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On the wild side

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Rajaji National Park In Uttarakhand Is A Surprising Getaway With Its Diverse Wildlife And Secluded Atmosphere, Says Arundhati Basu   |   Published 28.05.11, 12:00 AM

The dusky shadows of twilight, the crack of a branch, the stray pug mark of a leopard and the covered-up carcass of a cow thrills the imagination. Was that a pair of glowing eyes staring at us as we stepped nimbly across the boulders of a meandering stream? After all, it was the magic hour of dusk when predator and prey both step out for a drink at the waterhole.

But perhaps it was just as well that we didn’t encounter any predators. We were a group of enthusiastic scribes on foot with only two naturalists (and they were merely armed with small sticks) for company. And I didn’t argue when we were herded quickly back to Forrest, the camp we were staying at. Nope. That wasn’t a spelling mistake. It’s the name of a brand new tented camp (and no, it isn’t owned by that Alabama simpleton, Forrest Gump), set up by the Leisure Group of Hotels.

The only road to this tented resort at Shiargarh, about an hour’s drive from Rajaji National Park, is a dry river bed that takes you over charming water channels and gurgling streams.

The park, named in 1983 after the freedom fighter, C Rajagopalachari, is not on your regular wildlife park circuit. But it is probably the reason why, even for a weekend, Forrest’s 20-odd zipped-up tents translate into a haven from the outside, busy world. Mobile phones are rendered useless with no cellular network available. The only time we could pick up a signal was when we huffed and puffed our way up a hill to a small Garhwali village.

The quiet of the forest of tall, deciduous Bhimal trees was often punctuated by an assortment of bird calls. It helped that Vineith Malabaricus, the naturalist who doubled up as our guide, was an expert at identifying and mimicking birds. He could count as many as 29 kinds of birds for us to spot such as the Rufous Treepie, Indian Roller, Spangled Drongo, Black Drongo, White-eyed Buzzard, Rufous Turtle Dove, Red-billed Blue Magpie and the Himalayan Griffon.

The highlight of the weekend was a jeep safari to Rajaji National Park, which is a blend of several ecosystems. There are sal forests, mixed forests and riverine (tropical) forests and in addition, our safari took us through acres of scrubland and grassy areas.

The park that remains open from November 15 to June 15 is home to 315 species of birds and 20-odd mammals. The board outside the park looks impressive with a list that includes everything from the Asian Elephant to the Bengal Tiger, the leopard, the jungle cat and many more. We were wildly excited by the promised bounty.

Our initial moments were spent sighting spotted deer and a few vividly coloured red jungle fowls. An occasional alert Nilgai camouflaged in the tall, dry grasses staring at us caused a momentary flutter. And at other times we saw flocks of beautifully feathered indigo blue peacocks. But even though our drive lasted several hours there were no predators to be spotted — which was rather deflating. This caused one of my co-travellers to remark: “Psst: this way we can declare Delhi a national park. We have all of these from deer and peacocks to Nilgai.”

What livened up the drive was spotting birds from time to time. If there was that handsome little fellow called the Red Wattled Lapwing in its black and red crested glory, there were also formidable ones like the Crested Serpent Eagle and the Alexandrine parakeets. But the most beautiful of all was the Indian Roller. As I saw it alight on a branch, flapping indigo and turquoise shaded wings, I could not help but catch my breath.

It was only towards dusk that we finally sighted what seemed like solid chunks of stones moving in the distance — they were actually two mother elephants with their babies who were pronounced a few months old by the naturalist Ajay Ghale. We stopped for some time to watch them progress into the forest. The cute bit was watching one of the mother elephants give her baby a leg-up to get on to an embankment.

What I had wanted more than anything was to get to see a leopard in the wild. Unfortunately I’d missed the bus. As one of the owners of Forrest, told me: “A few days back a couple had come down here and they had to change their tent because it was right beneath the banyan tree in the compound where a leopard was hiding for the night.”

A lively bonfire each night of the weekend with cocktails, singing and dancing marked our stay at Forrest. It was in between these lively moments —when we were eating or reclining in our chairs, soaking in the silence, that we heard the agitated calls of the barking deer. Was there danger afoot? As before, we let our imagination reign supreme.

Ready reckoner

The many roads to different areas in Rajaji National Park:

The most convenient road is said to be the Dehradun-Doiwala-Rishikesh-Haridwar State Highway.

Moradabad-Haridwar State Highway connects the Lucknow-Delhi highway and Haridwar and takes you to the Chila, Gohri, Ranipur forests.

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