Before the 1990s — when “wildlife tourism” gained pace and accommodation, good and bad, and transport facilities came up rapidly — it was usually the old, hard way for the wildlife lover. Getting some information about an interesting wildlife sanctuary visit was the first hurdle to be overcome — there was no internet and Google in those days. Much of it was by word of mouth or learned from old shikar books. The next tough part was to locate the place on a map and to work out a route to get there. Accommodation and food came lower down on the list.
For a person living in Kolkata, for instance, to get to Palamau National Park (one of the loveliest wildlife areas in India, now in Jharkhand) in the early 1970s, one had to reach Daltonganj, the district headquarters nearest to the Park. There were two ways to go about this: take the overnight train from Kolkata to Ranchi, then climb in for a frenetic cycle-rickshaw ride to the Ratu Road bus-stand. There, scramble on to the Durga or the Singh bus service to Daltonganj and then again by the Nagmatiya or Singh bus service from Daltonganj to Betla range forest office at the entrance to Palamau. The other was even more tricky — the first step would be to get on board the Barkakana coach attached to the Doon Express from Kolkata. This coach would be cut off at Gomoh railway station and one had to spend about three or four hours swatting away flies and mosquitoes at the siding. In the wee hours of the morning, the detached coach was attached to a passenger train that would pull it from Gomoh past Daltonganj. There would be another change of coach at Barkakana, when the train stopped for breakfast; because the original coach would be cut off there. And so, past stations bearing names like Mahuamilan, McCluskieganj, Chandwa, Hehegarha, Chhipadohar one would get to Daltonganj in the late afternoon. If the last bus at 3 pm to Betla had not left, one could just about totter into Betla by about 6 pm. If the bus had already left, then there was no alternative other than to grit one’s teeth and check into a seedy hotel for the night. Lying in bed at night in the Janata Lodge (tariff Rs 15 per night) one could hear the rutting call of the chital or the alarm call of a sambar in the distance.
If the rail travel sounds easy, one needs to bear in mind that those were the days when reservation of a sleeper berth on a train was — for the return journey — by way of a departmental “telegram” of the Indian Railways. It was always a matter of sheer chance to get such a reservation. More often than not, one had to hear “telegram to mila nahi” at the reservation counter. Computerised railway berth bookings were still about 15 or 20 years away.
Simlipal National Park in Odisha was nearer to Kolkata, but, in those early days, was no easier to get to. First off, there were no nearby railway stations: one had to go by bus to Jashipur, the Park headquarters, and ask around for accommodation and transport. Further, one had to carry rations for oneself, the driver of the jeep and the cook at the forest rest house inside the park, for the duration of the visit. There was just one bus a day from Kolkata to Karanjia that passed Jashipur, and one had to queue up around 5 am for a seat on the bus that would leave at about 6 am, and reach Jashipur at about 12 noon. In between, one had to sit cramped up, knees drawn against the chin because of luggage under one’s feet, and pray that one could hang on till one reached the village of Bissoyi at around 10.30 am. There, one could get down to stretch one’s legs and grab some samosa and tea at a local tea shop.
If the Kolkata to Jashipur journey was tricky, then the return journey from Jashipur to Kolkata was almost beyond description, the entry being through the bus window, as the door would be jammed with people and luggage. It was not an experience easily forgotten. But Simlipal was Simlipal, and lovelier places than Chahala and Joranda rest houses were hard to come by.
Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which has gained so much renown, was no better. Bilaspur on the south-eastern railways, was the main entry point, but one had to go by a passenger train from there to Umaria, and there was no telling if the train would reach Umaria at 5 pm or 9 pm. Either way, one was compelled to spend the night at some lodge, about which the less details are given, the better. But, early in the morning, one could get a bus fairly easily from Umaria to Tala village, where the main forest rest house was located. But getting back to Kolkata from Tala via Umaria and Bilaspur was a different story again. But then, where else could one have seen a tiger in the moonlight, right by the bus road?
Then, there was Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam (before it was designated as a tiger reserve). It looked easy enough because there was a railway station nearby at Barpeta Road. But it took an 18-hour train journey from Kolkata to Bongaigaon, and one had to change trains there because, at that point, the broad gauge changed to metre gauge, and, by the time the train from Kolkata arrived, the local people with reservations from Bongaigaon had managed to pack themselves in. Again, entry through the window was the preferred — or, the only possible — mode of ingress into the coach. One also had to have some skills and training to be able to get out the same way — through the window — at Barpeta Road. The luggage was usually thrown out after one had landed on the platform, as a courtesy by some sympathetic soul. Here, too, rations had to be borne to the Mothanguri bungalow. The flights of Great Indian Pied Hornbills, of course, made up for it.
A visit to the Corbett National Park was relatively easier: an 18-hour train journey by Amritsar Mail from Kolkata to Lucknow, with a change-over after a gap of about six hours to the neat and clean Nainital Express on the metre gauge section from Lucknow to Kathgodam. It was followed by a bus journey to Ramnagar. In those days, the Forest Department ran a mini bus at 3 pm from Ramnagar to Dhikala for departmental staff returning after getting supplies from Ramnagar bazaar. They were usually kind enough to allow a casual visitor to join them on the return journey to Dhikala. There, one could spend hours looking at the wildlife on the Ramganga “chaurs”.
A keen, perhaps, overweening, interest in wildlife and a certain physical and mental toughness were required to travel in those days. But the overwhelming up-side was that one practically had the place to oneself. Room bookings were on-the-spot, across a clerk’s table or, at worst, one had to send a request about a month in advance by registered post and the permit would usually reach one just before boarding the train. More to the point, there were few if any vehicles at all inside the park and, tiger-sighting had to usually be done on elephant-back at close quarters. There was none of the frenetic jockeying for space by jeeps, people yelling at the top of their voices and gesticulating, or even trying to take “selfies” with a tiger in the background. It was then mainly about a journey of discovery, often either walking the forest with the staff or swaying comfortably on elephant-back, exchanging the occasional gossip or “jungle khabar” with the mahout and field staff, enjoying the forest at an easy pace and listening to what the jungle was saying. They more than made up for any hardship. Those happy memories are indeed precious.