Cycling, travel

A Memorable Cycling Trip in Madhya Pradesh

The magnificent temples of Khajuraho.

The gorgeous Raneh falls.

The Panna Tiger Reserve.

A visit to a tribal village relocated to make space available for the king of the jungle.

All these on one cycling trip in Madhya Pradesh! Though I have visited several cities in more than 50 countries, the experience of this cycling trip was phenomenal and unmatched.

36 of us all from Pune and a special thanks to Speaking Wheels for such a memorable trip

We were 36 cyclists in all, everyone from Pune. We made Greetoe Resort close to the Panna Tiger Reserve our base. The trip was ideated, curated and crafted by Amit Gadgil and Rahul Nene of Speaking Wheels, ably supported by their respective better halves, Shalaka Kanetkar and Pallavi Nene. The two couples are avid cyclists and are a doing a great job of getting more folks to cycle and discover the joy of cycling. On behalf of all of us, I would like to thank them for such a memorable experience. Good does not happen automatically, great even less so.

One may also refer to Amit’s post on the trip, my account of the trip follows.

[Day 1,2]

Since all the participants were from Pune, we travelled by an overnight train to Satna via Mumbai. From Satna we took a 2 hour bus ride to the Greetoe Resort near the Panna Tiger Reserve. What was frustrating was that our bus was stopped a couple of times by the police for checking. They were begging for money was what the driver told us after meeting the police.  This misuse of power is what dampens the spirit of any tourist. After reaching the resort, we assembled our cycles, freshened up and after a quick lunch we were on our way to Khajuraho.

One of the magnificent temples at Khajuraho

We reached in time for the sunset tour of the temple followed by the sound and light show in Amitabh Bachchan’s magnificent voice. All of us had high expectations from the show which were not met, however Rahul Nene swears that 3 years back it was a must watch. We concluded the day with a sumptuous buffet dinner at the Raja Cafe. The overnight stay was at the MPT Payal resort, a MPSTDC resort. Like all state properties the location was very convenient – a 10 minute walk to the temple; the food and rooms were average. The next day was an early start.

[Day 3]

All of us reached the temple gates by 6 am to experience the temples capturing the first rays of the Sun. We had a very knowledgeable guide who was forced to finish the tour by 8.30 am because we had a long day ahead of us. I recommend to set aside at least 4 hours for an exhaustive guided tour of the temple and be there when the gates open. Back to the hotel on schedule, a quick breakfast, the customary start of day group photograph, we were on our way to Raneh Falls.

The stupendous gorge at Raneh Falls

Since the monsoons were over, there was no water fall at the Raneh Falls, but the gorge was magnificent with rock formations of various colours, a geologist’s delight. I would definitely time my next visit to Raneh Falls in the monsoon to experience the water falls.

The ride to and from Raneh Falls went through a number of villages. As we went through the villages 36 cyclists dressed in bright jerseys  were a spectacle to the locals something  like a circus is coming to town. Kids waving at us, women rushing out of their homes, heads covered to witness the spectacle. The reactions all along confirmed that the locals had never seen something like this before. Our host Abhinav Pandey, owner of Greetoe Resort reiterated that  this  was the first time a cycling group had come to Panna. It was very common for locals to request us for selfies. On one occasion a couple of us were even interviewed on camera by local media. Cycle tourism opens up a whole new experience of seeing a place which cannot be matched by any other mode of transport.

There is no better way to experience the countryside, the people, the culture – than on a cycle. Similar to walking but you cover much more distance in the same amount of time. A quote by Ernest Hemmingway comes to mind, ‘ It is by riding a bicycle you experience the contours of a country best’. Cycling encourages exploration and adventure and opens up a whole new way of seeing the world.

It is by riding a bicycle you experience the contours of a country best – Ernest Hemingway

We then proceeded back to the resort where lunch was waiting for us. After some rest all of us were directed to fit our headlights for the sunset ride in the buffer zone via Jinnah Gate which was part village road, part highway and rest of it on a dirt track. As we turned onto the dirt track we had company of students, some girls, returning home after school. Their daily ride of 10 kms one way on a dirt road made them very proficient cyclists. They all rode a 1 speed cycle, dressed in school uniform, we on our 24 speed cycles dressed up as if we were proceeding to some international competition.  Their speed and control humbled us and they kept up with us all along till they turned off to their respective villages.

Sunset ride in the buffer zone of the tiger reserve on a dirt track.

At the end of 20 kms we had some chai and refreshments and resumed our return to  the resort. The return ride was in part light part darkness. We made small groups and tracked each other meticulously. The staff in the support vehicle said the sight of cyclists with their headlights and red taillight in pitch darkness was a spectacular one. Unfortunately this was one part of the trip where we have no photographs to share. 

[Day 4]

On Day 4, the 40 km ride to the tribal village inhabited by the Pardhi community was the longest of the trip.  We had an early start because we wanted to get the 2 ghats out of the way before the Sun came beating down on us. After the 2 ghats we crossed Panna town and headed to the tribal village. Near the village there was a perennial spring where we had a wash and refreshed ourselves followed by an open air breakfast. After breakfast a team of scouts from the Pardhi community took us on a trek to a beautiful viewpoint.  From the viewpoint we had a fantastic view of the gorge and sighting of the vultures. One of the groups was also shown a cave where the leopards make their home during the day or night. One of the scouts imitated the sounds and calls of various animals. This was followed by an authentic lunch cooked by the women folk of the Pardhi community.

