“…I found peace and charm and overwhelming delight in wandering in the jungle on a moon-lit night, Or in following its dark paths by torchlight when there was no moon. The gleam of eyes, reflecting my torchlight, would leave me to … guess the identity of the creature while it was still too distant….it was all very thrilling ….”
The simple but so captivating descriptions of Anderson’s lines have been the essence of my dream for so many days (and nights). But hardly did I ever think the dream would be turned into reality so soon even when I saw the invitation mail of joining The Dudhwa Bird Counting project, an assignment organized by the Katerniaghat Foundation. But one thing I knew this was going to be so different from any of the wildlife experiences I had so far. Dudhwa Tiger Sanctuary has always been my favourite wildlife destination for various reasons. The beautiful and dangerous sub-Himalayan forest situated near the Indo-Nepal border of eastern UP has always been hidden from the mad rush of wildlife tourism and picnickers. The best part of this region of the wildlife is its naturalness…….the wildlife here is raw beauty. …..flora and fauna are much more ‘wild’, much more unpredictable, and much more varied than anywhere else. Dudhwa wildlife consists of a huge wetland (surrounded by river Suheli ) together with Dudhwa National Park (680 sq km), Kishanpur (204 sq km) and Katerniaghat (440 sq km), which represent the best natural forests and grasslands left in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh. The Royal Bengal Tigers of Dudhwa are not called here by the names of their collars (eg. T-3, T -13 under strong supervision of Forest Rangers) but here in Dudhwa they are part of nature- as wild and as unanticipated as you can imagine in the world of Kenneth Anderson’s or Corbett’s
As we started driving from Lucknow it was already raining since morning and the weather was rapidly turning bad to worse. A bit worried we tried to drive as fast as possible as we knew once we reach the Entry Point of the forest we have to drive inside the core area about 18-20 km further. The woodland starts miles before reaching the main sanctuary and as we left behind the last small town, Palia before the jungle took over the entire horizon; it was already 7:45 in the evening. The darkness around was spreading its wings along with constant rain and heavy wind. The torrential rainstorm slowed our journey to a great extent. We fought hard with the cyclonic wind to park our Car at the main entrance gate of the Dudhwa Sanctuary office. The Forest officials were anxiously waiting for us and other group members right at the entrance. Although we were greeted warmly the sign of anxiety was very clear on the officials’ faces as they briefed us about the unexpected and probable difficulties that we might have to face due to the untimely bad weather condition. But one look at my other companion Chandan (a friend from my MBA days and a genuine wildlife enthusiast)) and Siddharth (a seasoned wildlife photographer) took away what-so every element of doubt I had in my mind. In about 15 minutes time, all three of us were all set and ready for the real adventure to begin.
Besides the three of us we had a very special and one of the best Guides Sultan with us and once we reach our rest house we are told that we will be accompanied by a special Gun-man (as we would be required to walk on foot) along with a senior forest staff and of course, the young and confident Gypsy driver, Ashok. As we left for our destination called Kila, a forest rest house situated at the core area of one of the most remote areas of Dudhwa national forest begins one of our many remarkable and unforgettable journeys on this trip. The heavy wind still blowing …….the intensity of the rain slowed down a bit…. the giant saals and other trees covering the entire area moved like a group of tyrannosaurus due to the heavy storm and teasing our little gypsy. The bright headlights cut through the blind darkness at a slow speed spotting here and there a frightened spotted deer, a Jackal, a very upset Wild –boar along with his family…….At one point Siddharth asked Ashok to stop the car and as he did he asked him to switch off the light too. Words cannot describe those heavenly moments…….right in the middle of the dense forest……surrounded by numerous predators and other animals ……..you just cannot see anything but darkness but you can most certainly feel the presence of each and every creature around you….staring at you…..as if you can feel their warm breathing on your shoulder……and of course, you can see the bright and sparkling eyes of living creatures not so far from you. I would always thank Siddharth for giving me those few moments of indescribable experience. The rest of the journey was spent without any special adventure and after about two hours journey we reached the Kila rest house, situated right in the middle of nowhere. With one look at the location (although it could not be called a ‘look’ literally due to the black pitch darkness) we could feel our heart thumping with excitement – a dream place for any wildlife lovers. Three forest staff including a senior staff our cook (who turned out to be much more than that) and his assistant were eagerly waiting for us braving the hailstorm.
