Pawalgarh, recently anointed a tiger conservation reserve, is to be found 18 kilometres beyond Ramnagar. Just after you meet the olive green Maruti Gypsy &lsquotrekkers&rsquo in Ramnagar (who jam the way and pester you with, &ldquoCorbett, sir&hellipCorbett&rdquo), ignore them and take a right into a deceptively narrow road. This is actually the highway to Nainital. After about 12 kilometres down this route, which is intermittently interspersed with forests and farms, you come to a village that goes by the name of Bail Parao. We took a left, ducked under a forest check post and entered a teak forest. After driving onward for a little over six kilometres, we were in an open, flat land, painted green with wheat farms and dotted with homes on either side of the still-narrow road. This was beautiful Pawalgarh. We drove along a freshwater stream and finally entered a gate to our right. It was love at first sight with the forest bungalow here, built in 1902&mdashwith its colonial architecture, and the khansamas attending to the kitchen, it was like living in the days of the Raj. We even had a lit-up fire in the fireplace
That afternoon we hopped on to a &lsquotrekker&rsquo to go to the conservation reserve across the road. Soon, we descended onto a sandy route through a thicket of sal, silk-cotton and other trees. In no time, we were upon a vast white expanse of sand and boulders. Dodging the round rocks, we soon crossed a stream&hellipand then another stream. Our guide, Range Officer Kripal Singh Bisht, informed us, &ldquoWe&rsquore crossing the Dabka River.&rdquo It&rsquos barely a stream now, but quite a fierce sight in the rains, when it turns brown in colour.
Would we get lucky enough to see a tiger That was the thought uppermost on our minds as we were about to enter the Pawalgarh forest. Our &lsquoclose encounter&rsquo with the tiger had begun at Bail Parao. Just before taking the turn for the Pawalgarh Conservation Reserve, we had enquired about lunch at the wayside Annapurna restaurant. We retreated when we learnt that it was vegetarian, but the young owner entreated us to stay back. He would prepare &lsquonon-veg&rsquo for us as long as we were discreet about it. And believe me, the pepper chicken at the vegetarian restaurant was among the tastiest chicken curries we&rsquove ever had
As we ate, the young manager of the outlet, Ganesh Thakur, got talking about tigers. Pointing to a garden umbrella in front of his shop, he said, &ldquoThere was a tiger standing here at this very spot about a month ago.&rdquo I took his tiger-on-the-main-road claim with a pinch of salt. But then I had to believe his story. &ldquoIt was dark&helliparound 4am in the morning,&rdquo he said. &ldquoThe milk truck had come to deliver milk. When the driver saw the tiger, he called us on the phone, warning us not to get out of the house.&rdquo The tiger hung around for over 15 minutes before vanishing into the fields. No, Thakur had not seen the tiger with his own eyes, but he was ready to call the women of the house across the road&mdashthey had seen it. &ldquoShould I call them&rdquo he asked. I had to stop him physically. Thakur concluded philosophically &ldquoSeeing a tiger is luck by chance.&rdquo He recounted how a young couple, tourists who had eaten at his restaurant, spent a full day at Corbett looking for a tiger, in vain. &ldquoBut they finally saw a seven-foot-long tiger on their way here,&rdquo he exclaimed. &ldquoIt is luck by chance&rdquo That was his credo.
Thakur&rsquos story of sighting a tiger was given credence by two local women a day later, when we were buying groceries at Bail Parao. They had seen a tiger in the sugarcane fields just a little beyond the main road. &ldquoWe were on our way to the primary school,&rdquo they said. And they giggled, tickled by the very thought.
But as we crossed the bumpy river bed that cuts through the Pawalgarh forest, looking out for the striped cat, there was only disappointment in store. Our only source of joy was tiny black fish in a pool of water formed by the sparse river. The water in the river, the forest guards informed us, was not from melting snow but from springs in the mountains.
We were by the edge of the thick forest, on the other side of the river now, when another piece of good news reached us. We were just taking a bend into the forest when Range Officer Bisht ordered the vehicle to stop. Pointing to a path that led in the direction of the river, he said, &ldquoThis is where we saw a tiger&mdashit walked away majestically and it was so large. We got the scare of our lives&rdquo Bisht said it with a sense of self-importance, as though he were showing us a real tiger. Was it a male or a female Bisht and his guards were not sure how to distinguish a male from a female tiger. But, yes, the pug marks can be revealing (longish for the female tiger round and larger in males).
A few minutes later, we climbed up the forested hill and entered the Hathi Galiyar elephant trail. Elephant herds, we were told, often take the same path, from which they rarely stray when travelling from one &lsquoelephant corridor&rsquo to another. I was struck by the sheer size of the sal and other trees. Pawalgarh is a virgin forest with very little sign of human incursion.
The only sign of human activity was at a clearing. Trees had been cut down to make way for grasslands. With winter just ending, the shoots of grass were still not out. But when fully green, they would be grazing grounds for the hundreds of spotted deer in Pawalgarh, and thus hunting grounds for tigers and leopards. Besides the chital, Pawalgarh is home to other antlers like the nilgai, and kakad, a small goat-like deer. There were also hares, wild boarsand langurs. Pawalgarh also has over 350 species of birds. Among the birds found here are the black stork, the Great Slaty Woodpecker, and a variety of hornbills.
It was in the mornings and evenings that birds were most active, even around the forest guesthouse. In the afternoon, we spotted a serpent eagle circling in the sky. But what was most heartwarming was the sight of (now endangered) vultures. Feeding on a carcass by the river bed, they looked like giants of the sky when taking off on their large wings.
