Bird watching is a great pastime and Uttaranchal has some of the most beautiful birds in the country.
Freewheeling across the countryside identifying the amazing species of birds and recording their calls is an unparalleled experience. The credit for how I’ve been able to do this goes to my trusty 4-wheel-drive; a tough, faithful friend that has never let me down. Well, almost never. It has got me into real trouble only once. But I could pass that off as a slight lapse in judgement from my side.
I was in Uttaranchal in the Corbett National Park, next to a dried-up lake. A thin haze hung across the lake and herds of deer were grazing close by. On the other side of the lake, a matriarch leading a large herd of wild elephants were grazing too, peacefully. All of a sudden two bull elephants appeared out of nowhere, charging toward each other with ears flaring, perhaps in a fight to establish new territory. The breeding season was on.
Two Maruti Gypsies, loaded with tourists, were parked by the lake. Egged on by the sight, I drove towards them on the lake bed. It was like driving on a cushioned road — the crust gave way but the ground held tight. So far so good.
To get a broadside view, I decided to steer the jeep to the right. I had barely moved a few feet when my Land Cruiser slowed down and, to my horror, began to sink into the ground. I engaged the 4-wheel locked drive and eased the clutch gently. But the wheels only started to spin in unison out of sheer helplessness. The jeep sunk deeper and came to a rest on the undercarriage, even the exhaust got submerged in the sticky mud.
We were stuck. All our efforts over the next two hours were futile. There weren’t any solid platforms to engage a jack. The tourist Gypsy did return to tow us out but they were no match for the dead weight of the three tonne Land Cruiser and the sucking, gluey mud.
Soon we were left alone, stuck in the quagmire, the darkness descending on us, enveloping the country of tigers. Jaggi, a friend and veteran nature lover, offered to get help. Two hours later he returned with a bus and an elephant. The bus, careful to remain on dry land, tried to tow us out with a rope. It would have helped too, had its wheels stopped spinning hopelessly on the slippery clay!
Next up, the mahout offered some pachyderm power. Holding the rope in its trunk, the elephant heaved with all its might. The heavy 4x4 protested at first, moved a few feet, and then sunk deeper as soon as the elephant loosened its grip.
The elephant then moved to a new position. Facing the bonnet, he lowered his head, positioned his tusks under the front bumper and put his trunk flat on the bonnet. A gentle command from the mahout and the elephant heaved again. This time it strained harder, its tail pointing to the sky as five tonnes of raw power was put to work. The vehicle budged again, only this time, it lifted clear off the sea of mud. In a minute we were on the dry edge, free and safe.
Later we fed the elephant a bunch of bananas, which he gobbled in one go. His eyes were twinkling as he savoured the snack, watched by grateful crew members and an affectionate mahout. I salute the most powerful gentle giant on the planet without whose help we could not have made it that fateful evening. I had learnt my lesson — never drive on a dry lake bed, and definitely not without having tested the threshold of the land.