Thursday, February 28, 2008

Corbett National Park

Back from Corbett. It was a wonderful weekend break. Driving inside forests and vast grasslands inhaling the freshness of nature, an adventurous elephant ride through dense sal forest, saw fishing eagle hunting, a crocodile rushing to the safety of water on spotting us --- these sums up the trip. We saw many things, but the king -- the tiger i nthe wild. Yet we were happy.

We had started from Delhi at around 6:30 am. The 240 odd km journey by NH24 to Ramnagar via Moradabad – Kashipur took about 6 hours with one break at Gajraula for breakfast. Lunch was offered at the KMVN’s Tourist Reception Centre at Ramnagar. While we were having lunch, KMVN staff had arranged for our entry permit etc. One has to leave his contact no. while obtaining permit for emergency purpose as you will be cut off from the rest of the world for two days. Permits are issued for a max of 3 days., i.e., you will have to come out of the park by afternoon of day 3. Thus if you travel by train from Delhi, you get a full extra day at your disposal.

Our journey into Corbett continued post lunch. The NH121 to Ranikhet takes you out of the Ramnagar town. You will get the feel of the jungle barely 2 km out of the Ramnagar town. The park is located on one side of the NH121, while the other side is human habitat. This habitation area between the NH121 and the river Ramganaga house almost all the Private Resorts. There are n numbers of them and none of them are cheap. But to me it makes very little sense to stay in those costly resorts. If you are planning a visit, then plan well and try for some FRH accommodation. All last moment travelers lands up in these resorts. About 5 km from the town, we saw the gate for Birjani range. This is a day game view range open to all tourists. If you stay in the private resorts, then you will have to satisfy yourself with a visit to this range. Because of the large no. of tourist that arrive Corbett, this place is pretty crowded. Crowd is what one needs to avoid. Else the animals will give you a miss.

The Dhanagiri gate, which is the entry point for Dhikala and many other FRH like Gairal, Sultan, Sarapdaulli, Khinnauli, etc. is 18 km from Ramnagar town. Entry through this gate is allowed only if you have confirmed accommodation inside. Therefore most visitors to Corbett do not get an opportunity to visit this range. If you are staying at a private resort, then the only possibility of getting into the Dhikala range is to take the day long ride in open mini bus offered by the Forest Deptt. Two buses go there everyday and so seats are limited. I have heard that, it is more like old time ticketing in cinema halls. If you reach the counter early enough, then you might get a seat. The other catch is that they are costly. Most animals will run away at the sound of such a big vehicle. All you will get is a feel of the jungle. Then you see the Dhikala FRH and will feel more disappointed for staying outside.

While making entries at the register at the gate, the ranger apprised us of the rules to be followed inside. We had to buy a jute bag and bring back all plastic waste in it. Making you pay for the bag is an effort in creating awareness on conservation. The driver was well versed with the rules of driving in the park. He drove within the permissible limit inside the park. Blowing of horns is not allowed. No one was observing, but yet he followed that rule. We had stopped at many places to enjoy the wild life roaming close to the main road. Then we had a fairly long unwanted halt. A safari gypsy carrying some youths had its axle broken on a narrow stretch and was waiting right in the middle of the road. It had blocked almost the entire road. Suggestions like to lift it up tone side cropped up. Finally, everyone had to clear stones on one side of the road so that vehicles can cross. By 3:30 pm we had arrived at the Dhikala FRH.

Located in the midst of a vast grass land, the campus overlooks the reservoir of the Ramganga river. There are 31 rooms in all at the campus plus a 20 seat dormitory for students. Bookings for these accommodation, except for 7 rooms which is done by KMVN from Delhi, is done by the Corebett Tiger Reserve office at Ramnagar. The demand is huge and so one has to book well in advance. The campus has solar powered fencing around it. The fencing was erected some 3 years back after an incident of tiger attacking some staffer in the campus. The electrified gates are closed at 6pm. Movement in the jungle after 6pm is not allowed. In fact, no one is allowed outside the campus gate without a guide. Even with the electrified fence, it was scary at night. You are 31 kms inside a jungle with sizeable population of tigers. Even though there was no power cut during our stay of about 40 hours, the campus is not that well illuminated. I just wondered as to how one could dare to stay there before the electrified fencing was erected! The campus also houses some staff quarters for forest staff.

The safaris for the afternoon had departed before we had reach. Thus we had nothing to do but to explore the campus and fix up our safaris. The KMVN package includes a jeep safari and elephant safari. The demand for elephant safari is high as there are only 5 elephants, i.e., about 20 seats per trip as against the full occupancy of about 70 persons in the campus. Thus the first thing one should do on arrival is to book your elephant safari. We managed seats for the afternoon trip of day 2.

