Dawn in the Terai forest, on the edge of Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. Sleep still pressing down on the eyelids; legs creaking and slow. Looming in the low light are giant eucalyptus trees, long peelings from their papery barks strewn on the forest floor. The sense of a dream enhanced by the kitchengarden feel of copious shrubs of karipatta everywhere. and the eerie, echoing cries of peacocks. Now a dry riverbed, the ground underfoot giving way to a landscape of rounded stones polished into smoothness by flowing water. Across the river, another long expanse of eucalyptus trees and karipatta shrubs. And then another river bed, this one more sand than stone, flecked with leaves baked red by the summer sun.
Suddenly, the figure in front of me, a grizzled forest guide named Balam Singh, stops and points to a small trail of pugmarks in the terrain. As he turns, a look of sublime, almost drooling ecstasy lights up his face.
“The tiger was here… a few minutes before us,” he whispers. “Look, that’s where he climbed out of the river. The wind is blowing from behind us. So he has known for some time that we are coming after him. He’s running away from us. Let’s go after him!”
I felt my hair stand on end. True, I had come to Kumaon to walk—walk away all the accumulated weight and stress, the physical and digital grime of an entire year. I had seen tigers in the jungle on several occasions, mostly from a jeep and once from atop an elephant. But it was the combination of walking and tigers in the open forest that I wasn’t so sure about.
Surely it made sense to walk away from where the tiger, the most zealously territorial of beasts, loped and prowled? But Balam was already scrambling up the riverbank. I could either follow him or turn back home.
For more than an hour, we twisted and turned through the jungle paths, our ears pricked up for the alarm calls of birds and animals fleeing, sifting the ground for pawprints of the big cat. Around us, the trees grew denser—tall, mature sal, perhaps 200 or more years old, the odd banyan with its broad canopy and drooping tendrils, old and dead trees with their trunks full of holes.
We knew the tiger was not far. At one point, we saw a herd of spotted deer rushing away from it. This was nothing like the cosseted hum of the safari, of beast versus machine; it was much more interesting and challenging, a game of hide-and-seek over tree-covered terrain with the elusive animal often considered the god of the forest. To know the tiger was near and to gauge its presence from cues as we plodded on foot was far more interesting than seeking it out with a pair of binoculars in a jeep.
We had to think and plot, stop and listen, wait and hide. I was watching, but perhaps being watched, too.
Slowly, I felt the fear and tension, the legends about maneaters, the sense of being exposed and vulnerable, leave my body. And Balam had done this hundreds of times in his life, armed only with a long stick. I was grateful for what he had given me. I fell into a wonderful reverie in that world of green and brown, in tune with the chirping of birds and the rustling of trees. I was able to look past the tiger into his world in the jungle. If only more walks in life could have the prospect of a tiger’s presence in them! By the time we returned to our hotel three hours later, it felt like my feet had taken me forward not just into the day and into the world, but also in my life.
“Balam is special to us, one of the few remaining exponents of a dying art—that of tracking a tiger on foot,” said Manoj Sharma, chief naturalist of Jim’s Jungle Retreat located at the edge of the national park. “There’s nothing he enjoys more than this. What you experienced this morning was closer to the method of Jim Corbett than to the hi-tech methods of the 21st century.”
“Most people still come to the resort with the single goal of seeing a tiger. But here, our motto is, ‘Seek the tiger, find the jungle,’” Manoj added. “What you see and experience while walking and thinking on your feet in the forests will make you ask the right questions about how the world of the jungle sustains itself—the intricate web of relationships between animals and trees, birds and insects, land and climate that we all need to absorb if we are to protect our planet from ecological devastation.”
I thought of Manoj’s words often that week as I went further up the heights, havens and heavens of Kumaon, going from the sal trees of the lower reaches to the great expanses of pine much higher in the hills, ending around 6,000ft above sea level in the exquisite terrain of oak and rhododendron forests—one of the best patches of pure greenery in the country—at Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary around Mary Budden Estate.
Every day, my generous and convivial hosts designed long walks for me, both treat and test. I knew that on these slopes, I was walking in the footsteps of some great predecessors. Corbett, whose name is still uttered with reverence everywhere in Kumaon as Gora Sadhu; Tagore, who, it is said, worked on his great poetic sequence Gitanjali while living in a small house (now desolate and in ruins) on a mountaintop near Gagar; and all the scores of humble, near-anonymous shepherds, pilgrims, traders, saints and sojourners of centuries past who had worked trails into these formidable mountain passes and left behind a feast of observation and lore about medicinal plants and trees, a tradition of love and reverence for the wonders of the natural world and the beauty and mystery of highlands more important to sustain today than any discourse about politics or economics.
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