We travelled to northern India from 25 February to 11 March 2013 and spent six nights in and around Corbett National Park staying at Vanghat and Dhikala.

Our search for India’s iconic tiger in the country’s first National Park uncovers more than we’d hoped for.

Strangely it isn’t an animal that comes to mind when I think of Corbett. Strangely because India’s first National Park is teaming with wildlife. It’s not the speckled chital high stepping over the dewy grass as if unwilling to wet its dainty hooves, nor the giant hornbills flapping ponderously overhead, nor the herd of elephants coaxing their newborn through thick jungle. Neither is it the echoing alarm calls of the sambar and monkeys, nor the tiny jungle owlet blinking from a nearby branch, nor the purposefully scurrying mongoose or pair of jackals trotting off to find breakfast. It’s not the beauty of the landscape, the dry river beds, the thick, muffled forests and airy, golden grasslands or the misty morning elephant trek at the heart of the park, nor the telltale pug marks punched into the soft mud beside the track. It isn’t even looking into the unblinking eyes of a great serpent eagle perched directly above us nor, finally, in a dappled sal forest, having our stare spinechillingly but nonchalantly returned by the world’s largest cat. A dozen or so metres separated this male tiger from us as we hunkered in our exposed, open-topped Gypsy and this intimate and privileged encounter with one of India’s iconic royal Bengal tigers is seared in my mind. Strangely though it’s the Ramganga that, for me, embodies Corbett.

A high flying bird looking down over Uttarakhand would see the river undulating across the state, its tail looped between the creased Kumaoni Himalayas and its body snaking into Corbett National Park, bulging into a dammed reservoir at its centre before meandering sluggishly onto the plains to plunge and mingle with the Ganges. I first glimpsed the river after a long, hot drive from the heart of the Kumaon where we’d spent the first leg of our north India trip hiking. We pulled up before an iron suspension bridge and I envied the handful of people wading and swimming in the clear water below. I had no idea then that this river was the Ramganga, though Sumantha Ghosh who’d driven out to met us soon told us its name. He shared many more tales and experiences over the course of the next six nights which we spent at his Vanghat Riverine lodge.

He continued regaling us with information as we embarked on the 40 minute hike and two river crossings to Vanghat. The impressively high electric fence that surrounded those houses down there no longer worked, he confided, just as they didn’t work at most of the 500 hundred or so local villages which they were designed to protect. I glanced behind me half suspecting to see a flash of orange through the trees.

We climbed onto a heavily grazed plateau overlooking the Ramganga where informative panels painted by local children illustrated the region’s rich wildlife. It was important to involve the community in conservation, Sumantha explained, especially its younger generation. Smoke from wood fires permeated the air which had got distinctly chillier and duskier. The villagers here had resorted to the simpler but time tested anti-predator defences of spiny branches dragged across their pens’ entrances. I wondered how effective they would be against a determined big cat.

The muffled sound of voices and of livestock and their bells filtered through the stone walls. A dog barked and the voices inside paused. They resumed as we picked our way down to the river which we crossed for the second time on a tiny raft pulled across the sweeping water by an immaculately dressed member of staff. Vanghat lay just around the corner, Sumantha assured us, though he took us first to a deep pool where we picked out the shadows of fish lurking along its edges. If we were patient enough we might spot one of the resident otters, or maybe even an Indian porcupine, reputedly the world’s largest rodent, but it was getting dark and wandering about after nightfall was discouraged. We were after all deep inside Corbett’s buffer zone.

And the location was as remote as it was stunning. Cliffs rose to our right in stark, rocky contrast to the lush, forested slopes on our left and through this canyon cut the Ramganga, reduced to a fast flowing channel tumbling between the wide, tree and boulder-strewn river bed that testified to the river’s Monsoon madness. Raucous cackles rang out as we climbed onto a well trodden path leading to roofs half hidden among the trees and a flock of laughing thrushes beat a hasty retreat into the surrounding bushes.

