On the tiger's tail

In Corbett, bagging a tiger is the ultimate prize in 'Jungle' Jim's stomping ground...
The Park's star attraction
The Park's star attraction

It&rsquos a mistake to go to Corbett Tiger Reserve hoping to see a tiger. There are 136 tigers in the entire reserve which stretches from Lansdowne in the northwest down to Ramnagar in the southeast, 1,318 square kilometres of mixed deciduous sal forests, uncultivated grasslands, rivers and a huge reservoir. Even with the best guide in the world, your chances of spotting the King of the Jungle are homeopathically small.

&nbspThe park is actually three different areas Sonanadi wildlife sanctuary, Kalagarh Tiger Reserve and Corbett National Park. This was the first National Park in India in 1936, and owes its name and existence to the life of an extraordinary man big game hunter-turned-photographer and conservationist, Colo-nel Edward James Corbett, or &lsquoCarpet Sahib&rsquo, as he was fondly known to the Kumaonis. Corbett, who clearly had nerves of ice and balls of steel, was accustomed to stirring up tigers by the tail, bashing angry Himalayan bears on their heads with an axe and sharp-shooting leopards in mid-air. The only tigers I&rsquod ever encountered were of the paper variety&mdashthe kind that stalked the pages of Corbett&rsquos wonderful stories and sprang, fully-formed, into my head. Since I assumed that these would be the only kind we&rsquod meet during our two-day stay at the park, I picked up a copy of Corbett&rsquos Man-Eaters of Kumaon, on the way.

&nbspOn our first night, we stayed at Gairal. This government guesthouse consists of a small clearing in the jungle, in which there are two or three buildings, a long stone wall cordoning us off from the river rushing along below. Our quarters were in the old bungalow&mdasha creaking, draughty building with wide fireplaces haunted by the ghosts of dead fires. We stumbled through the pitch-black night towards our beds, the glow of our paraffin storm-lantern swallowed up by the immensity of the human-less darkness of the jungle night. Jim Corbett&rsquos words floated into my mind &ldquoI have a tale to tell of that bungalow but I will not tell it here, for this is a book of jungle stories, and tales &lsquobeyond the laws of nature&rsquo do not consort well with such stories.&rdquo

&nbspWe slept badly Narayan, the photographer, due to the lack of blankets, and I due to a surfeit of imagination. I kept waking up expecting to see a silent, feline form on huge, lethal pads, with blinking yellow eyes and hot carnivorous breath by my bed. Just the thought of coming face to face with all that animal power is enough to liquefy the marrow. To be seen as meat. To be prey.

The first morning of our stay did not bode well. We were up at the crack of dawn, in time to wave off the other tourists who had booked the camp&rsquos one and only elephant, and looked thoroughly smug about it. By the time the morning sun had gilded the hill opposite in seventeen shades of gold, the camp was deserted apart from us, the manager, our driver and a very sick Tata Sumo. The air was thick with approximately equal proportions of diesel fumes and ill humour. Finally on the road, we came unstuck&mdashor rather the opposite&mdashin a muddy gully which our spinning wheels churned into a slick soup. If readers of this essay intend to go to Corbett, please take this advice insist on four-wheel drive, or be prepared to get very, very muddy.

&nbspThe forest on the way in was dotted with large termite mounds, as outlandish as the ruined flying buttresses of faerie sandcastles. The forest floor was thick with leaves and gently decomposing natural matter. An occasional banyan tree stood out, its twisted trunk made of aerial roots, intertwined and thickly plaited, a tree with disconcertingly human musculature, like one of Tolkien&rsquos Ents, those half-tree, half-giant guardians of the forest. A black-faced langur sat up in his branch to watch us pass, backlit by sunlight with a silver halo. Spotted deer, sambhar, kakar, chital, all turned their radar-like ears in our direction, but otherwise seemed untroubled. The wild boar we saw were supremely indifferent to us, far more interested in the goodies to be whiffled out of the rich, dark, undergrowth.

