During my childhood in Delhi, my parents’ idea of fun was to bundle my brother and me into the car in our pyjamas while we were still asleep and take off on a road trip. To close my eyes in my familiar bed and wake up to the sight of bright yellow mustard fields rushing by my window was magical. One of our favourite road trip destinations was Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, a six-hour drive from the city. We visited it nine times over a dozen-odd years.
On our first visit, we had our eyes peeled for tigers. The board at the park’s entrance listed recent tiger sightings and the elusive animal was all the government guides talked about. There was an urgency around the need to spot a tiger. On morning elephant safaris and afternoon drives, we scoured the landscape for orange and black stripes. I was about ten, and simultaneously fascinated and frightened. Though we didn’t see a tiger, we did hear one when it came for a drink to the Ramganga River that flows close to the Dhikala forest resthouse where we were staying. The first time I heard that roar rending the lightening 4 a.m. sky, I hid amidst the dustballs under the bed and whimpered.
Over that visit and subsequent ones, we were seduced by Corbett’s forest and forgot all about tiger-spotting. We returned time and again to enjoy the beautiful jungle.
It was as though the moment we stopped looking for the tiger, our eyes opened to the immense treasures of the forest. My brother and I willingly woke up early for elephant safaris that took us into the thick jungle, where leaves and branches brushed against our legs and left us slightly damp with morning dew. We braved the afternoon heat to see how the tall grass swayed in the hot wind. We marvelled at how high and gracefully the chital leapt; how picturesque three langurs looked sitting on a branch together, their long tails hanging down; and learnt to identify a few bird calls. We saw how the forest changed colour with the seasons, its many browns transitioning into fluorescent green with the rain. On the ninth trip, the last time the family visited the park together, we enjoyed two great days in the outdoors. It was the month of May and, while Delhi was sweltering, the forest was pleasant, especially in the early mornings. On our last safari, we decided to leave our cameras behind, so we could soak up the sights and sounds of the jungle unhindered. The wonderful two-hour safari ended with exploring a little gully. As the mahout turned the elephant around to leave, we found ourselves face-to-face with a tigress and her three cubs, each nearly as big as her, perched on an outcrop. For 15 spellbound minutes, unfettered by cameras, our family of four enjoyed a silent tête-à-tête with that family of four. We admired their glistening coats, the deep orange of their stripes, the quivering of their white whiskers, and the swirling black and amber of their soulful eyes.
It was an amazing experience, all the more wonderful for its unexpectedness. The success of our visit hadn’t hinged on a tiger sighting or on capturing it for posterity. And perhaps that’s why, when we finally saw the majestic animals, we truly enjoyed and admired this gift from the jungle. It was a peaceful moment, unmarred by furiously clicking cameras, loud voices or a dozen jeeps competing for the best vantage point.
After almost a decade, I went back to Corbett in March this year. Alone this time, I was eager to see the beloved forest of my childhood again. In the early evening, as soon as it cooled down a little, I went on a walk with a naturalist. He animatedly pointed out birds, interpreted different pug marks on the dry riverbed, and identified local trees. We were peering into the canopy, trying to spot a woodpecker, when suddenly, he turned around and spotted a tiger. It was walking across the riverbed, about 200 metres from us, and in seconds it disappeared into the trees. It was eerie to think that while we’d been looking for a noisy woodpecker, the tiger had been right behind us, quietly enjoying its evening stroll.
I understand the lure of the big cat. But I also believe that when you look too hard for one thing, eyes straining through binoculars to spot a tiger, mind focused on that goal, you miss the forest’s many wonders. Seeking out the jungle’s small joys, its sights, sounds, and smells, I’ve realised that when it is time, the tiger will reveal itself to you.
Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “Lure of the Big Cat”.
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.