There is very little to do after sunset. Wild life documentary film is shown in the campus every evening. We watch a film on day 1. The restaurant at the campus serves buffet meals for fixed price. BF @ 100/-, Lunch @ 150/- and Dinner @150/-. The KMVN package has all meals included. The food was good. We had early dinner and retired into our rooms. For your information : there also is a canteen cum grocery shop in the campus which sells essential items, mainly to cater to the need of the drivers and residing forest staffs. But you get cigarettes, toffees, biscuits and chips there. Smoking and alcohol is not permitted outside your room. No one was seen enforcing the smoking ban and as such you will see smokers in the campus.

Day 2 : We set out on the jeep safari at the crack of the dawn. The charges for a jeep safari is Rs.1000/- ( 800 for the jeep and 200 for the guide). The jeeps dashes off for points where tigers could be spotted while crossing the road. There they will wait for alarm calls. Here you can see a tiger only if it chooses to cross the road. So be practical and do not expect to see tiger this way. I doubt at this attempt at tiger spotting. It appeared more to be a time killing technique. After an hour or so of futile waiting, we were taken inside the dense forest through one of the link road. The roads are well laid out and are easily drivable, at least for a Maruti Gypsy. Driving through the dense sal forest where we spotted all 4 varieties of deer found in the park. Finally we reached a vast grass land. These are hunting grounds for tigers. There we saw a large flock of spotted deer. I had never seen such a big flock of deer. These deer are somewhat used to the safari jeeps. They try to run only if you stop. Else they will ignore your presence. By 8:30 am we were back at the resort.

We had decided to take another safari after breakfast. Otherwise we have nothing to do till afternoon. As we were two families, the cost of the trip was shared. This trip took us to the other flank of the main road. We had seen one side of the forest in the morning trip. So we had asked the guide to show the other half. This time there was no hurry. Neither there was any futile waiting for the tiger. The trip took us to another vast grassland on the other side of the Ramganga river. We could see the FRH from the other side of the reservoir. On the way we spotted a large fishing owl, and then saw a fishing eagle hunting live in front of us. We were waiting on a makeshift bridge watching the mahseer fishes feeding in the clear water of the stream. Then the hunting eagle appeared in the scene and swoop down to pick a large fish in a flash. We were taken to a spot where we saw a large crocodile lazing out in the sun. The crocodile was quick to spot us when we got off the jeep to have a better look. It hurried onto the safety of water. Roaming in the wilderness savoring the moments was the best part of the trip. This is why we have come this far. We had every bit of our time’s and money’s worth. By noon, we were back at the resort.

The two hour elephant safari started at 4 pm. After crossing the grassland around the resort, we were taken into the thick sal forest. We saw tiger pug marks just few hundred meters from the FRH. The thought of spending a night so close to the tiger excited us. The ride was an amazing experience for us. The jeep safari offers you travel only through well constructed roads and you need wait for the tiger hoping it to cross the road. But the elephant do not travel by road. Rather, it makes its way through the sal forest and bushes. We had hard times keeping the bushes and plants away from us to prevent them from hitting our faces. Both I and my wife, who were seated just behind the mahout, had minor bruises on our limbs. But it was real fun and adventure. We had thoroughly enjoyed it. After scouting the jungle for some time, we had reached a spot which had fresh pugmarks of tiger. It was a nullah with clear sign of the tiger going up on the nullah. We continued upward following the pugmarks. There were fresh tiger droppings and also urine marking, which tigers use to define its territory. Then we had reached the spot which was used by the tiger for resting. It appeared that we had missed the tiger not by much. The jungle was so dense that we wondered as to whether we will be able to get out of it before dark. I asked the mahout as to how he finds directions. He replied ‘the same way you find roads in cities’. It is instinct. May be experience. It was almost dark by the time the 2 hour ride finished.
Anyway, we saw everything except the view of the majestic beast roaming in the wild. Yet we were not unhappy. We had traveled at least 100 kms within the park. It was a fantastic experience and we will certainly come back here. This time it will be in summer when the possibility of tiger sighting is more.

The KMVN Package :
I recommended the KMVN package before leaving for Corbett. Because of my pleasant experience, I now highly recommend the KMVN package. It had everything you want. The package currently priced @Rs.5000/- plus taxes @3.09% per person is much cheaper than any other private package on offer. Further it had no catch. I had to spend only for the breakfast on the onward journey and lunch on the return journey.