In Hathi Galiyar, we saw elephant dung lying around a waterhole built by the forest department. Fresh water is brought through a pipeline connected to a spring some three kilometres away in the nearby forest. There is one more pipeline that feeds another waterhole a few hundred metres away. An elephant&rsquos footprint was still fresh on the edge of the wet ground around the waterhole. Trap cameras were strapped to the branch of a tree, yet we saw neither elephant nor tiger anywhere near the waterhole. The evening light was fast fading. But stories from the forest guards accompanying us came thick and fast. &ldquoA few weeks back, the grey tusker came charging at the CCF,&rdquo said a guard pointing to the spot from where one walks towards the waterhole. &lsquoThe grey tusker&rsquo was an angry ageing male that was known to be particularly intimidating. &ldquoNever run away from an elephant&mdashstand your ground and it will go away,&rdquo the guard informed us. &ldquoThat&rsquos what the CCF sahib did. And the grey tusker quietly turned away.&rdquo Stories about the Chief Conservator of Forests, Kumaon Range, Paramjit Singh, are legion. Considered the moving force behind the creation of Pawalgarh CR, Singh also heads the anti-poaching task force.
We returned from the first waterhole and clambered on to the trekker. This time round, we took the path further towards Sitabani. Suddenly, the trekker swerved from the path and turned left into the thick forest. We were feeling lost when, winding through the jungle, it finally stopped at a barrier. We were at another forest clearing, at another artificially created grassland with a waterhole. Our sudden arrival in this secluded place apparently scared the grazing chitals. They darted into the air and scampered into the forest on the other side of the grassland. Another herd, caught unawares by our presence, literally flew into the cover of the thick forest. Pawalgarh in many ways is a virgin forest in that the animals, unlike in neighbouring Corbett, flee at the sight of humans. Besides deer, we saw flocks of tiny parrots, flying across the clearing. By the time we got back to our trekker, it was close to nightfall.
At night, the forest takes on an ominous air. We were watching out for that lurking elephant or crouching tiger. With nothing to feed our fear and curiosity, we wanted to go to Sitabani, a few kilometres away. &ldquoIt&rsquoll not be safe to go to Sita Bani,&rdquo Range Officer Bisht told us. Animals, particularly elephant herds, could threaten our safety, he said. I looked at my kids in the back of the trekker, urging me to take the risk. I was in two minds one asking for adventure, the other for safety. But Bisht, responsible for our safety, had already made up his mind. So we abandoned our plans to go further into the forest.
Instead, we retraced our path through Hathi Galiyar. After the darkness of the thick forest, the opening of the river afforded us some light. As we were crossing the river, my keen eyes caught a black piece of shit on a boulder. &ldquoWhat&rsquos this&rdquo I asked Bisht. I didn&rsquot realise I had spotted the most precious piece of animal poo in my life. He got out of the trekker, took a close look with his torchlight, and announced, &ldquoScat, tiger scat&hellipdo you notice the hair&rdquo Yes, the scat has hair as well, because tigers eat their prey along with the fur and skin. By now, I was also out of the trekker to inspect the poo. Never in my life had I cared so much for a piece of poop. But this was no ordinary shit. In animal biology terms, we had hit upon a gold mine. Of the 46 tigers that inhabit Pawalgarh, a figure that the CCF vouches for, all we got to see was scat. Nothing more. I was reminded of Ganesh Thakur, the young restaurateur at Bail Parao. He was right. Seeing a tiger is luck by chance only
Getting there Air India offers a once-daily service from Delhi to Pantnagar, the airport nearest to Pawalgarh, some 80km away (return tickets from about Rs 9,000). From here, cabs can be hired to Ramnagar and hotels around Pawalgarh, for about Rs 2,500. The Corbett Link Ranikhet Express and the Uttarakhand Sampark Kranti Express are convenient trains from Delhi to Ramnagar, the nearest railhead (18km/1hr away cabs to hotels in Pawalgarh for about Rs 800).
Where to stay Buck Scent Retreat (from about Rs 3,500 www.buckscent.in), situated serenely by a forest on one side and a village to the other, en route to Kaladhungi, wins full points for its location, service, activities and quality of stay. Ramnagar is also the town closest to the Jim Corbett National Park, which leads to many options in hotels. Camp Riverwild (from about Rs 6,500 inclusive meals and taxes www.camp-riverwild.com) has six woodsy suites on stilts overlooking the riverbed. The Ranger&rsquos Lodge (from Rs 4,500 www.therangerslodge.in) has spacious rooms owner Imran Khan is a naturalist. Harrymans Pawalgarh Homestay (Rs 600 for doubles plus Rs 380 per person per day for food www.ecoharrymanshomestay.com) is basic and clean. To book forest rest houses in Pawalgarh, Sitabani, Bhalon and Kaladhungi, contact DFO Ramnagar (05947-251362, 9458192155) www.forest.uk.gov.in/pages/display/10-forest-rest-houses.
What to see & do The newly carved out Pawalgarh Conservation Reserve spreads out from Bhandarpani near Sitabani to Pawalgarh village. To go on safaris, you need a permit from the forest department (issued at the Pawalgarh or Bhandarpani entry gates). Safaris are organised by hotels and by tour operators like Wild Adventures (9837173620), Tigerland Safaris (9897655055) and Mann Safaris (9837287784). A 3.5hr jeep safari with max six passengers costs about Rs 4,000, permits inclusive.
Drive up to Kota Bagh, a beautiful valley overlooked by Nainital (carry your own snacks there are no eateries en route). Pawalgarh hosts the Uttarakhand Spring Bird Festival (www.uttarakhandbirdfestival.in), which completed its second edition in February.