Fresh tiger pugmarks marking a trail from the river into the depths of the jungle. A trail of freshly destroyed Rohini trees - the elephant’s favourite snack - following the herd’s recent path. An underground porcupine city. Three kinds of deer - Sambar, Spotted (Chital) and the jungle bugle - barking deer. Peacocks.
A group of super elusive otters frolicking in the river. The even more elusive brown fish owl. Pied kingfishers. A rare long-tail broadbill and golden oriole. The surreally beautiful male Paradise Flycatcher, streaming through the air like a long white ribbon. A yellow-throated marten.
Slaty headed parakeets. Monkeys. A pair of elegant serpent eagles flying sensually in tandem against the craggy rock face. A river that is the heartbeat of the jungle and all its inhabitants.
You may think I’m describing a 3-day jungle safari. And you wouldn’t be too wrong. I am in the jungle. But this is no safari. This is all happening on my first day, as I take a hike within just a half-kilometre radius of a unique, hidden gem called Vanghat, nestled quietly, almost secretly in the deep Kumaoni jungles of Jim Corbett National Park.
Why I’m at Corbett
I’ve come here to get my solo-travel fix. As I grow older, I find I tend to choose quieter and quieter places where I can be alone with my books, thoughts and ideas. But on this trip, I’m anything but alone.
Even as I sit on the cane chair in my room’s verandah, contemplating life in general (what else do you do on holiday right!?) I am in a place that is at once quiet and noisy - even cacophonic.
Bird calls of every tone and volume, animal calls - monkeys, deer, wild boar; the occasional unidentified low rumble that I will assume are the tigers who rule over this patch of the jungle; insects of every shape, size, hue and flying ability, with voices that punch far above their weight in terms of size-to-volume ratio. Birds with fork tails, fan tails, long tails and short tails whooshing or flapping or gliding by.
Yet, it’s quiet. Perhaps because there is no mobile phone, no TV, no electricity even. In deference to nocturnal creatures that take over the jungle at dusk, the Vanghat Lodge does not have electric lights in the outer areas, using instead only lanterns and candles. And no vehicular traffic.
My thoughts are entirely undisturbed and undistracted despite the constant non-digital buzzings, pings and jungle notifications. Every now and then, barking deer, warned by the monkeys in-charge of the highest outposts, inform everyone of the approaching king, and for a short while, even the noisy peacocks fall in line and quieten down.
Surrounded by the majestically craggy and aloof Shivalik range, and the gentle yet strong Ramganga river that anchors this forest, I very quickly stop reaching for my mobile phone (anyway there is no coverage here).
Instead, I start reaching for my pen and notebook. Very occasionally, I reach for my camera. Not because there is nothing worthy of a photo, but because no photo (that my unskilled hands can take) would be worthy of the raw beauty of this place.
In my walks through the jungle, I learn how to handle binoculars (not as easy as it looks), I see the smouldering embers of an animal sacrifice made by the human inhabitants of the jungle; experience local hospitality when our cooks hikes over with us to his own home high up on the hills; and learn about jungle science: how to measure an elephant’s height from its foot imprint, how to tell if a set of pugmarks are of a male or female cat, why termites are indispensable to a jungle.
In the 5 days I was there, the weather went from blazing heat to bitter squalls and bright sunshine.
On day 2, the quiet harmony of the evening jungle orchestra is taken to a crescendo with rumbling thunder, swishing leaves, the strobe light effect of lightning. The petrichor mixed with the heady fragrance of jhumka bel and raat rani fills the air and my senses. It ends as suddenly as it begins, and the orchestra regulars carry on as if the interlude never happened.
Even though jungle fires had burnt much of this part of the forest down, everything had already started to regenerate. Thanks to (my naturalist-guide teacher) Harish, I picked up an interest in identifying birds and their calls, marvelling at how these local boys, who had the most basic of education, can identify rare birds just from the call or a fleeting glimpse of wing; and rattle of the botanical (English) names of plants and trees accompanied by little stories and anecdotes about each. They prove that self-directed learning needs no curriculum, no exams, just interest and some learning skills.
The Rohini tree, which is not just the elephant's favourite snack, but also the tree from whose berries (non-synthetic) Sindoor used to be made. The monkey biscuit trees whose crispy seeds monkeys love to snack on; and the very itchy, stingy ‘bicchu booti’ (scorpion weed) or as I like to call it, the ‘Gabbar Singh’ of Corbett (Harish tells me how Kumaoni mothers warn their kids to behave or else…).
The 13th century Persian Poet Rumi said,
“You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the ocean in a drop”.
For me, Vanghat is the entire jungle contained in a few acres.
Stay still and observe for long enough, and you will see it all. It is clearly a labour of love - a love that is as passionate and intense as it is deep and enduring. More power to people like founder Sumantha Ghosh, who sees the power of preserving and being a part of paradise; instead of trying to replace or recreate it with concrete and electricity.
If you want your child to experience life in a tropical-temparate-grassland extravaganza that’s an Indian jungle, then there can be no better option than a short slow-travel through Vanghat at the Jim Corbett National Tiger Reserve.
There is so much to share about this magical place, but since I’m no good at photos, I’ve distilled my musings and notes from the week at Vanghat - dubbed the remotest jungle lodge in Jim Corbett (it took me a drive, a hike, and a punt by river ferry to get this deep in) into this post about- what else? - learning.
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