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New Delhi, India
June 13, 2011
When we phoned the Corbett Hideaway to book our room, we were asked if we would also like to book an elephant safari. Since I’ve been on elephant safaris before – both times from the Dhikala FRH, and both times seeing huge numbers of wildlife, including once a tiger at disconcertingly close quarters – I was all for it. So we booked an elephant safari (about Rs 2,600). Elephants operated by private agents are allowed to carry visitors into the Corbett buffer zone, and we were told that though elephant safaris are possible throughout the day, the best times to go are either in the morning – at 5.30 AM – or in the evening, at 5 PM. We booked our elephant for 5 PM.
At about 4.45, according to the instructions of the in-house naturalist at the Corbett Hideaway, we made our way, about 2 km down the road, to one of the elephant stables (there are several of them here, operated by different private operators). Two elephants, both with a backload of tourists each, were coming down the road towards the stables. One of these – a female named Kaleena – turned out to be the one which would take us on our trip through the jungle.
Opposite the stables was an elephant mounting platform: you go up a flight of stairs, the mahout positions the elephant beside it, and you climb on to a sort of upside-down bedstead on the elephant’s back. Between the four ‘legs’ of the bedstead are thick iron rods; you put your legs under and the elephant sets off.
Our mahout told us that the route the elephant follows is across the Kosi river and into the forest beyond. He guided our elephant down a path through a local resort and down to the river (Kaleena relieved herself in it, too – which is why I advise you not to dip your feet, or bathe in the river, as a lot of other tourists seem to do!).
My husband was initially nervous about how Kaleena would handle the steep slopes through the jungle – especially near the riverbank and other, smaller, water courses. Have no fear: elephants are remarkably stable, more so even than the jeep we’d gone in earlier that day.Having crossed the river, we spent about an hour making our way through the jungles on the other side of the Kosi. This is mainly scrub, with lantana weed and wild curry leaves forming a major part of the vegetation – and resulting in heavy undergrowth, which is very good at acting as a hiding place for a shy animal. Mostly, or so we’d been told, sunset during the summer is a good time to venture out into the jungle, because after the heat of the day, thirsty animals make their way to waterholes and watercourses. Unfortunately, our luck was out; just before we arrived in Corbett, it had rained for two days in succession; there was lots of water around, even in little streams that are usually dry – and it wasn’t too hot. So, the only wildlife we got to see were some langurs, a tiny herd of chital or spotted deer, and a peacock dancing (bad luck, again: we approached the peacock from the wrong end, so saw only the back of its gorgeous tail feathers before it took fright and scurried off!) Our mahout did, however, find some fresh pugmarks in the dust, and whispered to us that the jungle had gone quiet – a sure sign that there was a tiger somewhere around. He tried to find it, taking Kaleena ever deeper into the forest, but with no success.
We headed back by about 6.40 or so – the forest department has a rule that no tourists are allowed here after 7 PM – and had crossed the river by 7.
Not a very fruitful trip, considering that we saw almost no wildlife (or none worth the trip), but the very fact that we went so deep into the jungle was exhilarating in itself. We also narrowly missed a python that our mahout said he’d seen just the other day, replete with a chital it had swallowed – the snake, he said, was so full, it couldn’t have moved very far. Again, much searching didn’t yield any results. But, despite all that, an exciting little jaunt.
Important tip: wear jeans or heavy trousers, so that your legs are covered. The elephant typically goes along very narrow paths – often paths that are barely discernible – and our legs were being constantly raked by the branches of saplings, tall bushes and trees. Oh, and don’t talk above a whisper – it chases away wildlife.
From journal Deep in the Jungle: Corbett National Park
We weren’t keen on going in the bus – the people at the Corbett Hideaway resort, where we were staying, had told us that a jeep safari was recommended and could be booked through them. What’s more, when we visited the Corbett Museum at the Dhikala gate and saw the noisy group of tourists waiting there for the bus, we realised it was just as well; they were creating enough of a racket to scare off all wildlife for miles around.
Jeep safaris are operated by most of the larger hotels and resorts that lie between Corbett and the nearest town, Ramnagar. In addition, there are independent travel agents and tour operators from whom you can hire a jeep. Note that you don’t get self-drive vehicles: all jeeps are driven by specially trained drivers who know the jungle well. What’s more, jeeps are allowed into the park only after they’ve got special permits. The forest department issues these permits, and since only a limited number of jeeps are allowed in every day, you should book your jeep in advance – at least several days before you intend to go on the safari.
