My parents and I were leaving for Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand and everyone wanted to know — “So, you’re going to see the tigers?” (No, we’re going to India’s oldest and most famous tiger reserve to get ourselves a nice February tan.)The question was thrown at us again at the forest reserve, which we reached after a rough six-hour drive from Delhi to Dhikala through the dust-choked terrain of Uttar Pradesh — “So you’ve come to see the tigers?” (Of course not. We’re visiting the reserve with the highest density of tigers per square kilometre according to the country’s 2007 tiger census to spot a caterpillar or two.)
“So, you saw the tigers?” The question came back to haunt us again on our return to Mumbai. And our answer to that, after having spent three days in a forest reserve spanning more than 1,300 km and an estimated tiger population of 164, is a shamefaced “no”.
Backpack of burden
My family is big on wildlife. Naturally, we were keen on spotting some stripes in Corbett. We were also carrying the burden of vicarious expectations from family and friends. The initial signs were encouraging. On arrival, the notice board in our sprawling hotel read: ‘Today’s sighting: Room # 22 spotted a tigress with two cubs at 8:30 am.’ Before the dust on our bodies had settled in our cosy club suite, we rushed to book the hotel’s Rs 2,000 worth open jeep safari, the one from 2.30 pm to 6.00 pm as “the animals come out to drink water in the evening” informed the enthusiastic safari officer. The sole item on our holiday to-do list — spot a tiger — having been taking care of, we absorbed the breathtaking landscape of the hotel overlooking serene hills, a sparkling river and a field of grazing horses.
The next day we dressed in our Sunday safari best, and equipped ourselves with cameras, binoculars and good luck from the hotel staff. Our guide — a rotund, garrulous chap — who, with his idea of a menacing smile, asked, “You have seen Kaal picture?” (sic) He was referring to that huge flop about a group of city slickers stranded in a tiger-infested haunted forest. We hadn’t. “Good,” he replied ominously.
As we approached the 800 sq km buffer area of the reserve (the 500 sq km core area is out of bounds for tourists), we were dismayed to see numerous open jeeps filled with loud, litter-spewing tourists. Though it was off-season, we hadn’t accounted for the Sunday trippers. As we entered the forest, our guide whispered, “There are four rules you must follow.
Don’t get out of the car. Don’t talk loudly. Don’t use the flash on the camera. Don’t get your hopes up too high.” With eye of the tiger playing in an unending loop in my head and eyes straining to catch a glimpse of black and yellow amidst the foliage, I simply couldn’t follow the fourth rule.
However, after an hour of keeping watch, the optimist in all of us died. The guide, sensing our disappointment and a resulting meagre tip, kicked into action. On hearing a questionable animal call, he fervently motioned the driver to halt the car, and whispered, “This was cry of danger. Tiger is somewhere here only.” (sic) Two other jeeps pulled up, their occupants having being told the same. We all stood up like silent sentinels, watchful for the slightest rustle of leaf.
Maybe it was my cynical imagination, but I saw a wry ‘all in a day’s work of pretence’ smile exchanged between the guides.
After being subjected thrice to this act and after scanning every shrub, the cynicism went into overdrive. Many false alarms, a wild cock, the rear end of a monitor lizard, plenty of deer and two Sambhals later, the safari ended with unanswered questions. Our guide’s only consolation, “Madam, luck is also important.”
The dejection notwithstanding, it must be said that the small town of Dhikala in the sheltered, untouched environs of the Corbett Park is a sanctuary for the soul. Maybe the chance of spotting a tiger really boils down to luck.
But, was our trip worth the disappointment? For the welcome change of going from a concrete jungle to an actual one, it was. But take our guide’s advice: don’t get your hopes high, and don’t watch Kaal.