The Corbett national park in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand is the jewel among India’s tiger reserves. There is, however, more to the Corbett national park then the tiger. Another magnificent predator, the ghost of the forest, also lives here — the leopard. To locate this ghost, we head just north of the Corbett’s boundary, to Call of the Wild, a desolate ten acre retreat on the old road to the hill town of Ranikhet. Nearby is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva in his avatar of ‘Betalweshwar’, lord of the ghosts. It’s an appropriate location.
The adventure begins
The drive from Delhi is an adventure in itself, especially once you have left National Highway 74. Ramnagar, the last major town, is off the highway, at the edge of the forest. From here it’s classic 4 x 4 country. The ride cuts diagonally across the national park and gives you a feel of the lower Himalayan topography.
A few kilometres into the drive will find you in thick sal forests, driving parallel to the park’s Dhikala range.
The occasional pheasant call is all that punctures the forest tranquility. Slowly, the green takes hold as it almost envelops you. The jungles of the lower Himalayas are cool to the body and uplifting, they ease you, almost like a natural lullaby. You can drive for hours and yet feel fresh. The aroma of the fallen leaves mixes with that of water where it meets earth.
We cross an underground water source flowing like a rivulet, and suddenly stop. There are cheetal and sambar deers around and they are calling frantically. Something is moving behind that green screen! Alas, whatever it is that made those moves is gone, and again the jungle falls back on its familiar, haunting silence.
Betal Ghat is 60 kilometres from Ramnagar and 366 kilometres from Delhi, and there are places where the road has caved in. A deep gorge parallel to the Kosi River is on one side, and the Himalayas on the other.
Slow and steady
This is a true steer through Himal-ayan terrain and it pays not to be in a hurry. We were rewarded by sights that included mountain goats and a giant squirrel eating bird eggs. If you ever want to enjoy a mini version of the Raid de Himalayas rally, this is the one. Cross nallahs and troughs, see mud roads and ditches, cross landslides and pebble tracks.
Call of The Wild is a welcome, cozy destination. Outfitted with simple canopy and plaster, it has bamboo thickets all around. The main block is in a Kenyan lodge style. The owner, Ashish Nanda, was a chef for over five years at Delhi’s Sheraton Hotel and he can show off the odd recipe.
The chicken he dishes out is grilled to perfection. Dinner done, we hear the familiar crackle of the campfire. It’s time for some scotch under the starlit sky. And for jungle tales for company. We wind up later than is good in leopard country.
The mornings in Betalghat are for bird-watching and relaxing. There’s a surprise in store. This is one of the few places in India that offers night safaris, on an open Gypsy with a guide holding a torch light. We laze by day, and take a walk. And yes, one has to take an armed guard along even for a walk, just in case there’s a run in with a leopard.
The walk is a must as it winds through the sal forest, upon a high bank from where you can watch the magnificent forest, the quite flowing river and in the distance, the Himalayan ice face. The picnic lunch of ham and tomato sandwich with some cold sugarcane juice is a bonus.
As night falls, we are almost on the edge with excitement. The jeep drives into the wild. Our torch light flickers as it illuminates the nook, the crevice, the tree top and the ridge. A hare, startled, scurries. The ghoral, as mountain goats are known in this part are balanced, taut and ready to jump. Yet, no leopard.
An hour later, we are cold and miles from the base camp. Just like that, without warning the ghost appears. Looming on a ledge jutting from a precipice. The eyes are a couple of fireballs, orange and red. The leopard stands about 20 feet away in the cross hairs of the spotlight. Silent and motionless, expect for a low persistent growl. Heart stopping has just been redefined. And there is more — two cubs strut out and just as soon as we see them they are gone. Behind them is what appears to be a wood hollow. The car reverses and in a flash all of them are consumed by the endless, very dark night of the Indian jungle.