We’d known since a while that we would enjoy wildlife tourism, and a trip to Corbett had been on the cards for this reason. When we read about a ‘deal’ for a 2N/ 3D stay in Corbett, we jumped at it. However, as the dates for our trip got closer, we started having second thoughts. Not because we thought it would not be good; we knew Corbett would be beautiful. However, we were booked in a resort outside the park, and several people and articles had told us that Corbett is best experienced by staying ‘inside’ the forest in one of the forest rest houses (FRHs). Our image of a resort outside was one occupied by the typical loud tourist who likes to dance to the tunes of DJs around a bonfire at night (sorry for being so cynical). Anyway, the deal had been bought, and we had no option but to go.
Once the family got to know about our trip, Aarti’s sister and her kids asked if they could join us, and so we were all set to go on a weekend family trip. Since they were coming, off-roading was not an option, and we realized we would probably end up doing what most tourists do. Given Aarti’s and my hectic schedule the past month, we too were looking forward to a simple relaxing holiday. The point is that we hadn’t researched on lesser used tracks, off-roading possibilities, and other such options.
So when, just one day before we were to leave, the family cancelled, we suddenly had a holiday on our hands with no off-roading plans! We had no time to research either, and hence, without a plan of our own, we left Delhi at 6:00 am on a Saturday morning.
Much to our surprise, the trip completely turned around on its head. We have always been a little over-zealous when it comes to our pursuit of nature and animals. In our desire to get as close to them as possible, we invariably end up chasing them, and thus scaring them a bit. Little did we know that nature had planned a sweet revenge on us. The chasers deservedly got chased this time, and what a heart-stopping chase it was!
Saturday, 26th Feb, began a little late at 5:00 am, unusual for the starting of a trip, but we knew that Corbett was a stone’s throw away, hence were in no rush. We were off by 6:00 am and by 8:00 were at Garhmukteshwar, where we stopped for breakfast. The road till Garhmukteshwar is best covered early in the morning before the local traffic hits the narrow NH-24, when the 2 hours could easily turn into 4 if one is unlucky.
After a longish breakfast break followed by a couple of shots while crossing the Ganga, we resumed our journey by 9 am. The road turns for the better almost immediately after the bridge at Garhmukteshwar, and it is a smooth ride all the way up-till the end of the Moradabad expressway. The road conditions deteriorate once one leaves the NH-24. We got stuck in a horrible traffic snarl inside Kashipur and it was only by 1:00 pm when we finally managed to reach Ramnagar.
The hotel receptionist could not confirm our booking for the “jeep safari” in the “package”. So, just to be safe, we took a permit to take our very own Kiyang inside the NP for the morning slot on Monday. With the permits in our hand, and also some numbers of locals who run the cartel of permits and gypsies, we headed for the hotel.
The resort, by the name of Tiger Den Resort, was located far away from the NP, on the Haldwani road, about 12 km away from Ramnagar. The actual tariff was supposed to be Rs. 6000 per day for a couple for an American Plan (all meals included), which we got for about Rs. 3000 per day because of the deal. The resorts around the NP are ridiculously over-priced. Ours was good but not worth Rs. 6000 for sure. The rooms were huge, neat and clean. The resort itself is beautifully landscaped with flowers all around, and boasts of a nice spa, a swimming pool, a great dining area and a playground.
We reached the resort at about 2, fixed our “package” jeep safari with the hotel guy for the following morning, and a local gypsy safari for the following afternoon using the phone numbers I’d jugaadofied. With three safaris packed for the next two days, we decided to have some lunch and rest for the afternoon. It had been a long month preceding the trip and an afternoon siesta was just what we needed.
In the evening, we went for an aimless drive on the Haldwani road, and then enjoyed some beer and snacks next to the pool. The dinner was good, with the Pakistan league match against Sri Lanka keeping us company. Later, eager for the two safaris lined up the next day, we hit the sack.
Day 2: Morning ride to the buffer zone
At 6:00 am the next day, we were ready to head off for a “jeep safari” that was included in our package. Since it was organized by the resort guys, the safari would not be in the NP, but in the buffer zone. There were five people in the jeep – the driver, two of us and another couple from Pune. The buffer zone, for the uninitiated, is basically the forest on the periphery of the NP, and since the park itself is not fenced, the buffer zone acts as a natural habitat boundary for the animals in the NP. The place that we were going to is called Sitavani, and one can reach there by crossing the barrage right next to Ramnagar on the Haldwani road and take a left immediately after crossing the barrage to the other bank of the river. The road winds through the jungle, forks at a place, where the right turn takes you to Sitavani temple and FRH, and the left to a dead-end in another village.
It was quite clear to us within 15 minutes from the time the safari began that it would not be possible to sight even an elephant, forget a tiger, in this area, despite hearing the ubiquitous lie that “a tiger was spotted by a guest just last night”. We were nevertheless enjoying the open gypsy ride and the cold morning breeze in the pretty jungle, and it was in fact quite rejuvenating and pleasant. We did spot a deer or two, though it was the drive which made it worth waking up at 5 in the morning!
