Monday, September 24, 2012

Corbett: An Unintentional Adventure

For the first time, I am going to dig into my past trips for this is a story I love to narrate.

It was August 2007, when six of us decided to travel to Corbett National Park after the Bollywood movie, Kaal brought it into highlight. This was actually my first trip to a national park and I haven't stopped since!

We started from Delhi around 4 pm in a hired Toyota Qualis having no idea of the havoc that rains play in this part. The drive from Delhi was simple. We reached Rampur around midnight and asked a police car for directions to Corbett National Park. The policemen were quite amused to know that we wanted to go to Corbett at this hour. However, they told us that their are several small rivulets that are flowing across the road and we won't be allowed to travel to Corbett right now. As we were students back then with small budget to travel on, we went to a shady guesthouse for night-stay. The bedsheets were smelling due to humidity and the ceiling was dripping water all night. But, we hardly had any other option.

This is where we bathe
Early next morning, we hired a gypsy to travel to Corbett. We were told that the only Corbett gate open at this time of the year will open in sometime and we can travel to some other parts of the forest in the meantime. So we went there but there was hardly a dog to be seen on that route. We got down the gypsy near an old and huge tree and then climbed down a hillock to bathe in a rushing stream. After that, we came back to Rampur and prepared ourselves for a night inside the famed Corbett National Park. While we were on the outskirts of Rampur, our driver "Naeem" picked a Rangeeli deshi sharab( unbranded alcohol) to keep him company. On our way to Corbett's gate, we passed many rivulets that were gushing over the cemented road. However, they were small and didn't really frighten us as our gypsy moved across them with ease.

Inside Corbett
We reached our bungalow inside Corbett with some time to spare before our evening safari. While we checked out the bungalow, two of our group ventured into the forest on their own. Sometime later, the forest officer came to check on us and asked where are the remaining two out of our group of six. We simply shrugged and he hurriedly gathered his subordinates to find them. Within a few minutes, the two of them were brought back to the bungalow and were warned that venturing into the forest on foot isn't allowed. Also, we were told that CRPF snipers were given shoot on sight orders because of rampant poaching in the national park and that walking on foot, we can easily be mistaken as poachers.  We were truly shaken at that moment.

One side of the rivulet outside exit gate
At 3:30, we left for our evening safari with our driver, Naeem and we asked him to show us as much animals he can no matter what it takes. We had just left when we crossed a small river and found some tribal boys washing clothes there. We asked them, if they have noticed any animals around. We were told that a herd of elephants was heard crossing closeby. We asked a kid there to jump onto our gypsy and tell us their exact location. He came along and jumped off at a point and climbed at a mud hill from where he could see the herd. We immediately followed him and saw the purple eared elephants at some distance from us. Just as some of us were getting onto the mud hill, the forest officer and his subordinates reached there and ordered us to immediately hop onto the gypsy while asking for the whereabouts of our driver as it was his responsibility to ensure that we don't leave the vehicle at any point. He was nowhere to be seen and we were seriously threatened this time for breach of rules. Naeem appeared in sometime and seemed inebriated clearly. He was ordered to immediately take us back to the bungalow and our safari was over!! The forest officer went back while Naeem settled in his seat. In his inebriated state, he started moving further ahead instead of taking us back. As we also didn't want our safari to end so early, we again asked him to show us more animals. A few hundred meters ahead, there was a group of spotted deers grazing and we hoped to see a tiger stalking them. Some more distance into the forest, there was a 2 feet deep and 1.5 feet wide gorge on the dirt track. Understanding that the tyres of our vehicle would get stuck in it if he move forward, we got down again and filled it with some stones at a gap same as distance between the two front tyres of our gypsy. Having done that, we asked Naeem to carefully move the gypsy over the stones. However, alcohol had taken full control over him by then and he moved between the stones and our vehicle went down into it with a thud. By this time, it started raining and was also getting dark. All six of us used all our muscular power to lift the vehicle out of the hole for over 30 minutes. Finally, we couldn't see the vehicle coming out and asked Naeem to walk us back to the bungalow before it gets too dark to see. He didn't seem to hear us and opened his bottle of whiskey while we decided to walk back ourselves.  Afraid of being attacked by a tiger or being hit by the bullet of a CRPF sniper, that proved to be the longest walk of our life. Finally, as were just about to reach the bungalow, we were met by the forest officer and his subordinates who had themselves armed themselves with some weapons leaving into the forest searching for us. They had to arm themselves to protect themselves from being attacked by some aggressive animal. Upon seeing us safe, they were relieved and asked us for the whereabouts of our driver. We told them that he was drinking in the gypsy somewhere deep into the forest. We were told to stay inside the bungalow while they went to bring him back. 

You can't think of crossing that. Can you?
After an hour, we could hear commotion outside the bungalow as Naeem was brought back and was shouting abuses at the forest officials while they were threatening him with a cancellation of his permit. Next morning, we woke up early and were pleased to see Naeem back to his senses and also the vehicle was brought back.  While we ate breakfast, it again started raining heavily and we decided to move out of the national park before all the roads are closed by many rivulets flowing over them. 

However, the rivulets were already gushing across the roads and we walked on foot in them at the vehicle's tyre distance to ensure that the tyres don't get stuck in some pothole in them. We crossed over 10 rivulets this way before we reached the exit gate. But we got the biggest shock when we looked outside the gate. We could hardly see the road as whole of it was submerged under a huge 50m wide rivulet gushing across it. All six of us got hold of a long and strong branch of a tree and started crossing it on foot. Some of us got their feet stuck in it and were helped on by others thanks to the branch we held on to. After some time, although the rains subsided but we were completely drenched in the cold mountain rain and were shivering in the cold. With no dry clothes and the chilly air blowing into our face inside the open top vehicle, there was hardly any respite to be seen. All our expectations of early respite went down the drain as we saw a very huge and deep rivulet flowing across the cemented road again. Here, there seemed no hope of our vehicle being able to cross it anytime soon as even large vehicles were not crossing it and were parked alongside. So, we were again back to our old strategy. All six of us moving in line holding onto the long tree branch while the water level was over our waists. Some of us had our slippers flown away by the gushing water, but we managed to reach the other side where we hopped onto an auto-rickshaw which drove us to the guest house in Rampur. There, we changed into dry clothes and got back into our Toyota Qualis to travel back to Delhi. 
Between Rampur and Corbett

Back in Qualis, we assumed that the adventure was over. As it got darker, and the rains continued to come down heavily, our windscreen wiper stopped working. As we didn't wish to stop, we tied straps of cloth to both wiper hands which were pulled alternately by the driver and the guy sitting in front to operate the wipers manually.

 Finally, we were back in Delhi at 2 am in the night feeling happy to be alive and safe!!

P.S. Never get off your vehicle inside a tiger reserve. Its more unsafe then you think.

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