Madhai is one (the?) entrance to the Satpura Tiger Reserve. You cross the Denwa river here, where it is actually part of the massive Tawa reservoir, to enter the Reserve. It's a five minute boat ride and on the other side you're greeted by a couple of elegant deer, grazing on the grounds of the MP Tourism resort there. From here, you can sign up for a safari through the Reserve in open MP Tourism Gypsies.
Which is what we do. With our driver and a guide, we -- my wife, two kids and I -- get going about 430pm. It is a bumpy but fun ride. The jungle is green and thick. We see sambhar, chital, wild boar, gaur, alert kingfishers, a silent stork on top of a dead tree, and screeching angrily from just above us, a crested hawk eagle. Handsome sort, if somewhat reminiscent of stern teachers from my youth. Miss R, in particular.
Then, just as the light starts to fade, our Gypsy stops. The driver tries and tries to start it, but has no luck. The guide takes a bottle of water and pours it into the radiator. We wait several minutes. The driver tries again. This time it starts. We move on. Ten minutes later, it stops again. It's now quite a bit darker, if not completely dark yet. Both young men peer into the engine, fiddling here and there. It won't start. The driver gets back into his seat and peers at his dashboard. Unable to see whatever he is trying to see, he yanks out his mobile. There's no connectivity in the middle of this forest, I checked, but that's not why he pulls it out anyway. He tries to see what he can by the light from the screen of his little celphone. The authorities here have not only sent a group of tourists out in a dodgy car, they haven't even seen fit to give the crew a flashlight.
Luckily I had clipped my flashlight to a belt loop before leaving our room, for no reason I can think of. Now I unclip it and hand it to the pair, and they use it to fiddle some more under the hood. I hear one of them spitting, and I know he has tried to suck petrol through the hose. They shut the hood and try the ignition again. It sputters and stops. Then it starts.
We move on. Five minutes later, trying to get up a steep muddy and rocky slope, the Gypsy slides back down and stops again. It is now, simply, dark. I mean, dark like someone has thrown a blanket over us. How far is it to the resort, I ask the men. "Oh, not far", they say, unconvincingly. Yes, but how far? Can I walk? "Oh about 3 km," they say ("teen-ek kilometre" are the guide's precise words), still not convincingly.
I'm starting to get tense about the tigers and leopards I know are in this forest (about 25 of the former and about 75 of the latter, the guide had told us). I'm starting to wonder about how we'll hunker down for the night. All of us crammed into the two front seats? I'm starting to think about whether I should go for help on foot. An uncertain 3 km in this forest in the dark, leaving the family, but what are my options?
Meanwhile, the same rigmarole with the men, the hood and my flashlight. It takes longer this time, but they get it started. By now, I know the score: Five more minutes, it stops again. Later, again. My nerves are shot and so are my wife's, though we're both trying hard not to show it. It was a game for the kids at the beginning, and they've taken it well, but now they are fretting too. The men still cannot say how far it is. The darkness is impenetrable. Without the light of my torch, we can't even see the trees and bushes we know are nearly within touching distance.
What are my options, really?
As they suck fuel through the pipe for the nth time, as we wait in the Gypsy, we hear, faintly, a thoroughly welcome sound: the rumble of another vehicle's engine. Soon enough, we see the glow of its lights, then it's suddenly upon us. Two men, sent out in a Mahindra pickup to look for us. Relieved, we transfer to the pickup.
We urge them to leave the Gypsy behind to be picked up tomorrow, while all of us return in the pickup. No, they try some more to get the Gypsy started again, and drive off with us in the pickup behind. Yep, it stalls again. This time when they get it started, it rushes off into the night and the pickup won't move. Turns out it has got stalled in the middle of some large rocks. The family and this pickup driver, now, alone in the forest in the middle of the night, trying to negotiate these rocks. Talk about shot nerves.
We finally do limp into the resort. This is true.
When we get there, an official is giving the guide and the Gypsy driver a serious dressing down from an official. It's all in Hindi, but for some reason he switches to English for this final remark: "And you guide, you please go, I don't want to see your face here!"
Early tomorrow morning, says the guy taking us back across the river in the boat, we can do another forest safari. Thanks, I say, but I think we'll pass.