We had booked our jeep safari through the Corbett Hideaway (this required sending the hotel – fortunately through e-mail – our photographs, and a scanned image of my husband’s driving license, as proof of identity). The jeep safari cost Rs 3,228 – inclusive of fuel, jeep hire, permit, and the driver’s services.
The jeep safari was to begin at 5.30 AM, but the previous evening, while talking to the in-house naturalist, we were told that we should be at the hotel lobby by 5 AM. Tea and coffee are laid out in the hall next to the lobby, so everybody going off at this unearthly hour on jeep or elephant safaris can get their caffeine shot. Bleary-eyed and yawning, we too went and got coffee at 5.15, before going out to our jeep. It was an open jeep, with seats enough to accommodate four adults (plus one, if you sat beside the driver).
Our driver told us – to our disappointment – that the gate for which we’d received a permit was the Durgadevi gate. Corbett National Park has four gates through which tourist traffic is allowed in: Dhikala, Bijrani, Khara and Durgadevi. Of these, or so we were told by a man at the Corbett museum, the Durgadevi gate route is the one that allows least opportunity for seeing wildlife. This is because this part of the park is hilly and densely wooded, so animals are rarely seen. Our faces fell, of course, but there’s really nothing one can do in this matter. Which gate you get a permit for is completely a matter of luck.
It took us nearly 20 minutes to drive from our hotel to the Durgadevi gate, and we began seeing wildlife soon along the main road itself: a herd of spotted deer or chital grazing by the side of the road; rhesus macaques; langurs in a bare tree, their long tails hanging down from the branches; and a lone kakar or barking deer, a small and frightfully skittish creature that glanced up at us and ran off immediately.
Our driver stopped at the Durgadevi gate, where our permit had to be shown to the forest guard for us to be allowed in. From then on, it was a beautiful drive: dense forest on all sides, with sissoo, khair and sal trees looming up into the sky, and rohini flowers blooming crimson on roadside bushes. Our driver – who seemed to be very knowledgeable about the jungle – told us that these flowers are used to make sindoor or vermilion, which Hindu women smear in the parting of their hair to denote that they’re married. The road was a dirt road – gravel, dips now and then, occasional stones, but not as bad as some other hill roads I’ve been on. Having driven an hour into the park (past the Ramganga river too, in a scenic valley), we ended up at the Domukha forest checkpost, where a couple of other jeeps had also stopped to allow passengers to get off and stretch their legs. The checkpost has toilets – my husband went, and came back very hurriedly because they were so terribly smelly and dirty.
After our halt at Domukha (about ten minutes or so), we headed back along the road we’d come, another hour of travelling within the park, followed by half an hour from the Durgadevi gate to our hotel.
The all-important question: what did we see in the park in the way of wildlife? Nothing exciting, really. A couple of red jungle fowl. A kaleej pheasant. A few rhesus macaques. And what looked like a kakar, though it was such a fleeting glimpse, it could’ve been a hog deer or even a small chital.
But our safari wasn’t totally useless: on our way back from the Durgadevi gate to our hotel, beside the road, we saw a lone tusker. These solitary male elephants are notoriously unpredictable and dangerous, and I was getting very jittery while my husband insisted on taking photographs. Behind us, a truck reversed quickly in order to steer clear in case the tusker decided to charge. A man on a motorcycle, headed in the opposite direction from us, turned right around and decided he’d attempt the trip at some later time when the tusker had gone back into the forest.
So, yes: we did see some interesting wildlife. Only, it was all outside the tourist zone of the park!
As a colonel in the army, Corbett also became a ‘sportsman’ (as they euphemistically called hunters back then – men and even women who, for the sheer sake of showing off their fine aim, went out into the woods to stalk and shoot wildlife. Sometimes the shooting was for the need for food – only so much could be carried when on a long trek through the hills, with a vast entourage of coolies, guards, trackers and other servants following. More often than not, it seems, the pleasure was all in the ‘sport’ of it, and the moth-eaten tigerskins, leopardskins and antlers still found in very old bungalows are evidence of how much these shikaris (hunters) were to blame for the sorry state of Indian wildlife today.
