The train was reaching Haldwani junction half an hour late. There was a steady drizzle outside. It was slightly disconcerting sitting in a train berth, cocooned in warm blankets and having access to a proper toilet. After having spent the previous 9 days trekking in Garhwal, I was used to waking up in a tent, hauling my backpack and digging into a packed lunch with dirty nails. Life in Chennai, with an air-conditioned office, dainty spoons and clean clothes were all but forgotten. Now I was back in civilization, chugging in an air-conditioned coach. The lady opposite me woke up too, smiled beatifically and in the unabashed manner of most North Indians plunged into getting background details of my life. I chatted, waiting for the train to pull in.
P and I were headed to the Jim Corbett National Park to spot tigers. After having read Man eaters of Kumaon as a kid, even the thought of coming to the reserve was exciting. One normally gets off at the Bollywood sounding Ramnagar station for Jim Corbett. That of course works only if you have taken the conventional tourist route of coming from Delhi. The non-conventional route of boarding the train at Dehradun involves doing a three-hour stopover in the graveyard hour at Moradabad, deep in UP heartland, as there are no direct trains to Ramnagar. An option that is highly avoidable unless you are looking to meet your maker quickly or otherwise ready to suffer a trauma. The safest option seemed to be Haldwani, a fairly popular train junction, about 50 kms away. We were staying at the Tiger Camp (recommended by the Lonely Planet Guide and endorsed by me) and the hotel had sent across a driver to pick us up.
Guddu greeted us with a shy smile, oily hair and a suitably deferential manner. P and I rolled our eyes at his name, hair and manner and rolled our eyes some more when he switched on the music and vague numbers from the 90s began to play. After a long time, I was listening to a tape which ended with the typical 90s ad for another movie – a slice of melodrama, bits of songs, some bish bam and a promise to be an all round family entertainer.
Tiger camp seemed like a top contender for the world’s best hotels. It had something to do with the fact that the bathroom was spacious, the pot was clean and there was hot water. This was a huge change from brushing teeth with a rationed mug of ash strewn warm water and making do with a rudimentary toilet tent placed on a hole in the ground. P and I wallowed in the luxury of it all and then smelling of roses, decided to figure out details of the jungle trek.
The Corbett reserve has several areas within its vast 1300 sq kms. There is a protected area, which is not open to tourists. The other areas can be accessed through different gates. The gates closest to Ramnagar are Birjani and Dhikala. Birjani is located in the periphery and one can drive down to it from any resort in Ramnagar. Dhikala is located inside the reserve near the Ramnagar River and requires an overnight stay at the rudimentary forest guesthouse there, which can be booked in advance (and usually are booked well in advance). The reserve is open only during certain parts of the year. The most popular tourist season is winter, when the weather is quite cool. Our trip was timed during the exact fifteen days before the monsoon was scheduled to break out. This had some attendant problems – Dhikala would accept only current booking as the reserve would be closed in case it was rained out, tiger spotting would be tougher as tigers would migrate to waterholes deep into the forest and even the day trip reserve area could be closed if it poured.
The travel desk manager excitedly told us that the Birjani gate was open that afternoon and we had to immediately join the line at the entry ticket counter, as tickets were limited. After filling out the ticket forms, we waited to be called. A large Tam Brahm family was also in the crowd. The lady-in-charge was filling out the forms with an academic intensity only Tam Brahms can manage. Submitting them she announced in a high pitched, heavily accented Hindi ‘Hum tiger dekhenge na? Hum south Indians hai na’ (we will see the tigers, right? We are south Indians). It sounded like south Indians had superman type X Ray vision that would enable them to spot tigers through the thick jungle. Her anxiety was understandable though. U.P. is a pretty long and costly trip to make and for everyone who comes, a tiger spotted justifies the entire effort. Infact people made trips into the forest every morning and evening during their stay till the elusive tiger was spotted. Only P and I were relaxed, having decided long ago that neither of us could handle more than one trip into the forest and we shall just wait for divine intervention to give us a tiger darshan.
Sure enough, when we got into our Maruti Gypsy (the only vehicle narrow and hardy enough to travel in that terrain), it did not look like we were going to see any tigers. It was quite thrilling driving through the rough roads with creeks freely crisscrossing them. We were also spotting all kinds of unknown birds. The first lapwing we saw had us excited and clicking away. After an hour, we had seen almost 400 lapwings and I was beginning to wonder how lapwings would taste as dinner. We had also seen a beautiful male peacock, its plumage in full display and several deers. There were plenty of deers – Spotted, Sambar and Bark deers. Our guide and driver got excited when they spotted a Marten, an endangered rodent like thing, sleeping on a tree, an excitement I could not share since I had not known about the animal’s existence till then.
Two hours later, things finally began to happen when we found out that a herd of elephants had been spotted. Rushing to the spot, we quietly watched the herd move deeper into the reserve, complete with a 15-day-old baby elephant in tow. The baby could barely walk and along with its mother, was lagging behind. In a bid to protect the duo, some of the older elephants began to move towards us threateningly. We backed up as quietly as we had come and left the place marveling at the family love and protection in animal land too.
