Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Sordid Story of Corbett Resorts

We had stayed at a small resort at Dhikuli near Ramnagar. A recent article in the TOI had highlighted the sordid state of luxurious private resorts causing irreparable damage to the Corbett National Park. In the night we got a taste of what the article was telling us. The Corbett Inn one of the luxury reports, was located next to pur resort. It was having guests of some TVS group company and was hosting a party. The loud music with booz is not what people should expect in a nture resort. But the residents of the hotel differ with this opinion and so got indulged in a booz party rather than enjoying the tranquilness of the jungle. One of the guys who were drunk got hold of the loudspeaker and was creating a scene which we could hear from our resort. Night is the time for 4 legged animals, not for drunken 2 legged ones making his voice heard over the loudspeakers. If the tiger roars, the jungles shake. But when a man roars with a mike in hand, the jungle shed tears. Hosting parties with loud music at night is a regular feature of these so called nature resorts. These unscrupulous hoteliers are doing irreparable damage to the flora and fauna of the area. 77 private resorts have come up in the area close to the park and it is a booming business.

In the park, we had befriended a forest ranger. He told us another sad story. Some of these resorts are resorting to dirty tactics like throwing meats around edges of the park to draw out carnivores so that their guests can be offered chance to see them without entering the park. Easy food makes these carnivores change their natural instinct of hunting for food. If they change their habit, they will look for easy prey like cattle of the villagers living around the park. Villagers are retaliating by poisoning the animals. This is a serious cocktail cooking right under the nose of the administration. Do you believe that administration is not aware of these? The booming resort business has given a fillip to corruption as well.

Almost all these resorts are located in an area called Dhikuli which is strikingly similar to Dhikala located in the core area of the park. Most tourists get duped by the promise of accommodation at Dhikala and end up staying at Dhikuli. So next time you are going there, make sure where you are going. Dhikala accommodations are all Forest Rest Houses. It can be booked only by directly contacting the CTR office. We were told of another sad tale of corruption. Some corrupted CTR officials have been bribed by these resorts to create artificial shortage of FRH accommodation in the park so that people are forced to stay at these resorts. While so much hullabaloo is made about just 1411 tigers left in India, all these dirty things are happening right at the place which is suppose to have the largest number of tigers in India. Disgusting, isn’t it!

This is how we have read, seen and were told by people who really care but have no ways to make their voices heard. Our ranger friend was so proud to tell that they get a hike of Rs.500/- per month in their salary because Corbett has come first in tiger conservation effort and has recorded the highest tiger population in India. The forest is their livelihood and they really want the forest and tiger to live. And we need the tiger to save the forest and save us from ecological disasters like draught and global warming.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Gairal FRH : Should the tourists be charged at par with Dhikala FRH

Gairal FRH

Despite reading some good reviews of Gairal FRH, I have a different point of view to offer to my readers. As someone who had stayed at both Dhikala FRH and Gairal FRH, this review will make you think twice about staying at Gairal.

Location :

We had started for Gairal shortly after sunrise. The 3 km part of the road off the main road through wooded forest was fantastic. Fortunately we did not meet any elephant en-route. The 9:30am arrival at Gairal turns out to be a bit early as the parties staying there were yet to vacate rooms. The normal check out time is 11 am. While waiting for rooms we had our breakfast in the canteen. The campus had hill on one side and river on the other. The location was really beautiful. This probably is the only plus point of Gairal. The large campus had the river flowing by on one side. One can go down to almost bank of the river, but onto the river. The campus is protected by solar powered electric fencing.

Canteen at Gairal:

The canteen is a private run one. We were told that the contract for this canteen was auctioned at Rs.6 lakh a year. The contractor has to recover this cost in 6 / 7 months time. Thus everything was offered at a premium. The rates were in fact same as that of the Govt run restaurant at the Dhikala complex. Lunch and dinner are offered at per person rate of Rs.200/- for adult and Rs.150/- for child. Though rates are same, Dhikala had a proper restaurant with trained staff, but this one is a canteen resembling a roadside hotel.

Rooms at Gairal:

There is an old FRH with two big rooms. The new FRH has four rooms. The rates charged for rooms were at par with Dhikala. But the rooms were much inferior to what is there at Dhikala. Services were also were of lower quality. Anyway, you do not expect classy accomodation in FRH in a jungle. Because I had stayed at Dhikala, I feel a tad disappointed that I had to pay the rates of Dhikala for this kind of room. There also is a 20 bed dormitory and 3 huts. Electricity is available only from 6pm to 9 pm. It is generator only power supply. Dhikala has round the clock power supply. Candles are provided in case you want to stay awake beyond 9pm. But getting out of the room after nine is scary. The solar powered fence is porous. Rooms do not have fans. Even if fans were there, there is no electricity to run them. So think n times before accepting accomodation at Gairal.

