As the sun goes down behind the hills turning the landscape into a canvas of myriad shades of orange, jungle folk leisurely walks back to their cocoons for roosting. And then darkness descends to engulf the forest in a think black blanket, enthusing a new lease of life into the nocturnal fauna. The generally quiet jungle suddenly springs to life with a cacophony of calls and sounds. Predators who rules the night are out on the prowl. Many will not survive the night to see the light of tomorrow. Being out there in the dark is certainly a frightening proposition, but watching this drama unfold from inside an electric fence to fend off the predators is an altogether a different experience. Imagine yourself sitting right in the midst of all these actions, feeling the pulse of the jungle nightlife and soak in the unforgettable experience. Welcome to the Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, the land of roar and trumpet.
|Asitic wild elephants|
The evergreen dense forest of Corbett NP with patches of saal trees, grasslands, hills and rivers is the ideal habitat for two of the giants of Indian forests – the Royal Bengal Tiger and the Asiatic Wild Elephants. Corbett is one of those rare places in India that offers feel of real jungle night stay if you can manage to get accommodation in one of its Forest Rest Houses (FRH). These are tourist facilities run by the forest department of Uttaranchal and can be booked online through Corbett’s official site corbettonline.uk.gov.in. Of all the FRHs located across various ranges of the park, the Dhikala FRH is the most sought after, followed by Gairal and Bijrani. All of them are basic facilities, yet any true wild lifer will gleefully trade his luxurious hotel room for a night at these FRH. The Dhikala FRH is the biggest of all the facilities, located 31km inside forest on the bank of Rāmgangā reservoir, has good facilities for food, almost 24 hr electricity and next door access to the famed chaur or grasslands of Corbett. Therefore Dhikala FRH generally stays full with tourists, nature lovers and wildlife photographers. Other rest houses too are alluring, each of them in its unique way. The Gairal FRH and Bijrani FRH too have canteen facilities, but have limited choice of food. They do not have electricity, but are solar powered upto 10pm only. In my last visit this summer, I could not manage booking at either at Dhikala or Gairal. So when I was offered a choice of Sarapduli FRH during my last visit, I thought why not. A different kind of jungle stay was waiting to be experienced.
The Sarapduli FRH is located almost halfway to the Dhikala FRH from the Dhanagiri gate entry point on NH121. Travelling from the Dhanagiri gate, you first reach Sultan FRH. This two room FRH is the only one without any electric fencing and canteen. Hence you need to be super adventurous to plan a night stay here under a small solar lantern in the midst of prime tiger and elephant habitat. Travelling further through large patches of saal forests, after climbing up and down hills, crossing rivulets and, on almost reaching the plains of Dhikala, you reach the Sarapduli FRH. The facility is almost similar to Sultan, but here you have the comfort of an electric fencing.
|A tiger in Dhikala zone of Corbett|
Entering the Sarapduli FRH campus, we went pass couple of staff quarters lined on both side of the road. At the end of the 200 odd mtr road, which is the other end of the campus, facing a river is the tourist hutment. The building is an old British era heritage. It has two rooms with attached bath. One of the rooms is meant for tourist booking online, and the other for officials or someone who manages booking though connections. As the official room generally remains vacant, you are expected to spend the night alone in that house. The dining hall with a fire place is common to both the rooms. The guest room was smaller as compared to those in Dhikala or Gairal. However the toilet was almost the same size as the room itself. There also is a veranda facing the river, lined with many chairs, in case you find time to relax. You do not get river view though, because of overgrown bushes. About fifty feet away is a 3 bed dormitory in a separate building. Their common toilet is outside, making it scarier.
A modern time extension has been added to the old building, to serve as the kitchen. Cooking gas cylinder is available along with utensils. Charges for using these items are already included in the room rent for the night. Guests are required to carry raw materials for meals. You should be meticulous to carry everything, from salt to sugar to tea to turmeric to spices. You will not get anything there. You may either cook yourselves or else the caretaker will cook. Most guests generally goes out for safari at the crack of dawn, only to return to Sarapduli in the evening. Thus one is likely to have only dinner at Sarapduli. Or a cup of tea in the morning and evening.
