Exploring the wildly different Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India
Nothing injects a place with instant worldwide renown quite like royalty does. During the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s tour of India and Bhutan in April this year, Kaziranga National Park was one of the places they visited. They visited Kaziranga to see its animal conservation projects, including the Kaziranga Discovery Park, built by a charity funded by Mark Shand, the late brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. The royal couple stayed at the Diphlu River Lodge (www.diphluriverlodge.com), on the banks of the River Diphlu, overlooking the park. A Unesco World Heritage site, it’s 42,996 hectares of watery grassland and forest in the floodplains of the Brahmaputra River in the north-east Indian state of Assam.
Well-known to Indian tourists and some determined international travellers, Assam is my home state, and I have visited Kaziranga many times. Its remote location seems to be responsible for the relative lack of coverage of the destination, but there are many reasons to visit. Kaziranga is credited with almost single-handedly keeping the great Indian one-horned rhinoceros from the brink of extinction. Constantly under threat from poaching and human encroachment, its continued existence is to be celebrated. Nestled in the largely under-explored eastern corner of India, where India and China size each other up before emerging into Indo-China, Kaziranga makes for an unexpected, exotic and fulfilling journey.
The closest Indian international airport to Kaziranga is in Kolkata, a gritty city with a rich history and intellectual heritage hidden under chaos. Its sensory assault may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you feel brave enough to dig deep, stay a while. The flight from Kolkata takes you to Guwahati in Assam. It’s a flight of about an hour, but try to get a window seat, because as the plane banks on its approach to the airport, the green blanket of forest that covers the eastern hill flanks of the Himalayas will be below you. The hills give way to vast tracts of rice fields with the silvery water of the Brahmaputra River, the life blood of Assam, snaking its way across the valley.
Guwahati, once boasting laid-back charm, is now a city on a frenzied route towards the future. Geographically closer to Myanmar than New Delhi, you can stop to take in the mix of Indian and Asian-flavoured culture or embark straight away on the five-hour drive to the park (it’s advisable to pre-arrange travel and hotel reservations through a reputable agent such as Jungle Travels in Guwahati).
Beyond the frenetic city limits and the highway, you find harmony in the endless rice paddies dissected by narrow tracks that stretch from the roadside to collide with misty hills on the far horizon. Along the way, your driver will have to negotiate the winding roads of Bura Pahar, the Old Mountain, but once through those, you’re almost at your destination. The highway cuts through the national park, so you’re essentially in an animal corridor. The success of the rhino conservation programme means that you can almost certainly view these majestic animals feeding on the grasslands from your car. A rarer but exciting experience is to make way for an animal crossing the road; they ignore humans as long as you give them space. Apart from its larger residents, Kaziranga is also a birdwatcher’s paradise. Bring the binoculars and witness a melange of winged sights, from storks to hornbills.
The park is open to visitors during the dry, cool season from November to April. The best time to view the wildlife is early morning or late afternoon, and to give yourself the best chance of spotting the animals and birds, it’s best to do both. Previously, elephant-back riding was the main means of exploring the wilds, but now, open Jeep safaris into the heart of the park are the favoured mode. An armed ranger accompanies each Jeep.
As you meander through the park’s dirt tracks, you are greeted by nature’s bounty. Rhinos, water buffaloes with impossibly large horns, deers with fluffy antlers, squirrels, langurs, rhesus macaque monkeys and more afford only the briefest of pauses as they go about their business. There’s also a notable tiger population in Kaziranga, but they’re notoriously elusive. You will be encouraged by the ranger to wait patiently in the viewing gallery by the watering hole in the hope of spotting one, but you will be lucky to catch a glimpse – guides say there are about 200 left.
Although not as ubiquitous as Kaziranga’s star attraction, the rhino, the wild elephants are still more visible than the tigers. We’re blessed with a close view of a family of elephants feeding in the tall, appropriately named elephant grass.
In all my visits to Kaziranga, fortunately a ranger has never had to fire his gun, but their knowledge makes them valuable companions. They will draw your attention towards such sights as a yellow-necked eagle staring down at you malevolently from its treetop perch. The abundant bird life can be pretty well camouflaged, so expert guidance is needed to spot them. Rhodesian ducks, parakeets, pied kingfishers, pygmy woodpeckers, cormorants, vultures, serpent eagles, Indian fowls, pelicans, herons and bar-headed geese are among the rich variety of birds.
Visitors have to leave the park before sunset. Just before you depart, take time to enjoy the image of the animals, big and small, strong and frail, peacefully coexisting by the watering holes, their shadows reflected on the water and their bodies silhouetted against the amber Sun. As you approach the gates of the park, you will be reminded of the serenity that comes from silent smartphones and nary a car honk within earshot. Human foibles don’t intrude here. Our exit is made all the more special by the sight of a lone rhino waiting calmly by the track to cross to the other side. Perhaps it’s the guardian of the park, there to remind us that we’re merely privileged guests in a place that can rightfully only be theirs.
Back in your hotel, you will find that every exposed pore and hair strand on your body is covered in dust. It’s a small price to pay.
Assam’s rich biodiversity is reflected in its tourist attractions. Famed for its rich, flavoured tea, Assam has been commercially producing tea since the 1800s. Active tea plantations, such as Wild Mahseer on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra, offer their planters’ bungalows as heritage residences. A stay here will make you privy to a regimented routine of tea plucking, tasting, factory production and packaging, taking you through colonial traditions, such as “bed tea” in the morning and sundowners on the veranda, that have persisted in modern India.
Life is a little slower here. The Brahmaputra is never far away, and you can go angling and rafting on its tributaries. A forest trek and a visit to a Mishing (an indigenous tribe of Assam) village will add to the experience. However, if you don’t fancy the three-hour drive from Kaziranga to Wild Mahseer, similar activities can be arranged by your hotel closer to the park.
About 170 kilometres from Kaziranga is the town of Sibsagar, the capital of the ancient Ahom Kingdom. The Ahoms, originally from present day Yunnan in China, travelled across the Patkai mountains to settle in the Brahmaputra Valley in the 13th century. Sibsagar’s attractions include the lake from which the town derives its name, temples dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu and the goddess Durga, the palace and amphitheatre, with underground tunnels, royal apartments and stables. It all provides an insight into the social structure of a people who became one with their adopted land.
People have crossed mountains to settle in Assam, an intriguing land where the behemoth of the Indian subcontinent starts morphing into the east. A place where samosas are equally at home as sticky rice. And at ground level, the greenery that you first spy from the air is a verdant extravaganza.
Updated: October 6, 2016 04:00 AM