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My breathing is loud, heavy and slow. My heartbeat thuds just as loudly, threatening to explode out of my chest. My hands have gripped the railing in front of my seat and my knuckles are white. They’re sweaty, and my fingers keep slipping off the rusted metal. I’m at the edge of my seat, ready to flee. But there’s nowhere I can flee. Right now, I’m in the safest spot possible and that isn’t saying much of the situation. His eyes are locked on me. I can feel his eyes looking straight into mine. He can read my fear by this point, of that I’m sure. I can see the short hair on his ears caught in the early morning rays of the sun. His gait quickens as he begins walking towards us, briskly. How is that 2 tonne monster moving so quick? I darted a quick look towards the guard who sat haunched on the ground next to our jeep. His ancient Lee Enfield rifle remained strapped across his shoulder. I was pretty sure it didn’t even work. Let’s go, let’s go, Ok c’mon he’s a little too close, I didn’t realise I’d been chanting this for a while, until our naturalist Bumoni turned his head back (without taking his eyes off the monster) and quietly hissed at me to keep quiet. Just when the monster had picked up speed, Bumoni grunted loudly and the creature stopped. Without missing a beat, he turned and continued walking off the road, disappearing behind the thick foliage before we knew it. I finally let go of the railing, distractedly watching the blood rush back to my palms, while I looked around at Charles. He was beaming.
We were on safari in Kaziranga National Park in Assam (the North East of India) and we’d just had our first run in with the endangered One Horned Rhino within five minutes of entering the park. Kaziranga is grossly underrated when it comes to the safari experience in India. Everyone focuses on the Tiger-rich regions of Madhya Pradesh like Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench. They flock to Corbett. They visit Gir and Ranthambore for the Lions. In fact, on my First Safari Experience I even visited the Tiger-less but rich-with-wildlife park of Satpura. But Kaziranga is usually at the very bottom of the list. Surprisingly, it is no more difficult to get to than most others. In fact, it’s teeming with many unique species that aren’t found elsewhere. It has the richest density of the Bengal Tiger in the world (unfortunately there aren’t too many sightings because of the tall grass) and is one of two exclusive habitats for the endangered One Horned Rhino. It’s also the only endemic ground for the Eastern Barasingha (Swamp Deer) as well as several other species of primates, reptiles and birds. Naturally there’s a host of things to be seen apart from the famous One Horned Rhino, but even those are almost ubiquitous.
I remember seeing a Narwhal tusk in the Cluny Museum in Paris several years ago. It explained the presence of unicorns on so many of the tapestries. So they were basically tusks that belonged to these strange whales, and tales of the curative nature of these horns spread far and wide, making them highly coveted treasures. I walked away believing I had solved the mystery of the legend of the Unicorn. Until I began researching the history and evolution of the one-horned rhino of Kaziranga. And there it sprang up again. The legend of the Unicorn. The Indian rhino was among the first creatures whose tales spread far and wide, across the world. In the 1500s, the sultan of Gujarat sent one (back then the Rhino was found across the entire northern part of India) as a gift to King Manuel of Portugal. He, finding it a rather odd creature, re-gifted it to the Pope. Enroute, the ship sank, but a sketch of it survived. Circulated with disbelief across Europe, people refused to believe that such a creature exists, and several tales of the mythological kind were born. This was further amplified with tales in India mythology, where it was attributed to be the vehicle of choice of a certain Goddess. During the British rule in India, hunting for sport became a thing, and between the 1800s and 1900s, the species neared extinction. Thankfully, the Government woke up and banned hunting. Then came the next big blow, that’s remains a threat even today. Poaching for the horn. Some of the methods are downright evil, and it’s heartbreaking to know that these large, magnificent beasts are killed for that tiny little part that’s usually sawed off – the horn. Which is essentially made of the same thing our nails are made of. Traditional Chinese medicine however, sees it as much more. They see it as a cure for several ailments, as I discovered on my recent trip to Hong Kong, where I chanced upon a store that was selling horns in broad daylight. While the Government has issued shoot at sight notices to armed forest guards who come across poachers, we as a generation have a lot to do when it comes to eradicating the demand for these ill-gotten treasures.
