Travel: On the prowl for India's big cats: In the foothills of the Himalayas, Corbett National Park is home to about 120 tigers. But they all refused to meet Duff Hart-Davis

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The Independent Travel
Beneath a black woolly hat, Subedar Ali, our mahout or elephant driver, wore a clean white cloth which hung down the back of his neck. As he steered his five-ton mount up and down the steep, jungle-clad slopes of Corbett National Park, I thought nothing of it, supposing it to be some form of religious head-dress. Only later did we hear about the incident which accounted for that curious garment.

Going into the forest one day to cut fodder for his elephant, Ali had scarcely tethered the beast to a tree and set to work when a tiger sprang from the bushes and seized him by the head. Though small and light - less than half his attacker's weight - he fought the animal off with immense courage and presence of mind, stuffing one arm down its throat and twisting its tongue until it let go. Severely lacerated about the scalp and pouring with blood, he managed to scramble back to the elephant, who whisked him up with her trunk and set him on her head, thereby saving his life.

To visitors such as ourselves, eager to see a tiger, such stories raise hopes to fever pitch. Everyone else, it seems, has had some close encounter with a big cat. Ali himself, only a week before our arrival, had spotted signs of a kill and descended from his elephant to investigate. Crawling through thick lantana bushes, he had come face to face with a tiger, which had been eating a wild boar, but luckily turned tail when it met him.

Another of the mahouts had a 6in scar on the top of his head, a legacy of the night when a tigress came into his hut; in 1984 a British ornithologist, David Hunt, was killed by a tiger when he left his vehicle to pursue some rare owl; a party of local people returning from dinner came across three leopards sitting on the main road outside the park.

In Africa, you can watch lions any day, because they live on the open plains. Tigers, being solitary denizens of the jungle and mainly nocturnal, are elusive and hard to spot. This makes them all the more exciting. Corbett offers tourists as good a chance as any of India's national parks, and its terrain is magnificent.

Named after the legendary hunter-naturalist Jim Corbett, who shot man-eating tigers and leopards here in the early years of this century, the reserve covers more than 500 square miles of densely forested Himalayan foothills. It was here that Project Tiger, India's last- ditch attempt to save its national animal from extinction, was launched in 1973, and today the carnivores are doing well. Together with its surrounding buffer zone, the park is thought to contain about 120 tigers and 35 leopards.

As a boy, I was riveted by the stories which Corbett told in his classic book, Man-Eaters of Kumaon; and when I saw the country in which he had operated, I felt the hair on my neck crawling. Here were the very nalas - steep-sided ravines-cum-river beds, dry in winter and choked with undergrowth - in which he had stalked his deadly prey. Here were the precipitous hillsides, with patches of tawny earth and rock showing through the trees, which he described so vividly.

Today you may not walk within the park since it is considered too dangerous. Outside, in what is known as the reserve forest, you may walk for miles - and good fun it is, for there are plenty of animals to be seen and an amazing variety of birds. Inside, you drive about in open Jeeps or ride on elephants.

A vehicle covers more ground, so in theory increases your chance of seeing game. On the other hand, it generally goes a bit too fast for comfort, and creates enough noise to drown the sounds of the forest - the bird, monkey and deer calls, which are a delight.

Elephants have a more limited range, but put you in much closer touch with the environment. Considering their size, they move with incredible delicacy: on sandy tracks, they make no sound; and even in cover they only rustle. The sharp, aromatic scent of crushed leaves rises all round as you trundle forward and - almost the best feature - other animals take no notice. One afternoon, a sambar deer, recognising that our elephant presented no threat, stood its ground so resolutely that our mahout had to manoeuvre round it, passing within five or six feet.

The best way to reach Corbett from New Delhi is by car, but roads vary from poor to diabolical, and the 200-mile journey takes six hours. Local accommodation varies from the primitive to the luxurious. Easily the most comfortable and stylish establishment is the new Tiger Tops Corbett Lodge, owned and run by a semi-retired businessman, Dilip Khatau, together with Rina, his Chinese wife.

