The sun beats down harshly as I toss about in the back of a Gypsy, holding down my hat so the wind doesn’t deprive me of my only protection from the glare. In just 20 minutes, a thin layer of dust has covered everything. I have to wipe it off my lips and eyelashes, dust it off the pants that looked black until a short while ago, and hold the camera against my body to protect it. Shielding my eyes with my hand, I scan the yellow-green grassland, looking for the slightest hint of movement. But all is still and quiet. The deer are near the watering holes deep in the forest, the birds are nesting out of sight, and only the langur look at me bemused as they suck the nectar from the crimson flowers of the flame of the forest.
It is hard to believe that this is the same forest I visited in the morning. In the soft light of dawn, every creature in the park seemed to be stirring. Myriad bird species filled the air with their song, herds of deer chewed on grass and soft leaves, a baby elephant hid behind his mother, a mongoose scurried across the trail, a peacock danced in the soft sunlight, a vulture serenely surveyed the landscape.
The beauty of Jim Corbett National Park is that it is not just one forest, but many rolled into one, changing with seasons, terrain, and time of day. It’s got stunning grasslands, where the grass grows taller than people. It’s got riverine vegetation growing alongside the Ramganga and Kosi rivers that meander through the park. And thick jungles of sal and deciduous trees that fill the air with their faint fragrance.
Not everyone sees a tiger during a visit and many leave disgruntled as a result. I saw plenty of comments in visitor books and online forums describing Corbett disdainfully as a deer park. But if you give Corbett a chance, it’s the kind of place that can make you fall in love with the jungle. And then, maybe, just like me, you’ll leave thinking that the prettiest sights are the unlikeliest ones: Like a tree full of langurs, their long tails dangling down, busily nibbling on fresh red-green shoots.
Corbett is India’s oldest national park, established in 1936 and named after hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett, who played a vital role in its protection. The reserve is split into several zones. The largest is Dhikala, which is known for its vast grasslands that camouflage herds of elephants. The hog deer, one of the four deer species in Corbett, is found only here. The forest department runs canter safaris in Dhikala, and jeep or elephant safaris are only available to those staying in the forest rest house inside the zone. Bijrani is currently the most popular zone for tiger sightings. It has a number of watering holes and a wide network of dirt roads that make it convenient to explore. The Jhirna zone is great for birdwatchers who come here to see the great Indian hornbill, the khaleej pheasant, the paradise flycatcher as well as a host of colourful bee eaters, woodpeckers, eagles, and vultures. This area of the park is open during the monsoon and its beauty is unparalleled as the unending green of the landscape is dotted with a host of rain-fed ponds and lakes. Visitors can also enjoy rafting on the gushing Kosi River, which is otherwise shallow throughout the year. The other three zones are Durgadevi, Sonanadi (safaris only for those staying overnight), and the recently opened Dhela. Then there is Sitabani, which is like a free zone, where elephant rides are conducted by approved private operators and visitor’s vehicles are also allowed. The Sitabani buffer zone is great for spotting birds in this season, as the forest is alive with new vegetation and insect life. And of course, there is something quite magical about exploring a misty forest on elephant back!
Try to ensure that you have a good naturalist accompanying you on safaris; it can completely change the experience. Where I may see dust, the naturalist sees the story of a busy evening in the forest. The spot where a tiger padded past, on its way to the watering hole probably sated after a good meal. And the overlapping tread of a bear that walked down the same trail a few hours later. He’ll point out where a python slid across the riverbed or an elephant was startled by something and ran through the soft sand leaving footprints several inches deep. You end up learning a number of interesting facts. For example, termites, which are the bane of furniture in our homes, are excellent for a forest. The many termite hills spotted around Corbett are an indicator of the forest’s good health.
Though Corbett’s star attraction is the royal Bengal tiger, one of its greatest delights is its large herds of elephants. Visitors can also spot four types of deer, the sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, and hog deer. There are wild boars aplenty and the animals are known to give tigers a tough fight during a hunt. The park has leopards and jackals, and gharial can sometimes be spotted basking in the sun by the water. If you spot a large hole by the trail, there’s probably a monitor lizard hiding inside. The Ramganga River is full of otters, and there are mongooses that often get into fights with snakes like cobras, vipers, pythons, and kraits. The park has a rich avian population and one of the chief pleasures of an early morning safari is the variety of birdsong that fills the air.
