#tripping: Raw encounters at Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary

Jim Corbett National Park has always been a favourite getaway for both wildlife enthusiasts and weekend revelers. India’s oldest national park in the foothills of the Himalayas is a protected area for the Bengal Tiger, and its proximity to Delhi makes access quite easy. Add to it a sprinkling of luxury resorts in the periphery of the National Park and you find half of Delhi holidaying there on an extended weekend.

There is however, another side of the Corbett Tiger Reserve that is not as popular amongst tourists, but high on priority for true enthusiasts. The Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary is situated north of the Sonanadi river in the forest division of Kalagarh, and the 300 sq. km. forest area is a natural habitat for wild animals and birds, with an enviable variety of flora and flora. This zone is commonly known as North Corbett, and together with Jim Corbett National Park comprises the Corbett Tiger Reserve.

Sonanadi Range can be accessed from Vatanvasa, Kalagarh and Durga Devi gates. Vatanvasa is the main entry point, which is about 40 km from Kotdwar and can be reached via Dugadda. Although the sanctuary has Forest Rest Houses at Halduparao, Lohachaur and Rithuadhab that offer basic accommodation at affordable rates, there are a few alternate experiences worth exploring.

Vanvasa Resort is one such place. About 35 kms away from Vatanvasa gate, it is located at a hilltop at Juee village in Lansdowne division. Getting there is tough, and the resort is literally cut off from the rest of the world. If you approach from Lansdowne, the 65 km drive takes close to three hours. It’s a beautiful drive through narrow and winding mountain roads, but the last 15 kms are rough. The final 3 km uphill drive to the resort is treacherous, and can be a challenge both for the vehicle and your driving skills.

The resort however, is a peaceful little world in itself in the middle of nowhere. Spread over 30 acres it has 20 villas, suites and cottages that offer utmost privacy. Spacious and comfortable with wooden interiors, a fireplace, dressing rooms & private balconies in the front & back, they offer sweeping valley views all around. The resort offers excellent F&B options, has a well-maintained swimming pool, several sit out areas and a machan. A spa is coming up soon. There are nature trails and jogging tracks, recreational gaming areas and vantage points to view the spectacular sunrise and sunset. The sight of the setting sun against the backdrop of Kalagarh Dam at a distance is particularly breathtaking.

The resort is the only property in the entire hill and is still under development with new facilities being added. Barring a few villages in the lower regions there is nothing in the vicinity of about 30 kms. The approach road of 3 kms is carved out on the hill just to reach the property. Water is sourced from an adjoining natural mountain spring by laying 5 kms of pipes; and essential supplies arrive every alternate day from Kotdwar which is 70 kms away. Operations are most definitely a challenge, but the courteous and helpful staff more than makes up for minor shortcomings.

While staying at the resort may not provide the true wilderness experience of a forest lodge, it does score high on comfort and adds a dose of serenity and calm to the adventure. Vanvasa has a unique location and an impressive landscape, which sets it apart from other resorts around Jim Corbett National Park.

The jeep safari to Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary can be booked through the resort. Ideally, a booking should be made in advance, at the time of making reservations. It is advisable to start by 5 am in the morning as it takes about an hour and a half to reach the sanctuary gate. Vanvasa arranges for a packed breakfast with provisions for hot & cold beverages, which can be prepared and served at the Halduparao Rest House inside the sanctuary.

Sightings along the way include the spotted deer, jungle fowls, peacocks, langoors and monitor lizards. The safari inside the sanctuary takes about 3 to 4 hours in the ever-faithful Maruti Gypsy, which performs with incredible chutzpah, roaring through rocky terrain and water bodies without a care.

The Sonanadi Range is a bird-watcher’s paradise with over 550 varieties of birds living in their natural habitat. The sanctuary is famous for the Asiatic elephant, Bengal tiger, leopard, sambhar and a large number of reptiles. Medicinal plants and rare varieties of herbs also grow abundantly in the forest, and the drive through the dense sal, sheesham and bamboo forests along the Palani and Mandal river is quite an experience.

Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary has a healthy tiger population and is unique in more ways than one. It is raw and undisturbed. Even though the range appears desolate at times, the forest holds many surprises that lie in its fold, waiting to be discovered. Go with the intention of exploring new terrains and discovering new destinations. If you expect heavy sightings, you may be disappointed. But if you wish to switch off from the rest of the world and go looking for some peace and calm, you would be delighted.

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