Fortunately, somewhere down the line, Jim Corbett’s attention began to drift from shooting animals with a gun to shooting them with a camera instead. He became an avid photographer, and eventually a conservationist as well. In the 1930s, he was the one who helped push the then-governor of the United Provinces, Hailey, to conserve the swiftly vanishing wildlife of the area by declaring part of it a wildlife preserve. What resulted, in 1936, was India’s first national park, Hailey National Park.
In the meantime, too, Corbett’s prowess as a hunter had earned him respect in another field – as a hunter of man-eaters. Thanks to its dense jungles, the area of Garhwal and Kumaon had a large population of tigers and leopards. Thanks to reasons as varied as hunting accidents (a shot that didn’t kill, followed by a failure to trail and put an end to the animal), encounters with porcupines, and epidemics that ended up causing vast numbers of human corpses to lie about in the woods – some of these predators began preying on cattle, or even in some cases, humans.
The sheer terror spread by these man-eaters still makes for chilling statistics: the Champawat man-eater (the first man-eater to be killed by Corbett, in 1907), for instance, is believed to have killed at least 436 people, if not more. The tiger, and other man-eaters, would carry off villagers, sometimes from within their huts, sometimes from a group of people walking down a village road. The fear caused by them was such that life would come to a halt for weeks altogether: fields would go uncultivated, people would not even step out of their houses to gather firewood, and the roads would be deserted. Considering that these man-eaters sometimes held sway for many years (in the case of the leopard of Rudraprayag, 8 years), life must have been pretty unbearable).
Over the years, called in to help by the government, Corbett accounted for the killing of 33 man-eaters: 19 tigers and 14 leopards. He was revered by villagers and townspeople across the area as a sadhu or saint, and many people would bend in the traditional sign of reverence among the Hindus – to touch his feet – when they met him. He is still, more than 50 years after his death, remembered with affection and gratitude (as ‘Carpet Sahib’, though, by the illiterate) throughout the area.
Interestingly, Corbett also proved in later years to be, besides a conservationist, photographer and hunter, a fine writer. He wrote his memoirs of his hunting of various man-eaters, and they all make for very interesting reading. Do look out for these books: among the best are The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag and Man-Eaters of Kumaon. Both evoke a superb sense of the forest, and are excellent depictions of northern India in the early 20th century. They also reveal a lot about Corbett himself, his love for the jungles, and his affection, indeed, for the people he protected from the depredations of the man-eaters he killed. Most of Corbett’s range of books are available on Amazon.com.
Some important facts, now.
To begin with, the vital stats:
Corbett National Park covers over 1,300 square kilometres of territory in the state of Uttarakhand. This includes both grasslands in the plains, as well as dense forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. On the eastern periphery of the park flows the Kosi river; within the park itself is another river, the Ramganga, and its tributaries.
The park is divided into three zones:(a) The buffer zone, where villages exist, and villagers are allowed to collect timber or other forest produce (as long as they don’t actually chop down trees)(b) The tourist zone, which is where tourists can move around(c) The core zone, where only forest officials are permitted. This is the area that typically has the largest wildlife population.
Staying at Corbett:
No private hotels or resorts are allowed inside Corbett, so the only option if you are keen on staying within the park is to book rooms at one of the Forest Rest Houses (FRHs) operated by the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam – the government tourist bureau. There are some 15 of these FRHs within Corbett. All provide very basic facilities: you’ll get clean linen and vegetarian food, but that’s about it. The most popular of the FRHs is the one at Dhikala, which is also the only FRH to have electricity round the clock: the others get power for only about 3 hours a day.
Dhikala is superbly sited – beside the Ramganga river, and with extensive grasslands beyond, so there’s plenty of opportunity to see everything from herds of wild elephants to spotted deer and even tiger (I’ve seen all of these while staying at Dhikala). Unfortunately, this makes Dhikala very sought after, so if you want to stay here, book well in advance – a couple of months before you arrive should be fine. Note that the park shuts down during the monsoon (mid-June to approximately October). For the first couple of weeks in June, Dhikala doesn’t accept bookings; accommodation is on a first-come, first-serve basis, which is a distinctly dicey proposition.
If you don’t mind staying outside the tourist zone of the park, there are literally dozens of private properties to choose from, along the Kosi river. These lie in an almost uninterrupted row between the riverbank and the highway that demarcates Corbett. Tariffs and facilities vary considerably. Try to look out for hotels near Gargia (also spelt Garjia) – they’re the nearest to the park gate, and chances of seeing wildlife are high.
