It’s a 400 km drive to Ramnagar from Chandigarh. One drives through Panchkula to take NH-73. The highway crosses the 17th century fortress at Ramgarh with its white-washed ramparts and its majestic wooden gate. One then drives along the picturesque 5000 acre walled-campus of TBRL to turn for the Toka-Khangesra link road at Mattewali, a short-cut to Raipur-Rani from where one takes SH-1 to Naraingarh. The drive from Ramgarh till Naraingarh passes through the scenic farm landscape along the foothills of Morni. One now takes NH-72 and negotiates the congested Kala Amb to enjoy the refreshing drive along the winding hill road to Nahan. The highway crosses the Yamuna at the historic Sikh town of Paonta Sahib. One continues eastwards through Herbertpur along the Asan River till Dehradun. Its tedious driving through the impossible traffic of Dehradun and the busy road to Haridwar. One crosses the Holy Ganges to take NH-74 and drives through Najibabad, Nagina, Jaspur and Kashipur before one turns for NH 121 for the final leg of the journey that brings one to the sleepy little town of Ramnagar, the Gateway to Corbett. We were two families of four packed into an 8-seater Innova (not counting the driver) and it was a long, weary drive.
It was late evening by the time we reached the rather lavishly built but most poorly maintained PWD Rest House on the outskirts of the town on the road to Corbett. One look at the shabby, listless caretaker gave away the place’s sad story, without the man having to utter a single-word. The kitchen was not operational, so we dumped our gear and headed straight for the town to find some food. Ramnagar does not offer much by way of culinary choice to the transit-tourist and we were disappointed to see the rather seedy-looking eating joints along the main highway. Luckily for us some students directed us to a nice, clean, unpretentious dhaba by the side of a canal. The kids were famished by the long wait for dinner and we pleaded with the incredulous waiter to allow us to poach the order placed by the guests who had reached before us. The freshly cooked, wholesome desi food greatly restored our flagging spirits.
On the way back to the Rest House we stopped at the town market to see if we could find some shop to pick up some additional blankets for the night. It was early January and frightfully cold and our bored caretaker had handed us only four, rather sorry looking blankets, two per family of four! He had yawned at our suggestion that he could ‘consider’ trying to arrange some extra blankets for us. We were in luck and I was delighted to find a shop selling cotton-stuffed quilts open at that late hour. I triumphantly carried my purchase back to the waiting vehicle. The drive had left us all exhausted and each family crammed into its assigned double bed to try and catch some sleep. There was of-course no question of us hoping for the caretaker to show some enterprise and muster spare cots for the kids.
The morning was bright and cheerful and we headed for the tourist reception centre to pick up our entry permits. We had booked in advance but were required to fill in a form and complete some formalities for getting the permits. A photocopy of my i-card was needed and yes the centre did not have a photocopy machine. Ramnagar gets no electricity supply during the day and there is only one photocopying shop that has a generator. I fretted at the loss of precious time in completing such mundane formalities but we finally had the permit. We were staying at the Sarpduli Forest Rest House, Dhikala being totally booked. We were required to carry raw provisions with us as the rest house had a kitchen and the caretaker doubled as a cook. It was another 20 KM to the Dhangrani Gate and it was past noon when we finally drove through the Gates of Heaven.
It was love at first sight. Corbett Tiger Reserve is an enchantingly beautiful forest with a breathtaking landscape complete with mysterious hills, misty lakes and meandering rivers. We had barely driven for a couple of minutes along the road to Dhikala when we spotted a flock of Chital.
It was the first time that we were seeing deer in the wild and we were awash with excitement. I clicked pictures frantically, imagining it to be some rare, lucky sighting. It was only later that we realized that Corbett is teeming with deer. Chital, Sambar, Hog deer and Barking deer. We next came upon a Sambar family.
I got a close-up of the stag against a Sal tree.
They were early days yet and the Tramp’s journey to God and Nature was yet to begin. I could barely tell one deer from the other and clicked anything and everything that moved. We crossed the Sultan Forest Rest House that looked rather weathered and even less promising than the Rest House at Ramnagar. The road now started moving parallel to the Ramganga, a rain-fed river that originates in the Lesser Himalayas to the Northeast of Corbett and flows westwards along the Dhikala road to traverse through the Reserve where it is joined by Palain, Mandal and Sonanadi. An impressive reservoir is formed by the dam at Kalagarh. The river then bends back to flow east through the Gangetic plains to join the Ganges in the south. The drive towards Dhikala offers stunning views of the Ramganga.
Sarpduli Rest House lies on the southern bank of Ramganga, mid-way on the Dhangari – Dhikala road. It is one of the seven rest houses in the Dhikala Zone and is surrounded by a thick, green forest.
We were housed in a quaint double-storey structure, with a room on each floor.
