Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Corbett - A familiar stranger


The Dhikala grasslands with the Ramganga in the background

‘Meeting an old friend for the very first time’ – that’s what Corbett felt like - never seen before but read and ‘experienced’ many times over through the stories of the legendary Jim Corbett – so names like Mohan and Kaladhungi rolled off the tongue with surprising familiarity.  And it’s hard to describe the sense of anticipation and excitement as we got there. After all, we were in Corbett’s world. Finally!

All brought crashing down to earth on our first safari. Someone had messed up with the entry permits. The hotel guys tried to cover up and send us to another ‘route - Sitavadi’ – it was  really a temple that was the attraction here a beautiful, ancient Sita temple, but with the cacophony of the 'pilgrims'  we didn't even see spotted deer! Not the Corbett we were promised.  And the mess continued that afternoon as we waited two hours at the Forest Office for our permits to stay at the Forest Camp in Dhikala. And so, by the time we got to Dhikala, it was almost time over for the evening safari.

But our supremely enthu driver/guide Wasim took us for a ride around the grasslands, probably the best place to see tigers in Corbett. Almost immediately, we saw gypsies bunched together and looking for something in the tall grass. Our tiger antennae were up at once! But the tiger wasn’t in a hurry to come out and most of the gypsies gave up and went back. But we waited.

Tigress at Dhikala
And suddenly, a few minutes later, a tigress walked out of the grass and crossed the road right in front of us. She was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous! She then went back in and started  calling her cub. And a few hundred feet in front of us, we saw her almost fully-grown male cub cross over into the grass as well. Mother and cub re-united, and a happy reunion it seemed to be from the sounds. We couldn’t see them anymore but were thrilled to finally break our tiger duck.

Input and output at the same time!
The next morning we headed back to the grasslands, and saw a huge elephant just by the roadside. And then again, there was a lot of excitement as a tiger was moving in the thick grass next to the road. And at one spot, he crossed. And what a crossing it was! He came up to the road, completely invisible and in one split second, he leapt across and vanished into the dense undergrowth. In that instant, you could see his grace, power, beauty and feel the magnetic pull of this amazing animal. That leap was so mesmerizing, I can vizualise it every single day. Of all my tiger sightings, I count this fleeting vision amongst my finest. And no, I don’t have any pictures; I didn’t even have the time to lift my camera.

Then we waited for him to emerge.  Wasim estimated where he would come back on to the road and we waited there, near a legendary sal tree called Moti Sal. We sat there for maybe a couple of hours, with no sign of him, amusing ourselves with the antics of a rhesus macaque family nearby. One of them leapt into a neighbouring jeep and grabbed a bag and would have made off with it, but for an attentive driver who made him drop the bag!


Then we heard an alarm call from the undergrowth. And in an instant, the monkeys’ playfulness vanished and they all got on to trees and started looking out. And when they started calling as well, we knew the tiger was close by. And as if on cue, the tiger walked out on to the road, in front of us, crossed leisurely without even giving us a look and headed towards a large herd of chital. But he seemed in no mood to hunt, as he brazenly walked in the grass, unmindful of the hundreds of alarm calls from petrified chital all around him. And just like that, he vanished.

Elephant family with the tusker horsing around 
The little fella, with the dad keeping a close watch


Curious little calf wants to check us out

The mum quickly comes between us and the calf warning us to stay away
Then we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon with a large herd of elephants. There must have been around 40-50 of them, in all shapes and sizes; large tuskers, sub-adults, mums with little babies. All feeding in quiet solitude, except for the sub-adults who kept jousting with one another. Until one of them tried to mess with a tusker, and was quickly put in his place by the big boy.

We could scarcely believe our luck at Dhikala – 2 tigers and huge elephant herds. And with that, we headed out to try our luck at Jhirna and Bijrani, two other ranges of Corbett.  On the way out, we drive alongside the beautiful Ramganga river and also crossed the rocky beds of several ‘monsoon rivers’ – meaning they’re not perennial but only fill up during the rains.
 Grey Bushchat
Khaleej Pheasant
Jhirna was beautiful as we got there early in the morning, with a herd of elephants on the roadside even before we entered the gate. Ignoring us completely, they went about their feeding, meticulously peeling off bark from trees before completely knocking them over. Inside the park, we saw some beautiful khaleej pheasants and heard the whistling call of the beautiful Indian Pitta. And stopped over at the lovely Jihrna forest guest house for chai and brekkies.

Chestnut headed bee-eater
Our last safari was in the Bijrani range. And as soon as we got to the Forest Complex there, we were told that there was a mating pair of tigers nearby and also one more family in the area. We searched and waited, but no tigers. To make up for that we saw a big bunch of beautiful chestnut headed bee-eaters, right on the road. We spent a happy afternoon with these little stunners and left for the hotel very content indeed.

Overall, It was a very special trip, and the most satisfying part was to actually be able to see a tiger at the home of the legendary Jim Corbett. It almost felt like we were being blessed by him and in some small, insignificant way, being allowed to share his world.

Getting there
Corbett is accessed via Ramnagar (10 kms away), the nearest town and rail-head and also where most of the private hotels are based. There are great train connections both ways to Delhi, with a really good overnight train (the Corbett Park Link)

The drive from Delhi is a manageable 250 kms approx., around 5-6 hours with stops for food and stuff.

Stay
You’ll need a base in Ramnagar, outside the park and it is possible to do safaris into Jhirna and Bjrani, but you just have to stay in the Forest Guest Houses inside the forest to really experience Corbett.

Rooms at the Dhikala Camp
Dhikala is the biggest, most famous and also the most ‘touristy’ of them all. It’s fenced-off complex adjoining the Ramganga, with comfortable rooms and two canteens. There are many others, Bijrani and Jhirna included, most without 24/7 electricity and other such conveniences. But the best experiences (and sightings) staying at these for a few days is a must. On the next Corbett visit, my plan is to spend a week at least across a few of these Rest Houses.

Hotels at Ramnagar and around Corbett are a dime a dozen with something for every type of traveller. If you have the time, spend a few days at the highly recommended Camp Forktail Creek (www.campforktailcreek.com) They also have packages which build in stays at the Forest Rest Houses.



We had our stay arranged at a place called Manu Maharani (yes, that’s what it’s called) The name didn’t inspire much confidence, but it was booked by a very old friend, so we arrived, albeit a little hesitantly. It turned out to be a really nice, large property with very comfortable cottages, big lawns, a pool and very good food. Especially good for families with kids, who’re looking for a ‘resort’ (www.manumaharani.travel). What’s in a name after all?

Food and Service
Manu Maharani is a proper resort with all the trimmings, has a very good food and very helpful staff. There are lots of other things to do, especially for kids. The pool and play area should keep them occupied between safaris or when you’re taking a break from the forest.

Safaris
Your hotel should be able to book your safaris and stay in Dhikala, but you can do it yourself at www.corbettsafari.com. Or you can get it done through Mr. Piyush Joshi (+919456322356) like we did. It’s advisable to book in advance, since Corbett is always flooded with tourists and you don’t want to end up with last minute issues with your permits.

There are no guides really required in Corbett, so your driver makes a massive difference. We had an expert in Wasim, who had worked on research projects in Corbett for the Wildlife Institute of India. You can reach him on +91 9837575506.

Other tips
Budget for a trip to the Corbett museum at Haldwani, especially if you’re a fan of his writings.
If you are staying at Dhikala or any of the other Rest Houses, pack a smaller bag and leave your baggage at your Ramnagar Hotel, since your transport vehicle is also your safari vehicle.