Bad roads can lead to good places. Imran Khan’s deep-throated voice rings clear in my head as we drive past the settlements along the southern periphery of Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. About 4km from Ramnagar, not very far from the main Dhela Road, is a village called Kaniya with about 20 houses scattered along the stretch. Then the road narrows. The houses start thinning now and it feels as if we are well inside the forest. And then we see it, the last house, near the forest—The Ranger’s Lodge, or as Imran calls it, his jungle home in Corbett.
I met Imran Khan first as the General Manager of a well-known resort in Corbett National Park. Dressed in a ranger’s outfit complete with hat, he had looked disturbed at a particular guest’s demand. City-slickers looking for familiar comforts in a property housed in a forest reserve was not something he approved of. He had muttered something to his assistant indicating that he handle the situation before making himself scarce. That was a long time ago.
Back in the present, I look at the building in front and I can’t help drawing comparisons between it and the government-run forest guest houses at Bijrani and Dhikala in the Corbett National Park itself. Simple yet sturdy lines with a green tin roof. I instantly take a liking to the minimalism of the place. The Ranger’s Lodge is actually a homestay, with three rooms for guests. The family uses the other two rooms. The furniture in the guest rooms reflects the décor of the rest of the house—homey, simple and yet attractive. Pictures of wildlife adorn the walls of the lodge and big windows ensure that residents get a generous dose of natural light inside the house.
Hungry after the long drive from Delhi, we are delighted to have lunch served in no time. Aromatic pulao, Kumaoni raita and a vegetable dish cooked in local spices, the spread is simple but delightful. Imran’s beautiful wife Kahkashan plays the perfect hostess. Her Mughlai preparations have won her several accolades and she lends her positive energy to this homespace.
It does not take us long to understand how this is Imran’s turf, in every sense of the word. A reputable name in wildlife circles, he is a naturalist with a passion for tiger conservation. He is also on the board of several governmental and non-governmental wildlife organisations, including the governments of Uttarakhand and Assam.
Being with Imran is like reading an encyclopaedia. His knowledge of the forest, its inhabitants and their behaviour patterns, the flora and fauna is unparalleled. As we get talking, he shares his journey with us: “I used to accompany my grandfather and father on shikars, then legal, inside the forests which have now become the forests of the Corbett landscape. On seeing my growing interest, my father encouraged me to spend time in the forests. Which I happily did, spending time not only in the forest rest houses of the present Corbett tiger reserve but also in the rest houses adjoining Corbett, which are now called its landscape forests.”
“After I graduated in Chemistry, I appeared for the Forest Services exam but could not make the grade. Fortunately, at the same time, my university, with the support of late Dr Salim Ali, started a masters course in Wildlife Sciences. I was fortunate to make it to the very first batch. I then came back to Corbett after a gap of a few years to do a dissertation on grassland management in Dhikala chaurs. To think I walked all the way from Dhangarhi gate to Dhikala FRH way back in 1986!” he laughs.
Then, he says, he followed a beautiful stint in the field he loves the most, working with organisations like the Wildlife Institute of India and conservationists such as Valmik Thapar in the Ranthambhore tiger reserve. “It was during that course that I realised that wildlife tourism is the only source of generating employment as well as supplementing income. I too joined the industry and worked on building several resorts, starting in 1994.”
Imran thereafter pioneered the itinerised version of wildlife tourism in Corbett in 1995. His idea of wildlife tourism is to gather more outdoors supporters for tiger conservation at the same time as ensuring that the communities living on the periphery of the forests do not become hostile towards the wilderness and its inhabitants when the animals display behavioural aberrations. He encouraged the communities not to sell their land but instead lease them out for tourism-related infrastructures such as resorts and be partners with the investors. That was his ideal and guiding principle. Only, commercialism took over and, gradually, all the land ended up being sold. “By 2005-6 the concept of wildlife tourism had grossly deviated from its principles. I then packed my bags in 2004 and moved to the southern periphery of Corbett where I developed another resort, right from landscaping to the positioning of the accommodation units to the naturalistic activities, marketing as well as day-to-day operations. I worked there till 2011 and then decided to do something on my own,” he ends conclusively, pointing to the house with a roll of his head.
Not wanting to do too much on our first day, we chose to just wander around and explore the natural trails along the homestay. While Imran has 25,000 sq ft of land, he has a built-up area of only 5,000 sq ft. A lot of land is left to the wilderness too. As we walk along, Imran tells us that this is the only house that overlooks the forest of Corbett Tiger Reserve and, in the evening, one can even see a sambhar or wild boar grazing nearby. “There have been instances of tigers and elephants being sighted from my house,” he shares. On our walkabout, we arrive at a patch with mango and litchi trees. This is Imran’s little orchard. Even in the ‘off’ season, there is something welcoming about these plantations. “Many animals visit this orchard. Sometimes they even damage the crop, but then I feel privileged to have them here. After all, it is their land and I am only giving it back to them,” he smiles.
The biggest advantage of staying with Imran, as we learn, is that he offers tailormade itineraries, and accompanies you on those trails. Take your pick from a birding tour to an organic nature trail, a simple nature walk or an intense jungle safari, a photography trail or a cultural experience—you will not return disappointed. Our visit could be termed a ‘lazy stay’, also, fortunately, on offer.
Later at night, Imran regales us with stories of tiger sightings. “The alarm call of the black-faced monkey or langur is said to be the most reliable call in the forest. While on a safari, we followed a call of this langur. When our jeep reached there, it kept giving the call looking to its right. Expecting a good sighting, we took positions, some of us standing on the Gypsy seats waiting for something to happen. There was grassland around us. Suddenly, a full grown tigress jumped across the bonnet of the vehicle. What had happened was that the langur had not seen the tigress at all! He was calling out looking at the cubs that were on the right of the trail!”
Early next morning, the sound of chirping birds wakes us up. As morning rays touch the homestay, tea is served in the balcony outside. I spot a foraging deer in the far distance. That is when I understand what being in the forest really means. And I send up thanks for people who respect the surrounds for what they are.
The Ranger’s Lodge is located at a distance of 81km from Pantnagar Airport, and 4km from Ramnagar Railway Station as well as the bus stand. From Delhi, the drive to the lodge (260km) takes approximately 6hrs.
October till May is the best time to plan your stay at The Ranger’s Lodge. Imran Khan also recommends
the monsoon season for those who don’t mind the rain. Great walking safaris are organised
during the monsoon, when you can splash about the rivers and young streams. The stay is priced at approx ₹7,500 per night per person with the option of two meals. See therangerslodge.in.
What To See & Do
Ramnagar is considered to be the gateway to Jim Corbett National Park. Besides tigers, it is home to elephants, deers, wild boars, wild dogs, jackals and many other animals. One can also visit the Crocodile Pool, Getheryo Library (Dhikala), Dhikala Machaan, Corbett Museum (Dhangadi gate) and Corbett Falls. Take a birding expedition to one of the biggest wetlands of the region to see migratory ducks and waders besides loads of resident species. Explore Kumaoni as well as Gujjar village culture. Among the many villages in the area are Kotabagh, Bhalaun, Patkot, Amgarhi, Tanda, Haldua, Bohrakot, Perumadara, Dhikala and Mohan. You can also visit the village school. Take a walk inside the forests to understand the intricate balance and interdependence. Visit the local haats (roadside markets). Make a trip to the popular Garjiya Devi Temple, located about 15km from the property. There is also a Seeta Bani Temple where an annual fair is held during Ramanavami. It is located around 20km from Ramnagar. The hill station of Nainital is 65km away. And Imran can help customise your itinerary to facilitate the things you want to see around.