The first floor had a nice balcony with a large wooden table. The place was basic but nice and cosy. The bedding was clean and the quilts were warm. The kitchen door had long sharp spikes on the outside. The caretaker said it was to keep the elephants from battering their way in to raid the pantry. The pachyderms have a keen sense of smell and cannot resist the aroma of our spicy cuisine! The rest house was enclosed within a solar powered electrified perimeter fence with a gate that was shut at 5:30 pm. Power was provided by a rather noisy, diesel-generator that was started after sunset and run till dinner time. It was lights-out at 9. A guide joined us for the afternoon safari and we were off in the search of the tiger.
Day one of the forest safari did not throw up too many surprises. We hunted for the tiger in the thick sal forests. We drove up and down the rutted jeep tracks through Corbett’s golden grasslands. We forded numerous nadis and soats. We crossed minor rivers over quaint wooden bridges.
We halted briefly at Dhikala, which is a large complex with an impressive, colonial-style Forest Rest House that is reportedly a 100 years old. The age of this heritage rest house can be guessed from the fact that the construction of a first-class, double-storey forest rest house was proposed by Sir D. Brandis, Inspector-General of Forests at Dhikala in 1881 at a cost of Rs.3500/- He had also proposed a second-class rest-house at Kalagarh and 12 third-class rest-houses at Sona-nadi, Palain, Patli Dun, Dharon and Kohtri Dunin. The rest-houses were to be built for accommodating the Divisional Forest Officer and the Rangers charged with the protection of the precious Sal-forests from fires and illicit felling.
Accommodation is also available in a more modern Annexe building and log-huts.
There are some bungalows of officials of the Forest Department. Dhikala has a cute, well-stocked canteen and a library.
The elephant-back safari also operates out of Dhikala.
The campus overlooks the grasslands of the Ramganga valley to its north with the thickly-forested Kanda Ridge forming the backdrop. The Ramganga shimmered in the winter sun as it flowed westwards into the large reservoir formed at its confluence with the Sonanadi and the Palain River by the dam at Kalagarh. The construction of this 420 feet high dam was completed in 1974 and it created the Ramganga Reservoir that has an area of 55 Sq. Km. I could spot an elephant grazing on the grassy banks of the Ramganga, probably one of the Safari elephants.
Dhikala Complex is enclosed within a solar-powered protective electric fence on its perimeter.
We were told by our Guide that a tiger had climbed onto the roof of one of the buildings some years back and had pounced upon an unsuspecting employee leaving him badly mauled and crippled. We, however, spotted no tigers that day. The fairy-tale forests were abound with the dainty Chital deer. The Sambars were equally plentiful but more difficult to spot. We also caught some fleeting glimpses of the shy, Barking deer. We finally drove back in to our rest house around 5 pm, happy with the forest experience but disappointed at not having sighted a tiger.
The evening at Sarpduli was beautiful. We were enveloped by the wilderness of that pristine forest, the forest sounds sending a thrill down the spine. We happily braced the chill of that breezy evening of early January as we made our plans for the tryst with the tiger on the following day. The kids were excited at the prospect but the ladies fretted about the possibility of the Jungle King giving us a miss. The Musafir, brushed away their concerns and gallantly promised them their tiger. He was sure that we were destined to have the encounter. He cheerfully went on to expound the ‘Theory of Manifestation’ to his captive audience. How our consciousness impacts our reality. How our belief has the power to shape, define and even create our reality. That we have to only believe hard enough in a thing and it surely happens. It ‘Manifests’!! ‘But for the tiger to manifest itself,’ he warned us Doubters-of-the-Faith most gravely, ‘not one of us was to harbour even the slightest doubt about the promised encounter’. Not even that teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy, niggardly little-doubt that had the potential of poisoning our collective consciousness and of destroying the power of our collective will. Having thus delivered the ‘Sermon at Sarpduli’, the Master rewarded his parched throat with a decent pouring of the Chivas. I grinned at the man’s infectious positivism. His journey of life makes an interesting story, with numerous twists and turns, but the one underlying theme that instantly strikes the listener is the power of self-belief and positive thinking. We raised a toast to the Lord of the Jungle and had an early dinner in the balcony, enjoying the overpowering stillness of the thick forest. The caretaker handed us candles for the night before turning-off the generator. It was pitch-dark thereafter and we retired to our beds, keen to take an early start the next day.
It was still some time for dawn to break when we left the comfort of our quilts and got dressed under the dim candle light. It was a cold, cloudy morning of early January and a thick mist hung over the forest. We were glad to have settled for the admittedly boring but definitely practical choice of doing the jungle safari in our closed-body Toyota Innova rather than the much more romantic option of driving around in a rugged open-top Gypsy. Our guide led us through the dew covered golden grasslands and the dripping Sal forests to reach a river-crossing.
A flock of Blue Rock Thrushes played noisily on the rocky bed of the river. A Bar-tailed Godwit waded through the sparkling river water in search of the proverbial worm.
