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The next morning, as discussed the previous evening (it is a bit of a stretch to call 9.30 p.m. night), the alarm goes off at 5.30 a.m. I groan and turn over, willing it to stop and for everyone to miraculously forget about this morning’s safari. I haven’t slept well at all, what with the tiger’s incessant growling and the elephants’ voluble and unceasing rampage throughout the night.

But no one forgets. Prompt as the evening news, Arif knocks on the door on the dot of 5.45. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” I say grouchily, jumping out of bed and pulling on my jeans. “Don’t forget to put on something warm,” he says. Was he serious? It is just the end of October in North India, and even after accounting for the extreme exteriority of the jungle, just cold can it be? I disregard his suggestion and fling open the TRH door. And almost die as a blast of cold, I mean COLD, air hits me. With a yelp I scuttle back inside and grab my jacket. “I told you,” Arif says reproachfully.

As I am about to get into the Gypsy, Rampal, the caretaker, cheerily calls out from the kitchen. “Here, have a cup of tea. It’s ready.”

But Arif doesn’t even let me have my tea. “We can always have tea later,” he says amiably. “I’ve just heard a ‘call.’” I look at him mutinously and silently avow to kill him the next time he mentions the word ‘call.’ But I comply, contenting myself with a longing look at the steaming cup.

It turns out to be a good decision. Following a female’s pug marks (they are more elongated than a male’s which are completely round), Arif drives on to a spot called Waterhole number 3. He turns off the ignition and we settle down to wait. There’s dense jungle on one side of the narrow trail and a vast field full of tall elephant grass on the other.

There’s complete silence. A breeze whips up and gently whooshes through the vegetation on either side. Normally this would not even be heard, but in the early morning calm, this sounds loud and ominous. We snap our necks fearfully every time we hear a rustle. Arif pretends to be one Rambo but I can see him look over his shoulder warily every now and then.

And then after about half an hour, our patience is rewarded. I see the deer suddenly up and tense and I spring to attention. I peer hard, scanning the grass field. I can feel it in my bones. I know I’m going to see her. And I do.

I see the tigress get from the waterhole and walk languidly across the field, back into the jungle. I see her for a whole twenty seconds. She spots us as well and stares at us disinterestedly as she walks. It is an awesome sight, a holy moment. I have a camera in my hands but my fingers are suddenly nerveless. By the time I spring into action, she is almost out of sight. I snap a picture but it is an ordinary camera with an ordinary zoom. All I get is a blur.

When we come back to the TRH, Rampal, takes one look at me and says, “You’ve seen one. I can tell. People who spot a tiger have a special swagger when they come back.” No kidding. Arif is grinning too but for a different reason. He knows that a hefty tip is in the offing. People who spot a tiger are generous with tips.

The rest of the day goes by, doing nothing at all. Venturing beyond the electric fencing is not permitted except on Gypsies and there are only so many bone rattling drives you can take, especially when you know chances of sighting are remote (tigers are notoriously lazy, preferring to relax in the shade during the hottest part of the day).

In the evening, we venture out again. We meet Abba, another sardarji tourist guide, and he informs us of the location of a tiger, tigress pair. Arif drives us there and we again settle down to wait. Our patience is once again rewarded. After about forty-five minutes, suddenly, I see a tiger spring up and lunge at a deer. All this happens in a jiffy and it is all over before I can shut my jaw which has hung open.

Omigod! I can’t believe it. It’s like a totally National Geographic moment. Arif and I both look at each other in disbelief. Did it really happen? Was that really a tiger? We couldn’t be sure, but who else would spring at a deer like that?

I come back from Corbett, awed and convinced more than ever before that these magnificent creatures must be protected at all costs. I also vow to come back with a better camera, one with a zoom like a canon (the piece of heavy artillery, not necessarily the brand), like the one professional photographers have.

My love affair with Corbett has just begun. I’m already planning to go back in March-April which is the best time for spotting tigers.

 

 

 

 

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We have just dumped our stuff and are having a cup of tea when our attention is arrested by a high voltage screeching. Arif freezes up and listens intently. “Shhh, can you hear it? Sambhar deer.”

