A week in India’s oldest park As somebody who is a wildlife lover, it took me over a decade to do my maiden trip to Corbett – India’s first Tiger Reserve and Asia’s first National Park! Of course, the husband has been there several times and has regaled me with stories of sighting elephant herds and numerous pretty birds. His stories had etched a wonderful picture of the park in my mind and oh, how much I looked forward to the trip this January!
Having tucked Silly (our cocker spaniel) into his boarding, we took off to Delhi excited with the idea of fully experiencing Corbett, and with a tinge of guilt — Silly left on his own for 10 full days. Delhi to Corbett was a quick 5-hr drive with the new tolled elevated highway, thanks to Madam Mayawati and our no-nonsense taxi driver, whose only aim for the day is to drop us and get back to Delhi before 6pm. We were received at our rendezvous point by Manoj Sharma, a very popular Himalayan bird guide who we had booked weeks in advance. Within five minutes of meeting him, he pointed out a Chestnut-headed Tesia in the undergrowth across. With a slow stream between us and the bird, we slowly edged our way to get better views. Of course, the Ramki’s excitement knew no bounds- one of his target birds in such short time of entering Corbett! However, as luck would have it, we just got to see the restless skulking tiny bird. We consoled ourselves – it was just our first session and we had a week in the area. Made a mental note to get back to the same spot. Our plan inside the Park was to start at the Mohan gate, travel through Lohachaur (fern laden moist forest popular for birding), reach Khanda (highest forest house in the Park), stay in Kanda for couple of nights, down to Dhikala (the oh-so-popular grassland), stay in Dikhala and come out of the Dhangari gate. Leaving behind the much-civilized Mohan in Manoj’s 4X4 jeep, we entered the park – a world of its own, so different, so unique – blue rivers, bright shingled banks, tall dark sal trees, mid-day golden sun rays filtering down, thick undergrowth, myriad bird calls, with a chance to bump into tigers, Himalayan bears, gorals et al at any given bend of the forest jeep track. Our very first drive yielded interesting views and images of Golden-flanked Bush robin, Yellow-bellied fantail, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Red-throated Flycatcher, Plumbeous Redstart, White-capped water Redstart, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher. The highlight was a flock of about forty Silver-eared Mesias in the undergrowth near Lohachaur forest rest house. This after a relaxed lunch, at the Lohachaur FRH campus, of sandwiches and juice that Manoj had packed for us from Camp Forktail Creek (We later stayed in this camp for three nights, and man, what a place!) The climb to Kanda was as pretty as productive with sightings of Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Emerald Doves, Lineated Barbet, Himalayan & Black-crested Bulbuls, Crimson Sunbird, and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush. Reached Kanda just after dark and found the FRH very well-equipped – two rooms with attached baths (shiny new chrome fittings), living room in the centre with a dining table in the corner and old sofa in the corner. We were impressed by the use of solar lighting in the rest house – solar panels powered the minimal yet sufficient lighting. Dinner was elaborate with the forest staff cooking us hot rotis, sabji and dal with provisions brought along by Manoj and Harbinder (driver, hospitality manager and everything else). A very important mention is the elaborate planning Manoj does in carrying linen (spotless white bedsheets, mattress covers, pillows and towels) so even an average forest resthouse is transformed in minutes to a homely and clean abode. Early morning, was a revelation in itself! We were taken aback by the impressive, almost a 360 degree, view from the forest rest house. The play golden light on the valley below and the lifting fog added drama to the view. We could see the almost red Dhikala grassland and the shining waters of the Ramganga below. After a quick morning walk among the tall pine forests and even quicker breakfast we were ready to explore the jungle. Earlier, Manoj received news of his mother’s hospitalization and he left for Ramnagar early morning after profuse apologies and a plethora of instructions to Harbinder, who was to play a major part in our subsequent Corbett adventures. The day was spent in two parts – first half, drive to Dhikala, second drive around Dhikala and head back to Kanda. The day offered us brilliant images of Whistler’s Warbler, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Black-lored Tit, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Eurasian Wryneck, Blue-throated Barbet, Grey-breasted Prinia (which were in big flocks). However, the highlight was spotting and spending over half an hour with a pair of Great Slaty woodpeckers. Manoj had already instructed us to keep our eyes and ears pen at a certain sal stretch before reaching Dhikala. A loud call made Harbinder step on the brakes just as we spotted one of the flew to a nearby tree. We moved closer and found it was a female inspecting a tree-hole high up a tree trunk. A few more calls from her brought the male (with its pink-red moustache) to the hole. Together and in turns, they consistently knocked on the hole to make it bigger. After numerous images but before a crowd of jeeps could form near us, we left the spot hugely happy and content. Dhikala came as a HUGE shock to me! After hearing numerous wonderful stories about the place, its grassland, the wildlife, the Ramganga… I was not prepared for the noisy tourist complex there. It was a full-fledged township bang in the middle of prime grassland habitat, with over 30 plus accommodations of various shapes and sizes for tourists, a large KMVN restaurant, a private dhaba, spread of housing for staff, an elephant shelter, library and even a