“What are my chances of seeing an elephant?” I asked the park rangers at Rajaji National Park. The answer didn’t matter. I was there, after a trying journey of eight bus drivers laughing off my request and finally paying way too much for a private tuk tuk to drive me to the park entrance at Chilla, and I was going on a safari.
“Maybe 50/50,” he said. “Chances not so good this time of year, but I try!”
“Well, I’ll settle for a tiger,” I said with a smirk, knowing there are few who cross through this protected area in northern India, and chances of ever seeing one are slim.
He giggled and we climbed into the forest green Gypsy jeep, driver waiting. I’d rented all three – the guide, the driver and the jeep – for a four-hour trek through the park, and though I didn’t have high hopes of seeing much of anything this time of year, I was happy just to be in the back of a jeep, eyes peeled with hope.
Not two minutes into the dirt road entrance and we came to a hault, then a sudden reverse. I didn’t know what was happening until the guide (whose name I can’t remember) leaned back and whispered, “Elephant!”
Sure enough, a huge elephant was meandering toward us on the road. The driver inched closer at my urging – I wanted a good photo. Standing on the back seat of the jeep, balancing my camera on the roll bars, I zoomed in and got a shot before she saw us and took off through the brush.
“Your job is done!” I told the guide, satisfied with the tour already. We kept on, past several packs of hundreds of monkeys, an owl and several bright green parakeets. When we came to a clearing, we slowed down enough for the men to point out tiger tracks in the soft dirt.
“Yes, she long gone by now, I think,” said my guide.
It did look like a tiger print, and it was enough to raise my hopes that we might see another. My eyes were peeled, though never saw anything without the guide first pointing it out.
After an hour or so we stopped at what I assumed was the park ranger’s home, clear out in the middle of the national forest. I climbed the lookout tower with my camera, but saw nothing. After relieving myself in the bushes, the guide walked down from the home and hurried me along…”come, come, you must see!”
I ran up the short hill, winded, and looked over the peak to see a mama elephant with her two babies walking across the plains. Two cattle herders had scurried up behind us, fearing what the elephants might do in their path. Once the elephant family was safely distant, they headed back down to gather their herd. It must be unreal to fear for your life (beyond falling off a horse) while rounding up cattle. What if they encounter a tiger?
On the drive out, two wild boar noisily darted in front of us, and several male peacocks stood beautifully in the distance. There were lots more monkeys and various kinds of birds and deer too.
The guide asked me how I planned to get out of the park. “Oh, I’ll take a tuk-tuk or bus, or something. What are my options?”
He laughed. “How did you get here?”
“An overpriced tuk tuk because not one of the 8 buses I asked would bring me.”
“Did your driver wait for you?”
“You not have ride, then. No tuk tuk driver. Usually, they wait.”
Luckily, it was nearly 5pm and the park would be closing down. “You wait for me get off work and I drive you.”
Thank goodness I paid for an English speaking guide, rather than just the driver and jeep. He drove me on his motorcycle to the main highway between Haridwar, where I had come from, and Rishikesh, where I was headed, and waited for a tuk tuk to stop. He flagged him down and negotiated me a locals price before sending me on my way.
“You’re the best guide ever,” I said. And I meant it.
Gypsy Safari in Rajaji National Park, India