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WILD AND FREE IN NATURE

Even if you only see the top of a tigress’ head, a trip to Corbett National Park is rewarding in so many other ways

Corbett National Park is special. For I have not seen a single tiger here for many years despite being a regular visitor, almost a resident. The big cats remain elusive, this trip is no exception. I stay for two days at Surpduli Forest Guesthouse (SFG) with my German friends, Ina and Jan Ross; the former often refers to the latter as ‘my husband’. There are many occasions when we could have sighted a tiger but don’t. There is, however, a brief encounter where part of the head of a tigress, sitting at the far end of the rocky riverbed, is barely visible with the aid of a pair of binoculars.

We are convinced, however, many tigers do sight us during this trip. It is an eerie consolation. But think of it, tigers have all the reasons to avoid men, who come charging at them in dozens of open jeeps, while the rest of the fauna run for cover at the mere sight of them.

This stay in Corbett is not just about ‘sighting a tiger in the wild’ but Jan promised Ina just that before they go back to Germany later this year. It is also about watching sparkling stars in the sky above when the woods are subsumed by the seraphic darkness of the night. There are so many stars, reminding one there’s life above the thick blanket of smog.

Jan explains various constellations. As a child, he was fascinated with the heavenly bodies and would have, by his own admission, become an astronomer if he had not opted for journalism. Stars seem to rise from and fall below the horizon during the course of night — this is what made many scholars in the past believe that all heavenly bodies circumnavigate around earth. A myth, one of many that humanity weaved in their quest for knowledge. Some still pervade our lives.

Don’t blame me for becoming besotted, to be amidst Nature is akin to nirvana for many Delhi-ites. It’s not a coincidence that many of the sages resided in the forest in the pursuit of eternal bliss. Jan is more specific. “It’s one of those moments,” he declares, sitting out in the veranda overlooking the woods, watching the water gush down the Kosi river, green hills forming the backdrop, while shadows of tall trees dance in the afternoon sun. “If a fairy offered to bless me with three wishes now. I’d say go away. I’m happy.”

We venture out of SFG—built in 1903, yet in a state of excellent maintenance—twice a day, at the break of dawn and late in the afternoon. We are out in the wildness for at least five hours a day, negotiating bumpy muddy tracks in an open jeep. We aren’t driven by passion to sight a tiger, like many others, who criss-cross the park in dozens of open jeeps. To be in the wild is the prime motive, we convince ourselves — everything else, including sighting a tiger, is at best a bonus.

The first drive into the forest, along Kosi river, is dedicated to crocodiles. They lie immobile in the balmy afternoon sun, looked like elongated rocks to the naked eye. Ina is enchanted, but not particularly pleased at the sight of them. They are one of the most successful hunting machines ever manufactured by Mother Nature and for this reason have survived since the times dinosaurs ruled the planet. Admirable.

Elephants cast their weighty presence on our trip. We have several encounters with them, in a herd or a lone tusker roaming around recklessly, tearing through foliage.  They seem to eat ceaselessly. In the grassland, a lone tusker is indulging in one of the species’ favourite pastimes: mud bathing. We have some anxious moments with a herd with two calves. The jeep is parked not far from the herd just off the road, we stay longer than we should have, at not a comfortable distance. Despite rising irritation with our overwhelming presence from their point of view, elephants go about their task of tearing off the foliage and shovelling it in their mouths or knocking the juicy root out of the ground with their feet. The restless calf seems fairly excited. One of the adults moves forward, another is on the hill across the road behind our jeep, we feel, to confine and confront us. Before the elephants can charge, we are on our way. Ina isn’t impressed with our conspiracy theory or our claim to read the mind of elephants.

We see rhesus monkeys perched in an interesting formation on a barren tree: each one sits at the edge of a separate branch.  One of them waves at Ina when they make eye contact. It is a matter of discussion for a long time. Jan is speculating about why the monkey waved only at Ina and not any of the others.

We meet a solitary wild boar with a mane like that of a lion, fairly stout, unperturbed by human activities, just outside the main entrance to Dhikla camp.  He has quite an attitude. Another sub-adult sambar, a large native antelope, with unusually long and thick bunch of hair on his neck, almost appears like a bearded wise man. We conclude he’s too trusting, a perilous quality — not just for humans amongst humans, it can prove fatal to an antelope in a jungle where tigers prowl aplenty. He is, unlike many of his contemporaries, not very curious, but fairly comfortable with our presence. He grazes relentlessly and then drinks water from a muddy puddle on the road just in front of our jeep. His ears turn in the direction of a sound emanating, like a radar, while his head remains perfectly still. He stands there unmoved, long after we leave. It seems we had some predestined appointment in this high-energy environment of the forest.

When sunrays sieving through the thick foliage of tall trees hit the ground covered in a thick blanket of dry sal leaves, the woods are aglow. Monkeys provide free service to other jungle folk by announcing the arrival of a predator. A self-assured mongoose walks on a muddy road before vanishing into the bushes. The vast green flatland that surrounds the lake is the resting place of herds of spotted deer. We see at least 15o of them soaking the sun, some of them with big antlers like the crown of a king.

Birding has remain an acquired hobby for years without any improvement in the vocabulary. Yes! Birders speak a different language. Green bee-eater is all- pervasive so are red jungle foul—they walk across the road, like a grandfather walking in the park, with a sense of entitlement. The sound of wind blowing through the grassland, the gushing water of a mountain river, birds’ chirrups, cacophony of animal and insect calls are symphony to our ears. The stridulating of a cricket, ribbit of frogs, occasional crepitation of cicadas is nature’s orchestra performing in the dazzling light of the stars above. Overall, a good time of the year to be in Corbett National Park.