While I was growing up, my family had made sure that I got to see different parts of the country, especially my father. This one time we headed for Kaladhungi in Jim Corbett Park to celebrate our New Year. Kaladhungi is ninety miles from Bareilly and a place that is very close to my heart. The place is famous as the legendary hunter Jim Corbett lived here. Many years after his death, his cottage in Kaladhungi has been converted into a museum which houses his memorabilia. Thousands of people visiting Kaladhungi make it a point to drop into the shop which sells Corbett hats and tea-shirts.
The Kaladungi roads meanders through dense forest with the Nainital hills in the background. On one side is the Jim Corbett park and the other, the district town of Haldwani which is the gateway to Nainital.
The forest here is dense and an extension of the Jim Corbett park. Exploring forest rest houses itself is an adventure. We broke journey at the forest rest house at Fatehpur, a little away from the Kaladungi road. The rest house is more than a hundred year old and is surrounded by thick saal forest. There is too much of activity around for wild life to thrive here though a little distance away the rangers informs that the tiger often crosses the road and ambles through the boundary of the dak bunglow. Beware of the monkeys here. They are a handful and can make your life miserable.
We decided to spend a night a Camp Corbett, a private resort on the road to Nainital. Tastefully done, the resort is run by a lady and has thirty-six rooms. Each cottage merging beautifully with the nature around. We could see a rivulet gushing through concrete nullahs and was told that it was a favourite hunting place for the tiger. An Australian wild life lover, Simon who returns to the resort every year caught three tigers walking past the lawns of the resort on their way to the rivulet. It is his claim to fame as sighting a tiger in this thick jungle is more by chance than choice.
Sitabani was our next stop. The forest rest house is perched on top of a hillock around six kilometres from Powalgarh. The drive is bumpy and shaky and can rattle your bones as the Bolero Camper in which we were travelling had to wade through knee deep water and the rocky bed. Water gushes through it during the monsoons making crossing difficult. Sitabani is therefore cut off during the monsoons.
Sitabani forest rest house was built in 1940. Legend has it that Sitaji, after she had been banished from Ayodhya, was left here by Lakshman. It was here at the Valmiki’s ashram that she gave birth to Lav and Kush. The temple houses the stone sculpture of Sitaji with Luv and Kush flanking her.
The rustic charm of the place grows on you. The nights are cold and the stars shine brightly overhead. There is a strange freshness in the air. The British love for nature and wilderness is evident in the manner in which the dak bunglow has been constructed. Three bedrooms with a kitchen and store room provide ample space for the officials and their staff. But water can be a problem once the old water pump installed during the British days develops a snag. Only a few mechanics can fix it. Otherwise you may have to go without water. But the energetic forest staff makes for the shortfall by lugging water from the town in their sturdy vehicles which creak and groan while negotiating the forest road.
The forest guard takes us for a trek through the jungle. We walk through thick forest and on the river bed which is now dry. The armed forest guard warns us to stay close together as there is always a possibility of a tiger lurking in the thickets around as this is the core tiger area, but nothing happens. Only small fish meander their way through our feet and the coldness of the water is numbing.
We fail to see a tiger but one morning at Sitabani, the ranger wakes us up saying that a tiger was on the move and the deer were calling. We slid out of our beds and focussed our binaculors on the small pond in front of the rest house. We hear a growl. It seems that the tiger got its prey. That was the end of the story.
It is indeed therapeutic to spend a few nights amidst the beauty and the grandeur of the forest but prepare to rough it out. And remember there is no surety that you would see a tiger. One guard told me that in his five years long posting in the Sitabani forest range, he could see a tiger only a few times.
So if you are lucky, you might end up seeing a tiger someday. For all we know, it is worth the chance.
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