Once the engine of the car was stopped silence of forest engulfed us from all possible directions. That very moment and the environment of mystery and dark wilderness along with the symphony of rain drops and wind-storm had mesmerized us with a unique romanticism of its own. I doubt hardly anyone did notice that night when our cook shyly declared that there was no electricity as the heavy storm had damaged the only solar electricity system available there.The rest of the evening was spent like a musical spell…..music of nature….the sound of cricket and occasional calls of Cheetals mixed with the sound of rain drops on the saals…..resulting a mystic effect beyond the darkness…..and there we were, three of us along with senior forest staff sitting by the fireplace and sharing loads of wild life experiences …what more one can wish for!
Day two :
The day broke with a bit of anti-climax. We were expecting a bright sunny and clear day (as it normally happens at this time of the year). But we woke up to a rather cloudy and rainy day. The rain seemed never stopped since yesterday…….as we stood on the balcony with our cups of hot coffee there lay a completely different view of the world of nature……everything seemed wet and alive…..the trees seemed to stand tall with quite a few broken branches, waving at us like the undefeated soldiers after winning a long battle …all ….water clogged here and there….a few morning bird s came out silently to check the weather ……
In another fifteen minutes, we found ourselves all packed in our Gypsy all set to enjoy this different version – another avatar of mother nature –braving the unstoppable rain strong wind and mostly un-existing roads .…..the gypsy ran through the dense forests of Dudhwa. The beauty of this part of the world changes at every turn……at some places the dense bushes and grassland are tall enough to suit the elephants’ playground of hide and seek, somewhere it is the narrow animal path by the side of the wild river (often full of giant crocodiles resting at its bank), deep valleys extend below running the length of the hilly ridges while in some places we have those monumental trees touching the invisible sky……..The world around us seemed to be converted by a Time Machine and we, all six of us were very much part of it…….as we moved on…. sometimes in gypsy, sometimes on foot trekking through the rough woodland and mushy grassland, sometimes waiting at the machaan……..continuously spotting and noting down the avian species … Standing up above on the machaan we could feel how carefully Mother Nature has placed all these beautiful creatures on the vast landscapes of the marshlands and grasslands. Herds of swamp deer basking leisurely, little cormorants drying their wings sitting on the twig, weaver birds, finches, pipits, warblers there were numerous birds flocking the whole grassland. And at the same time, we realize that there must be the mighty king hidden somewhere in the tall grass, we could only guess unless He decides to come out and give a glimpse of his Might. But fortunately or unfortunately he decided otherwise.
