It was around eight pm. Mr Mehra brought the gypsy to a gentle halt. We were in a vast expanse of grassland interspersed with a few jamun kunj. Silence of the night echoed everywhere, except for the intermittent calls of Night-jars. As he turned off the headlights, darkness engulfed us in a blinding blanket. He whispered to look to our right. Hundreds of tiny lights were twinkling there.
“What, what is it?”
“Come on Jaishree. You don’t know! You really don’t know!!”
I moved my neck slightly in denial, without ever taking my eyes off the twinkling grassland.
“These are jugnus”, replied my husband in a matter-of-fact tone.
Oh yes, these must be jugnus. How could I not see that these were jugnus! I have seen jugnus but it was limited to spotting a few of them here and there, while taking a stroll in night. However, there these were, ten-twenty-fifty, no, not even hundreds, but in thousands. It was as if the tips of long grass blades developed phosphoric radiance and the timings had been set to fractions of seconds’ to-blink-and-light randomly.
I have seen jungles in real and watched wildlife on National Geography and Discovery channels. But none could match the impressions of that moment. Dear reader, it all happened in our very neighborhood: Corbett which till then (to me) meant Dhikala, Bijrani, jhirna and nth number of resorts. It all happened in its Sitavani area which is a buffer zone of Corbett.
Thank you Mr Mehra! Had you not halted there, I would never have experienced the dazzling display of the nature’s jewels. I simply relish gazing at star-studded sky on clear nights and it was as if the sky had been turned upside down. And thank you Mr Kaustubh to provide us two wonderful drivers, Mr Mehra and Mr Honey Bedi. Both of them had good knowledge of the birds and were themselves in love with the Jungle.
This was my third trip to Corbett, but first for the kids. We had planned the whole itinerary of five days, well in advance, through Mr Kaustubh Pandey, sometime in Feb.
We reached RamNagar on a mid-April morning, a beautiful morning indeed. We came out of station looking for green safari vehicle as told by Kaustubh.
“Hello Rachit!” someone spoke to my son. We were taken aback. Kaustubh recognized Rachit right away. I know, I know, everyone recognize the pretty faces quickly.
We discussed the itinerary – three safaris in Bijrani, while we stay at Wild Trail, a resort outside Corbett, and then three full days, i.e. six safaris, in Dhikala.
When we reached Wild Trail, kids went crazy at the prospects of uninhibited play in the Kosi river and at the sight of the mangoes, though the fruit was only the size of my thumbnail at that time, but it was after all Langra. Rachit dreamed of eating all the Langras and his eyes drooled.
The first morning was spent chasing the birds and then playing in the river.
We took the evening safari in Bijarni zone of the jungle with Mr Mehra and star of that trip was the Hornbill.
The plan for the second day was to have a morning and an evening safari in Bijrani. A late evening call by Kaustubh, announcing that he could not procure an entry permit for Bijrani next morning, left us disappointed. But the prospects of splashing once more in the river compensated that. We spent the next morning chasing the birds and then walked well-prepared to take a dip in the river. It had rained in mountains that night resulting in high flow and muddy water. That limited us to the banks and instead of taking dips, kids threw pebbles, while the two of us kept an eye on hovering pied-kingfisher and the two kiddies. Sun became stronger and we all retreated only after overcoming a good deal of resistance from the kids.
Another call from Kaustubh at 2 pm- “Your evening permit also could not be procured”. I was furious. Two months of advance planning and partial payments, missing Rachit’s monthly school tests to give the time that Corbett deserves, all of it was wasted. Tempers rose and I was hell bent upon returning. Manish accepted Kaustubh’s alternative offer to visit the jungle of Sitavani albeit with the condition that we would travel only with Mr Mehra. He somehow also succeeded in making me think rationally. He always keeps his philosophy of never letting someone else spoil his day and mood. After all, it is our life … our time …our money …what if despite all our best efforts things don’t go our way.
This is how we chanced upon visiting Sitavani, as it did not need any permit for the entry.
Mr Mehra arrived at 4:00 pm. Barely half a kilometer and Mr Mehra stopped the car to show us the vulture colonies.
Then at the barrage, he showed cormorants, Ruddy Shelduck, sandpiper and patiently moved the vehicle forward and backward on a narrow bridge as we were busy identifying the water birds and photographing them. He enthusiastically participated in all our activities as if he was a fellow traveler.
Further ahead, play of light and shadow on dry leaves’ carpet under the jamun kunj kept us glued there. In-fact I dreamed of all the Jamuns that would fall down to weave a deep violet carpet. But, my dream would be realized by our ancestors – the Monkeys. I did not mind. There, nature has precedence over humans.
Soon, we were climbing up on the tar road flanked on both sides by Teak-forest. A group of birders from Nepal was busy with their high end binoculars. Birding in Teak forest is easier than the Sal-forest because of former’s big and less dense leaves. Of course, there are birds for which densely-foliated trees are the only habitat and you can spot these only in Sal-forest.
Having said that, birding is not so good in jungles frequented by predating mammals as you cannot leave your vehicle or the designated area, to chase birds. In-fact, in a sense, it takes away the fun out of the activity itself. You have to forego running behind the bird, as it flies from one tree to another, sitting quietly under the shade of trees to let your kill come and settle on the branch, ducking under the shrubs, and getting rewarded by sighting them with binocular and climaxing it with capturing them on your camera screen.
Mr Mehra spotted laughing-thrushes moving in small groups. Now, the name aptly suits these funny creatures. Their sound is really like laughter. They got one more in their small group. My kid, Rachit, laughed and laughed at their laughter and mimicked it perfectly.
