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The Three Trumpeteers

As Pankaj and I sat drinking tea at the small restaurant in Dhikala, at the western extremities of Corbett National Park, we waited for the guide who had asked us to give him a ride back to Gairal, the Forest Rest House we were staying at. Gairal was located at the opposite end of the park and was a good one hour’s drive across exciting jungle and river beds. Just how exciting it could get, we were soon to find out.

It was summer time and the sun set everyday at around 7 pm. It was soon approaching quarter past six and there still was no sign of the guide. When it got to half past six, we decided it was a futile wait and we had to try getting back before it got dark. Driving in the dark is prohibited. Especially with your vehicle headlights on. Being absolute animal lovers we wanted to try and ensure we did not end up disturbing them. We were quite upset with the guide as it had definitely delayed us beyond the time we had set for us to start from Dhikala.
The first half of the journey was as interesting as always but then the darkness started setting in. It had been around ten minutes since the sun had set over the hills of Kumaon. Twilight slowly faded into different shades of darkness. From pitch black in the shadows to a silvery dance of creatures in the light of the full moon. We could feel the tension beginning to take over the nerves as we drove on, guided only by the lights from the heavens above. Soon we had crossed Sarapduli and came down to the river bed just after it. As we rolled slowly over the stones and pebbles, a huge tree to the left of the path caught my eye. Maybe it was just the immensity of it’s size accentuated by it’s shadow in the moonlight that made it so conspicuous.
At that moment, I didn’t know that Pankaj had noticed it too. He had become silent after I had said,"This is not good Pankaj, not good at all.". Just as I was about to revert my attention away from the tree and back to the path, I was sure I caught some movement in the tree’s shadow. It had appeared like a shiny white ghost for a second and then disappeared. My thoughts were confirmed by an immediate, "Did you see that ?" from Pankaj. By now we were only around 15 feet from the tree and closing in rapidly when we saw the white ghost appear again. Only this time there were two off them backed up by tons of raw power. It was one of the biggest tuskers I had ever seen. I had to almost stoop down in my seat to see above his knees. I’m quite sure he wasn’t very pleased to see us because he let go of this bellowing trumpet about a foot from Pankaj’s left ear. I still wonder what he must have felt like because I, who was on the far end of the car, felt as if my brains were going to fly out of my right ear. Luckily, since my brains thought they were lying around outside the car, my motor nerves took over and reflex made me shift down a gear and floor the pedal to the metal. I looked back only to be horrified by this monster chasing after us. Now I knew exactly the feeling Spielberg was trying to get across during the dinosaur chase in Jurassic Park. Luckily there was a climb up onto the hill ahead and the tormentor, or maybe the tormented, decided it was not worth the effort expending all that energy. Thank heavens because anyway I felt as if my heart was going to smash it’s way out of my chest and through the windscreen. We drove on a little faster. Still trying our best to keep within the park speed limitations. Still no lights.
Soon we reached a fork in the road. Left one was a short cut via Crocodile pool. Bad road. Right one was a metalled road for another few kilometers before turning left into the jungle too. We went right. Mistake. I think. It was all silent and quite brightly lit by the moonlight as long as we were on the main road but as soon as we turned left the horror of our mistake dawned on us. Firstly this route was much longer and secondly from here on it went into the middle of this thick tree cover unlike on the other route which was more along the edge and quite well lit by the moonlight. Anyway, it was too late to do anything about it except wanting to kick ourselves. So we drove into the inky blackness of a true jungle night. The progress now was very slow as even after our eyes adjusted as much as they could to the darkness, it was extremely difficult to see which way the path went. I still didn’t want to use my lights. Then came this absolutely black patch where neither of us could make out where the path went. So to avoid going off the path and ensuring there were no animals on it, I flashed the lights for a second or so. They say that animals get dazed by sudden bright light but that night I think it was our peering eyes that were shocked by the sudden burst of brightness. In a few seconds we were again on a straight stretch. Our eyes beginning the process of adjusting all over again. The path was quite visible again and we picked up a little more speed. We knew we were now only a few bends away from the riverbed overlooking which the Gairal Forest rest house sat perched.
