18.02.2014 - 21.03.2014 26 °C
Seems like I’m constantly playing catch up these days! Since my second visit to Kaziranga in late March 2013, I’ve since returned in late February 2014 for a third sojourn into the forest. This entry will combine the two visits!
When we last left off, we were wrapping up a short but beautiful stay at Nameri National Park in Assam. As we were leaving, we got word from the incredibly helpful Manju at Wild Grass Resort in Kaziranga National Park that the forest department had just decided it must do the annual rhino census! On the last weekend of the regular season of the park!!! Yeesh! Two choices here: be really upset about the meticulous and time-involved planning, not to mention the cost involved to make this trip to Kaziranga; or… make the best of it and have a fantabulous time! Guess which one I did? OK… I’m not a saint; I was pretty upset for a few hours. But, in the end it reinforced my desire to revisit in 2014 and provided unexpected and wonderful adventures I wouldn’t have experienced without this hiccup.
We left early in the morning for the rather short drive to Kaziranga, arriving in time to fit in 1 of the 3 drives we ultimately did (out of the planned for 9 drives).
Wild Grass Resort
When I first made a rather simple query to Wild Grass, the very hands-on owner, Mr. Manju Barua, replied with such incredibly helpful detail, I was able to plan not only that trip to Kaziranga, but also the Manas, Nameri and Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary excursions, all aided by the information and contact numbers he provided. Thus far, with my many travels and help from loads of wonderful people, he wins the award for providing the most informative exchange I’ve ever experienced… by a large margin.
Anyway… I digress… quite a lot! My first, brief taste of Kaziranga was in 2010 and Wild Grass – the oldest and highly-rated resort was full. Even still, they arranged my safaris and stay at the more ‘upscale’ Iora Resort. I far preferred Wild Grass to Iora (should note Iora is nice and I could not find fault with it), but Wild Grass is a relaxed, comfortable, old-world resort set in sprawling gardens with Colonial-styled buildings and cottages – much more my personal style. The property is well-run and hugely popular, but despite the steady stream of guests, you somehow never seem rushed or treated impersonally. Many of the buildings are older, which adds to the charm for me, but things do breakdown. No worries, just let someone from the helpful staff know and they’ll be there to solve your problem as quick as possible.
On the first trip, we opted for the more removed, and very affordable. Only caveat, that though you have your own bathroom, it’s in a separate stand-alone adjacent building. I was in the larger cottage, and it was large! You could easily sleep 8 people (2 king size and 6 singles), with loads of outlets for camera batteries, phone batteries, laptop batteries… Quite fun, and very quiet, and although there was no air-conditioning, the fans were absolutely sufficient in late March 2013, even under mosquito netting (which was available in one of the cupboards). This large cottage was in need of some repair. The rains had started and the roof leaked in some areas, but the beds were set up to avoid the leaks. If you are eight people it might have been more difficult to avoid.
My friend and long-suffering wildlife guide, CV Singh, was booked into another single cottage-room, but it was not as nice. Quite dark and small, although super affordable if you don’t mind this.
For our return visit at the end of February 2014, I was bringing along a lovely Norwegian woman, on her first Indian Safari! This time we stayed in the regular rooms in one of the two accommodation buildings. Very comfortable rooms with twin beds and loads of windows. Higher in price but correspondingly more value and still super reasonable stay. Assam is very affordable compared with other wildlife destinations in India.
To top it all off, the food was great – far better than reviews had led us to believe! Nothing gourmet, but still good, plentiful and very reasonable. We opted for an a la carte stay, which suited us fine since the portions are very large, you really only needed 1 or 2 dishes. The staff is very good about informing you of the procedure as you must order your meal well before your selected dining time, so make sure you do! There are no frills here and no wastage, so order your lunch after you return from morning safari and order your dinner after lunch. For a personal choice, I don’t think I’d go elsewhere in this part of the country.
There is currently no restriction on the number of vehicles allowed into Kaziranga, so getting safaris last minute are much easier than in Central India. Jeeps with drivers can be hired at the gate, a few minutes before the park opens. The park is large and traffic resultantly minimal so you do not come across others very often. I say that, but… 2013 saw a new situation in the park.
