Chapter 25 (ii) : Tiger’s meal on an elephant platter


Fools walk in where angels fear to tread.

Welcome to the All Fools’ Family.

Since there isn’t much to do now that the core reserve area of Dhikala has been closed down early, we scrounge around for options. Turns out there is still an interesting activity available in the buffer zone forest of Durga Devi—follow the tiger’s trail on elephant back.

Elephant-back in the wild

Elephant-back in the wild :image my own

I’d done this many, many years ago with MY father when I was 8—and we’d spotted a glorious, majestic orange tigress that time. So of course, our expectations were raised.

But that ride had been in Dhikala, a ‘proper’ forest, the kind you see on Discovery and Animal Planet—all golden-green grassland with herds and herds of thousands of cheetal—the spotted deer—shifting around as one big, hazy golden-brown-and-white-spotted cloud…

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

The gharial—critically endangered fresh water crocodiles— lazing around the Ramganga tricking you into taking them for slow creatures until one of them zips into the water.

Gharial at Dhikala : Image courtesy dailymail.co.uk

Gharial at Dhikala

Monkey shrieks rip the air in there, and wild boars appear right on the mud track. Ahh… it brings back scenes from my childhood: watching langurs fall splat-splat-splat from trees, actually a signal of a tiger being nearby; swaying in tune to the elephant’s gait as we approached the little clearing, watching the orange and black-striped tigress stand up warningly and gaze directly into our eyes. What a moment of pure awe and elation! A little guttural growl warns us off from treading too close into the territory of the Queen.

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

But this queen has competition from another species in the award for Most Menacing Mammal of the jungle. Tuskers— wild Asian bull elephants— are arguably the most hot-headed mafias of the forest—deceptively calm from a distance. I see that surprised look on your face—most dangerous? In the territory of the Royal Bengal Tiger? Well… let’s just say if the Tusker spies you ogling at his kin, you’d better make tracks or watch your vehicles turn to pulp—with yourself inside them.

corbett_Safari

Image courtesy corbettnationalpark.in

corbett 4

I kid you not—my mom almost didn’t make it back in one piece. She, along with some family friends, had been watching from a safe distance an elephant herd frolicking in the water. When they’d had their fill of elephant watching and turned to leave, they found their path blocked by a very irate Tusker, deliberately stopping their jeep from escaping.

Colonel Hathi

Colonel Hathi

Since I wasn’t inside that jeep, I can only imagine what the occupants of the vehicle would have been thinking. Saying their prayers, proabably? Imagining last words left unsaid and wills left unmade?

Well, they managed to get out of it alive, thanks to the driver who knew his way round the jungle as good as any animal; he zipped away in reverse— tires screeching— out-maneuvered colonel hathi, found an alternate route, and scrunched his foot down on the pedal!

But all of this is the distant, delicious past.

Right now, my mother, sister, husband, nine-month-old son and I are all set on the back of a tamed she-elephant who will take us inside the jungles of Durga Devi Buffer Zone.

The lovely Radha

The lovely Radha

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We have two bottles of water tucked under mine and sis’s arm, baby tucked securely in his Baba’s lap, soother firmly and thankfully stuck in baby’s mouth. Radha, the elephant, takes off into the wild, as the mahout chooses a horrible, uneven path to get there— right in the middle of a broad, shallow, uncovered drain-cum-trench, close to the homes of the tribes that live in the National Park’s buffer zone. He points to a dog-like creature sitting close to the homes: a jackal that’s been partly domesticated and now has a litter of three pups playing with the villagers’ kids.

I am unimpressed, though, because a) the memory of this morning’s rather fruitless jeep ride lays thick on my brain and b) I have done a little too much research and found warnings saying the mahouts will rip you off or fool you into believing you saw something that you really didn’t.

Finally we cross the disgusting drain and come out onto the river bed. Goodness, that snaking brown sludge of a river has shed years off her age! She’s a gushing little enchantress here, and the view on both sides is gloriously spectacular. The elephant moves right into the river, and the water comes up almost to the beast’s stomach!

Hills to the left, frothing river to the right, lean-muscled young boys with shiny brown skin swimming joyously around, and us perched on top of Radha, standing patiently in the middle of the river.

And then Radha decides she can’t resist the water, and as we were, after all, her guests, she had to ensure we didn’t miss the fun. So we are almost treated to the luxury of a priceless elephant-trunk-bath as Radha begins spraying herself cheerfully.

