Tryst with the Wild
'Tryst with the Wild' takes the reader on an armchair sojourn to the Jim Corbett National Park, situated near the quaint village of Ramnagar in the state of Uttarakhand (India). Spread over 521 sq km, this park is famous for the largest population of tigers in India. Rachna Singh, narrates her exciting encounters with the magnificent tiger and a herd of wild elphants, who take strong umbrage to being disturbed in their feifdom.
As an Army child, I had occasion to visit some very exciting places. During my father’s posting to Assam, I visited the Kaziranga National Park, home to tigers, elephants and one-horned Rhinoceros. A posting to Jabalpur gave us a chance to see the Royal Bengal Tiger in its natural habitat in Kanha National Park. My father’s assignment in Bharatpur had us visiting the Kaladeo Bird Sanctuary where we saw hundreds of painted storks and Siberian cranes as well as other migratory birds, and his posting to Bengdubi in West Bengal gave us a ringside view of wild elephants who loved to guzzle rum. The images of a huge herd of elephants in Kaziranga National Park, the rum guzzlers in Bengdubi and the Tigers in Kanha national Park are memories that I still treasure. So, when my better half began to plan a trip to Jim Corbett National Park, I grabbed the offer with both hands. We planned to visit the National Park in the 1st week of April. Friends and acquaintances were somewhat flummoxed because as they rightly argued, the right time to go for a Jungle safari was in the winter months and not when the rise in mercury would send the animals into the dense and cooler parts of the forest. But the call of the wild was too strong to resist and one morning we packed our bags and headed for the jungles and our very own tryst with the maneaters of Kumaon.
The distance from Chandigarh to Ramnagar is about 350 km and took us more than 8 hours to cover but except for a short stretch where the road was under construction, the path we followed (through Saharanpur, Haridwar, Kashipur as guided by the ubiquitous Google assistant) was smooth and we encountered very little traffic. As we reached Ramnagar, we were welcomed by the sight of majestic Sal trees, reaching out for the azure of the cloudless skies. We checked into a hotel about 12 km from this somewhat ramshackle township that seemed to have sprung up and was contoured around Corbett tourism. Boards of Jungle Safari agents, hotels and cottages catering to tourists seemed to be everywhere. As luck would have it, our hotel was situated in the middle of fragrant foliage and verdant greenery. As we were ushered down the pathway to our cottage, we saw a couple of monkeys sitting on the cobbled pathway looking at us in disdain as though we were uninvited guests into their fiefdom, which I guess we were. Even before we had absorbed the sight of these monkeys (and let me tell you these rather calm monkeys were certainly different from the aggressive monkeys one comes across in Lutyens Delhi or around temples where they snatch eatables out of your hands without a by your leave), I saw the branch of the tree outside my room shake as if with palsy and then I saw the cause of it. There was a huge, dapper Langur with a well-groomed coat of milk-white hair and a bright gleaming ebony face making himself comfortable on his perch even as he reached out to pluck fresh green leaves and deposit them with a look of calm entitlement into his mouth. For the three days that we were there, he was a regular on the tamarind tree that grew outside our room. The hotel boys told us that langurs are very partial to the tangy tamarind leaves. There were also a great number of birds in the foliage- red-whiskered bulbuls, Himalayan bulbuls, bee eaters, thrushes, red starts, kites. We also sighted kingfishers and pond herons in the Ganga River that was flowing close o the hotel. I loved waking to bird song every day.
The next day was the big day for all of us. We had booked the Jungle Jeep Safari for the afternoon and were issued a pass for entry into Jhirna Zone. The next day our Jeep safari driver, Dilshad, informed us that the park spread over about 521 km was divided into 8 zones and the Jhirna zone was the best for spotting wildlife. We shrugged off his claim thinking it to be the tall claim so typical of a seller of wares. He looked at our sceptical expressions and told us that he had been a driver and guide, all rolled into one, for 26 years and knew the forest like the back of his hand. After a hair-raising, somewhat bouncy 35-minute drive, with the speedometer touching 100 km per hour, we reached Dhela gate which was the entry gate to the Jhirna zone. It was 2.30 in the afternoon with the mercury touching 35 degrees and dry dusty winds blowing. An open jeep offered no protection from the hot sun. Dilshad was driving with great swag over rutted forest pathways, completely indifferent to the jolts suffered by his beleaguered passengers. By now we had started having second thoughts about our afternoon safari which we had booked at the agent’s say so. We had barely entered the gate when the driver stopped, gestured at us to be quiet and pointed out some spotted deer that were grazing in a corner. They looked at us curiously, decided we were not a threat and went back to grazing. We began clicking pictures with great enthusiasm, despite the heat, but the whirring of the camera startled them and in seconds they were bounding away gracefully. In the next 2 ½ hours, we saw hordes of langurs, monkeys and lots of spotted deer. We stopped at all water holes, hoping to catch sight of some wildlife, maybe a tiger or an elephant quenching his thirst. But no luck. We did see a domestic elephant being bathed by his ‘mahout.’
