‘Squeak,squeak,squeak’..trudged our gypsy, deep into the heart of the forest, in the wild. It was a chilly afternoon ; although the sun was up, there was no warmth in the dry, arid air. This was the most anticipated part of our tour and I was literally on the edge of my seat. The gypsy back seat. 40 National parks, 23 years on this earth and this is the first time I am going on a Safari ; of course I was ecstatic.You know its one of those feelings when you get to eat the whole cake, but still there is a teeny tiny thing which you want more ; suddenly out pops a cherry-on-top. That was Corbett National Park for me. A big tantalizing, colorful experience.
I have this strange fascination to the whole outdoors-living thing. I think it had to do with the fact that I grew up in a small wada in the heart of city and was thus always surrounded by trees, birds and large spaces in general. I remember getting up every morning to the chirping of birds and the sunlight creeping in through the small cracks of the windows. Coming back here ; we stayed at the most coveted zone in Corbett. The Dhikala zone is 32 kms inside from the Dhangari gate, 19 kms from Ramnagar. Right from the entrance of the gate up to reaching Dhikala, the ride was another 1 and 1/2 hour safari.
We were greeted by a dense cover of Sal trees which closed in the sky above. Sal trees (Shorea Robusta) compiles almost 75% of the total area of the forest. They provide a good cover against the sweltering heat of the sun. Fortunately when we went, it wasn’t that hot ; but we somehow came back with heavily sun burnt faces.
When you commute to a different landscape than the one you are used to, it takes some time to adjust to the surroundings, bodily senses are not used to the pure unpolluted mountain air. The scenery dramatically underwent a change as we traversed from the building-infested city life to the mountainous-wildlife infested one. Everywhere you look ; different colors of green,brown and white. I like to call it my eye-therapy ; the eyes never got tired and we had our heads moving in different directions because we wanted to see everything at once. We were lucky to get Mr Fahim ; our guide and gypsy driver during the stay. He is amongst the best out there in Corbett, with over 10 years of experienced driving.
I was in utterly immobilized. I had never seen such a plentiful forest, abundant with flora and fauna and stark round white stones which ran along the dried up parts of the river. Corbett is a wonderful contrast of scenery, tall dense forests mingled with crisscrossing river beds and vast grasslands sum it up. Out of the total reserve, only 12 % is accessible for touring, rest of the area is cut off from human contact. They comprise the core areas of the heartland. The most popular zones are Bijrani, Jhirna, Dhikala, Durgadevi and Sitabani. Sitabani is a birding paradise where you can walk down and explore around ( only zone in which walking is allowed ). Every zone has some unique wildlife to offer, you cannot say how different one is from the other without firsthand experience.
One of the greatest joys of venturing in a forest are the occasional sighting of animals other than the tiger. Hardly inside just a few minutes, I spotted my first Spotted Deer. Such Joy!! Splendid creatures, with sharp senses ; they ran here and there with thimble feet and large, very large eyes, resembling a black jewel. It is their innocence and sharpness which you do notice ; underneath there lies a constant fear of its hunter. Before we had ‘darshan’ of the big kitty, we were privy to a host of other ‘lesser’ animals. Spotted Deer, Sambars, Langurs. Species of birds alien to the city dwellers like Tawny Fish Owls, Jungle Babblers, Scarlet Minivets, Long-Tailed Shrikes, Cormorants, Flameback Woodpecker and many others. Not a very avid birder, the names were a garbled mix of letters and words to my ears ; at first I could not even hear properly when Fahim spotted each one and we took turns at the binoculars. Study of birds is a whole new eco-system of its own and it would probably take me a whole new life to know. ( I never observed them keenly in the first place, childhood fault )
When the hunter becomes the hunted, that’s where the real action starts. It is such a thrill to chase the tiger in a big grassland !!! For over one hour we drove helter-skelter, listening and looking at the slightest movement or sound which could give us some idea about its whereabouts. Dhikala is a vast stretched grassland, several paths sprouting out of the main gate. The Tigers could be anywhere, and it was a game of hide’n’seek they played with us. The Langurs and the Chital Deer live with a pact it seems ( Just like every animal, bird and insect in this eco-system has its peculiarities ). The Langurs climb up the tree and sound an alarm call ; upon hearing which the deer gets alert , a predators is lurking in the shadows. A thing of fascination to witness, where two different species of animals help each other survive, and thrive.
While we were on the quest for the Cat, Fahim showed us some footprints which marked its presence ; perhaps of the previous night, perhaps a few hours before. For a long time we were on lookout for these, hooked on to the road for any Pugmark. We finally halted at one spot ; where the road had crossroads on 3 sides ; we were in the middle ; some one from one gypsy had heard the first alarm call. We waited thus. The second call came in a drag of about 5 minutes ; certainly a long wait for us. Keeping a lookout for the Tiger means endless waiting here ; you never know from where the alarm call might sound, so you have to be all ears. In a quick succession, a few deer sprang out meekly on the road, and out came the Tigress, a few feet behind them.
What a majestic creature the Tiger is. A few hundred feet away from us ; I was awestruck. The only tiger I had seen till now was the poor animal caged in Peshwe Park. But this, witnessing the Tiger in its own territory, wild and unleashed ; its a beauty in itself. This moment, I wished I had a better camera for the want of it, I could not give justice to the sight that lay before me. The majestic aura is beyond words ; no surmount of words can give justice to the animal called Tiger. Albeit ; our joy was short lived, the tigress choose to disappear once more, to the cause of a vapid, half-witted moronic gypsy driver ; he rode full throttle as soon as he spotted the Tigress. Our once chance to see something more ; maybe the Tigress could have gone for the kill ; was ebbed. Nonetheless, we had still sometime to retire.
The beauty of Corbett lies in its strewn landscape. Every turn and bend presents a new beatific imagery ; the rough trodden grasslands, the stony river bed of Kosi and Ramganga ; the wooden bridge to infinity. Every sight I was shown, I lapped up with greedy eyes. How much ever I looked ; never enough. No photograph could capture what the mind’s eye has seen ; and that perhaps, is my biggest rue.
The next day, we were scheduled for another safari, this time early morning. We had spent the previous day action packed ; were all the more edgy for this one; hoped to have one more Tiger Sighting. The nature was at its best ; hues of black, blue, purple intermingle with yellow, orange gradient of the sun. The weather was a tad cloudy, it added all the more to the ghostly, pre-dawn effect. Silhouettes of trees graced the sunlight, they basked in the morning glory of the sun. Birds chirped as the sun rose stealthily from behind the clouds ; and a new hope dawned. I am never a morning person and so this was a wake up call for me. During this whole 12 days trip, every day I woke up early, I did not want to miss the early morning backdrop of either spectacular views of the Himalayas or early sunrise of Corbett.
Uttarakhand in its true sense is my kind of paradise. It has something or the other to offer. To a traveler with different tastes ; Adventure in the form of treks, hikes and skiing ; Leisurely stays in exorbitant colonial – british resorts ; A dose of Wildlife in the form of Corbett ; Religion at Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri. What can a destination offer more? Uttarakhand caters to a plethora of tourists and travelers every year ; amidst Nature’s Fury which devastated the whole state last June ; People still continue to embrace it with open arms, hearts and of course, open wallets.
In continuation of my travel journey, the most satisfying aspect is you never come back the same. Significant changes ; small or big, play a very crucial role in shaping up for the long run.
In retrospect, for a much better understanding of the world, I need a larger perspective ; and perhaps, a better camera.