Nov 26, 2006

...In the Forest of the Night

Going To Jim Corbett National Park?
(an edited version of what I submitted to BritannicaIndia)

Death rules supreme in the woods. Thick cover of sal trees, unabated growth of lantana bushes, and dense long grass — nowhere does life sit as precariously as it does here. There are patches that even daylight cannot penetrate, where the vision is minimal and where one has to rely on instincts alone. One slip of toe, single faulty step, or one bad judgment can send you reeling into the jaws of death. Even predators can become the prey. But, is there no possibility for the man to watch these mysteries of wildlife unfold, from a self-inflicted periphery. Mercifully, there is…

Welcome to the wild stretches of Jim Corbett National Park, the first wildlife reserve of India, extending over an area of more than 500 sq km in the Himalayan foothills. Thanks to trained guides and State tourism department, you need not be too adventurous to stay in the middle of jungle — now strewn with lodges — and witness the wildlife in jeep/elephant safari. But must I disappoint you, it is as difficult to sight a tiger here as in a nearby town. Despite being a resident pahari, having seen boars, jackals, even a leopard at my very own village in Harda, in my 37 years of existence the closest I have come to a tiger is an angry grunt, 'fresh' paw marks, pee shots (fresh, of course) and nail scratches on the wood... once in a jeep, a friend pointed to a striped tail but till date I am not sure if it really belonged to a tiger :)(

Nonetheless, a brief stay at the park should remain a fond memory. For, to spot a leopard perched atop a tree or licking his paws; to watch a regiment of elephants frolicking at Dkhikala site; or to even hear a tiger growl late in the night, indeed make a gripping bedtime story for your grandchildren. First two months of the tourist season that begins in November are ideal for bird watching. While I could never spot a tiger in Corbett despite close proximity, I have been able to watch at length what amon bird-watcher as the tiger-with-wings — great Indian hornbill. Just to watch this super-bird loudly flap its wings is a sight to cherish. Infact, if one were to believe the experts or a guide, one can spot over 500 species of winged creatures here; prominent among them being greylag, barheaded goose, grepe, snipe, sandpiper, gull, hornbills, warblers, finches, and a series of wagtails (I have seen so many that I have lost count and desire to classify).

Timings Are Important: The onset of March thereto is best suited for animal viewing. Corbett Park is considered to have the highest density of Tiger populace in the country, approximately one every 10 sq km. Nonetheless, tiger is an elusive cat, and its sighting is rare for amateurs. One may come across alarm calls made by birds and monkeys, indicating the presence of a predator in the vicinity, but to spot this majestic animal remains an ambition for me. Even those groups who camp overnight near a waterhole on full moon nights, lament that the closest they came to a tiger was its growling voice in the dead of night.

Guides are an expert in building the suspense, by showing you a week-old pugmark and gesturinga sssshhhhh, telling you to "be patient and quiet" but all that is a well-rehearsed drill to earn their bread. Not every pugmark leads you home.

Elephant herds on the other hand are easier to spot if you have entered from Dhikala. Mind you, in a pachyderm family, calves are the most enjoyable to watch. But one should also not forget that elephants are more possessive of their young than a tiger. There have been many instances when they charge at the jeep and it is not a mock charge as those of tigers. A safe distance is always advisable.

Leopards in Corbett are well fed, thanks to a regular supply of the simian prey, but just as elusive as tigers. Other feline species found in the Park are jungle cats and caracal (again pretty elusive because of their size). Wild boars, jackals, spotted deer and hog deer are easy to be spotted though.

Survivors Will be Prosecuted: Reptiles basking in the swampy banks of the Ramganga are also a delight to watch. But more than cocodiles or gharials (gavialis gangeticus), large size geckos are easy to sight, espcially near the river. The Ramganga river flows through the entire length of the park and little forest streams and rivulets tumble through the ravines. The river is rich with mahaseer — a sporting fish prized by anglers, though angling inside the park is not permitted but allowed by several resorts on the periphery. One notice at Ghairal that warns against swimming in the Ramganga needs a mention here. It says: “Survivors will be prosecuted”.

Brave as a Tiger (Corbett's Profile)
A word about the early years of this park, and also Jim Corbett, the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist, would not be out of place here. It was in August 1936 that the British Government, on the advice of Jim Corbett, declared this foothill region of United Province (now Uttar Pradesh) as Hailey National Park, naming it after the UP Governor, Sir Malcolm Hailey. After Independence, in 1952, the Park was rechristened as Ramganga National Park, situated as it was on the banks of the river Ramganga, one of the major contributory of the Ganges. Five years later, the forest reserve was renamed yet again as Jim Corbett National Park.

