I’m going to tell the story of how I came across my first tiger in India. Yes, I know this subject is not directly involved with the ‘Overland’, but indirectly, or at least as far as I’m concerned, it  is ! Around the age of 11 or 12, I started reading Jim Corbett’s fascinating books on tigers and Indian wildlife in general – incidentally the Corbett Park is named after this author. Anyway, when I got the chance to go to India as a driver/courier for Safaris Overland in 1971, I took the opportunity partly for the travel and adventure, but also as an opportunity to visit the areas Corbett had written; of course it also offered me the chance to see a tiger in the wild… So,for those not interested in wildlife its perhaps best to skip this section !
It was close to Gharial Forest Rest House (FRH) in the Corbett Park on the last hill where the road winds to the watercourse that in 1985 I saw my first Tigers.
While on a business trip to India (I was no longer driving) I decided to visit my old haunts in the Corbett National Park. However a couple of months earlier a British tour leader and birdwatcher, David Hunt, had been killed and partly eaten by a Tiger. He had been in charge of a ‘birdwatching group’ which was exploring this same park when this  an unfortunate incident took place . .  Rumors were rife as to how and why this had happened. My information is as follows. Apparently David Hunt and his group were on their way back to Dhikala after a walk, accompanied by their guide, when they came across fresh tiger tracks. At the same time they also noticed an interesting owl. David Hunt said he wanted to stay and photograph this bird so told his guide and group to continue back to the camp while he tried to get some photos. My informant is of the opinion that he was perhaps more interested in the fresh Tiger pugmarks, but be that as it may… For whatever reason, several minutes after his companions had left the birdwatcher came across a large male tiger and thinking he was in no danger started taking pictures of this animal. The tiger then attacked and killed him.
Much later the film from this camera was developed and the pictures from it showed a tiger pacing up and down in front of the naturalist before eventually attacking – the last photo is said to show a ‘blurred’ tiger charging…. . . My personal opinion based on my own experience with tigers is that, for whatever reason, this animal became annoyed  and then charged. This particular tiger was known to be aggressive. I also suspect that the noise made by the camera (In those days most cameras made a distinct  whirring noise as the film was wound on ) was part of the reason the tiger attacked and of course animals will only take so much disturbance anyway. I then think David Hunt turned and ran which is the last thing you should do, though much easier said than done….
Tigers normally avoid humans. However should one happen to come across one on foot and it shows aggression the only  safe thing to do is to back off and if one is charged hold ones ground. Most tiger charges are what are described, by experts, as ‘mock charges’ which are aborted at the last moment. However should one run the charge will frequently become a real one. . .
Anyway, having heard about this attack while still in  Europe, I arrived in India  not knowing what the situation would be in the Corbett Park.  I had planned to do some fishing and walking so it was of course of considerable interest to me as to whether a man eating Tiger was still around !! However of this Tiger I was unable to obtain any real info and anyway I was informed that walking was now totally banned in the Corbett Park . Not a good start, but this wasn’t going to stop my trip.
I think that on this occasion I went to the Kashmiri Gate bus station in Delhi and from there took the 7 hour trip by local bus to Ramnagar. This town  lies next to the Kosi River on the edge of the Himalayan foothills and lies adjacent to the Corbett Tiger Reserve. The main gate for the Park is at Dhangari another half hour or so away by bus.
Having arrived at this gate after changing buses at Ramnagar and, having filled out the various forms and other bits of Indian red tape, there was now  the problem of how to get to Gharial FRH, where I had booked a room Eventually an Indian car turned up on its way to Dhikala  which is the main touristy centre. However that didn’t help  much as Gharial is several kms off the  road this vehicle would be taking. However very much to my surprise, considering I had just been told that all walking in the Park was banned, the officials at the gate said to take the lift, get off at the road junction to Gharial, and then walk the last few kms to the FRH. This despite the fact the area is surrounded by dense forest and jungle and the home of tigers…Anyway I wasn’t going to raise any objections  and promptly jumped in the car.
