Man-Eaters of Kumaon

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March 6th 2009
Published: May 14th 2009
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Way back when I was a nipper my Dad did his very best as the dutiful parent, taking time out of his busy schedule to sit us down each night and read a bedtime story, our own personal Jackanory. I’d sit expectantly with my brother and sister in a semi-circle before him, watching the sparkles of excitement leap from their eyes as they lapped up his slow baritone delivery of The Arabian Nights or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Personally, I hated it.

After all, we had a perfectly good telly in the corner adept at providing endless hours of trashy entertainment without the need for so much as an Abracadabra. Most of the best of the tacky stuff was on ITV, but I had to squeeze them in before Dad got home as he wasn’t a fan of commercial television. Needless to say, over the years he hasn’t changed his tune, and is still not a regular voter come Big Brother eviction night.

The main problem was not the medium itself, nor the style of delivery, but my Dad’s choice of titles. Clearly the hidden agenda was mind expansion, and as a result Noddy and Big-Ears never got a look-in. Compounding this was the fact that I was very much the youngest, my sister’s mind at five years older being considerably more expansive than my own.

Thus while I just about coped with Ali Baba at 3, and Treasure Island at 4, hitting me with The Iliad at 5 proved just a bit too much, and I’d be recurrently chastised for inattention when my mind wandered off from Paris and Helen to Ken Dodd and the Diddy-men, which might just be on the box about now.
Nevertheless I still have few problems rattling off names of the likes of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Odysseus, Ajax, Achilles, Patroclus or Persephone, while being completely unable to name a single one of Thomas the Tank Engine’s friends. I’m sure my father would maintain that this is a good thing, but it didn’t exactly make for a seamless transition into a glorious social circle on my first day of primary school, nor even, know I come think of it, of university.

His only selection to ever grab my attention was The Hobbit, a magical tale of elves, dragons and wizards which had me completely enthralled, but was rapidly written off as preposterous low-brow fantasy nonsense by my siblings. I hate to admit that a recent re-reading has led me to conclude they may actually have had a point.

Before much longer my father raised the white flag and gave up reading to me entirely, going back to his paper while I happily soaked up Starsky and Hutch. It turns out his attempts at literary appreciation were not a total waste though, as even I couldn’t stomach The A-Team.

In one final throw-of-the-dice he tossed me a hardback one Saturday morning on his return from the library.

“You never know, even you might like that one!”

First impressions didn’t look promising. The cover was completely devoid of goblins or castles, just a plain orange canvas like something out of the thirties. It did at least look mercifully short, and that, together with the intriguing title, persuaded me to give it a closer look.

Man-Eaters of Kumaon.

I’d no idea who or what The Kumaon were, but they sounded like the kind of folk who pop-up in Star Trek every once in a while, and clearly there was bloodshed involved, so all-in-all things looked promising.
Tiger in the Grass!Tiger in the Grass!Tiger in the Grass!

Look closely, he's in there somewhere!

A brief acquaintance revealed it really had been written in the thirties, and was set not in space, which had obviously yet to be explored, but in India, way back in the days when everything was still in black-and-white. It followed the exploits of its author and hero, Jim Corbett, a sort of latter day Steve Irwin who’d boldly go where no man had gone before, exactly the kind of bloke you could call on whenever a tiger made off with one of the family. I can remember being in two minds about our Jim, as the only other Corbett I knew was Ronnie, who didn’t look liable to take on the wildest of beasts. Luckily though, Jim was also my father’s name, and as he’d been known to wander the odd jungle it didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture my heroic Dad stalking the landscape in search of a large felines who’d eaten my brother, which didn’t upset me overly as I’d never entirely forgiven him for all those Hobbit jibes.

By Sunday night I’d read from cover to cover, the first book to really get under my skin, and was doubly astonished when my father revealed it was all true. Unlike The Hobbit, Star Trek, or even Starsky and Hutch, there really was a place where scary monsters might one day eat you for breakfast if you weren’t quick to call in the cavalry. Right there and then I decided that when I grew up I’d be a hunter. Some might say I’ve failed to live up to my dreams, but as no-one in my family has yet been eaten by wild animals, I maintain I’m biding my time.

