Thursday, November 16, 2006

Murphy's Law at Corbett Park

The trip had been planned months in advance—well, a month. My sister and her family were to join us, and then we were all going to head for the Jim Corbett National Park.The first snag to hit was that my cook came down with chicken pox, of all things. Now per se that was not a disaster, because I could and did manage the cooking, but my niece had not yet had it, and so we were slightly concerned. However, the chickenpox shot she had been given seemed to have worked, touch wood.
Day I: When we set off, I leaned back and relaxed. But only for a little while. We had left around 5:30 a.m., blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding at our destination. The calls began coming in around 7:30---as friends went through their newspapers, they saw an item saying that Jim Corbett Park was closed because the Park employees were striking work! We were almost at Gajraula by then, and decided to have breakfast anyway, while we decided on the next step.
We had hired an Innova tourist taxi so we had the freedom to decide what to do. Some friends suggested we head for Nainital, where our Corbett hotel had a property. We tried booking for that by phone, but no go. Either the hotel people didn’t want to take so much trouble, or, everybody else had had that bright idea and no booking was available. Oh, well, we thought, we can always laze about, and go for walks by the river. So we decided to press on, Park or no Park
As we approached, our driver asked for directions, addressing some locals, " Yeh Corporate Park kahan hai?” Of course the locals were mystified. When we had stopped laughing, we figured out that the driver is more familiar with the numerous office complexes in Gurgaon, hence this interpretation of Corbett. When we reached Ramnagar there was a ray of hope. The vendors on the street said the strike would be lifted any time now. That was all to the good, and we reached our hotel in a buoyant mood. The reception clerk said they had not yet had any official information about the lifting of the strike, but if it did lift, he would arrange for a trip at least for the Bijrani or Jhirna circuit early next morning. The Gypsy would pick us up at 5:30 a.m. So we settled down to a good lunch. The “waiters” were dressed in shikari camouflage sort of uniform. The food was great.
Of course, post lunch it was time for a siesta. That first day was just eating and sleeping, because after our nap we had tea and snacks. The hotel is on the banks of the river Kosi. We tried to do a bit of exploring in and around the hotel, but dusk was falling and we gave it up. Before dinner, there was a talk by the resident naturalist, who seemed to love what he did. Two things he said struck me. First, he said don’t expect to see the tiger like you would on Discovery or National Geographic channels---those films are made with a lot of patience—there is a lot of waiting and watching involved. Second, he said don’t worry if you have not seen the tiger, you can be sure, he has seen you! He showed us slides of various birds and animals found in the region, and imitated their calls for us. He said that there are actually people who make the whole trip around the sanctuary, and then say, “All this jungle business is fine; now where is the park we have come to see?” They mean something on the lines of an amusement park, with joyrides, giant wheels et al! It takes all kinds, huh?
Day II: The next morning we were up again at 4:30 or so and were ready and waiting by 5:30 a.m. There was a slight drizzle, which felt very nice after the hot dusty plains we had come from. We waited, and waited. And waited. No Gypsy. The chap at the reception said that that meant the Park was not yet open, maybe. So we decided to make the best of it and went for a walk by the river instead. It was so peaceful and serene. I felt like an intruder---it was the territory of the water birds. They would fly off, startled at our approach, and land on a rock in the middle of the river, turning away from us in disdain.

