Bollywood Safari from the Sublime to the Ridiculous
Having been cocooned in the capable hands of the staff at two of the resorts managed by Habitat Hotels in the Corbett Park recently, I was less than prepared for What Happened Next.Two days at the dreamily remote from the world Riverine Woods ended abruptly with an early morning call that was still actually night. The monsoon had arrived and swollen the river too much for the jeep to collect us, which meant we needed to set off at three thirty in the morning and walk to the road in order to make our date with our final Safari into the Park.Sleep walking through the jungle and two river crossings under a dark moon post monsoon sky, I find myself singing. I can only attribute this predawn joy to the post Riverine experience. The boys from the resort light our way with torches and the air is as fresh as a new day.A jeep is waiting to take us to our final Corbett Park safari, a Canter Safari to Dikhila. We travel in the early morning light watching the forest awake and surprising the odd spotted deer grazing on greenery by the roadside.
I think of Jim Corbett and imagine that his spirit still roams these hills. It is all so exquisitely pristine and groovy that its hard to imagine that I am not dreaming. Little did I know then that my dreamy idyl was about to suffer a very rude awakening.
By 5am we have joined the crowds of people milling about at the park entry gate. A few things other than poetry and love of Mother Nature begin to come together in my mind.
First: that I needed caffeine.“NO” says the guy at the chai shop when I ask.Fifty people are sitting around drinking chai so I figure it’s a reasonable request.“No? Why? You sell chai don’t you?”“No chai No Milk” he says.
I go to the gate and look along the roadside. No alternative chai shops. That’s when I notice that the lovely people from our hotel were Outside the gate and we were Inside.
“What’s happening?” I ask the driver who is on the other side of the wires. I suddenly feel like someone in an institution, gaunt suddenly and probably pale too.“The truck is late,” he said.“We are going with them?” I point to the large family groups full of children of crying age and other noise making abilities.
He has the grace to look sympathetic; I understand suddenly what is happening.
Unlike our previous ventures into the park and the buffer zone areas, we had just handed our bodies and souls, our hopes and our dreams of seeing one of the few remaining tigers left (1200 is a rough ‘official estimate’, Corbett claims 240 of that number) in India to the Park Management.While we wait for the staff to catch up with the tourists, I go to the ablutions block.There are no doors on the toilets and they are as filthy as a roadside dhaba in darkest Bihar. I am very happy then that there is no chai available.Instead I go back and mill around aimlessly while the sun rises in the sky and the day heats up.
Finally the Canter vehicle careens at great speed into the gateway leaning dangerously to one side. It was then that I gave up any hope of seeing a tiger on my visit to Corbett Park.Park Management have decreed that only ideal way to spot wildlife is to squeeze up to 25 people into a rattly green submarine type vehicle and hurtle around the park like the fires of hell were on our tail. In fact a convoy of Forestry Officers all on Government Duty were on our tail. Their jeeps, being smaller and faster and on official Government Duty they were given the obvious right of way. They seemed a merry crowd and quite happy with their outing. A jeepload of women and children also on Government Duty bought up the rear of the convoy.
Meanwhile back on our submarine, I began to feel like I could be on any local bus in India. We rattled along the well worn route, rattling chip packets and bones, crunching gears and skidding to a halt for photo opportunities and toilet breaks as if we were somewhere in the back blocks of Madhya Pradesh. The guy next to me nods off, his head bouncing on my shoulder. Those who weren’t snacking on potato chips or playing video games on their cell phones would helpfully point out wildlife to the driver. He would then skid to a halt, which would wake the guide who would then focus his eyes, point and tell us what we were seeing. He was the master of the single syllable statement. “Deer” he insisted one time, “Owl” another. But the effort of doing his job so early in the morning overwhelms him from time to time and he remains mostly incommunicative.
The highlight of the day came at one point when the driver had opened his door in order to lean out and spit his tobacco onto the road. In doing so, he noticed some fresh pugmarks in the silky sandy roadside.Performing some feat of driver yoga, he managed to stop the vehicle almost beside the marks so that fifty percent of the people could actually see them. He then pointed out that the Tiger was heading in the opposite direction to us and off we went again. I couldn’t help but wonder if the pugmarks were as old as the Canter had been late.
But there was no time to waste on hunting a tiger this morning. We were on a fast track to the Government Restaurant in the park with a quick skid around a group of elephants that were (lucky for us) grazing nearby. The children loved the elephants and screamed fond farewells as we headed to our ultimate destination, Breakfast.
Inside the restaurant the Forestry people were walking around with their plates and eating without the benefit of a table and chair, tables were smeared with pickle and waiters ran around with hot chai in plastic glasses that buckled and dribbled chai down your chin when you tried to drink from them. The Forestry people, being inured to Government Breakfasts wolfed the food happily; combed their hair and flirted with each other obliquely. They added an air of joie de vie to an otherwise disappointing morning. They didn’t seem to mind paying ten times the price for an average Indian breakfast. I suppose I should have been grateful that I wasn’t charged a foreigner price for the disgusting food as I had to get into the park.
Replete now, we climb back into the torture vehicle and wait for half an hour while people drift back from their food and another ten minutes for the guide then we drive back the way we had come at a pace that hovered between leisurely and pure torture while our guide snored softly in his seat.
The next piece of action came as they always do, when you least expect it. Our vehicle is pulled to the side of the road by an angry guide. He had just picked up some rubbish thrown from our vehicle and he is livid. The Offender denies that he had done so and his wife supports him by blaming their children. I guess it was a caste thing, the man obviously rich and city bred was never going to apologise or own up to his actions in front of us, it could seriously injure his ego.
The park guide waves the offending litter at the disreputable family and roars off into the jungle.
I spend the rest of the journey composing a letter to the Park Supervisor. I wonder for instance why it is that we who have come from half way around the world to visit this park have to pay TEN TIMES as much to enter as someone who has only six hours or less to drive to arrive here. Also, most foreigners can be relied upon to read and obey the rules such as don’t wear bling and neon when on safari, don’t throw rubbish on the road since this is against the law in every other civilised country in the world.
I wonder if the Indians had paid ten times their entry fee if they would be demanding clean toilets with doors and facilities that are well maintained and not crumbling to moss covered piles of neglect.
I wonder if any of the staff I have met have any passion at all for their job or are just working and waiting for their pensions.
I wonder why I even got out of bed that lovely morning in the Riverine Resort.
I wonder if the tigers are going to survive the mismanagement and lacksadasical attitude of the staff and its fellow countrymen towards its survival.
Then I remember a lovely French woman at the Tiger Camp who gave a fascinating talk on the park and the creatures within it, and who moved both us of to tears with her passion for the park.
There is some encouraging news for the tigers if not for tourists. The numbers have grown, there are efforts underway by NGO’s with innovative programs to reduce the conflict between village women who collect wood in the buffer zone and the tigers who like to eat them; there is a volunteer program for foreigners to help the local community but these initiatives are sadly lacking in support and not on the agenda for Park Management.
If you are planning to visit Corbett Park and despite this little adventure, I still recommend that you do, then please do consider that many resorts in the area have well trained staff and guides. Plan to visit the park with the aid of reputable resort.
Corbett Park is a rich wildlife resource but Park Management philosophy is incompatible to a successful visit to the park. The government guides are taciturn and not able to converse in English if at all and the drivers spit a lot. A private resort will shield you from this sad reality and let you get on with seeing the park in all its beauty.Add a comment