One cracking order from her master, with a sharp nudge of his feet, and the lady is back on duty.

Soon as we cross into the jungle, it is clear that this one is different— not the Animal Planet variety, but Jurassic Park. Literally.

At the edge of Durga Devi, venturing into the thickets. Pic my own

At the edge of Durga Devi, venturing into the thickets. Pic my own

Ferns and moss and thickets and huge grass—not golden but tropical green—growing haphazardly and eerily.

20130613_182657

The jungle, as viewed from elephant back

The vegetation is sparser at the edges, where we spot our first animals: couple of spotted deer. Farther ahead, there’s a ‘sambar’duo—the larger sized, unspotted species of deer in those parts.

The Sambhar

The Sambar

Cheetal--spotted deer

Cheetal — spotted deer

My mom, who’d probably live in a jungle given a chance, is clicking away happily. And the other one clicking away, to my surprise, is Silent Sajjad. He wasn’t very keen on the whole wildlife thing, but now he’s having a blast. I’m still unmoved, though. Just goes to show too much research isn’t always good.

“Keep your eyes open; I tell you there’s a tiger in here. It’s been dragging off cattle for a couple of days now. I guarantee it. You’ll get your tiger here,” the Mahout keeps assuring us.

Yeah, right, I think. Sure there is.

The elephant turns left, heading deeper into the jungle, and suddenly, underneath a bush, we see it—the half eaten carcass of a cow.

Holy cow.

There really is a tiger in here, and it really has been dragging cattle off.

Now we’re all really alert, little shivers of excitement running down our backs. We get deeper and deeper, the bushes get greener, thicker, higher, the trees clumpier until we’re being attacked by the jungle: tree branches coming at us from every possible angle, so we hold our arms stretched out in defence as they do their best to whack us to the ground.

Sajjad and I hold Hasan with one arm each crossed round him, because we need our other arms stretched before his face— or he’d be flying across the jungle. The mood between me and Sajjad is a little tense… he’s feeling more and more protective towards little Hasan, and is beginning to regret bringing our little one here. And since he can do nothing about it now, he gets grumpier and grumpier.

And then it happens.

The baby’s pacifier falls out of his mouth and onto the forest floor.

All four of us gaze at each other in dismay and horror. Who the heck is now going to climb down to retrieve it?

“Stoppp!” we shout in unison to the mahout.

“What? What is it?”

“Bachhe ki chusni gir gayi bhaiya…” The baby has dropped his soother… I whine stupidly.

“Oh, itni si baat?”

Is that all?

“Watch my Radha here,” he says proudly, and making a sound like ‘hek, hek’, he nudges her with his foot again, and presto! The elephant holds out Hasan’s soother, neatly folded in the end of her trunk.

Amazing.

Now we just have one little problem: This is an elephant holding the soother in her trunk, her trunk full of germs and dirt and what-have-you, and this soother is supposed to go inside the mouth of my nine-month-old. And no, we have no sanitizer, no soap—nothing except a bottle of mineral water, with which my mom proceeds to ‘thoroughly’ and ‘diligently’ wash the thing.

Super.

“I can’t put this inside his mouth!” I gaze at the others, appalled. “The ELEPHANT held it, for goodness’ sake!”

“But baby, I’ve washed it very nicely and thoroughly,” my mom attempts to placate me.

“Seriously mummy, this is not going to happen!” I’m still livid.

“Oh yes it will!” My mom flares up now. “You will jolly well put the darn thing in his mouth before he begins to bawl his head off!”

Silent Sajjad is horrified and disgusted too, but he seems to think it better to keep the baby’s mouth shut, if only to keep him from drawing the attention of wild animals.

And the pacifier goes into the baby’s mouth.

Yes, yes, I know, I know! It’s disgusting, irresponsible, totally insane! Yes, I hear you, I hear you all! (cover my ears and clench my eyes shut.)Yes, I’m a terrible mother. Yes, I should have just hung the soother round his neck with a piece of ribbon. How could I not? Yes, I should have carried sanitizer. How could I not? And how could we let him suck that thing???

Well, we did.

The elephant resumes its trail. We find what looks like a little tortoise in a water-filled ditch, and the mahout stops for us to take a picture. (Though in all probability it’s just a stone. )

Tortoise of stone?

Tortoise or stone?

No clue

No clue

And then promptly moves the elephant onto the ditch. “What! Have you killed the tortoise?” I almost scream at him in disbelief. “Mar gaya kya?”

