I had never visited Corbett Tiger Reserve. The main tourist complex of the Forest Department was smack in the core area, supposedly a zone of no human disturbance. Scores of private resorts lined the edges of the park, and many hosted loud parties. None of this enticed me to visit.
When our friends, Ritish Suri and his wife, Minakshi, residents of the area, invited Rom and I to visit, I demurred. Ritish insisted there were parts of Corbett, like Halduparao, that few tourists visited. Then he dangled a carrot: herds of elephants congregated in the nearby river during May, at a time when the country was in a heat daze. My spouse, Rom, had last visited 40 years ago when he did the first crocodile survey in the area, just when the water had risen to fill the newly constructed Kalagarh dam.
I was intrigued, and Rom was curious to see how the park had changed since.
On an early, cool, mid-May morning, the four of us piled into Ritish’s Gypsy already loaded down with supplies for our three-day visit to Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary, the northern part of the tiger reserve.
Curry leaf plants grew profusely below tall sal trees, completely covering the forest floor. Picturesque termite hills rose like jagged little mountains; some taller than me. Bright red new leaves adorning the crowns of lac trees were as pretty as flowers. Initially, we saw nothing—no hide of mammal nor feather of bird. As the morning grew warmer and we shed our long-sleeve shirts, bird activity revved up.
I saw many northern species for the first time: greater yellownape, grey-capped pygmy woodpecker, chestnut-bellied nuthatch, and great and lineated barbets. The one that took my breath away was the long-tailed broadbill with its parrot green body, yellow face, black helmet, and blue tail. It looked more stuffed toy than a flying bird. It lurked in the foliage offering only colourful glimpses.
Alarmed by our approach, Tarai grey langurs hurled themselves effortlessly from tree to tree. Unlike in south India, this northern forest was strangely silent of their exuberant whooping calls.
Numerous male Asian paradise-flycatchers with their long, white, ribbon-like tails flamboyantly sailed across the path. If we saw one in south India, we made a big deal of it. We stopped to get photographs every time we saw them, but no matter how hard I tried, I didn’t get a single one in focus.
I luxuriated in the thought that we had the forest to ourselves. We saw no one until late afternoon when we reached Halduparao rest house. The 122-year-old bungalow was set in a large clearing overlooking the Palain . Flocks of yellow-footed green pigeons gobbled figs from the large banyan tree in the midst of the lush green lawn. A lone Indian roller sat tamely within reach on the gatepost as we walked back and forth from the kitchen to the rest house. A pair of young jackals lurked around behind the building. Later, we discovered their den below the slope, under a large tree.
We drove downstream looking for elephants. A tiger monitoring team had set up camera traps along the path, and we triggered them all. I imagined a frustrated researcher sifting through numerous images of our comings and goings, but there was little we could do to avoid them.
At the river bed, instead of elephants, we found a Van Gujjar tribesman rounding up a large herd of water buffaloes before heading back to his dera for the night.
At dawn, great Indian hornbills called loudly to each other, “honk...honk.” Red jungle roosters crowed, sounding like domestic chickens in a village yard. A sambhar bellowed from the other bank of Palain, and we hurried over. We followed the saucer-sized footprints of a tiger, all our senses alert. The sandy stretch came to an end, and the hard ground revealed nothing. The cat could be anywhere. Ritish turned off the vehicle, and we strained to hear warning calls from deer or birds. But the predator had slunk off, undetected.
Halfway down a hill slope, we spotted a pair of great Indian hornbills gorging on figs. Soon, an oriental pied hornbill joined them. I had rarely had the opportunity of seeing these enormous birds at eye level.
But where were the elephants? I knew Ritish hadn’t been exaggerating. In the bungalow’s visitors’ book, others had recorded seeing herds of these giants in the same month in previous years.
Later that day, we spotted a tusker in the riverbed of Mandal. He ambled slowly, occasionally raising his trunk and sniffing the air. After watching him for a while, we continued on our way to the 105-year-old Lohachaur rest house.
