The Indian one-horned Rhinoceros. Resident of Kaziranga, Assam. So went the textbooks. A mental note. Something that keeps turning up at various times; documentaries – BBC and otherwise. Thus born the desire. One place for the bucket list.
Tripadvisor finds a place which seems alright. A mail sent and responded to. Reviews seem good. A booking done – for a solo trip. First time after 5 years. The last one Vancouver, Canada – a drive across the border to present a paper.
The date arrives more than a month later. November the 27th. The camera packed, the birding lens procured from the US added to the mix. Two days’ worth of clothes, one backpack in all. Airport. Gauhati. ISBT, Gauhati. A quick AC bus to Jorhat. To get down at Diring. Kohora is where I end up where the resort owner is on some work and picks me up.
The tent with attached bathroom. One cup chai. Tomorrow will you do elephant safari, he asks. Not too sure I want to trouble an elephant. He convinces me to do it, but we agree to do the Eastern Range the next day morning. Jeep at 7 AM, breakfast will be packed he says. Won’t it be wrong to eat in the forest? Won’t it attract animals? It’s OK he says.
Calls made to assure people of safe reaching. Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for company. Cold evening. Dinner at the table. Three in the next. The youngest surprised. Why would one travel alone, he wonders. Sleep eludes. Cold place, no fan noise. A woolen blanket and a razai. At 4 AM, the zip of the tent is opened and a man stands there. I scream “Kaun hai?” He keeps talking, but closes and goes.
7:00 AM. I stand ready with camera and 2 lenses. A dog walks around followed by her 6 pups, around a month old. One of them a biter. Holds onto my jeans. I lift him up by his teeth. He lets go, but tries to find another hold. A few minutes of play. The driver arrives – Ali. He’s to be the one driving me around. The breakfast comes packed and a boy is sent with me to serve. A guard picked up along the way. Four of us. Guard and driver in front. Me and the boy standing in the back.
Spotted eagle, Alexander Parakeet we see as we start off. A lake on the right with islands and birds. Ali names the species – Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Adjutant stork, cormorants. I spot a darter and a grey heron. Buffaloes and swamp deer sunning themselves. More birds seen. I have breakfast near a watchtower. Water birds fly in and out – bar headed geese, Pelicans, Asian openbills. A faraway Rhino. Boiled eggs and sandwiches. And an apple. I eat them all. The hunger taken care of.
We drive along. A dead elephant on the left. “Bimaar thi” says Ali. Apparently a Government elephant. The Himalayas in the distance – snow-capped peaks. More birds. We turn back after a while when the path ends. A tusker seen on the way and an eagle. Ali seems happy with the sightings as we head back. I can’t complain. The birding was good. “Fifty rupees” he whispers to me; I tip the guard who parts with a smile.
Back to the tent. Central Range in the evening, announces the owner. Can you join the other 3? We can use one jeep that way, he asks. The cost will be cut in half, he also promises. He asks the other 3 travelers and they say OK. We talk while waiting to start. 3 cousins – 2 guys and one girl. Reminds me of an older time. I ask the driver – was it you who opened the tent in the morning? Yes, he grins, was looking for someone else. Ha!
Central range. Faraway Rhinos. Faraway elephants and buffalos. We continue along. Stopping for Mulkoha birds, an Eagle and at a lake for a turtle. Ali tense. They’ll close the gate at 5 PM he says. We race against time. A watchtower on the way. We stop for sunset pics. There’s a Rhino by the road he announces as we head from there.
A male Rhino grazing by the road. We need to turn away from him, but he might charge – warns Ali. The engine revs. Ali screams, bangs the jeep door. The Rhino looks at us, nonchalance written all over. We head along. Scream and bang the jeep if he charges at us he says. We turn around on the path, the Rhino on my side. The best pic of the trip. He grazes away without noticing. We head along.
A female rhino at close quarters. Grazing without giving us more than a cursory glance. Too used to tourists. We head along and watch the Sun going down on the Kaziranga with distant grazing Rhinos as silhouettes.
Tomorrow elephant safari, he confirms. An Indica to be shared with another guy – another solo traveler.
Early start. Up at 4:00 AM, out at 4:30 AM. Driving through the cold. The other traveler in front. Spot reached at 5:15 AM. The Western Range entrance. Black tea for the cold. Pepper added to it. Spicy, hot and awesome! I hiccup along.
The elephants start arriving from different corners, mahouts on top. Almost LOTRish, Oliphaunts turning up from all directions. Huge animals that tower above. I give them space and keep my distance. They line up for people to sit over them. One under a platform. Me and the other traveler sit next to each other, facing sideways.
The sun rises slowly. Mist forms another layer. The tall elephant grass the elephants wade through. Lord of the Rings. The landscape around is mind blowing, eyes cannot believe. The elephant’s movement means I move up and down with it. No photos possible. I struggle through and manage.
Rhinos sighted. They sidle away. No truck with elephants and tourists. Just want to be left alone. The elephant keeps getting prodded and beaten. Mahout wields an iron rod. Guy next to me pleads with him “Itna maarthe kyun ho yaar bechaare ko? Baaki haathiyon ko aise nahi maar rahe hain”. He doesn’t respond. The safari gets over. I promise myself never to do that again. Ever.
Back in the tent soon, by 7:00 AM. Breakfast. Shower. Murakami. Bring me an easy chair, can you? I ask the boy. One from outside the cottages gets brought over. Sunny and pleasant the morning breaks. I sit out with Murakami. A few hours of blissful reading.
The evening safari to the Western Range again. Again with the cousins. A detour along the main path. An eagle in a faraway tree; another jeep with my companion from the morning standing nearby. Which one is it? I ask him. Pallas Fish Eagle, he answers after consulting a book. We are the first jeep to a watch tower. The driver hurries us along. Jeeps flowing in all along the way, in the opposite direction towards the watch tower. “Aage rehna hai” he tells us. We agree. We reach the main path and turn left.
More Rhinos. On the left and the right. One bonding with a buffalo swimming in a water hole. Others shy. We continue along. Tall elephant grass on either side. A buffalo swimming in the water. We stop to take pics. He gets out and stands behind some bushes. We feel bad and move out fast. The elephant grass gives way to dense forest. More trees now. No monkeys hanging around like in the South. The call of the langurs deafeningly absent.
This might be a good place for tigers says one of the cousins. The jeep moves along. One of them ducks. Everyone does. We know. We can sense. It is a tiger. The guard in front, the driver and one of the cousins have seen it cross the path and disappear. A split second sighting. Too late for the rest. We wait nearby. But more jeeps pull up unaware and making noise. It wouldn’t come out the rest of the day. We continue along. An almost sighting. But still counts as a Zero.
The tall grass resumes. An elephant and its calf hurry along from the path and hide in the grass. Could be a herd I warn. We look out for a herd and inch through that section. Nothing to worry there. Buffalos swimming in the water. We stop for pics and continue along. There’s a good place for the sunset, says Ali and takes us near a lake. The sun almost at the top of a hill. Plunging fast. Down completely in a few minutes. Marks my goodbye to the forest.
I wait with a worker for the bus. Goodbyes, “please visit again”s, “phir milenge”s exchanged a while back with the owner, Ali and the other guests. A Scorpio pulls up. The worker negotiates. He’s headed for the airport – Rs.250, he announces. I get in. More get in and out. Gauhati comes. I get down close to the city. One unfinished business left. A river left to visit.
Rest of the pics:
|Kaziranga – Nov2013|