Tourist facilities :

Gairal turns out to be full of surprises. Contrary to what is advertised at the official website of Corbett, there are no visitor facilities for elephant rides or jeep safari. This means one will have to go the Dhikala complex to hire a jeep safari, unless you have taken one from outside. Stuck with this situation, we headed for Dhikala. Though we had taken 4 cars inside, we used only 2 vehicles by sharing between families. When we were leaving for Dhikala, guides stationed there approached us. The park has put up a kind of rule that tourist can not go out without a guide. This is apparently in good spirit aimed at mainly novices from losing way in the jungle. The guide charges are only Rs.250/-, but we had no space in our cars. We in any case will be hiring safari jeep and hence guide from Dhikala. Thus we had ignored them. However this proved to be costly for us as the so called nature guides which are supposed to be tourist friendly turned out goons by evening when we had returned. The rule is in Good spirit, but the way it is tried to enforce is wrong. One is allowed to travel without a guide from Dhanagiri to Gairal or Dhikala. How one who has made it to Gairal safely could would lose way while travelling from Gairal to Dhikala. Beyond my comprehension. Everybody takes jeep safaris and hires a guide. Why a guide is being forced into a vehicle not on safari.

Day1 : Gairal – Dhikala - Gairal

Our first stop en-route was the Crocodile point, which is on the Gairal – Dhikala road. There were about 7 crocodiles of different sizes. As we were in no position to take a safari from Dhikala at that hour, we had driven slowly reaching Dhikala for lunch. Being noon time there was not even a deer around. A new rule also has been put up which bares safaris from 12 noon to 2 pm.

When we had approached the office for elephant safari we had another surprise. Initially it was a blatant no as we are staying put at Gairal. The reason cited was that safari of 2 hours duration will start at 3:30 and we will have to leave Dhikala by 5pm to be able to reach Gairal before gates are closed. Imagine the scenario – neither there are any facilities at Gairal, nor can you avail the ones available at Dhikala because you are staying at Gairal. We pursued our case and the official relented to allow one of the groups to have a curtailed safari of 1 ½ hour. So the newbies among us went for elephant safari and oldies like us went for a jeep safari.

The group on elephant got delayed by 10 min and so we headed back for Gairal by 5:20pm. Keeping in mind the speed limit and 6pm closure of gates, we had tried our best to reach Gairal. If you can drive at reasonable speed, the 13 km distance from Dhikala to Gairal will take at least 45 min. The road is not that motorable and you have to keep in mind the animals crossing in those late afternoon hours. Finally we had reached Gairal by 6:10 pm, with enough daylight to spare, but 10 min beyond the schedule closure of gates. This is where trouble had started. The situation was beyond our control. We got delayed by the late arrival of elephant. Then we had followed the guidelines on speed and had arrived with enough daylight. After some arguments and delay, they had opened the gates for us. The ranger though was showing his displeasure, was understanding. But the so called supposed to be tourist friendly nature guides posted there had started to incite the ranger to impose penalty on us. Their grudge was that we did not hire their services and instead hired guides from Dhikala. As I had mentioned earlier, we had no space in our cars to carry the guide as each vehicle had 4 adults and 3 kids. Further we were quite familiar with the routes as we were not first timers. But the heated discussion took an ugly turn because the leader of the guides behaved like a goon. However, a fight was avoided as better sense prevailed with some of the people there. The ranger also fell to their pressure tactics. We had decided to pay a fine of Rs.500/- per vehicle as asked by the ranger. However we had refused to write an apology as worded by those rustic goons. They wanted us to write kind of things like we had knowingly violated rules, had arrived half an hour late. We were clear that we will pay fine if a receipt is issued so that we can take it up with higher authorities if required. But no apology in their terms. They would have easily allowed us in and compensated for this 10 min had we hired a guide from the group. It is a situation which arises solely because we had stayed at that damned place called Gairal. It is not the place if you plan to move around in the park. But if you want a break where you just plan to stay put in a secluded hut, like the ones by wildlife photographers, then Gairal is the ideal place. If you want to stay in Gairal, there are couple of secluded huts where you can relax and wait for animal rather than running after them.

