Striped Shenanigans at Jim Corbett National Park
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Striped Shenanigans at Jim Corbett National Park

Words & Photography: Rhucha Kulkarni, travel 3Sixty° travelsmith

The Dhikala Grasslands with the Kumaon, a section of the Himalayan range, as its backdrop
The Dhikala grasslands with the Kumaon, a section of the Himalayan range, as its backdrop

Golden rays cut through the haze, bidding goodbye to the dark,

A world far removed from humans stirs to life, simple yet stark,

The clause of the Wild lingers here, untouched by time warps

Seeking the striped one is both a science and an art

Such are the striped shenanigans of this majestic park

 We entered the glade of Sal forest, a one-of-a-kind ecosystem at the foothills of the Kumaon ranges in Uttarakhand, India. The canopy towered above, a verdant green home to numerous animal species. Some were going about their daily chores in a repetitive monotone, not so unlike us human beings. A few others were settling in for the day, for they were the lovers of the night, romancing her dark curves in the dead of darkness. As our gypsy treaded these wild realms, my mind left behind its urban woes and embraced the present. The bountiful oxygen that fed my lungs, the melodious music of the stirring cuckoos and the intricate design woven by the sky and the leaves up above intrigued me. This was an escape into oblivion, in search of the enigmatic. This was tiger land; the undulating terrains of the magnificent Kumaon ranges were the home range of the apex predator of the country, the much-feared, much-revered Striped Cat. We had stepped into Jim Corbett National Park!

A herd of spotted deer amidst barren trees characteristic of the Dhikala grasslands
A herd of spotted deer amidst barren trees characteristic of the Dhikala grasslands

Fortunately for us, we were safely perched on our seats in the four-wheeler jeep, or so we thought! I was not sure whether an open safari vehicle with just a driver at our disposal was enough to call it a ‘safe haven’. Yet, strangely, safe I felt. Not only from within, but safe in the middle of nowhere, an aloof world of which, little I knew. With soaring hopes our driver coaxed the vehicle over pebbled river-beds and rocky slopes, towards the grasslands of Dhikala. It was where the sparkling waters served as the abode of wild elephants, trumpeting to wild glory. And where many of the fanged residents made their presence felt!

The lifeline of Corbett National Park—Ramganga—snakes through the forest
The lifeline of Corbett National Park—Ramganga—snakes through the forest

As we trudged along, the dancing patterns of light and shade gave way and I gasped at the sight that invited us. The tall elephant grass swayed with the winds as if to show us the way. The sparkling waters of the lake gave a whole new meaning to the word “blue” and the towering mountains in the backdrop beckoned us to reach out and touch them. The picture was made complete by a herd of trunked friends enjoying their morning play-fights on the water banks. This could be none other than paradise on earth and I stared transfixed at this mystic world!

An elephant cools off with a refreshing drink at the lake
An elephant cools off with a refreshing drink at the lake
A young elephant holds on to its mother's trunk for reassurance
A young elephant holds on to its mother’s trunk for reassurance

After a quick lunch at the rest house we set out for our evening safari, all eyes intent on spotting our feline friend. Tracking the tiger is a skill best left to locals who grew up in the vicinity of these Big Cats. While on one hand a sambar deer warning call may bring your hair to stand on end, the pugmarks in the dirt trails may lure you in a different direction. Warning calls of other animals and pugmarks are two major ways of tracking tiger movement, so I learnt. Of course, another important factor is “forest intelligence”—know-how of the latest tiger movements and an uncanny ability to predict their further routes, a competitive edge that one gains over time. Armed with this knowledge and full faith in our man, we scanned the grasslands and neighbouring forests, ears pricked up to catch the faintest of noises and eyes scanning the forest tracks. Our driver’s forest intelligence informed us that a tigress was seen yesterday in the recesses of the grasslands.