We worked up a good appetite for breakfast, and had a hearty meal. Then we decided to go into town, and find out what was happening, since the receptionist could not help us. He did seem a bit dumb. Ramnagar town has the offices of the forest department where one is supposed to book the trip into the Park. We did so----there was no hassle, all we had to do was give them the registration number of the vehicle we wanted to travel in. This was a result of the just ended strike---the problem had been touts and unscrupulous Gypsy drivers who had sort of managed a monopoly to the entry to the park. Also, there had been a restriction on the number of vehicles allowed—30 in the morning trip and thirty in the afternoon. The hotels had a tie-up with some Gypsy drivers. After the strike, the officials had decided to let in private cars too. For a minute, we toyed with the idea of going in the Innova, but decided against it. We felt a Gypsy was more suited to the terrain, and an experienced driver and guide would be safer. So we booked one for the afternoon, and went back to the hotel to give the receptionist a tongue-lashing. He had either forgotten to book a Gypsy for us, or was so ill-informed that he didn’t know that the strike had lifted or maybe the Gypsies that the Hotel used were not on the allowed-list any more. Whatever the reason, the whole thing smacked of inefficiency and apathy. I know small-town laid-backness seems a bit too laidback after the go-getting spirit of Delhi, but this was a tourist place, for heaven’s sake! With pure cattiness, I accused him of looking after only the foreigners, and not us! But the dumb expression didn’t change. I don’t know how much registered!
We decided to eat in the town, and enquiries resulted in the recommendation of one “Kundan restaurant” by one and all. It was not on the main road, and we had to walk a goodish bit hunting for it. It was a sweet shop on the ground floor, with the restaurant part on the first floor. The mandatory flies were buzzing around the exposed sweets, and we looked away resolutely, hoping conditions in the restaurant were better. Well, it boasted of desert coolers, if not A/C’s! And then the problem of what to eat. A couple of plates of Chhole Bhature were ordered---they arrived quite fast, but the chhole were too spicy. So then we ordered---wait, don’t laugh----dosas! The sambar had its own unique taste. The whole meal was oily, and of course it would be foolish to assume any kind of hygiene. I was already having visions of having to dose the kids with anti-vomiting medicines. As we left, I spied a strange sweetmeat---it looked like chocolate burfi, covered with saboodana. I would have tasted some, had it not been for the flies. I asked what it was called, but couldn’t understand when they told me its name. So that remains a mystery.
Then it was time for our trip into the Park. This was for the Bijrani circuit, which would take four hours. The Dhikala circuit, taking six hours, was also open, but it was too late for that for this time of the day. So we booked a Canter truck for the next morning for Dhikala. When we were doing this, an official recognized hubby’s name from a fax he had sent him earlier, enquiring about a forest lodge within the sanctuary. That would have cost only Rs.600 per night! We had given up that idea soon enough and gone for the regular hotel booking. Somehow, we weren’t willing to rough it out that much---miles inside the sanctuary, with wild animals pawing at our door---that’s how we imagined it would be. “You never got back to us,” the official said wistfully. We just gave him non-committal grins.
So now, on to Bijrani with a driver and a guide who promised to try their best to show us a tiger! We rented a pair of binoculars, all the better to see with. From the gate off the main road, it is some way inside to the Bijrani camp. There, you can have tea and snacks, buy souvenirs and generally stretch your legs before entering the actual enclosure. Once inside you are not allowed to leave the vehicle, or make any noise.

We passed many herds of chital, some Sambhar, and saw some birds too. All the tourists seemed to be adhering to the rules. So though there were plenty of vehicles, private cars too, there wasn’t much noise. In broad daylight, and outdoors at that, it was a slightly eerie feeling----talking in low tones, whispering even. The river meanders through the reserve, looping around many times, so we crossed the bed many times----over smooth round white stones of all sizes. This was when I felt thankful that we had chosen a park Gypsy. The river is a monsoon one, so it was mostly dry. At some places, small springs gurgle out of the river bed---our guide hopped out and filled his water bottle from one, and then drank out of it with much relish.
We saw the pug marks at one place, and the bark of a tree scratched down at another---we were on the trail!

