While a jeep is a good way to cover a fair bit of ground within a short while, it does have the disadvantage of making rather a lot of noise – which, of course, drives away a lot of the more shy wildlife. A better alternative is to explore Corbett on elephant back. Elephants, since they don’t need to stick to roads, can penetrate deeper into the jungle, which raises your chances of getting a glimpse of wildlife. Also, since elephants don’t make obtrusive sounds, their tramping through the forests is taken mostly as a matter of course by other animals.
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.