It’s a mistake to go to Corbett Tiger Reserve hoping to see a tiger. There are 136 tigers in the entire reserve which stretches from Lansdowne in the northwest down to Ramnagar in the southeast, 1,318 square kilometres of mixed deciduous sal forests, uncultivated grasslands, rivers and a huge reservoir. Even with the best guide in the world, your chances of spotting the King of the Jungle are homeopathically small.
The park is actually three different areas: Sonanadi wildlife sanctuary, Kalagarh Tiger Reserve and Corbett National Park. This was the first National Park in India in 1936, and owes its name and existence to the life of an extraordinary man: big game hunter-turned-photographer and conservationist, Colo-nel Edward James Corbett, or ‘Carpet Sahib’, as he was fondly known to the Kumaonis. Corbett, who clearly had nerves of ice and balls of steel, was accustomed to stirring up tigers by the tail, bashing angry Himalayan bears on their heads with an axe and sharp-shooting leopards in mid-air. The only tigers I’d ever encountered were of the paper variety—the kind that stalked the pages of Corbett’s wonderful stories and sprang, fully-formed, into my head. Since I assumed that these would be the only kind we’d meet during our two-day stay at the park, I picked up a copy of Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon, on the way.
On our first night, we stayed at Gairal. This government guesthouse consists of a small clearing in the jungle, in which there are two or three buildings, a long stone wall cordoning us off from the river rushing along below. Our quarters were in the old bungalow—a creaking, draughty building with wide fireplaces haunted by the ghosts of dead fires. We stumbled through the pitch-black night towards our beds, the glow of our paraffin storm-lantern swallowed up by the immensity of the human-less darkness of the jungle night. Jim Corbett’s words floated into my mind: “I have a tale to tell of that bungalow but I will not tell it here, for this is a book of jungle stories, and tales ‘beyond the laws of nature’ do not consort well with such stories.”
We slept badly: Narayan, the photographer, due to the lack of blankets, and I due to a surfeit of imagination. I kept waking up expecting to see a silent, feline form on huge, lethal pads, with blinking yellow eyes and hot carnivorous breath by my bed. Just the thought of coming face to face with all that animal power is enough to liquefy the marrow. To be seen as meat. To be prey.
The forest on the way in was dotted with large termite mounds, as outlandish as the ruined flying buttresses of faerie sandcastles. The forest floor was thick with leaves and gently decomposing natural matter. An occasional banyan tree stood out, its twisted trunk made of aerial roots, intertwined and thickly plaited, a tree with disconcertingly human musculature, like one of Tolkien’s Ents, those half-tree, half-giant guardians of the forest. A black-faced langur sat up in his branch to watch us pass, backlit by sunlight with a silver halo. Spotted deer, sambhar, kakar, chital, all turned their radar-like ears in our direction, but otherwise seemed untroubled. The wild boar we saw were supremely indifferent to us, far more interested in the goodies to be whiffled out of the rich, dark, undergrowth.
Driving along towards Dhikala, where we were to spend our second night, we rounded a bend and Narayan suddenly exclaimed: “Tigers!” About 200 yards ahead of us, crossing the road from left to right were two fully-grown tigers. The one behind stopped mid-way, looked coolly at us, and then disappeared into the brush after its companion. It was a fleeting glimpse; they were gone almost before we’d had a chance to register they were there… We sat in the jeep for a while, holding our breath, then inched forward slowly to the place where they had disappeared. The tangle of undergrowth was as still and unruffled as the surface of a pond long after a pebble has sunk to the bottom. We inched further, all craning our eyes to the left, when suddenly to the right, there was one of the tigers again — this time, in full view, sauntering with all the devil-may-care panache of a swell out on the town, through the golden grass towards the river. He again stopped and looked back at us over his shoulder, then carried on, his passage marked by the startled warning cries of birds, and the swish of the tops of the grass.
And then he roared. And roared. And roared.
On the trail of the Champawat man-eater, a tigress that had killed 436 people, Corbett has the following to say: “To appreciate a tiger’s growl to the full it is necessary to be situated as I then was — rocks all round with dense vegetation between, and the imperative necessity of testing each footstep to avoid falling headlong into unseen chasms and caves. I cannot expect you who read this at your fireside to appreciate my feelings at the time. The sound of the growling and the expectation of an attack terrified me at the same time as it gave me hope.”
The sound the tiger made was somewhere between a groan and a growl and a yawn — the falling-off cadence at the end of each roar somehow sounded like someone really fed up or really sleepy — and yet the sound itself, out there in all that outsideness, was quite extraordinary. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and my skin, as if suddenly realising its vulnerability, broke out in a sudden rash of goose pimples.
We arrived at Dhikala guesthouse like conquering heroes. The jeep that had drawn up behind us, just after the tigers had gone, had arrived just before us and its occupants were busy relating the fact that they’d almost seen tigers when we arrived to steal their thunder. A young girl with large owlish glasses and braces on her teeth came up to me and stuttered: “Are you the one who’s seen tigers?”
“Yes,” I shrugged modestly.
“Oh wow,” she breathed, looking at me with even wider eyes.
As we headed back through the dusk, it was clear that we would not be seeing any more tigers. I asked one of the guides how many attacks there had been on people since the park was opened sixty-six years ago. “Three,” he informed us confidently. Which seemed like very few, until our mahout, an aged gentleman with feet as leathery as the brow of his elephant, informed us with a nonchalant shrug that he was one of the three, and has the scars to prove it. Probability, it would seem, is cold comfort indeed when you’re up at the sharp end.
The nearest airport is Pantnagar (110km), the nearest railhead Ramnagar (51km). From Delhi, the best way to get there is to drive (260km/6hrs).
Where to stay
Forest rest-houses, though tough to book, are situated inside the park and make for the most immersive experience (from Rs. 1,500; 05947-251489). At the higher-end, there are Infinity Resorts (from Rs. 7,100 for doubles; infinityresorts.com), Corbett Hideaway (Rs. 6,300; 9810396848, corbetthideaway.com), Camp Forktail Creek (Rs. 6,500; campforktailcreek.com) and Corbett Riverside Resort (Rs. 4,900; corbettriverside.com).