Tour of India – Safari so good

Roger Wolens writes about the delights of India – environmental and otherwise

Shortly after booking for Kuoni’s Images of India tour, the newspapers were full of the plague outbreak scare in India.

Because of this, the Kuoni offered us the option of cancelling or transferring to another tour.

As the health risk was at its peak, with UK airports introducing their own checks on incoming flights from India, we certainly considered all options.

In the end, we decided to take our chances with the reservations we had, because no other holiday appeared to offer the same unique itinerary mixture of city, countryside, Taj Mahal – and Corbett National Park.

It was that extra safari ingredient that swung it for us, the first time it had been offered in the Kuoni package.

It later transpired that the plague reports were a false alarm, so we were even more pleased that we had not opted for a second-best choice.

But with these options in mind, Corbett National Park has a lot of expectations to live up to. In the event, it delivered everything we had hoped for – and more.

Accommodation was at The Claridge’s Corbett Hideaway, a far cry from the bustling, popular Claridge’s Hotel we had stayed at in Delhi.

Good though that was in serving the needs of tourists in that particular environment, the owners had resisted what must have been a temptation to repeat the winning formula in tiger country.

Instead, they provide individual accommodation in detached brick-built bungalows, comprising sitting room, bathroom and one or two bedrooms. The water supply was not always predictable; some mornings the shower would hardly reach the floor.

Excellent meals were taken al fresco, sitting around blazing log fires as the night air developed a distinct December chill.

Early morning tea was poured and served to you in bed, and the surroundings offered a relaxing haven of peace and tranquillity after the noisy excitement of city life.

But Corbett has an excitement of its own; literally up with the larks for an elephant-ride safari into the local jungle.

The day soon warms up once the sun rises, but it was so cold for our early-morning start that I thought we had a good chance of spotting the legendary sexually-challenged brass monkeys.

Narrowly missing a herd of 30 wild deer that had strayed on to the track, jeeps whizzed us to a clearing in the jungle where our elephants were waiting for us.

They provide a surprisingly comfortable ride and a magnificent viewing platform. The instruction is to keep quiet; only a tap and point and speak in low tones.

It struck me that this could create a breed of paranoid elephant drivers who feel that everyone is whispering behind their backs as they sit astride the beast’s enormous shoulders.

The elephants are surprisingly nimble, picking their way along the narrowest of paths and negotiating steep gradients in both directions without ever making you feel unsafe.

The animals accept the elephant as one of their own, so they do not scuttle for cover even when flash photographers start to pop before their eyes.

One giant-antlered deer, however, did seem particularly startled as he looked up and saw us. “I think he saw through your camouflage,” I whispered to a scarlet-shirted member of our party as the animal made a bolt for it.

We found fresh tiger tracks and droppings; even the carcase of one of their recent victims – but no tiger. Who was watching who here?

There was no shortage of deer and monkeys, one enormous colourful spider centred in its mega-web, and all sorts of birdlife. But the ride alone would have been worth the experience, even if we had found no animals.

Local research is being undertaken in a bid to understand the special relationship that leads to monkeys picking fresh leaves and dropping them for deer to feed on after a particularly dry summer leaves the grazing bare.

The early-morning jungle is alive with the constant drip of moisture from the umbrella of its natural canopy; alive with raucous bird squawks; alive with the shriek of monkeys; alive – and yet so wondrously relaxing as the elephant meanders meaningfully in response to silent commands, ripping up trees and other obstructions along the way.

We were the pioneers of this particular tourism development and I hope we have blazed a trail that will be enjoyed by generations of thrill-seekers for many years to come.