We crossed the river bed once again, and came to higher ground. There was a viewing tower set up there, and people were going up and coming down. We were interested in a hornbill which sat quite still on a tree nearby, when suddenly a ripple went through the crowd. “There, tiger,” said someone. Our guide tried to herd us to a likely vantage point, but it was no good. It was just our luck that the tiger had been in full view, leisurely walking across the river bed we had just left, and disappeared into the grass on the bank, moments before we looked in the right direction. A great sigh went up from the crowd, and then there were murmurs of did you see, did you see? Our guide seemed beside himself with disappointment equaled only by our own. Back we went to the river bed, just metres away from where it was last spotted. Others had had the same idea too, and soon there was a little knot of vehicles in the middle of the dry river, waiting, waiting----. The silence! No stern disciplinarian has been able to impose such a silence in any auditorium, or place of reverence. I understood the term bated breath then. Then slowly the murmurs began again. Was it there in the grass, had it gone away?
Then our guide decided that instead of waiting there with the crowd, we would go a bit further. Apparently, tigers are creatures of habit, and frequent the same route every day. This route the guides profess to know. Which is why, the guide was certain that we would be able to catch sight of it. And then began the most hair-raising ride I’ve ever been on. For our guide and driver seemed determined to make us see the tiger. How we bounced along over the dirt track, over the boulders of the river bed, always hoping to see the King at the next bend in the path! What scenarios I imagined, of coming face to face with those eyes burning bright! And then I understood the headiness of shikaar, though I disapprove of it to the nth degree. The sheer adrenaline pumping chase, the anticipation, and the determination to get to your goal---it was all there, in that bumpy ride in a rickety Gypsy in the hot sun. Sure, we were not on shikaar, it was doubtful even if we would get to click it, but we all experienced the thrill of the chase. Well, that was what we had to make do with, because we never did get to see the tiger. I consoled myself, “But, to be sure, he saw us!”
After that anticlimax, we still had hopes for the next day. The Dhikala circuit. It was deeper inside the jungle, for one thing, and for another, we would be there for longer----six hours!
Day III: Again we were up at 4:30 a.m. to be ready for the Canter which would pick us up from the hotel around 5:30. Déjà vu. No truck showed up until 7:30. The hotel guard told us one canter had come by at 5 a.m., but that was to pick up some foreigners; our names were not down on their list. The procedure is that when you book a canter, which can seat about 20, your names are noted, as also the name of your hotel. You can only board that vehicle for which your name has been put down. Now, with this no-show, we knew the ropes. We hotfooted it down to Ramnagar town. There we stirred up the sleepy counter clerk and said our Canter hadn’t come. He tried to get his lady boss on the phone, but couldn’t manage it. Then we got her on our cell phone, and she promised to come and see what the matter was. Surprise! She actually came. They all gave out that the canter had broken down, but it was plain from their sheepish looks that they had clear forgotten! We had half a mind to cancel the trip, because it would be cutting it a bit fine---we were setting out for home that afternoon---- but were told there would be no refund. That clinched it of course---at Rs.600 a head, we just couldn’t cancel!
We boarded the Canter, which had been modified in its seating arrangement to resemble a theater-type of seating---last row highest. The sides were open, so that nothing would hamper the view, and tarpaulin side-flaps had been provided to shield passengers from rain. Well, of course it rained. We had entered the enclosure, and travelled a little way when it began raining, lightly at first and then it turned into a deluge in a matter of minutes. The rain blew in from the sides, drenching us all in no time. We struggled to button down the side-flaps. There was a little hitch----the buttons’ positions did not match their counterparts on the frame of the truck. So, some of us had to hold down the flaps. By this time our teeth were chattering, because it had suddenly turned cold with the rain. Luckily, we had bought some T-shirts as souvenirs, so when we reached the Dhikala camp, we changed into those! By then the rain had also abated. After cups of hot tea, we set off on the trail. There was grassland all around, and we felt more hopeful about seeing the tiger. We did spot a jackal which seemed quite fearless---it didn’t run away on seeing us, but sauntered across the track, taking its time. As we travelled away from the camp, the grassland slowly changed into trees and shrubs again. What struck me was the curry-leaf (kadi-patta) growing in profusion in the wild.
We spotted an iguana---huge, languid and not caring that a horde of humans were gaping at it with mixed reactions--shudders mostly!