Over the years Jim Corbett and his man-eating chums somewhat slipped from my mind, until flicking through Lonely Planet I stumbled across Corbett National Park, lying slap bang in the middle of a region known as The Kumaon. No surely, it couldn’t be!

It turned out that just after writing his book Jim had something of an epiphany, and grasped that if he kept shooting tigers at this rate there’d soon be none left. Realising that some people, himself included, really rather liked them, and that he’d already confessed in writing to triggering their near extinction, he suddenly changed his tune and began a campaign for their protection, choosing to shoot them from now on only with his camera. Shortly after he was instrumental in establishing India’s very first National Park, setting aside an impressively large chunk of the Kumaon as a sanctuary zone. You have to marvel at how he managed this. It’s one thing protecting the panda, saving the whales, or trumpeting for the lesser tit-warbler, quite another to persuade the reluctant locals of the value of a beast which every so often likes to eat one of them.

Impressive feat, you have to admit.

Corbett National Park has since expanded, and remains India’s number one tiger reserve, which makes it all the more remarkable that so few have ever heard of it. It’s something of a nightmare to get to, as in that unique Indian manner, every single bureaucratic obstacle is employed to thwart the quest for the main attraction. Even in nearby Rishikesh few seemed to know anything about the park or how to get there.

In a classic colonial throwback it’s still presumed that anyone wanting to shoot a tiger, even with a camera, must be rich indeed, and prices are set accordingly. This keeps the numbers down nicely, but nevertheless there’s a hefty waiting list, and having stumbled on the park at the last minute there seemed little chance of attending without a hefty fee.

Only one agent seemed confident of getting us in at anything like a realistic price. The sole alternative was to take a 5 hour public bus to the entrance and try to blag our way through the gate, relying on a lucky cancellation. As anyone who has survived a public bus trip in India will verify, you’re not likely to risk one without guaranteed results.

The only snag was that Debbie had taken a distinct disliking to this particular agent even before our initial enquiry. To be honest, it wasn’t hard to see why. He’d peer out sycophantically as you passed in the street, a shiny slimy individual with beady conniving eyes and a simpering manner, to be trusted no further than spat. That he himself could spit clean across the street was no reassurance, and Debbie had already named him ‘The Weasel’.

His offer seemed almost too good to be true, and we decided to sleep on it, much comforted the next day when his more sincere senior brothers repeated the quote and agreed a written itinerary. We were still mulling it over when the Weasel himself burst in and slashed a further thousand rupees off the price. A four day trip in our own private car with full room and board was now not much more than the bus trip. What the hell, we’d give it a go. A delighted Weasel told us to turn up the next morning and we’d be off on our way. We ate well that evening, eagerly chatting over the days ahead, and relieved that, with the deal finally done, we’d no longer need to put up with The Weasel and his shifty ways.

Next day at 10 we rocked up as arranged to find no driver. The Weasel brushed off our fears and offered free internet while-you-wait, but even that wouldn’t work, his connection having failed. Just as our shackles were being well and truly raised the driver showed, a paltry 30-odd minutes late. He wasted no time in winning us over with his cheery smile, a large avuncular fellow with big round friendly eyes and a shock off brown hair, chalk to the Weasel’s cheese, and we dubbed him ‘The Vole’. He slipped us his business card and escorted us to the main square where his car was parked. Curiously, despite his card depicting a shiny BMW, today he’d brought his battered Tata. Home-grown Tatas form the vast bulk of India’s traffic and, as the name suggests, most of them are indeed in tatters, dated and mismatched bodywork being de-rigueur.

We squeezed our bags into the tiny boot and jumped into our seats, eager to be on the move, and then... nothing, left to watch in bewilderment as the Vole ambled aimlessly around the square for a time, showing no immediate signs of moving on.

“Waiting,” he revealed on enquiry.

“For what?”


