As an urbanite, there are two ways to approach a national park; one, you just keep sitting inside your car and expect animals to walk up to you and greet you, or you prepare yourself for a pretty arduous journey, traversing difficult terrain to catch a glimpse of an animal (if you are lucky), have single or no cellular signal and sometimes be ready to even jump out of your vehicle and walk in the wilderness. If you belong to the first group, this place isn’t for you, but if you belong to the latter group, you’ll love the park, famous for its elephants.

Of course, you don’t know where you might see one, and since these are gigantic beasts, there’s always an element of panic when they do burst out on the path. Even the adrenalin rush of seeing a big cat is tempered by the fact that you’re sitting safely inside a car or jeep, but a vehicle isn’t much protection against an elephant.

I, unfortunately, know this only from hearsay since I didn’t see an elephant while I was in Rajaji. But as I drove around the park, I always had the feeling that the animal might lurk around the next bend.

The signs were everywhere. Elephant dung was a constant wherever we went and trees were scattered like confetti along the paths on which they had made their way through the jungle. Every time we ventured out, I felt this was it, this was the moment when I would finally come face to face with what I thought and felt was all around me – the elephant’s awesome force.

The animal makes its own path in the dense forest that breaks only when you cross a riverbed. I kept wishing that I’d see a herd, at least once. That was not to be, but that’s no reason to suppose that it is a normal state of affairs. There is a large tusker population here, a fact seconded by the Wildlife Institute of India, in nearby Dehradun.

Despite the lack of sightings, the drive around the park was nothing short of excitement. Bird calls and roars of big cats could be heard from time to time. On my first day in the park, when I was crossing a riverbed, a huge eagle flew over my car and landed on a rock in the middle of the stream, about 5ft away. I also caught a pecking combat between a group of crows and a poor owlet that had been caught short on the ground. Hornbills crisscrossed us, their silent gliding perfectly complementing the quiet forest. The avian population is thriving – their numbers are huge in the monsoons, when the rivers are full, and in winter, when the migrants arrive.

 On the ground too, many animals roam the forest besides the elephant. One a hot day, I saw a jackal with his rear dipped in a puddle of rainwater on the road and a lapwing couple harrying a pair of Indian monitors, who must have been hunting for eggs. These animals were indeed far smaller than the king of this jungle, but they were no less majestic. Other animals that inhabit this park are sloth bears, hyenas, boars, barking deer, sambar and chital.

ABOUT RAJAJI NATIONAL PARK

Covering 1,150sq km in the forested foothills near Haridwar, Rajaji National Park is best known for its wild elephants, numbering around 600. The park is composed of three divisions – Rajaji, founded in 1948; Motichur, founded in 1936; and Chilla, founded in 1977. They cover an expanse of 820sq km and were together named Rajaji in 1983. The national park was recently granted the status of a tiger reserve.

Dhritiman Mukherjee
Elephants taking a dip, Rajaji National Park
Elephants taking a dip, Rajaji National Park

Rajaji is situated in the foothills of the Shivalik Range. Most of the land is covered with sal forests. A significant part of the Haridwar range reserve forest runs contiguously with Chilla’s southern and southeastern boundaries. While this gives animals some extra space, it creates jurisdiction headaches, and the park authorities have set in motion a plan to attach the Haridwar Forest to Rajaji.

There are conservation problems in this national park, some of which have been attributed to the human population in the park. Gujjars (a shepherd community) settled here over 200 years ago, and their population increased over time. Their livestock grazed in the park, and the vegetation eventually got depleted. Fortunately, most of the villagers have now been resettled, and conservationists have noted that wild animals have increased in number in the park.

However, the Chilla Canal, which runs parallel to the Ganga for 14km, continues to be a problem. Gushing opposite the Chilla entry gate, the canal provides water for a hydel project; it restricts the easy movement of animals, and has had an adverse impact on elephant migration. While the Ganga is fordable by the animals, they don’t quite know what to make of the fast waters of the canal.

Rajaji’s proximity to NH58, and the the busy pilgrim towns of Haridwar and Rishikesh, has been its bane. The railway tracks running inside the park compound have made matters worse – a number of elephants have been run over by trains.