Such botched was our luck that day that a group of 3 guys from Nasik got to see a tiger on their way back. We had met the group day before and assisted them in getting accommodation inside as they had arrived at Ramnagar without any booking. Believe it or not, none of the guys had a camera. All they had was their mobiles where they captured the tiger sitting majestically just 15/20 feet from their jeep. And imagine dozens of people with high end cameras and professional lenses are moving around in the park without any luck. Getting to see the tiger is pure luck.

Day 2:

By morning temper on both sides had cooled down. We spoke to the ranger and also to the moderate ones in the group of the guides. We had made it clear to them that money is not an issue, but it is the space in the cars for which we can not take them. If they wish they can take 500 rupees from us and spare us the trouble of carrying one of them. Despite the previous evening’s incidence, they had no problem in allowing us to leave without a guide.

Even though we started almost at dawn break, it was obvious that we would not be able to take any of the prime time jeep safaris. So we had to make our trip itself a safari. We had started encountering deer, boras etc. almost on the entire route. The difference in time of our trip was clearly visible. We hardly had seen a deer in yesterday’s trip almost at noon. But there were so many animals around on this early morning trip. This is what I meant by prime time jeep safaris from Dhikala which one can not catch by staying at Gairal.

We decided to scout the Kamarpatta road where the group saw the tiger previous evening. We were quite familiar with Dhikala range and hence had no problem in moving around alone. In fact that day we had scoured the Kamarpatta road 3 times without any luck. We are now so familiar with Kamarpatta road that we can get out of it even at night. We spent the entire morning moving around in our own vehicle doing our own safari. Corbett is not only for tigers. Getting to see a tiger is extreme good luck and encountering an angry pachyderm is extreme bad luck. Leaving aside these two extremes, there is so much of unspoiled nature to explore and enjoy.

But sometimes the quota of bad luck exceeds what you normally expect. While returning to Dhikala for breakfast, one of our vehicles was hit by a safari vehicle. Though we had maintained a safe distance, the driver of the safari jeep ahead of us suddenly stopped. We saw him stopping and so had stopped our vehicle some 10 /15 feet behind him. Then the jeep reversed suddenly in high speed without giving us any reaction time. By the time we shouted the stapney had hit our bonnet. It was his fault and so we could confront him. Had we been at fault he would have made our life miserable. He was insisting that he had no money and will get our vehicle repaired at Ramnagar. We knew that we had to settle is on the spot as outside it will be his den where we will be at disadvantage. We also understood that the guy is only a driver and can not afford to pay actual cost of repair. All we should get from him is the money to file an insurance claim. He was even dithering at it. When we had threatened to lodge a written complaint at Dhikala itself, he budged and paid 500. Misfortune was following us on this trip.

We proceeded on jeep safaris almost immediately after lunch. Every safari makes you see newer areas of the park and revisit the most common areas like the sambher road and the grassland. After moving around the park for some time, we finally came to location, where calls were heard. We also decided to wait. Soon we heard our first call of a sambher deer. The call of the deer becomes frequent. Everyone was certain that the tiger is around and is likely come down to the river. We all now know what a call for tiger is. Clock was ticking and time was running out fast. The guide and driver of our jeep told that if we fail to see the tiger today, we have to blame our stay at Gairal. Had we stayed at Dhikala we could have waited for another hour or so. To our utter disappointment, we had to call of our wait at 4:45pm and proceed for Dhikala. Even while leaving the place we could hear the call of sambher and could see few alert deer around. The tiger was definitely around. It was so close yet so far. All for this damned place called Gairal.

We left Dhikala by 5 pm and had reached Gairal 15 min before time. Probably the guides were unhappy to see us back before time that day. To get over our disappointment we had party that night with the halfties taken from Delhi.

