when this Goodreads Quote of the Day tiptoed in on me. I couldn’t wipe that smug smile from off my face!

Because... talk about timing!

I love craning my neck and looking skywards to take in sights like this one. Reminds me we're not as grand as we'd like to believe we are. That nature seeks to humble us.
Photo: The Ghost Tree aka Sterculia Urens .

It was mid-October when I received an email from WWF India’s Satpura Maikal Landscape (SML) that my application for the Kanha – Pench Corridor Walk 2015 had been selected. I looked forward to walking through the forest for 7 days! But it wouldn’t be until our briefing on Day 0 - prior to the Walk – when I would learn of the 200+ applications the SML team had received this year; of which only a tiny fraction of 35 – each from a different walk of life – had been selected! It then slowly dawned in on me that I was going to be a part of the contingent who would be walking 90 odd kilometres between the 30th of October and 5th of November.

But not without the additional baggage of my apprehensions. Never before had I attempted anything of this sort. So to complete it successfully would be nothing short of a personal achievement.

About the Kanha-Pench Corridor Walk
But what is this Kanha-Pench Corridor I speak of? I quote from the KPC Walk brochure that ‘it is the natural forest that connects two major tiger source populations of Kanha and Pench in Central India that not only facilitates the dispersal of tigers between the two reserves but is also home to several wild animals and ancient tribes.’

WWF SML’s aim through this Walk – which has been in its third year - has been ‘to create awareness about securing tiger habitats outside protected areas. It is a commitment by nature lovers to protect the integrity of wildlife corridors in a human dominated landscape.’

The 30th of October – Day 1 of the Walk – saw not just participants like me as well as those from an academic as well as professional background in conservation but also officials from WWF India, Kanha National Park and Pench National Park. And from each I would something to learn.
In all, we were a contingent of 70-80 people (or thereabouts).

Kick-starting Day 1 from Sakata near Pench National Park/Seoni, (Madhya Pradesh, India)

What was the Walk like?
On walking
I love walking but I am no walker.
Though I have since contemplated taking a cue from Cheryl Strayed and change my last name to Walker or something to that effect, but I digress. I was definitely anxious about my stamina and endurance levels prior to the Walk. The SML emails informed me that on an average we would be walking 15 kms each day.
If there’s one thing that’s peculiar to a Mumbaikar, it is this: No one here estimates anything based on kilometres – but derives it from the duration the activity under consideration will take.
So to reorient my brain to kilometres, I plotted distances I was familiar traversing to make more relatable what 15 kms really looked like!
P.S.: I now know all the places within a 15 km radius that I can walk back home to should I ever need to!

But what I had learnt from surviving treks in high altitude regions like Ladakh and Spiti with no prior prep was that it came down to two things: being present (also known as being Zen) and coordinating the rhythm of your step with the rhythm of your breath.
So it was that realization topped with perseverance which saw me through blisters on my feet, fatigue, stretches with no water to drink, my backpack weighing me down with its phantom weight and the realisation that I’ve had to walk over 25 kms on the first day at the Walk!
Yes, that happened – though the GPS estimate had indicated that we would be walking 18 kms.
Turns out that’s the stuff endurance is made of.

But that’s not necessarily bad. Just as it is not necessarily good.
Covering distances came at the cost of not being able to truly absorb the forest vibe.

I am no Christopher McCandless here and I don’t think I have it in me to survive on berries and carrion in the wild but if there’s anything I craved for as a permanent resident of the concrete jungle, it was moments to pause and revel in the peace of my then current environs!
However that wasn’t always meant to be.
So I’d alternate between trailing right at the tail of the group with 70 people ahead of me and just a handful of locals and forest rangers for company. Or race to the extreme frontier while the rest trailed behind.
Survival tactics assumed a new meaning for me for those 7 days! Who’d had thunk’d?

Because #HaveFeetWillTravel

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On berries and carrion
But speaking of berries and carrion, I have to hand it to those within the SML team who oversaw and paid every attention to detail on all things concerning food and stay for the entire lot that was us.
Yes, thanks to them I didn’t have to survive on berries or carrion.

The team relocated lock-stock-and-barrel and set shop every day. They would follow this routine clearing up after we had departed for the day’s walk in the mornings and would have everything - beginning with the tents, the makeshift kitchen, water-coolers and even have chai - ready for us before we would arrive at the end of the day.

During that week we camped in tents and also converted primary schools at the villages we would halt for the evening, into our base camp.
I have to acknowledge that any oversight in this regard had all the makings of anyone’s worst nightmare coming true – and thankfully the team ensured we would never come anywhere close to knowing what that even remotely looked like!
Our wonderful logistics team worked silently behind the scene
Posted by Satpura Maikal Landscape on Friday, 6 November 2015

The real hosts
The local communities were more often than not intrigued, if not entirely intimidated by the bunch of us walking through the corridor. But some of us did have engaging conversations with them. And though I spoke to some of the elders and the adults in these forest-villages, it is the children I gravitated towards.

Our arrival into the forest-villages would instantly convert the primary school into a camping ground. So it was almost natural for the children – most of all – to be amused by a bunch of city-folk who had converted their classrooms into a makeshift dorm! They would linger around stealing glances and giggling among themselves until the later part of the evenings.

