No private vehicles are allowed inside the Corbett National Park. And since you can’t walk inside the park – it’s too dangerous, what with tigers, leopards and elephants roaming the park – the one way of really getting deep inside the area and seeing some of the local wildlife is by jeep. There is a small tourist bus, too, which the forest department operates. It begins from the Dhikala gate and does a 5-hour circuit of the park. Per person rates for a seat in the bus are Rs 1,125.
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!