Then there was the Sambhar deer, heavy, slow and, so we had been told, a bit dimwitted. Apparently, even when the tiger is chasing it, it pauses to turn around and see how far behind the tiger is----and that proves to be its undoing. We saw a magnificent Sambhar, with a huge gash at his throat---it had escaped the tiger narrowly. The animals all looked at us, totally unafraid. The atmosphere was such that even the most loquacious of people fell silent.
The Ramganga river flows through the Dhikala region. At one place on our trip, we were allowed to disembark---this was Crocodile Point---we could see crocodiles, gharials sunning themselves on the banks of the river far below.. Once or twice on the trail, we saw herds of chital leaping away. Hope rose again---were they running away from a tiger? But we had no luck. We did not even see the elephants that had been promised. Probably we did not have enough time to wait and watch, since our start had been delayed, and there is a fixed time for the vehicles to get back out of the reserve. And so it was back to the hotel, back home, back to routine.
Some of our co-passengers expressed their disappointment at not seeing the tiger----they felt the trip had been a waste. But I don’t think one should view it that way. The tiger is the king of beasts. Does one get an audience with royalty easily? Not seeing the lord of the jungle only strengthened our resolve to go back another time. We were in sylvan surroundings for three days, in the lap of nature. It was not at all like a zoo, where the animals are enclosed, albeit in some semblance of their natural habitat. It was an enriching experience. Part of the experience is the uncertainty!
Nature in its fury humbles us, bringing home to us the fact that Man is a puny antagonist. He can do nothing against tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. But I felt humbled even by the shy side of Nature---by as small a matter as an animal refusing to show itself. The words of that naturalist came back to me, “Never mind if you have not seen the tiger; you can be sure, he has seen you!”
I whispered to the verdant hush around me, “Farewell tiger, may your numbers ever increase!”



Blogger Kiwilakhs said...

Nice one Lak, esply loved your photos. And yoiu have a cook?? What luxury....I am speechles with envy;-)

20/11/06 11:25 AM  
Blogger LAK said...

Oh, the cook is a recent blessing---I could write another post on all that! Meanwhile, fingers, toes, eyes crossed!

21/11/06 3:01 AM  
Blogger Siri said...

Excellent travelogue. And i love the fact that you dint get intimated by the size of your post (like I do sometimes)!

21/11/06 5:44 AM  
Blogger Shyam said...

wow, lucky you!

23/11/06 5:27 AM  
Anonymous WA said...

Great travelogue, hoping to go to Corbett park in Feb.

PS: Will be in Delhi during the trip, will let you know the exact plans and dates closer to Feb. Maybe we could meet up sometime if you are free?

3/12/06 5:23 AM  
Blogger LAK said...

WA, Sure, do let me know the exact dates. Would love to meet.

3/12/06 7:53 PM  
Blogger Terri said...

Very well written. Took me down memory lane, although I had a better experience, maybe because I was with foreigners.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your trip.

8/1/07 9:33 PM  
Blogger LAK said...

Thanx, Terri. So did you get to see the tiger?

9/1/07 6:45 PM  
Blogger Sachin said...

Hi Lak, gr8 post!!! Good to see you active after a long while!!! I had gone to Corbett with my wife post my wedding in Dec 2004. Had a very similar experience there myself and would definitely like to revisit the place with a tiger sighting thrown in as well!!! Just curious to know - what was the resort you were staying in? We were put up at a place called Tiger Camp which was closer to Bijrani. We did not get to explore the Dhikala circuit. Take care.

7/2/07 1:15 AM  
Blogger LAK said...

Hi sachin,good to hear of someone with a similar exp.!We stayed at Riverview retreat, I think I saw Tiger Camp on our way there. Our resort was further ahead, towards the Dhikala gate.

7/2/07 6:46 PM  
Blogger rajeev said...

Hi Lak,

Its been a few months since I subscribed to your blog, never before left a comment, as i just read it in my RSS viewer ;)
I reread the Corbett post today, and it again kept me smiling right through to the end.
Thx for sharing ur experiences with us all.

13/2/07 1:33 AM  
Anonymous Rahul Sachdev said...

stumbled on ur blog whilte searching for info on Dhikala.
Thought this might help - the sweet that u saw (cho barfi with sabudana types) - I think its baal Mithaai - dont know why its called that though :).

14/3/07 1:51 AM  
Blogger LAK said...

Thanx, Rahul. I never did get to sample the baal mithai (yes, I recall they told me this name). Maybe next time!

14/3/07 5:17 AM  

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