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Looking to explore the wild side? Head to the one-horn nation

Tigers may remain elusive in Kaziranga, but rhinos are everywhere — and so is sumptuous food

brunch Updated: May 17, 2017 14:49 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
A wild buffalo on the run.
A wild buffalo on the run.(Saubhadra Chatterji)

As we climb down from a watchtower deep inside the forest, a tourist from another Gypsy asks, “Where are you guys coming from?”

“Delhi,” I say.

“Arre, then why come here? There’s Jim Corbett and Ranthambhore near your home, na!”

I try to explain that every jungle is unique and just because Kathmandu is closer to Delhi doesn’t mean I should not buy tickets for Kuala Lumpur.

The famous one-horn rhino. (Saubhadra Chatterji)

Actually, I am a sinner. Long ago, I was posted in Assam for a year but didn’t see Kaziranga. It’s like visiting Egypt and not finding time for the pyramids.

The closest I came to Kaziranga was on a cold night in Guwahati, when my friend Samim Sultana said, “Let’s form a group and go to Kaziranga.” I think I yawned and said good night.

Turning savage

This time, I ask every Assamese I know: how do you get the best out of Kaziranga?

Rituparna, my colleague at the Hindustan Times, connects me to a travel company in Assam.

Leftist Sushanta Talukdar says, “Why do you want to stay there? You can see rhinos even from the highway.”

Finally, Achinta Borah sends me the number of Mukut Das, the Assistant Conservator of Forest, with a note: “He’s your best go-to person.”

Das helps me book the elephant safari without involving agents. He also gets me Kutub Ahmed, a top-rated guide in Kaziranga.

Five minutes after Kutub and his driver take my wife and me inside the Bagori range, we meet a rhino barely 20 meters away from our Gypsy. The fat fellow is happily grazing after a turf war. As the vehicle moves closer, the vegetarian stops eating and raises his head with a cold look.

Kutub panics. “Move out,” he directs the young driver. He has reasons to worry. Last week, three rhinos targeted his other car, leaving it almost beyond repair.

Our guide, Qutub, trying to spot a tiger. (Saubhadra Chatterji)

“Rhinos can run very fast. Even elephants don’t dare to disturb them,” Kutub says from his 18 years’ experience as a safari guide.

My wife’s friend helped us book Borgos, an awesome resort with awfully slow service. But I don’t mind. This is a place to relax, not rush.

As three people at the reception try to fix the Wi-Fi service, I order a beer and chicken fry from its restaurant. The waiter comes with a bottle. ‘Savage Beer, extra strong’, the label reads. “Are you sure this is good?” I ask.

Yeh best hai,” he announces.

After I am done with two Savage bottles, I start getting calls from the forest office detailing the elephant safari next morning. I understand Assamese, but now it sounds somewhat like Latin. The only word I remember is ‘elephant’.

A lone elephant having a meal in the forest. (Saubhadra Chatterji)

Back in our room, my wife asks, “Everything finalised?” I promptly nod my head, “Of course!”

Early in the morning, the forest guy again calls. A young elephant is assigned for us. But our mahout is overcautious. He waits for all other elephants to arrive before approaching a rhino. The result: I miss some good photo ops. At the end of the safari, I realise it’s more difficult to get off an elephant. He’s a hot-blooded animal eager to go out. So, with two forest guards pulling me and one pushing me, I finally come down.

I try a new guide for a jungle safari in Kohora range. The guy has little interest in helping us spot animals. We drive around the muddy path interrupted with occasional comments like: “Sir, three days ago I saw a tiger here”, “four days ago I saw a tigress there.”

For the birds

Our cabbie from Guwahati takes us to a small, shabby outlet with a hoarding: Hornbill restaurant. But behind its dirty curtains is a brilliant world of Assamese food. When our thali comes, I am speechless. It is the best Assamese thali I’ve ever had, far better than Delhi’s overpriced Assam Bhawan.

A lip-smacking Assamese thali. (Saubhadra Chatterji)

My wife declares, “If you give me such great vegetarian fare, I don’t need to eat non-veg.” Then, the country chicken curry arrives. She quickly changes her mind.

That afternoon, Kutub takes us to the westernmost range – Burapahar. An armed forest guard jumps into our vehicle and says, “You are the only tourist here today. I need to protect you from charging rhinos.”

In the fascinating terrain of Burapahar, we reach a point where the jungle suddenly comes to an end. There, the Brahmaputra, India’s mightiest river, flows slowly, eating away large tracts of land.

In the monsoon, almost every year, this river floods Kaziranga, leaving animals dead. But its devastating waters have also inspired poets, authors and singers of Assam and the North East. The confluence of the river and the jungle paints a serene portrait of nature. The air is so fresh. The sky is so clear. And all I hear is the sound of small waves bashing the bank.

Suddenly, Kutub turns the wheel and approaches a small patch of elephant grass. “Sshhh, don’t make noise. We’ll see a very rare bird. Bengal florican.” As soon as our car stops, a huge bird flaps its black and white wings and flies away. “Oh Lord, I see it after three years!” Kutub exclaims.

The Great Indian Hornbill is a famous inhabitant. (Saubhadra Chatterji)

“The Bengal florican is so rare that there’s a special act to protect it. Recently, a foreigner spent 15 days in Kaziranga only to spot it and couldn’t find it,” says the overwhelmed guard. In that moment of ecstasy, I murmur: “When can we see a tiger?”

The armed guard, Kutub and my wife are aghast. “Sir, you just spotted a Bengal florican! A Bengal florican!!” says Kutub.

Back in Delhi, I run into my friend, NDTV’s Sandeep Phookan, on a blistering afternoon. “How was your Kaziranga trip?” he asks. “Not good. I spent not one, but three days, but couldn’t see a tiger.”

“S***”, the Assamese snubs. “I have been there at least 20 times. I am yet to see a tiger.”

The Brunch Insider’s view
  • For authentic Assamese cuisine, Maihang is the go-to restaurant (Source: Lonely Planet)
  • For best wildlife experiences, stay in Wild Grass or Diphlu River Lodge (Source: Conde Nast Traveller)
  • Kaziranga National Orchid And Biodiversity Park is a must-visit (Source: TripAdvisor)
  • Those looking for a cozy homestay must make reservations at Chang Ghar (Source: TripAdvisor)

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From HT Brunch, May 14, 2017

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