We arrive at Kalagarh Forest Rest House at 1.30 pm. The very sight of the place cheers –typical British Bungalow, soothing exterior – Cream colour distemper washed walls, with green slanting tin roof. A large verandah invites you to sit and watch the panorama in front. I accept the invitation. Take a seat. I see, a large open area circles all around the Rest House. The uniqueness, here is a massive banyan tree. The aerial roots falling down from canopy all around have been weaved together to form about half a dozen, medium-size tree trunks, spaced out in the open area. Cemented circular platform has been made around the main stem. It is suitable place for meditation.
I take a small stroll around. I notice the name of the Rest House written large at top of the triangle made by the slanting roof. Also written is its year of birth – 1928! That is, the rest house is 90 year old exactly, almost as old as my father who dates 1927!
This is a typical two suits bungalow with a large hall in the centre. The entrance opens in to the hall. One can enter the rooms from the hall one on the left and another on the right. One door opens at the back, where there is a dining hall, large enough to seat a dozen guests.
I notice that a door from the dining hall lead to the back side where the kitchen is located separate from the bungalow. I notice real action happening there. Preparation of meal is in full steam.
Plenty of windows, high ceiling, large bathrooms – building so made that it is cool is summer and warm in winter.
Incidentally, we are in a large group, largely retired forester friends and family. Mrs Sunita Pant and Mr Suresh Pant, Mr Hira Singh Karmiyal, Mr Satish Chandra Upadhayay and his son’s family and of course, me and wife Sunita. Friends oblige me with one suite and another is given to Upadhayay ji’s son’s family. Rest of the gang use a place nearby for sleeping in the night while rest of the time we are together.
During my last 38 years of wildlifing, I have visited innumerable forest rest houses. The food is simplest and most common. Generally consists of yellow dal, one subji (lady finder or ghiya or aloo or mix) and chapati. Of course, papad is also severed. Onion and chilli is offered for salad. But nowhere, even in top hotels, you get such taste and satisfaction. Same is here in Kalagarh. I call this lavish as curd and burfi has been added. Banana and apple too are here. The result is I end up over eating.
Later in the night, after a refreshing visit to forest, we all gather in the hall. There are gossips, jokes, memories recounted. Local Range Officer, Mr Bhatt also joins.
Incidentally, Mr Bhatt has been our kind host. He has arranged thing. He spends half an hour with us. In between, taking note of our needs and ordering boys to manage. When he leaves, he particularly mentions, ‘Please do not roam around or let the children play outside the Rest House, as tiger or elephant may be around.’
Can it be that close? Is Mr Bhatt exaggerating? I know in forest, wildlife is bound to be there but to remain bound in as if the tiger is watching through the window or elephant is ready to knock the door, sounds odd.
I do go out in verandah and try to see in the darkness if some elephant or tiger can be spotted. I do not venture off the verandah. Doubt has been ingrained in my mind by Mr Bhatt. I just tell myself, ‘you never know.’
It’s pretty cold. I wrap myself in a blanket. It’s difficult to see in the dark but clearly much easy to hear. One Nightjar is calling at regular frequency and pitch. Yes, there is clear alarm call by a spotted deer. It instinctively excites – may be a tiger or leopard is there. The Ram Ganga River is flowing adjacent to the Rest House on the right, making sweet music.
In the morning, I wake up early and get ready by 7.45. Sunita too is ready in the next 20 minutes. I have been expecting, some of our friends who have gone to sleep in rooms in a nearby forest building, may need the suite. The need actually arise. There has been no water in the other building due to some malfunction. So our suite is made available to friends.
It’s chilly. Sunita and I enjoy hot tea. There is still time for all to get ready. Thus, breakfast has to be another hour later.
It’s sunny outside. There is no other building in the area except a small temple on the bank of the river across the road. It’s forest all around. We stroll around the rest house. I notice there is a kuccha road about 80 metre on the left of the rest house. We walk there. As is my habit in forest, I try to have a deeper look in front, right and then left. I look at the back also once in a while. Yes, I also look at the tell-tale signs below on the track. Oh!
I notice fresh pug mark (foot print) of a male tiger going away on the track. I carefully scan the track for another 20 odd yards and I realise, this is tigers’ highway. I see pug mark of a tigress also, coming from the opposite direction. There are number of clear foot prints and all apparently from few hours to few days old! Further down, I see elephant dung as well! A chill passes through my spine, so exciting.
Indeed, man and animal are equally at home in and around Kalagarh Forest Rest House. Also, Mr Bhatt has not been exaggerating.