On our way back from the machaan situated at one of the corners of the wetland we moved on to the dense woodland consisting of tall trees and bushes. I guess all of us spotted it almost at the same time. There lay undoubtedly a very fresh and clear pugmark of a male Royal Bengal Tiger. We could not help but excuse ourselves for a few moment’s of shift of focus from the bird-counting job. Besides, who can actually dare to fight the unstoppable urge of having a glimpse of the king of the Jungle? After some time Sultan offered a bold suggestion. …the Tiger seemed to move towards the right of the path and Gypsy won’t be able to follow it there. As if all were waiting for this breathtaking suggestion…all of us jumped off the car and there we were in a few seconds found ourselves following the King’s pugmark unarmed and on foot. With the presence of two strong and experienced personalities- our seasoned guide Sultan and our gunman Manick, we were excited like kids. It must be around five minutes of walking when a sudden loud shrilled sound nearly stopped our heartbeats and immediately Sultan signaled us to stop. Chandan whispered ‘the call of barking deer”. It was that kind of call when the deer anticipates a probable Tiger or leopard attack from its nearest location. As advised by our experienced guide we stood there motionless holding our breath …eyes moving in anticipation…..there was an unusual silence in the forest except for the call of the barking deer at regular intervals. In a few seconds’ time, we could actually spot the nervous deer moving hesitantly and making that typical sound looking at the nearby bush. Confused we looked at Sultan and he signaled us to a nearby (about 15-meter distance) bush (too dense to see the other side) and instruct us not to make any noise. It must be around 15 minutes that we were standing there listening to our own heartbeats when we heard that majestic and brief growl just behind the bush hardly 10/15 meters away from us…’oongh! oongh!aungh!aungh!” ….As we felt our legs have nearly frozen the back of our mind constantly shouting at us ….this is one moment you would hardly ever forget in life…..Sultan’s instruction came in a flash –“-walk backward at least ten steps without turning around”.
Finding ourselves at a comparatively safe distance we rushed towards the gypsy running for dear life. Hardly did we know that time that it was not the end of the drama that afternoon. As we started the gypsy after a few moments of gathering ourselves (and our breath) back, Ashok who was waiting patiently all this time at the gypsy wanted to take another route that actually crosses the same path from a distance where we just had the action of our lifetime. And this decision turned out to be a jackpot. On one turn Ashok stepped on the brake with full weight as we fought to regain control of our balance we saw the King of the Jungle in full view. The majestic Bengal tiger taking a walk around his territory. We kept observing him quietly from a distance. I could feel the trance of fear in the air. We kept glancing at the mighty beauty till it disappeared into the woods. For some time none of us could speak a word. What just happened was unbelievable, we were all awestruck.
After a few hours of successful birding, we came back to the resthouse for a brief rest. The weather god seemed in no mood to respite…..the intensity of rain and storm gone wild in the late afternoon made it impossible to take out our car on the muddy forest path. Siddharth’s mood went from bad to worse as his SLR battery was also crying for help and without any electricity around there was no hope of recharging them. Just before complete darkness, we decided desperately to hit the jungle road again…..at least as far as we could make it. The good old man, our forest deputy Ranger was not only a man of huge experience but also a man with a golden heart. He volunteered to come with us despite the cold and rain. We cautiously moved our car this time to a different direction. We went about doing the same procedure, leaving the gypsy and dear Ashok at a location, we moved down the forest with powerful torches in hand. At every step every moment we could feel the excitement and satisfaction of being there as a part of the mammoth green riots. This time instead of The King of the Jungle we managed to spot a very rare to be seen Black Ibis, a Crested serpent eagle and an extremely rare Indian King Vulture. The night was no less mesmerizing …….tired legs resting by the fireplace and refreshed and excited souls talking restlessly about the day’s adventure.
Day three :
The next morning we woke up early and the golden sun was all set to welcome a new fresh day beyond the greens and near the horizon of river Suheli. Sadly this was also the day of our pack-up. But not before we had an amazing experience again. Our forest friends suggested we have a boat ride down the river which envelops the core Kila zone of the forest and which also is the habitat of more than 250 crocodiles and numerous bird species. Our so-called cook had turned into our expert boatman and guide for the day. Chandan described it aptly while on the boat……’ This is like enjoying the thrill of Sunderban’s backwater while feeling the excitement of the dangerous woodland of the Brazilian rainforest at the same time. We had a much busy time with our pen and papers and telelens moving all the while. One of the most remarkable parts of the ride was spotting a huge Python (the like of which you have seen in Hollywood anaconda movies) besides a white-throated Kingfisher pouncing on the fish. As the little boat crawls slowly through the mysterious backwater, the early morning Sun at the back, at every turn and every corner a new adventure unfolds at the very heart of the dangerous but beautiful Dudhwa national park…
The journey back from our Qila rest house was no less adventurous and all credit goes to the confident driver Ashok for keeping the wheels on the road. There were places where we all had to jump off the gypsy and collect branches and leaves to cover the nature-made landsides to make way for our car. It had always been sad to say goodbye to the world of actions and adventures and come back to our routine life. But this time it had been such a special experience that each one of us is going to keep it as a treasure.
