The summer holidays had begun and I was eagerly waiting to get enrolled in the Summer Program conducted for teenagers by National Museum of Natural History in Delhi. The program consisted of museum studies, discussion sessions, outdoor nature explorations, individual project assignments and exposure to the ecosystem in a National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary in India.
On one fine summer morning twenty of us got into a deluxe bus with four staff members and attendants and took off to Corbett National Park. I was fourteen year old and looking forward to my first ever visit to any wild life sanctuary. I remembered how each time time read one of Jim Corbett’s books I would long to visit the reserve which was named after him after his death.
It was late afternoon when we reached the National Park. For most of us this was a first visit to the reserve and the excitement was clearly visible. After the usual formalities the bus entered the park and soon we were on our way to Dhikala where the campsite was set up. We still had an hour’s drive to reach our destination. The dense Sal forest greeted us on both sides and soon we spotted herds of spotted deer and monkeys. It was hot and the forest was seeped in a strange silence but inside the bus we were all chatting away happily.
Dhikala chaur is the largest grassland in Uttarakhand. Dhikhla is the core area of the reserve and located right in the center so we were hoping for a tiger sighting. The bus had approached a precarious section and was slowly moving on a narrow path. We were told to remain quietly seated. On one side one could spot the serpentine Ramganga river deep down in the valley and on the other side lay the picturesque and mysterious grassland, home to various species of birds and animals including the Royal Bengal Tiger.
All of us were glued to the windows taking in the breathtaking beauty of the place when suddenly the expert from the museum told us to remain absolutely still and quiet. The bus had stopped in the middle of nowhere. At first we could not understand what had happened but slowly as we watched the huge male elephants sauntering towards us from the front a chill went up our spines. There were five or six of them. Large amount of Musht flowed down their temples as they menacingly approached us. The driver had stopped the engine and was muttering some mantras under his breath. I was sitting on the front seat and had a full few of those majestic animals with huge tusks, their trunks swaying rhythmically from one side to another. I had never seen an elephant in wild and the sight took my breath away.
The girl next to me sobbed uncontrollably and held tightly to my hand. Mesmerized, I just stared at those magnificent creatures who were just a foot away from the bus and had almost surrounded it.
Everything had become still. Not even a blade of grass moved. Male adults are usually solitary beings especially when undergoing a phenomenon called ‘Musth’ so it was surprising to find a herd even though it consisted of only five or six of them. Their sheer daunting size was extremely overpowering and though I had seen elephants in the zoos and cities, this was nothing like those experiences.
Bull elephants are highly dangerous and violent at the time of “Musth’ and can cause great harm. I could see the smelling fluid, rich of testosterone, running down on their cheeks as they gazed at us. We held our breaths and avoided eye contact. I bet everyone was sending prayers up there to the 300,000 Gods for the ordeal to end and for the gift of life.
Those ten minutes that the bulls inspected our brightly painted bus with us rooted to our seats frozen in fear we realized how close we were to death. They could overturn the bus in an instant and send it hurling down the valley. Every time they flapped their huge ears our hearts skipped a beat.
Somehow they took pity on us and giving a last look turned and walked away into the forest.
For those few moments when they moved we thought it was all over. It was a strange moment in time where the thin line that separated life from death seemed to have dissolved.
Many of the kids were crying and laughing at the same time unable to come to terms with what had taken place on their first adventurous trip to a National Park.
I can remember my heart beating very fast but somehow I hadn’t felt the kind of fear that had possessed others. I continued to look the direction in which those mighty animals had gone and disappeared in thick foliage of the forest and wondered what must have made them almost charge at us and then change their minds.
The incident is still fresh in my mind and every moment I thank the universe for small mercies. This was the third time death had come t close for comfort and left.
The incident has not changed my attitude towards either the elephants or any other animal. Humans have encroached their land and destroyed their natural habitats and they sure have a right to cut us down to size at least once in a life time.