Happy that we had seen atleast something worthwhile, we began to wind our way back to the Birjani gate. Just as we were nearing the gate, the guide told the driver to back up the jeep a bit. Deers and monkeys nearby were apparently giving their warning cries. The guide stood up on his seat and gently motioned us to do the same. Right in the middle of a huge pool of brown water, sat our tiger majestically. All around the huge cat, the jungle was alive with the frantic cries of its prey. The tiger however sat nonchalantly, pouring a bit of water on itself. In a few seconds, it began to sense our presence and with a slightly bored look began to walk away, into the jungle behind it. We watched it merge into the brown grass and trees till only a tiny tail could be made out. We had seen a tiger!
Other jeeps driving up after us waited for a while but could not see the tiger. Of the 30 odd jeeps that had gone in that day, only 2 had seen the tiger and one of them was ours. We became celebrities at our resort and immediately were pressed into service as agony aunts cum specialist advisors. Guests who had not yet seen a tiger required our consoling and wanted tips on how to spot a tiger. Both of us were at a loss for words. I was tempted to give evangelistic dialogues like ‘Seek and you shall receive’. Instead I just dug into the excellent spread that Tiger camp specialized in. Tiger spotting, yummy chicken and great desert – a perfect combination.
I went to sleep dreaming of tigers and food.
The next morning was as lazy as lazy could be. Especially since we had to check out at noon and decided that not reading in bed would be a waste of good money. After lunch, fully fresh and having tucked in another sumptuous meal, we set out to explore the area. Another Gypsy had been pressed into service for us. P and the driver sat up front whereas I perched at the back. Given the clement weather, the roof was down and we could feel the strong breeze. For some strange reason the whole picture reminded me of Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Tuffy the dog driving in an open Gypsy in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Quietly chuckling and humming ‘yeah mausam ka jaadu hai mitwa’ to myself, we reached point A – waterfalls. Like every respectable waterfall, this one was also filled with pot-bellied men in their underwear crowded under the never-adequate water, looking disgustingly obscene. Obviously there were no women getting wet and violating the strong Indian moral code.
A tourist snap later, we were off to Point B – The Jim Corbett Museum housed in Jim Corbett’s erstwhile house. The photos, keepsakes and furniture were kept neatly in a perfectly random order. There was no classification, chronological or otherwise. There were four copies of a picture of Jim Corbett posing with a large fish, kept in different rooms. The house itself was well kept though and had a beautiful garden, filled for some reason with quotes of Mahatma Gandhi.
With the only possible tourist locations done, we headed into Ramnagar to check out traditional Kumaoni jewellery. Our driver dropped us off on the main street and promised to be back in an hour. We realised every single person on the crowded street was furiously wondering who the two dark skinned women in jeans and T Shirts were. When we walked up to the shops though all of them went back to being busy. After checking out almost all the jewellery shops, we realised there was not a single one that sold the stuff we wanted. Hungry and tired, we headed into a ‘café’ nearby.
To its credit, the café had lovely large pictures of pastries and deserts stuck on the walls. It also had a promising menu that served everything from south Indian dosas to Nepali momos. Ignoring the huge range, we apologetically mentioned that tea would do. The owner was watching an old Dharmendra movie on TV and we joined him. The movie had been titled ‘Maa’, shamelessly milking the mother sentiment of the 70s. Which meant, Nirupa Roy, as the loving, abused mother kept dashing in and out of every other scene. Dharmendra seemed to be some sort of a playboy/guesthouse caretaker. His wooing style primarily involved letting ladylove Hema Malini be chased by animals and rescuing her. An entire song went by like this, complete with animal cries of the would-be aggressor animal, and sequences of Dharmendra flying midair in a Tarzanesque manner. We watched mesmerized. At the end of the song, a tiger made its appearance and Dharmendra began to wrestle it on cue. In the next scene, Dharmendra was lying all bandaged, with Nirupa Roy by his side. P and I groaned audibly. We could not hear the dialogues in the sequence as the TV volume was a little low, but I would presumed it went something like this
Maa: Oh apple of my eye, how did you get attacked by a tiger??
D: Maa.. Waaaa… Remember the hot chick I was eyeing?
Maa: Yes pride of the Punjabis
D: Well I decided that I must show her how brave I am. So I came up with the idea of taking her to the forest, dumping her in the middle of it, mimicking elephant calls, then pretending to fight wild animals and rescuing her.
Maa: Yes light of my life, though you surely realise we are a flight journey away from the nearest forest and it would have been easier to do some city-based thing. Not to mention tiger bites require more TT shots than dog bites.
She presumably clipped him one in the ear too. We did not notice that because we were busy watching the café’s cook who was returning with a packet of milk. For a café with an elaborate menu, they sure seemed to short on provisions. P and I were glad we had not ordered any pastries, though the sugary, milky tea could have easily morphed into pudding.
With renewed vigour, we decided to inquire at the only jewellery shop that was left to inquire at. It turned out to be the right shop. We picked up light Kumaoni jewellery from the wonderful collection of heavy, antique pieces and headed back to Tiger Camp.
The train to Delhi was at night and we were finally in the last leg of the long vacation. Neither of us said much to each other. Two weeks of hanging out together meant even silence was wonderfully companionable. The conductor who checked our tickets interrupted the silence. Then he beamed and told ‘very good’ when he saw that I had safely preserved my identity card in a plastic pouch. We beamed back like little school children.
Happy the holiday had gone off well, and sad that it was ending, we went back to reading our respective books.