&nbspDriving along towards Dhikala, where we were to spend our second night, we rounded a bend and Narayan suddenly exclaimed &ldquoTigers&rdquo About 200 yards ahead of us, crossing the road from left to right were two fully-grown tigers. The one behind stopped mid-way, looked coolly at us, and then disappeared into the brush after its companion. It was a fleeting glimpse they were gone almost before we&rsquod had a chance to register they were there&hellip We sat in the jeep for a while, holding our breath, then inched forward slowly to the place where they had disappeared. The tangle of undergrowth was as still and unruffled as the surface of a pond long after a pebble has sunk to the bottom. We inched further, all craning our eyes to the left, when suddenly to the right, there was one of the tigers again &mdash this time, in full view, sauntering with all the devil-may-care panache of a swell out on the town, through the golden grass towards the river. He again stopped and looked back at us over his shoulder, then carried on, his passage marked by the startled warning cries of birds, and the swish of the tops of the grass.

&nbspAnd then he roared. And roared. And roared. 

On the trail of the Champawat man-eater, a tigress that had killed 436 people, Corbett has the following to say &ldquoTo appreciate a tiger&rsquos growl to the full it is necessary to be situated as I then was &mdash rocks all round with dense vegetation between, and the imperative necessity of testing each footstep to avoid falling headlong into unseen chasms and caves. I cannot expect you who read this at your fireside to appreciate my feelings at the time. The sound of the growling and the expectation of an attack terrified me at the same time as it gave me hope.&rdquo

&nbspThe sound the tiger made was somewhere between a groan and a growl and a yawn &mdash the falling-off cadence at the end of each roar somehow sounded like someone really fed up or really sleepy &mdash and yet the sound itself, out there in all that outsideness, was quite extraordinary. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and my skin, as if suddenly realising its vulnerability, broke out in a sudden rash of goose pimples.

&nbspWe arrived at Dhikala guesthouse like conquering heroes. The jeep that had drawn up behind us, just after the tigers had gone, had arrived just before us and its occupants were busy relating the fact that they&rsquod almost seen tigers when we arrived to steal their thunder. A young girl with large owlish glasses and braces on her teeth came up to me and stuttered &ldquoAre you the one who&rsquos seen tigers&rdquo

 &ldquoYes,&rdquo I shrugged modestly.

 &ldquoOh wow,&rdquo she breathed, looking at me with even wider eyes.

That afternoon Narayan, I and two others boarded one of the four elephants stationed at Dhikala, and headed off for a two-hour ride through the forest and onto the grasslands. This is the only way to experience the sanctuary. Undisturbed by the mechanical roar of a car or jeep, open to the skies, accompanied by the rhythmic scuff-scuff-scuff of the elephant&rsquos feet and the creaks of the wooden howdah. The far-off booming of wild elephants calling to each other had me hanging on tight to the wooden pole on my side of the howdah. What if one of those lusty tuskers took a sudden fancy to Rajni, our eighty-year-old but still comely mount The ride was a not unpleasant mix of moments of pure terror interspersed with long periods of utter peace.

&nbspAs we headed back through the dusk, it was clear that we would not be seeing any more tigers. I asked one of the guides how many attacks there had been on people since the park was opened sixty-six years ago. &ldquoThree,&rdquo he informed us confidently. Which seemed like very few, until our mahout, an aged gentleman with feet as leathery as the brow of his elephant, informed us with a nonchalant shrug that he was one of the three, and has the scars to prove it. Probability, it would seem, is cold comfort indeed when you&rsquore up at the sharp end.

The Information

Getting there

The nearest airport&nbspis Pantnagar (110km), the nearest railhead Ramnagar (51km). From Delhi, the best way to get there is to drive (260km/6hrs).

Where to stay

Forest rest-houses, though tough to book, are situated inside the park and make for the most immersive experience (from Rs. 1,500 05947-251489). At the higher-end, there are Infinity Resorts (from Rs. 7,100 for doubles infinityresorts.com), Corbett Hideaway (Rs. 6,300 9810396848, corbetthideaway.com), Camp Forktail Creek (Rs. 6,500 campforktailcreek.com) and Corbett Riverside Resort (Rs. 4,900 corbettriverside.com).

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