Sun was about to retire when we entered the gates of Sitavani jungle.
Dry, pale, thinly foliated teak forest gave way to dense Sal forest. Sweet smell of Cleredendron consumed us. Even while driving on the tar, I got the feel of being under the “thick and thin of wilderness”. The long, straight and narrow trek in Sitavani was giving a long and deep vista, unfelt in Dhikala. Having been to all the zones of Corbett, now I can vouch that Jungles of Sitavani are the most beautiful of all.
Rachit was curious about Termite-Mounds which look like a passive part or simple landscape of jungle. In-fact termites play a crucial role in forest ecology by clearing away leaf and woody litter, by adding to soil formation and bringing quality to soil. Old trees fall down with time, but their roots remain intact for a long time, taking up all the space and not allowing other trees to grow. Termites eat up these remaining parts, create soil and space for another tree to grow. Birds eat these termites and occasionally drop a seed in termite mound. Once inside the mound the seed grows fast as that soil is rich in nutrients.
We experienced termites in action in Dhikala zone with Mr Honey Bedi. We were returning after spending full three days in Dhikala and were running the risk of being late. Evening was progressing fast and we were still some 10 Kms away from the gate. There was no vehicular movement, no tourist at that time. Honey Bhai stopped the car and turned off the engine. Views were same but the sounds were different. There was a clear sound as if many many dried leaves were falling down- the sound as we hear in a hot ,lonely afternoon of roasted summers of plains. But leaves were not falling down. And there was no breeze, not even a stray wink, to cause that beautiful murmur of leaves either.
“Can you tell me what is causing this sound?”,asked Honey bhai.
We could not answer.
“It is the termites which are eating up these dried leaves.” replied he.
Enchanting display of jugnus, murmur of termites and the fragrance of Clerodendron flowers is what I remember the most of that trip.
Oh! Let me come back to Sitavani.
After crossing rivulets and streams when we reached the temple of Goddess Sita, moon had come out in the backdrop of deep dark blue sky.
Manish went down to the temple while I stayed back with Rachit. Pitch dark, black night spread everywhere when we started our retreat. Silence swept on every inhabitant of the jungle except on night-jars. Maybe,maybe, we would be able to see this bird. As we drove further, two bright eyes glowed in the darkness, a pair of wings fluttered and we saw our first night-jar.
There were many first in this trip. It was for the first time we were in a deep jungle at night. I was afraid in heart of my hearts and wished not to encounter any mammal. To make matters worse, Manish told me about the destruction a group of wild elephants caused at a dharamshala near the temple. Pachyderms broke the windows of rooms, broke the pipe supplying water to Ramnagar. Pujari at the temple suggested Manish to return to the temple to spend the night there, if we meet elephants on the way.
After listening about all this, Rachit moved from the back seat to the seat in the middle. And to make all dreams true, even the worst ones, there it was – an elephant right in the middle of the road. Rachit gripped my hands tightly. Luckily, it moved to the sides and disappeared in the tree. We also moved. However, as we crossed the big mammal, we could see the silhouette of it, waiting on the sides for us to cross. Such are the way of nights in Jungle, even such a big animal might just be on your side in the nearby trees, yet there will be no sound and it will not be in your sight as well.
The sudden rendezvous with wild-elephant frightened Rachit more and he moved further to sit with Mehraji. He was scared and did not want to stop anywhere. Finally, we came out of the jungle and from atop, before the descent began, saw the small piece of human inhabited land across the river, sandwiched between jungles of Sitavani and Bijrani. It was a stark example of human encroachment which was then rife with the tension of a man eating tiger that had taken four human lives in recent days.
The river where kids were playing in the water, the resort where we were staying, all was part of the jungle till the day when the highest mammal decided to redraw the line. This is Bijrani Zone, this is Sitavani Zone and this one km long strip of land along the river between these two zones, belongs to us. However, all other natural things, living or non-living – the trees, river, air, birds, reptiles, mammals, are still oblivious to this redrawing of lines. So when a tiger or a herd of elephants roam from human created boundaries of Sitavani to Bijrani, a few of us become victim of our own deeds.
Jugnus took me out of my thoughts. Kids also relaxed and we moved ahead only to halt again. A large herd of deer was standing in alert-silence near those jamun-trees. We learnt from Mehraji that deer grazes in open areas in night so that in case of any attack they can run for their lives. All the herd stays awake whole night and then in daytime would rest around the trees with monkeys; later keeps a vigil on predators and give alarm calls in due time.
Again the thoughts cloud my mind. There are tigers and leopards in the jungle. How many lives will be taken in one night? Gosh! I don’t want to think over this. There is no absolute loss in universe – ‘One’s loss is another’s gain. It is but a brutal truth.
The most important thing while visiting Corbett is to have good drivers. Here are the contact numbers of two knowledgeable drivers, in-fact they were instrumental in making this trip unforgettable. In their company we felt that we were travelling with jungle enthusiasts-
Mr Mehra – 09359364878/09358898267/05947-254739
Mr Honey Bedi – 09837308085/08430399915 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
You don’t need any permit to visit Sitavani area till now.
Don’t fall in the night safari trap which many operators boast of. They simply start by late evening and take you till that jamun-kunj. Instead ask for a full day safari and retreat by late evening to feel a real night safari.
Keep plenty of eatables as there are no refreshment stalls except a tea stall near temple.
It is not advisable to get down from the vehicle. If you do get tempted, stick to the tar road and near your vehicles.