The forest department runs canter safaris in the Dhikala zone twice a day, in the morning and afternoon slots. Seats can be booked online (₹1,500 per head, online fees ₹50; www.corbettonline.uk.gov.in/). Jeep safaris are also available but only to those staying overnight in the forest rest house.
In the other zones, only a fixed number of jeeps are allowed daily, so it’s important to book your safaris 2-3 weeks in advance for weekdays and as much as 4-6 weeks ahead for weekends. Safaris take place twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. (the time shifts a little with the season). Visitors can apply for a safari permit online on the forest department’s website (₹1,100; www.corbettonline.uk.gov.in/) and then organise a certified jeep and driver (about ₹2,000-4,500 depending on the zone and expertise of the driver) when they reach. They must pay for a guide at the zone entrance (assigned by forest division; ₹500). It is simpler to ask the property you’ve booked your stay at to take care of the logistics for an additional charge (₹4,500-7,000 depending on property and facilities offered). In fact, many properties at Corbett include the safari in the package costs.
Elephant safaris are only available to those staying in the forest rest houses in Bijrani and Dhikala and can be booked once you’re there depending on availability (Approx ₹2,000)
All these prices are for Indian nationals. Prices for foreign visitors are different and are available at www.corbettonline.uk.gov.in/.
Jim Corbett National Park is one of the few parks in the country where visitors can stay at forest rest houses inside the jungle. Dhikala is the largest and most popular, though there are several others tucked into the forest where staying overnight will really make you feel like a lone explorer in the wild. The forest rest houses can be booked online at www.corbettonline.uk.gov.in/ and cost about ₹2,800 for two per night, including vehicle and driver entry fees, and other charges. However, you will need to book a certified jeep and driver for the period, which costs an additional ₹3,500 per day. Meals in the rest houses are fairly basic and cost ₹300-350 per head per meal.
Some private properties organise a night’s stay at a forest rest house as part of their packages or at additional cost. They send along their own naturalist and staff with food, clean linen, etc, taking the experience up several notches. It is a great idea to travel to Corbett and its surrounding areas during the monsoon due to the plentitude of super deals. With fewer visitors around, almost every hotel and tour operator will be willing to offer you accommodation and other services at a fraction of their regular tariffs.
There are more than a hundred private properties located around Jim Corbett National Park, so there are many options to choose from. Here are a few suggestions:
Namah Resort provides the kind of luxury you’re not really expecting in a forest. Rooms are well appointed and the food good. Mostly though, the place is known for its excellent service (namah.in; doubles ₹22,000 for 2 nights and 3 days, including all meals. Safaris are not included in the rate).
Jim’s Jungle Retreat blends the excitement of staying in the jungle with all the comforts of a hotel. The food is excellent, the ambience relaxing, and the attention to detail makes you feel special (98999 89508; jimsjungleretreat.com; doubles ₹36,000 for 2 nights, 3 days, including 2 safaris, all meals, jungle walks with naturalist, and a coupon for a spa treatment; discounted packages available for those who use public transport to travel to the resort).
Tiger Camp is one of the oldest properties in the area, located on a picturesque spot by the Kosi River and offers great value for money. The buffet meals have plenty of variety (93122 06571; www.tigercamp.in; ₹5,600 for two, including all meals).
Camp Riverwild is a smaller property and a more intimate experience. The six wooden cottages are built on stilts in a quiet, green spot (96757 08601; www.campriverwild.com; doubles ₹4,900).
The weather is most pleasant from November to February, though most of the park’s zones are open until June. Dhikala stays open for the shortest period from 15 November to 15 June, and Bijrani from 1 October to 30 June. Jhirna is open throughout the year. While the trails might become slightly tricky to negotiate during the monsoon (mid-Jun to Sep), they also come alive in all their wild and untrammelled beauty.
The forest office for Jim Corbett National Park is located at Ramnagar, in southern Uttarakhand. Ramnagar is 250 km/6 hours northeast of Delhi, via Moradabad. Most of the journey is along well-maintained doublelane highways. The closest railway station is at Ramnagar, which is well-connected with Delhi. The nearest airport is at Pantnagar (80 km/2 hours southeast of Ramnagar), which is connected to Delhi by an Air India flight four times a week.
Appeared in the June 2015 issue as “Many Forests in One”.
Neha Dara is a travel writer and editor. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.
Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife. He is a RBS Earth Hero award winner for inspiring people for conservation.