Corbett, a middle-level officer of Scottish origin, had rid the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of man-eating tigers and leopards. Known as Carpet Sahib among local paharis, he became a folklore even during his lifetime. Brought up in the Kumaon administrative district, Corbett, the eighth child of a postmaster, gave up on academics early, proved his prowess at the gun at the age of eight. In his early days, hunted peafowl or boars for family kitchen. Gradually, he was drawn into big game. His splintered career included working as a storekeeper, contractor, as well as captain in World War I. But it was his way with the jungle that earned him recognition.
Stories of his bravery in prose and verse ran far and wide the UP hills. He was revered as a deity by most and considered a White Brahmin by all in the hills. During his last days in British India, Corbett transformed into a conservationist, hung up his boots, and worked for the betterment of Indian wildlife. A national park after his name was a befitting tribute to this hero.

The sleepy town of Ramnagar attached to this park is now home to a host of local tour operators, who earn an honest living by organizing quick safaris in the park. Cheap accommodation is therefore no problem for budget travelers. And for the luxury oriented, there are up-market cottages bording the park with most modern facilities.

Nov 20, 2006

It's Windy At The Top!

(A different high, friends)

Sorry but the title has no reference to any hill-top. This post belongs to a pre-cellphone era dotted with a lot of communication gaps, when coordinating for a trekking trip involved many a trip between foot and the tip. So, after a lot of efforts, which included borrowing a four-man tent from Wilson John, and packing three jumbo ruck-sacks for my Pindari Glacier trek with Gautam and Rachna in early March 1998 — I realized that the timings to visit Uttaranchal (then UP Himalayas) were not cordial for the roadways traveller. Holi, a festival enjoyed more than Diwali in Uttaranchal, was close by and the buses were packed beyond capacity. It was a tall Rachna and a fair-looking Gautam in baseball caps who saved the day for a brownie me.

Conductor to the Delhi-Haldwani bus who was waiting for the postal bag to arrive, spotted a hassled trio and tried to be helpful to a woman who, to his pahari mind, was a firangi. “Where going, maadam?” he blurted out in a Mulayam Singh-accent. I knew my victim there and then. “Arrey sirji…” I pitched in like a desi guide and in no time ensured that the three of us were inside the bus before the driver turned the ignition key. Rachna's smiling nods sealed my game.

Lucky of course to have boarded the bus, we soon realised that sitting on postal dept bags throughout the stretch was not a smooth sailing. Each sharp bend of the bus sent atleast two of us slipping down to the dirty floor; postcards inside the bags made a slippery post. Relief came at Gajraula, where the bus stopped for a midnight ‘lunch’, and my needy mind became inventive. I approached the conductor once again and asked if we could negotiate the metal ladder behind the bus and cover the rest of our journey at the roof of the bus. Conductor looked most reluctant; for, giving up the chance to get friendly with the firangi lady was not on his menu. But the driver at his side gave an approving look, with an advice, “Just keep your heads down when wires across the road appear on the road. Even better, if you keep it down for good.” Before his sidekick could add a word, we rushed to the top, and laid ourselves like pancakes.
Rucksacks played willing pillows and till Haldwani, with one zipped-out sleepingbag employed as light blanket, the journey was spent in peace — snoring and sneezing. The only loss, I have to tell you, were our trekking-caps which fanned out in the fiery winds within an hour of our boarding the roof. And for once, I was not happy with my army-cut hairdo when the cold winds brushed my temples. Nonetheless, thankfully, I had an Old Monk inside my sack to ward off the virals…

(what happened to us after reaching Bageshwar and en route Pindari trek will appear shortly)

Nov 11, 2006

When It Rained Shit

(And I had no umbrella for a long, long time)

Little did I know that this would be one of my worst trips to the hills. Like every twice a year, I had prepared a rag-tag team to row a raft at our familiar spot and Apu, Karuna, and myself were on the verge of taking a bus to Hrishikesh (for the want of logistics), when plop emerged dear KS on my phone-receiver. She wanted to bring along her hubby and his four friends. Now, I did some mental math to realize that made right number of occupants for a Sumo. What I had not bargained was a bratpack of class-conscious, deluxe bus tourists who were given to an armchair lifestyle and who were going to wrap themselves like millstones around my neck. Everybody knows how useful a millstone is while crossing a river or a rapid. That was it — five millstones around my neck in a deep, turbulent river.

Top of their histrionics was shelling out money so grudgingly as if they were paying off a slimy tourist agent. First, they wanted themselves to be picked from home. Second, they would drink no hoi-polloi's daaru — nothing less than Smirnoff (brought from Gurgaon for a dent of Rs 400) will do. They will buy it themselves and that would be deducted from the pool money. Right? Okay, sir.

