One of my favourite activities around Tanhau is camping out overnight. We’re lucky to have multiple sites to choose from, depending on how adventurous we’re feeling on that particular day & the people going along. When it’s just my staff & I, we usually choose a place that could potentially have wildlife action.
It was a pleasant spring evening, so we decided to go camping overnight at the ‘tapu’. About a kilometer from Tanhau, the tapu is a flat piece of hilltop perched above the surrounding reserve forests & the Kosi valley below. Our plan was to get there about an hour before dusk & bring in the sunset enjoying the views & sounds of the forest, maybe even get to hear a few alarm calls if lucky. For the first fifteen minutes from Tanhau, the way to the tapu is along the normal path, past the village and the famous forest chowky where Jim Corbett stayed while pursuing the Maneater of Mohan.
With sunset around 7 pm, we started off from Tanhau around 5.30 in the evening, traveling light – a 3-man tent, sleeping mats, & some basic food.
The fun started soon after once we got ‘off–road’ onto the jungle trail. The path was so overgrown with thorny lantana bushes that in many places it wasn’t visible at all. We were stumbling our way down when I looked up & saw some Himalayan Griffons circling overhead. Was there a kill around??
Sure enough I got the stench of a dead animal nearby and there it was in the middle of the lantana – a semi decomposed sambar deer carcass – mostly eaten, and by a big cat definitely. It looked about ten days old though, so there was no chance of the cat coming back to it. We moved on towards the tapu, just briefly stopping to click a few photos of a chameleon along the way.
We approached the tapu cautiously, alert for any signs of elephants as a group of three had been hanging around there. To our relief there was no sign of them – elephants are best sighted from a distance & not on foot! When we got to the tapu, the view was spectacular.
The tapu is a large flat piece of hilltop falling away on all sides into dense forest. We found a reasonably flat spot right at the edge overlooking the forested valley and started pitching our tent before it got dark. Soon we were sorted and ready for the night, sitting outside on the grassy slope and soaking in the surroundings.
As the sun started going down, the forest around started coming alive – the plaintive calls of great barbets started echoing across the hills, accompanied by the chirping of flocks of parakeets, minivets and others returning home. As it grew darker, these were replaced by loud ‘chaunk-chaunk-chaunk’ calls of Large-tailed Nightjars coming from all around us.
Suddenly chital alarm calls rang out from the valley below to our right. Multiple deer were calling agitatedly – surely a big cat on the move! After five minutes, a sambar started belling from the same direction too. We were loving it, sitting in total silence & darkness outside the tent – hearing alarm calls so close below, out in the open under the stars is quite magical. After some time though the calls stopped & the forest seemed to settle down, though barking deer calls continued from the direction of Tanhau – probably our neighborhood male leopard Bhola on his rounds. We started settling in for the night, munching on sandwiches and listening to the orchestra being played out by the cicadas & nightjars.
At around 8.30, we heard the alarm call of a goral (mountain goat) from directly below us, maybe about a hundred feet down. A goral’s alarm call is very distinctive & sounds like a tree being chopped in the forest. The goral kept calling and it could clearly see us, so I was sure it was calling because of us. When I mentioned this to Harry, he asked ‘But then why is the goral moving up towards us?’ And that was true – the goral, while calling, was steadily coming up towards us, now maybe no more than 30 feet directly below us.
I was just about to say something in reply, when we all heard, from about 50 feet to our right, the growl of a tiger. It was a low, guttural sound filled with menace and malice, clearly a warning to us. The goral reacted instantly, dashing away frantically in the opposite direction. Leaving us behind with an unfriendly tiger we couldn’t see in the dark but could hear! And we could hear the tiger clearly now, as it followed up the first growl quickly with a couple of others that were louder and seemingly even more menacing. As we just kept sitting silently, I was filled with excitement, mixed with apprehension – what if the tiger came up towards us?
Thankfully, after what seemed eternity but what was actually a couple of minutes, the tiger started moving along a track below us, looping around us along the edge of the hill. As it moved along the path, it continued giving the warning growls, so we could track it’s position clearly – it starting moved along the track from our right, came directly below us and then starting moving downwards into the valley towards the area we call ‘katpu’ from our left. Though we couldn’t clearly see the tiger, my guess is the tiger was Durga since she hangs around frequently near the katpu.
As she moved away, we looked at each other in amazement – did that actually just happen? After a considerable period of time, the adrenaline subsided & we settled down again. The rest of the night passed uneventfully, punctuated by the odd alarm call from a comfortable distance away. Early morning, as the sun broke, we dismantled the tent and made our way back to Tanhau.
We’d come camping hoping to hear some alarm calls and generally enjoy being close to the jungle – never did we expect to have our neighbourhood tigress Durga come calling on us! But that’s the thing with nature & wildlife – they make their own rules.