Soothing natural beauty and an abundance of wildlife make up for elusiveness of the big cats in India's oldest national park.
Finding peace on the trail of the tiger
It was, in the end, a media brouhaha, but it did crystallise our travel plans. Earlier this year, there were a series of reports stating that India was planning to phase out tiger tourism, something that the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, eventually denied.
Startled by the reports, I called Ravi Chellam, the Wildlife Conservation Society's director for India. He told me: "To say that tiger tourism is going to be banned from the core areas is plain incorrect as tourism was never allowed in core areas of wildlife reserves to begin with.
"Tourism will probably get better regulated so that resorts don't encroach into reserves; tourists don't litter the forest; wild animals are not surrounded by a cavalry of jeeps; tourists don't go out at night into the reserves to do flash photography or run rallies with music blaring." He added: "Wildlife is a common heritage for all citizens of the world. These news reports are just a storm in a teacup."
My brother and I had been pondering a family vacation for months, tossing around places as varied as the Maldives and Madhya Pradesh. Prompted in part by these news reports and discussions, we discarded beach and adventure vacations in favour of wildlife. We quickly homed in on the Jim Corbett National Park, named after the famed British hunter-turned-conservationist. It was here, after all, that Project Tiger, a wildlife conservation movement to protect the Bengal tiger, was initiated in the early Seventies.
We were a group of 10 - my brother's family and mine, each comprised of husband, wife and two kids, and my parents - but everything fell into place with surprisingly little squabbling. We would fly to Delhi and drive in two vans to the Corbett park in the mountain state of Uttarakhand. Bordered by Tibet and Nepal and verdant with lakes and meadows, this Himalayan state has more in common with Switzerland than southern India where we lived.
Although it is unevenly executed, wildlife conservation is written into the Indian constitution. Beginning in the 1970s with a mere five national parks, India now has more than 600. Although official figures state that 22 per cent of Indian land is protected, unofficial ones, including one from Chellam, peg it at a much lower five per cent. Spread over an area of 1,319 square kilometres, Corbett was India's first national park and is a microcosm of India's successes and failures in wildlife conservation.
We picked the Club Mahindra resort in Corbett, not only because it is among the best in the region but also because my brother is a member of its holiday programme, which is similar to RCI, the international timeshare exchange network. Non-members can stay for about $200 (Dh750) per night (www.clubmahindra.com). My brother was able to bring my parents as guests, which delighted my frugal father no end. A retired English professor, he prepped his grandchildren by teaching them William Blake's famous poem The Tyger ("Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright / In the forests of the night") and regaling them with stories from Kipling.
The drive from Delhi to Corbett took six hours, with frequent stops. As we cruised along the winding mountain roads of Uttarakhand, India's urban sprawl fell away and we entered moist deciduous forests, densely bordered by sal trees on both sides. With its heart-shaped leaves that change colour from green to orange, the sacred sal tree (shorea robusta) is associated with Vishnu, the Hindu god. It is also venerated by Buddhists because Queen Maya supposedley gave birth to Gautama Buddha under one.
As we climbed higher, the landscape became more vertiginous, with deep gorges and ravines on one side of the spindly road and steep rocky outcrops on the other. Himalayan pine mixed with the sal trees, and billboards, shops and other vestiges of civilisation soon fell away. In their place came distant yellow meadows folded within the valleys, cows with tinkling bells around their necks, and hardy women in jewel-toned saris carrying firewood or babies, and sometimes both.
The children fell silent as they took in the stunning scenery; our breaths became longer and deeper; and our expressions became pensive. It is true, what people say: humans need nature, not just to calm us down but also to remind us of where we came from. We arrived at Corbett in the late afternoon and settled into our spacious one-bedroom apartments. They came with all the usual amenities - fluffy pillows, starched beds, a kitchenette, a stylish bathroom, a TV and a balcony - but had one compelling addition guaranteed to warm the hearts of multi-generational Indian families: a bucket in the bathroom - great for seniors like my parents who are used to bucket baths.
We set off on safari the very first morning before the sun or, for that matter, any sane human being rose. As the jeep trundled along the dirt path, my brother and I became competitive in a rather infantile fashion about who could spot what. "Sambar deer to the left," he called. "Himalayan bulbul up above," I replied. And so we went on, spotting wild boar, brilliant kingfishers, elephants, magpies, langurs, peacocks and chital. Finally, my mother poured us some hot chocolate from a flask and told us to keep quiet. This gave our bemused guide, a young man named Rajesh Bisht, a chance to talk. He spoke romantically and poetically about growing up in the shade of the jungle, sounding much like Mowgli in The Jungle Book.
"Everyone comes to Corbett to see tiger," he began. "But the jungle has softer pleasures too, like this 200-year-old banyan tree and the wild bison, sloth and Himalayan bears." The cadence of his speech and the interesting things he pointed out to us - "wild dogs are among the most efficient killers of the jungle" - alleviated our disappointment at not spotting a tiger. I asked him why the tiger population in India had dropped so precipitously. Our guide took a deep breath, visibly trying to formulate the words. "See, the Chinese demands for tiger parts is so high," he began. "If I want to, I can sell tiger parts for $20,000. Forest rangers or guides make $150 a month with tips, tops. You see the conflict?" He trailed away.
We stared at him accusingly. "No, no, he exclaimed. I am not a poacher. In fact, I help the government trap poachers. But the young men in my tribe have to make this calculation every month. Wildlife conservation is not about Delhi politics. It's a money game." We were thoughtful on the ride back. Indian jungles are different from the vast African savannah. They are more closed in, with narrow mud paths twisting through dense forests with broad leaves shading the spindly undergrowth. Every now and then, there was a waterfall or stream and the jeep bounced through the shallow pebbly depths. Closer to the park exit, it picked up speed and the whirl of green and yellow reminded us of a tiger's camouflage.
Most meals at Club Mahindra were buffet-style affairs. The kids went for the middling continental dishes, the pastas and the Chinese noodles; my parents stuck to the delicious Indian spread and the rest of us picked at both - kebabs or salads - depending on whim or guilt brought on by the ingestion of gargantuan amounts of food at the previous meal. The Kosi River flows through the property and we spent the afternoon in its cool depths, skimming stones and swimming. At the end of the trip, when we drafted a family list of highlights, all four kids surprised us by citing time spent at the river as being among their top three.
The in-house "activities centre" was run by a chirpy man whom the kids adored. During the lazy afternoons, when the adults snored, the kids amused themselves by dancing, painting pots, singing karaoke and playing table tennis, chess, carrom and pool. Three days went by. The sheer variety of wildlife we saw - a calf elephant surrounded by a herd, a pack of wild dogs chasing a deer, boars sniffing the undergrowth, monkeys playing in trees - somewhat made up for the fact that we didn't spot a tiger.
By the time we got into the car to drive away, there was a visible difference in us. It was as if we had physically decompressed. We didn't demand so much of the jungle and were grateful for what it revealed to us. Even the kids didn't whine as much.
If you go
The flight Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to New Delhi from Dh1,385 return including taxes.
The stay There is a wide range of accommodation offered in the park, ranging from dormitories to luxury resorts. Double rooms at the Club Mahindra resort (www.clubmahindra.com) start from 4,000 Indian rupees (Dh330) per night, including breakfast.