It is when on a wild spree that human beings’ core instincts are revoked from the centuries of urban masking. All senses on alert and mind on high-surveillance mode, we proceeded on this single mission, scouting the wild ranges. And then it happened. A single spotted deer alarm call penetrated the thin mountain air, ringing loud and clear. It seemed to carry the message of life and death, for the herd of deer were jolted awake from an idle stupor into a foreboding sense of alarm. Tails held high, eyes stretched out, they scanned the horizons for the harbinger of death. The next moment restored stark silence.  The herd returned to their grazing chores, oblivious to what had traversed a moment back. I wondered, why a memory so fickle that would surely spell their doom?

A Sambar deer fawn attempts to keep pace with Mom
A sambar deer fawn attempts to keep pace with Mom

Nature has her own ways, creating life at one moment and snatching it away the very next. We waited with bated breath for Paro, the striped beauty as she was named, was foretold to be hiding in close quarters. Whether we would get to admire this graceful tigress remained to be seen.

And then in one moment, the landscape turned from tranquil to turbulent. A flash of black and gold emerged from the surrounding bushes, leaping into mid-air with a confidence beyond measure. A split second later, the deer dashed about, hearts in their mouths. What unfolded was the chaos of life and death. A game where the stakes were the ultimate deal—the ebbing away of a pulsating life. The tigress proved her prowess as the epitome of stealth, after all she had to reinstate her status as the ruler of the wild. And yet a split-second delay allowed her prospective meals to find their foothold and bound away with criss-cross gaits. She was left staring out forlornly at what could have been a wholesome meal. Yet, she strutted about her stripes, head held high with pride. She seemed to say, “So what? The Uno-powerful is sometimes at fault, my time will come too!” And the graceful cat went about her business as usual, with an uncanny grace and might. What a sense of awe she evoked! Truly, she symbolized the shenanigans of her clan!

Paro the tigress with her head held high after the charge
Paro the tigress with her head held high after the charge

As I witnessed the entire scene unfold, I could not help but think about the great leveller that Nature is. Opportunities are doled out for a few, misses greet some others. And this law of Nature pervades everyone, right from the harmless herbivores to the mighty meat-eaters, bar none. It reinforced my belief in the natural way of life and left me with an obsession for life!

The Asiatic elephant in full glory, head-on!
The Asiatic elephant in full glory, head-on!

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

HOW TO GET TO JIM CORBETT NATIONAL PARK The park is located near the town of Ramnagar, some 250 kilometres from New Delhi. Book an overnight train journey on the Ranikhet Express from Delhi to reach Ramnagar. Alternatively, you can drive down through the meandering Kumaon hills in a taxi/car for the road journey (6-7 hrs).

SAFARI BOOKINGS Gypsy (jeep) safaris need to be booked online through the Forest Department. Due to high demand for safari tickets, these online bookings may fill up fast. You may alternatively book through one of the many agents.
Fees: One gypsy safari costs approximately INR 4500–6500 (Foreign Nationals), depending on whether you opt for accommodation at the Forest Rest House or not. Two-hour elephant safaris can be booked on the spot or online for INR 1500 per person, seating four people at a time. These rates may vary as per Forest Department rules.
Timings: Morning safaris start around 5:30 am and last till about 10 a.m. Evening safaris start at around 2:30 p.m. and go on till about 6:00 p.m. The timings may slightly vary depending on season.

WHERE TO STAY The Forest Department runs forest rest houses inside the forest (recommended locations: Dhikala zone and Bijrani zone). Basic, clean accommodation and food is available. This can be booked through the online booking portal or through an agent for guaranteed bookings.

Alternatively there are plenty of resorts for all budgets just outside the entry gate. Camp River Wild is a good facility with log hutments and delicious Indian food.

An HR professional by day, and a travel enthusiast, writer, poet and photographer at heart, Rhucha Kulkarni loves to add a touch of personalised creativity by reliving stories from her life through words and photographs. 

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