+ Nameri ~ Adventures in Assam (and momentarily Bhutan)
17.03.2013 - 21.03.2013 25 °C
I had been to Assam only once before. In April of 2010 I'd had a brief a 3-day visit to Kaziranga and although I enjoyed that trip, nothing prepared me for the wonder we experienced in this longer visit; which might just be the best overall wildlife trip I’ve taken, among so many remarkable ones. Manas in particular seemed somehow more ‘wild’, and so wonderfully tranquil.
This northeast state, known to the west primarily for its tea, is such a wonderful state, and relatively less-traveled when compared with many other wildlife spots in India. That alone makes it a nice respite from the frenetic tiger chasing of many parks in central India. For the wildlife traveller, it is also a much more affordable trip than other wildlife destinations – accommodation and food being often far more reasonable. The people you find here were without exception super-helpful in planning the trip, although the ability to use your credit card is even more rare here than India in general. This makes it a bit more challenging to plan without a local representative to help you, or expensive money transfers from overseas… unless you enjoy carrying a suitcase full of cash with you!
When I started planning this trip, a simple accommodation query to the venerable Wildgrass Resort in Kaziranga resulted in an email chock-full of information to help my planning – not just for Kaziranga, but for of the entire itinerary! Similarly, a query to the Field Director in Manas resulted in a response that was so welcoming and helpful for booking the remote lodge we stayed at.
Onto the Adventures in Manas National Park!
But first, a brief description of this massive Park (over 2,600 sq. km), situated along the border of Bhutan. Designated a Unesco Site, the park’s wildlife and landscape are incredibly diverse. Rolling grasslands; dense, tangled forests with massive Silk Cotton trees; and, tumbling rivers winding their way from the Himalaya foothills. Most of the animals found in the more famous Kaziranga can be found here, plus many many more. The only caveat to that is that they are much harder to see. For me this is somehow more rewarding and special when you have an encounter.
Manas has seen a lot of turmoil and many people are still worried about travelling there. I had heard of devastating poaching and forest destruction stemming from the violence between the indigenous Bodo people and immigrating Bengali Muslims in the 80s and 90s. Problems do still arise, but it is mostly calm these days. Not knowing how empty the forest might be, we decided to visit for only a couple of days. We want more! There was much more wildlife activity here than either of us expected, and staying in the Mathanguri Lodge is the only place to stay! At least as far as I’m concerned.
We arrived by flight from Delhi to Guwahati on March 17 and stayed overnight at the affordable, clean and efficient Hotel Rialto, planning to head out before dawn to Manas the next day. The Rialto was a great bargain at 1200 a night and though the rooms were small, they were comfy, decently clean, and had AC that worked, albeit at arctic levels. The real surprise was the Hotel’s restaurant food. We had a hot and sour chicken soup that was to die for! Not like many I’ve had before – so much chicken! not very sour, and a good handful of cilantro – yummy!!! The Hakka chicken noodles were really good too, and the tandoor chicken (starting to cluck now) was good, if not great. I’d go there for that soup alone!
We met our driver Siraz the night we arrived as he popped in to arrange our departure time the next morning. What a lovely man he is! Professional, helpful and kind – it quickly became apparent that he was to be one of my favourite, of many, drivers in India. Barpeta Rd., which is the town at the entrance to Manas (and a rail station head), is about a 3-hour drive from Guwahati, through a rich and bountiful farmland. We passed incredible crops of vegetables and countless carts on their way to the marketplace.
Arriving at the forest office near the gate to Manas (we mistakenly carried on there instead of pre-clearing at the forest office in town), there was a bit of scrambling, but the Forest Officer was kind and wrote up an entrance ticket for us after phoning the Field Director. Then, walked across the road to the Immigration/Foreign Registers Office! I had to explain to the customs officer, set up at a wooden desk on a ramshackle porch that I wished to enter Manas for wildlife, and not for any nefarious Bhutanese activities! The border to Bhutan runs through the forest itself, and trucks of goods, and people cross over quite regularly.
