On tyres and trunks
Assam tourism is currently on a promotion spree advertising what their state has to offer. An animated one horned rhinoceros urges you to “Come, visit Assam”. Assam has been notorious for separatist activity in the past and this advertisement campaign did ease some nerves when we decided on visiting Kaziranga National Park. From New jalpaiguri (after Darjeeling), we headed to Guwahati to make arrangements for heading to Kaziranga. Guwahati is the most well connected city in the north east of India. While the city probably functions as an efficient gateway to the east, the lack of civic sense amongst the people is evident through a lot of things you see and smell. We were quite sure we wanted to leave for Kaziranga at the first opportunity.
Our five hour journey next morning to the Kohra tourist complex was gloomy. The sky was bright at 5AM but was dark again by 8AM thanks to a very welcome downpour that cooled the entire region for the next two days. On reaching the tourist complex, we were exposed to our first major drawback of not having pre-booked accommodation. The park was to be closed for a rhino census in two days time and hence all accommodation options for the one night we wanted to spend there were either too expensive or full. We dropped our bags off in a highly overpriced room and and booked a gypsy and rode towards rhino gate and into the central range of the park.
India has fantastic diversity from one national park to another and Kaziranga was different yet again. Tropical forests in south India, woody jungles in central India and mangrove forests in the Sunderbans were replaced with rolling grasslands in Kaziranga similar to the African savannahs. If you could not see an animal in front of you, you couldn’t see one three hundred yards away either, but you could see a landscape reaching out so far. The wildlife sightings were far from disappointing. Our first one horned rhinoceros was sighted in a matter of 15 minutes and many more were to follow. Our guide decided that stopping for deer, peacocks and wild buffaloes was not worth it. We did see very many rhinos and wild elephants to stop counting beyond a point. The drive next day into the western range of the park was very interesting too. This area had many more water bodies to support wildlife. Storks standing on one leg, buffaloes rushing towards the water and rhinos grazing by the waters ensured we stopped every now and then. A green vine snake blocked our path for close to five minutes and lay stationary showing off. Two satisfying jeep safaris into the park and yet there was something else that was closer to the true Kaziranga experience. An elephant safari.
With the heavy tourist population in the park, we managed to get a slot early in the morning for the elephant safari in the central range. Being on an elephant is an experience in itself, but being on one to spot wildlife was going to be something. The two of us were given a fairly small elephant defying any logic that had been applied to the allocation. Oh well, we sat on the poor elephant which dint seem to mind and thudded along. It was not the most comfortable seat in the world and the elephant decided when it wanted to stop to eat, excrete or whip us with his tail in the excuse of swatting flies. We got dangerously close to a mother rhino and its calf and the elephant dint flinch. A rhino is capable of overturning a gypsy in its fury and we felt justified to sweat profusely being so close to such an unpredictable animal. The mahout seemed suspect when he was not able to name his elephant and if he decided to hop off and make a run for it, we had a fair mind to do absolutely nothing about it! Our anxiety tempered down a bit when we saw a herd of deer peacefully grazing. The elephant got bored of the deer and veered towards another rhino as we hung on tight. We returned to the elephant stables an hour after we started with our heads held high and bottoms thoroughly numb. We loved it.
In 1985, Kaziranga was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO to help preserve the highest concentration of one horned rhinoceroses in the world. The numbers have definitely shot up thanks to an efficient park management. The one horned rhinoceros in the advertisement campaign asked us to “Come, visit Assam” and we found it very hard to leave it.