“Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life”, so said Sir Michael Palin, the famous English actor, comedian, writer, and television presenter.
We, as a family, had embraced this philosophy almost since we can remember. Till… March 2020. Life stood standstill. Weeks became months, and then a year. Used to as we were, to travel out for vacations twice a year, our rested tired feet started itching.
Still apprehensive, we mustered enough courage in December, not to venture too far away from home, but to travel to any nearby destination in March for a holiday, or a staycation, if you please, of more than a week. Corbett National Park looked promising as a nearby destination where we could drive down.
What is a holiday in Corbett if we do not take safaris inside the forest to spot the elusive tiger? We also decided to rough it out, for at least a night, and stay inside the forest to improve the chances of tete-a-tat with the big cat. A search on the internet took us to the official government website https://www.corbettonline.uk.gov.in/, the only authorised place where you can book permits for safaris and forest rest house accommodation inside the jungle.
Reservations open three months in advance. All bookings – both for gypsies, and for stay in the forest rest houses inside – were available in December, possibly due to the virus scare. We became complacent and waited till February for the bookings. It was a mistake – all forest rest houses were fully booked. Under the circumstances, we booked a gypsy safari for Bijrani zone, and a canter safari for Dhikala. Gypsy safaris are allowed in Dhikala only for those who have booked forest rest house accommodation inside the forest. We understood that it is important to book for these permits or accommodation almost on the hour and day immediately as they open for your planned date.
Corbett National Park is divided into multiple zones – Dhikala, Bijrani, Jhirna, Dhela, and the newly opened Sonanadi. One needs a permit for entry to the specific zone or for forest rest house bookings. Official government charges for the permit, the gypsy or canter, and the guides are all shown there. The website also provides list of authorised gypsies with contact details. We did save substantially for each of our safari by making all bookings ourselves rather than through the resort or a travel agent.
Dawned the morning of our departure. Luggage loaded in our car; we were off. Uncomfortable of using the public utilities on the way, we were equipped with more than enough sanitizer and disposable seat covers. We were also apprehensive about the eating places along the way. Our fears were unfounded – dhabas, restaurants, fast food joints are operational every few kilometres. All of them are following standard procedures and have clean restrooms – not to forget, no crowds.
A word of caution – it is better to drive a little further beyond Gajraula and take the Moradabad bypass, instead of taking a left turn from Gajraula towards Amroha. Both the roads are good and route through Amroha is shorter by around 20 km, but this route has many narrow stretches which slow you down.
We reached the resort in eight hours. We were ready by 6.15 the next morning, waiting for our gypsy for the first safari of our stay, in Bijrani zone. It was a clear morning, with a chill in the air. It was cold enough inside the jungle till about 8.30 for us to continue wearing our jackets and woollen caps. We have gone on many such safaris in India. Each safari gives the thrill of being in the jungle as if for the first time. We would crane our necks each time the driver stopped, and the guide pointed out a bird or an animal. We saw wild fowl, deer, sambhar, pheasants, and a few others. The tiger was eluding us.
We heard the trumpet of an elephant nearby. Our gypsy raced towards the sound on the unpaved jungle road. A couple of gypsies came rushing towards us. Our driver and the guide wanted to give us the adrenaline rush. They moved the vehicle closer. There she was, the matriarch of the herd, charging towards us through the mist. We were scared for our lives and turned back. The lady was safely guiding her tusker calf and other members of the herd across the road into the jungle.
There were still no calls for a tiger. We waited patiently at several locations where a tigress had been spotted earlier with her cubs. But no luck for us. Disappointed we came out of the forest. Our driver advised us to book permit for afternoon safari in the Jhirna zone. Back to the resort, we checked the site. We were lucky to get one of the few remaining permits.
Jhirna (or Dhela as it is also called) gate was almost 45 minutes away. We soon entered the jungle excitedly. Watching the flora and fauna, we continued to follow tiger calls. There were other gypsies like ours. One such gypsy was pointing something in a bush. There was a mad scramble to get closer for the tiger sighting. I even clicked a burst of photographs to zoom and say that it looked like a tiger. But it was not.
We received message from another vehicle that a tiger was seen going down the path towards the river. We also rushed. What a sight it was! Gypsies were lined along the road, looking down the ravine. There indeed was a tiger frolicking in the water. It was a full-grown male cub. We clicked a few pictures, but though only about hundred odd meters away from us, it was still far away not to come sharp on our camera.
We turned back, half-heartedly, following calls for another tiger. The driver would stop every now and then, the guide straining to hear a call. Once we thought that there was a deer call. We stopped patiently for some time near a water body along the grasslands in the elusive hope of another tiger sighting. It was a long wait, but still no tiger.
It would be soon sunset, the time when we had to be out of the forest. We turned for home. The driver and the guide decided to divert towards another location on the way out. A tusker across the river was having his bath. Having cleaned himself, he started taking a mud bath. It seems that this coating by mud acts as a mosquito repellent for the animal in the night.
Our eyes were still looking for another sighting in the grasslands. Deer were grazing peacefully. We thought our adventure for the day was over. But the driver and the guide had other ideas. They spotted another gypsy waiting patiently by the edge of the grassland. The guide also noticed that a few monkeys on a tree were looking intently in one direction towards the grassland. Most of the other gypsies had already gone out. We also decided to wait patiently with the other vehicle. A couple of more vehicles joined us. Kawarias, who are pilgrims, who travel along the road from long distances towards some famous temple during special days of the year, had also stopped around 100 metres away, sensing some wild presence.
An elegant figure rose from the tall grass, only about 100 metres from us, and stretched its muscles. It started walking majestically. All the people went shutter crazy, trying to capture every moment of that minute and a half catwalk, so close to us. The tigress was unconcerned, as she crossed the road, barely 10-15 metres in front of us.
This was a divine moment! Our patience had paid off.
We took the canter safari also a couple of days later, this time in the Dhikala zone. People have seen tigers in the grasslands on other days, even in a canter safari. We were not so lucky. It was probably because one does not get to exercise patience when driving with a group of tourists in a canter. The canter takes only a predefined route and is not permitted to enter smaller dirt paths. It also makes too much noise. Though, the guide explained that the animals are used to the daily canter sound; it is the smells of deodorants or perfumes that we city breds carry inside the jungle which disturbs them. Those staying inside in the forest rest house did see the tigress and her cubs playing in the open just across the river.
To give credit where it is due, Dhikala gate has a museum, dedicated to the forest. The tiger does get a prominent place in this building for obvious reasons. It is an interesting place, worth spending an hour. Apart from the stuffed animals and photographs, they screen a short movie about the jungle, a sound and light show about the night life inside the jungle, a gallery capturing rain fall inside the forest, and a display box where you get to hear sounds made by different animals on press of respective buttons.
During this visit we also tried eating more of our meals in the Dhabas outside our resort. These small roadside eateries are dotted all along the road. We were not disappointed. The food is basic, but tasty, and cooked fresh. It is also inexpensive and easy on the stomach, compared to the rich and spicy food inside a resort.
Soon it was time for us to return, with a promise, that the next time we would certainly attempt to stay inside the forest.
“There is nothing like the thrill of walking through the jungle looking for a tiger and knowing they could be watching you already” – Ashlan Gorse Cousteau.
#tiger #corbett #tigersighting #traveller