In the footsteps of Champions - Part 3

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November 25th 2007
Published: November 25th 2007
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Tiger 1926Tiger 1926Tiger 1926

One of F W Champion's most famous night-time flashlight tiger pictures, taken using his tripwire system
Third India Report

My last installment ended with the departure of my parents and cousin from Delhi, and since then many things have happened!

The original plan was that a team of television camera people would travel out to join me, and we would then spend three weeks travelling around and filming the places associated with my grandfather and interviewing people doing the same work as he had done seventy years earlier. In fact, after much postponing and changing of dates, it emerged that in fact permission had not come through from the Indian government - all foreign tv crews must obtain permission before being allowed to film in India, and the legal processes required can take months. Finally, after a lot of embarrassing changes of plan, I cancelled the whole thing, and decided to do an exploratory mission instead, putting together a much better programme which can be filmed at a more suitable future date.

I was joined in this stage by one member of the tv team, Szvetlana Acs, and we worked hard at putting together the programme, as well as visiting further areas where my grandfather had been active. We travelled first from Delhi back
Tiger 1925Tiger 1925Tiger 1925

Another of F W Champion's most famous night-time flashlight tiger pictures, taken using his tripwire system
up to Dehra Dun, and then almost immediately set off to visit the Chilla area of the Rajaji National Park, one of my grandfather’s very favourite tiger photographing areas back in the 1920’s and 30’s. Although sadly damaged by a deep hydro-electric water channel, this area still harbours good populations of wildlife, and our goal here was to meet and interview a team who are using a modern version of my grandfather’s “camera trapping” method to automatically photograph animals by night using infra-red beams and sensors (my grandfather had used a trip wire and pressure pad and a magnesium flash for his early version of this technique). We were shown the modern system, and the photographs obtained, and while we did not see any tigers here, we did see numerous footprints as well as wild elephants and several other interesting animals.

Following an excellent few days in the peace and tranquility of the Rajaji park, we received a rude reintroduction to modern Indian chaos when we stayed overnight in Haridwar, a Hindu pilgrimage town on the banks of the Ganges. All hotels in the centre seemed to be full, so we ended up in the “Disney Inn” on the
Modern camera trapModern camera trapModern camera trap

A modern camera trap, complete with sensor
bypass outside, and spent one of the noisiest nights imaginable, with car horns so loud that we might as well have been on the street!

From here we headed north to Rishikesh, another holy town where pilgrims take the waters of the Ganges to “purify” themselves. Luckily our hotel was just outside the town, with a wonderful view of the river and the thickly forested hills on the other side. This was the only place where I have ever had the pleasure of watching a Pallas’s Fish Eagle from my bedroom!

Rishikesh is a place where many people travel, even from Europe, to indulge in meditation and ayurvedic medicinal cures, but it seemed to us just another noisy, Indian town, so we rapidly moved on, having hired a Hindustan Ambassador car with a driver, Mr Sunder, to take us up into the mountains in search of the mysterious disappearing Gohna Lake! We contacted the Forest Department in Gopeshwar, an attractive hilltop town, and the local administrative centre, and we were kindly assisted in the preparations required for our trek by the Conservator and the DFO, and were put in touch with Mahinder, our excellent guide, and Biru, our
Rishikesh beautyRishikesh beautyRishikesh beauty

A beautiful lady at Rishikesh. Photo by Dr Szvetlana Acs
friendly porter.

Finally we were on our way, the Hindustan Ambassador bravely making it up to Nizmuddin, the trail head, where we left the usual Indian urban mess behind us! A shortish trek of 6 kms brought us to the great landslide that had formed the lake in 1893, blocking the valley and allowing water to pile up behind it. My particular interest in this place stemmed from the fact that my great grandfather, Capt Keith Stewart of the Royal Garhwal Rifles, had visited and photographed the lake in 1894, and my grandparents had revisited it in 1936, spending a week fishing for the excellent brown trout that then inhabited the dark waters. My grandfather had written an article about his trip, and we were able to retrace his steps and find the locations that he had also photographed.

