A day in the Jungle – Part I

A sense of excitement and adventure gripped me as I stepped onto the gypsy taking me inside Corbett Tiger Reserve. I was going inside the Park after a 7 year long hiatus, thanks to my friend who had executed this trip for me. This was her maiden trip into the park and her levels of excitement were different from mine. Eager as she was to enter the forest, she was weighed down by the pet peeve of anyone visiting Corbett: “no one ever sees any tigers there”, “ the guards just make the pug marks themselves, you know”. For me, it was different. These were familiar grounds and yet everything was new.

Even in the month of June, the temperature right inside the gate was markedly lower and as we entered the gate at 6.30 am the teeth started chattering. Hardly half a kilometer into the forest, as the gypsy slowly moved up the first hill alongside the dry riverbed, I spotted a big fish owl looking piercingly at us. This trip could not have started any better for me.

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We were booked into Sultan, the first Forest Rest House (FRH), which is only 6 kms into the park. The best location is of course the FRH at Dhikala, which is 30 kms inside. Due to its prime location however it is very tough to get booking for. Sultan is without protective electric fence and is a self -service FRH. This means iron nails going reverse on the window nets is the only protection apart from your vigilance and prudence. The FRH is without electricity for light or fan and one needs to carry all raw materials for food and drinks so a great deal of planning is required even for one night at Sultan.

Not wanting to waste any minute of our 24 hours, we just dumped our bags and supplies and got on our way to Dhikala grasslands. One by one, old memories started getting refreshed and all the familiar places started appearing. Jhirna jaali, Sarpduli, High bank, Rohini padao, Ramsingh road, …locations of previous sightings and adventures surfaced fresh. It was great to be back in this place and I was enjoying every second of the drive.

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By the time it was 8, the sun had started beating down on us in our open gypsy and yet the jungle was alive with birds and animals. Toward the open Dhikala grasslands, we saw scores of small birds and for me another triumphant moment was when I spotted the Indian Pitta for the first time. IMG_7404 Herds of spotted deer were scattered in the grassland. Here and there a smaller group of Sambar deer and wild boar could be seen. All the usual suspects were there. The smaller deer such as the barking deer and the hog deer were noticeably absent as were the bigger elephants. I was especially curious about the elephants, not that I wanted to encounter them. If there is one animal in all of the forest combined which I am really scared of, it is the unpredictable and huge Ellie. Its is all fine to enjoy the fuzzy mammals in animated movies like the Ice Age but in real life, in their domain, the further I am from them the better for my blood pressure. However it is the Dhikala grasslands, which is known for its “elephant grass”, tall enough to conceal herds of elephants and that is where we spotted our first tusker. The lone pachyderm was enjoying the sudden change in the weather as the sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds.IMG_7431

Our driver was also the guide and seemed well versed with the routes and other drivers. A passing gypsy informed us that chital calls had been heard and a tiger was afoot somewhere close though the exact location was not known. We immediately set out, as is the norm, to look for the elusive beauty. We were near the edge of the water when we got the news so now we traced our way all the way back to the edge of the forest where the tall sale meets the grassland. Before we knew it we had gone up and down the jungle path twice, even stopping for a look at the watering hole from the machaan but there was no sign whatsoever of the tiger. The two peacocks merrily playing at the water hole was a further indicator that for now at least the tiger had settled and was not moving, if not having left the area altogether. We went back to the grasslands and looked around there for any signs of movement. The cross roads at “bada thoot” is quite popular with the tigers as a crossing over area and we lay low there waiting for some signs. Then we started heading back into the open grassland thinking that the tiger must have gone up into the hills.

As we crossed the machaan again, we saw another gypsy standing there. Silently the driver indicated for us to come up very quietly and to hurry. I leapt out of the gypsy and was up the rather steep 2 stories in a jiffy. What a sight awaited me! In the dense grassland, there was a hint of tawny stripes. Barely visible the tigress sat on our left looking intently forward. Following her glance I saw 3-4 spotted deer to my right, grazing the juicy grass the water hole had to offer. There was jungle drama being played right there for us and we had the balcony view, the best there is. The tigress was moving in for the kill and the deer were totally unaware of the enemy lurking nearby. We watched with bated breath, the cameras clicking away almost non-stop, waiting to see the culmination. Will there be a chase? Will the tiger stalk close and leap on the deer? For how long will we see this beauty stealthily approaching its prey? Who was the target? Carefully placing one paws, the tiger slowly moved in the thick grass careful not to make any noise to alert the deer. After every couple of steps, she paused and stood rooted to her place looking straight ahead unblinkingly at her goal.

A gentle breeze started. Much to our dismay, the deer now could smell the danger in ambush, and let out a sharp cry. Soon the herd was alerted and all carried the cry. In one bound, they leapt away. Away from their predator, into the dense thicket. The change in the demeanour of the tiger was palpable. She careened her neck extending it upright to get a better view of the disappearing deer. Looking ahead she took few more tentative steps carrying on in the same sinuous manner as before. Then she purposefully moved across the water hole and carried on into the forest beyond.

With the tigress’s movement away, there was hurried whispered communication on the machaan. The guides thought it would be best for us to quickly go down the path and intervene on the next road and try and catch the tiger there. 8 people trying to rush down a rickety machaan making minimum noise was an almost impossible feat, which we managed to achieve by way of a small miracle. Starting our gypsies we quickly reached the Tun Bhauji road and as per the guide waited near a culvert where they hoped the tiger would come. As we acknowledged our companions and continued to grin ear-to-ear at our phenomenal viewing, the tigress appeared from the thicket and with lazy languid steps walked across the path. Nine steps and she had crossed the path and escaped our intent gaze and shutterbug frenzy. Trembling with thrill, we let out a collective sigh and headed for Dhikala.

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More thrills awaited us post the breakfast break. We of course went down the same path again knowing fully well that the tigress had long since moved from there. There is something magical about a tiger after all – so long as you haven’t seen one, you are okay with the thought of its presence, but the moment you have been blessed to see one, you can’t have enough of that experience. We continued to hope that we would come across our tiger again soon. Dhikala had an unusual pachyderm activity this summer so at every turn we encountered either herds of elephants or a lone tusker or just mom and baby hanging out. The best was watching a 20 odd member strong herd with babies and adolescents having a gala time splashing about in the Dhikala dam.

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