Fear is a strange emotion, but curiosity is stranger. It was the first time that a cycling group had been allowed a trip in those parts of Jim Corbett National Park. But I went off trail, and luckily, had a narrow escape to life!
So…there I was, standing half naked in the middle of a dark forest. As the sun was swiftly sinking down the tops of the woods, I could feel the cold December breeze of the jungle, that would bring a shiver through my body. But oddly that was the least of my concerns…
Jim Corbett National Park: Reaching the Cycling Camp
Only the previous day at this time, i was surrounded by the comforts of a city life, a hot cup of tea by my side and exciting thoughts of the journey ahead! A cycling adventure in one of the oldest national parks of the country ‘Jim Corbett’. It was the first time that a cycling group of YHAI (Youth Hostel Association of India) had been allowed a trip in those parts of the park. And it was my first trip with YHAI too. I’d quickly packed some of the essential stuff in the evening, the usual gears for cycling, a copy of Geetanjali by Rabindranath Tagore and a book of poetry by Piyush Mishra. We would get bicycles and helmet by the YHAI. I had a bus at night to Ramnagar. Ramnagar was the closest Bus terminal to Kaladungi, a village where we were supposed to report the next day. On the bus I read a little, rather tried to comprehend Tagore and slept only to be woken up at 4am. We had reached Ramnagar… so early!
Luckily i got a shared auto that would take me to Kaladungi. It was a chilling morning much colder than Delhi as it was near the jungles. To my surprise, even at that hour the auto got filled with locals soon, wrapped in their thick blankets and shawls. Most people had emptied the auto only half-way to my destination and rest of the way it was just me and the driver. The chilling air was stinging like needles in the open auto. The driver lit a bidhi, which would generally irritate me but this time I let it pass. We even stopped on our way at a bonfire where some locals were warming themselves up. We reached Kaladungi at about 6:30 am, where i met some fellow cyclists. We walked together looking for our campsite. At the camp we found out that first day is the orientation day and the bike trail will start only on the next day. Our camp was located at the edge of the jungle of Kumaon Hills and a stream came from the jungle and ran alongside the camp towards the town.
We were shown our tents where we placed our luggage. So now i had the whole day to myself and nothing to do. It was daybreak by now and it was a warm sunny day. I was not there to do nothing and waste a beautiful day I thought!
Jim Corbett National Park: Exploring in and around the Kumaon Hills
After the breakfast, i went for a stroll exploring the town and local markets. It was a small laid-back town, the whole site-seeing didn’t take long. On the way back, I came across Jim Corbett museum, it was once his residence. I wanted to visit the place where a legendary person like Jim lived and maybe where his love for nature originated, but to my disappointment it was closed for some reason. So now i had no choice but to head back to the camp! Soon i reached a diversion, one road went to the camp and other leads towards the jungle. And like another legendary person, Robert Frost, i took the one less traveled! After walking for about a couple of kilometers, I saw a trail leaving this tarred road leading inside the jungle. And like our good friend also said “how way leads on to way” so i followed the trail. There was no one around except the tall trees silently staring at me, asking me if I’m lost. Warm winter sunlight filtering through the trees kissing my face, so calm and peaceful. The kind of peace we strive in our daily busy cities lives…
About a couple of kilometers into the trail, i found an indistinct pugmark that was quite different from that of any domestic animal. I forgot to mention before that i always had a fascination for wildlife and used to watch Discovery channel all the time and had aspired to become a zoologist. That was another reason i was excited about this trip. So one thing i was sure about was that it was a wild animal, and the size indicated that it belonged to a big cat (not a domestic cat). But as the mark was old, i assumed that it was made a long time ago so i moved ahead, this time a bit more wary about the surroundings.
Jim Corbett National Park: Go looking deeper
In that silence I could hear an occasional sound of Jungle Babblers in a distance. The Babblers are like the eyes of the jungle. These birds would make a lot of noise at the sight of danger – be it wild cats, snakes or a leopard. Well that didn’t stop the inner zoologist in me from exploring the place. Soon my footsteps came to a halt again on the sight of another pugmark. And this time it was bigger and more distinct. When I measured it was almost as big as my palm! Since it was still afternoon i deduced that whatever made the mark would not roam at this hour and so close to civilization. But i realized how quickly our perception changes. The quiet woods were no longer comforting and the ominous brittle silence was now rather unsettling.
That little fear took over the adventurous spirit this time. Moreover, nobody knew where I was! So I reversed my direction, paced my strides and returned to the safety of the tarred road. Still a part of me didn’t want to return to the camp so early, so i walked further on the road. Soon i found another trail, but in the opposite direction from the last one. Fear is a strange emotion, but curiosity is stranger. The inquisitiveness gripped me again and soon I was walking along a new trail again. This side was equally quiet and pretty, after walking a couple of kilometers, the flora changed and became more greener and dense. Soon i reached a stream. It should be the one that flows past our camp i assumed. The water was very clear and cold. It calmed me and the fear was gone completely – it felt like i struck gold in the middle of a jungle.
I followed the stream farther into the jungle till a growth of very tall grasses blocked the way. There was also a large heap of poop and the only animal that I knew capable of that load was an elephant. The nearby broken tree was confirming my assessment. It was also old though, so i was not very concerned about it. But it was getting late now and I was also growing hungry after my mini adventure. So I decided to head back this time, hoping I was not too late for lunch as it was already 2:30 late afternoon. As I was following the stream I found a small check dam, were the water had collected and created a sort pool of clear water. It was so tempting and i had not swam for a long time. So i decided i will have lunch and come back for a dip. I made long strides and took 45 min. to reach the camp, luckily just minutes before the closing of lunch time.
Jim Corbett National Park: Testing the Waters
I had my lunch quickly, took my towel and rushed back towards the jungle following the stream. By the time i reached the check dam it was already 4:30 pm. I did not realize that forests get dark a bit early and it was also started to getting cold. So i quickly took off my clothes and jumped into the water. The water was cold but refreshing and not very deep. It was a perfect pool till i jumped into it. This turned out to be just an illusion. The surface was muddy and as soon as i jumped, the whole pool became murky. So stupid of me I thought, how could I even swim in water that I cannot see through! Before I could get over this disaster, I was alarmed by the noise of Jungle babblers not very far from the pool. I froze for a second. No sound. Didn’t even breathe.
In that brief moment I put all the permutations and combinations together. It could be anything – maybe just a jungle cat or a snake or a false alarm. But the sound seemed to be encircling me. Maybe it knew something is in the pool or maybe not. Should i stay quiet and let it pass, or is it coming for me? If it was a small animal like a hyena or a jackal it will dare not attack. And If it were a big animal it will hopefully not attack a human. It might have mistaken me to be another animal drinking water. So the only bet was to reveal myself as a human and it might not attack.
In a split second i was out of the pool standing naked in the clearing over the dam, where i could be seen from all the sides. Cold breeze, cold water, cold forest and a shivering body. I stood there for around 5-10 minutes. My plan seemed to have worked as the sound started going towards the opposite direction, deeper inside the jungle. I stood there for another couple of minutes, then rushed to get my clothes on and stride back towards the camp. I did not stop till i found the first evidence of another human. A group from the camp had come out for an evening stroll. That sight was such a relief! I would never know what was in the woods but the fear of unknown that overwhelmed me will forever be in my mind.
(P.S. later the locals told, there a sighting of a tiger just a couple of weeks ago)