An hour into the drive, we reached Sitavani. I got behind the wheel of a gypsy and I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of the vehicle, even though it was 11 years old and quite rickety. The driver’s seat could not be pushed back though, so pretty soon after driving across a river, I decided it would be better if I relinquished the wheel back to the driver. So without any further incidence, and a pleasant drive later, we were back at the breakfast table at 10:00 am at our resort.
It was time to rest a while before the afternoon safari began, and this time it was the real deal – in the Bijrani zone of the NP.
Day 2 : Afternoon open gypsy ride inside the national park
We were at the gate and were about to enter the NP when disaster struck. The camera showed that the chip was not inserted, and that’s when we realized for the first time that both the chips were in the hotel – one inserted inside the laptop and the other in the laptop bag! We’d looked at the photographs taken in the morning when we’d gone back to the hotel, and forgotten to re-insert the chip in the camera.
However, we did not panic, and started asking around if anybody had a spare memory card. Thankfully, a guide by the name of Bobby (Lalit) had one with 200 MB free space. We soon realized that he was pretty eccentric, but was also deeply into wildlife photography, and we thought that having him as our guide might just work to our advantage. Not that we had a choice, he was giving us his memory chip, which meant that he was coming with us. Anyway, in hindsight, his passion for photography and his love for the jungle provided us with an excellent safari.
He also assured us that we could get the adapter from his camera kit once we went inside the NP, so that we could use our mobile memory chip to shoot. Lalit truly was an excellent guide; he knew the area well and would stop to give us the best possible shots, whether it be for a bird or for a mammal. His experience in photography made him instruct the driver to stop (disembarking from the vehicle is not an option inside the NP) at places from where we could get excellent shots and angles.
The saddest part about the sojourn in the NP was to look at the junta’s obsession to see a tiger, and ignoring the other beautiful animals walking around. Not that sighting a tiger would not be fun. I would be ecstatic, but there’s no way that I’m going to give up enjoying the other flora and fauna in the jungle if I don’t get to see a tiger.
A rumor reached our ears (and Lalit’s) that a tiger was seen crossing the road by the gypsy in front of us. This was when the junta’s obsession turned into frenzy and all the 30 gypsies converged into one part of the jungle. Even if the poor animal were around, it would definitely not come out!
As the time to leave approached, we got increasingly sad and did not want to leave. Sure enough, God answered our prayers, and extended our time in the NP for another half an hour by giving our gypsy a flat Tyre. Although we enjoyed the extra time, our gypsy’s driver sure did not, as he was a tyre-change-virgin!
As we got out of the NP, we bid adieu to the driver and thanked Lalit profusely for his help, both for being a great guide as well as for giving us the memory chip without which entering the NP would’ve been a disaster. He was happy to know that we would be going into the NP from Jhirna gate the next morning in our own vehicle and offered his services which we gladly accepted. So, after fixing a rendezvous time of 5:30 am for the next morning, we parted ways for the night.
Day 3 : Morning self-driven safari in the national park
We had hoped to hit the sack early the previous night in order to get up at 4:15 am the next morning, but the humdinger between India and England at Bangalore ensured that that did not happen. We woke up groggily and headed towards the Jhirna gate, picking up our guide, Bobby, on the way. It was pleasing to note that none of the tourists were there, and ours was the first and the only vehicle to enter the NP. We could now have Mother Nature’s attention all to ourselves.
We soon saw an elephant entering the jungle from the road up ahead. It was too quick for us and we were again disappointed that it was not captured on camera. After waiting for a while where it was last seen, and trying to listen to the sounds of breaking branches, we decided to try the other road. Soon this led us to a narrow jungle track, where our Kiyang hardly fit between the shrubs. A huge log in the middle of the track ensured that our progress was halted. We switched off the engine, and waited for the elephant to come towards us with baited breath.
Finally, the elephant came out of the jungle on to the track right at a spot where there sun rays were coming in through the trees, creating a sort of a natural spotlight. This gave us some excellent shots of the beast. Soon, another one emerged just behind us. Both these appearances did scare us a bit, since had either elephant lost its cool, we practically had nowhere to run! Thankfully, the elephants hardly noticed us.
Bobby asks us to overtake the tusker as a cattle, but slowly. being duffer that we were, agreed to him. The charge lasted for 100 m or so, but it felt like a kilometer! It took us about 15 minutes to recover from the shock of what had just happened. We then decided not to shoot any more elephants on this trip and proceeded, as Lalit suggested, to some ‘lesser’ used tracks in the forest range, since I’d specially requested him to take us on an off-roading track. It is necessary for Kiyang, from time to time, to practice walking on all fours, lest it forget how to! The track did not disappoint, even to the extent of giving us an opportunity to shift to 4L mode. After a longish drive around the park and a quick visit to the snack point, we headed back towards the exit gate. Bidding adieu to the NP was difficult but like all good things, this short and sweet weekend trip too had to come to an end.
The trudge back to Delhi began at 11:00 am and we finally reached home at 5:30 pm, with the most frustrating stretch being the Ghaziabad – New Delhi two-laned, congested NH-24.
It had been a trip of self-realization, making us think about wildlife trips and photography as the next passion for us. It is going to be an expensive vocation, and so will probably have to wait some years before it starts off in full frenzy.