Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Chris Watson

Chris Watson | 9th December 2011

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

The word jungle originates from the Sanskrit word jangala which referred to uncultivated land.

It’s late January and I’m standing in the shadow of the Himalayas (well just). The stubby edges of the nearest peaks are backlit blue/grey with only a suggestion of the sunlight and warmth to follow.

It’s 0520h and bitterly cold.

I stamp around in the grit by the edge of the track and record a few lines into my audio diary for a prospective radio programme, voice chattering as the icy stillness grips my jaw. Across the track, by a pair of impressively large wrought iron gates, twigs crackle as a cloaked and hooded figure conjures fire underneath an enormous blackened kettle and I slowly migrate over and hang around, like the Englishman I am, bereft of language and in anticipation of a brew.

The gates mark one of the entry points to Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand north east India and I am waiting outside with the sound recording group I am leading here over the next ten days. Our anticipation is to enter the park to record the sounds of sunrise, however there are two obstacles we first have to overcome.

1. The gates are chained together and secured by a massive padlock.
2. Our permits have to be examined and stamped by park officials and then we have to meet up with our required park guides.

Both obstacles are being negotiated but of course this all takes time and the glimmer of first light has now become an orange glow something which also marks a change in the soundscape whilst precious time elapses. However within moments of being passed an ancient enamel mug full of steaming masala and ginger chai from that kettle all frustrations disappear and I gaze serenely through the gates on the lookout for any wildlife.

Corbett is a large national park of more than 500 sq. Km and with a fabulous mosaic of rolling habitats; rivers, valleys, forests, marshlands and savannah. Corbett is also home to over 160 Bengal tigers an apex predator and one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring animals on the planet.

Bengal tigers, despite their size and sheer presence can be elusive and solitary animals however through
the gates as the grey gloom recedes I can see one, two, three, four, five tigers lined up by the trail into the forest. Unfortunately however these are all large stuffed toys being arranged outside the official National Park shop, but it’s a good start.

By 0730h with the sun now high over the forest canopy, the dawn chorus a distant memory, and with all conditions and administration complete we drive through the gates in our open top jeeps. Within a few kilometres we leave behind traffic noise, people and the built environment to enter the jungle. This jungle is Sal forest, tall straight trunks reaching 30m up to a dark green canopy of almond shaped leaves with only a few patterned gaps through which to see a clear blue sky. We stop, turn off the engine, and listen.

Moments and minutes pass, we listen, we listen and slowly, with the aid of Vrushal our guide, we start to tune into the sounds of this forest and it is a revelation. Chital, Spotted deer, call in alarm from far down the track, peacock displays rattle across a clearing, Red jungle fowl, the original chickens, crow
explosively nearby and overhead “hunting parties” as described by Vrushal which are mixed flocks of small finches pass noisily, poltergeist like, all around us.

We all sit transfixed and perched in the back of our jeep with Vrushal and Ritish our driver and camp owner in front. There is a dilemma. To travel further and see more of course we have to start the engine and drive which will break the spell of this jungle and deafens us to all the activity that is evidently all around. The forest floor is quite dark as the tree canopy high overhead screens out most sunlight and the dense growth of green Lantarna scrub fills the gaps between the Sal trunks and rolls right to the edge of the track. Our visibility is very restricted, we can see very little, but we can hear everything. So we just sit and listen with microphones and recorders poised, no one talks, langur monkeys call close by and slowly we start to really hear the voices of this forest. After just over an hour there is a distant sound that I guess we all intuitively know and after a respectful pause for those recording Vrushal turns and whispers just one word, “tiger”.

I wasn’t recording, however it’s now November and eleven months later I can still hear that sound held in my memory. My lesson over those ten days in the jungle was learning again to listen, to listen and to wait, and when I listen back now I can hear the quietness of the Sal forest and somewhere out there I can hear that tiger’s roar.

Chris Watson
Newcastle upon Tyne, November 2011