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The misty forests of Oudh: Dudhwa National Park

nilanjanray619083001494076229
Nilanjan Ray May 7, 20173 Responses

Grasslands, swamps and haunting sal forests. Barasinghas, Indian rhinos and huge tigers. Mentioned in the Ramayanas. The setting for some iconic photos by Frederick Walter Champion, the pioneer of wildlife photography in India, and an inspiration for Jim Corbett taking up a camera.

 

Dudhwa is a less visited but beautiful national park located in the Terai region of Uttar Pradesh, and is contiguous to Royal Bardia National Park in Nepal. Originally established in 1958 as a wildlife sanctuary for swamp deer, Dudhwa became a national park in 1977, mainly due to conservation and evangelism efforts of Billy Arjan Singh. Dudhwa Tiger Reserve was formed in 1987, and is home to 38 species of mammals, 400+ species of birds and 16 species of reptiles.

The sun rises through the mist. Shot from the forest rest house. 
Sunset behind a stalk of Kans grass. Shot during a forest walk. 

 

Dudhwa had been on my ‘to visit’ list for a while. I often do roadtrips across India (usually to various tiger reserves or to the Himalayas), and always thought that someday I would drive down from Bangalore and experience Dudhwa as an appetizer, while Corbett would be the main course. But this time when I got a chance to visit the park with a few friends, I jumped at the opportunity even though it meant flying down to Lucknow and then hiring a vehicle. While I kept my hopes in check regarding mammal sightings (wrong time of the year), I was looking forward to the mist, dew and soft November light that I could expect to encounter.

 

It was an interesting cab ride to Dudhwa, via Sitapur – Lakhimpur – Palia Kalan, braving the crazy UP roads at the mercy of a wannabe Lewis Hamilton. The first few days were spent at a tourist complex right beside the forest entry gate. One evening around 8 pm there were frantic alarm calls of cheetal and langur. Seemed a big cat - a regular visitor, as I later came to know - was afoot. I went near the fence, and waited for a while. But that large male tiger didn’t seem to care for my company. Two days later, a couple of other guests were taking an evening walk in the same area. They happened to shine the torch outside the fence, and were greeted by the glaring eyes of that same tiger. Oh well. Cést la vie. 

 

The sun rises through the forest canopy
Marsh harrier looking for prey  over the grasslands
Indian rhino
Trainline passing through Dudhwa. Speed limit is 30kmph to minimize animal crossing accidents

After a few safaris, we got permission to stay inside the forest and shifted to a forest rest house 13 km inside the park. The FRH was surrounded by grassland. The mornings were misty, with dew shining on every grass blade. The sun took its time to rise, and for the first couple of hours in the morning, the light was quite magical. The evenings were a bit chilly, especially in an open top safari vehicle after sunset. After the afternoon safari, my friends would usually go to the warm and inviting dining room, and work on their photos over hot tea and pakoda. I would head to the FRH terrace, and enjoy the dusk and darkness alone. Deers would start giving their warning calls. The grassland would get covered by the rising mist, and leopards would start calling (the forest guards told us that there were 8 leopards around the forest rest house). Fireflies would be twinkling all around.  The Milky Way would be out after 7 pm. The cold breeze would make my hands and nose numb, and then I would call it a day and go down. A quick dinner. Then a crackling campfire till it was time to hit the bed.  

Gateway to light
A semi-tame rabbit on the lawns of the forest rest house
Sunrise behind a stalk of grass
Deerscape, early morning
Nature's Swarovski

One evening, on our way back to the forest rest house, we narrowly missed an encounter with a wild male tusker. The forest trail was lit up by the Gypsy headlights. Visibility was limited, since mist was swirling everywhere. And then we saw the fresh footprints of a big elephant on the narrow track, flanked by 12 feet tall elephant grass on both sides, which meant lateral visibility was limited and that there was no quick way to turn the vehicle. The forest guide told us that the elephant had been on the road a few minutes back, and we needed to be very careful, since that particular pachyderm was a cranky one. So we ended up driving at a snail’s pace through the mist, with our hearts in the mouth at every blind curve. Fortunately, the elephant didn’t appear to say hello. And unfortunately, we didn’t encounter any big cat out for its evening hunt.

 

In the end, this short trip was not about wildlife photography, like my usual trips, but more about experiencing the forest with all my senses. I plan to be back in Dudhwa soon, when the tall grass has been burnt, and when there is a higher chance of encountering the huge Dudhwa tigers. Perhaps I will do that long drive from Bangalore and club the Dudhwa trip with Corbett and Pangot.

 

Butterflies were all around
Morning dew on a stalk of grass. Monochrome shot. 
Safari. Imagine more mist, taller grasses, and 20 feet visibility, when we escaped the elephant.
Pattern. Warm sunlight shining on the ribs of an old and gaunt rhino
Dawn in the forest
Giant wood spider waiting for Little Miss Muffet. 
Pastel sunset over the wooden pillar of a small forest bridge
Watery sunrise over the grasslands. Shot while keeping an eye out for leopards and elephants. 
  • Varun
    Varun Chawla

    Beautiful pictures. I particularly like the ones with the rhino and the pastel sunset.

  • nilanjanray619083001494076229
    Nilanjan Ray

    Thanks Varun. I like the early morning sunrise photos, because I can still remember the cold breeze, the bird and animal calls, the dew making me wet as I was walked through tall grass for certain compositions, and the watery sun rising through the mist.   

  • Chethakmp973701001497691024
    Chethak MP

    Amazing pictures!