Michele Peterson Freelance Travel Writer
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Himalayan Safari

“Tiger paw prints. Very recent, very fresh.” said Bhim, our watcher, as he crouched in the dirt beside the tire tracks of the jeep. Our jeep had broken down and the driver Sanjay had his head under the hood, doing what guys do when such things happen. Bhim was using the opportunity to continue his analysis of the tracks he’d been following for the past few hours. 

We were at Rajaji National Park, an 820 sq. km wildlife refuge located near the village of Chilla in the forested Shivalik range of the Himalayan foothills in northern India. Located 240 km north of Delhi, it’s not the largest or best known of India's 90   national parks and 502 wildlife sanctuaries but its relative seclusion means it’s packed with wildlife. The park’s gateway is the holy Hindu city of Haridwar where pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges River as it emerges from the mountains. Other visitors are westerners headed to the ashrams and yoga retreats at Rishikesh, best known as where the Beatles spent time meditating with the Maharishi Yogi in 1968. I’d come for less exalted reasons. After several days in the dusty desert cities of Rajasthan, I longed to breathe air that wasn’t tinged with the smell of camels or dung fires. The possibility of seeing a wild elephant, tiger or leopard, reportedly on the rise due to the park’s new conservation policies, was simply a bonus.

It was 9 a.m. when we arrived at the park, obtained our entry permit and climbed in our jeep. A group of safari guides huddled at the edge of the forest discussing the plight of a day-old chital, a spotted deer. Accidentally separated from its mother, it peeked out from behind a tree doing its best to look like Bambi.

“Don’t worry, they’ll find the mother,” said my companion, local expert Parthi Krishnan. In addition to his role as general manager of Haveli Hari Ganga, a heritage hotel set on the Ganges, he was a budding wildlife photographer. On a previous safari he’d witnessed a fight between a peacock and a wolf (the peacock won) and now wanted to capture more action. But he was quick to set my expectations.
“On a 3 day safari, you can expect to see a tiger. On a two day – a leopard. On a one day, an elephant,” he said.
“On a half day?” I asked, thinking of my 6 p.m. train to Delhi. 

“Maybe a mongoose,” shrugged Bhim from the front seat. Parthi and I piled into the back and had only bounced down the road for a few moments when the jeep stopped. 

“Up ahead,” whispered Bhim. Banging my head on the roll bar, I jumped up in time to see a mother elephant and her baby crossing the dirt road. Unlike the working elephants I’d seen in the cities, these ones were light-footed and moving quickly.
“Asian elephants,” said Bhim “First vehicle of the day is lucky.”

And we were. No sooner did we sit back down, than a troop of silver langur monkeys came crashing through the foliage close to the road’s edge. The largest, the size of a slender child, tried to stare us down and then quickly disappeared into the forest. Herds of chital moved silently through the trees. We were now climbing into the highlands of the park where sambar (India’s largest species of deer) scrambled up rocky cliffs and green parakeets shrieked overhead as though a pet shop had thrown its cage doors open.

Descending back down into the flood plain, we navigated across dry riverbeds where blue kingfishers swooped and soared. Given the overhead action, I stood upright in the jeep – no easy matter given the rocky terrain. But the jostling was worth it - I caught a glimpse of some wild boars snuffling in the scrub brush.

“Not advisable to exit vehicle,” said Bhim. Given the dust, I wasn’t inclined but in the past some visitors picnicked roadside despite the warning signs. Now, the park had a policy whereby official guides and jeeps were mandatory. Also part of the Government of India’s overall conservation strategy, the park’s emphasis had shifted from forest exploitation to rehabilitation. Several villages had recently been relocated in order to reduce disruption to the wildlife. Closed during the rainy season when the temperature soars to 45C, the park is only open to visitors from November 15th to June 15th.

At the edge of a dry riverbed, Bhim stopped the vehicle to examine some tiger tracks. They were headed towards the park gate (and the baby chital I thought). While Bhim radioed ahead to the office, Sanjay attempted to restart the engine.

It wouldn’t turn over. We were stuck. As Sanjay and Bhim headed by foot down the dirt road to the forest ranger’s house – ½ km away, Parthi explained some of the park’s history. Named after the famous freedom fighter C. Rajgopalachari, the park was created by the combination of three sanctuaries in 1983. It now forms part of a valuable wildlife corridor that includes Corbett Tiger Reserve and other tracts that permit long range movement of wildlife. Most famous for its populations of tigers, elephants and leopards, it also hosts over 315 species of birds and snakes such as python and king cobras.

“Want to walk to the machaan?” asked Parthi, referring to a nearby wooden observation tower once used by hunters. Surrounded by fresh tiger tracks and the sound of rustling bhabar tallgrass, I decided to stay put.

With the jeep engine off, we could hear even more bird action. A woodpecker hammered on a tree while a baby eagle and several peacocks and their offspring fluttered nearby.

Soon two wiry, weather-beaten park workers arrived, push-started the engine and we were back bouncing across riverbeds and past watering holes. Less than fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the park gates. Parthi was disappointed I hadn’t seen a mongoose. But I wasn’t. My camera was a veritable Noah’s ark of animals. And at the gate, there was even more good news. The mother chital and her baby had been reunited. The tiger would need to wait for another opportunity. As would I, for my own tiger sighting.  

Rajaji National Park: Visit the official website at www.rajajinationalpark.org/index.html
General Information: India Tourism offers information on accommodation, events and attractions. For details visit: www.incredibleindia.org
Accommodation: Built in 1918 by the Maharaja of Jaipur and located in Haridwar on the banks of the Ganges River, the Haveli Hari Ganga is a luxury hotel offering spiritual services for pilgrims, guide services and ayurvedic spa treatments. Prices for deluxe rooms (including breakfast and spiritual sessions) begin at 2800 rupees ($75 Canadian).    

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