Given the surroundings, we were excited at the prospect of spending the night at Sarapduli. It was almost dusk when we hit the campus after safari. Electric fencing were activated soon after we had entered. As we were the only guests for that night, we pulled out chairs in the open while the caretaker served us evening tea. The campus was dimly lit by few solar lights placed along the pathway. As the night fell, the staff quarters, though inside the campus, appeared too far away for comfort. The darkness and silence of the forest was overpowering. It started to engulf all of us, including the driver of my gypsy. He is a local guy, often goes to forest, yet he was scarred to sleep alone in the driver’s room. He cooked up haunting stories. Finally he managed to stay with the caretaker in his quarter. We too had become anxious. Despite being a regular to Corbett, being alone was unique experience. We had to make a polite query as to how far help is available if we call someone at night. I estimated the caretaker’s room was about 200 feet away. We could see a light in a room about 100 feet away. We were told that a staff sleeps in that room. We were assured somewhat but was not sure how will someone react if we really need help at night.
Discussions on tiger sightings and other incidences accompanied our tea. I always enjoy such discussions with men who spends most of their days and nights in the forest. A storm was building up. Flashes of lightning were illuminating the surroundings occasionally. A cool breeze started blowing bringing in some relief from the heat. As we were enjoying the moments, we felt a sudden commotion along the fence and then a panic call from a scarred Sambhar deer. The source of the call was so close that all of us stood up instinctively. The electric fencing on the side from where the call came is about 100 feet from where we were sitting. Call of Sambher deer is a certainty about presence of a tiger or leopard. It was almost certain that a tiger was walking by the fence, probably to to the adjoining riverbed. We pulled out torches to scan for any sign of animal close to the fence, but without any success. My family made anxious query about safety of the electric fencing. The caretaker did his bit to assure them that bigger animals cannot trespass. There has not been any incident of tiger or leopard straying into the campus. To me a tiger may be too big for the fencing hole, but a leopard can come climbing any of the tree, if it wants to do so.
|The mystic Corbett mornings|
It was a long day for us and lights were to go off at 10pm. So we went for an early dinner. While waiting for food to be served, my eyes spotted something under a chair in the dining hall. The chair was directly under the only light glowing in the room and hence insects were converging onto it. Smaller insects, that had died, fell to the floor under the chair. Among those dead insects, there was something longer than any insect. So I went to inspect. I got excited to see a small white scorpion about 3 inches long, feasting on the dead insects. What we should have worried is that this scorpion was inside the house, and barely couple of 4-5 feet from the door of the room where we were supposed to spend the night without any electricity. Scary, isn’t it. But this is the thrill of spending a night in a jungle. And where do one get to stay in such a place in these times where humans have not rarely left any space unoccupied. This is Corbett, the real jungle. And this is Sarapduli, providing much better feel of jungle than Dhikala. When I brought it to the notice of the caretaker, he immediately arranged to remove the scorpion. He informed that it is more poisonous than the black scorpion.
The night passed of well. We were provided a small solar lantern for use after lights went off. Though the cacophony of sound had stopped before we went to bed, few Nightjar birds, with its terrible high pitch calls, kept waking us up from time to time. Being peak of summer in May, it was quite hot to spend the night without a fan. We stayed at Sarapduli for one more night. Second night was better with bit of rain and cool breeze. We felt confident to keep the door between bedroom and dining hall open that night. It provided much needed cross ventilation. We slept peacefully that night. Rains kept the nightjars away. I have been to Corbett so many times, generally staying at Dhikala and Gairal. This first time stay at Sarapduli was unique in its own way. We will remember the events of those two nights for a long time. It was a true jungle night stay in all sense. If you are looking for adventure, then you should certainly give it a try. You are sure to be back with treasure trove of memories from these places.