Author: Nishiraj A. Baruah
“Come on, get on the Gypsy,” Shashi Ranakoti, small in size, big on energy, tells our group of four and a quarter, the quarter being my 5 year old. “But who is driving?” wifey asks. “I, didi,” he says, much to our horror. How on earth will he drive!? We all turn to stare at his right leg. All bandaged up from ankle to the hip, it’s been a pain to see him limping and hopping like a sparrow on the one fine leg he is left with since morning. He quickly hops up and onto the driving seat. But our women would have none of it and protest. The orange sun is sinking beyond the wheat fields and it is getting dark. Just the right time for a night safari. But the wrong guy to brave the jungles with. “Ok then didi, let sir drive,” he says vacating the seat for me to take his place at the back of the military coloured Gypsy. So there I am driving through the dense jungles of Rajaji National Park with Shashi’s docile black Labrador to my left. This cannot get more adventurous.
We first meet Shashi in the afternoon at the Tourist Bungalow run by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam located at the Chilla Range, one of the three sanctuaries (the other two being Motichur and Rajaji) that make Rajaji National Park near Haridwar. Offering his panoramic card that has a scenic photograph of the Rajaji Park with its prime inhabitants, the elephants, in the backdrop, he quickly spells out his services: Safaris, picnics, rafting, angling, camping, tracking, and so on. But before that, he offers to provide us a free sample: A tour of his village. We do notice his broken leg, a result of a bike accident two days ago. “Drunk?” we ask. “Yes,” he admits. However, we assume that he would have his drivers to drive us around. Instead, he hops into my car and leads us to his village, a few kilometers away, and then onto his house where his wife, a sprightly Garhwali woman, offers us tea, almonds and biscuits.
It is a lovely village for sure, complete with cows, buffaloes, goats, vegetable gardens and acres and acres of wheat fields providing a soft landing for the giant orange setting sun. Our plan is to return to our resort to rest and do the safari next day. But Shashi insists on a night safari. “Don’t worry, it is free for you,” he says. We are suspicious about his ‘free’ packages. Is it genuine Garhwali hospitality of a local lad willing to show us his gaon? Or is the freebie a bait to buy his services??
It’s twilight and driving the rickety old Gypsy has not been easy. All you have in the name of roads are elephantine potholes, rocks and boulders strewn all around, steep climbs and a manual steering wheel that has a mind of its own. A slight turn of the wheel and the vehicle veers wildly. This, even as I wonder aloud what happens if we come face to face with a herd of elephants. “Just stop the car and don’t move,” he says casually. “Shouldn’t a gunner escort us during such safaris?” one of us asks. For an answer, Shashi tells me to stop the car.
I do, as he bends down to fetch a strange looking rusty triangular iron contraption from underneath the seat. It looks like a primitive murder weapon, and freaks us out. What the hell is that? Is he a psycho? Is he gonna bang the iron tool on one of our heads from the back? I get ready for preventive action as everyone gets tense and falls silent. He hops down the Gypsy, the rod firmly in his hand, and hops over (on one leg) to a boulder by the side of the road and starts beating the iron tool on it like a maniac. Sparks fly. What is he up to?
Dhoom! A loud blast numbs us, nearly throwing us off balance. My little one starts crying. “What the…!!” “Sir,” he tells me, “open the glove compartment, there will be goli (bullet) there.” I rummage through to feel for what may resemble a bullet but all that comes out on my fist is a round ball, the size of a marble, covered in aluminium foil. “Is it this?” I ask. Yes, he says as he slips it into a ‘holder’ in the iron contraption. It’s then that we understand. The sound is supposed to scare the elephants away. That’s his gun.
We drive on in silence, with only the chatter of birds flying back into their nests. How long do I have to drive? “Drive on, drive on,” he urges me. The guy is persuasive. It is an uncomfortable and tricky drive for sure and I am no longer enjoying it. It’s a monotonous trail and we have no idea where we are headed to. The dangers of the dark and the wild are all too real.
“Nish, follow your intuition. If you are not feeling like going on, return,” warns my wife. Even my kiddo, a bundle of energy, senses our nervousness and falls silent. “Mamma, it’s dark, it’s dark,” she complains, the jolts rattling our bones like nails in a tin can. We do about 7-10 km, wild animals yet to make their appearance, when we see another Gypsy loaded with a family returning from the opposite direction. It’s my cue to return. Yes, they have seen lots of elephants, but it’s better we return. “Yaar Shashi, chalo lets go back,” I tell him. He seems disappointed, but gives in as we follow the other Gypsy now, relived that our ordeal is over.
But wait, there comes a point where the Gypsy suddenly stops in the middle of a steep climb, leaving us all precariously perched on an incline. The handbrake isn’t working and I keep the vehicle in gear to stop it from sliding down. I try several times to reeve up the engine and accelerate upwards, but the Gypsy, like a stubborn bull, simply refuses to wheel up. The entire group is tense. The Gypsy in front stops concerned. So our one-legged wonder hops down, orders me to vacate the seat, and expertly take us up and onto our resort. He says bye to us, his face contoured in pain, his legs obviously hurting after the long drive, but promising to take us on a picnic next day. “I’ve already ordered junglee chicken and booze,” he says as a partying bait.
This leaves our group with a sense of panic again. We have had enough of this guy and we don’t want him hanging around with us again. How to get rid of him? Let’s tackle it when it comes, as we settle down for a hearty dinner. Just when I am dipping my spoon in a bowl of ice cream, we hear a cry, “Elephants! Elephants!” We all rush out to find a herd of 11 elephants including two babies, standing quietly on the road. Wow, just think about it: What we went looking for earlier in the day and failed to find in the wilderness have now come visiting right at our doorstep!
This is getting exciting as we all get ready for much-deserved sleep in the comfortable cozy mud cottage. Tomorrow, we go picnicking with packed food from the resort, take dips in the tranquil blue waters of the Ganges and eat and drink at our own leisure. Let Shashi mind his own business.
The next morning, over bed tea, we hear a voice at our door. “Sir, good morning. Didi, good morning!” We look at each other. It’s Shashi! What would be our excuse to avoid him? I go out, wish him good morning and say that our picnic plan will have to be cancelled as my kido is not too well. “Oh,” he sighs, slumping down on a chair. “I have organised everything – utensils to cook and a cook as well,” he says. Well, thanks, I say, and sorry, and then pay him Rs 2000 for the adventure he took us for. He says the money is not required – it is his pleasure to show us around – but accepts. But not before throwing a googly: “Do you have some vodka left in the bottle?” I raise my eyebrows, but walk inside the hut to get him a half empty Smirnoff. He gulps it down in half a minute as if it is water, hops off on one leg, hoping to see us again.
There are 23 species of mammals in Rajaji National Park including tigers, leopards, deer, bear, wild boar, python and monitor lizard, and 315 species of bird including pea fowl, woodpeckers, kingfishers and barbets. Except for the elephants, we spot none. But never mind, Shashi has been the biggest ‘spotting’ of all.