Sachin Rai led a group of six cousins in what started as a big family trip and ended up as so much more.
The group met at the Old Delhi rail terminus at 9:30 p.m. Some were youthful by age, and some at heart.
Sachin needed no introduction but nevertheless performed the formalities outside the station at the Kumsum Restaurant, where the group grabbed their dinner and embarked on the overnight journey to Ramnagar.
Tea vendors chirped around in the terrible cold as clouds of mist were illuminated by the shafts of meagre light emitted by the lamps on the platform, but inside the coach, the warmth of the group and the air conditioning went a long way in restoring a tolerable temperature.
Upon Sachin’s advice, the participants secured their equipment by sharing berths with it, to insure it against the risk of theft that always looms on Indian trains.
Then, they tucked in and had a good night’s sleep as the train rumbled on the ice-cold rails towards the hills of Kumaon.
As Sachin put his head to the pillow, he wondered as he so often had before, what the scenery en route would look like. He had never seen it since he had always travelled to Corbett at night, with the landscape cloaked in darkness, obscured from view.
But there was no doubt that he’d be greeted with beautiful sights when he reached the destination. For Ramnagar is a beautiful gateway to Corbett, a harbinger of the sensory treat that’s to come when you go past it and climb the winding hills of Kumaon.
Reaching there at 4:30 in the morning, the group was picked up by two driver-naturalists and were driven to the Dhangari gate.
A 20km drive through pitch darkness in the cold ensued, protected only by the thin cover of the soft-top of the Gypsy, which, juxtaposed against the elements, wasn’t substantial under the conditions.
Soon, they had entered the forest and started seeing wildlife, with a spotted deer serving as the first non-human mammal sighting of the Tour. Then a herd came into view, their eyes shining blue to match the unseen hues of the inky night, leaving no doubts that the group was in prime wildlife-habitat.
Reaching the Dhangari gate, Sachin completed the entry formalities, by which time dawn had come, bringing Corbett to light.
Established in 1936 as Hailey National Park to protect tigers, Jim Corbett is the oldest of India’s national parks, and one of the most beautiful.
Located between the Himalayas and the terai that stretch to Nepal, the Ramganga and her tributaries crisscross the park spawning some dramatic landscapes that dazzle with celestial beauty. With high disparity in habitat, ranging from plain to precipitous and dense forests to emancipating meadows, it supports a rich variety of precious natural treasures and adorns India’s crown as a gleaming jewel.
The first destination was Gairal for breakfast, and en route to there, Sachin pointed out many bird species including three species of bulbul – the black-crested, ashy, and black.
Then they saw a great hornbill, its considerable wingspan only emitting a soothing swoosh as it came to land upon a high perch, where it sat with its enormous casque glinting in the morning light.
Finally, a flock of scarlet minivet, a bar-winged flycatcher shrike, and a male pallid harrier in flight rounded up the list of avian highlights.
With nearly 600 species of resident and migratory birds found in Corbett, and winter being peak time for the sky wanderers, the emphasis of the Tour was as much on birding as finding the often more charismatic mammalian-megafauna.
So Sachin was elated that the Tour had got off to such a productive start even before they had checked in for a single minute! But he wasn’t surprised, for this was quintessentially Corbett, where there is something to see at every corner, and an experience to soak up every minute.
Reaching Gairal by around 8:30 a.m., the group had breakfast, and proceeded to scan the riverside, to be rewarded with sights of the plumbeous and red-capped water redstarts.
Resuming the journey towards Dhikala, Sachin decided to take a road that is less travelled by, and the group really enjoyed the lovely forest path really quiet and tranquil. Just before Crocodile Pool, they saw the first gharial of the Tour – a solitary female basking in the sun.
Corbett is one of the few places left to see this fascinating reptilian, with much of the population under appalling pressure from habitat depletion and other threats from human activity, and so this sighting was special.
Meanwhile, the birding feast continued as many more species – ‘lifers’ (first-time sightings) for many in the group. Then, about five kilometres before Dhikala, on a cemented road stretch near a stream, a huge tusker stood on the road without budging and just looking at them for the longest time to see who’d blink first.
With fluid dripping from the elephant’s temples and bravado oozing from his body language, Sachin could tell that he was in musth.
The big boy started walking towards them, so they reversed the two vehicles. Then he stopped and smelled with his trunk, and after being distracted by something in the forest, he left, clearing the group’s path towards paradise.
Continuing to be excited and happy, the group drove towards Dhikala and checked in.
The Dhikala Forest Rest House has got to be one of the most magnificent rest houses in any protected area anywhere. With a beautiful complex right in the heart of the tiger reserve, and a view from the window to live for, staying here is a privilege nonpareil, and the highlight of any Tour to Corbett.
And that’s not even considering the amazing bounty of wildlife it gives splendid access to!
The first evening Sachin led the group to the Dhikala grasslands, to stun them with the landscape, the beautiful blue water and the mountains behind it – a sight to behold forever and never to forget.
Since the sun was harsh, Sachin suggested they keep the landscape images for later and instead scour prospective spots for now, and in accordance with the plan, spent the rest of the evening driving through the grasslands and the famous Sambar Road.
The evenings are chilly, and the participants realised the grasslands can be really cold. As the sun set, the temperature dipped steeply and they decided to head back to the lodge after a lovely day spent in Corbett, after which they had their first interactive session of the Tour, in which Sachin proceeded to iron out any inadequacies in the group’s understanding of exposure, and brushed up the basics.
In the group were two girls who weren’t photographers but were more inclined to just watching wildlife, so they had decided to keep a bird list, which Sachin aided them to inaugurate. From his talk, they came to learn about the taxonomy of birds, how to differentiate between species, and how to use a bird guide effectively.
This bird list that then ensued included collared falconet, black bulbul, fulvous-breasted woodpecker, and male and female khaleej pheasants – not bad for a day!
The next morning was foggy, which the group took advantage of by making some evocative landscape images.
In the evening, they saw some elephants.
Next morning after breakfast they went to High Bank for a drive. Sachin scanned the river with a pair of binoculars, and to his utter delight, spotted a tiger just coming in for a drink. Their timing had been perfect.
With the group’s cameras trained on him, the tiger – a big handsome male seemingly in his prime – sat down in the water for about a minute, then rose, crossed the river and got onto the opposite bank, whence he walked parallel to the viewpoint and disappeared into the forest, presenting in his wake a bunch of good habitat photography opportunities and an utterly thrilling first cat sight of the Tour. For three of the participants, in fact, it was the first tiger ever, which made it all the more special.
That afternoon, they went to Kamar Patta Road and made some more landscape images.
On the last morning, Sachin drove the group around the Dhikala chaur and facilitated some jackal and hog deer pictures. Then it was time to wrap up. All packed and checked out, the group was driving back out towards Dhangari Gate, when on Ram Singh Road, they heard a sambar call. Scanning the area, they spotted a tigress in the grass!
Amazingly, she came down from the bund she was sitting on, drank from the brook, crossed the water, walked in the grassland right in front of the sambar that was calling, threw a beautiful look at the bystanders in good light and melted into the undergrowth – leaving the enchanted viewers with colourful striped visions all their way home!