Moving inside Corbett:
No private vehicles – except those operated by licensed travel agents for jeep safaris – are allowed inside Corbett. If you’ve come in your own vehicle to Corbett, you’ll have to leave it in the parking lot outside the park, and then enter – either on the 5-hour long ‘bus safari’ operated by the forest department (the bus leaves from the Dhikala gate; charges are Rs 1,125 per person), or in a hired jeep. Jeeps – driven by specially trained drivers, never self-driven – can be hired, either through your hotel or through one of the travel agents along the Gargia road. These jeeps have to be booked about a week in advance, because a special permit has to be obtained from the forest department. Permits are issued for four gates into the tourist zone: Dhikala, Bijrani, Khara and Durgadevi.
The other option is to go on elephant back. Government elephants carry tourists from Dhikala into the surrounding jungles on ‘safaris’ of about a couple of hours each. If you’re staying at one of the hotels outside the tourist zone, an elephant can be hired to take you on safari – these go into the woods across the Kosi river.
What you can hope to see:
Corbett is known primarily as a tiger reserve, but its population of tigers has declined over the past few years. The estimated number of tigers today is about 27 – and since they shy away from humans, don’t be terribly sure you’ll get to see one. You just may get to see pugmarks or a leftover kill, but that may be all. Much more common are the elephants – Corbett has about 700 of them, moving either in herds of cows and calves, or as solitary tuskers. There are 80 leopards (again, very difficult to sight), and – the most common – deer, which estimates number anywhere between 50,000 to 1,00,000. These include sambar, kakar (barking deer), chital (spotted deer) and hog deer. There are also monkeys – rhesus macaques and langurs; and a variety of small cats, such as civet cats, jungle cats and leopard cats. Water bodies like the Ramganga hold crocodiles and gharial. What you’re certain to see are the birds of Corbett. The park has an estimated 600 species of bird life, and even a half-hour drive through the jungle can show you a plethora of birds, such as red jungle fowl, kaleej pheasant, king fishers, rollers, lapwings, peafowl, and more.
Some dos and don’ts: The most important part of all this, and there are plenty of signboards in the tourist zone and at the gates to the park to alert visitors to the dangers of Corbett, both from the wildlife and to the wildlife.
(a) If you’re on the highway along the periphery of the park, do drive slow (a maximum of 45 km/hr for a car).(b) Don’t honk.(c) This used to apply when private vehicles were allowed into the tourist zone of Corbett: don’t drive at night. It still does apply to some extent on the peripheral highway, since a lot of Corbett’s wildlife is nocturnal or semi-nocturnal. Also, there is no fence to separate the park from the surrounding areas – just a thinning out of the jungle. This doesn’t really deter animals from venturing out, and night driving can either result in accidents that injure animals – or can cause you injury, should you have the ill luck to run into an angry tusker, for instance.(d) Keep your voice down when in the jungle. Wild animals have superb hearing – a wildlife expert at the Corbett Museum told us that a deer can hear a raised voice 3 km away. If you want to see wildlife, keep mum.(e) Don’t walk in the woods. Though Corbett is called a ‘park’, it’s not just a pretty landscape – it can be very dangerous.(f) Don’t attempt to sleep outside. It’s hardly possible, now, what with forest rangers being alert to that sort of thing, but I remember the first time I visited Corbett, a ranger recounted an incident of an American tourist who managed to evade officials and erected a tent near Dhikala. A passing ranger noticed the tent a day or so later – empty. The tourist’s body, mauled by a tiger, was found nearby.
September 11, 2004
One of India’s finest wildlife reserves, the Corbett National Park is a great place to see wild boar, wild elephant, spotted deer, birds, langurs, and – if you’re lucky – the Royal Bengal Tiger. What’s better is that it’s just 247 km from the national capital, New Delhi. Corbett lies in the Himalayan foothills- dense forests, thorny lantana, and vast grassland. The Ramganga River, full of fish and long-snouted gharial crocodiles, runs through it all.
Established in 1936 as the Hailey National Park, Corbett was later renamed after James Corbett (not the boxer!), a hunter who endeared himself to the local people by ridding them of many man-eaters during the early 1900s.