Kaziranga National Park had always been on our ‘someday list’. But thanks to a last minute holiday from work, overpriced flights to other destinations, we found ourselves flying across the country from Mumbai to Guwahati and then hopping into a car for a 4 hour drive to the Diphlu River Lodge that was to be our home in Kaziranga. The road wasn’t bad considering the remote location; beautiful views of fields and meadows followed us on our way, and we even spotted herds of wild elephants and water buffaloes in the distance. Our morning and evening Jeep safaris were included with our stay at the Diphlu River Lodge. We also had the option of a morning Elephant back safari that gets you closer to the Rhinos, but we refrained on ethical grounds. Kaziranga National Park is divided up into some 4 different zones. The Eastern range (Agaratoli), the Central range (Kaziranga), the Western range ( Bagori) and Far Western (Burapahar). Some of the year-old articles I’d read online said that the Central range has been the best for sighting, and I was thrilled to find out that of the two zones that had opened early this year (since we were here a week before the usual opening of the park) one was the Central zone. But if there’s anything I’ve learnt about safaris and national parks in India, it is that the status will keep changing. And with the massive flooding that Assam had seen this monsoon, we were lucky the park was open at all. So I wasn’t too surprised then, when Bumoni (our naturalist) seemed more excited about the Western zone but agreed to take us on one round of the Central zone for the first drive.
It was 7am by the time we drove out from the lodge towards the park entrance which was a good half hour away. After registering for the necessary permits, we were off and away! After spotting a few wild water buffalos, I settled into the jeep for what I assumed would be a long hunt for a rhino. Was I wrong. The incident that I’ve described in so much sweat-inducing detail at the beginning of this post happened within a couple of minutes of us entering the Central Zone. The foliage and topography of the Central Zone was quite similar to the ones I’d seen in Pench or Bandhavgarh, leaving me confused about those vast grasslands I’d seen in photos of Kaziranga. Until we reached the central Machan. It looked out on a vast, almost endless space that surrounded a large lake, in which paddled all sorts of ducks and egrets and herons and pelicans. It was beautiful! Unfortunately, sightings weren’t up to our naturalist – Bumoni’s standards, as he shook his head saying we’d best go to the western zone on our next safari.
For the rest of the time we were in Kaziranga, we returned to the Western Zone. That says enough about the state of this beautiful zone. The first thing to hit us about this zone was the height of the grass. Bumoni wasn’t kidding when he said the Elephant grass can grow up to 14 feet high, often hiding even Rhinos and Elephants behind it. We drove past endless tracts of tall grasslands, so tall in fact that even after standing on the seat for most of the safari, I still discovered I was too short to spot much. Except when we crossed the beels. These marsh-like water bodies, clogged with water hyacinths were popular watering holes, where we spotted pairs or lone Rhinos, whole herds of water buffalo, wild boar and loads of birds. I cannot begin to describe the sheer beauty of this grassland, that has us speechless for long periods of time on the drive. I would stand, looking out at the horizon, watching the sun set the tips of the blades of grass on fire, as the hills of the Himalayas in the distance played hide and seek with the clouds. As we’d rumble over the dirt track, we’d send up a cloud of dust, which when caught in the rays of light, looked incredible magical. Eyes and ears peeled, we soon became accustomed to spotting all sorts of wildlife flitting and wandering about. The Western zone doesn’t really have those large machans of the Central zone, save for one that we discovered rather close to the gate. Looking over the river and across the vast landscape, it let us see tiny details like the turtles on driftwood as well as rhinos far away. It also gave us two rather strange spectacles on subsequent drives. There we were standing on the machan, looking out through the binoculars, when Bumoni came scampering towards us. Rhino, Rhino, down. I trudged towards the edge of the machan with a bit of trepidation to peep out carefully. He shook his head and led us down the stairs towards the jeeps. There behind the outhouse (which was the toilet) stood a female rhino with her baby looking up at this crowd that was watching her. I stood carefully behind the jeep, ready to jump in incase she decided to charge. She stood there for a while, drank some water and walked away, leaving us with a fantastic sighting. This happened at the same spot with what I’m guessing was the same rhinos on our last safari too. This time, they were about a metre from us, as we stood on the ground, watching them from a very close distance. The baby obviously kept his distance while the mother drank with one eye locked on us at all times. It was a powerful, magical and fearful moment all at once, and I don’t think I’ve been this close to any wild creature before.
