Dudhwa. The land of grasslands, swamps and tall sal trees. Mentioned in the Ramayanas. Renowned for its rich fauna, including swamp deer, Indian rhinos and huge tigers. And for the conservation efforts of Billy Arjan Singh, who was somewhat of a tiger himself. Contiguous to Royal Bardia National Park in Nepal, Dudhwa is located in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh, and had been on my ‘to visit’ list for a while. I had thought that someday I would drive down and experience Dudhwa as an appetizer, while Corbett would be the main course. But this time when I got a chance to visit the park with a few friends, I jumped at the opportunity even though it meant flying down to Lucknow and then hiring a vehicle.
While I kept my hopes in check regarding mammal sightings (wrong time of the year), I was looking forward to the mist, dew and soft November light that I could expect to encounter. Incidentally, Frederick Walter Champion, the pioneer of wildlife photography in India, and an inspiration for Jim Corbett taking up a camera, spent a lot of time in these forests of erstwhile Oudh, taking some iconic photos.
I took a night flight to Lucknow. Early next morning we started for Dudhwa. We were traveling in an Innova that had done more than 2 lakh km, one couldn’t make out (hint: I drive a trusty Toyota). Traffic was crazy, as was our driver. He kept honking like mad, expecting people, cows, and other vehicles to jump out of his way. Often we scraped past an old man or an oblivious goat or a truck with 2 inches to spare. Not a relaxing start to a trip.
We went via Sitapur – Lakhimpur – Palia Kalan to reach Dudhwa. Four years back, on the way back from Kumaon. I had driven on the Philibit – Gola – Lakhimpur – Sitapur – Lucknow stretch. The roads were emptier then. That time, I drove from Tanakpur (mentioned in many Jim Corbett stories) to Rewa (in Madhya Pradesh) in one day. Trusting Google Maps, I lost two hours while trying to bypass Lucknow, and ended up on a Barabanki mud track with 1.5 feet water. NH7 in MP looked like the dark side of the moon, regarding craters. There were trucks – with broken axles – parked on the roadside every few km. I eventually ended up in Bandhavgarh the next morning, went for safaris, and next day drove to Mumbai, driving 1400+ km day and night, with a 2 hour shuteye at a fuel pump. Had to buy formal clothes from a shop in Chhindwara, MP, on my way. Anyway, long story, sorry for the nostalgic digression.
After reaching Dudhwa, we spent the first few days at a tourist complex right beside the forest entry gate. Shot a few interesting sunset photos during a late afternoon walk. The forest guards told us that a tiger is a regular visitor and uses an animal track just behind the tourist complex. One evening, around 8 pm, we heard the alarm calls of cheetal and langur. Seemed the big cat was afoot. Went near the fence, and waited for a while. No luck. In the end, we didn’t see any big cats during our stay in Dudhwa, but another safari vehicle encountered a big male tiger in the evening when they were coming back from their afternoon safari.
An afternoon safari in Kishanpur was disappointing. I had high hopes of taking portraits and animalscapes of swamp deers, but they were too far away, and there was too much haze in the afternoon. My pre-visualized shot of a swamp deer stag, with its head emerging out of the mist, in beautiful light, didn’t materialize. Maybe someday. On the way back from Kishanpur, we stopped at Palia Kalan, the nearest small town. Went inside a dhaba, and gorged like crazy. No non-veg or liquid refreshments were allowed inside the tourist complex, which was run by the forest department. So we needed to make up a little bit for the last few days of abstinence.
Then we shifted to a forest rest house 13 km inside the park The mornings were misty, with dew shining on every grass blade. The sun took its time to rise, and for the first couple of hours in the morning, the light was quite magical. The evenings were a bit chilly, especially if one were driving around in a Gypsy. I would typically spend a few hours alone on the FRH terrace. The Milky Way would be out after 7 pm. The fireflies would be twinkling all around. The grassland would slowly get covered by the rising mist, and leopards would start calling (the forest guards told us that there were 8 leopards around the forest rest house). The deers would give their alarm calls as they were chased by the leopards. The moon would light up the misty grasslands a little before midnight. The cold and crisp breeze would make my hands and nose a little numb.
One night, on our way back to the forest rest house (it was pretty late), we narrowly (and luckily) missed an encounter with a wild male tusker. Imagine a forest trail lit up by the Gypsy headlights. Visibility is limited, since mist is swirling everywhere. And then you see the fresh footprints of a big elephant on the narrow track, which is flanked by 12 feet tall elephant grass on both sides (so no way of turning quickly, and lateral visibility is almost nil). The forest guide told us that the elephant had been on the road a little while back, and we needed to be very careful (apparently that pachyderm was a cranky one). So we ended up tiptoeing through the mist, excited as well as apprehensive before each blind curve. I wasn’t too concerned, since I encounter elephants regularly when driving in the Nilgiri forests, and knew that as long as we saw it before it sensed us, and maintained a safe distance, we would be alright. I guess it was more thrilling for my friends who don’t face such situations pretty often.
In the end, this trip was not about shooting wildlife, but more about experiencing the forest with all my senses, and chasing the light. Not that it stopped me from cribbing when the scene was lovely and the light was perfect, but there was no animal subject for my photos. I plan to visit Dudhwa again, but this time in January or February, when the grass has dried up, when the mist is still there, and when there is a higher chance of encountering the Dudhwa tigers. There is another FRH that I am rather keen to visit. Perhaps I will do that long drive from Bangalore and club the Dudhwa trip with Corbett and Pangot.