THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
It’s no secret, that Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand has captured the imagination of many with its timeless beauty. Rather, this pristine land is unconditionally revered by its admirers and I happen to be one of them. Although my visits to the habitat have been countless, my fondest memory dates back to the summer of 1975. Being a college student, I had my summer vacations going on at that time when my cousin brother made an offer to me to accompany him and his family to Haridwar, it was an offer I could not resist.
My cousin brother OP Bajaj, was at that time the Superintending Engineer with the Electricity department posted at Hissar. Without any further delay, we decided to leave soon after. My younger brother Sunil agreed to join me for the trip. My cousin and his family left in their Fiat car and I borrowed a Vijay Super scooter from my elder brother Suresh.
It was already past 11 o’clock by the time we started. The road to Haridwar during those days was a narrow single carriageway, hardly 30 feet wide and a secluded one. In the face of development, the road today has witnessed total transformation with development and urbanisation as NHAI toll road. But back then, the kachcha road was bumpy — a roller coaster ride for us.
As at that time, refrigerated bottles were not available, in order to have cold water while on the drive, we carried water in beer bottles. Upon seeing any passerby, we had fun showing off our bottles and seeing the perplexed faces of people as we shouted ‘cheers’ amongst ourselves. Our fun must have left them with an imprint of us as ‘bad boys.’
Finally, after a long drive, we reached the tourist bungalow of Haridwar. Situated on the banks of the Ganga, with the canal on one side and the main river on the other, the location of the bungalow is breathtaking and strategically located on the main Delhi-Dehradun highway.
After taking rest at the bungalow, we headed for the aarti at Har ki Pauri. The evening aarti is a mystic mythological Hindu congregation from time immemorial. The priests, while chanting the hymns, waive large brass lighted ‘diya trees’ and pooja thaalis in their hands while facing the river Ganga. The melodious sounds and the aroma of the diyas and continuous ringing of a thousand bells is an enchanting experience. It ends with devotees leaving hundreds of leaf boats laden with camphor lights and flowers floating on the river and you are transported to a mystic place as you watch them twinkling, floating and then vanishing from sight.
After attending the aarti, we headed back to the bungalow for a sound sleep after an exhausting day.
Next morning we got up early and less than 50 yards from our staircase, we took a dip in the holy Ganga flowing on the flanks of our tourist bungalow. Even today, with the old city and bazaar on the other side of the Ganga canal and river water flowing below stairs, this good Bungalow commands an unparalleled view. With Rajaji National Park constituting the eastern natural bank of the Ganga river, after our bath and breakfast, our pure inquisitiveness about Corbett National Park took us inside the UP Tourism office to make enquiries. Till that time, I had only read about it in the books written by Jim Corbett. The person on duty took out a old map and showed us the way to Dhikala in Corbett National Park. It showed that the place is not too far from Haridwar and without a second thought; we decided to leave for Dhikala through the shortest jungle route shown on the map.
As my cousin brother and his family wished to spend a few more days in Haridwar itself, two of us left for the exploration on our scooter.
Crossing the Najibabad bridge over the Ganga, we entered Rajaji National Park through the Chilla Gate. This was a kachcha forest track and difficult to drive beyond 10-20 km per hour speed.
Having travelled through about fifty plus kms of the jungle road under a scorching sun, we reached Kotdwar by afternoon. After eating at a dhaba we proceeded further as per the directions shown in the map. Soon after, we were again inside a jungle road looking for our next destination, Baksor. We had travelled for over an hour through the loose and sandy kachcha road. It was not possible to drive through the sand and It became almost impossible to maintain balance and push through.
We had not seen a single passerby in over an hour of alternate driving and pushing of the scooter. Cutting through the jungle road full of lantana bushes and trees, at last we came across a local van. A Gujjar with an orange-coloured flowing beard coloured with mehendi was pushing his cycle In our direction. With his strange orange graying hair and still stout body, he was going to a nearby village to sell milk in the containers tied to his cycle.
I asked him the way to Dhikala or Baksor and it was as if he got a electric shock from my question. He had known this jungle and could not believe us asking for a forbidden city that had been submerged with the waters of Kalagarh Dam decades ago when he was still a child. The old British map and the tourist officer who had guided us this way were not updated of this development since the last few decades.