The last day:

The ranger had befriended us by this time. He probably felt bad for the incident where he had to impose a fine on us apparently for no fault of us. He told us stories of his encounters with the Dhola tiger which falls under his jurisdiction. The area for which he has to supervise, there are two tigers and two leopards. He often has to go out on foot and report activities / movements of these animals. As he was concluding his jungle stories and we were about to leave, howling of the tiger was heard from the hill opposite the rest house. The howling started to grow and become frequent. The growling reverberating from hills was majestic. It is different from the ones we hear from caged tigers in zoo. Some tourists, who had just arrived, ran towards the fence on the river hoping to see the tiger. But the ranger told us that tiger will not come to this side of the complex and will follow a route further up the hill. He offered us to take to the watch tower up the hill that may offer us a chance to see the tiger. The ranger sat in my car. Leading the pack of four cars up a stony patch of road, I had wished not to face any wild elephants. There were tell-a-tale signs of wild elephants passing by that area. The ranger told me not to worry and assured me that he can handle wild elephants. Without meeting the misfortune of encountering a herd of pachyderms we had arrived at the watch tower. Though within tourist areas, this watch tower is beyond normal tourist itinerary. Thus we had an excellent view of the river down below and areas around it. By this time the growling of the tiger had also died down. It appeared that the tiger got angry after a failed attempt in hunting. Tired of its effort it probably had laid down somewhere. So we decided to come down. The ranger told that had he been empowered he would have taken us close to the tiger on foot. As that could not happen because neither had he had permission nor we are kith and kin of some forest official to manage one, we thanked him for taking us to the watch tower and got ready for leaving.

This ended an eventful trip. We were so close to the tiger – not once but twice, but could not see it. Three tiger sighting were reported during our stay. But this time we had a feel of what a call for tiger is and also heard the majestic growl of an angry wild tiger. May be, better luck next time. Despite failing to see the tiger in two attempts, we will certainly come back here. The place has such a charm it will make you come back again and again. But this we will certainly stay only at Dhikala as we had learned the dirty tricks of getting confirmed accommodation at Dhikala. May be one last day for a lazy sit and wait for animal day at Gairal as well, rather than running after them.But for a full trip, I will never stay at Gairal.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Corbett a 2nd time : Part-I

The second visit to Corbett turned out to be as exciting as the first one. We will remember it more for some misadventure than the thrill of being very close to the tiger. Luck was not on our side this time too. Thus our sighting score is 0 out of 2.

This time we had a drive in trip. Last one was a KMVN package with confirmed Dhikala booking. The highway NH24 from Delhi has improved a lot since our last visit, specially the section beyond Gajraula. You can easily drive above 100 in the Gajraula – Moradabad section. Construction activities have shifted to Ghaziabad – Gajraula section. We got stuck in jams at some areas on this section on our return which coincided with the evening rush hour. However on our onward trip there was very little traffic hold up. But I would like to warn you of Simbhaoli and Garhmukteswar. If you can cross these two points without getting stuck you should feel lucky.

We had stopped at Gajraula for breakfast. If one starts early from Delhi, then this is where you have to stop for breakfast. Though there are many eateries located at the point where the flyover starts at Gajraula, most of them are run of the mill. If you looking for decent ones, then you need to cross the flyover. There even is a McDonald at Gajraula on the other side of the flyover, some half km from the end point of the flyover. Around the same location, there is a good restaurant (I forgot the name) which is on the right side of the road if you are travelling from Delhi.

We had arrived at CTR Office in Ramnagar town around noon. Getting the passes took some time as the staff was out for lunch as well. While waiting for our passes, we decided to satiate our lunchtime apetite at the KMVN located next the campus. The KMVN restaurant offers good home like food which is not very spicy or oily. Having the entry permit spared us the trouble of coming back to the town next day and stand in queue for permit. We would save a couple of hours by this. We headed out of the town to look for good accommodation for the night. We had enquired with a couple of resorts at Dhikuli. The ones along the highway are costlier. The bigger the sign board, the more the costlier. The Corbett Inn quoted 5500 per room. These resorts are running on packages booked by various travel agents in big cities like Delhi. The luxury cars in their parking tell the story. Thus they are off the limit of smart traveler.

We spotted a small signboard of a resort named Jungle Paradise, just next to the Corbett Inn. It was pointing to a narrow lane by the wall of its luxurious neighbor. About a 100 meter walk along a paddy field lead us to a scenic campus with natural surroundings. This resort comprised of few cottages nested among a paddy field and forest. The place appeared much better to us than the costlier Corbett Inn which appeared artificially landscaped. We were initially quoted Rs.1200/- per cottage. But then because of our requirement of 4 cottages, we could bargain it down to just 900 rupees. That was a real bargain. All the families liked the place, specially the kids for the lush green lawns. Photos of the resort tell the story. We were offered the services of a local boy who led us to the Koshi river in the evening. It was a small nature walk to refresh us after the days driving. Food served for dinner was decent.

(Contact nos. of Jungle Paradise : 09412035559, 05947-284314, 09927772567)