Kaziranga, much like the famed African safari has its own checklist. The Big Five in Kaziranga comprises the One Horned Rhino, The Wild Asian Elephant, The Wild Asian Water Buffalo, The Bengal Tiger and The Hog Deer. While we had four fantastically close (and rather scary) encounters with the rhino over the course of our safaris, we spotted several of them from a distance. Several. Kaziranga National Park is teeming with elephants. Unfortunately most of the ones we saw on safari were the domesticated kind. Mothers carrying mahouts with babies in tow. Absolutely adorable, those little ones. Just once, we did manage to spot, from a great distance a wild tusker. A grand creature standing solitary in the tall grass, waving his trunk about, munching on the grass. When I went on safari in Madhya Pradesh, I was rather intimidated by the sheer muscle power that emanated from the bulky Gaur (Indian Bison). They have nothing on the Wild Asian Water Buffalo, I discovered when we had a very close encounter with one, whose gigantic horns spanned over a metre. It stood gobbling the tips of the grass, staring right at us, while a Rhino sized us up from the other side. The Hog Deer, appeared to me like a shorter, fatter version of the Swamp Deer I’d seen in Kanha. Bumoni told us they were as common as the Spotted Deer is in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, and while we saw quite a few, they weren’t as many. Bumoni also told us of their odd behaviour. Apparently, they don’t jump over obstacles like other deer, but choose to bend down and duck. And that brings us to the final of the 5. The Tiger. If the internet is to be believed, Kaziranga boasts the highest density of tigers in the world. It’s still a bit of quandary in my mind that we couldn’t find a single one, but I guess the tall grass is to blame. We did spend a good half hour camped out at a spot close to a bison kill, hoping and waiting for the tiger to return to feed on it around sundown. Unfortunately he didn’t turn up.
At the risk of soundly incredibly nerdy, I’m going to go ahead and admit I get irrationally excited about birds. There, I’ve said it. Charles is probably shooting me a dirty look right now. I guess this new-found passion for birding was born on my first safari in Satpura, when I happened to have been paired up with a bunch of wildlife veterans, who could identify birds by just the sound of their call. I get incredibly excited when I spot a less common species sitting on the tree outside my window in Mumbai, so you cannot begin to imagine how thrilled I was, and how quickly I began jumping up to point out different species to Charles as soon as we got to Diphlu River Lodge. So through the safari drives, I was very happily conferring with Bumoni, on every winged creature we passed. Oh look, there’s a Grey Heron. What kind of Pelican is that? Is that the Osprey or the Darter? And Charles would roll his eyes, amused, and quip – Oh look, Big bird. Oh look, Small bird and so on. I’m so geeky, I’m going to admit I returned and did a quick tally of the birds we managed to spot – 37 in all. That’s a pitiful number given the 478 species (migratory and resident) that have been recorded spotted here, but exciting enough for me! For those who get me, here’s a complete list:
Kaziranga National Park, turned out to be quite the surprise, and we got a lot more than we wished for. We know we say this about far too many places, but this is one safari we will certainly return to.
This post was made possible by the Diphlu River Lodge. Opinions as always, are our own.