We drove over the rickety, make-shift wooden bridge to find a River Lapwing boldly blocking our progress at the other end as it curiously balanced itself like a yogi on a single leg.
I later learnt that the River Lapwing is a ‘Near Threatened’ species. We could see a mysterious forest hidden under a shroud of mist on the other side of the river and it seemed full of promise. To our disappointment, however, the jungle was clearly not ready to divulge any of its secrets to us band of novice intruders. At least, not yet. A Black-winged Kite, a Black Kite with its characteristic forked tail, a Changeable Hawk-Eagle with its astonishing high-pitched scream and a couple of shy Sambars were all that we managed to spot in the first few hours of driving.
I photographed a flock of birds flying in the classic V-formation, high up in the sky. Each bird flying in this formation flies slightly higher than the bird in front as this reduces the wind resistance that it encounters. Birds take turns to lead the flock thereby conserving energy for flying the impossibly long distances on their annual migrations.
The guide now brought us to the fenced compound of the high-end Khinnanauli Forest Rest House. This recently constructed rest house reportedly catered to the country’s elite including the Gandhis if the Guide was to be believed.
It looked deserted at that moment and there was no way of checking out as to what made the place so special. We spotted a wild boar looking at us with suspicion from across the fence and it bolted for cover the moment I tried to get in closer for a clear shot.
We crossed a pair of Golden Jackals as we headed for Dhikala for our breakfast.
The kids were looking worn down and bored with the hours of non-stop driving, on an empty stomach. Disappointment was written large all over our faces as we trooped out of our vehicle and listlessly made our way to the busy canteen at Dhikala. Thankfully they served Maggie noodles and the kids couldn’t care less thereafter about the miserable tiger who had failed to put in an appearance for his enthusiastic fans. The overcast grey sky and the light drizzle were making things look gloomier. We decided to cheer ourselves by taking the elephant safari. The man at the counter however informed us that there were only limited seats and the afternoon safari was fully booked.
We had an extended photo-session of the kiddie-gang as we whiled away our time to settle down the heavy brunch. A father-son duo proudly played us the live video of a tiger that they had shot the same morning. All was not lost after all. There was still some hope! The drizzle picked-up further and some of the tourists backed out of the afternoon elephant safari. We were going to get to ride the elephant after-all!! The kids let out a loud ‘yippee’ triumphantly and we happily waited to mount the howdahs like the Sahib log of the days of the Shikar.
But it was one of those bad days. The light drizzle now turned into a steady rain and the safari was called off. We kicked ourselves for having wasted precious time waiting for the safari and rushed to get back on the jeep track and resume our quest for the tiger. The Guide looked glum as the forest denizens generally seek refuge under the trees inside the forest when it rains and our prospects didn’t look too good. We crossed an imposing iron watchtower and spotted a colourful Black Francolin and a pair of Golden Mongoose scurrying across the path in front of us.
We now headed for the Ramganga reservoir which is a vast expanse of water trapped by the dam at Kalagarh. An impressive grassland covers the southern bank of this huge lake, giving this tiger reserve the typical ‘Serengeti feel’. The rain had ceased by this time but a heavy mist hung over the calm waters of the lake.
A large Chital flock grazed on the bountiful golden grass without an apparent care for their lurking striped foe. The chances of an encounter with the tiger looked increasingly remote.
It was past 3 PM and I was amusing the kids with a cute picture that I had clicked of a Sambar deer apparently caught spying at us from its hiding, when we suddenly spotted a massive lone tusker, right in front of us, at the 12’O Clock position!
The bull elephant was flapping its ears and swaying its huge head from side to side as it ambled towards us on its enormous padded feet. ‘He looks mean,’ the Guide warned us in a sudden hiss, ‘let’s get out of his way. Quickly!’ We were on a narrow jungle track and there was no place to turn. The elephant seemed to have spotted us and was walking towards us with large, purposeful strides. Thankfully the man at the wheel was good. Damn good. He did not lose his head and reversed our large, ungainly vehicle on that difficult winding track without taking his eyes off the rapidly advancing danger. The Guide was sweating with fear as he craned his neck backwards to see the track and help the driver make the difficult manoeuvre. We finally spotted a small clearing along the track and reversed the vehicle into it to get out of the line-of-sight of that Mammoth. The Tusker lost interest in us once we cleared-off from his path and he suddenly left the track and melted into the forest. The whole episode had lasted less than a minute. But it had left us trembling with excitement. Was the bull in musth? Was it intending to assault our vehicle? What would have happened had the engine stalled at that crucial moment? What if another vehicle coming from the rear had blocked our timely retreat? We’ll never know the answers to these questions. But that brief face-to-face encounter with the marching pachyderm was definitely one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. And yes, I had managed a fantastic picture despite the panic and general commotion in the face of the advancing enemy!!
TO BE CONTINUED …
- Suggestions regarding Forest Administration in the North -Western Provinces and Oudh, Sir D.Brandis (1881).