The Vole went on to explain that he was strictly the hired driver. In addition we would have a full-time guide to show us round the park and its surrounds.

Not too shabby! Things were starting to look up, if only he’d show.

After only another hour or so our guide magically appeared. That was the good news.

The bad news was that he was the Weasel.

As our hearts sank, we set off on what turned out to be a particularly noisy trip.

The Weasel and the Vole assured us that, despite their respective names, they were the very best of friends. This needed pointing out, as all their conversations were highly charged affairs conducted at full volume. They were insistent, however, that they were not arguing. They never argued. The very best of friends. All I can say is they were friends fond of particularly lively debates, many, but not all of which involved coming to physical blows.

Initially progress was rapid as The Vole drove like a bat out of hell. Unfortunately he also insisted on stopping at regular intervals for no apparent reason. He’d then set off again at a more reasonable pace with a mouthful of scarlet spit, but as each successive spit became pinker and weaker, the Vole got louder and faster, until eventually he could take it no more and we’d screech to a halt for his next fix. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the power of betel nut. All in all it made for a pretty interesting trip.

Even so, for us it was a marvel to travel through the countryside, the real India outside tourist-ville, and we were amazed onlookers as the Vole swerved and weaved between traffic with two, three and four wheels and creatures with two, three and four legs, all bearing impossibly heavy loads. We’d stop off at roadside stalls for a chai or lunch with the locals, the Weasel smarmy as always as he eked out the very best deals.

The trip ended up filling the whole day, lengthened considerably by puncture delays and the Vole belatedly realising he’d left his mobile at the lunch stop. In India, a man without a mobile is not a man at all, and the Vole’s driving reached new heights of terror as he thundered back to retrieve his manhood.

We spent our first night in Ramnagar just outside the park entrance, in a grotty basic hotel funded by the Weasel’s largesse. We turned in early as the Vole was due back at 8 the next morning to take us to the park proper, but sleep was prevented by the megaphone rantings of the local mosque, starting at nine and running right through the night. And boy, could this guy rant, a quite terrifying diatribe of Hitlerian bile and hatred, the flavour of which made one suspect, despite not understanding a word, that foreign visitors might not be high up on his personal popularity list. Finally running out of steam around five, we snatched a couple of hours’ shut-eye and we were up at 8 and eager to get the hell out of there.

Unfortunately the Vole was a no-show, the Weasel not answering his phone, and their shop in Rishikesh not picking up either. Three hours later I was just about ready to blow a gasket, ripped off, abandoned and unsure of my next move, when suddenly they rocked up.

“Sorry. Late. Car problems,” was all they’d reveal.

“So can we go to the park now?”

“Yes, yes, straight away. After lunch.”

“We’d like to go now. The day’s half over.”

“Yes, yes. First we go to park office. Then lunch. Then we go to park. Later. Maybe.”

It was obvious by now that the Weasel was in full Shifty mode, employing any delaying tactic he could think of. We’d later learn he’d never made the trip before, and had no idea just how expensive the park was, his morning spent rushing round fruitlessly chasing a decent deal. Luckily for us, his senior brothers, unaware of the scale of his ignorance, had signed off on our contract, and he was in for a hiding on his return home.

For the next few hours The Weasel and Vole played the Laurel & Hardy of scam artists, at which they proved rank amateurs, forever contradicting both their own and each other’s fabrications. The Weasel eventually carted us off to a park agent who he tried to get in on the scam, initially trying to bar me from the shop entirely, and when this proved impossible insisting no negotiations took place in English. Despite his best efforts the ruse was transparent. Before I knew it two days in the park had turned to one, two jeep safaris and an elephant ride reduced to just one trip, elephant or jeep, up to you. The Vole then burst in, and after a rapid Hindi update, announced elephants were out of the question.

“Not Possible. People have been going into the park on elephants and shooting tigers, so they’re now banned!”

