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Hunting for the big cat
(From top): On the tiger’s trail in Rajaji; another view of the park; spotted deer make for a pretty picture; the reed-lined huts at the Chilla tourist complex

It was an outing that began when a friend called exultantly to report spotting a tiger and a leopard at Rajaji National Park. Our daughter’s holidays were about to end and we had just about enough time to squeeze in a quick weekend out of town. The hills weren’t an option because of the icy winds sweeping north India.

“Let’s go there,” said my husband getting into tiger- spotting mode. For 12 years, we’ve been big game hunting, travelling from one wildlife sanctuary to another in quest of the tiger. Rajaji, just five hours from Delhi, would be a relatively short trip compared to others we’ve made.

Our honeymoon was spent in Kanha, which everyone assured us was a place where nobody missed seeing tigers. We stayed for a week and spent a fortune on jeep safaris ' all in vain. “If you’d come in summer, instead of in January, you’d have spotted the tiger as it comes to the water holes more often then,” the forest officials had said.

Since then, we’ve done the tiger circuit many times over. We’ve driven through Corbett, Sariska, Ranthambhore, and even Mudumalai and Bandipur down south. All we have to show for our years of labour is great footage of spotted deer, peacocks, wild boars, even tuskers, but not one shot of a tiger. Would we finally get lucky at Rajaji'

We had heard about Rajaji for some time, but had never been there. References had been popping up on the Delhibird site (a site for birding enthusiasts), with sundry members waxing eloquent about the sanctuary. Essentially, this was one of the last national parks to be constituted, in 1983 by combining three existing wildlife sanctuaries: Rajaji, Motichur, and Chilla. It is entered through Haridwar, Dehradun or Pauri Garhwal. We planned to go to the Chilla end, 6km from Haridwar, as the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam tourist complex was recommended as the best place to stay.

“I’m sure we will be lucky this time,” said my ever-optimistic husband, as we packed our bags, ready to make an early start on Saturday morning. As we were leaving home, our cat came and rubbed himself against our legs ' a very rare sign of affection from the usually stand-offish fellow. “The signs are good. He’s telling us we will spot his cousins in the wild,” said my husband.

The drive up to Haridwar is one we’ve done often, but as always we grumbled that it would’ve been nice if it was at least a dual carriageway. Despite distractions like a cattle fair just short of Muzzafarnagar that we stopped to gawk at, and breakfast and tea breaks, we did good time, reaching in five hours.

Mr Dhondiyal, the affable manager at the Chilla tourist complex, had given precise directions, and the signpost to Chandi Devi mandir, which is the landmark, was easy to spot. As we crossed the river and took the tiny curving lane into the forests, we saw a group of monkeys lining the road. Suddenly, we began to optimistically feel that this would be it finally.

The tourist complex is just outside the park, fairly close to the Chilla river. We had to choose between staying in one of the six huts or the rooms inside the hotel. Although the reed-lined huts looked more appealing, it looked built for the summer. We left the choice to our daughter who plumped for the hut. As it turned out, it was a good decision ' it was surprisingly cosy at night.

We started with a quick lunch served on the lawns and basked under the sun, and then we were on our way. At Rs 700 for a 3-hour round of the jungle (you can beat it down to Rs 500), the jeep safari is pretty steep, but luckily we shared it with another family, who’d just arrived.

After 15 minutes of gazing at spotted deer and peacock, and the initial excitement of being inside the deep, dark jungle had worn off, one by one, the members of the other family began nodding off. “I don’t think we’ll see anything today,” our guide told us, asking us if we wanted to turn back. But we were adamant and stubbornly did a complete round of the park ' which though scenic enough yielded us nary a glimpse of either the tiger or even wild elephants.

At five as it began to get very cold, we gave up and headed back to our huts. Refreshed after their long nap, our jeep companions asked about our plans for the evening. Should we catch the evening aarti at Haridwar or just chill out at the complex' Someone suggested a bonfire and the die was cast. At seven, a crackling bonfire was set up and with the eager-to-please staff rustling up snacks and beverages, we settled down to enjoy the starry night. This was bliss. The party perked up with the arrival of three families who’d just driven down from Corbett and had suddenly decided to spend the night at Rajaji before heading back to their native Dehradun.

The kids kept occupied with cards and beyblades while our conversation crackled with the fire, and continued till midnight. The party from Dehradun, who were regular visitors to Rajaji said they’d had good sightings each time, and insisted we should make one more attempt tomorrow. To our envy, they proceeded to show us a 20-minute footage of their brush with the tiger at Corbett, shot on their handycam.

So, next morning, we headed out to the jungle. At the gate, we were told that ours was the first jeep, so chances of sightings were higher as the animals wouldn’t have been disturbed yet.

Today the birds were out in force ' Rajaji is supposed to have 315 avian species ' and we could see kingfishers, herons and rollers at literally every waterhole. A crested serpent eagle made a marvellous picture as he looked down on us. Behind, we got a good glimpse of two pied hornbills. Certainly this was a good place for birding, but the four-legged creature we were after, steadfastly remained in hiding.

At noon, we finally gave up. “I don’t think this park has any tiger or elephant,” said my daughter.

For the next hour we had fun of a different kind, picking up pebbles from the dry Chilla river, soaking in the lovely sun and enjoying the peace and quiet. All too soon it was time to head back to Delhi. As we entered home, our cat greeted us with a prodigious yawn and a wink. Said our daughter, “So that’s what he was telling us ' not to go chasing after the big cats but be content with him!”

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