Sit down lunch cooked by the women folk of the Pardhi Community – Photo Credit Bhushan Navare

Many of the ingredients were sourced from the jungle, especially the greens that went into the chutneys and curries. The roti was made from many grains mainly a mixture of millets and lentils.

Hot multi-grain rotis being prepared by the women folk of the Pardhi community

By the time we finished lunch it was 2.30 pm, we had ridden 40 kms, trekked about 6kms, and full stomachs , everyone itching for a 45 min to 1 hr siesta. For safety reasons there was no choice but to start riding back so that we reach the resort before dark. Everyone was expecting a smooth brisk ride back because we had ascended 2 ghats in the morning. But at the last minute the return route was changed to avoid the evening traffic in Panna town. The return route was a bypass that went around Panna town. The bad news was that the bypass had one more ghat; getting past this ghat was probably the toughest part of the ride. However everyone reached back in time with a great sense of accomplishment. Day 4 was the last day of cycling. That evening was karaoke night where everyone sang their favourite songs only to discover some serious singing talent amongst us.

[Day 5]

Early start for a day long tiger safari split into two trips – one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. 36 of us were assigned to 6 jeeps. We reached the gates of the tiger reserve at 6.30 am to complete all the formalities. A guide was assigned to every jeep, who along with the driver had the task of ensuring us a tiger sighting. Many amongst the 36 had never seen a tiger but by the grace of God all the six jeeps got to see one at the end of the two trips. Seeing the tiger in the wild is an inexplicable experience which cannot be shared via words, photos and videos.

Seeing the Tiger in the wild is an inexplicable experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list

It is an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.  “I was very happy that everyone got to see one and have this unique experience”, remarked an emotional Rahul Nene, also a wildlife enthusiast and a keen photographer. It is only after seeing one is one able to appreciate why the Indian tiger is a national treasure and why every Indian should do their bit to preserve the tiger and their habitat. Seeing a tiger in the wilderness is a matter of luck and destiny. I got to improvise further on my favourite pearl of wisdom ‘Har daane pe likha hai khaane waale ka naam’ with ‘Har tiger pe likha hai dekhne waale ka naam’, which in English is ‘just as on every grain is written the name of the person who will eat it, on every tiger is written the name of the person who will see it’! Panna is blessed with beautiful scenery and landscape.

The natural landscape of Panna boggles the mind

There is a gorge for vulture sighting that is not to be missed, there is a part of the park with rolling hills on one side and the river on the other. The beautiful landscape with a high probability of sighting makes Panna a must-visit tiger reserve.

Our guide and driver introduced us to one Mr Bhide, a tiger freak to say the least and who has done over 500 safaris. We were told that he had helped many of the guides and drivers through the terrible period of Covid. He has even supported one driver with a safari jeep, which is reserved for him whenever he visits Panna.  My driver described him ‘Dhani admi hai par ghamand nahin hai’  (He is rich but humble). We need many Mr Bhides and all Indians should do their bit to preserve this National Treasure namely the Indian Tiger. India remains one of the few countries in the world where one can see it in its natural setting, we need to ensure the same experience to future generations.

The reaction when you spot the ‘King of the Jungle’

The day 5 evening party was the last party of the trip with no anxiety of an early start the next morning. We managed to source some local Mahua brewed by the local tribals and partied late into the night. Distilling Mahua was made illegal by the British and was legalized by the MP government a couple of days after our return to Pune. Hope this leads to other states legalizing the production of local brews generating employment for many. I have a vested interest in Mahua because one of my portfolio companies DesmondJi is distilling Mahua to IMFL quality for consumption in India and globally. Mahua is to India what Agave is to Mexico and it is from Agave that the Mexicans make Tequila.

[Day 6]

After a leisurely brunch by the river side, we proceeded to Jabalpur, a 6 hour ride and 300 kms in distance to take the train back home.

Please note Khajuraho has an airport that is connected to Delhi and one other city. We could have saved two whole days with a direct flight from Pune. I am pretty sure there will be enough Punekars interested in seeing Khajuraho to fill a plane!

Personal take on what made the trip memorable.

The glue that bound the group together was the soul of the trip – Cycling.  The bicycle just connects the group better.

The itinerary was well thought out – with a good balance of cycling and sightseeing, a different experience every single day. A temple on day one, scenic waterfalls and a dirt track jungle ride on day two, a visit to a tribal village on day 3 and finally the tiger safari on the last day. 

The group was diverse: architects, doctors, army officers, engineers, scientists, finance professionals, and the unemployed (that is me). A third of the group  were beautiful sporting women who played a big role in maintaining the sanity of the group.

the beautiful sporting women that maintained the sanity of the group

It is difficult to describe the collaboration and camaraderie that was evident when somebody needed help, whether it was a puncture or a cycle problem or an injury. What was proven is that we humans just align so well against adversity. Once the ride starts everyone is on a level playing field and equally vulnerable.

A day of cycling, a couple of drinks, and breaking bread together – all barriers are broken and new friendships made and at the end of the day we felt we had known each other for years.

End of day unwind

The reality check: There will always be a couple of outliers, you have to accommodate them, and move on.

And finally you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy a bicycle and go on a trip and that comes pretty darn close!!!

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