(See Part I of this post, here).
After a relaxing couple of days in Nainital, we drove down to Corbett. The Jim Corbett National Park, originally named Hailey National Park (after William Malcolm Hailey, Governor of the United Provinces at the time) was established in 1936 as the first national park in India. In 1956, it was renamed to honour Jim Corbett, the naturalist-hunter so renowned for both preserving wildlife in the Terai as well as helping the local people by killing many man-eaters in the region.
All of this we told the LO about as we journeyed down the Nainital-Kaladhungi stretch towards Corbett. This road is a very scenic one, with miles of forest all along the way. Mist cloaked the pine woods, and when we rolled down the car windows, the fragrance of the pines wafted in.
As we drove further downhill, the LO became quite despondent: we were leaving the mountains behind! Would there be more mountains ahead? Did Corbett National Park lie in the Shivaliks? Or in the Himadri? In the Terai? She was all ready to whip out her Social Studies text book to check.
Although I’ve travelled quite a bit in Kumaon before, somehow I’ve never been down the Nainital-Kaladhungi-Corbett stretch before. Which is why I hadn’t known about the existence of what turned out to be a serendipitous discovery along the way: the Jim Corbett Museum at Chhoti Haldwani, in Kaladhungi Tehsil.
In 1922, Jim Corbett had bought this piece of land and built a bungalow. On the surrounding land (which also he bought) he built homes for villagers—Chhoti Haldwani, as he named the area, became a model village. Corbett stayed in this bungalow for many years with his sister Maggie, and when he left to settle in Kenya, he sold off the bungalow. Later, in the 1960s, it was acquired by the government and turned into a museum dedicated to Corbett.
The Corbett Museum offers a small but interesting insight into Corbett and his life: his family, his associates, the man-eaters he killed (of course), and more. There are paintings, photographs, reproductions of Corbett’s letters, even some pieces of furniture made by Corbett himself.
We wandered around; the LO didn’t seem especially interested in Corbett or in the memorabilia around, but she did take a peek outside, where a grove of mango trees spreads.
Even more fascinating for the LO were the flowerbeds outside, where a lot of butterflies were fluttering about. We took plenty of photos here (and the LO, who has seen plenty of Disney animations where butterflies or birds alight on the hands of princesses, hopefully held out a hand too, but to no avail).
Finally, after having gone to the souvenir shop and bought some pickles, a T-shirt for the LO, and a wildlife pin for her BFF (as the LO refers to her bosom buddy), we continued on the road to Corbett.
At Corbett, we had a reservation at a resort where my husband and I have stayed before: The Riverview Retreat, on the bank of the Kosi River. This stretch, of a couple of kilometres along the river, is simply one hotel or resort after another. Forests stretch across the river, and on the other side of the road that runs along the front of the hotels.
The LO fell in love with The Riverview Retreat at first glance. This is a kid, remember, who wants (wanted, I should say: we didn’t know it then, but there was a change coming up) to be a naturalist. The resort is all trees and plants, with huge bushes, clumps of bamboo and lemon grass and whatnot everywhere. We went up to our room, set on the upper floor of a small four-room cottage, to find that the balcony had trees all around—so close, in fact, that we could have climbed onto a tree from the balcony.
And there were birds. White eyes and sunbirds, chirping and hopping about among the trees. The occasional magpie robin, or a wagtail. And seemingly dozens of red-whiskered bulbuls, handsome in their white, grey, black and crimson plumage, filling the air with their excited cheeping. There were plenty of these everywhere we looked…
… especially at The Kosi Deck, the restaurant that overlooks the Kosi. This is in the form of an open terrace, with garden furniture set out under a massive gulmohar tree and a ficus. The river flows by, perhaps a hundred metres away, and beyond that stretch low hills, densely forested. The LO loved this deck so much, she insisted on us having all our meals here. We’d sit, eating our food, while watching horses grazing underneath, a fisherman casting his net (in what I thought would have been water too shallow for fish, but from which he seemed to consistently get a good catch), and a monkey jumping from one rock to another to cross the river.
Of course, that made the LO wonder if she could cross the river too. After all, the monkey wasn’t that big; definitely smaller than her. And she saw some tourists too, who were lolling about in the shallows (totally oblivious of the fact that the river, along its length, is used as a toilet by many villagers, the closest just perhaps a couple of hundred yards upstream). If all these varied creatures could wade about in the river without drowning, why couldn’t she attempt a crossing?