post-office! And the Ramganga was way below… I was expecting for us to be on the bank of the river close to the waters, but that was not to be. One had to use binoculars to see any movement in the waters — elephant, chital, boar, etc. What the complex did was made up by the grassland – formed due to extensive agriculture decades ago and also because submerging of land due to the damming of Ramganga at Kalagarh. Drives in the grassland and also along the river with interludes inside dense dark sal forest were heavenly. Elephant herds (with tiny calfs), chital, barking deer, wild boar, rhesus macaques, and of course birds – raptors galore: Crested Serpent Eagle, Grey-headed Fish Eagles, Mountain Hawk Eagle (calling loudly and incessantly), Hen harrier, Black-shouldered Kite, Cinereous Vulture; Common Stone Chat, Grey Bush Chat, Long-tailed Shrikes. After a tedious climb back and another restful night back at Kanda FRH, we left next morning for Dhikala. We looked for the Great Slaty but in vain; realized we had been very lucky the last time. The grassland too proved not very productive that morning – no Hodgson’s Bushchat, no Hen Harrier either. We did sight numerous pipits, bush larks, pied bushchats and common stonechats which were constantly confusing us for the Hodgson’s Bushchat. After a heavy and relaxed lunch at the KMVN restaurant we ventured into the grassland again. The evening gave us fantastic views of the Hodgson’s Bushchat, a lifer for me. One look at it and you can be sure never to get it confused with the Common Stonechat – its larger size, broader white neck were giveaway signs. We again encountered a herd of elephants, this time with a crippled young calf and extremely protective mother and aunts. We also had a wonderful opportunity to watch a chital mother and her fawn cross the Ramganga gingerly yet surely. We also came across a sounder of wild boar, they looked quite different from their cousins in the south indian jungles with their long and sticking out hair all over their body especially their head. The night stay was at one of the 30-odd guest rooms of Dhikala tourist complex. Well-appointed with attached bath and even a geyser for hot water. Our last early morning drive in Dhikala proved to be the most adventurous. As we slowly left the grassland to enter the thick sal forest driving along Sambhar road away from Dhikala, Harbinder almost missed a tiger sitting on a fireline. Sudden brake, quick reverse gear and a step on the pedal took us back by a few meters in a flash. And there it was the big ochre beauty amidst the moist grass, thick morning mist and warm golden sun. Seconds later, Ramki cried “I see another tiger… there is another one!” Sure enough, the head of a second tiger popped up from the floor of the grass. With quick successive stares at us, the duo interacted with each other snarling and brushing against one another, stood up and quickly faded quickly faded into the tall grass. Harbinder was the quick to act. He figured that they would come out of the grassland, cross the jeep track at a certain point and enter the forest. And just as he predicted, the tigers came out crossed and went into the thick jungle, this time not without giving us a few poses at fairly point-blank range. Harbinder then decided that waiting 2km further up the jeep track (main Dhikala road) would be a good idea as the pair would have to cross the track again. We weren’t sure if we would get third time lucky, but gave in to his plan as we had nothing better to do. And to our surprise the tigers came out, after making a herd of chital get into a cacophony of alarm. They majestically crossed the fairly wide jeep road giving us a few disapproving snarls and went into the jungle on the other side. We were totally floored… Corbett is a great place for sighting tigers but sighting two and that too three times for a first timer in Corbett…was really special! Harbinder thought we should track them 5km further ahead but decided to give up the chance to another jeepfull of enthusiastic wildlife tourists. (And they did see the pair about 5km ahead!) Celebrating the awesome experience we made our way back to Dhangari with a quick stop at ‘Highpoint’ to see the famed Gharials of Corbett. In the clear waters of the Ramganga below we spotted a few turtles and a lone gharial which had a large cloth caught in its long snout. Just as we thought our Corbett experience had come to an end, a turn at a bend found us in front of another large tiger (maybe a tigress)! In two quick leaps it crossed the wide road disappeared into the bush as quickly as it had appeared. It took as a while to realize that we had seen our third tiger in one morning! Heady with so much adventure, we made our way back to Dhangari and to our next stop — the delightful Camp Forktail Creek. Camp Forktail Creek is situated in the midst of dense sal on the north-eastern periphery of Corbett Tiger Reserve near Bhakrakhot village above Mohan. The Camp is fabulous in almost every aspect — great birdlife, great cottages, great hospitality & food, and not the least, great people (all of them). We spent three nights in CFC and had an absolutely fabulous time birding in and around camp. Resident bird guide Harry (Hari for Indian guests!) was extremely knowledgeable about the local bird movements and helped us photograph several lifers including Chestnut-headed and Grey-bellied Tesias, Siberian Rubythroat, Beautiful Niltava, many Flycatchers. On the final day, we also met with the delightful couple who own and run the Camp (though the camp is well run even in their absence!) — Ritish and Minakshi — and their passion for Corbett was infectious. This was easily one of the finest eco-lodges in the country and an absolute must for any nature lover to visit. Our trip came to an end with an amazing bird list (and an equally impressive p-lifer list for Ramki) and several sterling natural history experiences — birds, mammals, reptiles and just pure wilderness that is Corbett. –swarna