Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Breath of Fresh Air in Tiger Country

After 5 great, hot and sweaty weeks through the India’s northern plains I was bursting to go somewhere to chill out and regain my energies for Chris’s visit. I admit a beach is currently high on my agenda but I thankfully veered towards Corbett National Park (Uttaranchal) about 10 hours north from Delhi via a smelly rickety bus that passes through increasingly verdant farm land.

There was a nice surprise before I left with Thilo obtaining a 40 degrees C plus (about 104 ish F) temperature and reasonably violent stomach problems from our farewell dinner. This led to a nutty day driving around to see doctors and eventually putting him on a drip so that he could fly. Standards of hospitals throughout much of India are remarked to be poor but I would recommend Apollo in Delhi to anyone here – they were great. Just about got the boy on a plane, but this meant I missed the train to the park for a second time. This made me even more determined to get there.

After a journey made far more pleasant by good local company, I clocked in to Corbett and had the most wonderful 4 days.

The park is based in a valley between a set of densely wooded hills to the south and the Himalayan foot hills to the north. Much of it is straight out of the Jungle Book with monkeys, deer, snakes, birds etc crawling up and around the forest, but this place also has a Savannah type valley in the centre stocked with herds of elephant dear, crocodiles in the rivers and reservoir and perhaps most evocatively the elusive tiger.

Most people do not even catch a glimpse of a TIGER ( I met a lady who had never seen one in 15 visits) but I will cut a long story short and say I had THREE SIGHTINGS. One of them very brief in the forest (but a glimpse). The other two of a large male bathing himself in a river and stalking into the long grass were something else. After sitting on a watch tower for 9 hours over two days I was rewarded (some patience but mostly luck) with one of the best sights of my life – in the breathtakingly peaceful scenery the most majestic of animals. I have rarely ever been so excited. And then he came back again and words can not describe how that made me and the Brits I was with feel. Later that night, surrounded by the noise of the jungle, we drunk the bottle of whisky I sneaked into the park and toasted a more than memorable occasion.

Waking at the break of dawn to crash through the dense jungle on elephant back in search of big cats, the aroma of wild flowers and ganga wafting up as foliage is crushed by the beast's mighty feat. Dazzling bird-life, with circa 600 species seen in the park - we were fortunate enough to have the first spotting in about 10 years of the eagle-owl. Add to all this long-chats with local guides and wildlife enthusiasts over a good daal, sunsets and sunrises to die for and you get some idea of how magical this place is.

Reading Jim Corbett’s The Man Eaters of Kumaon added substantially to the whole experience, giving context and understanding to the area and wildlife all around. You catch yourself trying to track tigers and leopards by monkey and deer calls. It does not take a genius to guess this is not a skill that comes overnight but it is surprising how quickly the mind and senses adapt to new more base environments. Anyone who reads the exploits of the amazing Mr Corbett will find it hard to doubt the power of instinct below the surface. The elusive 6th sense or something similar was not doubted by a man who owed his life to it many a time.

The nearest thing to a negative from my stay came when I found myself having to lecture an Indian man about throwing rubbish in the park. To many it may seem like a minor thing but after he so generously offered me a beer he simply chucked the metal cap out of the jeep. Maybe this would not have struck me so much if the rest of India was not so dirty and this place so virgin clean. It is an astoundingly beautiful and rare remaining paradise. When traveling I would not normally criticize a local for what they do in their country but this seemingly small act provoked me to the extent that I could not help myself and I do not regret it as such places are here for the whole of mankind and more importantly the wildlife that lives there. If you treat such a place with such disdain you should not be there. As with many things here I believe education is the key.

A minor blip in a wonderful time in a wondrous place.

There are a few places on this planet where after visiting you can not help but feel a small part of you will always be there – for me this is one.

Note: Two ginger things to spot. More difficult is the not-so-sizeable ginger dot in the middle of the first picture - a tigger I swear, the second the oh-so-dodgy now extinct beard!!
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