Published: July 6th 2006December 9th 2004
After 50 days, 20 cities, almost 180 hours of travel, including transport on train, bus, taxi, rickshaw, autorickshaw, motorcycle, and camel; staying in substandard accommodation, getting used to showering by either a bucket or through trickles of lukewarm water, enjoying dinners for $1.20 (including two mains, two sides, dessert and unlimited bread), buying samosas for six cents and bananas three, avoiding unusual vegetarian meals (such as baked bean pizza) and after taking over 2000 photos, it was time to visit the final destination of these holidays - the Corbett Tiger Reserve just north of Delhi.
The legendary Jim Corbett (who used to hunt tigers with a preference for human flesh) established India's first National Park in 1936 and it is one of the premier sites in India to go searching for a tiger - they have 143 of them, which is far and away the largest number of any park in India. After leaving Agra, I visited the famous and beautifully rendered temples of Khajuraho (also known as the Kama Sutra temples due to the number of copulating couples carved on them) which then necessitated another 24 hour journey in varying means of transport to cross the countryside to visit this pristine park.
Thankfully, my journey was broken by some most exciting and unexpected news. Whilst at the Taj Mahal, I was interviewed by a journalist from the Indian weekly English paper, the Sahara Times. He asked me about my impressions of the country and of the Taj. Well, I purchased a copy of the December 11 edition at Delhi, and there, on page 34 was my name in print, in fact a whole paragraph had been devoted to my musings on the Taj. They say that travellers should leave only footprints, well for me, I can also say that I have been immortalised in an Indian newspaper as well!
Anyway, back to Corbett National Park - the main reason for visiting here was that it allowed me the opportunity to take an elephant safari into the forest. There are two a day - one in the afternoon and one at sunrise. After journeying for an hour and a half by jeep through some spectacular countryside at the foothills of the mountains, I arrived at the Park, and immediately prepared for the first safari.
Three other tourists and myself, clambered aboard a gentle looking elephant and began our lumbering trek into the forest. My initial thought about being on an elephant is that it was a long way to the ground. My second was how incredibly adaptable the elephant was to any type of terrain. Whether we were trampling through incredibly thick undergrowth, across grassy plains, or up and down rock-strewn dry riverbeds - the elephant, more than any other beast I have ridden, was master of them all.
The first part of our journey was across the yellow grasslands surrounding the forests - the weighty plod of the elephant's feet and the rustle of the tall grasses in the refreshing breeze were the only sounds to be heard. We saw many deer and cheetals, and a few birds. However, the safari became more interesting when we plunged into the thick forest. The thud of footsteps was replaced by the constant cracking of bushes and twigs. Occasionally, I would see the elephant’s trunk swing wildly left or right in order to grab a sapling that looked particularly appealing.
It was now the only negative of travelling by elephant became apparent. The elephant made no allowance for the impact of low hanging branches on its passengers. I continually had to look ahead to fend off any branches that threatened to dislodge me from my seat. Sometimes, this was not possible to avoid, so I caught a head full of leaves which contained varying pleasant aromas. One time though, we headed straight for a nasty looking thorn bush, but the handler (also riding on the elephant) halted the elephant just before half the passengers (including me) became impaled. Because the undergrowth was so incredibly dense, I could not see the animals until I was literally upon them. Every time a forest dweller would appear a matter of meters away, it would either leap away in fright, or stare at the passing elephant with its curious cargo.
The main interest of this trek though was to search for the elusive tiger, which unfortunately was elusive. I had many false sightings, such as a line of dead brown leaves, or an orange coloured monkey frolicking in the distance, but it was difficult to distinguish the jungle from a tiger. After two hours of rocking and lolling, we exited the forest as the sun set in the west.
Following a bitterly cold night spent sleeping in incredibly basic and unfriendly dorms, I awoke for the dawn elephant safari which commenced at 0645. If yesterday's ride was memorable, then this one was magical. A heavy, thick fog had blanketed the entire area and as we left camp in the pre-dawn light, we rode into the grassland and a thick layer of fog. Visibility was drastically reduced, so I felt like we were riding in a mystical haze, with only the odd silhouette of an immense tree to break the hazy surroundings. The elephant that followed mine looked incredible as it waddled along through the tall yellow grass against a background of enveloping white fog.
By the time we arrived at the forest, the fog had lifted a little, but the trees in the distance were still hidden from view. Our early morning arrival meant that large dew drops would fall on our heads from the forest canopy far above, so it felt and sounded like a gentle rain was fallings. The moisture on the foliage was most apparent as when we brushed passed another bush, our legs and shoes would be smeared with water. More disconcerting thought was that we were at the perfect height for spiders to build their webs, and we charged through far too many webs (with spiders) for my comfort. I had to keep pulling strands of webs from my clothes and hair, and once, needed to gently remove a small white arachnid crawling up my leg.
Halfway through the two hour safari, I heard the distinctive growl of a tiger. The elephant stopped and all ears were primed. We sat there eagerly listening for another sign, but it was not forthcoming, so we headed off in the direction of the noise. However, without any further audible indicators, and the presence of the thick undergrowth made the trail go quickly cold, and our chance to sight a tiger was gone.
Funnily though, it didn't seem to matter, for the jungle scenery was spectacular - the sun's first rays illuminated thin shafts of sunlight that pierced the fog and coloured the trees with an orange glow. All of this was accompanied by the sounds of twittering birds and playful monkeys and it felt like I'd wandered into the set of an old Tarzan movie.
For the final time, we left the forest, and again the elusive tiger proved to be just that - but it is probably a great excuse to return and try it all again until I spot a tiger. Though I had seen many glorious temples, forts and buildings during the last 50 days, my time in the jungle reinforced to me that nothing is more beautiful than the glory of nature and the myriad of flora and fauna it contains.