It was a trip made after an unconscionably long gap, and that too just for a day-and-a-half. But still it’s Corbett that you’re headed to, India’s numero uno national park. The mushrooming tourist resorts along the road between Ramnagar and Nainital are unnerving, cheek by jowl like the houses in Defence Colony, and the traffic roars relentlessly all day. On one side, the forest with its tall dark and handsome sal trees rustles invitingly, on the other, resorts offer spas and gyms, DJs and jacuzzis — it really is rather bipolar.
You set off early on your first morning — the birding grapevine has reported ibisbills on the Kosi river bed near the Garjiya Devi temple. At this time, the place is quiet and empty, though there’s litter all over the river bed. You reacquaint yourself with one old favourite first, the white-capped water redstart which frankly ought to be called the snow-capped water redstart; a perky little bird clad in black and russet and wearing a cap of snow-white. Its lead-blue and russet cousin, the plumbeous water redstart is also around, demure and quiet. The river itself comprises slender trickles of water wending their way through a wide rocky and sandy bed. Careful scanning of the river bed reveals handsome river lapwings, silver-grey, black and white and somehow, Napoleonic in mien. And then, hey presto, a trio of hunched up ibisbills! They’re wading birds in grey-brown with black face masks and long down-curving red bills. They’re so well camouflaged that the only reason you spot them is because they scuttled around jerkily amongst the grey river rocks.
WATCH VIDEO: Sightings At Jim Corbett National Park This June
Later in the morning, you drive through the Kumeria range and meet up with a party of foreign birders scanning a stream that crosses the road near a huddle of shops and shacks. Below, darting amongst the rocks is the spotted forktail, a handsome dude in black and white, wearing long arrowhead marked coattails as it were; rather like a very upmarket pied wagtail. It darts amongst the rocks, holding its tail up and wagging it slowly from side to side and up and down. Both this and the ibisbill are “lifers” — a term that indicates a first time sighting and over which birders tend to get palpitations. Odd because at one point of time in every birder’s life, even a crow would have been a “lifer”! Also among the rocks is a monitor lizard soaking up the sun in that smug way lizards excel in.
That afternoon, you set off on a de rigueur Gypsy “safari” in the Durga Devi range at the northeastern corner of the Park; it’s the only ride available. The Gypsy rattles, clunks and labours, and only when the engine is switched off can you tune into the silence, which, this afternoon, is complete. The strangler fig Mafiosi has a frightening grip on the trees here, binding the great forest giants in a crisscross mesh of slow, choking death. When the strangler has done its job, the trunk of the host tree just crumbles away, leaving only the fretwork trellis of the strangler standing on its own. Plants too can be cruelly violent (and tortuously slow).
At last, amongst the gloom of the trees, a sambhar, bristly, hunched and wary. It crosses the road and hastens away. Some way down this trail, there’s a watchtower overlooking the dark green river below, but even the muggers which so like sunning themselves are not to be seen. The forest is in deep siesta. It only awakens around 4 pm with the clear whistling calls of unseen birds, the sudden hullabaloo of white-crested laughing thrushes and the loquacious whistles of green magpies.
And all too soon you have just one morning left. You head for the barrage near Ramnagar and are rewarded by the sight of a delegation of brahminy duck, gorgeous in the sun, with their burnt-sugar caramel colours, their heads pale cream. Some confer gravely, heads bowed, others mediate quietly — just to think you once saw them on the Yamuna in Delhi, a 10 minute walk from home! Cormorants and egrets keep watch like guards of honour on the barrage and you drive on, towards Barati rau, which very few people seem to have heard of. (Apparently, one dark and probably very drunken night an entire wedding baraat drowned here!) You don’t find the place due to confusing directions, but you do get an hour in a peaceful, green sal forest, along a narrow channel and listen to drongoes doing impersonations, much to the outrage of a shikra. Or, was it just the drongo mimicking the little hawk? There’s no telling, this bird is a mischief maker! There’s kari patta growing everywhere. Pick a leaf, break it and sniff it and your tummy will rumble in anticipation!
A short drive away from here, are Corbett Waterfalls, which has been developed as a tourist destination. Luckily, the busloads have not yet turned up and you’re soon at the waterfall; it’s supposed to be 20 m high, but seems smaller. It was a place where the famed mahseer was once found.
Jim Corbett was given a large tract of land in this area as reward for hunting man-eaters. Today, his name is being used, misused and even abused through the area and if he had been alive and had royalty rights over its use, he would have been a multimillionaire many times over. Thankfully, entry into the national park proper is firmly regulated, though visitors with loud voices and who wave their arms about (usually insecure young men), should be left here as tiger bait. But you do wonder what Corbett’s reaction would be if he revisited this whole area again today.
Or maybe, it would be better not to.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and birdwatcher.