Paperwork taken care of, and all documents appropriately stamped, we were off for the 1.5 hour drive to the Mathanguri Lodge. The drive to the Forest Lodge is a safari in itself. We stopped to watch dust-bathing elephants, trumpeting a warning (or “Hello”?) to us. Wild buffalo and Hog Deer popped out of the greenery to see what we were up to. What a spectacular place to spend my birthday this year!
Arriving at the lodge, our rooms were set up on a rock ledge, overlooking Bhutan with the Benki River running between us. Topped off by the beautiful soaring Himalayan foothills as a backdrop. The government-run lodge itself was much nicer than I expected. Spacious, but basic rooms, complete with mosquito-netted beds; a massive, relatively effective bathroom (though no hot water); and, a startling evening alarm call from what was described to us, as the Gecko Gecko – a large, shy reptile that lived in the buildings. We stayed in Rooms 4 & 5 but next time might try for the second floor rooms for the extra view. There is no fan, or AC, but it was still cool enough at night, though wouldn’t bet on it much further on in the season, at least for us foreigner’s averse to heat. We had a very strong wind storm our first night. Wonderful howling to fall asleep to.
Food no longer has to be pre-arranged and carried in to Mathanguri. They now have organized this themselves. It’s à la carte, and very tasty and fresh, but basic, fare. Plus, you get the extra added bonus of semi-feral kitty company at mealtimes! I miss my cat when I travel, so this is a good thing for me... cats being more popular here than many places in India. Power is only turned on for a couple of hours in the evening, which made the place even more fabulous to me, but be aware, can be tricky to charge all the gadgets we tend to carry these days. It is widely advertised to be on from dusk to 9:30pm, but was in reality turned off about 8. Kerosene lamps are provided in the evening, but I prefer to turn them off because of the smell. There’s no power in the morning before the dawn drive, so bring a good light with you.
If you are squeamish about critters (you are in the middle of the jungle) and/or want more luxury in your wildlife, there is the more expensive, full-service lodge (Bansbari Lodge) by the main gate.
The only downside we encountered here was the quality of the jeeps (loud and smelly) and drivers available to hire for your safari. We ended up using our own driver from Kaziranga for a few of the drives, taking the mini-van out instead. This isn’t ideal, but, was in reality a better experience overall. I’m sure there are people that are good, but will have to investigate further on a future trip, but with the park not hugely travelled, it might be difficult. Our forest ranger was young and inexperienced but completely accommodating and helpful. This wasn’t a big problem for me, since I had brought my own naturalist/guide along again on this trip, and CV spent as much time helping me get the shot, as training the ranger, who to his credit was eager to learn.
We only had two nights here and I want more! In fact, I hope to revisit Assam in the spring of 2014 so if you are interested in joining me, drop me a line!
On to the safaris and what they brought us!
One of the most wonderful creatures in this part of the world are the charismatic water buffalo. Listed as an endangered species, the buffalo in Manas are considered to possibly be the only pure strain of the species left today, all others diluted by cross-breeding with domestic buffalos. Their horns are quite distinct and impressive, creating a bit of a challenge walking through the brush, perhaps that's why they walk in such a posh and distinctive way, with their heads thrown back and nose in the air.
The bird-life here was quite fantastic as well and I was able to add many new birds to my 'list.' When we came across a pair of very large owls in the distance we had a bit of a laugh. Our 'naturalist' and our forest guide insisting they weren't owls! Now, I'm no vast expert on the avian varieties, but I think I can be relied upon to tell if a bird is an owl! We pulled out our bird book and identified the two, rare and impressive owls as spot-bellied eagle owls and showed our intrepid guides. Who then had a brief conversation and announced that they called them something different in that part of the world!
