2005 was in many ways a year that ushered in a number of welcome changes. Among the many things that happened, one of the memorable of them was my trip to the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve. Located in the newly created Indian state of Uttaranchal (formerly northern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh), this vast expanse of 1300 sq. kms. was established a park in August 1936. It is a part of the Corbett tiger reserve which lies in the foothills of the mightly Himalayas within the districts of Nainital, Pauri Garhwal, Almora and Binjore. The park itself is divided into different zones out of which the Buffer and the Core form an integral part. While the Core area forms the Park itself, the buffer area contains the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary and reserve forests.
It was originally called the Hailey National Park after the then Governor of the United Province (Uttar Pradesh), Sir Malcolm Hailey. Post independence in the year 1947, the park was renamed the Ramganga National Park and then in 1957, the park was once again renamed. It now became known as the Jim Corbett National Park in memory of the legendary hunter turned conservationist, who was largely responsible for marking out the park boundaries and helped in setting up the park.
My first brush with the name Jim Corbett was in the year 1992 while in Class Eight, when I chanced upon the book, The Maneating Leapord of Rudraprayag. I was fascinated by the book as a kid especially since I had a very keen sense of interest in nature and big cats. Having completed the book in a matter of days, I had then wished for the day that would see me come face to face with one of the most beautiful landscapes one could set foot on. Apart from having been an astute hunter of man-eaters, Jim Corbett was a man who knew more about the Indian jungles than many Indian 'experts' themselves. What made him more interesting was his lucid and picturesque description in words of his days in India as a hunter and later a dedicated conservationist.
I knew not that my chance to visit this magnificient place would come 13 long years later and when it did, I jumped at the prospect. Having formed a group of ten, we set out to visit the park immediately after the monsoons had expired, giving way to the winter which was slowly finding into many parts of the Indian subcontinent. The weather was very pleasant and proved conducive for such a visit. Weeks of planning had gone into making this dream a reality and although I must confess that a stay of two days was terribly short, I did enjoy the whole trip with enthusiasm and fervor like never before. Bodhi, my flatmate was kind enough to lend me a very powerful pair of field lenses that once belonged to his father who during his times was an eminent sportsman in many senses. Like the many times I would attribute many a good thing to luck and adherence to sound advise, I believe that having carried the Carl Ziess binoculars rewarded me abundantly the description of events which I shall present to you at a later stage on this very post.
We grouped together to begin an overnight train journey which would transport us from New Delhi to Ranikhet on the evening of 24rth November 2005. As planned we reached Ranikhet early next morning and began a short drive straight into the heart of Tiger country.
My dream was coming true and I was enthralled. We reached our resort at daybreak and the winter air was inviting and brought about a huge sense of liberation. I pray to Almighty night and day that I find a place as such to spend the rest of my life. Folklore was the pivot of this place and immediately upon reaching, we were 'informed' of the most recent happenings that were witnessed in the immediate surroundings. Tales of a Tiger falling victim to rabies and wrecking havoc among the village-folks was among the first that I was told along with incidents of a Tiger carrying away a cow, a dog, goats and also a young boy. While the description of these incidents were exaggerated beyond proportion, we came to realize that they had indeed happened!
During the months preceding our vist, wide-spread protests echoed across the nation protesting the merciless poaching of Tigers in the Indian National Parks. Siriska and Ranthambore were at high risk. To make matters worse, the government took no steps to prevent this callous slaughter of our national animal and was engaged mostly in refuting the call of many environmentalists and conservationists who warned of imminent danger. Finally after much wrangling, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) stepped in to mitigate the damage and recommended a commission be setup to determine the extent of damage. With all the histrionics unfolding in one nasty form or the other, what it meant to us tourists was a grim and unsettling reality - we could traverse the entire expanse of the park and yet return without having seen a tiger!
A daunting yet real possiblity, I still felt thrilled being present in Tiger country. Seeing one was indeed a very luxurious perquiste that I honestly thought would not happen and which even if did not, would not in any manner dent my state of penultimate bliss.
The first day passed with a short trek with an enthusiatistic few while the 'others' fell into a restful slumber as a result of the night long train journey. Fortune favors the brave and the adventurous! Presently, brave and adventurous was a very potent, desirable and an equally tiring combination.