ORIENTATION

Rajaji and Motichur lie on the west bank of the Ganga, and Chilla to its east. Motichur is easily accessible from NH58, which also connects Haridwar to Rishikesh, but spotting wildlife is difficult here as the forests are dense.

Tourists, therefore, prefer Chilla, which is also only half an hour from both Haridwar and Rishikesh. To get to the Chilla entry gate, cross the Ganga and head left for about 5km (on the east side of the highway) towards Chilla.

Park entry fee Indians 150; Foreigners 600 Timings Summer: 5.30am–5.00pm Winter: sunrise to sunset Vehicles 250–500 Video camera 2,500 Guide 300

Tip Check the rates before you visit, as they are subject to change. The ticket to the park is valid for that day at all entry points of the park

THINGS TOSEE AND DO

Jeep Safaris

Exploring the national park is best done through jeep safaris. Each vehicle entering the park, whether it’s private or not, has to be accompanied by a guide. The guide fee is not fixed, so check with the authorities. It’s best to rent jeeps (2,000/ 3hrs) from Chilla gate. You can also hire jeeps from Haridwar or Rishikesh; check with your hotel. Entry charges for morning and evening safaris are separate. Elephant safaris were popular until recently, but at the time of research, they had been temporarily discontinued.

T Narayan
A grey wagtail perching on a reed at Rajaji National Park
A grey wagtail perching on a reed at Rajaji National Park

Birding

A number of birds can be found in the park, such as chestnut-headed bee-eaters, pied hornbills, and yellow and pied wagtails. There are also rollers, kingfishers, flycatchers and storks. A birdwatcher will be well-rewarded in winter, when a number of migratory birds pass through Rajaji. Make sure to carry a pair of binoculars.

Chandi Devi Mandir

The temple is located atop Neel Parvat (on the Haridwar side), about 1km ahead of the entry gate. A chair car will take you up to the temple – the ride is simply delightful. From the top, you get an excellent view of Haridwar.

Ropeway fee 150 per head (return) Timings 8.00am–5.00pm

WHERE TO STAY

Rajaji offers basic but beautifully-located forest rest houses within the park, and some excellent resorts on the outskirts. There are 10 forest rest houses inside the park, some of which are about 100 years old. They are located in picturesque environs, so the hardcore wildlifer who doesn’t mind roughing it will find these attractive and cheap. Plan on organising your own food though, as the resident chowkidars may not be able to do justice to your palate.

You have to book forest rest houses well in advance. Enquiries on availability and rates can be addressed to the director of the Rajaji National Park (Dehradun Telefax: 0135-2621669). Only five – Chilla, Motichur, Kunnao, Rampur and Satyanarayan – have regular electricity supply. All, except Satyanarayan, can be booked at Dehradun. The one at Motichur (Tariff: 1,000) is a notch above the others, though facilities are basic.

There is a GMVN Tourist Rest House (Tel: 01382-266697/ 78; Tariff: 2,200–6,500), close to the main gate at Chilla. While not particularly aesthetically appealing, the setting isn’t bad. It’s clean and good value for money. It has AC rooms, deluxe rooms and huts.

Wild Brook Retreat (Cell: 09314880887; Tariff: 3,200 per person, with meals) is a great option. Run by Manoj Kulshreshta, a Jaipur-based environmentalist and wildlife activist, the hotel overlooks a river. There is no electricity here; however, there are solar-powered lights.

The rooms are spartan, but comfy and there are well-appointed luxury tents with en-suite bathrooms as well as cottages. They arrange safaris, birding trips and river rafting. There are beautiful walks to be had here, with old animal paths leading down to the water’s edge that meander through the camp itself.

The swimming pool at Elephant Walk Jungle Lodge and Farm Resort (Cell 09259693633, 09358120911, 09695088131; Tariff: 15,000, with meals) makes this resort on the periphery of the park a winner during summer. They have eight well-appointed cottages and offer home-cooked meals, birdwatching, safaris, fishing and games. Leisure Hotels’ Forest Resort (Delhi Tel: 011–46520000; Tariff: 5,250) offers 20 cottages near the Chilla gate, nature walks, jeep safaris, rafting, bonfires, birdwatching and much more. V Resorts (Cell: 08130777222; Tariff: 6,500–9,550, with breakfast and dinner) at Ganga Bhogpur Talla offers 16 rooms and all the above activities.