One of the creatures we really wanted to see was the beautiful and endangered Golden Langur, but when we arrived we were told that they resided on the Bhutan side of Manas Wildlife Sanctuary. Sometimes, we were told, you could see them across the river. Quite sad we were, till someone came to our aid. After waiting on the road to Bhutan for a bit, and numerous, high-level, walkie-talkie conversations, it was announced I could visit to quickly photograph them! So, smuggled down to a boat, under cover of darkness.... no, not really :-) But they did row me briefly over to Bhutan in a rowboat, then a short hike up to the trees where we were able to photograph a troop for 10 minutes. Such fun!
Another benefit of staying at Mathanguri Lodge was the ability to stay out past sunset! This forest was pretty magical at night as it lit up with a veritable swarm of fireflies. Little fairies dancing in the darkening wood. We also had another spectacular Moment -- sighting a black leopard! The sun had already set and there was little light left, when CV spotted the cat run across the road in front of our jeep's lights. I saw the shape run into the scrub beside us, where it froze for a couple of minutes, feeling safely out of our line of sight. Elated I still tried to snap a photo. Dialing up the ISO and opening my shutter, I took a few shots with different focal lengths and managed one clear shot of its back. Now, I know to y'all this shot is probably nothing special, being about as record as a record shot can be... but, for us - Wow!!!
Another denizen of this forest was the capped langur. It was another first for me, and one of my favourite creatures. I loved the perpetually startled look they seem to have - eyes wide open and hair going all Enstein. Although it was the most commonly sighted primate for our Assam trip, this langur is listed as threatened, due mostly to habitat loss.
Nameri National Park
After saying goodbye to Manas, we were off for brief stop at Nameri before heading down to Kaziranga. The drive was about 7 hours long, and made longer by an unexpected stop. On our way we came up to a road block. There apparently had been demonstration in a Bodo village and the authorities were taking no chances. So, we were idling away in a line of traffic, waiting for our army escort to return and take us through the village. When we finally got going again, in the army escorted convoy, it was an eerie feeling as we made our way through the village. Not a soul could be seen. If you’ve ever traveled to India before, you’ll know how strange this is, in a country teeming with life.
Still, it was an uneventful drive after all, and we arrived safe and sound to Nameri Eco Camp, a wonderful collection of permanent tents and cottages. A large British Birding group was encamped, so we were put up in a bungalow designed for visiting scientists, naturalists, etc. Was perfect – two rooms on either side of a central kitchenette area. Can’t speak to the regular accommodation, but this worked well for us. Our hosts here were extremely accommodating and helpful, as we’d come to expect from our travels in Assam. A troop of capped langurs was seen in the camp throughout the day, and the resident puppy became a constant companion once it was discovered I carried dog biscuits with me! No, I’m sure it was because of my personality! Uh huh!!
Located in the eastern foothills of Himalayas it is quite close to Kaziranga (couple of hours drive), the nearest city being Tezpur. The Assamese portion is quite small (200 km sq) and wonderfully, you investigate the park by boat, or on foot. The forest is an excellent habitat for wild elephants, as well as host to many endemic and migrating birds. Apparently hikers have also come across the odd tiger! That would be a bit scary I’d imagine, though you are escorted by an armed forest guard, primarily for the elephant danger. We had a wonderful hike through the lush green forest, led by a young local boy with pretty impressive bird skills, arranged for us by the camp.
Our boat ride was lovely, though we went in the afternoon and was a bit warm for a lot of life. Still saw a lot of birds and people fishing on the Jai Bharali River. Was nice to be heading down the river on a raft too. So much quieter than the usual diesel-chugging tourist boats. The river has quite a few rapids to bump over, though at this time there wasn’t that much white water.
Fishing for the wonderful Golden Mahseer used to be a popular pastime here but has been banned for some time. Sadly, as in many other instances, once the tourism-driven anglers dissappeared, so did the fish. With nobody watching, it’s amazing how quickly poaching can decimate a species. At the eco-camp, they’ve started a fish hatchery and hopefully repopulation will be successful, along with a return to controlled and regulated sport fishing.
All in all, well worth the stop, especially if you are a birder. To be able to walk through the forest and to raft was a treat!