The waterfall

Vanghat’s handful of buildings are built from locally sourced materials and include four mud brick and thatch cabins and a thatched African-style eating pavilion for guests along with separate accommodation for staff. Two towering, venerable silk cotton trees overshadowed the tended but un-manicured gardens which had been planted to attract wildlife. Sure enough the path to our cabin still bore the traces of wandering elephants and fresh tiger and leopard pug marks and hoof imprints appeared on the beach each morning during our stay.

As the light withdrew up the canyon walls, highlighting the acrobatic Himalayan goral clinging to the stony flanks, we gathered for drinks around the campfire. The flames crackled, the Ramganga rumbled and the sky above turned inky black, splashed with an impossibly clear milky way. Sumantha showed us a film of the park and shared more stories. And what stories they were, from the marauding man-eaters of old to more recent tales of a no less aggressive herd of elephants that visits the Park each summer and whose members seek out and kill monitor lizards which they drape over their bulging foreheads like gory toupees. As we relinquished our seats by the flickering fire and retired to the dining cabin for a delicious, freshly cooked meal, Sumantha added that he’d once watched one elephant place a live turtle on its head and couldn’t decide whether the turtle or the elephant was more surprised when the reptile finally poked its head and feet from its shell and discovered the precariousness of its situation. It was late when we finally withdrew to our spacious cabin and sunk into bed and sleep, as around us the deer barked and the river rapids growled.

The next six days passed in a blur. One of the most memorable was spent exploring the lodge’s surroundings on foot, a privilege, for hiking in the buffer zone is being constantly curtailed. The guided morning trek added to our growing bird tally and uncovered a wild boar believed to have been killed by a leopard, as well as cannabis literally growing like weed from the sandy banks. In the afternoon we ventured down and across the Ramganga, thigh-deep in its cool but insistently tugging water, to a waterfall, spotting more birds, butterflies, turtles and a troupe of graceful langurs.

The remaining days began when the sun hadn’t yet risen and ended long after it had sunk. We hiked to and from the road and drove into and around the Park, encountering a myriad of iconic animals in their unspoiled, natural surroundings. Sumantha also introduced us to a woman’s guild where we stocked up on local, organic produce and to the nearby breeding colony of rare, white-rumped vultures. Once the most prevalent raptor in the world and numbering in the millions, white-rumped vulture populations fell by 99.7% during the 1990s, the victims of diclofenac, a veterinary drug used to treat inflammation in cattle but which is fatal to vultures. Despite being taken off the market, the drug is still available and vulture numbers keep dropping, so it was a relief to catch a glimpse of the bald head of a vulture nestling pocking from the rim of the nest safe for now high up its silk cotton tree.

Jim Corbett National Park Established in 1936 and named after Jim Corbett (1875-1955), the hunter turned naturalist, India’s first National Park encompasses 1,288 square kilometres (including the buffer zone) and is home to over 600 species of birds, 43 species of fish, 25 species of reptiles and 55 species of mammals, including one of the highest concentrations of wild tigers in India. The WWF’s Project Tiger was launched here in 1973 and the initiative has since spawned a further 39 tiger reserves across the country. The Park’s mean elevation is 400 m, peaking at Kanda (1,110 m). Grasslands make up 10% of the park, with forests of sal, pipal, haldu and rohini making up a further 75%. Visitors to Corbett require a permit, an official jeep (open-topped and sided Gypsies) and driver and or guide and can enter any of the four Tourist Zones each accessed via separate gates and each offering differing types of scenery and wildlife encounters. Elephant safaris and accommodation are also available and Corbett is the only National Park in India allowing visitors to overnight in what it terms Forest Rest Houses (FRH), but visitors without accommodation can also enter as half day guests.

After a full day of driving, we still had the hike back to the lodge to look forward to and we came to relish these evening and morning hikes not just as an ideal antidote for a day spent cooped up in the Gypsy, but because they rewarded us with some superb wildlife encounters, including an elusive leopard cat and a long-tailed nightjar that was so sure of its camouflage we could have stepped on it. Other lucky guests have apparently come across elephants and sometimes even leopards.

