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A quest through some of India’s prime wildlife havens – and a journey back to the days of yore

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

In 2014 and 2015, I had the extraordinary privilege of journeying through some of the Subcontinent’s remotest and most pristine wildlife areas, in the company of a remarkable lady who was 84 when we started out, but whose family had featured prominently in my own family’s lives for almost exactly 100 years when we first met.

Rosemary’s parents had been my grandparents’ closest friends back in the 1920’s and 30’s, her father and my great grandfather having senior positions in the Royal Garhwal Rifles regiment of the Indian Army, which was based in the delightful cantonment of Lansdowne, a small hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas. My grandfather, F W Champion IFS, was Divisional Forest Officer there too, and he married the daughter of Major-General Sir Keith Stewart KCB DSO and Lady Stewart, who later became my great grandparents. Rosemary’s parents would often go for “Camps with the Champs” in the jungles, and Rosemary grew up knowing my grandparents perhaps better even than my father, who had been sent “home” to the UK at the age of 8, whereas Rosemary remained in India until she was 16. They had both been born in Lansdowne, my father in 1928 and Rosemary in 1930.

Rosemary with my grandparents (left) and her parents (right), photographed in the 1940's in what is now the Corbett National Park

Having lost touch with our family when my grandmother died in 1983, Rosemary searched for my grandfather’s name and found my blog while I was travelling in Guatemala in 2011, and emailed me at once, but I was unaware that there was an email address linked to my blog, so it was not until my website administrator was doing work behind the scenes on the blog that he discovered more than 300 emails in my inbox, and he duly forwarded them into my regular email account. Among these messages was the one from Rosemary, in which she introduced herself and said how much she would love to re-establish contact with “The Champs”, as she and her parents used to refer to our family.

Rosemary's mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, Rosemary's father and Rosemary, on a picnic in the Indian jungle

After that, we were in constant contact, although Rosemary lived in British Columbia, Canada, but it was not until several years later that we finally met face to face – in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport. At first I could not see her, and was rather concerned that her incoming flight from Vancouver might have been delayed, and that she would miss this connection. However, when I heard a sharp cry of “James!”, I knew that she must be somewhere close by, although I could not at first spot her as she was seated behind the desk, out of sight. Later she informed me that she had recognized me by my ears….a feature that I did not know was such a prominent part of my anatomy!

From then, probably to the annoyance of our fellow passengers, we chatted virtually throughout the entire flight to Delhi. After all, I had 84 years of her life to catch up on, as well as the first few of what turned out to be many personal anecdotes of the time she and her parents spent in the company of my grandparents.

Our 2014 journey took us first to the haunts of my grandparents and her parents, in what is now Uttarakhand, but back then were the twin hill provinces of Garhwal and Kumaon, part of the United Provinces. Here we visited the Corbett and Rajaji National Parks, both places where my grandfather had obtained of his iconic wildlife photographs nearly 90 years earlier, and then visited the beautiful hill stations of Ranikhet and Almora, from where we marvelled at the magnificent eternal snows of the great Himalayan range, which Rosemary remembered so well from her childhood, and we visited her old school in Nainital. Here too, we birdwatched at Pangot, and even made it to Vanghat, Rural traveller’s secret hideaway on the banks of the Ramganga River, which Rosemary had to be transported to in a makeshift dandy!

Rosemary in her makeshift dandy on the way to Vanghat

From here we returned to Delhi, and then took an overnight train to Kolkata, from where we flew to the remote kingdom of Bhutan for a week of intensive birding and sightseeing, which was a remarkable experience. From Bhutan, we ventured to Darjeeling, “the Queen of Hill Stations”, before heading across Assam to the almost mythical park at Kaziranga, one of the last bastions of the Great Indian Rhinoceros, of which we had the remarkable experience of being able to count no fewer than 48 of these magnificent beasts in one panoramic view.

Our next amazing wildlife experience was a bird-filled journey through the Sunderbans, the world’s most extensive mangrove swamp, shared between India and Bangladesh where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra merge and flow out into the Bay of Bengal, before returning to Kolkata and then moving on to Kanpur and Lucknow, and then spending several days at Dudhwa, another of my grandfather’s old photography and forestry haunts.

Rosemary photographing wildlife at Dudhwa

We finally returned to Uttarakhand, where we were treated to some splendid tiger sightings in the Corbett National Park before returning to Delhi for our long flights home.

A year later, with Rosemary by now 85 but still full of energy, we commenced another great journey, again starting in our adoptive home of Uttarakhand, but then venturing south to the Central Indian tiger reserves of Bandavgarh, Kanha, Pench and Nagjira, where again we were treated to several close encounters with the great striped cat, as well as many other mammals and birds.

Rosemary's life was a Wild Adventure!

From here, we headed across to the north-western state of Gujarat, which we scoured for birds and mammals, visiting the Bhavnagar wetlands, the Blackbuck National Park at Velavadar, the Gir Forest (where we had outstanding lion sightings, the Great and Little Ranns of Kutch, the Nalia grasslands and the Mandvi coast, before returning to Delhi via the renowned bird reserve at Bharatpur and the Chambal River, where we were treated to outstanding views of Indian Skimmers, one of India’s mythical bird species.

Indian Skimmers at Chambal

All these trips, plus my own explorations in my grandfather’s footsteps in 1988 and 2006, plus further birding visits to Kerala and Goa, as well as bird tours to India’s neighbours including Nepal, China, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan, have allowed me to gain a great knowledge of the birds and other wildlife of the country, and I hope very much to share this knowledge, plus many of the stories associated with my own family’s Indian heritage, with guests of these forthcoming tours.

A tigress that Rosemary and I were privileged to see in the Corbett National Park

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