Tiger is giving us dodge,' says wildlife guide Hem Bahuguna, calling a halt near some telltale paw prints and scrapings. As the engine cools, then stills, we hear only the birds, the soft breeze and the distant chattering of monkeys. From time to time another jeep driver materialises, stopping to exchange a few words. Otherwise, here in India, the most crowded of nations, there is perfect peace.
Corbett National Park is India's first, perhaps finest, tiger reserve and is buffered by surrounding tracts of country. You can spend days chasing tigers or cast a line to tempt the golden mahseer. The Ramganga reservoir provides year-round water for the animals and spawning grounds for the golden mahseer, which migrates upstream.
Gharial, the snouted crocodile, co-exist alongside the mugger crocodile and the otter. Sambar, chital or spotted deer and the solitary muntjac or barking deer are all easily spotted, especially in the grasslands. The less visible wild boar, sloth bear and tiger all record their passing with spoor - paw prints and droppings.
Panthers, although endangered, are sighted in the hill country - but, Bahuguna admits gloomily, Indian authorities have recently confiscated quantities of contraband skins.
Macaques or rhesus monkeys, and the larger langurs, enliven otherwise still forests where at least 500 of India's 1,300 known bird species also reside.
Bahuguna has set up a pre-dawn rendezvous at Amdanda Gate, outside the town of Ramnagar. By noon we have jolted across innumerable gravel riverbeds, wound up into the dappled shade of sal forest and back down again, and climbed a watchtower on the edge of a broad river valley. We have examined the bark torn and chewed by elephants, noting the bushes trampled by these huge and demanding creatures. Tiger paw prints and droppings beside the track indicate the age and health of the animal.
Tigers often prove elusive, but park director Rajiv Bhartari says this is no cause for concern. At Corbett, an estimated 143 tigers range across 1,218 sq km of rugged terrain. This population density is considerably lower, and therefore healthier, than at some of the better-known reserves in western India.
Scientists are conducting a tiger census, and the numbers appear well above expectations.
Jim Corbett, author of the best-selling Man-Eaters of Kumaon, became a popular figure in the Himalayan hill country before the second world war and Indian independence. The British hunter tracked down and killed 50 man-eating tigers and more than 250 leopards which had terrorised local villagers, but believed that a taste for human flesh was developed only by ageing or wounded tigers. His concern for the tigers' survival led to what would grow to become today's Corbett National Park: the starting point in 1973 for the groundbreaking Project Tiger.
The hill people of Kumaon remember Corbett not only by the reservations which bear his name, but for his dedication to the welfare of his tenant farmers for whom he created a model village at Kaladhungi. Choti Haldwani, Corbett's bungalow where the lifelong bachelor lived with his sister Maggie, has been preserved as a museum, while a walking trail meanders through the mustard seed and sugar canefields of his former estate.
One last chance to spot the elusive tiger? Three walkers step off the road into the silent forest, following a foot track along a spur and down into the valley of the Ramganga.
We glimpse a sambar deer, more timid than the chital; the canine bark of the barking deer reaches us from a bend ahead. Porcupines and wild boar have dug up the ground in many places. Tiger scat, examined by expert eyes, reveals fur and crushed bones from its last kill: that is as close as I'll come to a face-to-face encounter with the king of the forests.
Tiger hunting has ceased, but the king of 'Indian sport fish' still draws anglers from around the world. Esteemed by sportsmen since the 19th century, the yellowfin or golden mahseer is abundant here as catches are released.
At a once-abandoned hamlet on the river flat, ecologist Sumantha Ghosh, in partnership with local communities and tour operator Wild World India, has established Vanghat River Lodge, a wilderness and fishing lodge just outside the reserve.
Vanghat trains and employs young villagers as housekeeping staff and gillies. Poaching and dynamite fishing have virtually ceased, and catch sizes are rising noticeably. The hamlets and their garden beds are shielded by solar-powered electric fencing, for protection from predatory leopards, browsing elephants - and the occasional tiger.
Vanghat's stone and mud-brick cottages have been fitted with comfortable beds and en-suite bathrooms: far more welcoming than India's scruffy government resthouses. Drinks are offered around the campfire before dinner is served.
Barry Abbott, a retired Briton who has fished all over the world, is very pleased with his first day's tally: a 7kg mahseer, with an 11kg fish slipping off the hook. My own catch is considerably less impressive, but the intangible rewards include a glimpse of two very large otters slithering across the river-worn pebbles.
Corbett National Park is six hours drive east of Delhi. Overnight trains also serve Ramnagar, which offers a range of accommodation including the comfortable but bizarrely designed Country Inn Tree Tops, one of many hotels along the Ranikhet road.
Corbett Museum is 32km from Ramnagar on the road to Nainital.
For Vanghat River Lodge, go to wildworldindia.com or call +91 (0) 97192 43939.
Cathay Pacific operates daily non-stop services to Delhi. All visitors to India require a visa, usually valid for six months. Foreign currency exceeding US$1,000 is supposed to be declared on arrival. Be sure to re-convert rupees before leaving India. Anyone suffering respiratory ailments should be aware that many Indian cities are highly polluted.
More information: Lonely Planet's encyclopaedic India guide.
Uttarakhand Tourism: gov.ua.nic.in/uttaranchaltourism/corbett.html and the state-owned tourism company Kumaon Mandal Vigas Nigam Ltd at kmvn.org