Arre mar jaane do, hamein kya!” Who cares if it’s dead, he says in the most scornful tone possible. (Which sort of makes the stone assumption stronger– he was too nonchalant about it.) But I just cannot believe he said that. I am about to say something curt and preachy, when he suddenly, urgently swivels the elephant in a semi-circle and moves to the right.

“He’s here! The tiger is here!” And the elephant circles another bush. The mahout goads her on. But this time Radha refuses to comply. She is scared. (At least, it appears so— you have to assume that in the absence of knowing elephantese).

The Mahout shouts at her: Arre kya ho gaya pagla gayi hai kya?” What’s wrong with you, you crazy wench? (loosely translated, and a lot funnier in Hindi.)

Several things happen all at once:

Hasan begins to cry. Sajjad and I desperately begin shushing him. “Make him quiet!” Orders the mahout. “Be quiet!” he throws in for our benefit, then gives Radha several blows with his wooden stick. Abruptly, he draws out an iron goading hook—a “bhaala”—and brings it down sharply on her back.

“Arrriii  b*#@#&#@**  chal CHAL !”

Move MOVE you bloody sister-f*****!

A monkey suddenly splatters onto the ground. Mummy and Fatima cry out in unison:

“There, move there! That’s where the tiger is!”

“Oh, Be Quiet, everyone!” Sajjad almost hollers uncharacteristically, making my eyes pop.

The Mahout, instead of taking the elephant in the direction of the monkey, turns her completely around.

“What? We’re going back? Why? Why?”

“He was here. He’s gone now. You were making too much noise.” he declares decisively.

“But the tiger is there—in that direction! Why won’t you take us there?”

The mahout remains obstinate. That’s that.

“It’s the baby! You couldn’t shut the baby up!” my mom is livid.

“What! You both started screaming noisily! The baby had stopped crying!” I furiously defend my little one.

A sullen silence accompanies us as we slowly rock back to the edge of the forest. As we cross the river again, it gradually dawns on us that the mahout deliberately refrained from following the tiger—which was definitely there; the monkey’s frantic fall confirmed as much.

Later, we realise how much more of a blessing this was, how close we were to becoming tiger dinner—with a nine-month-old side dish thrown in for good measure. Yes, you can shudder.

Here’s a link to a video that shows how you can transform from pursuer to pursued in the wink of an eye: Tiger chases Jeep in Ranthambhor

And here’s a link to a video that shows how high a tigress can actually jump: she can take off the hand of a mahout sitting on top of a huge elephant—in one lightning leap: Tigress attack in Kaziranga . Admittedly, it’s not from Corbett, and the full story behind this video is here.

So is it a foolish thing to go looking for tigers on elephant back? Well… not really. Hordes and hordes of tourists do it all the time. It’s all about the thrill, and where there’s a thrill there’s a way.

But is it a foolish thing to take ready-to-bawl nine-month-olds on a tiger hunt in a dense Jurassic-esque forest? You shouldn’t have to ask.

Fools most definitely walk in where elephants fear to tread.

;)

😉 😉 😉

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Chapter 25: Babe in the woods

Aside


Rock a bye baby

On the tiger’s trail.

When the baby’ s upset,

The baby will wail.

Silence in the jungle,

But baby will bawl

And down will come mommy,

Daddy and all.

 

June 10, 2013

Jim Corbett National Park

The Nirvana Wilds Resort isn’t really a resort in the true sense. As with most ‘resorts’ in India, it resorts (pun intended) to a pretty liberal use of the term. Wikipedia, though, states that a resort is a place of vacation usually near a body of water, and in that sense this one probably got its nomenclature right.

The lazy, muddy Ramganga

The lazy, muddy Ramganga

It is a charming hotel set in serene, sigh-inducing surroundings; quaint, spacious stone cottages dotting the outer edge of the hill atop which it sits gazing thoughtfully, chin in hand, at the lazily swaying, brown-with-mud river Ramganga, emerald-forested hills locking hands round the snaking bends like uniformed sentries, a handful of cattle crossing the bridge connecting its banks and the polished white stones from the dry bed gleaming softly in the moonlight. Yes, you may just forgive Nirvana for calling itself a resort, even without a swimming pool or a spa or a grand entrance or foyer.

