Champati was also rousing on the subject of the giant wood spider and the giant wood spider’s web, as well as on many of the 515 plant species found in the meadows, grasslands, and fringing the more than 20 spring-fed streams. There is more bamboo, which grows in dense thickets, than any other botanical in Bandhavgarh. But since sal trees—whose small ivory flowers have a strong perfume similar to jasmine’s—make up 20 percent of the canopy cover, the park, in forestry terms, is considered a sal forest.
Presiding over it is a hulking tabletop mountain rising 1,230 feet off the valley floor, its sheer limestone cliffs smeared with great swaths of Egyptian-vulture and shahin-falcon droppings. The shahin is the fastest-diving bird in the world, and I was fortunate enough to see one give a demonstration of its celebrated hunting technique, striking what was probably a gray hornbill in midair. The plateau holds the ruins of a 2,000-year-old fort scattered with ravishing monolithic statues of Vishnu—one of the Hindu trinity of lords and the god of wealth and well-being—in his various incarnations (fish, tortoise). The Baghela kings lived here until 1617, when they came down off the mountain and moved their seat of power nearby, becoming better known as the maharajahs of Rewa.
You can get only so close to the fort in a jeep, which is why the park authority relaxes its rule about never leaving your vehicle and allows you to approach the ruins on foot. Depending on your fitness level, it’s about a half-hour trek. After three days during which the closest even Champati had dared come to the ground was the running board of our vehicle, the freedom was intoxicating. And scary. The jungle was finally beneath our feet. The mountain is your only real chance of seeing a leopard, and on our walk we ran into an entire family, a mother and father with two cubs. I wouldn’t have minded, except Champati was unarmed: naturalists are forbidden to carry guns. I preferred our scat lesson. Instead of Champati pointing to a piece of tiger excrement from the jeep and trying to tell whether its quarry had been a sambar or a wild boar, we were able to crouch down, break it up with a stick, examine it, and know for sure. The hairs meant nothing to me—they could have been those of a domestic tabby cat, which wouldn’t amount to a gumdrop for a tiger—but they instantly told Champati it had eaten a chital.
I developed a kind of crush on Champati (people on safari are always falling in love with their naturalists), which was not surprising, because as everyone knows there is nothing sexier than knowledge. Also, we were always together, from tea and shortbread in the dark before the morning drive, to sundowners and beyond. In a lovely bit of arrival protocol, it’s your assigned naturalist who accompanies you to and walks you through your room, not the manager. Champati mentioned that the rooms were the work of Chris Browne. How could he have known that years ago I anointed Browne the most talented in-house hotel designer in any hemisphere?The day he decides to leave CC Africa, he can have any job he wants. Anybody would be lucky to get him. Browne is always fresh. He never repeats himself. His touch is light and, when appropriate, tongue-in-cheek. A friend calls his work unponderous, about the nicest thing you can say about a decorator.
At Mahua Kothi, Browne explores his feeling for folk art, hanging not-quite-life-size wooden puppets from Kerala on the walls, filling niches with collections of amber-glass doorknobs, topping wardrobes with gaily painted wooden trucks ("horn please!"). All of this is calculated to make you smile, and does. A stuffed animal, a mongoose, sticks its nose out tentatively from among a mountain of throw pillows. A local dark khaki–colored stone cut and laid like floorboards is the wittiest thing I expect to see in a long time. Four mushrooms pretending to be tables march in a straight line toward an ottoman fashioned out of an enormous rice bowl. A 13-foot vanity—half of a massive sal trunk sliced lengthwise down the middle—balances porcelain sinks that look like overfed vanilla jelly beans. The only colonial reference is a tufted bench with exaggerated cabriole legs, set at the foot of the bed. The shower stall isn’t a shower stall, it’s a shower room, and it doesn’t even share space with a tub. The tub has its own space.
The kutiyas are paradise, almost. They were originally built with deep glass panels under the eaves on three sides. To bring birdsong and the sound of animals probing the vegetation into the rooms, they were replaced with screens at the last minute, just as Mahua Kothi was getting ready to welcome its first guests. This turned out to be a huge miscalculation. I was at the lodge in December, and I wished I’d packed a sable bathrobe. Nighttime temperatures dipped to 36 degrees. Hot air from feeble units installed near the ceilings was sucked right outside before I had the chance to take off my mittens. Multiple hot-water bottles kept me warmer than a small whirring space heater, which, um, produced the same unwanted effect as the glass. Now CC Africa is reversing its decision: the glass is going back.