Powalgadh, Kaladhungi, Choti-Haldwani, Pipal-Pani – places I had often read about, they drifted through my mind as we pulled into Ramnagar station, one May morning. An overnight train journey from Old Delhi had brought us to Ramnagar. A jeep ferried us to the jungle where Jim Corbett had once stalked man-eating tigers and leopards.
Corbett Park consists of dense Sal forests and grasslands locally known as chaur, the most famous being the Dhikala Chaur. The Ramganga River forms the lifeline of this rich and varied habitat. While the grasslands give a spectacular view of wild elephants, a visitor entering the leafy forest would be welcomed by Ground Thrushes, Laughing Thrushes, Pittas and a variety of deer. In fact, this is a forest where even the usually shy Barking Deer grazes close to the vehicle paths, throwing caution to the winds. A low glide by a Honey Buzzard is a normal sight.
To the elephants
One morning as our Gypsy rolled through Dhikala Chaur, we saw herds of these pachyderms on our left and right. Most were groups of females, a few calves and younger bulls. They were busy with their breakfast. One is amazed by the sensitivity with which a huge elephant can pull up a juicy grass tussock, dash it delicately against its upraised front foot to clear it of the clinging earth, and then put it into its mouth – a fastidious gourmet!
After a while we stopped the vehicle to observe these animals. That is when a lone tusker, the dark excretion of "musth" streaming down the right side of his face, started walking slowly towards us.
The Gypsy is an open vehicle. It does not have any protective bars or wire netting. Elephants in musth can get quite mad for no apparent reason, and can prove dangerous during this period. As the bull continued to amble in our direction, I sent a prayer upwards. It seemed to have helped. All of us breathed easier as it finally changed its course and walked away.
One afternoon, some of us lined up for an elephant ride. Usually, female elephants – being calmer and less given to excitement – are used for rides. The seat on this particular elephant, called Sonakali, was a kind of multilayered rug inside a frame supported by four wooden posts. Seating is side-saddle, feet to be placed on a narrow wood plank. One holds tightly to the nearest post, just in case – a pollution free and quiet mode of transport with a gently undulating feel.
The fun starts when the mahout guides the elephant into dense jungle. Lantana bushes rear their prickly branches grazing your knees. The power of an elephant is amply demonstrated when it casually steps on such tough branches, which bend without any seeming resistance. Overhanging branches of the taller trees scratch your face as the elephant calmly walks on.
Our group had set out on four elephants in the direction of Mota Sal to try and spot a tiger. The four mahouts discussed the possible places and routes. They had observed pugmarks that were quite fresh. That raised our hopes. Accordingly, the elephants separated and entered the jungle.
After a while we could hear the cries of other mahouts, indicating that a tiger had been spotted. We suddenly came upon a slight clearing, in which stood two other elephants. Going by the excitement visible among the riders, they seemed to have sighted the tiger. As our mahout guided the elephant in front of these two, we impatiently scanned the ground for a glimpse of the tawny and black striped coat.
Tiger, tiger in the wild…
As I looked casually to my right, I had the shock of my life. Instead of being on the ground, the tiger, as conventionally expected, was standing on a sloping branch of a bhokar tree, at eye level – facing us – only fifteen feet away. One could not but look into its eyes!
A tiger on the ground being viewed from a comfortable elephantine perspective is one thing. In this instance, we were on a level playing field. The tiger could probably have sprung onto us if it so wished. My instinctive reaction was to move back (quite difficult when seated side saddle on an elephant). I told the mahout to put the elephant into reverse gear. Our mahout hurriedly maneuvered Sonakali a little further away and into a better viewing position.
The tiger was an adult male, about three years old. The coat on one side was quite light due to a layer of dried mud. He had probably wallowed in cool wet mud recently, to beat the noon heat. He did not seem happy to see us. He was moving back and forth on the branch, trying to decide whether to jump off or stay put. All the time, he seemed to get more and more annoyed at our continued presence. At one point, we were treated to a tiger baring his teeth rather menacingly.
When he started regarding the elephants, the mahouts decided it was wiser to move away and let the tiger have his way. As we backed, there was a soft dhap and the tiger vanished into the tangle of lantana bushes.
Area: 1,200 square kilometres
Season to visit – November to mid-June
Temperatures vary from 4°C in winter to 42°C during summer
Project Tiger was launched in Corbett National Park in 1973.
From New Delhi/ Lucknow/ Nainital/ Ranikhet/ Dehradun via Ramnagar.
Domestic airport at Phoolbagh, Pantnagar – 50 kilometres away.
International Airport at Delhi – at a distance of 295 kilometres
Closest railway station -Ramnagar, approximately 15 kilometres from the Park. Take the night Ranikhet Express from Old Delhi to Ramnagar.
295 kilometres from Delhi
Note: All visitors to Corbett National Park must obtain entry permits from the park administration centre at Ramnagar.
Check out Corbett National Park's homepage for more information on resorts, accommodations, tours…
Read more of Alakaline's travels on her blog.