One of the park’s notoriously shy and hard to spot tigers was becoming not so shy or hard to spot. Sightings were becoming so regular that as we were driving in that zone, enjoying what we were there to see – birds, rhinos, swamp deer, hog deer, monkeys… a jeep drove up and a woman loudly stood up and shouted ‘tiger?’ Very strange, a bit off-putting, and I think, a bit worrying. This was reinforced in the 2014 visit, when we actually had a brief glimpse of a tiger, amidst rushing and crowding to spot a tiger. If the bad behaviour continues there is bound to be more restrictions put in place, spoiling in a small degree, the experiences you can currently have as a responsible wildlife-loving citizen in the park.
The park has three tourist zones for jeep safaris: the western (Bagori Range); the eastern (Agartoli Range); and the central (Kaziranga Range). There is a 4th range (Burapahar Range) but no-one seems to go there, which means I must check it out next time. Jeep costs are based on how far away the zone is, due to the extra mileage travelled, the eastern being the furthest. The central range seems to be the most popular, due in no small part to the aforementioned tiger activity, followed by the western range, which is particularly good for rhino and water buffalo sightings. The eastern range has large water bodies and is very good for birding.
Since you are theoretically not chasing the big cats in this park, safaris start much later in the morning, though it is possible to pre-book one of two elephant safaris before the drives start. They last one hour, the first starting at sunrise. You sit astride the elephant here, unlike other platform ‘saddles’ where you sit sideways (a style found in most other areas of India). I find I actually prefer it, but would not the best for people with hip or flexibility issues.
We arranged our drives with Wild Grass, to ensure that we got a very good and knowledgeable guide, well-versed in driving photography buffs. As of 2014 the resort has updated their jeeps away from the side-bench vehicles to front-facing, which is a big improvement in comfort and visibility.
Kaziranga National Park was designated a Unesco World Heritage park in 1985 and covers 430 square kilometres. As one of the last areas in east India (at least easily travelled east India) that offers wide tracts of non-human-inhabited land, the park supports the largest population of one-horned rhinoceroses and Indian elephants in the world, as well as (apparently) the highest density of tigers. The park lies in a flood plain covered with beautiful wide grasslands, and a quintessential jungle-like tropical forest. Intensely green with swathes of fern, vines, orchids and trees.
Not only a home to the endangered rhino, it also supports other threatened mammals, including my new favourite the capped langur, my new new favourite the hoolock gibbon, sloth bear, Ganges dolphin, otter and wild buffalo. Also an array of wonderful birds, both endemic and migratory populations.
The Wildlife Moments
Late March, you are quite close to the area's rainy season. In 2013 that was certainly the case for us as we had a lot of overcast days and quite a few showers. Late February 2014 was drier in Kaziranga, though we did come from the unseasonably wet Manas that year, so really, who knows these days! Late Feb does have a larger population of migratory birds still hanging around than we experienced in March.
Our first drive was wonderful, and quite exciting as a male rhino charged our jeep, coming up remarkably fast behind us, but that was to be nothing compared with our encounter on the last drive! Note: foreshadowing!!
Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary Sidetrip
After that first drive we had 3 days to kill! We joined a couple of Canadians and a US doctor on a day excursion to the Hoolock (Hollongapar) Gibbon Sanctuary, where we were lucky enough to watch a small family for some time and had fun tramping through the forests. You visit this small sanctuary near Jorhat on foot, hiking along mostly good trails.
Beware though; there are leeches in this forest, especially after rains. CV was even bitten through his sock! I was attacked while my intrepid guide led me off the trail into the forest to get a better angle of the gibbons. Leeches in this part of the world, while not my favourite creature, are not dangerous, don’t hurt and don’t carry any disease, so don’t let it put you off, these apes are fabulous and worth a shot at seeing any time you are here. So fabulous that we decided to go back and spend a night at the Sanctuary.
Surrounded by tea estates, the Hoollongabar Sanctuary (also spelled Hollongabar) is a quite small, isolated reserve at just over 8 square miles (2098 ha). For such a small forest it supports a surprising number of primates – including the gibbon, stump-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque, eastern Assamese macaque and the Bengal slow loris. We were also lucky enough to see the pig-tailed macacque.
