I went by elephant and by jeep, and nobody was eaten alive. That’s because nobody tried to eat us.
Mention animal safaris, animals in the wild, and most people think African safari, but I love visiting the tiger reserves of India. And there are actually quite a few of them. India was once a land teeming with tigers galore. Tiger shooting was the royal sport of the maharajahs (along with polo and fabulous elephant parades), but the most famous tiger hunter in India was actually a British army colonel.
Jim Corbett lived in the Uttarakhand region – the Himalayan foothills along the Nepali border – in the early twentieth century and was a hero to the local people for tracking and killing numerous man-eating tigers that threatened their livelihood.
His fantastic exploits are recounted in his book Man-Eaters of Kumoan, which I’d bought in a local bookstore while travelling around the region. The book was utterly gripping, and literally kept me riveted under the night light in my hotel bed till dawn.
As we drove through the hills for hours in our air-conditioned Toyota jeep, it boggled my mind that a century earlier when roads in this hilly terrain were nonexistent, Jim Corbett traversed these vast distances on foot across the steep hills and valleys. He walked for weeks on end, sometimes sleeping in trees and single-handedly shooting over a dozen man-eating tigers You just don’t find men like this anymore in our digital age when most of the guys you know are more likely to work in an office cubicle with eyeballs glued to their smartphones when not glued to their computer screens.
What did this Jim Corbett look like, I wondered, images of my favourite Hollywood hunks flicking through my mind. I was thinking … Chris Hemsworth a la The Huntsman. Oooooh! Yum! Sexiest Man Alive! according to People Magazine (who am I to disagree).
But the reality was nothing like this.
It turned out that the mantastic real Jim Corbett looked more like William H. Macy as the nerdy, bumbling dad in Jurassic Park who was sadly inept with a backpack.
Whaaaat?!! Reeeaaallly? I so hate it when my dreams come crashing down like that.
Corbett wrote a number of books, and books were written about him (how could they not be?), in both English and Hindi.
There was even a wonderful comic book about him and his adventures.
And apparently, Man Eaters of Kumoan was made into a movie back in the day.
These horrific old movie posters are filled with every racist ,sexist cliché known to contemporary culture – The evil brown-skinned native! The heroic white man who saves the day! The busty white woman ravaged by the lusty native! The loin-clothed savage! Her heaving bosom spilling out of her dress! She’s totally helpless with no will of her own! It just goes on and on.
And worst of all, the main theme is a gun-slinging man killing a magnificent golden tiger! Everything with this old movie is so, SO wrong! God knows what the plot must have been. I shudder to think of it. I don’t know who that actor is, but he probably didn’t look like Williman H. Macy either. I’m pretty sure Donald Trump would have loved this movie. His leopard-shooting sons Donnie Junior and Eric would love it too.
In all his writings, Corbett repeatedly asserts that tigers are not man-eaters by nature; they only turn to eating humans when broken teeth or severe wounds prevent them from adequately hunting their natural prey. It’s a relief to read that Corbett shot tigers not for sport, but only at the villagers’ request to save human lives. In his later life, Corbett turned to conservation and then only shot animals with his camera. Jim Corbett was a good man!
I was eager to visit India’s most famous national park, and maybe see some tigers. We were only there for a short stay on our way further north. We arrived at Corbett Park in the afternoon, just in time for the afternoon safari.
Sighting a tiger is a matter of chance, and could take a stay of a few days though our guides made their best efforts.
Our sunset elephant ride was more romantic in idea than in practice. I’d neglected to drink anything before the ride and hadn’t thought to bring a bottle of water. It was only when I was atop the elephant, throat parched and horribly dehydrated, that I realized that this mode of transport was painstakingly slow, and there’s not much ground you can cover in a 1,318 sq. km park plodding one step at a time at one km an hour. All the wildlife seemed to be in hiding or taking long naps deep in their lairs, dens and nests, because we didn’t see anything stirring out there other than a lone turtle, which the guide tried his best to hype into a big game sighting.
We finally emerged from the thick forest and onto an open space that was a semi-dry river bed. Everything looked as brown and dry as my throat.
“Look! Look! Look Madame! You see? Turtle! A TURTLE!!!!”
“Yes I see. Look, turtle,” I repeatedly politely, poking my companion and hanging my head upside down from atop the elephant. The turtle was a long way down from where we perched in the lofty heights of the elephant’s back, and the shy turtle was half buried among the rocks and mud along the river bed. The turtle’s shell was muddy brown, the same colour as the ground. It must have sleeping, as it was completely motionless. The whole thing was so underwhelming. I was amazed the guide had even seen it. He must have had eyes like telescopes.
By that point I didn’t really care. I was desperately thirsty and felt like a my soul was evaporating out of my body. All I wanted to do was get back to the hotel and guzzle down a bucket of ice cold water. (Sorry about this sideswipe but his is what happens when you’re in the middle of a jungle with no luxury resort to stay at. There’s no crisp attendant who anticipates your needs with a basket filled with chilled hotel branded water and a jasmine scented iced towelette to freshen your brow).
Thankfully the next day’s dawn safari was much more rewarding. The dew was still wet on the ground and the air still chilly as we whizzed through the forest in an open jeep, hot on the trail of a tiger. Our tummies were full after a lovely hot and heavy Indian breakfast, fortified with plenty of coffee. Ahh! This was more like it!
Our naturalist guide, dashingly attired in spotless olive green army fatigues, worn Commando-like over a tight black turtleneck, explained that the animals of the forest sound warning calls whenever they sight the tiger. By following the “pattern of the jungle”, i.e. the sounds of barking deer, screeching peacocks and screaming monkeys, we ventured deeper and deeper into the forest, across a dry river bed, and emerged in a clearing where we found a family of monkeys frolicking by a watering hole. No tigers though.
We drove on, past a herd of 30 wild elephants breakfasting in the bushes, and eventually stopped in a sun-speckled grove. I wondered why we had stopped in the middle of the forest. We looked around. We saw only trees.
“Listen,” was all our guide said.
All was deathly silent except for the mysterious sound of falling rain drops. But strangely, it wasn’t raining.
Our guide laughed at our bewilderment, pointing out that the raindrop sound was actually caused by millions upon millions of tiny flower petals that literally rained down from the trees above, covering the ground like a lush Barbie doll pink carpet and sprinkling our heads with delicate pink snowflakes.
I’d never seen anything so magical in my life. It was the same feeling of wonder and delight that I had the first time I went snorkelling in Maya bay in Thailand and discovered that you could hear fish eating. I was completely, utterly enchanted! I so love it when nature surprises you!
Still no tigers though. All we saw of the tigers were their footprints all over the park. You can tell whether the print belongs to a male or female tiger by the shape of the paw, said our guide. And it was true.
Our guide took a twig and, drawing perpendicular lines around the paw print, showed how the male tiger’s paw print fits into a perfect square. Later, we found a female paw print, and the entire foot, as well as each little pad itself, was shaped like a triangle. The female tiger had been following a bear, whose prints are also visible in the sand.
Excluding the funny tame doe that was licking cars in the parking lot, there seemed to be an abundance of wild deer and monkeys springing out of every bush and tree. An enormous wild boar stood by the roadside placidly chewing its breakfast as it watched our jeep pass on the way out.
When we left the tiger reserve, the only tigers we’d seen were the logos on our resort’s T shirts. But I didn’t mind. I’d rather see a fresh paw print in the jungle than a sad beast trapped in a city zoo. And I reckon if they resemble the other animals in the Corbett Reserve, the tigers must roam quite happily there.
Have you been to Corbett Tiger Reserve? How was your experience?