As we rounded the last bend leading onto a long straight stretch through the trees, I flashed the lights once more. In that fraction of a second, my foot hit the brakes and the car was in reverse going back through the bend we’d just taken. Pankaj was in total shock and confusion. "What happened ?!" he asked. I thought in that fraction of a second of light I had seen another tusker on the path some hundred yards ahead. I stopped the car once we were around the bend and a little further back. My plan was to wait there a while and since I thought I had seen the elephant panic too,hurriedly getting off the road, I assumed he would move away soon. Hopefully not in our direction. I think Pankaj initially thought I was nuts but once he surveyed the steep slope behind us with no space to turn the car around, he gritted his teeth and left fate in the hands of this mad man. After what seemed like hours but was probably just a couple of minutes, I inched the car around the bend once more and flashed the lights again. Nothing ! Phew !! As we rolled closer to the spot where I thought I’d seen the elephant, we saw a tree to the right which amazingly resembled the front profile of a tusker. I stopped the car for a couple of seconds trying to decide whether this motionless monster had tricked me in the moonlight. We decided it must have been a figment of my imagination thanks to the very recent encounter with the tusker near Sarapduli. So after getting a rap on the back of my head from Pankaj and in a much lighter mood I eased the car down onto the last river bed before our final destination.
Ah... there were the lights of the rest house. I could already sense the feeling of sitting in the balcony of our loghut preparing some nice hot soup and food. All this excitement had me famished. So I pressed on the accelerator a bit more and flashed the lights to see where the path forked. The left one coming down from crocodile pool, the one I wish we’d taken and the right one going up to our rest house. By now we were totally clear of the trees and on to the open river bed. The very next second, suddenly all the huge boulders and large rocks seem to come alive. I could hear Pankaj shouting into my left ear,"Mohit !!!There are two of them coming for us from this side !!". Almost simultaneously I heard those two trumpeting. Just as I was about to turn to look in their direction, I heard about three more go off to my right. All of them were a little ahead on either side. So stepping on the brakes once more, while I was in the process of shifting the gear to reverse, I glanced into the side view mirror since the rear windscreen was covered by an impenetrable layer of dust and grime. Back into first !! All lights on !!! Behind us and bearing down very fast was the tusker I had actually seen. If he was a figment of my imagination, well he was a very frightening one right now. Glowing red in the brake lights and swaying his head from side to side, he let out a scream I’m surprised didn’t shatter all the glass in the car. I looked straight and saw the path forked around fifty yards ahead. Step on it! Got past the line-up on either side of the path looking like a head to head scrum out of an All Blacks Vs All Blacks rugby match. Get ready to spin that wheel to the right. The fork’s coming up double fast !! Here it comes !!! DON’T turn that wheel !! Look ahead!! Elephants on either side of the path. Path clear !! Go through !! There were around fifteen elephants standing on the path leading up to Gairal !! Flew over the crests and dips of the river bed. Neither of us can remember the car touching the water in those dips that night. Then came the extremely steep, twisty and rocky climb up to crocodile pool. I didn’t bother looking back. Amazingly made it up that slope in third gear where I’d had to shift into first that very morning. Through the forest, nerves slowly calming down, temples stopped throbbing a bit, hearts finding their way back into their respective chest cavities.
We soon came upto the same main road we’d been down just half an hour ago. Turn left or turn right ?! Turn left suggests Pankaj. Let’s go to the main gate. No ! Too far with too many river beds to cross. Turn right. On to Sarapduli. Every river bed increased our heart rate to atleast double. Specially where we’d met our first musical friend. Then after what seemed a lifetime, we were at the Sarapduli Forest Rest House. Only when I got out of the car on stopping did I realise how much tension the body had endured. My legs felt like they were made of wood. My hands although not shaking, would definitely not have won me even any local photography contest. Then came the explaining to the rest house care-taker that we weren’t purposely driving around in the dark. Was he blind !! Did we look like we wanted to drive around in the dark. We understood why Mr. Khan was so upset but luckily managed to convince him that we ourselves were totally against night driving in the park. We explained the circumstances leading up to this predicament. I guess he realised we were genuine guys who respected the laws of the park. He then kindly gave us his room to sleep in and offered us some water. We washed down a couple of plain slices of bread, we’d luckily picked up at Dhikala, with this water and hit the sack. I have a faint recollection of Mr. Khan waking us up a little later to tell us that from the direction of some animal calls he’d heard outside, a tiger might cross the courtyard behind the rest house. On any other night we would have been up in flash and glued to the window for as long as it took to see the most beautiful animal roaming any jungle but tonight on what I think was the most exciting night of our lives, we took a pass.
We later on got to know from the guide at Gairal that the herd of elephants had been in an unusually aggressive mood that night because one of their babies had been attacked by a tiger just an hour or so before we’d landed up in the middle of them. Anyway, it was definitely the most amazing night of our lives. That was till the next night!! By Mohit Midha


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