A date with the wild

Corbett's jungle

A date with the wild

The Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, that has recently been opened to wildlife lovers this winter, is undoubtedly famous as a haven for the endangered Bengal tiger, but tucked away in its innards, the Dhikala forest is its truly throbbing and pulsating core, the Jewel in Jim’s ‘crown’.

Driving under the dense deciduous canopy of sal-studded Corbett country, situated 19 km from Ramnagar, to arrive into the grassland-enveloped expanse that is the Dhikala Forest Lodge, was like breaking into a burst of sunny radiance after flirting with shade ‘n’ shadow for what feels like eternity.

After a night of sound slumber on day one, dictated by the unwritten diktat at the Dhikala lodge where generator-driven lights go out at 10 pm sharp and the tourists are left with little choice but ‘early to bed and early to rise’, we woke up the next day to a morning alarm of birdsong piercing the misty veil that enveloped the adjacent Ramganga reservoir.

Jungle book

Taking off on jungle safaris prior to breakfast is the first in the series of adventures awaiting us on day two. As our jeep took off, our guide Ganesh informed us that the forest lodge stands at the confluence of the Dhikala chaur (one of the last large meadows of the Jim Corbett jungle) and Phulai chaur. Overlooking the Ramganga reservoir, Dhikala is situated 43 km from Ramnagar town, and remains open to tourists from November 15 till spring time.

Like a seasoned guide, Ganesh first takes us on a familiarisation tour and what a discovery it is! What makes Dhikala so scenic is the fact that it’s dotted with grasslands as much as water bodies that hem in the deciduous woods.

After criss-crossing the grassland, we reached the end of the road only to stumble upon the most breathtaking backdrop of Corbett country. The picturesque Patli Dun Valley, with the Kanda Peak jutting in the backdrop, stood stretched before us and the sinuous but serene Ramganga meandered close by announcing its sudden shimmery presence like a precious gem.

From there, we commence our purposeful pursuit of the ‘showstopper’ of Corbett country, the endangered Bengal tiger, that has made this forest reserve its since 1936, when it was established as the Hailey National Park and later renamed after Jim Corbett, the moving spirit behind it.

From among the myriad meandering paths punctuating the chaurs that are frequented by tigers, our guide zeroed in on the Thandi Sadak (cold road). And we realised why it is named so, the moment the warm winter sun bathing the meadowy expanse ebbed into just a flicker, such that we almost shiver at the sudden drop in temperature, as we navigated this road shaded by thick sal, haldu, pipal, rohini and other trees.

Thandi or not, this is one road where, we were certainly not ‘cold’ shouldered by the wondrous wildlife, as we were witness to the action staged by herbivores & co: prancing chitals, barking deers, sambars et al, who engaged and enticed the shutterbug in us into a game of hide ‘n’ seek, darting out and then ducking into the woods faster than you can exclaim, “Oh deer!”

Although we were treated to a treasure of other wildlife these woods boasted of, a tryst with the tiger continued to elude us. That the tigers are very much on the prowl is proclaimed to us by the tiger sighting bulletin board placed at the forest lodge. Some fellow tourists have been luckier and spotted the endangered animal that day, as the new noting on the sighting board declares.

Refusing to be disheartened, we returned to Thandi Sadak at the break of dawn on day three. There was a deafening hush, except for a stray birdsong. Driving rather gingerly, Ganesh suddenly brought our jeep to a standstill. His glove-encased fingers pointed to pugmarks on the path. Ah, so we are on the trail of a tiger.

Animal instinct

As the jeep engine purred into silence, the guide rolled on the vehicle a few feet away to where a cluster of vehicles had already taken vantage position in anticipation of the man-eater. Camera lenses zoomed into ready mode… binoculars scanned the thickets… and the expert guides trained their ears to detect the alarm calls from monkeys, sambars and other species stilled into alert mode.

A deafening silence echoed on Thandi Sadak as the time too stood still. We were in “august” company that morning. Among the fellow tiger-watchers were amateurs and professionals alike. There was a photographer couple with their state-of-the-art cameras trained on the Tiger trail; a local engineer bred in the Doon valley who’s been sighting tigers since the age of six; some British tourists who were more besotted with bird-watching and so on.

When nothing moves for the next couple of minutes, the bated breaths start giving way to restless shuffling…until incumbents of another jeep safari came along proclaiming victoriously that they’re the ones who had been lucky to sight the tiger just a few yards from where we all were positioned. So much for the suspense.

Even though the tigers had shown their intent on cold shouldering us, we left Dhikhala the next day, enriched with encounters if not with the ‘showstopper’, but with herbivores that are as ‘deer’ to wildlife lovers as the carnivores.

We drove away from the old-world charm of the solar fencing-encased, British-time lodge to a warm send-off staged by simians scampering on our jeeps. The slight sadness at having missed sighting a tiger was tinged with thrill at having had our heart’s fill of the entertainment episode by chitals & co.

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