As the time came to settle down in the vehicle, one of the blokes complained of backache and occupied the front seat with his wife. This would ensure that by the end of journey, others would also be complaining of backaches. Next, one of their friends wanted to be picked and later dropped from/to Muzzafarpur on our way to Hrishikesh. To add insult, at the eleventh hour, this asshole thought that he would reach directly to the spot where rafting began. He did reach on his own but good three hours behind schedule, and delayed all of us. Which meant that we shall also be delayed for the lunch. Rafting on an empty belly wasn’t a pleasant drill, I assure you.

Read on, the trial is not finished yet. One lady in their group did not want to be troubled with water splashes (hooonnn, say that again!!). They would order food on the way like hungry hogs but ate little. All of them would have only Pepsi and 7-ups, then leave the bottles half-empty. None of them, except KS’s hubby (a sweet, young, hassle-free soul) would exercise their limbs to row the paddle. Excuse me? Are you here for rafting or boating with Kallu Mallah? But no point telling them that. They were deaf to guide’s commands and my requests. Somehow, I had extra rum to keep sane.

Rafting over, they wanted to be dropped first and for that they were ready to even lobbying with the Sumo driver a few kms before Delhi border. Never mind, if it had been already decided which route would be taken so that single girls in the group are not delayed beyond a point. Who the fuck on earth they thought they were, and who was going to pay for those extra kilometres — the tourist agency that I worked for? I wanted to apply for a gun licence.

Finally, after I thought that I had seen the last of the punjus (more a class than caste), gone to bed praying for their early death, one of the morons rang my landline. Since the phone’s volume was set to use it like a wake-up alarm, the ring was difficult to ignore. The louse had forgotten his mobile handset in the Sumo, but wouldn’t come to the point straight. "Hi Pankaj, it was a great trip..." I had little time for pleasantries in the dead of the night so I asked him plain, “Is that why you are calling?” Sheepishly, he told me his problem, then requested to make sure that the driver would not palm off his gizmo. "I can collect it from your office tomorrow." Okay, I mumbled and drowned into sleep; keeping the phone off-hook.

Now, guess what was the date when we touched Delhi back – April 1. What a day to make you feel better! At least, the calender was with me. Understandably, I didn’t plan another trip for a long time. Conclusion was if rum, Sukriti and Apu were not there, I would have poisoned a few of those nerds.

Not that nothing good came out of the trip. You lose some, you win some. There was The Wall of course, negotiated for the first time. Dear old Sukriti was back in the loop. We met almost after one full year, hugged each other tightly in full view of road-users at ISBT, talked our hearts out in Hrishikesh and drank to capacity in the night. She kept cursing the world and I kept refilling the glasses. Then after a while, I began cursing NGOs and she took up the bartending. Finally, between the two of us we finished one and a half bottle.

There are more of gains. About three trips back, I had come across a great guy: Anshuman Sen, one of Apu's many cousins. He turned out to be the right chap for such trips — trustworthy, hassle-free and obedient. On this trip, Sukriti had brought along a new girl, Supriya, non-selfish, team-spirited, vivacious, and most important, a great piece of relief among that bunch of self-gratifying jokers. She even passed on her sympathies with a wink in the toughest of times. And yesssss, in my Mungeri-Lal mind I often visualised Anshuman and Supriya in the same trip, and enjoying themselves.

Nov 8, 2006

Auli — A Date With Snow God

(An updated version of what was submitted to

I'll follow you across the snow;
Ye travel heavily and slow;
In spite of all my weary pain
I'll look upon your tents again

- William Wordsworth in The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman

From an altitude of nearly 3,000 metre from the sea level, crossing a vertical drop of 529 metre, the snowy slopes of Auli can bring the best —— or alternately, the worst —— in you. Sliding down the beaten snow on skis at a speed of 20-40 km per hour can be a thrilling or harrowing experience, depending on how you take adventure or AXN channel. Perched on two precarious sticks and moving on that speed isn't a video game, nor a Bollywood song sequence. If you don't believe me, try it yourself.

But a word or two for the indigenous techies, first. This may be hard to digest for the buffs of Hindi movies, but the local kids here have actually simplified and mastered the art of skiiing by using wood saw-blades & wooden clubs for their equipment and they can put to shame most of their "well-equipped" counterparts while running down the slopes. If you thought all one needs to do for skiing is slip into the boots, tilt one's body a little forward, and keep pushing with a pair of clubs a la Rajesh Khanna, try it once to know better. Snow is not as chaste as Christianity believes; reality can bite worse than frost!