Make it happen :
Location: Located on the Indo-Nepal border in the district Lakhimpur-Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, Dudhwa National Park (680 sq km), together with Kishanpur (204 sq km) and Katerniaghat (440 sq km) Wildlife Sanctuaries, represent the best natural forests and grasslands left in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh. The three Protected Areas, being the last viable home of the Royal Bengal Tiger in the state, have been jointly constituted into Dudhwa Tiger Reserve under Project Tiger. They are highly productive habitats of diverse flora and fauna and are home to diverse species. The vegetation is of the North Indian Moist Deciduous type, containing some of the finest examples of Sal forests in India, as well as the most extensive tracts of moist grasslands that remain in this region. The fauna includes, apart from sizable populations of Tiger and Leopard, a viable population of a nominate sub-species of the Swamp deer or Barasingha, a population of Indian One-horned Rhinoceros successfully reintroduced in 1984, and certain critically endangered species like the Bengal Florican and the Hispid Hare, adding to the marvels of Dudhwa. There is an enviable bird life with over 450 residents as well as migratory species. Dotted with a number of shallow lakes or taals, there are diverse, perennial sources of freshwater in the reserve. The Sharda River flows by the Kishanpur WL Sanctuary, the Geruwa River flows through the Katerniaghat WL Sanctuary and the Suheli and Mohana streams flow in the Dudhwa National Park, all of which are tributaries of the mighty Ghagra River. Some of the important taals are the Bankey, Kakraha, Amaha, Bhadi and Bhadraula. The taals, streams and rivers support a rich variety of turtle species, the Mugger crocodile, (Crocodylus palustris), the unique and endangered fish eating crocodile or Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) as well as the Gangetic dolphin (Plantanista gangetica), which are found in the Geruwa.
Air: Lucknow is the nearest airport from where Dudhwa is around 245 km/ 5hrs. Cabs are available from here.
Road and Rail: Dudhwa Tiger Reserve is accessible both by rail and road. The Dudhwa branch-line of the North-east Railways links Dudhwa/Palia with Lucknow, Bareilly and Gonda. The Dudhwa Railway Station is right in the heart of the Park about 4 km from the tourist complex at Dudhwa.
Distance from Major Cities
Lucknow: 238 km
Delhi: 410 km
Best time to visit:
The Park remains open to public from November to June, though the months of May and June are a little too hot for comfort. While visiting the Park during winter you must remember to take woolen clothes as it can get pretty chilly, particularly between December and February.
Good to know:
- The entire park is administratively divided into nine ranges of which only Sathiana, Bankati, Sonaripur, Salukhapur, Belrayan and Kila have accommodation facilities.
- Park timings are from 7 AM to 10 AM and 3 PM to 6 PM. The best point to start your park trip is at the Dudhwa Forest Office, where you can get information from the foresters about everything ranging from accommodation to safaris.
- Private vehicles conforming to standards are allowed in the park. It is mandatory to take a certified Guide with you from the park for each visit. Vehicles (jeeps) are also available from the Main office for safaris in the morning and in the afternoon. From a point inside the park, morning and afternoon elephant safaris are also available.
- Elephants can be hired from the office near the park gate or from the Salukhapur Chowki for Rs. 600/elephant (a maximum of 4 people can sit on one elephant) for about 3 hours.
All visitors to the park require an entry permit, which can be obtained from the director of the park. For more information and an entry permit you can contact Director, Dudhwa Tiger Reserve, Distt Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh. Tel: 05872-252106.
Written and photography by : Anirban Dasgupta