Having climbed a dusty beaten path to see the magnificence of the mighty river Kosi, we the enthusiastic few were now devoid of the last sap of energy left and soon decided to return to the comforts of our resort where a sumptous lunch awaited us. Anyone who is part of a BPO operation knows very well that time and food had no relationship what so ever and thus what would have ordinarily been a heavy dinner for a casual onlooker turned out to be a well-laid lunch to the brady bunch who after having braved the adventure under the sharp winter sun with an atmospheric combination that consisted air atleast 20% thinner when compared to normal conditions decided the best course of action to be a filled stomach!
The day's adventure had not come to a close. Not yet. How could one wrap the day without soaking oneself in the bloodchilling waters of the Kosi?
With darkness came a very eerie series of calls and cries which would still any human being and make the already timid imagination run wild with scary thoughts of a leopard or a Tiger lurking in the bushes! Thankfully, that night, thoughts remained disconcerted from reality and nature showed abundant kindness by safely tucking each one of us into bed without much incident.
A thumping knock on your door at 03:00 am on a winter morning is no welcome news no matter what the purpose, especially after having grown comfortable in the sinking and relaxing bedding with heating only due to the warmth of of your own body.
But, up we had to be since we were scheduled to be part of an early morning safari right into the heart of Tiger country - the inner zone of the park. Without wasting much of the early morning and well before the Sun could rise over the horizon we were already being driven into the divine journey, rather pilgrimage, the very reason of our being there!
Driving into the park, we were welcomed by a flock of Siberian cranes, birds that had travelled +2000 kms across Mongolia, Kazakstan, Pakistan and the NWFP to find momentary comfort and residence in this Indian abode where they would spend all but a few weeks in comfort far away from the agonizing winters of Siberia. A lone miniature Indian Kingfisher sat at the edge of a muddy pool in wait for a morning meal while a family of Indian Rhesus Macaques were readying themselves for the day. A herd of spotted Deer lifted its heads in unison and gazed at the presently usual but unnecessary human intervention and while a pair of peacocks appeared and disappeared in moments, our guide pointed to some fresh laid pug marks of the big cat. It was the closest that we could manage to come to contact with this truly remarkable yet macabre beast. (I humbly beg pardon for a rather sardonic description of this royal creation, but I have done nothing more than attempt to descriptively bring about a mix of nature's perfection in beauty yet, the same beauty blended with raw brute force quite unimaginable in many respects)
The excitement and fervor had begun and the morning was one of the coldest I had ever braced since coming to Delhi. The rush of air blasting onto us due to speeding four wheel carrier was much like that of Ooty.
A few more minutes into the drive we stopped at a fallen tree overlooking a vast plain that looked more like a dried river bed with a heavy growth of tall jungle grass. A herd of Sambhar grazed nervously often breaking routine to gain a clear lookout for any lurking danger that would spring at them. And danger there certainly was! To the inexperienced and rather inferior human perception however, everything seemed in order until a Kakar barked in the distance and then bolted away from the scene of supposed action and all heads turned to the direction. However, an eventful series of happenings was unfolding quite a small distance away. And minutes later, I spotted a large reddish brown object hurl itself from one patch of grass into another! I know not what the object was but it was certainly something I had never seen before and was one that was full of life and determined force! I can only thank my flatmate Bodhi and his superb pair of Carl Ziess field lenses without which I would have never spotted that spur of the moment that the rest of the bunch had so unknowingly missed out on.
A mahout driven elephant had shooed the Tiger from its well concealed hold and this morning another hungry stomach walked on fours seeking a means of sustainence and survival.
Shortly afterwards we returned to our resort and settled in for lunch after which each one was lost in thought.
It is very difficult not to feel humbled when in the mighty expanse of nature. A moment comes when you realize that the human kind is a mere atom in the multitude of elements called creation. Having reached home in Gurgaon the next day, I was a content and happy man, a happy pilgrim rather. A sense of satisfaction of a dream having come true enveloped my inner core. To this day, I yearn to go back and I know I certainly will embark on many more pilgrimages to this Heaven on Earth. I pray to God that Blake's ominous lines do not come true for then our posterity would be robbed of this once in a lifetime privilege of capturing with the eye and film perhaps India's Royal pride and matter of venerable tribute.
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?