“Really?” I ask askance. “It sounded more like an upset bird.”

Simultaneously langurs whip up energetic activity on treetops and a flock of birds dash past with an audible whoosh. Arif drops his cup in his haste and running towards the Gypsy cries, “It’s definitely a call…a tiger has been spotted. Come on!”

We jump into the Gypsy, Arif throws it into gear and takes off at the bone rattling speed of 40 kmph (if you think I’m being hyperbolic, try doing that on kuchcha roads). We arrive at the designated spot, helped of course by pug marks along the trail, which Arif points out almost defensively. He turns off the ignition and gestures for silence. Then he only says, “A call is the only way to find out where the tiger is. Because much like dogs, tigers have designated territories which stretch to 10 sq kms each. Plus they are notoriously lazy and usually just lie down in wait in the tall elephant grass. You’ll never spot it if not for the Sambhar deer call which indicates that it is on the move.”

And we don’t. What we do see is evidence of unforgivable behaviour by Indian tourists. That is, several places, mainly spots around watch towers (picnic spots for day trippers) littered with disposable plates, empty plastic water bottles and wrappers. We spend the rest of the safari cleaning up other people’s mess.

We come back at five minutes to six, although Arif has heard another ‘call’ and wants to push his luck. But, as we drive past the FRH, he spots a top ranking forest official’s car parked outside. He swerves back towards the FRH at the last minute. He does not want to lose his license for time violation, no matter how compelling the call.

So we come back discouraged, having eaten copious amounts of dust, with only one thought in mind. A hot bath. But that proves to be a challenge. There is no electricity and no hot water. Sure, the inverter is on but that is only enough to weakly power a couple of light bulbs. Our requests to the staff to heat up some in the kitchen is met with uncertain looks. The reason – they’ve run out of cooking gas and the replacement cylinder will only arrive tomorrow. Since our food is itself being cooked on choolah, unless we want to trade our food for a bath, and unless we want to risk freezing our butts off using cold water, no bath it is.

Okay, what next? There is only one thing one can do – enjoy the great outdoors with IMFL. That’s the great part about going on these holidays. You can hit the bottle at six (p.m., not a.m., although, even a.m. won’t be sooo outrageous as it isn’t in Goa) without feeling guilty.

Glass in hand (rum with water at room temp) I step outside and breathe in the cool jungle air mixed with an appealing smell of wood smoke. All is calm save the chirping of crickets and an occasional animal howl. I look up and my word, the sky is a veritable sieve held up against light. I haven’t seen so many stars since my last mountaineering trip!

Out of respect for the jungle we make conversation amongst ourselves in soothing low-pitched voices. The conversation is pleasant, although it sounds vaguely conspiratorial because of our hushed tones.

Soon dinner is served. It is a simple meal of dal, sabzi, rice and roti but we are so hungry that it tastes like Turkish delights.

Afterwards, I try to keep my eyes open but it is a losing battle. Suddenly a panicked screech, incessant deep growling and loud crashing sounds, all in the vicinity of the FRH. I am shocked into wakefulness. Rampal, the caretaker comes running. “Do you hear that? It’s a tiger and an elephant.” I peer around in the inky blackness, thankful for the electric fence (one that vies with the inverter for precious solar power) that runs around the perimeter of the FRH.

The sounds continue for a while but we get used to them after the initial panic. I resume my tussle with sleep but it is a losing battle. So I turn in for the night. It is as late as 9.30. I don’t know it yet, but tomorrow is going to be an awesome day.

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We are about to be on our way when Arif casually tells that in 2200 we get one three hour safari. “Wait a minute,” I tell him, “when we signed you one you promised us three safaris.” “And three you’ll get. Two one hour safaris while we drive to and from the Jhirna Forest Rest House (that is also counted as  a safari because It is way inside) and one three hour safari whenever you want.”

 “Or you can pay me 2500 and get three three hour safaris.” Clever, very clever. He cuts his price to get noticed amidst the clamour and still gets his way. “Yet another option is to pay me 2200 as agreed and then fill up the tank to replace whatever fuel is consumed and you can use the jeep as you wish.” Arif outlines so many scenarios that my head reels doing complex mathematics. Not how I want to begin my holiday. I finally tell him we’ll decide later. I have a niggling suspicion that that is exactly what he wants if his broad smile is any indicator.

