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Travel to Dudhwa: The laughing tree and other such stories

A trip to this town on the border of Nepal will expose you to stunning wildlife, fascinating conversations and greenery you may never have heard of before

brunch Updated: Oct 07, 2018 00:16 IST
Kalpana Sunder
Kalpana Sunder
Hindustan Times
travelogue,dudhwa,travelling in india
The 200-year-old Frog Temple at Oel between Dudhwa and Lucknow(Kalpana Sunder)

Endless stretches of sugarcane fields and bright yellow mustard fields… with jackals, junglefowl and mongooses darting through the foliage, and wild peacocks strutting majestically before our jeep, we pass turbaned farmers on tractors and girls on bicycles with harvested canes strapped behind them. We finally traverse a bumpy, track lined with litchi groves, reaching our hotel, and there we are: at Palia Kalan near Dudhwa, which is on the Indo-Nepal border at the foothills of the Himalayas. This is the swampy Terai grassland between the mighty Himalayas and the plains. We are excited to be in this region which has access to four wildlife sanctuaries – Kishanpur, Katarniaghat, Pilibhit and Dudhwa National Park.

Inside Tharu homes, these huge clay containers are used for storing grains ( Kalpana Sunder )

Tiger, tiger burning bright

Long ago, Dudhwa was an untamed land of marshes and grasslands, and hunting country for the royals. Now, some of the grasslands and forests have become sugarcane fields. There are small villages in the buffer areas, where cows graze in the forest reserve and women hang their colourful saris, like borders between fields. This was the territory of famous hunter-turned-conservationist Billy Arjan Singh. His exploits are the stuff of legend in these parts. A member of the royal Kapurthala family, he was a hunter, till one day he shot a leopard and felt revulsion for his act; he gave up hunting and turned conservationist.

Gargantuan termite hills that look like cathedrals at Sathiyana Reserve ( Kalpana Sunder )

Our first safari takes us to Dudhwa National Park, where the one-horned rhino was reintroduced from Assam’s Kaziranga in 1984. At Dudhwa, the best way to see a rhino is to take an elephant safari. Lumbering our way atop the pachyderm, trampling through the thick undergrowth and trees, we finally reach the amber savannah-like grasslands, catching sight of a mother and child rhino duo walking through the tall grass.

A basket made from local grass by Tharu tribes ( Kalpana Sunder )

The next day, we drive to Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary with its dense forests of trees like sal and teak, interspersed with swamps, taals (shallow lakes) and scrub grasslands and meadows. This rich ecosystem supports a zillion species of birds, including migratory birds. We see majestic vultures, falcons and more, soaring high up in the sky, pointed out by enthusiastic guides with binoculars. From the watchtower, we see pied kingfishers and a lot of teals, egrets and jacanas. The list is endless and I try to remember them all – orioles, barbets, fork-tailed drongos. At Jhadi Taal, a large water body, we see herds of majestic yellowish-brown barasinghas (deer with gigantic, 12 pronged antlers) sitting on tiny islands, and turtles clinging to floating logs. But the most memorable moment is when we spot a tawny tigress, not far from the path, marking her territory and loping majestically in front of our jeep.

Gharials with their distinctive snout sunning on sand banks at Katarniaghat ( Kalpana Sunder )

Dancing dolphins

Katarniaghat, extending over 154 square metres, borders the gargantuan River Geruwa (a tributary of Nepal’s longest river, Karnali), and is a habitat for gharials. We see them sunning themselves on sand bars in the middle of the river. Gliding around the Maila Nala, an Amazon-like narrow inlet in the river that leads to inner channels – we spot an Indian rock python on (where else?) a rock. This is also the splashing ground of playful Indo-Gangetic dolphins, and on a windless day, you can catch them prancing on the water!

A spotted deer darts across the path ( Kalpana Sunder )

After a quick picnic lunch of kathi rolls and biryani, we take a game drive through the forests of Katarniaghat. The vegetation is lush and tropical. Driving through jamun and silk cotton trees, as well as tall kans grasses that look like bulrushes, we see adjutant storks and keen fish eagles. We also see something we’d never heard of before: the laughing tree or the gudgudi tree – when he taps it at the bottom, it shakes and quivers right at the top, as if an electric current were flowing through it!

One afternoon, we drive to the nearby Sathiyana Reserve. This forest range named after the last Sati site in these parts has beautiful avenues lined with sal trees, and huge termite mounds that look like cathedrals. In many places, the towering trees let in only small streams of light, making it reminiscent of an Impressionist painting.

When in Kishanpur, you can be lucky enough to spot creatures like this Royal Bengal tigress ( Kalpana Sunder )

Jungle bells

There’s more to Dudhwa than the wildlife: the local tribes living in about 40 villages in and around the forests are Tharus, who according to locals, migrated from Rajasthan, when the Mughals invaded it. Today, the Tharu tribe is female dominated and many live in Nepal too. They live in harmony with nature, working in sugarcane fields, building eco-friendly homes out of mud, straw and manure. We visit the Tharu village of Mundnochini, with about 400 people. Women cut vegetables outside their homes, some children ride bicycles, while others sit on charpoys with their school books. I am invited to inspect one of the homes – it’s neatly kept, with two storeys, and huge mud containers for storing grains. At Manjula Taal nearby – a swampy water body infested with bright green clumps of watercress – I see village women with small bamboo baskets tied to their waists cast nets to catch the local kharsa fish.

An elephant getting ready for a safari through Dudhwa National Park to spot one-horned rhinos; ( Kalpana Sunder )

Come evening we retire to the lounge at the lodge, furnished with old memorabilia from the area, and wildlife books. Over drinks and snacks, we catch up with the naturalists and other guests about the day’s sightings. I am intrigued as to why the naturalists Amit and Yogesh came to remote Dudhwa from their state of Karnataka. “We are married to the jungle, and when the jungle beckons, we just pack our bags,” they say with a twinkle in their eyes. Talking to them, I learn the little secrets of the forest – that one needs patience and a good eye, one has to listen to warning calls by birds, barking deer or black-faced langurs that alert the jungle to the presence of the big cats. The owner of the property, who is in town, regales us with stories of how herds of barasinghas once roamed around this farm land, and adds vignettes of his childhood in these parts.

At TUTC’s Jaagir Lodge, you can lounge in these sunny verandahs ( Kalpana Sunder )

As I leave Dudhwa after spending almost a week there, with my days peppered with safari drives (and we don’t see more than a couple of jeeps) and lounge evenings, it is not just the prolific wildlife sightings that I remember, but the small details like the cold wind whipping my face dry in an open jeep, a Tharu woman giving me some jungle pipli (long pepper) for my husband’s cough, how a termite hill felt under my hand, and the shrill call of a barking deer.

A machaan with a twist is set up for a meal with a view ( Kalpana Sunder )

From HT Brunch, October 7, 2018

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First Published: Oct 06, 2018 23:20 IST