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Sightings and Serenity

Supriya Newar

What do you do after a rewarding, morning jungle safari where you’ve seen a big cat in its full roar and glory? You treat yourself to a shower and a sumptuous lunch followed by a cat nap! Well, at least that’s what I did. My nap however stretched on a bit and when I woke up, the heat of the day had dissipated entirely. Grey clouds loomed large and birds were calling even though it was only 4 pm in the afternoon. After a cup of tea and an umbrella in tow, I decided to step out of my resort to explore the nearby villages on foot.

Corbett falls in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand and my walk took me into the nearby Dhela village. Since it was evening and the air was cooler, most of the village folk were outdoors, busy with their respective chores. The elderly men lazing on charpoys, awaiting their hookahs; women busy with mundane stuff like washing utensils or peeling potatoes, perhaps preparing for dinner; men milking cows; children running about and playing. Everyone offered a smile, one or two broke into a conversation and the kids ran up for selfies. Large jackfruit, jamun and mango trees in full bloom lined the pathways. After ambling around for an hour or so, I managed to borrow a young boy’s bicycle and go up to the village temple. Set against a large field of lush green crop with an ample courtyard in front, it was spotless and inviting. At one end of it stood a huge banyan tree on which sat three elderly men who greeted me politely with a namaskar. After taking their permission, I joined them and we sat around quietly. I caught a brilliant sun go down right behind the fields. The men said a silent prayer and got up, perhaps to head back to their respective homes. I decided it was time for me to head back too. Dinner was preceded by drinks where the conversation ranged from the tiger to Mr. Corbett himself, the naturalists regaling us with their escapades over the years all under a brightly lit, full moon sky and the incessant calling of the cicadas.

The final morning safari was dramatic from the word go. We were barely a kilometre away from our resort, still on concrete road, when our driver stopped. What lay ahead of us was a fresh kill: a porcupine had been predated upon, its quills scattered on the road, the fresh blood a striking contrast on the tar road. “I didn’t know tigers eat porcupines,” I said. “When they get tired of deer and other more regular meat, they may go for it,” came the reply. Clearly, man and beast are equally entitled to a change of taste!

Besides tigers, Corbett is also famous for wild elephants and a host of birds, the most prized amongst them being the hornbill. Having had a brilliant sighting of a tigress the previous day, I requested my naturalists to track elephants on our final day. They promised they would try. But a jungle doesn’t take orders. It serves of its own accord and that is what makes it special.

Our final safari turned out to be a bird watcher’s delight with peacocks being the flavor of the day. Whether it was the showers the previous evening or just our luck, in all of four hours, we saw more than a dozen wild peacocks! Striking and almost flightless, these birds, with their blue crested necks and a tail that swept across the entire track were strutting around all over. Of the dozen odd that we spotted, we saw the full plumage of only the very last one which was displaying its feathers to the on gazing peahen and letting out a sharp, piercing call at the same time. “Check me out,” it seemed to propose as it pranced around!

Besides the ubiquitous drongo, we spotted an emerald dove, a crested serpent eagle, a magpie, a green bee eater, a barbet and several jungle fowl. We even saw the lovely Indian roller in flight. But what took my breath away was the sighting of the Great Indian Hornbill.

Having driven around for a long time with no elephants or even their pug marks in sight, our driver suggested we try for the hornbill instead. Being experts, they knew where its nest was and we parked our jeep a few feet away and decided to wait. The ‘nest’ was nothing more than a vertical slit on the trunk of a tree but both my naturalist and my driver had proven the keenness of their eyes to me and I reposed my faith in their gaze. A quarter of an hour went by as we quietly waited. Until my naturalist confirmed that he had spotted a red beak inside the nest through his binoculars. Did it mean that the giant bird was inside, waiting to fly out? “No,” he said. “Chances are that those are either the chicks or the female who is waiting for the male to come. If we move away a little, he is bound to appear.” Taking his suggestion, the driver moved our jeep just one bend away so that we were a little more tucked in, but still had a full view of the nest.

Barely a few minutes passed when we could now all see the red beak sans binoculars, the bird inside clearly feeling safer had come up to the edge of the nest. Would it pop out? Even as I was thinking about it, in a majestic swoosh flew in the Great Indian Hornbill. What a creature! Its giant bill set on top of its signature black and yellow casque. It was carrying food for its family and dutifully fed them through the slit. It was a magical sight that lasted for about half a minute until the bird took its majestic flight and was off, perhaps to get more food!

With creatures magical and people earthy and simple, in just four days Corbett had left me wonderstruck. As I bid adieu the next morning, Rathore ji, our receptionist remarked, “You have to come again madam. You still haven’t seen our elephants!”