We drive through Ramnagar and, after about half an hour, enter the forest buffer zone. Electric fencing demarcates forest territory from non-forest territory. I notice there are a few huts inside the forest and ask Arif about it. He tells me that the forest is trying to relocate these people but they refuse to move out as they’ve been living there for ages. I can’t figure out why, considering it can’t be much fun living in proximity with tigers but I figure if I bring it up, I’d only be stoking then whole man versus animal debate which has no solution.

There is beautiful tube well created waterfall which looks deliciously cool. We want to stop there awhile. Actually it’s my niece who wants to frolic in the cool water but Arif looks quite worried. He looks at his watch and announces that we’d better hurry as it is a weekend and safari time is about to commence. They only allow thirty jeeps to go in at a time and if we are not one of them, then it’s bye bye jungle, till the next morning. So we shoot envious looks at the gambolling children and resume our journey.

We enter the forest gate, complete our due diligence with the authorities and are once more on the way to the Jhirna FRH. “It will take about an hour to reach,” Arif cheerfully announces. And it is soon evident why. Since it is a jungle, there are no roads, only bumpy trails. Also a reason why only four wheel drives are allowed inside.

The last thing the forest officials want is a car stuck for lack of traction power. Make no mistake, it isn’t for your safety, it is for the safety of the big cats. If you get stuck, a hungry tiger may attack you as a soft target, which will make him/her a man-eater and it will have to be put down. See? Also, a reason why at any time during the safari, getting off from the jeep is prohibited.

Arif suddenly stops in the middle of the trail and, in hushed tones, points directly ahead. Tiger, I think and excitedly jump up and see. I crane my neck and strain my eyes but nope, I don’t see it. “Where is it?” I ask. “Where is the tiger?” “Tiger?” he says, “Who said anything about a tiger? It’s a monitor lizard.” And sure enough there is a huge, and I mean gigantic, monitor lizard lying horizontally across the trail. Sure, it’s an exciting sight but I don’t see what the fuss is all about. I’m here to see a tiger, remember? Then Arif tells us, “It is very lucky for me. Every time I see one, a tiger sighting is assured.”

My sister and I exchange amused, incredulous looks. It is the same look we exchange when a guide tells us erotic stories about a temple’s sculpture. My sister is convinced that the stories are made up and what’s more, embellished even more for honeymooning couples. Someday I’ll write a post about all tall tales I’ve heard at various monuments.

Anyway, we don’t see anything worthwhile – just a few spotted deer – and arrive at the FRH. It is 3.30 p.m. and we have just enough time to dump our stuff, have a cup of tea and leave for the evening safari.

Some Corbett Facts:

Corbett is at a distance of 240 kms from Delhi and it takes seven hours to reach.

The Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve is spread out over an area of 1284 sq. kms.

It is home to about 165 tigers (official count). Unofficially there are about 200-250. At least that’s what the guides tell me.

It is divided into three zones – buffer zone, tourist zone and core zone (no one but forest officials are allowed into the core zone)

The tourist zone is further divided into four – Jhirna, Dhikala, Bijrani and Kaladhungi. Of these Dhikala is the most well established and popular. It is situated on the banks of the river Ramganga and you can see animals from your room when they come to drink water at the river. Dhikala is open from Nov. 15 to June 15.

When visiting Corbett, it is best to stay at one of the FRHs as they are inside the jungle. The private resorts are all outside and it takes close to an hour to enter sighting areas. Vehicles are allowed inside only from 6.00 am in the morning which means they arrive at sighting areas only by 7.00 a.m. and have to be out by 9 – 9.30. They are once again allowed inside from 3 pm. onwards and have out start back by 5.00 p.m. in order to meet the 6.00 p.m. deadline at the gate. Which pretty much means you miss the best tiger sighting times which are dawn and dusk.

No meat is allowed inside the forest.

