The road to Corbett National Park from Delhi is an old, oft-travelled one. But you can take the name of the Lord in vain because the drive between Hapur and Garhmukteshwar in UP is worse than bad. Driving a large German sedan, in this case an Audi A6, made things only slightly better, but we'll get to that aspect of the story later. Getting to Corbett is just not plain sailing anymore.
However, if you plan properly, you can cover the 300-odd kilometres to the Corbett Ramganga resort in under six hours, but that plan involves leaving Delhi before six in the morning, praying to most gods in the Hindu pantheon that devotees aren't going to take a dip in the Ganga at Brijghat and having a car with an engine powerful enough to overtake the far too frequent overloaded tractors even when there is a smidgen of a gap in oncoming traffic.
Corbett is one of India's oldest and definitely its most famous National Park and Tiger Reserve. Though you have to book two weeks in advance if you want to take a morning safari in the park, there are many things to do while staying in any one of the several resorts that dot the road. We stayed at the Corbett Ramganga resort, a WelcomHeritage property about 30-odd kilometres beyond Ramnagar. Nestled on the banks of the Ramganga, this is a delightful place to be because you have the luxury to do absolutely nothing and just listen to the river rush by with a nice book in your hand by day and a nice drink in your hand with the bonfire blazing at night.
If you decide to take a trip on short notice like we did, you could try your luck for an afternoon Jeep or Canter safari from the Forest Office at Ramnagar. It costs around Rs 2,000 for a jeep (five-six people) but keep in mind that you have to carry some Photo-ID on you and give names of everyone going in. Do not fall for touts promising rides in the forest because someone else cancelled. Rides once booked remain booked, and those names cannot be changed and the records are also a promise of personal safety.
That said, your chances of seeing a tiger are almost as slim as your chances of catching a mahseer. A kilometre upstream from the resort, whose reception has hundreds of pictures of successful anglers, the river forms a natural pool which is a nice place for fishing. Some of the best anglers in the world have come to fish for the famous mahseer as well as catfish and trout at this site. A day's angling licence costs Rs 1,200 and you can rent rods from the resort or get your own. Be warned, this is a game of patience and you should ideally take a packed lunch, leave at 10 a.m. and try your luck till sundown.
But even the most seasoned angler can come to the Ramganga and fail to get a bite for days on end. The best season for fishing is in May-June. But Corbett is becoming less like a nature reserve and more like Agra, with tens of resorts promising all sorts of luxuries dotting the park's periphery. Places, like the Corbett Ramganga resort, are few and far between. The rooms-we stayed in the tents-are nice and fairly affordable and packages at Rs 11,111 plus taxes for a couple for two nights, including all meals, are great value. There are deluxe and super-deluxe rooms available for quite a bit more, but the big thing about the resort is its childfriendly atmosphere. Children under five are not charged extra and there is a lot of room for them to move about as well as a small kiddie pool.
But the problem with Corbett right now is not the rampant commercialism, but the paucity of tigers. The resort owners should be happy that someone is promoting a 'Save the Tiger' campaign right now. Corbett minus the Tigers is like Agra minus the Taj Mahal and the big cats are disappearing fast. From a purely commercial point of view, this spells trouble for Corbett. Although it's a beautiful place on its own, with no tigers, it will never get the same volume of tourists.
And then there is the road. The journey back took over eight hours. In an Audi with a 240 hp engine, that is an incredibly long time. The four-wheel drive 'Quattro' system came into good use outside Garhmukteshwar on the way back to avoid a gargantuan jam, but the car's incredibly hard driver seat can give you stiff shoulders for a few days, which isn't something you'd expect in a car this expensive. Quick advice: if you do decide to go to Corbett, take a comfortable car and a driver. And if you do enter the jungle, don't expect to see tigers and definitely don't expect to catch any fish. But the joy is in the expectation that you may just strike gold.
Where to Stay
Corbett Ramganga Resort, Jhamaria, Uttarakhand. For details check http://www.ramganga.com
What to Do/See
Jungle Safari, Morning Safari require prior bookings as much as 15 days in advance. Afternoon Safari can be booked from the forest office at Ramnagar but there are limited seats.
Angling permits cost Rs 1,200 per day; extra charges for rod rentals plus bait.
Note: Corbett National Park is shut between July-September during the monsoon.