I have enough blogs about my various trips to Corbett National Park in Uttaranchal. This time it was more of a “taking a break from the usual routine” thing than an excursion.
The trip started on a wrong note with me getting sever muscle cramps and deciding to stay back, but things improved and after three hours wait for a forgetful driver we finally took off.
The cool comforts of AC car and the thrill of visiting the place I love most soon overpowered everything. The roads were gleaming under the hot summer sun and we zipped past familiar places, stopping for tea and breakfast at dhabas.
There is something about the dhabas that is so enticing. aroma of fresh food, the ambiance, the friendly people everything is so welcoming and as there are public rest rooms on any of the National Highways, these places at least provide the basic functioning Loo.
We had our booking in a friend’s resort and that was one worry less. Dhikuli was the place where our Den was located I smiled an kids had a blast reading the name of the village. A place closely resembling my own name.
The place was set in amidst mango and jackfruit orchards and was a total contrast to the naked Eucalyptus trees with bare branches pleading to heaven for rain.
The reserve has hone from bad to worse in terms of deforestation etc. Even the rivers were almost dry, not because of summer heat but due to the small dams made on them to turn the flow for irrigation in the villages along the periphery of the National Park.
We were told that the safaris were booked and there was no sightings as all the animals had retreated into thick core area. A few spotted dears, barking dears and a few small animals were spotted during night safari or night drive as they prefer to call it.
Sitabani is the area where Kal movie was shot and the watering hole there did not attract any big cat that night.
The sounds of jungle, the silence and stillness were refreshing and eerie at the same time. It was a visit worth all it’s money.
The elephant safari too did not yield anything.
Dhikala, Kaladungi, Bijrani and Sitabani are the major areas of the NP where mostly animals are sighted but everything was bare ,dry and parched at this time of the year.
We decided to visit the Girjia devi temple on the banks of Ramganga river but the sorry state of the place made mt heart sink. Like many pilgrim places the place was infested with people who did not give a damn for the lovely surroundings and littered the place and the river alike.
We managed to find clean water after a small trek and had good time splashing around in the mossy flowing waters of this beautiful river. Ramganga after the monsoon is worth watching. Hundreds of water birds descend on the river as it thunders past the jungle.
The other river Kosi was just behind our resort and we took a walk every evening along the beautiful serene river.
I have visited the NP in almost all the seasons. During summer we see such a contrast between the actual jungle area and the cultivated area just outside.
With nothing much to do during hot afternoons we discovered some medicinal herbs in the compound and listened to the tiger, elephant stories from the Manager of the resort.
The rock faces of the mountains told a sorry tale of hundreds of trees cut by the villagers for fuel and illegal transport to timber merchants.
I even heard that the Saudi royal family came for tiger hunting often and was looked after and helped by the forest officials. What a shame on us !!
On one side we are running campaigns for saving the beautiful animal and on the other we allow foreign royals to fulfill their whims and fancies.
Three days passed in no time and it was again time to return to the city’s heat and dust.
I took as many pix as possible and have put them all as slide shows in two parts. Both the links are on my two blogs.
We woke up early in the wee hours to take a stroll one last time before starting our journey back to Delhi.
The jungle has a mesmerizing effect on you no matter what the season is and I felt like Mowgli trapped in a cage. My heart longed for more but the time was running out and we decided to revisit in winter.
Now back to the base I am trying to relive the moments of sheer bliss that I experienced during my stay in Corbett NP.
There are almost 200 tigers now at the park and some leopards too and I hope next time we surely will be able to sight at least one of those majestic animals. Till then let’s hope their tribe increases and there is no illegal poaching and cutting of trees.
On the way back we stopped to admire small villages along the National highway and the new expressway. The sugarcane fields, the cattle and the daily life of the rural folks.
At Garhmukteshwar, the gently flowing Ganges was such a treat to the tired eyes. From the bridge we watched the boats, the naked children diving into the cool waters and the quite temples offering peace and calm to the pilgrims.
It was overall a great family outing and a much needed break from the hustle bustle of life in the big city.