The Sanctuary had a Forest Rest House with two, very very basic rooms. Perfectly fine rooms though not for the non-nature-enthusiast as the rooms are far from air-tight or luxurious. Construction was underway in 2013 for a new rooms complex – looked to be maybe 4-6 rooms coming up. I was happy to have CV there, not only for company and language issues, but because as a single woman traveller you are pretty isolated. Never actually felt unsafe, but might not have been as comfortable on my own here, and it turned out to be such a highlight. That trip we were with several construction workers, a very accommodating forest ranger, and a cook. Only the forest ranger spoke any English and it was minimal.
As we sat out in the evening (bring your mosquito repellant!) we were treated to an incredible display of fireflies that filled the clearing, drifting out of the trees and amongst the buildings.
Next morning saw us up early to see if we could find our gibbon family. And luck was with us again! We came across our friends as they were munching, swinging and playing across one of the pathways. Really is a matter of timing because once they’re into the forest, you’re out of luck. We were treated to a wonderful serenade from the gibbons in the morning as well. Family groups calling to each other across the forest. Almost as loud as the howler monkeys in the Amazon!
The Hoolock Gibbon is the only ape in India and has two species, the western and eastern. The gibbons in the Gibbon Sanctuary are Western Hoolock Gibbons and are listed by the WWF as one of the most 25 endangered primates in the world; the eastern gibbon is listed as ‘vulnerable’. They are wonderfully expressive and remarkably agile in the trees. Their long arms can travel six metres in one swing! In fact, they are rarely on the ground, eating fruits, leaves, flowers and shoots, all found high in the canopy. The males are very dark, with fantastic white eyebrows, and the females a golden tan colour. They have one baby every two-to-three years, and the youngsters live with the family for seven-to-ten years. Our youngster was quite young, but not sure how old that was.
Boat Trip on the Brahmaputra… source of Kaziranga’s Life and Endangerment
The other side trips we took was a boat ride on the Brahmaputra, which was nice, but not much to see in late March, mid-day. Could have been interesting though with the right guide, as this is a major source of the Kaziranga flood plains trouble.
During the rains, water enters the park through tributaries and this is a normal and necessary eco-cycle flooding, but when the banks overflow, the situation for the park and its animals becomes devastating, as well as for nearby villages.
This is happening at a frighteningly high level recently. These issues are occurring due to the eroding banks of the Brahmaputra; increased use and erosion of land by an ever increasing population; as well as changing river patterns and river management, not the least of which are the hydro dams added to the Brahmaputra River recently. As a state with one of the lowest GDPs in India, and a history of unrest and insurgencies, the focus on much needed infrastructure improvement and increasing development has been marching forward. This needs to happen, but as everywhere in the world, it seems to march forward with little regard or study on avoiding the ecological impact. All of this adds up to a very uncertain future for this unique and precious place on our planet.
Tea Garden Visit
Also possible is a walk through a large organic tea garden near the resort. Good birding opportunities and a pleasant way to spend an afternoon if it’s not too hot. Don’t miss the retail store, in particular their organic black pepper, which grows off vines on the trees planted to shade the tea – it’s a wonderful, aromatic pepper!
Back to the Kaziranga Drives
Finally the census was over, but the rhinos were pretty stirred up. One had charged an elephant causing a census worker to fall and break his collar bone! So with that news, we were off to take our final two drives.
We were happily driving along our track, when we came across a mating pair in the distance. We stopped briefly, but since they were a fair distance away, we started to slowly drive off. Seems Mr. Rhino was having none of that! And he charged full-bore for us! Our driver was unable to get into a high-enough gear to move fast enough to elude this shockingly fast prehistoric animal! Before we knew it, it was running along side us, and eyeing the best place to toss us over. He was so close and so loud, I was staring straight into his eye! Our guard tried the usual methods of shouting and banging on the side of the jeep to scare him off but it wasn’t working this time, so he had to quickly fire a shot over the ear the enraged beast (guards carry blanks in their guns on safari). That at last caused him to veer away. It was a close call, since they can easily tip a vehicle if they ram it side-on.
Although I had rather fearfully (or intelligently?) given up the chance of getting a shot, CV had the presence of mind to video it! at least to the point it came up to us. In the following footage he shot, you can see how incredibly quickly it moves! After we made our escape, nervous laughter filled the jeep and CV had to wipe rhino snot from his camera lens… yuck! It seemed even for the more usually jaded guard and driver, this was an uncommon experience – thankfully!