Two national parks in India — the Sunderbans in West Bengal and Kaziranga in Assam — have captured the imagination of tourists and wildlife enthusiasts unlike others. It could be that their apparent inaccessibility or unusual topography add to their aura. Or is it the chance to get that once-in-a-lifetime image of a tiger emerging from the swamps or of an one-horned rhino staring out of the elephant grass at against the backdrop of the setting sun? Who knows. But both find a mention in every wildlife enthusiast’s bucket list.
So, when the opportunity to visit Kaziranga came calling, it was obviously not one to miss. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the globally famous national park draws in foreign and Indian tourists by the hordes, all hoping for a glimpse of the endangered one-horned rhino. Once poached to the brink of extinction, these gentle giants are making a big comeback in the 430 square kilometres reserve, and today account for nearly two thirds of the Great Indian Rhino population in the world. Yet, forest guards take no chances, and are always alert, guns strapped around them. The very experience makes the threat seem more real.
The park itself is tourist-friendly, and in a complete rip-off of a concept made famous by Kenya’s Masai Mara, boasts of the must-see ‘Big Five’. Boards at the gate welcome visitors to catch a glimpse of the rhino, tiger, elephant, swamp deer and bison. And if the roads leading to the park and the several resorts around are indicators, the government too takes an interest in promoting tourism here. Something that can't be said about the rest of the North-East region, especially Arunachal Pradesh.
Inside, the park is divided into four zones but tourists aren’t allowed into the core park area. Our own trip commenced with an elephant ride scheduled at 6.30 am. These rides happen only for two-three hours in the morning and evening, so be on time. If you miss your one-hour ride or are late, there is little to no chance of a refund. Also, booking another elephant ride will be difficult.
We reached the park by 6 am and since the elephants and mahuts were ready, we started off immediately. Being late November, the weather was chilly, not that it mattered to the huge animal we were seated on, who just strutted past huge trees, swamps and even walked over a few logs.
And then, a few metres ahead, was our first rhino. Yes, no drama. No waiting for the perfect moment or luck. It was right there. And before we could react to its presence, another rhino and her calf made their appearance. We even had swamp deer, elephant, wild boar and bison sightings.
Later, we were told that the jeep safari in the evening would not offer much scope as the animals remain hidden by the elephant grass. But it isn’t true. We saw as much, if not more animals, including several rhinos. The climax was a herd of elephants and their calves coming to see us off as we exited the park. So does Kaziranga live up to its promise? Yes, and in more ways than one.