The package includes transportation, entry fees for visiting the park, all meals, one jeep safari and one elephant safari. The transportation from Delhi is by Toyota Innova or similar car. This is a six seater vehicle. You may have problem if you have children older than 5 years and you have not paid for them. The limited space in such vehicles means that you can not even carry children on lap. KMVN charges for children above 5 years is not 50% of adult, but almost 90% of adult. That too without accommodation! This is a deterrent and KMVN should have a look at this policy. KMVN is allotted 7 rooms in the Dhikala FRH. This is the only accommodation inside Corbett which can be booked from Delhi. For booking any other FRH accommodation, you need to contact the Corbett Tiger Reserve office at Ramnager over phone, get the possible dates by fax and then send the payment by DD. This will be cheaper than KMVN package. But booking your trip like that may turn out to be a headache. Therefore the KMVN package is the best possible option from Delhi.
(For more photos of Corbett, please visit this link : Rupankar's Corbett Photo)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Going to Corbett National Park

I have booked a trip to the Corbett National Park next weekend. Despite my aversion for package trips, I had opted for a package trip this time. The main reason for taking a package is that the trip ensures confirmed accommodation at the Dhikala Forest Rest House (FRH), which is 35 km inside the park.

The package is offered by KMVN, an agency of Utrranchal Tourism. Being a Govt. agency, they only offer accommodation in the FRHs located deep inside the park. If you have a look at the map of CNP, you will observe that the park is divided into 3 zones : the Core Zone, the Buffer Zone and the Tourist Zone. The packages offered by private operators are for resorts located in the buffer zone, which is actually is on the periphery of the park. Therefore, if you take a private package, you have almost nil chance of getting into Dhikala zone which is part of core zone. All that you will have to satisfy is with trips to smaller ranges in tourist zone like Jhirna and Birjani. But I feel, if you do not get to stay inside the jungle or get a chance to visit the core zone, there is very little adventure.

The 2N/3D package ex-Delhi is all inclusive. The rate is Rs.5000/- plus taxes @3.22% for adult. It includes transportation from Delhi by car / coach, all veg meals, accommodation at Dhikala FRH and safaris. I went to the KMVN Office located at Barakhamba Road, CP, New Delhi, looking to book accommodation only. But when I heard of the details of the package, I had no second thought. The package frees me from many headaches such as booking train tickets, collecting gate passes at Ramnagar and then bargain prices for hiring a jeep for 3 days. One piece of information is that all passes for CNP are issued at the CTR Office located almost opposite the Ramnagar bus stand. The Dhanagiri gate that takes you into the core zone areas is 18 km from the town.

CNP had its own website which was very informative. Unfortunately it had been hacked. However, the KMVN site has some of the information from the old site. You can check out the site. The rates have not been updated. But as of now I highly recommend this package. I will share my experiences on return.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Vacation rental

February provides the best time to travel. The end February is the period that is neither too cold nor too hot. I had a memorable vacation last year in the desert. This year too I will be holidaying in the last week of Feb. But this time it will be in the wild. What I have in mind is one of the popular National Park in India. The trip is being worked on.

This season also offers opportunity to holiday at some good properties at highly discounted rate. Being shoulder season most vacation rental companies offers good discounts. But unfortunately they have limited options. Only plus point I find in a holiday at a property owned by some vacation rental company is that they have good, often star rated facilities. The competition in this segment is increasing with few new players getting into it in India. Earlier we had only two players of which only one had brand recognition. But I still feel that this is still not a popular concept in India. Reason one for this laggerdness is prohibitive pricing by Indian standard and reason two is limited options or choice of locations. Vacation rental is a popular concept aborad. The scenario may change few years down the line.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Adieu Shaun Pollock

Watching Shaun Pollock holding back tears while giving his farewell speech last night after the SA-WI 5th ODI brought tears to my eyes as well. He was a gentleman on the field. A realization had occurred that cricketers of our generation are fast disappearing. Pollock had bowled his last ball last night. Gilchrist have another 15 days before hanging up his gloves.

Warne is gone. So is McGrath, Lara & Inzy – all these great revelers of our time had retired in the last 12 months. Only a handful now remains. But even the likes of Jayasurya, Sachin, Dravid and Ganguly are fast approaching their final days.

We had probably failed to realize that it is not only us who had crossed into the late 30s, but the cricketers as well who has been part of our life for last 15 years. It is a fact that most people in our age group no more watch cricket as ardently as they used to do some 15 years back. That was the time when we would hardly move from the television room until the last ball is bowled. The hourly drinks break provided toilet breaks for us. Now we hardly watch a full day’s cricket. In fact I do not remember when I had watched a full days cricket on TV last time. The golden era of cricket has probably been over.

Even though we are not addicted to cricket anymore, we still follow it. These are the bunch of guys whom we love to hate at times and then admire most of the time. New guys are getting inducted into most of the teams to replace these all time greats. But if you look at most teams, there is little promise. Look at the replacements for Pakistan and India. These new generation players may be talented, but not at par with the ones they are replacing. There will never be another Pollock, Gilchrist, Sachin, Lara, Inzamam, McGrath or Warne. We will certainly miss them.