It is 5:45 in the morning. Teeth chattering, bones shivering and eyes gleaming with the anticipation of the wonders to come, we pay close attention to our guide Deepak’s instructions on do’s and don’ts as we queue up behind a snarl of vehicles in our open top Jeep Safari, at the Bijrani entrance of the Corbett National Park. It has been a long time since the three of us, Me, Ashish and Gautam have gone together for a trip, the last one being four years ago when we visited Manali. This was a much-needed getaway from the humdrum of city life, even more so now as we haven’t been able to spend time with each other for a while because of our jobs. The distance had introduced formalities in place of constant insults and abuses between us that I used to enjoy; I looked forward to bringing them back.
The gate finally opens as the clock strikes 6:00 and we’re off in a jiffy. Wandering the wilds at such an early hour of the day is as rewarding as it is inconvenient – Yolk orange Sun chasing away the dark, Moon fading but markedly visible and birds chirping in unison, rivaling Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – the place looks magical.
We are on the edge of our seats, eyes peeled, ears twitching, waiting for our first sighting of the day when suddenly a series of sonorous trumpets suddenly pierce the cloak of silence, our driver Pawan brings the Jeep to a halt. A herd of 50 elephants, adults, and calves included, crosses the dirt track in front of us. A true sight to behold! Awestruck, I marvel at the majestic beasts, forgetting I’ve brought a camera with myself. The realization hits me only after the spectacle is over. Ashish pats me on my head, “Idiot, give me the camera”. We smile at each other; this is what I’ve been missing. ‘That’s a good start,’ I think to myself, ‘we might get to see a Tiger after all’. We move on ahead and spot a Monitor Lizard, a herd of spotted deer, troops of Langurs and a number of bird species including Brown Fish Owl, Common Rosefinch, Great Hornbill, Grey Bushchat, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Indian Eagle Owl, and I even got a shot of the rare Indian Pitta skipping on a heap of twigs.
Tigers, though, have been elusive thus far, and as the hours pass, our enthusiasm is beginning to dwindle. Deepak is trying his best to keep our spirits high, even telling us a story of how a certain tourist’s close encounter with a Tiger caused a “bathroom incident”. I cheer up momentarily before returning to my glooming reality. Noting my crestfallen expression, he reassures me, “We’ll find a Tiger, there’s still time”. I cross my fingers.
As we scan the Jungles of Corbett looking for our first Tiger sighting, Deepak notices something, the Jeep stops. “Fresh pugmarks”, he stage-whispers, “there’s a Tiger nearby”. He stands on his seat and starts looking around with his scope. Other Jeeps stop too. Ten minutes go by, fifteen minutes, but no sign of a Tiger, except for those fresh pugmarks. People start to leave and we are losing patience as well, but Deepak is in no mood to give up. The silence of the jungle is suddenly broken by loud calls from a panicking Langur, a telltale sign that the big cat is on the move. The tension in the atmosphere is palpable. With our senses operating at maximum efficiency, we are scouting the surroundings, when he chooses to reveal himself. The king comes out from the undergrowth and walks towards us, graceful and poised, a “catwalk” indeed. Ashish has the camera this time, so I get to savor the moment with my naked eyes, forever etching the memory in my mind. Seeing a Jeep coming from the other side, the seemingly lazy cat leaps at lightning speed, vanishing into the undergrowth. I take a deep breath. We look at each other’s faces, all lit with ecstasy. Our first Tiger sighting in the wild and at a time when we’d lost hope – all thanks to Deepak’s instincts. If we’d moved like the others, we’d have lost our chance to experience this magical moment. As I’m lost in thoughts, Pawan turns the Jeep around, it’s time to leave.
We return to our lodge, Tiger Camp, exhausted yet elated from our excursion. We are welcomed with tea, always a pleasant surprise! We discuss our lucrative safari over breakfast, sitting in the Gol Ghar (Round House), Tiger Camp’s dining area. The food at Tiger Camp is something to rave about. Traditional Kumaoni cuisines and outdoor dining is a perfect combo. I enjoyed having my meals marvelling at the rustic surroundings of Tiger Camp. We spent our day resting and catching up. Deepak was kind enough to take us on a bird walk in the evening. He taught us how to spot birds and explained their mannerisms as well. We spent the night at the lodge and left for Dekhi the next morning.
Thanks to Asian Adventures and Tiger Camp, we were able to rekindle our friendship. It was my first visit to a national park but I have a feeling it won’t be the last one. Can’t wet to get back in that safari again!