After  half an hour or so we arrived at the road junction and, thanking the Indians for the lift, I shouldered my backpack and set off.  Gharial FRH is approximately 3 kms from this road junction and most of this distance is along a ridge. Shortly before Gharial the dirt road winds down the side of a hill before running through a dense patch of lantana and scrub and then crossing a wide watercourse to the Rest House. I remember the first part of the walk as being particularly hot and dusty. The track was pretty straight and on my left loomed a forest of tall trees . This forest was a dark, gloomy place and a slight breeze sighing through the trees only added to the atmosphere. It was enough to send shivers down ones spine – I hadn’t forgotten that a man eating Tiger might still be around ! That walk seemed to go on forever and with each step my backpack seemed to become  heavier. By the time I eventually reached the spot where the road wound down the hill I was hot, tired and sweaty and had forgotten all about Tigers.
Near the top of the hill  the road turns sharply left and runs downhill for about 50 yards before sharply turning to the right in a hairpin bend. It then continues downhill for another 200 yards and enters a very dense area of lantana. Here, where the ground flattens out, there is another hairpin  but this time to the left. The road then continues for another 300 or 400 yards to the wide watercourse that I have already mentioned. On the far side but hidden from view is the Gharial FRH.
Knowing that the FRH was not far away I stepped up my pace and started to descend the hill.  Rounding the first hairpin I had walked only a few yards when without any warning and only 30 yards in front of me two shadows took off from the high bank on my right and leapt clear across the road. I just had time to recognize the second shadow as a big male tiger before it went crashing down the hillside and out of sight. That was a quite a shock, but what was worse was , as this tiger smashed through the undergrowth, it uttered a long drawn out blood-curdling roar followed by what I can only describe as noises that sounded as if it was tearing its worst enemy to bits !!
Not surprisingly I froze on the spot! The Tiger’s roaring had ceased which, to say the least, was a  relief. A few seconds later and out of sight below me I thought I heard an animal moving away. That was good news but barely had I caught my breath when  I heard  fresh sounds. This time there was the unmistakable crunch of leaves being trodden on by what could only be the tiger and, to my horror, I realized it was coming straight  towards me. This was too much and I beat a very hasty retreat back to the bend in the road while desperately  looking for trees to climb; but that wasn’t much help as most of the forest consisted of tall Sal trees with straight trunks and no lower branches to scramble up. I could of course have left the road and gone into the jungle but that didn’t seem such a good idea . .
Anyway the jungle was now quiet and the ‘crunch of leaves’ had stopped so, thinking it was best to let the tiger settle down, I sat down by the side of the road to get my tattered nerves together. Of course I was   at the same time hoping against hope that a hungry man-eater wasn’t stalking me!
Twenty five minutes passed and the jungle was still silent. As I had not been eaten I presumed this tiger wasn’t interested in humans which certainly helped. Besides I was sure I had seen the shadow of another animal as the tiger crashed down the slope. Perhaps it had been in the act of springing on a deer and the ferocious noises were the deer being killed? An idea, but one I later found was wrong. On the other hand the animal might have moved away by now.
My problem was what did I do now? It was unlikely a car would turn up and rescue me. Of course I could walk all the way back to the main road but that was a long, hot trek. The other course of action was to try to get to the Gharial FRH which I knew was close by. The only trouble with that was that I had not been in the Park for several years so wasn’t sure of my directions. If I had been familiar with the terrain I would have known it was possible to scramble down the hill to the river and then follow the Ramganga upstream to the FRH.
It was hot and I was tired which is the only reason I can give for the decision I now made. That was to continue down the road and through the heavy undergrowth where in all likelihood the tiger still was… These days I am used to walking in heavy jungle and also have a lot more experience with tigers. However faced with the same situation now I very much doubt that I would walk into heavy undergrowth where I knew a tiger was probably lying up watching me . However that is what I did.
I may have been tired but I certainly didn’t relish the thought of being added to a tigers menu. Having read Jim Corbett’s books on man-eating tigers I remembered an incident in one of his books. This was where a local villager who was carrying a large sack on his back had been attacked by a man-eater. The tigress had leapt on the mans back and sinking her teeth and claws into what she thought was her intended victim had only carried  the sack away, leaving the man to escape. Remembering this story and hoping my bright blue backpack might serve the same purpose as the sack had done in the story should I also be attacked , I slung the pack loosely over one shoulder (big cats tend to attack from behind) and set off down the road.