As there was still enough time to turn back, politely declining his offer of a night stay at his nearby Gujjarwada (thatched hut of clay and grass), we reversed and followed him for some distance till he put us on the jungle track to Kalagarh.
The sun was almost setting when we reached Kalagarh. It was a newly built city for the management and staff of the hydel project built over Ramganga river. There being no private hotel or accommodation, I searched for the bungalow of the CEO. Understanding our dilemma and hearing the story of our misadventure, he allowed us to stay for the night in the drawing room of the project inspection Bungalow. Next morning, we started early and crossing through Afzalgarh, Jaspur, Kashipur and Ramnagar via the road route, we reached Dhikala by noon.
In the evening, we just went on an elephant ride towards thandi sarak, and came back before it was dark to relax for the night. Our Mahouts Hameed and Ishtyak during that time, were young but experienced. They were great story-tellers too and made elephant rides more interesting and thrilling by talking about their tiger and elephant encounters and attacks. These stories are really thrilling and exciting for the first timer wildlifer. We came across herds of cheetal, elephants, kakkar (barking deer), pada (a grassland deer), jackals and wild boars on our ride.
I remember the annexe room near the old forest rest house allotted to us had a cooler fitted to it. Dhikala forest rest house earlier used to have only two blocks and there was no modern complex of canteen and cottages. The basic provisions were available at Kala ki canteen.
The staircase leading down to Ramganga river, with over seventy straight and steep steps looked very haunted at night.
Relaxing for the night, in the early morning we started on our scooter via thandi sarak, and went towards Mota Saal. The Mota Saal tree at that time was healthy and stood tall at over 100 mts. In later years, it was struck by lightning and now you only see a burnt stump of some 6 metres or so still standing. Encircling Mota Saal, we went ahead towards chaur again and on to the far end towards the waters of Kalagarh Dam while crossing the expanse of grassland which is called Leedkhalia today.
It was here that we parked the scooter and decided to enjoy the scenery and investigate. This point is really picturesque and full of wildlife. On one side you see the vast expanse of the grasslands of Dhikala Chaur; then you have Ramganga’s Kalagarh reservoir looking like a sea and occasional crocodiles sunbathing on its banks, and the thick saal line marking the forest borders of Corbett running parallel, as well as across the reservoir.
You can watch biggest congregations of chital (spotted deer) here as well as elephant herds in the mornings and evenings, especially in the month of May, when elephants emerge from the forests to drink and bathe and play in the water. The silhouette created by the setting sun is of rare beauty in the evening. I and my brother Sunil were inexperienced and apart from reading about wildlife and forests, hardly understood the risks and precautions associated with it.
Engrossed in the beauty of the forest, leaving the scooter beside the track, we started walking towards the forest and water in an upward direction. We had walked only about a 100 yards or so, when a shattering roar from the tree-line virtually froze us in our tracks. We had neither known nor imagined this before in life and the instant fear and shivering legs made us speechless. We could only look into each other’s eyes and gesticulate. It was a tiger and probably it had seen us and objected to our presence so close by. Running back to our scooter was ruled out and our survival instincts had taken over. Slowly and gradually we started retracting our steps backwards towards the scooter while facing the bush and sal treeline of the forest from where the roar had emerged.
After a short distance was a big fallen tree which had decayed over the years but its girth was enough to give us some camouflage. We hid ourselves behind it. After about 20 minutes or so, we saw a Matador van coming in our direction. As the Matador reached near the scooter we stood up and waived and sprinted as fast as we could for dear life and entered through the sliding door of the van. There was an exporter’s family inside who had come to Corbett. Having heard our story they were totally taken aback and stunned at our foolish adventurism. Anyway, watching the tiger was ruled out. The family was kind enough to take us through the remaining jungle safari for the day and later on helped me to pick up and take the scooter back to Dhikala campus.
Next morning we started our journey back to Haridwar through the road route and reached the tourist bungalow by late evening. Our cousin had already left for Delhi as we were late by over one day as there used to be hardly any means of communication during those days.
The mesmerising thrill and beauty of Corbett made me its fan and it became my second home thereafter. I’ve hardly remained away from it for a period longer than two months ever since.
Thirty eight years of visits and over 300 tiger encounters, some of them captured in my still and video cameras, have given me a lot of relaxation from business pressures and made me an involved and avid wildlifer, which in turn helped me in getting time to think and strategise my success as a renowned developer.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).