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Uttarakhand Part 1 - Tiger Tiger!!

20th October 2014

Following on from a not very auspicious start with the loss of Rosemary’s bag somewhere between Vancouver and Delhi, our Great Indian Adventure has progressed very well since – although there is still no sign of the errant bag.

We left Delhi on Friday morning, and experienced some of the capital’s notorious traffic congestion as we inched our way out, weaving between every conceivable form of transport: cars, rickety buses with Bollywood-style music blaring out at full volume, heavily overloaded trucks, many marked with “Blow horn” on the back (an instruction which was liberally followed), and motorbikes thundering along in the into the teeth of the traffic in the opposite direction, even when we were on a dual carriageway.

The overall route we took was in fact one that would have been familiar to both my grandparents and Rosemary back in the 1930s, but in the intervening years the landscape has changed dramatically, with urban sprawl spreading along the highway, the long bridge across the Ganges perhaps being one feature that has remained from those far-off days.

By late afternoon we finally reached Ramnagar, on the very edge of the hills, and site of the Headquarters of the renowned Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve. We checked into Tiger Camp, a delightful lodge on the banks of the Kosi River, close to the park entrance, and crashed out almost at once, Rosemary bearing up well but undoubtedly feeling the effects of her marathon journey from Smithers (in northern British Columbia, Canada) to Vancouver, then on to Heathrow, followed by yet another flight to Delhi, the loss of her suitcase, and then this long and tiring ride to Ramnagar.

Our programme for the next two days involved three excellent safari rides into the two areas of the park that are currently open, the main central areas only being accessible from 15th November. The early morning excursion took us to the southern zone, and whilst it was of course a delight to be back in this marvellous reserve, it did not provide a huge number of unusual sightings. However, the late afternoon drive, this time into the Bijrani sector, proved to be one of the highlights of my nature-watching experiences to date.

Reports of a tigress with four well-grown cubs reached our driver and guide, and it was not long before we found a Langoor monkey perched high in a bare tree, looking intently and constantly in one direction, and uttering the characteristic gruff bark that these watchmen of the jungle use to warn others of their kind, and unwittingly every other potential prey species, that a tiger is on the move.

A brief ride in our open-top Maruti Suzuki Gypsy, the tough workhorse of Indian national parks today, led us down into a semi-dried out riverbed, and almost immediately the tigress was spotted, at first ambling along the far side of the open area, disappearing behind a large fallen log, but it was not long before she emerged into full view, and then we were treated to indescribably marvelous views as she crossed over towards us, stopping occasionally to sniff at the scent marks left either by herself or another tiger, and spraying her own scent liberally as she went.

She crossed over the track and proceeded to lope right past us along the stream bed, sometimes appearing to snarl and putting her ears back, which certainly gave the impression that she was not in the best of moods, before she turned away, providing us with a final view of her scent marking a twig before she disappeared into thicker vegetation.

The beauty of this clearly well-fed and healthy tigress, despite the fact that she must have had her work cut out having to provide food for her large and hungry family, was a marvel to see, and I felt a twinge of pride knowing that it was thanks to a large extent to my grandfather that the Hailey, later Corbett, National Park was founded in 1936, providing as it now does a haven for the estimated 170 tigers that currently reside within its boundaries (it is shocking to think that that number is perhaps 10% of the total number of wild tigers left in all India).

After such a sighting, it is hard to concentrate on the other wonders that the park offers, but we were able to enjoy excellent views of several Elephants, including one group of four females with several young, with a matriarch who not best pleased to be disturbed and came out of the forest towards us, ears flapping and waving her trunk. Other highlights included numerous Spotted Deer, otherwise known as Cheetal, three or four Sambhar, Barking Deer, Wild Boar, as well as numerous spectacular birds including the almost prehistoric-looking Great Hornbill, Black and Woolly-necked Storks, Kaleej Pheasant, and the powerful-looking Stork-billed Kingfisher, with its over-sized red bill looking as if it could snap a well-grown fish out of the water with no trouble at all.

Our thanks go to our two excellent guides Nafees and JP, and to Sumantha Ghosh, a huge fan of my grandfather’s, who is hooked upon Rosemary’s tales of her childhood, when she used to accompany her parents on Christmas camps in the jungle with my grandparents in these very forests. Sumantha touchingly told me that it was thanks to my grandfather’s influence that he is not stuck working in a bank in the big city, and is instead greatly involved in the wildlife conservation movement, and lives his life surrounded by the beauty of what my grandfather so evocatively used as the title of his second book, The Jungle in Sunlight and Shadow.

All photographs by James Champion

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