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Treehouses to Mud Bungalows: 2 Friends Make Forest Hideaways For Perfect Nature Trips

Manav Khanduja and Shyamendra Singhare, the co-founders of Pugdundee Safaris based in Haryana, share how they built a sustainable safari travel venture in the heart of India.

Treehouses to Mud Bungalows: 2 Friends Make Forest Hideaways For Perfect Nature Trips

On the outskirts of the dense forest of Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, rich with royal Bengal tigers, white tigers, leopards and deer, one can spot five houses on and among the trees. Here one can see wild animals and birds in the reserved forest. 

These tree and mud houses are the brainchild of two friends from Uttarakhand.

Manav Khanduja and Shyamendra Singhare, who studied in the field of environment and hospitality, respectively, always dreamt of starting a business that was steeped in nature without causing it any harm. “It all started with our love for jungles and wildlife,” says Manav, co-founder and director of Pugdundee Safaris based in Haryana.

‘Pugdundee’ is a Hindi word meaning – ‘a foot trail commonly used by humans and animals’.

Mud house by Pugdundee safaris in madhya pradesh
Mud house by Pugdundee.

This word is commonly used for beaten paths in the Indian jungles. Pugdundee Safaris, which had a humble beginning in 1986, is now a responsible safari company with seven properties across central India.

The beginning of Pugdundee was rather unplanned, says the duo. It started as a small tented camp at Panna as Ken River Lodge. “This was started as a part-time business. But once we realised the interest from travellers towards nature and wildlife tourism, we understood the scope and decided to expand,” says Manav, adding, “The growth was slow as we used the income from one property to build the next. After the first venture in 1986, we set up two more lodges between 2007-2010.”

Today, Pugdundee Safaris have expanded to include the following properties in Madhya Pradesh: Kanha Earth Lodge in Kanha National Park, Denwa Backwater Escape in Satpura National Park, Pench Tree Lodge in Pench National Park, Treehouse Hideaway and Kings Lodge in Bandhavgarh National Park and Ken River Lodge in Panna National Park. 

explore forest and wildlife with pugundee safaris
Pugdundee Safaris has seven properties across Central India.

They also have Waghoba Eco Lodge in Tadoba National Park, Maharashtra.

Shyamendra adds, “Central India is blessed with the country’s finest wildlife. It’s on the wish list of every wildlife enthusiast. The parks here are so diverse that one can feel completely overwhelmed by the mere expanse of the wilderness. The state also inhabits India’s most popular national parks, known for tiger sightings including Kanha and Bandhavgarh.” 

Pugdundee Safaris’ intimate jungle lodges, located inside popular national parks, let travellers closely experience the wilderness of the country. Manav, who graduated from the Centre for Environment Law at WWF, adds, “Since all the properties are situated in the suburbs of national parks, permission from the officials was a must. As the projects are completely sustainable, there were not many challenges in acquiring them.”

“In Pugdundee we assure incomparable wildlife safaris,” he says, adding, “Between 2009 and 2022, we have been awarded for our excellence in safaris, our commitment to sustainability and our experienced naturalists.”

the sustainable lodges of pugdundee safaris in the middle of forests
Pugdundee Safaris’ intimate jungle lodges, located inside popular national parks, let travellers closely experience the wilderness of the country.

What started with just two friends is now run by a passionate team of 300 professionals, 80 per cent of whom are locals, committed to providing an incredible wildlife experience. Manav says, “The team includes naturalists, nature guides, boatmen, trackers and a marketing team based in Delhi.”

Escape to the wild

Right from the beginning, the founders’ idea was not just to start a hospitality business. While some of the lodges provide a raw, into-the-nature experience, a few have luxury set-ups with a private pool, multi-cuisine food and a comfortable stay.

“But most of our guests are inclined towards simple setups,” he says. For example, a popular choice, Kanha Earth Lodge is tucked away in a small tribal hamlet. It is built in less than 10 per cent of the 16 acres of natural forest that houses it. “The lodge and its furniture are constructed and designed using local material, waste and recycled wood, a true reflection of impeccable standards in green architecture. Mud is the main raw material of this ‘earth’ house. And all the walls are made of mud and wood.”

The wood finished interiors made using recycled materials in pugdundee safaris
Wood finished interiors made using recycled materials.

Sustainably building treehouses and lodges and employing local people were the other aims of the venture. Most of the staff at Pugdundee are from nearby villages and have an innate love for the jungles and professional dedication beyond the call of duty. “Over 45 of them who came in as beginners in the field of hospitality are now working in managerial roles,” he adds.

Manav says, “We believe that local people hold the future of the forests in their hands and can either help protect or destroy them. If we wish to conserve our forests, we must look after the needs of local people by helping to improve their ability to earn livelihoods, which in turn will enhance their standards of living. Addressing their needs is the key to ensuring the future of our natural habitats. We continuously strive to deliver the best possible guest experience, while still integrating the conservation of jungles and the people living around them.”

The duo agree that ‘responsible tourism and wildlife conservation go hand-in-hand’. So the lodges have a strict’ zero single-use plastic’ policy. The spaces are presented in vernacular architecture styles, tastefully built with an emphasis on local and green architecture. 

“For over five years, we continue to be actively engaged in contributing to the education and infrastructure of the local schools,” Manav says. “Adopting farm-to-table initiatives by serving fresh food grown in our organic kitchen gardens and sourced from local farmers is another measure. Above 70 per cent of lodge services and procurement needs are met locally.”

organic vegetables collected from local farmers is used to make meals in pugdundee lodges
From farm to plate.

The lodges are ‘rewilded’ with native species extending into natural forests, offering safe passage to visiting wildlife and a natural habitat to many other species. The food needed for the lodges is procured from within 100 miles of each location. “This not only helps our brand become carbon positive but also benefits the local farmers and economy,” says Manav, adding, “We have carefully curated our organic gardens to give our guests the taste of local flavour served with the uncompromised benefit of nutrition across our lodges.”

Additionally, they have adopted ESG (environmental, social, and governance), the international sustainability criteria for hotels, provided by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council in 2020 which is reviewed every year.

Call of the wild

“Being a wildlife resort, sitting in the hub of wildlife, the key experience that our guests expect when they visit us is a jungle safari. But we also host several other activities that can give them a real taste of local life and promote non-vehicular greener options of basking in the blissful serenity. This includes village visits, local food tasting, nature walks, cycling, sundowner treks and much more,” gushes Shyamendra.

jeep safaris to the forest are provided in the lodges of pugdundee
To the wild.

The lodges are fully operational between October to June as this is the time when the core area of the parks is open for visitors. The founders suggest that summers are usually considered to be a good time for sighting as the vegetation across these forests dries down, offering a clearer view. Winters, on the other hand, have their perks and the beauty of the forests is unmatched. 

Manav says, “All our lodges are boutique accommodations and allow only a limited number of intake at any point in time.”

Happy guests with the staff of pugdundee after a safari
Happy guests with the staff after a safari.

The team can be reached out through emails or direct calls. “We are active across social media, so customers reaching out to us through any of the platforms that we are present on, is also an easy option to make the bookings,” notes Manav.

The team has received several awards and recognitions including a silver medal in International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT) Awards 2022 for reducing plastic waste in the environment category, another silver medal in the sustainable leadership hotels category of Outlook Indian Responsible Tourism Awards 2022, and India’s leading wildlife resort award by South Asian Travel Awards 2017.

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The price range for each lodge, depending upon the activities and number of days starts from Rs 10,000. For bookings and more, visit their website here.

Edited by Yoshita Rao; Photo credits: Website of Pugdundee Safaris

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