Although these colonial-era rest houses were well-appointed, the rooms were stuffy. There were no fans to stir the air. I hauled my mattress out on the verandah, determined to sleep outside. An electric fence cordoned the grounds, and I figured I was safe. With a pleasant cool breeze blowing, I fell asleep watching shadows in the moonlit forest and listening to the comforting calls of scops owls. I woke up several times during the night, expecting to see an elephant looming over me.
A day later, we found large herds of elephants. At the Ramganga reservoir in Dhikala, Corbett National Park, herds of elephants and a fraternity of spotted deer bucks socialised under the hot afternoon sun oblivious to numerous jeeps jostling for the best view. Seven hog deer relaxed on the periphery of this congregation.
We left the wildlife spectacle and headed for the shade of the forest. Almost immediately we saw a large tiger up close. His enormous head emerged from a field of marijuana on one side of a narrow path. He was so intent on another jeep coming from the opposite direction that he didn’t notice our presence. He gave a start when he saw us and disappeared into another marijuana thicket on the other side.
At Gairal rest house, Rom walked around, reliving memories of May 1974. He remembered catching a 10-kg-mahseer on a hand line in the river below. The strong fish zipped away as it fought the line, slicing Rom’s hands. When he realised he couldn’t pull it out, he jumped in the shallow river and wrestled it ashore.
From our vantage at High Banks, we counted 25 large gharials in the river. Forty years ago, there had been only five. Then, Rom and other crocodile conservationists had predicted that gharials couldn’t live in reservoirs and dammed rivers, but the reptiles proved them wrong. There were numerous hatchlings suspended in the water. The reptiles appeared to be much more adaptable than hog deer. From being a common sight, the mammals are now struggling to survive.
While Rom was regaling Ritish and Minakshi with his stories, I wondered what was wrong with these elephants. There was a 300-sq-km-chunk of seemingly empty forest along the northern banks of the River Ramganga. Why did they insist on hanging out where noisy people congregated in exhaust-spewing vehicles? Were these large animals so used to tourists that they didn’t try to avoid them? Or did these areas offer something else that more than compensated for the inconvenience of tourists? I’ll never know.
I’d write off Dhikala and the well-trodden Corbett tourist circuit as ‘been there, done that.’ The unpleasantness of having other vehicles cut us off, visitors behaving recklessly with elephants, and tourists yelling at full volume are common experiences. I’m more enamoured of the solitude, laidback historic rest houses, and abundant bird life of Sonanadi. Perhaps next May I’ll see elephants in the River Palain.
The Uttarakhand Sampark Kranti Express (Rs 370 for AC chair car) leaves Old Delhi Railway Station at 4pm and arrives in Ramnagar at 8.40pm. The Ramnagar-Delhi Link Express departs at 9.50am and reaches Delhi at 3.20pm. Alternatively, you could drive the 270-km distance to Ramnagar from Delhi.
Where to stay
There are resorts, B&Bs, and hotels in and around Ramnagar to suit every budget: Buckscent Corbett Retreat (Pawalgarh, near Kaladhungi; Rs 3,000; buckscent.in) Tiger Camp (Rs 4,950; tiger-camp. com; choice of various meal plans available); Camp River Wild (Rs 4,900; camp-riverwild.com); The Corbett Hideaway (Rs 12,900, incl. breakfast; corbetthideaway.com).
Booking forest rest houses
The forest rest houses have been recently refurbished and are comfortable with clean bed linen, all thanks to former Field Director Rajiv Bhartari. I’d recommend carrying towels. The kitchens have LPG gas cylinders and stoves, and the caretakers do a fine job of cooking up a sumptuous meal. You need to carry your groceries.You can make bookings online at corbettnationalpark.in, although Lohachaur wasn’t online at the time of writing. To book this historic bungalow, write to the Field Director, Corbett National Park (05947-253977, dirctr@yahoo. in) or the District Forest Office of Landsdowne Division (01382- 228467). Hire jeeps and guides from Ramnagar.Alternatively, if you want a luxurious everything-taken-care-of experience, let Ritish Suri of Avisfera Adventures (+91- 8650350756, firstname.lastname@example.org) take care of everything.The document corbettnationalpark. in/corbett-tiger-reserve-tariff.pdf gives all the details such as entry fees, vehicle fees, and rest house tariff.