Further out, towards Haridwar is the riverside Aalia (Cell: 09899975469, 07351008802; Tariff: 12,500–45,000) on Najibabad Road, which affords access to the Chilla gate. This excellent hotel has a swimming pool, bar, helipad, restaurant, spa, riverside activity area, games room and jungle safaris.

WHERE TO EAT

If you are staying within the park, then the guesthouse will provide you basic North Indian food. The meals at GMVN tourist rest houses are not fancy either. In the forest rest houses, you can bring your own food or rely on the watchman to cook or arrange for it. Apart from these, there is the option of travelling to any of the nearby towns for a meal of your choice.

AROUND RAJAJI NATIONAL PARK

Haridwar (9km)

The spiritual atmosphere here is likely to leave an impression on you, whether you are spiritually inclined or not. The major attraction here is Har-ki-Pauri, the main ghat. In the evening, just after sunset, large crowds assemble at the river bank to watch the majestic Ganga aarti. Make sure to arrive early so that you can grab one of the spots right in front of the priests, which provide the best vantage points. Haridwar is also a great place for shopping

Sanjoy Ghosh
Rafting at Rishikesh
Rafting at Rishikesh

Rishikesh (40km)

A holy town on the banks of the Ganga, Rishikesh has something to offer to all kinds of tourists – Hindu pilgrims, new-age hippies seeking nirvana, adventure junkies and weekend trippers seeking refuge from urban chaos. Indulge in white-water rafting on the Ganga, camp at one of the many river ‘beaches’, enjoy a lazy meal at a riverside restaurant or schedule a yoga and meditation session at an ashram. Whatever your calling is, you will find solace here for sure.

Dehradun (60km)

From cycling trips, nature walks and picnics by hot springs, Uttarakhand’s capital city has a lot to offer.

Prayers and Souvenirs

In a place where the main business is prayer and pilgrimages, Haridwar’s markets are surprisingly full of fun for those itching to spend some money. There are shopping centres at Jwalapur and Kankhal. There’s also the UP Handloom Emporium near the Bharat Mata Temple. The Barra Bazaar and Moti Bazaar on Upper Road are great marketplaces to pick up glass bangles, wooden toys, walking sticks, rolling pins, wooden slippers and stoneware. The street markets are congested, but bright and colourful, with tiny shops on both sides. These also sell shawls, bamboo canes and cane baskets. For the devout, the range can be mind-boggling: brass and stone idols of various gods, artificial jewellery for idols, brass and copper puja utensils, stoles with Ram Naam printed on them and sandalwood rudraksh (rosaries).

For friends and folks back home, the best gift would be a box of sweets, especially pedas, or bottles of assorted churan (tangy digestives) and aam papad (sweet or salty sheets of dried mango pulp). For elders who couldn’t make the trip, perhaps the best gift from Haridwar is a bottle of Ganga jal (water). All stores stock a variety of bottles, pots and vessels – you just have to collect the water from the river.

Anita Roy

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Jolly Grant, Dehradun (40km/ 1hr). Taxi costs 2,500 approx                   

Rail Nearest railhead: Haridwar (9km/ 30mins). Taxi charges 1,000                                      

Road From Delhi, drive along NH58 via Meerut and Haridwar. Before reaching Haridwar, take a right at the roundabout, and cross the Ganga to reach the gate at Chilla. There are frequent bus services to Haridwar from ISBT Kashmere Gate, Delhi

FAST FACTS

When to go The park is open from 15 November to 15 June, seven days a week. Best sightings are in peak summer

Wildlife/ Forest Department Office

Director, Rajaji NP

5/1 Ansari Marg, Dehradun

Telefax: 0135-2621669

STD code 01382

State Uttarakhand

Location In the Shivalik foothills of the Himalayas, spread over the three districts of Haridwar, Dehradun and Pauri Garhwal

Distance 208km NE of Delhi, 9km NE of Haridwar

Route from Delhi NH58 to Haridwar via Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Roorkee; district road to Chilla, the main entrance of Rajaji