It is 4 in the morning and our eyes are still getting used to the darkness around. An icy breeze tugs at us, and wakes up the silent waters of the River Kosi flowing through our resort. Standing on the banks of the river, I watch the moon-lit ridges of the mountains, towering above, almost touching the bejewelled sky. While some of my fellow travellers are star gazing, a few are attempting night photography. I, for one, am just lost in the silence.
The long wait
As summons arrive, we hurry to keep our date with the tiger in the forests of Corbett. It is our second attempt to meet the most coveted denizen of the jungle, having spent an entire day in the wild. During our earlier attempt, the tiger was probably aware that almost 20 vehicles would enter through the Jhirna zone for a rendezvous. So, it left us high and dry, with just pugmarks, as we saw several jeeps bringing in all types of tourists, including international students who broke into a jig at the sight of even a deer! We did spot several birds, butterflies and smaller mammals, but, for the “tiger tourists”, the sightings were just not enough.
Today however, as we board our jeeps, there is a feeling of hope. It is an auspicious moment, as the Bijrani Gate of the Jim Corbett National Park is to be opened, months after the monsoons. The other gates, we're told, are still closed.
As we drive away in the darkness hoping for an encounter, we have no idea what is in store for us. The experience begins at the government office in Ramnagar. There's a never-ending queue to get the permits and documents for the safari, and a couple of members from our group has been waiting in the queue for an hour. This is when I learn a bit about the trappings of tiger tourism. We wait there for what seems like hours.
Finally, there are smiles all around as we make our way to the gate. And then, another long wait begins, as 20-odd jeeps queue up. Dawn breaks with sunlight, and restlessness sets in. Drivers exchange notes, and the topic of discussion veers to the recent strike by forest guides who are demanding more rights. “In fact,” says my driver “the opening of the gates was postponed by a few days because of the strike.” I ask him why we are still waiting, and he says a few officials must arrive. We laugh wondering if there is some form of an opening ceremony, and to my surprise, a television crew lands. The interviews with the officials are on; the cameraman gets a footage of us — all sleepy-eyed and hungry, waiting to enter the park. Finally, after tea, pakodas , and nearly two hours of wait, there's green signal.
Sunlight filters through the tall sal trees as we drive along, squinting through dense foliage. The naturalist in our group keeps us engaged, spotting birds, spiders and small mammals. Corbett, he says, has about 600 species of birds, of the 1,200 recorded in India. We spot a mongoose, while our friends spot the rare yellow-throated marten, besides langurs and deer. But no sign of the tiger — it has moved on, leaving behind its footprints. As we head back, the birders in our group are happy, but the tiger tourists are a tad disappointed.
As for me, Corbett is more to do with the man Jim Corbett himself than about the tigers he hunted. Corbett National Park, the oldest in India, was known as Hailey National Park before it took the name of the famous naturalist and author of several books. And having grown up on his “Man Eaters of Kumaon”, the villages and the forests in front of my eyes are as I had imagined while reading the book.
My favourite memory of Corbett is visiting his house, now a museum in Kaladhungi, walking around it, looking at the paintings, and imagining him being on call from villagers when a maneater strikes their hamlets. And, as I walk away, his words remain in my mind: “A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated — as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support — India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.”
However, I'm sure, I will get a glimpse of this “large hearted gentleman” some day in the forests.