Anyway, more about what you can see here. I’ve been twice to Corbett, and both have been memorable experiences. The first time, we, en route to the hills, stopped for a day at Corbett. In the afternoon, a jungle ride was suggested, atop an elephant (very normal in India: it’s the best way to see the jungle up close). Lurching about fairly comfortably, we crossed the river, past a browsing herd of elephants and into the forest. It’s eerie: quiet, but not quite, and with occasional gory surprises, like a half-chewed deer leg. Our mahout, a cheery sort, was bent on `showing’ us a tiger, and when he’d failed, even after an hour, he was most disappointed.
We drifted out of the jungle, when a mahout on another elephant called to say there was a tiger in the grass further on. Our mahout got very excited, of course, and he egged our elephant on to within about ten feet of the tiger.
It’s a grand – and scary – sight. This tiger was sitting sprawled in the grass, staring us straight in the face, with a supercilious expression, as if it gave a damn whether we came closer or not. "No harm in bringing this elephant close," whispered our mahout. "These two have met before, and my elephant gave this tigress a kick she’s not forgotten yet." A few minutes- it seemed like an eternity- and the tigress got up lazily, then stiffened and charged a herd of nervous deer. They escaped, and the tiger dashed off into the jungle.
The second time round in Corbett, we never saw any tigers, although one roared outside our cottage. And we did get chased by a rogue elephant, and a terrible flash flood through the night swept away the stone-and-mud roads out of the park. Trying to leave Corbett, we ended up having to build the road ourselves, piling up stones, getting our fingers squashed- and taking five hours to cover 12 km.
Adventure? You can be sure Corbett’s all of that!
From journal India: Five of the Best
London, United Kingdom
June 26, 2001
The terrain encloses plains, rivers, jungle, lakes and vast acres of sal forest inhabited by the creatures of India. You may get to see tigers (although rare due to poaching), panthers, wild elephants, chital, pythons, wild boar, jackals, fish-eagles and a unique crocodile called a muggar. If you are travelling through northern Uttar Pradesh you would be mad not to stop in Corbett National Park.
The time of year is crucial as the park shuts down for the monsoon between June 15 and September 15 and roads in and out of the park become flooded. Every visitor to the Park has to obtain an entry permit (350 rupees for foreigners) as well as pay for costs and accomodation in the park. The only place to stay inside the park is Dhikala which is a fortified camp and getting there is difficult without your own transport. Once there they do dusk/dawn elephant rides into the park. The animals are far less peturbed by these pachyderms and you can get very close.
Unfortunately for us the monsoon came two weeks early and the park was shut for rain. We stayed around Ramnager for two days hoping for a break in the monsoon and when one did finally occur we booked a tour with one of the nearby agencies. For 700 rupees we got a jeep ride around the periphery of the park and our driver was a burly Sikh who would wear a piece of polythene over his turban to keep out the rain. He took us into the park and into the sal forests on a journey along the Kosi river. We passed rows and rows of red/brown teak trees and the Sikh driver was determined to give us a good time pointing out peahens and bulbul''s. But I was intrigued whether there were tigers or leopards in the forest and asked him whether he had seen any outside the reserve.
"Oh yes, many times", for he was a local boy, "one time out jogging a tigress and four cubs crossed in front of me. It was very early in the morning. Tigers and panthers regularly leave the forest and kill neighbourhood dogs and goats. And at harvest time herds of wild elephants cause great destruction in the paddyfields. They sometimes kill villagers but no retribution is made against them."
But all we saw was a jackal (see photo) who sat by the side of the road looking at us reflectively. And we could not go too deeply into the park as the roads were flooded so instead he drove us along the Kosi river to the Krishna temple. Once past the tea-shops and souvenir stalls there is a viewing platform for an impressive panorama. To my left were the Himalayan foothills swathed up to their pinnacles in forest and touched with cloud. The forests themselves rolled down to the wide,rushing Kosi river. In the middle of the torrent was a fingerlike rock, marooned by the rushing water around it. The triangular rock stood forty feet in the air and a set of steps ran up to a tiny temple at its peak. When the river is low pilgrims wade across to give offerings to their god - but the whole sight was magnificent (see photo).
We may not have seen any man-eaters in Corbett, but we did get a taste of the Indian wilderness, and it made us want to come back to India, and definitely come back to the Corbett NP.
From journal Nainital - Hill station in the Indian Himalaya
March 30, 2001
From journal India - Diversity beyond imagination