Somehow he managed to keep a straight face, obviously forgetting that minutes before he’d pointed out others in the park happily enjoying their elephant rides. The agent by now didn’t know which way to look, his blushes saved moments later when in strode his boss, about 6 foot 4 with neatly trimmed moustache and an unmistakeable military bearing, the type to run a very tight ship. We’ll call him The Tiger.

“Can I help you, Sir?” he purred, surveying the scene with suspicion as he noted the others’ twitchy demeanour.

I related our predicament in fairly unflattering terms, the Weasel and Vole visibly shrinking in their shoes as the tale of their deception unfolded and The Tiger’s face registered more and more displeasure.

Once I’d finished The Vole piped up something in his defence, and The Tiger nearly bit his head off. Blind to the dangers and not having the gumption to shut up, he rapidly dug himself in even deeper and in seconds found himself physically ejected from the shop, to the general amusement of all except The Weasel, who was terrified word might reach back to his brothers. Prostrating himself on his knees, his pleading entreaties were painful to behold, but bore no weight with The Tiger, and before long he was out on the street too.
Raining Caterpillars!Raining Caterpillars!Raining Caterpillars!

Just one of the little critters knocked down on us by our elephant!

“I apologise for your difficulties, Sir. These men have tried to deceive you, have even asked me to lie to you for them. This trip they’ve offered you, I don’t see how it’s possible at this price. They either do not know their business or are trying to cheat you. My personal suspicion is that it’s both. Allow me a few moments to make some phone calls, and we’ll see what can be arranged.”

Twenty minutes later, The Weasel and The Vole were meekly driving us to the park entrance, our full package magically restored by our knight in orange and black striped armour. As a result, and most luckily for us, they now couldn’t afford the park fee for themselves, and it was left to our excellent jeep driver and official park guides to transport us to Dhikala, a small settlement in a beautiful setting in the park’s centre, where we were to spend the night. Jim Corbett didn’t disappoint, an untouched 1318 square kms of forest and grasslands choc-full of spotted deer, jungle fowl, barking deer, elephants, langur monkeys, crocodiles and the ever cheeky rhesus macquaces, and just as importantly a complete lack of weasles and
A.K.A. The TigerA.K.A. The TigerA.K.A. The Tiger

I'd Go With This Guy!
voles. And yes, we got to see our very own wild tiger, sunning itself in the long grass, quite remarkably camouflaged, almost invisible to the eye despite being only 20 or 30 yards away.

To spare the Weasel’s pocket we slept in a dorm with a couple of jovial retired Indians who’d made their fortunes in the Gulf, but had now returned home to Bombay. They were most insistent about this.

“Bombay. I tell you, it’s bloody Bombay. I don’t want to live in Mumbai. I was born in Bombay, I live in Bombay, and I tell you, I’ll bloody die in Bombay, no matter what these damn politicians may say!”

Apparently the name-change is about as popular with the locals as Gordon deciding to rename London Browntown, even if would be somehow appropriate.

Next day we shared an elephant with a couple of doctors from Bangalore, getting close to another tiger, but unable to flush it out of the undergrowth. Still it was a great way to get around, 4-leg drive proving even more versatile than 4-wheel, even if the beast showed a no concern for his load, constantly swiping us through the branches as
A.K.A. The WeaselA.K.A. The WeaselA.K.A. The Weasel

Don't Even Think About It!
he plodded on his merry way, showering us with insects and leaves.

Alas by lunchtime it was all over, and one last drive back through the park delivered us back into the clutches of our dynamic duo, the Weasel at his devious best insisting he’d had the whole thing arranged from the start.

“It would all have been great if only that man in the shop hadn’t tried to confuse you!” maintained the Vole, as he drove us off to catch our train to freedom.

Amazingly there were no tears as we said our goodbyes at the station, though I fear there may have been later that night when the Weasel opened his wallet and tried to explain his ‘profits’ to his brothers.

No doubt he blamed it all on the Vole: “That’s another fine mess he’s got me into!”

I don’t imagine he’ll be making the trip again anytime soon, at least not for that kind of money.

Corbett, it turns out, is well worth the entrance fee, but not, if you go with The Weasel, at any price.


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