Where the Tigers jumped across the road – not very clear as taken off video footage.

As I passed the spot where the tiger had jumped across the road I noticed a small game track on the bank to my right. At this point the road was about 12 ft wide. However after   another a couple of minutes walk and at the base of the small hill the road narrowed to only 9 or 10 ft. Here it was hemmed in on either side by a tangle of thick lantana bushes where visibility was virtually nil. What was more the track now turned sharply to the left thus keeping anyone walking along the track in the dense undergrowth for another 50 yards.
Walking at a steady pace and making no sudden movements I kept going. At the same time I kept continually scanning my surroundings ,looking  first to one side and behind me, and then the other side and behind. . . I was doing this not because I expected, or for that matter even wanted, to see anything but hoped that by showing myself ‘to be on the alert’ it might discourage any attack…Gradually I left the terrifying bushes behind without any sign of the tiger. However, although more open, there was still heavy jungle on both sides and it was not until the ‘open and wide’ watercourse was reached  and Gharial was in view that I started to relax. A few minutes later I reached the FRH. After checking in I tried telling  the Chowkidar my story but am sure he didn’t understand and the Ranger, who did speak English, was away.
Its amazing what a good nights sleep will do and the next morning found me fit and rearing to go. After breakfast, I grabbed my camera and decided to head back to the site of the previous days events. If this sounds a little foolish I would point out that I had walked around in this park on many other occasions and besides was convinced that the tiger that I had seen the previous day would be long gone by now.
Of course I had a quite a story to tell and photographs of the spot where it all had happened would be great to show my friends! I was still a little worried about the tiger but, as I again started to cross the stony watercourse, Langur monkeys could be heard giving alarm calls several hundred yards up the valley on my left. That helped relax me as these monkeys had probably been disturbed by a tiger in which case it wasn’t near where I was going.
The jungle on the far side of the watercourse was soon reached . This time with no heavy backpack to encumber me and wearing light shoes I made very little noise . Not far off  I could see the same ‘dreaded bend’ in the road with its overhanging bushes whgich had been so scared me the day before. This time though I wasn’t bothered at all.

The Jungle on the far side of the watercourse-again taken off video footage

Approaching the hairpin I slowed down looking for tiger tracks in the dusty surface of the track. If  there were any, they would make great photos. I was walking really slowly now and  busy scanning the ground for these ‘pugmarks’ .In consequence the heavy lantana on my right, which was now encroaching on the road, was barely noticed…
I was thus thinking about the  photos, taking in the smells and sounds of the jungle and generally enjoying myself when an sudden ‘eruption of sound’ rocked me back on my feet. The noise had come from the bushes on my right and I knew instantly what had happened. I had been ‘hissed’ and ‘spat at’ by an angry tiger !
If you know the kind of noise a domestic ‘moggie’ makes when on the defensive and multiply it fifty times at a range of a matter of feet you get an idea of what I mean… I don’t think I even stopped except to make a very hasty U turn and retreat as fast as I could safely go  in the direction I had come from . It took me many minutes walking, punctuated by frequent and apprehensive glances behind me, before I arrived back at the safety of the camp. I had had more than enough of tigers for the present and what was needed  was a pot of hot, strong tea though a good shot of whiskey would s have been more appropriate !
Anyway having reached the safety of the FRH and recovered my composure I discovered that the Ranger, who had been absent the day before, had returned. When he was told about what had happened and the area pointed out, he said “Oh yes, there are two mating tigers living there. We heard them roaring during the night ! ” And as an afterthought he added “You had best keep away from there .
When originally I saw two shadows leaping across the road I now realized the first shadow was the tigress closely followed by her mate. Evidently I had disturbed the amorous couple and the roaring and ‘ savaging’ noises made by the tiger were not those of a deer being killed. Instead they were undoubtedly what the tiger felt like doing to me !
The next day when I was ‘hissed and spat at’ I am convinced it was by the tigress. Over the following years I have twice heard similar sounds from tigers. Once was when I was in a jeep in Ranthambore Park and the driver got too close to the famous tigress, ‘Noon’ (see Photo) On another occasion in long grass I inadvertently got too close to a tigress with cubs. This tigress first made a low growl which at first I mistook for thunder, and then, when I raised my foot to take another step she ‘hissed’ out of the grass 12 yards away – I say ‘hissed’ but the noise was more like a deep breath exhaled from a deep cavern… In both cases these sounds were made by tigress’s and were a ‘defensive warning’ not to come any closer.

Tigress ‘Noon’ in Ranthambore park warning off my jeep at 7 yards.

I stayed at Gharhial several more days and the Ranger allowed me to walk and fish up to a km or so downriver  (Gharial FRH lies next to the Ramganga river). I don’t think I caught any masheer on this occasion but did hook  one monster fish. However as I was fishing with a 3 lb trace and small ‘bread- baited’ hook – not the tackle for masheer – I watched in the clear water as a huge masheer, swimming upriver, first swallowed the bait hooking itself on the lip and then promptly broke the line. To me, who was watching, it appeared the fish  hardly even noticed it had been hooked. I never saw the tigers again except perhaps once when an animal crossed the hillside but it might have been a Sambhar and I didn’t have any binoculars with me to check. After a few days I headed back to Delhi but this time taking a lift to the main gate of the Park

Tiger (male) in Corbett Park lying in Lantana bushes

Last edited by JCH (08-May-2009 03:09:49)

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