For the enthusiasts, however, Auli is an active destination. The Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) offers a fortnight-long skiing course for the amateurs here during the season. There is also a weeklong course for the tourists. Equipment is also available at an affordable dent but all the time and money is worth spending for one single downhill journey that is made on the skis.

Slopes are not all here. Nestled in the Garhwal Himalayas, Auli & Joshimath have many more highs. Look around, and there is a 180-degree view of snow-clad peaks and this splurge of white is half-surrounded on one side by oak forests. The upper slopes of Auli host the longest ropeway in Asia. This ropeway has ten towers of self-supporting steel structures, complete with saddles and shoes. Besides, Auli also offers the luxury of an 800-metre chair car linking the lower slopes with the upper region.

For us, things began taking shape at Kaudiyala, some 200 km before the destination on the Badrinath route and some 35 km from Hrishikesh. When I parked my car to a GMVN rest houses for a quick bite, the rear windshield earned a “I have been to Auli” sticker — ALREADY. En route, we enjoyed resting at mostly all the confluences (called prayags) of various tributaries into the Ganga, viz Deoprayaga, Rudraprayaga, Karnapryaga, Nandprayaga and the last one Vishnuprayag. The scenic views of the Alaknanda valley, throughout the uphill road were only aperitifs. The culmination point waited for us at Auli. The 180 degree of snowy peaks were justifiably justopposed by a semi-circle of oak & pine forests. Driving fatigue sped away like a formula one car. I sat down with my rum and invited the lodge owner to plan an early-morning outing...

PS: Must I mention here that during another trip to Auli — this time on a bike with a female pillion called Bubbles — I had to bear the grunt of a tiger, for nearly crossing paths with his 'kill'. Till date, I carry that angry grunt — heard by others in the group from half a km — as a proud souvenir. PROUD, I feel only now! What happened to my heartbeats when I actually heard the muffled roar is a story I would rather be caught dead than sharing.

Nov 2, 2006

Delhi Hillocks!!!

Those of us in Delhi must have traveled atleast once the long, metalled road which runs parallel to Tughalaqabad Fort. Opposite the fort, if you care to notice, is what appears to an unexpected patch of wilderness in this burgeoning city (It actually is). One landmark spot in this ‘patch’ is Sports Anarchy of India’s Firing Range, a breeding ground for Jaspal Ranas and Major Raghvendra Rathores (more seen in Coke ads than pulling the trigger). To return to the wilderness, the area in and around the SAI shooting range — one that I have been calling a patch of wilderness — is registered in the govt files as Asola Bird Sanctuary or Asola forest reserve. If my opinion matters, Asola is bad advertisement for both a reserve and a forest; and sanctuary my foot. Delhi Ridge offers far more (including love birds). Nevertheless, considering this ‘reserve’ falls in the Aravali range and a red-stone mine-belt it is more welcome than brick-and-mortar ugliness.

While working for The Pioneer, sometime in late ninties, it was possible for a dozen of us journos to spend a whole day inside this 'sanctuary' — a picnic of sorts, since we carried enough booze in our cars’ boots. Rahul Gupta, then covering the reporting beat for ministry of environment, secured the permission (he did better; ensured a guide too lest we should get lost?). Thus, a band of boozards met up for a day-time soiree and had a field day; for the ignorant, it was just a ‘media visit’. The troupe included Asha-Manish Swarup (now in Associated Press), Wilson John and Ganesh Swaminathan (our chief reporter, then). We spent the whole day in the stripped-off woods, negotiated rocky & excessively thorny terrain and, in the bargain, ruined the better part of fake Levis (thorns scratched away the fabric in ugly designs). Through out the day I feasted on wild berries and meals borrowed from female tiffins. We were luckier to spot lotsa birds, starving blue bulls and bakris let out to feed them by neighbouring villagers (the guide continued to haul the owners for letting their flock in). One never realised we were within the drawn territory of Delhi. Manish used his Nikon to make those seemingly petty moments look like historical events.

It was the return journey which actually made my day. With a few waywards like me in my rickety maruti (called Rampyari) we decided to take a route diagonally opposite to others. Drunk and daisy, we found the road which connects Faridabad with Gurgaon via Gwal Pahari (I later came here many a time for climbing rocks and enjoy a drink with friends; or sometimes just to savour the drive which reminded me of hills). The route actually gives one the feel of a mountain drive. It has tortuous turns and hairpin bends, besides massive views of high-rise civilization from a delectable distance. Even today, I relive the moving sunsets which I spent here with rum and rummages. And there have been several witnesses to this post-Asola love: Ajay Dwivedi, Aparajita Basu, Yusuf Begg, Chutki (she prefers Vaijyanti these days) and a score of other gullible souls who rose to the bait.