And everywhere we went the Ramganga followed, bouncing and bubbling over canyon rocks, pausing in silty pools, before sweeping swiftly beneath our Gypsy’s belly to back up in the thick, greasy reservoir at the heart of the Park. At times clear and fast flowing, at others sluggish and murky, it offered up sightings of spindly-muzzled gharial and more muscular muggers hauled out along its sandy banks to enormous goonch catfish stuck to the bottom like giant commas encircled by schools of darting mahseer, the golden carp of the Himalayas so prized by anglers. Mammals and birds were drawn to its refreshing and nourishing waters too. Hog deer, the most elusive of Corbett’s four species of deer, skulked along it banks while elephants wallowed noisily in its pools. Lesser fish eagles and a multitude of colourful kingfishers scoured its depths from the air or some woody perch as dainty redstarts and river lapwings danced and dodged along its shores.

We visited the Bijrani, Lohachour and Dhikala zones as day guests and stayed two nights in the latter’s FRH which is stunningly located overlooking the extensive grasslands and large Kalagarh Reservoir. This 82 square kilometre man-made lake is held back by the largest earthen dam in India erected in 1974 amid great controversy as it should never have been built inside a National Park. Surprisingly it was one of my favourite places in Corbett, despite my dislike of unnatural tidemarks and man-made objects marring the natural world. Twice we ventured from the bustling Dhikala FRH, forded the Ramganga and regained the shady jambul forest where we never encountered another vehicle but where our guide, JP, pointed out the claw marks left on a trunk by a hungry sloth bear in search of wild honey as well as Hume Hill, named after the naturalist killed by a tiger after he left the safety of his Gypsy to photograph an owl. It’s amazing to think that walking inside the park was permitted as recently as the 1980s. Not anymore, precautions have been taken and rules tightened. The Park’s FRHs have also been enclosed in protective electric fences after a tourist was pulled from his room. Unlike those around the villages, these fences work.

Twice we heard the bark of a startled sambar, before rolling down through the grass, flushing a peacock into a tree hung with delicate weaver bird nests, to the water’s edge. Nafees, our driver, cut the engine and peace descended. The Kalagarh Reservoir stretched before us mirroring the empty expanse of sky and slashed in two by the sweep of grassland on the opposite bank and our FRH reduced to a speck at the Ramganga’s mouth. Not a contrail in sight. The only other place on our travels where we’ve witnessed such pristine skies was in western Australia. A formation of little cormorants detached itself from the distant horizon and headed out over the water in a wobbly, dark line, mirroring the V left by the mugger that had slid soundlessly from the bank away from us. JP disembarked, strode to the water’s edge and stood staring out across the smooth surface, no doubt dreaming of the large mahseer that swim unmolested since the reservoir was built. I snapped a picture which remains one of my favorite of the Park.

Sumantha and JP enjoying breakfast in Bijrani
Crested serpent eagle
a pair of tuskers (only male Asian elephants sport large tusks) behaving indecently

On our last afternoon and night in Corbett, we were recrossing the Ramganga when we spied an elephant family enjoying a drink and bath. We cut the engine and watched as the Ramganga gurgled and tugged at our tyres and the sun sank towards the hazy forest. Our stay in Corbett and Uttarakhand had been amazing. We’d seen many iconic creatures in natural, wild surroundings that rivalled those found on our beloved Pacific west coast. Our bird list had grown to over 200 species without even trying and we’d encountered a tiger, albeit the same individual, twice. I never imagined India contained such pockets of unsullied wilderness and such rich wildlife. Both are testimony to the inhabitants’ tolerant culture and the determination of locals and authorities to preserve them. That such wild places can still exist in today’s increasingly mechanised, modernised and crowded world is amazing, encouraging and uplifting. Nafees started the engine and we wove our way slowly back to Dhikala.

The last indelible image I have of the Park is of the Ramganga of course.

The sun lifted over the hills washing the river and its banks gold and outlining the dark slashes of the surrounding vegetation. A true tiger sunrise, almost as spectacular as the lithe, striped cat that miraculously, in this crowded country of over 1 billion people, still stalks the land.

Bern, March 2014

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This post was written by Vanghat Admin