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Tigers, Mr Barlow & good ol’ Jim Corbett

Kadha shots, agitated langurs, searching for a tiger on foot (and thankfully not quite finding it); it’s safe to say that Payel Majumdar had an eventful time at the Jim Corbett National Park and the Ahaana Resorts. She even heard the roar.

Payel Majumdar  11th Oct 2014

A vintage buggy parked at the hotel reception.

amnagar is still one of those stations with only one platform and, consequently, no overbridge to lead onto other platforms. At 5.30 a.m., standing on a near-empty station facing the rolling, green hills of Corbett, we cannot help but think of Ruskin Bond's beloved story The Train Stops at Shamli that starts on a similar note.

Much like the protagonist of that story, I get off the train seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Instead of a decrepit buggy, however, I am driven down in a modern car to my destination — an ecological resort in the middle of the jungle. On my way there, I imagine all sorts of exotic beasts leaping up on my car's bonnet, and relive all the wildlife adventures borrowed from family stories. The fact that it is still very dark and moonless keeps our simulated thrill going in this slow seven km drive, over starlit stream beds and roads that cut through the dense jungle, till we arrive at a big wooden gate, with a hovering colonial presence. The scale of luxury, for the most part, is directly proportional to the amount of carbon footprints for the hotel industry. Which is why Ahaana Resorts, at the bottom of the Shivalik hills, sharing a wall with the Jhirna range of the Jim Corbett forest, comes as a pleasant surprise.

The first thing that greets us at the dak-bungalow style balcony of our suite is the ripe aroma of the forest. The distant forest with its sal, sisso and khair mixes with the aroma of the ferns, shrubs, trees and grass of Ahaana. A light mist shrouds the dark green foliage, and we can hear a distant vibrating hum — a combination of sounds indicating the forest and its residents are waking up. Ahaana itself has vast landscaped gardens, undulating at points, lit by discrete lanterns. Its unique sewage treatment plant uses a field of cannas to filter waste water. The garden is full of local plants that are allowed to grow wild, giving the property a true-blue feel of the wilderness. A morning walk with Mr Romesh Barlow, their resident ecologist around the resort, and I learn all about what constitutes Jim Corbett's natural heritage.

There is the bottlebrush, a mighty plant that is the source of the humble yet omnipresent item in all Indian homes, the jhaadu. The plant we spot is still alive, it isn't brittle, hard and limp, but flourishes beside the elephant grass and kans grass in certain pockets of the resort. The kachnaar leaves are ideal for carrying food, and traditionally used to store sweets, while broad waterproof teak leaves are used by people working in the fields, to shield their heads from downpours.

A cup of good leaf tea, and I have achieved the rare distinction in my personal career, of being up early enough to watch the sunrise. (After which I promptly fall asleep; no bicycling around the resort as some of our companions suggest. Yoga pants are best used to sleep-in.)

id-morning has been reserved for the spa, but not before I discover two charming lotus ponds on the way, where much Wordsworth-ian zoning out happens. The spa has a bowl of passion flowers on the ground, another addition to my local flora discoveries since morning. The spa is equipped with Western, Thai as well as Ayurvedic spa therapies and, in line with their organic outlook, their treatments are natural and often use alternative therapies to heal. Health retreats are a major draw for the spa, which has extensive therapy sessions for patients, including saatvik meals prepared for guests who are dealing with lifestyle diseases such as blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. We are given kadha shots, a pungent super food energy drink for the spa session ahead that leaves me with nothing to complain, my muscles as relaxed as they have ever been, and my skin glowing with all the fruit that was used to polish it (papayas, bananas, lemon, honey, walnut and apple scrub is employed to good effect).

While the hotel has many opportunities for customary holiday activities (swimming pool, dirt bicycling, badminton, basketball and pool, among others) it is the jungle safari that draws us the most. We are sorely disappointed to learn that most of the jungle is still closed and we have come a week too early (this still being September; the season opens from October).

Hope creeps back, however, when the genial Mr Barlow tells me he will take me on a nature walk into the jungle. I drag myself out of bed at an early hour (6 a.m.) to accompany him into the forest. Mr Barlow looks like a character right out of Jim Corbett books, with his bowler cap and vintage spectacles, as he tells me about his favourite book, Queen of the Elephants, by conservationist Mark Shand, based on the life of the first female mahout. I ask Mr Barlow if I will spot some birds, and he duly points out several unique species that have made the Corbett range their home, apart from some graceful spotted deer that bound away. In the midst of this, a group of young boys on bicycles stop to exchange some rushed words with him, before going the other way.

Mr Barlow turns to me and says, "They've heard a tiger growl."

My first reaction is that of excitement. Yes, waking up early in the morning is the toughest task, but it also always pays off. Mr Barlow's genial temperament is replaced with a thrilled gleam in his eyes. "Come on, let's continue." I was a little taken aback by this bravado. Were we really walking towards the tiger, on foot?

The environment is calm enough, and maybe it is a false alarm. On our way, Mr Barlow points out several signs hinting towards the jungle having been disturbed by a predator. Crows caw continuously. We reach the spot where the boys claimed to have heard the tiger growl, a picturesque dried-up riverbed, strewn with white stones. Unfortunately (?), our predator has not turned up yet, so we wait. And wait. Mr Barlow tells me that the langurs getting agitated and the crows cawing very close are sure signs, but cynicism has crept in and secretly I just miss my bed. And then it happens. There is an unmistakable growl that no lesser animal could have created, about 150 metres away. While I stood there in stunned silence, Mr Barlow asked if I'd like to walk over to say hi to our new friend. It took me a couple of panicked minutes to realise he was joking, before we walked away. It wasn't helpful to then be told that tigers always stab you in the back, and prefer walking on human trails.

Back at the resort, as we tell everyone about our "sighting" (I may have exaggerated some details), we are congratulated on our luck. After all, we did (almost) meet one of Jim's tigers.

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