The evening was so silent that I could hear my heart slamming hard against my rib-cage. I was sure the animal that was a few metres away could hear it too. I was sitting on the open first floor terrace of the café in Jim’s Jungle Resort, at the very edge of the 16 acre property. There was nobody else around. At least, not within shouting distance. For at least half an hour, I had the sensation of being all alone on planet earth, and I was revelling in it, until I heard the soft pad on the dried leaves near the water hole just outside the perimeter of the resort.
Dhela, where the resort is located, is at the south-eastern edge of the Jim Corbett National Park, along with just two more resorts. Dhela is at the end of an east-west road that snakes along a series of small villages chiefly notable for mango orchards: this is the prized langda belt of the region. The older resorts, numbering a dozen at the last count, with sprawling water-guzzling gardens and conference halls, are north of it, and are opposite Corbett Park gates named Bijrani, Amdanda and Dhikuli. To each his own, needless to say, and whether you prefer wilderness as Nature intended it to be, or a more diluted attenuation, will determine which area you will gravitate to. After several holidays amid well-manicured lawns, rubbing shoulders with Delhi’s chattering classes, I was ready for a headlong plunge into a zone with no TVs in the guest rooms and no manicured lawns.
Jim’s Jungle Retreat is one with the surrounding forest: the flora was planted before the lodges and cottages were constructed, and has the identical species of trees and grasses that grow inside the park. “No lawns here, thankfully” was my very first reaction: you walk on the identical terrain to the one inside the forest, a short distance away.
When you visit a wildlife lodge, chances are that you are there for the wildlife and the wilderness. You can go for a walk inside the forest: not as foolhardy as it sounds: there are a mere 235 reported tigers in a sanctuary of 1000 square kilometres, and they’re nocturnal plus notoriously unsocial animals, who don’t seek any kind of company, not even their own kind. Plus, the resort’s naturalist, Balan, is an excellent companion, who gives you a perspective of wilderness per se, and not only the big cat in isolation. “We keep being asked when we are going to show them a tiger,” he mutters bemusedly, “as if it is a wind-up toy that can be ordered around. Why don’t they visit a zoo, if all they want to see is a tiger.” You can also book a jeep safari that lasts about four hours. It is necessary to book at least a month in advance, because only a certain number of vehicles are allowed per day, so as to maintain the sanctity of the forest.
Chaur or open grassland, river banks, sal forests, hillsides: all these go to make up the 1000 kilometre terrain. Birds, bees, insects, butterflies, otters, termites, reptiles, animals, predators, prey – all live in a supremely symbiotic existence. Your wildlife experience will be made – or not – by the naturalist who accompanies you. If he manages to reveal the grand plan of the forest to you in four hours, you should consider yourself lucky. Jim’s Jungle Retreat is fortunate to be headed by a remarkable lady who has worked in wildlife resorts in Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand for her entire working life. Rati Karwal can spot a diminutive crimson sunbird 100 metres away, order a delicious lunch for a guest with special dietary needs and recall the names and peccadilloes of some of the tigers in the adjoining forest simultaneously, and seemingly without any effort.
Food and water are the primary preoccupations of animals in the wild (as, of course, us humans, on a slightly different scale) and the water-hole that lies outside the periphery of Jim’s Jungle Retreat is a magnet for animals especially at night. I discovered on my second morning in the resort that it was no less than a family of deer that I could hear but not see in the darkness. Balan the naturalist was amused that I was frightened. He told me that they would probably have been far more frightened of me, in case I should turn out to be a predator. That was a sobering thought.
I stayed in a lodge rather than a cottage: the former are more spacious and are built on the first floor, as if it were on stilts: the ground floor is open; there are no pressures on real estate here. There was a deep verandah on two sides, with ceiling fans and armchairs to sink into. Inside, the décor was a contemporary re-imagination of the end of the Raj, when Corbett Sahib was alive. The varnished wooden beading that runs along the walls accurately replicate electrical wiring, in the days before concealed wiring became the norm. For a resort whose outward appearance is somewhat austere, the interiors are warm and welcoming, with earth-coloured dhurries, chintz bedspreads and squashy sofas on polished wooden floors.
It is a different aesthetic in the villa-sized, glass-walled building called the Café. Natural light spills in, nature’s colours form an effective backdrop to overstuffed sofas with Cotswold countryside prints. Like the dining area that has no walls, the Café is an area where guests can mingle – or keep to themselves – once the day is done. The spa, the only other public building, also contains a library of books to read within the resort. There are few things that can relax you more than a neck and head massage or a foot pressure point therapy after a day walking on the rocks of the riverbed.
The food – the mainstay of a resort of this kind – is the best part of Jim’s Jungle Retreat. I wanted to have vegetarian meals, with a Kumaoni sensibility wherever possible, and that is what my family and I were served. Vegetables that had been grown on the resort on in neighbouring villages, largely without the aid of pesticides tasted visibly more delicious than their city counterparts, as did lentils. Tasty, simple, unfussy, fresh food adds to your well-being immediately. Our fellow guests had ordered western meals: they too seemed to be delighted. There are half a dozen venues for meals around the resort, as well as a few places you can choose to have a civilized afternoon tea served, complete with a pound cake and dainty sandwiches.
The genius behind Jim’s Jungle Retreat lives in a city but tries to squeeze in a few days in Dhela whenever he is in need of the peace that only the wilderness can bring. Daleep Singh Akoi gave up a high-tension job in the media world in New York, surely the very opposite of the silence of the forests around Dhela. It is his vision that has resulted in a scant dozen cottages dotting 16 acres; his dream to have modern jungle living with touches of the Raj; thatch roofs with a swimming pool. Meeting Akoi at Jim’s Jungle Retreat is akin to finding the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle to form the complete picture of a most remarkable resort.