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Wild, wild, east: Kaziranga National Park

North East Chronicles: On March 21 and 22nd we are in Kaziranga : the sanctuary that is home to the Indian one-horned rhino

It’s been a while since I’ve visited Kaziranga. More than 20 years to be exact.

evening light

“Be careful,” warns by dad when we are starting off on the trip. The reason for the warning: the first (and last) time I had visited the sanctuary, while on the elephant safari, the elephant I was on… slipped.

jeep safari

I have no idea how an elephant can slip (it’s a little difficult to imagine) but I am supposed to have fallen off the creature. There was a lot of slush and mud and the elephant lost its balance taking us down with it.

I have rather vague recollections of this slippery episode, but my dad with his super power memory remembers everything. And never forgets to mention it, like he did.

~~

Our first sighting of the one-horned rhino was near the road side on the way to the Aranya Forest Lodge, where we were going to be staying. Our driver on the trip, Shaikh (who drove with one hand permanently on the horn) pointed out a few rhinos. “You don’t need to go into the sanctuary to see them,” he says. “They come right up to the road!”

miles to go before i sleep...

Besides the one-horned rhino, Kaziranga is also supposed to have a heavy density of tigers : 86 according to the last census count. But you still have to be lucky to see one : it’s a large sanctuary spread over more than 400 square kms of swamps, jungle and elephant grass, and is situated in the 2 districts of Golaghat and Nagaon.

It is also the only reserve for the one-horned rhino. Besides the great one-horned Indian rhino, the other major wild attractions include Indian elephants, Indian bison, swamp & hog deer, sloth bears, tigers, leopards, jungle cats, otters, hog cadgers, capped langurs, Hoolock gibbons, wild boar, jackal, wild buffalo, pythons, monitor lizards, etc. (source: Kaziranga National Park)

one-horned rhino

It’s also a birdwatcher’s paradise and one naturalist who has done a lot of work in this area is Maan Barua, a naturalist and ornithologist.

~~

On our first day there, we have booked the evening jeep safari. Accompanying the jeep driver is a guard (his gun doesn’t seem to be very impressive, but I’m hoping that he doesn’t need to use it).

The best sighting turns out to be a huge python wrapped around a tree. The guide informs us that it has been wrapped around that particular branch for a few days. It’s quite a fascinating creature and I would have loved to see it move, though I had no intention of being under that tree if it happened to let go of the branch for some reason.

sleepy python

We continue into the sanctuary and see lots of swamp and hog deer. A few wild elephants roaming around in the grassy areas. We also see a big herds of elephants emerging, washed and clean after a dip in the waters. And rhinos of course. Though we don’t really get a close view of them : they’re rather shy creatures and prefer to chomp on their daily dose of grass at a distance.

elephants

Lots of birds around and for the avid birdwatcher, there’s a sanctuary to the east, our guide tells us. That’s where you can walk around. Here of course, you can’t get out of the vehicle.

After an hour or so, the first safari of the sanctuary over, we head back to the Lodge and step into the Buffalo Bar and the adjoining restaurant for some food. It starts to rain heavily in the evening and as the heavens open up, I wonder if we can do the morning safari.

~~

Despite the slow, steady drizzle, we’re told that the elephant safari is on.

Rai Bahadur turns out to be a strong and long-time member of the sanctuary. He doesn’t complain as the 4 of us climb aboard. Slowly, with Rai Bahadur’s steady but swinging steps, we make our way into the thick grassland.

pat on the trunk

Soon we see other travellers who are on elephants too, trying to sight more of the endangered rhino.

Rai Bahadur (who was born with only one tusk) is as steady as a rock and I don’t think he has any chances of slipping. There’s a little bit of drizzle and we wonder if we’ll sight anything. But we do see a few rhinos and a few wild buffaloes in the wet grassland area. And ironically, I notice that there are more people in the jungle than rhinos.

Rai Bahadur ambles along, for him it must be yet another day out in the jungle. A couple of baby elephants are also out on the safari along with their mothers. One of them is tied up to her mom with a thick rope and we ask why.

“He’s a naughty one and keeps straying off, that’s why we tie him up,” explains the mahout. The other little elephant is more obedient : his mother keeps giving him a little push once in a while with her trunk to keep it on the path : it’s quite a cute sight to witness.

momma, let's play

~~

There’s a strange stillness in the air, despite the fact that the sanctuary is filled with animals. Except for a few bird calls punctuating the silence, there’s just a soft drizzle and the sound of Rai Bahadur’s footfall.

The animals seem to have found good hiding places from the rain. An hour goes by and then it’s time to head back to the point where our vehicles are parked and get back to the comfort of the cars.

~~

It’s been quite an experience coming back after so many years. I wished we had a little more time to spend. It’s definitely going to take at least a week to enjoy the sanctuary fully. I’ll be back again, I think to myself (and like every other place I visit).

We get into the waiting car, to be taken back to the lodge. As I turn around for a parting view, I catch sight of Rai Bahadur disappearing into the jungle with his next batch of visitors.

next round

Photos: the Flickr Album

Getting there/Acco: Kaziranga is accessible from Guwahati and is about 6-7 hours away. Accomodation at Kaziranga includes Wild Grass, Bon Habi and Aranya Forest Lodge. We stayed at Aranya, which was the most reasonably priced out of the lot.

There are jeep and elephant safaris into the jungle in the morning and evenings. Get more details here.

The sanctuary is closed during the monsoons during which flooding occurs. Winter is a good time to visit.

More North East Chronicles
A magical evening by Umiam lake
Back to School again: Loreto Convent
Wishing for rain in Cherrapunjee
Magical Mawlynnong: Life on stilts

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