Nirvana Wilds

Nirvana Wilds

DSC00051

The Restaurant

This is where we’d be spending the next two days, at the far end of the park zone, beyond Mohaan village; actually quite far from the core park area itself. We chose the place precisely for its picturesque location, but even then it was the second choice. The first choice for any visitor to the Tiger reserve will always be the forest lodges owned by the government, sitting smack in the middle of the wild Dhikala zone— offering ‘just the bare necessities’, as The Jungle Book’s Balloo would say, but satiating you with howls and growls and snarls and roars all night long. Here’s the catch, though: you can’t pre-book them in any way. They’re allotted mainly on a first come first serve basis, and too bad if you arrived late. With a 9 month-old in tow, we didn’t want to take that chance, so we booked the next best alternative— this hotel which, from the uploaded pictures, appeared to be closer to the wilderness than the other, plusher alternatives.

And so, here we are. Our third vacation since our marriage, but this one is a throwback to my single-hood because my mom and sis are accompanying us. Correction. It’s the other way round—it is Sajjad and I who are accompanying my mother and sister, because this is, primarily, their holiday. The summer holiday is a long standing tradition between us three women— my mother, my sister and I. Post- wedding, though, I had a separate life and so separate vacations, and our girl band had disintegrated. But the unexpected turn of events in the past one year has brought us together again. And this time our trio is joined by two guys— one bearded and thirty, the other diapered and not yet one.

Corbett is really my mom’s choice—she’s the ultimate wildlife buff. Till the time that my father was alive, her vacation choices always centred round National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. We still have pictures of her ‘home hunger strike’ protesting my dad’s apathy to the long overdue trip— I remember him laughing as he clicked pictures of her grumpy protesting face.

Now, almost two decades later, she’s made the same choice. And that, I suppose, is because we now have a ‘man in the family’ to ‘depend upon’. The Man, though, isn’t very keen on Corbett; his ancestral home is a farm house and trips to nearby forests were a commonplace childhood feature. So we negotiate with him, and he agrees to join us in return for two days at Nainital— a hill station that gets its name from the lake it nestles within. Translated, the name means ‘Naini Lake’. I have been there thrice already, but I keep my mouth shut for the sake of successful negotiations.

Peace prevails.

And we’re here.

o——- ————-o

July 11, 2013

Lots of rain on our parade.

The core Dhikala area is supposed to stay open till June 15, but the rains arrived early this year. And so, on the very day that we had planned our jeep safari, Dhikala gets closed for the season. By order of the District Forest Officer. My mom, the erstwhile government officer’s wife and now officer herself, had dashed off across the forest the previous evening to see the DFO and try to wheedle out some ‘official’ concessions for us. It doesn’t work, though, because no concessions can be given where public safety is concerned. We must, therefore, content ourselves with a morning Jeep Safari in the peripheral zone.

Babe in the Woods

Babe in the Woods

The Man and The Family ;)

The Man and The Family 😉

Overlooking the Ramganga

Overlooking the Ramganga

Three generations

Three generations

It isn’t so bad—we do get an eyeful of spotted deer and barking deer, along with a yellow-throated marten.

Barking Deer

Barking Deer

But that’s about all. I mean, everyone who goes to Corbett wants nothing less than a tiger striding majestically across the road. Here at Nirvana, our neighbouring cottage was occupied by a man who’d been coming back every year for the last ten years, determined to spot a tiger through endless safaris both night and day— with zero, absolutely zero success. Talk about persistence.

Amid all this, Hasan has been surprisingly well behaved. Well, by his standards, of course. My initial fears were put to rest by my mother who took him off my hands all the 7 hours from Aligarh to Ramnagar—the fact that he’s bottle-fed now is an added advantage. She even took him into her cottage last night, and I snuggled into my king size downy bed with Sajjad, feeling blissfully calm and all in the mood. Of course, that’s when my son put his tiny little foot down—no more tricking him out of his parents’ company.

In the middle of a deliciously quiet jungle night in a wonderfully romantic old-world cottage, the air is ripped apart by ear-splitting screams emanating from the walls adjoining ours.

I rush to the other cottage to find Fatima, my sister, vigorously wheeling the pram back and forth with all the gentleness of an earthquake, trying helplessly to quiet him down and get him to sleep. Now, before you blame my sister’s lack of technique let me assure you, with Hasan, the more vigorous the rocking, the faster he nods off. Not this time, though, of course not. Never when you really want him to. I sigh, take him in my arms and bundle him back to our bed, where, as sure as daylight, he promptly falls asleep.

All in the job description, darling. All in the job description.