We dissuaded her, and instead took her down to the riverbank to gather pebbles, to explore the area, to see what plants grew there, and more. The LO had a whale of a time. Her father gave her some lessons in skipping stones (too short lessons, though, for the LO to get the hang of it). She flung many stones into the water, and she wrinkled up her nose at the many signs the horses had left behind of their passage. She was so happy, she had to be hauled away from the riverbank when the sun set.
And we had to turn in early, because the next morning, we had to leave the Riverview Retreat at 5:30 AM on a jeep safari. Visitors to Corbett have to apply in advance for a permit to visit the park; this, when issued, is for a specific gate. A payment of Rs 6,000 covers the cost of the jeep and its driver, the permit, as well as the designated naturalist who must join the jeep and guide it from the gate onwards.
The gate we’d been assigned was the Jhirna Gate. Just getting here, in the open jeep, took half an hour. Our designated naturalist met us here, checked our IDs, and got in to the jeep. We set off, finally off the metalled road, and through the forest.
Within moments, we had started seeing wildlife. Spotted deer, two magnificently antlered stags having what seemed like a friendly sparring bout:
And then, a flurry of birds. Our naturalist guide pointed out a black francolin, a red-headed vulture, and a couple of flame-backed woodpeckers getting an early breakfast at a dead tree.
Over the next two and a half hours, the birds were what we saw most of. Grey hornbills, white-breasted kingfishers, blue-tailed bee-eaters, Asian paradise flycatchers, even a gorgeous great Indian hornbill, its black and white plumage and deep yellow beak (and casque) strikingly beautiful.
What the LO was most excited about, though, was a quick glimpse of the colourful (so colourful, in Hindi it’s called navrang: ‘nine colours’) bird, the Indian pitta. Why excited? Because though she’s never seen it before, she’s heard of it. And she was delighted that her father, our official bird photographer, got a shot of it. Her Indian pita’s photo of an Indian pitta.
Along the way, as we went past a half-dried stream bed, our guide heard a langur’s alarm call—a coughing sound—and made our driver stop. That, he said, indicated that a tiger was in the vicinity. He quickly spotted the langur, and we settled down to wait, watching the nallah in anticipation: would the tiger appear? Wouldn’t it? In the meantime, we spotted various birds round about. A pair of stork-billed kingfishers in a nearby tree, a trio of chestnut-headed bee-eaters looking little cheeky little bandits, plotting some poor bee’s downfall…
The tiger never did turn up, but a swarm of pesky flies did. The LO got increasingly exasperated, and finally her sharp whispers of protest made our guide throw in the towel and say we ought to carry on.
So we did, and saw more birds. Also, a cricket got into our jeep and sent the LO into a tizzy (frightened by a cricket? This child).
Looping back, we stopped again at the spot where we had earlier waited for the tiger. Again, without success; and then, at another spot beside another stream bed where our guide hoped we might see a tiger if we waited patiently. Of course, with the LO around, ‘patience’ is not something one could have hoped for. Soon, she was getting restive, and we had to move on, this time to head back for the gate and out of the park. “So disappointing,” said the LO. “We didn’t even get to see a tiger.” I explained that tigers, and wildlife in general, were elusive and didn’t like coming to places frequented by humans, but I don’t think she was convinced.
What’s more, all the insects—the flies, the cricket—had irritated the LO no end. The previous evening, sitting in the verandah and eating dinner by the light of lamps that attracted a lot of insects (one of which fell into her bowl of yoghurt, another in her glass of water), the LO had been very distressed. The bugs she’d encountered on the jeep safari were the last straw. “I’m not going to be a naturalist!” she declared firmly. “I’ll open a boutique or a salon instead!”
We spent the rest of the day lolling around our room, or strolling amidst the greenery and watching the bulbuls, or by the riverbank. The next morning, we headed back home—to real life, to the city, to humdrum mundanity.
“Let’s try to visit at least one national park a year, should we?” I asked the LO, as we drove through plains North India. Past a suddenly dazzling pond, vast, filled with lotuses. Past a pair of sarus cranes, elegant and beautiful in a pool bordered by water hyacinth.
The LO agreed happily. I have hope that she will be a naturalist someday.
(By the way, one last bit of happiness for the LO. On our last day at the Riverview Retreat in Corbett, we went for a leisurely, late breakfast, after our jeep safari. When we got back to our room, it was to find that a housekeeping staff member had come by and cleaned our room. By way of ‘a gift for the child’, a bath towel had been folded up creatively into a charming little elephant, its eyes crafted from bits of leaf, and a hibiscus flower fitted into its trunk. This has been placed next to the LO’s teddy bear—she likes to carry one of her teddies with her on every trip—and a hibiscus placed in front of the teddy as well. The LO was enchanted, and so were we).