But what made this visit still more interesting was that in 1971 there was another enormous landslide, and the valley became unblocked, allowing all the water of the lake to escape down the Birahi Ganga river, so the lake totally disappeared - it must be the lake with the shortest history in the World! We stayed in a beautifully
Gohna Lake 1894Gohna Lake 1894Gohna Lake 1894

A shot of the newly formed Gohna Lake in 1894, showing the huge landslide and the potential for the disastrous flooding downstream that in fact occurred afterwards
situated but dilapidated Forest Rest House overlooking the ex-lake (it is now a stoney valley), and spent the following day relocating the sites from which the photographs had been taken in 1894 and 1936, and retaking the same views for comparison.

From here we had to retrace our steps back down the valley to Gohna village, before commencing the very long and steep ascent through oak forests to the isolated village of Tanaktal, where we were to spend the night. We were amused by the guide’s method of locating accommodation - as we entered the village, he just yelled out “Kamra” (room) a couple of times, and a room was immediately offered in a very basic house inhabited by a friendly lady and her stoned husband! We spent a very cold but enjoyable evening huddled around a campfire outside this house (the interior was so small and smokey that we could not go in!), and the following morning we completed the final stages of our climb to the high pass, from where we were treated to a stupendous panorama of Himalayan peaks, glistening white against the clear blue sky.

We then descended to the thriving village of Ramni,
Gohna Lake 2006Gohna Lake 2006Gohna Lake 2006

A shot of the same view today, showing the empty space where the Gohna Lake had been
where my grandparents had made their camp back in 1936. Here again we stayed with local people before dropping down a very long and steep trail to Ghat, where Mr Sunder and the trusty Ambassador were waiting for us.

Having spent the night in a grim government guesthouse in Gwaldam, a cold town in the shadows of the great holy mountain Trisul, the Trident, we drove down into the plains, and we stayed at the luxurious Camp Corbett, where our self-imposed vegetarianism was relaxed and we sampled some delicious chicken!

From here it was a short drive to Ramnagar, entry point to the Corbett National Park, where numerous administrative tasks such as money changing, provision buying and permit applying had to be performed, before we were finally aboard our Gypsy jeep and on our way into the Park, where we spent the next five days.

This area was also one of my grandfather’s particular favourite photography spots, and indeed he had played an important role in the founding of the Park in 1936. My goal here was to meet the current staff and find out how their efforts were paying off in terms of conservation successes, as
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A fine herd of Chital, one of the tigers' main food sources. Photo by Dr Szvetlana Acs.
well as to observe and photograph the wildlife today. We were very well looked after by Mr Brijendra Singh, Honorary Director of the Park, as well as by Mr Rajiv Bhartari, Director, and Mr Parag Madhukar, Deputy Director.

The procedure here is to take jeep drives or elephant rides, either very early in the morning or late in the afternoon, both of which we did on the first full day, and although we saw numerous tiger signs and plenty of other wildlife, the great cats themselves were still eluding me! However, on the second morning, after our game drive, we were suddenly summoned to Brijendra Singh’s residence, which overlooks the Ramganga river and a huge expanse of grassland beyond, and here we found Brij and a large group of exchange students from Seattle University scanning the area with binoculars. Apparently two tigers had been located hunting chital (spotted deer) in the long grass, but by the time we arrived, they had disappeared into cover.

After various false alarms, suddenly the flaming orange back of a tiger appeared, just showing above the long dry grass, and it moved slowly to the right, following a group of chital that seemed
Tiger at last!Tiger at last!Tiger at last!

Our best tiger - perhaps the descendant of one of the tigers that F W Champion photographed in the 1920's!? Photo by Dr Szvetlana Acs
unaware of the danger lurking so close to them. At one point the tiger was so close that a couple of springs would have allowed it to catch a fine chital stag, but perhaps it was not really hungry, as it did not seize the chance, eventually disappearing slowly out of view in the elephant grass.