We were tired, hot and extremely disappointed. Even our driver was looking a bit grim by now. We had even stopped taking pictures. Suddenly Dilshad braked hard, cocked his head as if listening and before we could gather our wits, he was reversing down the trail at breakneck speed. He stopped suddenly and gestured to the right. We craned our heads and saw a wonderful sight. There was a waterhole behind some dense foliage. We caught sight of elephants playfully filling their trunks with water and spraying it over their backs. But before we could take in our fill of this enchanting sight, our driver once again started reversing down the sloping trail at breakneck speed and then stopped the jeep at an ungainly angle. We waited with bated breath. After a few seconds, there was a sound of leaves rustling, twigs snapping, branches breaking. Then the first elephant emerged on the rutted pathway, about 50 yards in front of our jeep. Then came a mother elephant with her young one, followed by another and then another. There were nine of them. We snapped out of our awestruck trance and started clicking pictures. Probably the cameras looked threatening, because the escort elephant of the herd, suddenly turned towards us and began to charge towards our jeep. The elephant looked like he was angry enough to upend our jeep. “Dilshad move!!” we whispered shrilly, even as we sent up a quick prayer. I was imagining the headlines in tomorrow’s newspaper ‘Tourists die at the hands of an enraged elephant.’ “It’s a mock charge. Please sit down,” Dilshad whispered back. We sat down with some trepidation. As soon as we sat down, the elephant decided we were not a threat and backed away, slowly but menacingly. We heaved a sigh of relief. The elephant wheeled around as it had spied another jeep with some noisy tourists that had just arrived and charged at them. I could never have thought that such a huge animal could move with such speed. This time the charge was real, and the jeep barely escaped being battered by an angry elephant.
We were thrilled with our adventure. Nothing could possibly better this or so we thought. We were ready to head home but Dilshad insisted that we should do another round of the waterholes. On the way back from one of the waterholes, he stopped and stooped over. Then he pointed out tiger pugmarks. He drove for a bit and then stopped. He shut the jeep down and gestured for us to be quiet. He then sat there in meditative silence for almost 20 minutes. By now we were getting a little restive. And then suddenly, without a warning he turned the jeep around and drove pell-mell down the trail. We almost tumbled out of the jeep and steadied ourselves with difficulty. He stopped the jeep at a point, overlooking a trail that went into the jungle. He explained that he had heard the call of the jungle fowl, indicating that a tiger was in the vicinity. Before we knew it, 6 other jeeps had arrived and parked next to ours. The news of a tiger on the prowl had spread like wildfire. There was slight movement in the under bush, further along the road. We all sat still as mice and suddenly she appeared. She was a magnificent tiger and she sashayed across the trail, like a model, completely oblivious and indifferent to the humans looking at her in awed wonder. At the clicking of the cameras, she glanced back with a bored look and then crossed the trail into the forest on the other side. She was then gone, leaving us all heart-broken with her quick exit. Our quickened breathing took a while to slow down as we headed back to the exit gate. It was nearing 6 ‘o’ clock and time for the gate to close for the night. We were quiet, still trying to make sense of this spectacular encounter.
We were now crossing a landscape that was all scrub and thorny trees. The driver stopped again. Now what? Nothing could possibly beat the excitement of the elephant and tiger encounter. He said succinctly ‘paradise flycatcher.’ ‘I thought that was found in Africa,’ I said. ‘Yes, but it migrates here in summers,’ Dilshad said. The bird decided to make his presence felt. It darted gracefully from the branch, making graceful loops, its long white streamers, its silvery white body and the raffish, inky black crest on his head in evidence. This glam king, also called dudhraj (Milk God) and Shah bulbul (Royal Bulbul) soared and dived and flitted from branch to branch and we revelled in his performance.
Back in the hotel, we had a quick dinner and tired after the encounters with the wild, we slept. But even in our dreams we saw the magnificent animals of the wild that had made our Jim Corbett sojourn a beautiful and unforgettable experience.