When I would walk up to some and ask them their names and the grade/standard they were studying in, I would find them peering right back at me their voices steady never revealing a trace of hesitation or shyness!
I couldn’t recall being that kid.
Another very interesting dimension that I noticed is that it was the girls who were relatively more outspoken. I had witnessed something similar when I’d travelled to western Madhya Pradesh in September this year too.

On one occasion, some students put together a cultural program for us.

Ever so curious. Ever so earnest.

A signage like this would imply that we had covered our kilometres for the day

Something to ponder over
Every once in a while our contingent would get referred to as the youth brigade who were walking through this corridor to save and protect the forests. To my mind, that seemed like an exaggeration even though the intention was well-meaning.

Now as much as the Walk has been about the wildlife, it has also been about the local communities who have been dwelling within the same habitat.

I have intentionally not used the term ‘tribals’ because it seems to connote someone who is pre-history, not well-versed with ‘our’ ways of the world and therefore, ignorant. We have nothing but our socialization to blame for this. To make matters worse, pop culture has relegated them to the status of yet another exotic (if I may say so) species, no different from a tiger!

Truth be told if there are any saviours of the forests, it is the local communities who have been dwelling and coexisting with all the life-forms that abound in the forest. This is unlike what popular media and the forces that control it would like you and me to believe.

If anything, it was I who felt like a trespasser – a complete outsider who stood (and walked) in absolute awe of communities who had been living there even as it was I who was ignorant about what it takes to live in harmony with my environment. May be, this is because within my ‘tribe’, razing everything that stands flat to the ground seems to be a norm. Sure, I am generalizing but I cannot deny that I belong to a culture that places self-preservation in its absolute form on a pedestal!

The village where we had made our first halt - Kachhar (Balaghat), Madhya Pradesh

A glimpse into their everyday life!

WWF India's campaign on safeguarding forests.

They welcomed us, knowing not who we were or where we came from!

The elephant in the room!
One cannot have a post about walking through a wildlife corridor – the Kanha-Pench Corridor at that – and not make any mention about animals.

Truth be told, except for a chance encounter with a very frightened spotted deer/chital fawn and some avian life (whom I cannot tell apart to save my life except if it’s a sparrow, crow, pigeon or mynah – why, thank you urban existence) we did not lock eyes with any other life-form.
Well, at least I didn’t because in two separate instances four of my peers did spot one of the big cats: the leopard. The rest of us had to contend ourselves with those stories, an occasional pugmark and a lot of scat.
P.S.: Scat i.e. animal faeces identification, besides being an addition into my vocabulary was also an interesting (and perhaps the only) insight into the big cat’s world.

A photo posted by Elita (@nomadicthunker) on

Something more to ponder over
Our fascination with the ‘wild’ needs to expand beyond those regal beings. Spotting the big cat wasn’t why I wanted to be on the Walk; it would certainly have been a bonus and lent me a lot of bragging rights. But to think of forests only as the home of the big cats is to be myopic.
For me this has been a wakeup call to go learn more about beings – whether it’s avian life, butterflies or even berries!

Because to fail in our understanding of the interconnectedness within nature (beginning with the microorganism), is to fail in our efforts to conserve it even before we have begun.
I like this Stephen Hawking quote: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge” and my gumption says that this holds weight for the present.

Turns out it's not called the elusive cat for nothing. Pugmarks.

Phalanta phalantha also known as the common leopard butterfly

Happy as a lotus, light as a lotus-pad #Lifegoals

This is where my ability to identify species comes to an end. So, ...spider.

Berries that remind me of Christmas

Famous last words
Well certainly not famous, but the entire Walk would not have been as adventurous (I’ve lost the number of times we lost our way in the forest), exciting (spotting a kill on our very first day), fun (the cackling with laughter moments over the silliest of reasons) or even informative (so what if I have failed at retaining names of the myriad of species we encountered) hadn’t it been for my peers. It was truly an enjoyable experience walking alongside people who have been doing path breaking work in the field of conservation.

And it has been as much of a learning experience to have undertaken this Walk with WWF India’s SML team who besides organizing this logistically colossal project right down to the last detail also ensured we had with us experts from the domain to spend at least some of their time sharing their knowledge with us.

Though I cannot claim to be as learned or grounded in my understanding on all the nuances of conservation as some of my peers at the Walk, I hope I have been able to share and provide the amount of fodder non-specialists like yours truly can take away from here to ruminate over.

Because the Walk has certainly emboldened me in my support for all things responsible travel and my hope to influence readers through my blog.

The leftover spoils

I hope this image shocks you as much as it shocked me to see such a thing right before my very eyes. P.S.: This is the NH7 being widened as trees are being felled indiscriminately.  

A panoramic view of the massacre!

P.S.: If you like the posts you see on my blog, you could also Subscribe to HaveFeetWillTravel by Email and receive newer ones directly to your inbox! 

Edit: If you'd like to apply for next year's Walk, you should watch out for posts on SML's Facebook page. The team puts out updates about a month before the Walk. The application details are mentioned along with it. 

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