This was to be just the first of four excellent tiger sightings, including one close encounter on a track in the grasslands to the west of Dhikala, during which we were able to obtain quite decent photographs and wonder at the power and beauty of the great beast. We also had excellent sightings of numerous other animals including wild elephants, four types of deer, wild boar, mongoose, and I finally pushed my Indian bird list over 300 species!

All too soon our time was up, and we returned to Camp Corbett for some more luxury chicken, and the following day we made the very long and arduous journey on appalling roads to Dudhwa National Park, another of my grandfather’s former stamping grounds. There was one rather unpleasant moment on the way, when our driver decided to take a short cut through a
Rhinos at DudhwaRhinos at DudhwaRhinos at Dudhwa

A mother Great Indian Rhino with her calf at Dudhwa. Photo by Dr Szvetlana Acs
very poor and grim part of the rough town of Haldwani, and we found ourselves completely stuck in a total maelstrom of suger cane trucks, mule carts, busses and highly frustrated people. Our driver suddenly became afraid, reversed the car in order to turn back, and hit another vehicle. The situation looked worrying for a moment, but we finally managed to extract ourselves from the chaos, and he found an alternative route.

Dudhwa is another important tiger reserve consisting mostly of low-lying sal forest, areas of long elephant grass and swampy areas. The current estimate is of a population of 77 tigers, with another 22 in the adjacent Kishanpur sanctuary, and whilst I cannot vouch for the truth of these figures, certainly on virtually every sandy track we travelled along there were numerous pugmarks of tiger, so there is clearly still a healthy population here. Sadly, however, they are particularly vulnerable, as the Park lies right against the Nepal border, with plenty of opportunities for poaching and spiriting the body parts across the frontier and on to China. However, poaching seems to be under control at the moment due to the valiant efforts of the Director, Mr M P
A momentous tea partyA momentous tea partyA momentous tea party

With Billy Arjan Singh (bottom right) and John Wakefield (bottom left), both of whom knew F W Champion personally, and Mr M P Singh, Director of Dudhwa National Park
Singh, the Deputy Director, Mr P P Singh, and the hard working team of staff in the Park.

We were granted special permission to stay in a VIP Forest Rest House at the far end of the Park at Bilraien, which was lucky as it is situated close to the Forest Department’s North Kheri field station, scene of my grandfather’s last posting in India. We visited the current Range Officer there, and even walked to North Kheri station, where my father had damaged a tooth while playing on a pile of railway sleepers as a small child - he still bears the mark today!

Again we did many jeep safaris and an elephant ride, and we were treated to the sight of three Great Indian Rhinoceroses, including one mother and her calf, which allowed a very close approach. The third animal had a gaping red wound on its backside, which had apparently been caused by a tiger attack (although it could equally well have been from an attack of a rival Rhino). The Rhinos here are the result of a reintroduction programme from Assam, and there are now 22. They are heavily protected against poaching for the highly lucrative Chinese medicine market, and require constant monitoring to make sure nothing untoward happens to them.

The Park also has several elevated watchtowers, from which fantastic views of marshy areas with countless birds can be had, including the highly endangered Lesser Adjutant Stork, Sarus Crane and Grey-headed Fishing Eagle, as well as large herds of the rare Swamp Deer.

The grand finale of our time in Dudhwa as a very enjoyable visit to Tiger Haven, home of legendary tiger protector Billy Arjan Singh, where we had tea with the 89-year-old Billy and 91-year-old John Wakefield, both of whom remembered my grandfather well and were able to recount many tales of their meetings with him.

That evening we boarded an overnight bus for what turned out to be a horrendously uncomfortable journey back to Delhi, with piercingly loud Indian music blaring out of a speaker directly above our heads - enough to make even the most seasoned traveller blanch!

And so ended that stage of my journey! I am now in a grotty hotel in dodgy part of town, preparing for the final leg, which will involve a final trip back north to Dehra Dun, where I shall give a presentation to the Wildlife Institute of India on my findings, as well as helping to restore the national collection of butterflies in the Forest Research Institute, and then I travel to Bombay....and then home on the 22nd.


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