On our recent trip to India we visited a couple of national parks. Corbett Park was a great experience, not just because of my admiration for Jim Corbett. We enjoyed both elephant and jeep safaris and saw lots of wildlife.
That did not include sighting an actual tiger, but fresh kills and tracks were found.
At Raja Ji park I did get a reasonably close look at a sambar stag and managed to get a quick photograph before he disappeared.
Back home I remembered an old hunting photograph I had scanned from a book by Major General A. E. Wardrop. During a night time machan hunt for a tiger in 1920 he had become aware of a large sambar immediately below his tree platform. It was well past the time when the tiger should have appeared, so Wardrop decided to shoot the stag. He used his close range tiger rifle, a twelve bore double throwing a huge lead slug.
The sambar stag was flattened and turned out to have the best antlers, at 41 inches, that he had ever collected. However, his pride at such a trophy was dulled somewhat by what he thought was the rather unsporting way he had come by them.
Apart from the sambar stag photo, our visit to Raja Ji park was otherwise disappointing. We saw little game other than a few fleeting glimpses of Chital and Sambar deer. The area we drove through was infested with the exotic pest shrub lantana, which would certainly deter most of the resident wildlife.
There is also a large village within the park and our jeep was constantly overtaken by village vehicles with much tooting of horns. After a three car convoy has passed you and disappeared down the track ahead, tooting all the way, it is pretty pointless looking for any wildlife other than road-kill and the odd deaf monkey.
We had been told that poachers had recently eliminated the last of the Raja Ji tigers. The park does host a herd of wild elephant said to number about 600, so we pinned our hopes on sighting those.
We had a park guide and an open topped 4WD with a park driver. The guide was pleasant enough and had reasonable English, but little to say. He could not tell us much about the park and seemed to have little knowledge about the bird species we saw.
The driver left a lot to be desired. On the rough dirt track, after slowing to a near halt at each washaway, he would then accelerate hard, changing gears quickly to get to fifth. This made for a very rough ride for passengers seated high over the rear wheels. Of course, as soon as he got to fifth another rough bit of road would appear and he would push the clutch in and break hard, then slam the car from fifth to first and begin his cycle again.
On our journey we followed the half dozen village cars that had by then passed us and began to climb off the floodplain and head towards a very tall mountain. I figured that were heading for another part of the park where presumably we might see elephants on the river flats.
Still following in the dust cloud of the convoy ahead of us, we could hear them all tooting as they negotiated the many blind, hairpin bends on the one-lane dirt road that snaked up the mountain. It soon became clear we were going up.
This mountain climb seemed to last forever and it was clear that we were committed to reaching the summit as there was no way we could turn around. I asked our crew to stop at some of the open sections where the view was amazing. If I had not insisted they would not have stopped at all. A couple of stops at least let the dust settle.
After an hour and a half we reached the top where a small village was perched on the crest. I reckon we must have climbed a good four or five thousand feet up from where we had started. We admired the view for a while and took a couple of pictures. Our guide seemed to have a strong interest in our location and took a lot of his own photos. I began to suspect that the trip up the mountain had been more for his benefit than ours.
I asked our guide where to from here, expecting that we might drive on to some point where we might actually see some wildlife. On the climb up the mountain we had glimpsed one loan bird.
“We got back now,” he stated.
“What, the same way?”
“Yes, it is the only way.”
“So what wildlife were you hoping to show us on that mountain climb with a convoy of cars blowing their horns all the way?” I asked, not a little sarcastically, but it was lost on him and he just looked confused and did not answer.
So, the driver backed and filled, in and out of a road side cattle yard until we were pointing back in the direction we had just come.
The first thing he did was turn the motor off and put the car in neutral. Then we began to roll downhill. I was speechless for a while, thinking maybe he was going to do a clutch start. The first hairpin bend brought me to my senses as, with the motor still switched off and in neutral, he braked hard and we slid scarily close to the edge and a sheer drop into the valley way below.
“Stop! Stop the car!” I yelled.
“What is the problem?” asked our guide.
“Is he planning on just rolling down this mountain on his brakes?” I asked incredulous and not a little angry, indicating at the driver.
“Oh yes! He is a very fine driver. He is saving fuel!”
“No way! Not while my wife and I are on board Pal! I probably sounded strident and rude.
“Tell him to start the vehicle, put it in 4WD, and second gear, and leave it there until we are at the bottom!”
I watched the driver like a hawk the whole way down.
I must also say that this, relatively minor episode, was really the only blip on our recent tour of India. Otherwise we were more than happy with our personal driver and our other experiences on that trip.