 

 

 

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We enter the field director’s office. A flock of guide/Gypsy owners swoop down on us as soon as we pull to a stop and alight from the car and accompany us all the way inside. I’m don’t know how they knew we were tourists. I suspect our Delhi number plate and the fact that we drove inside the compound tentatively, looking around uncertainly and asking people if indeed we were at the right place may have had something to do with it.

Inside I walk to the reception and announce dramatically, “We have bookings for Jhirna.” The guy at the reception glances at me and then at the palm of his hand. “Smita Jain?” I peer at him. “Rajesh Bhatt ji?” He nods shyly. I remember that when I was making the bookings on the phone I had several conversations with him. At the time he was curiously reticent about revealing his name. “Why do you want to know?” I was flabbergasted. “So that I can say hello to you once I reach.”

Now I say, “Hello to you Rajesh Bhatt ji. Just like I said.” He blushes furiously. In his book this is just not the way girls talk. Not with our baaraat of tourist guides watching interestedly.

He hastily thrusts a form at me to fill out. I go to the seating area nearby to fill out the form followed by the tourist guides who all want me to fill out their names and their car numbers in the form. You see you cannot enter the jungle in your own car. You have to hire a Maruti gypsy locally whose drivers double up as tourist guides. Or so I was led to believe. Later I learnt that you can take your car in as long as it is a four wheel drive. But it is much more fun in an open gypsy since it affords you a 360⁰ view. Of course it affords tigers the same luxury but more on that later.

Soon a bidding war erupts with tourist guides outdoing each other in cutting prices. So what begins with an initial bid of 3500 for two days comprising three three hour safaris settles at 2500. One clever enterprising guy, Arif, does the unthinkable. He shouts out, “2200.” “Done,” I say and quickly pencil in his car number.

I take the form to Rajesh Bhatt who asks me at what rate the deal was struck. When I tell him, he professes astonishment and turns to his colleague and says, “Can you believe how much they’ve dropped their prices?”

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I exit the office and move to get into my car. Till I realise I’ve left my Mont Blanc at the reception. When I rush inside I see my pen lying on the counter. Rajesh Bhatt is busy with another new arrival and doesn’t see me. I hear him asking them at what price the deal was struck. The new guys tell him 3000. Rajesh Bhatt professes astonishment and turns to his colleague and says, “Can you believe how much they’ve dropped their prices?” I have a feeling they say this to everybody, irrespective of the quoted price, so that no one feels they are being ripped off at their beginning of the holiday. Damn considerate of them actually.

Later on we stop for a quick meal at the KMVN Tourist Rest House (TRH) at Ramnagar. While the meal is prepared we while away time by nattering with the TRH guys who regale us with entertaining stories and give us helpful tips on what to carry with us.

Tip: If you’re staying at Jhina carry torches, snacks, cold drinks and anything else we might need apart from food.

Soon lunch is ready and we stuff ourselves silly on simple dal, sabzi, roti and chawal. When the bill is presented I’m left reeling in disbelief. Our simple meal for four costs 300! Tea costs 10 a cup! Just a couple of years ago, we would have been done in less than half the amount. But I guess inflation has caught up here as well.

We settle the bill and leave for the jungle. The time is 2.00 in the afternoon. The drive to Jhirna Forest Rest House takes about an hour and a half from Ramnagar. If we hurry, we will be just in time to dump our stuff and leave for the afternoon safari.

All said and done, the system at Corbett is chaotic. Most tourist guides really harass tourists. Some even bully them into putting down their names on the form. I agree they are desperate for employment but still, a system can be put in place, can’t it? Can’t they have a queue or something where these guys register in the mornings and as and when tourists arrive their names get ticked off? I suggested it to the Forrest Officer’s and he promised that he would look into it. But till then, if you happen to go, be very firm with the tourist guides. If you display the slightest hesitation you’ve had it. Tip: ask for Puran, Arif or one Sardarji called Abba.

Tip: at the KMVN Tourist Rest House at Ramnagar, do talk to Pandeyji. He is a tall, hefty gentleman and sports thick-lensed glasses. His left side is kinda slow to catch up with the rest of his body. The reason: he was mauled by a tiger who tore up his entire torso.

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