A big man, relaxed and genial, Mr Khatau describes himself as 'a shipowner living in the hills'. Once a hunter who shot tigers and leopards in this area when licences were still issued, he made a fortune in textiles and shipping and now, at only 51, has more or less retired.

It was a spell of 13 years, spent working in Africa and visiting the game parks there, which fired his passion for conservation and made him determined to become involved with wildlife in India. In 1989, after a long search, he bought a site just outside the Corbett park, on the bank of the Kosi river, and created a splendid lodge, similar to the one at Voi, in Kenya, with a large central rotunda for meals and gatherings and bedrooms in wings running off it. The balconies have a tremendous view over garden and river to a knobbly ridge of hills climbing away in the distance. With its immaculate garden and swimming-pool, its own Jeeps and excellent naturalist guides, Tiger Tops is in a class of its own.

To spend an afternoon with Tapan Dutta, the chief naturalist, is an education in itself. Not only will he instantly identify any of the 580 species of birds you happen to see or hear, he will also regale you with spellbinding anecdotes culled from 20 years' experience in the park - as of the occasion on which he saw a 15ft python catch, encircle, crush to death and swallow whole a female chital (spotted deer) which must have weighed 80lb.

Tiger Tops' one drawback is that it lies outside the perimeter of the park, so all drives to the interior have to begin and end with a short run along the main road. For those who would rather start from the centre, basic accommodation is available at Dhikala, a camp with 100 beds in permanent buildings and huts. To my eye, Dhikala is rather suburban, and better options are the various former forest rest- houses dotted about the hills. We spent one magical night at Gairal, perched on a shelf above a bend of the rushing Ramganga river, with mountains towering all round. There was no electricity or hot water, but we had comfortable beds and a delicious dinner.

The excitement of being in the heart of the jungle, surrounded by animals, made it difficult to sleep: several times in the night, chital gave out their piping alarm calls, showing that a tiger was on the move close behind the buildings. After breakfast in the dark at 6am, we cruised through the jungle as the light came up - but still the big cats beat us.

Somehow I did not mind. We had seen wild elephants, deer, pigs, monkeys, gharials (fish-eating crocodiles), a bear, eagles, vultures, kingfishers, nightjars - and pug- marks a-plenty. Several times we had felt we were within seconds, or yards, of a tiger. As we drove away, I kept thinking of another tourist who, frustrated by his lack of luck, had written a sarcastic message in the visitors' book as he left. On his way out of the park the road was blocked by a tiger, which refused to move for a quarter of an hour, as if to teach him some manners.

FACTFILE

Getting there: Many airlines, including Air Canada and British Airways, have direct flights from Heathrow to New Delhi, from about pounds 450 return.

Corbett National Park is open from 15 November to 15 June. It is six hours by car north-east of New Delhi. It is not wise to hire a self-drive car. Better to arrange a car and driver who, for about pounds 50, will take you out, wait three or four days, and bring you back.

Where to stay: Accommodation at Tiger Tops Corbett Lodge, including full board, guides and Jeeps, costs about pounds 80 per person per night. Accommodation at Dhikala is about pounds 15 per person per night. Meals are extra.

In New Delhi, a good base is the Oberoi Maidens Hotel: old-fashioned but comfortable, with spacious garden and swimming-pool at 7 Sham Nath Marg, New Delhi 110054 (010 91 11 252 5464).

Further information: The local telephone system is erratic, so the easiest way to make bookings in India is through an efficient agent such as Mercury Travels, Riverbank House, Putney Bridge Approach, London SW6 3JD (071-371 9191; fax 071-731 2128). It is worth asking them to arrange for a car to meet you at New Delhi airport. Mercury can also offer advice on package tours to Corbett National Park.

The India Government Tourist Office is at 7 Cork Street, London W1X 1PB (071-437 3677).

(Photographs and map omitted)

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