Sunday, June 10, 2012

Kaziranga National Park - Second Step into Paradise

10:30 AM, 21st February, 2012. Time to get off a rickety rickshaw, and get going for a bumpy and dusty ride to Kaziranga National Park. This was leg 2 of our 9 days in paradise (remember Nameri?). When I say bumpy and dusty, you've got to take me seriously. Now, how bad can a 65 km drive be? Well, the answer is, "It depends...". Depends on what - you may ask. Well, it depends on how good your driver is and whether or not you can pull up your windows, turn on the AC and be immune to the dust around. We didn't expect it to be too hot in February, so we'd gone for a non-AC vehicle. I'll leave the rest to your imagination. Let it suffice to say that when eventually we washed our faces at Wild Grass Resort in Kaziranga - the basin was full of brown water!

That incidentally was the story of our entire stay at Kaziranga. February is right at the end of the dry season in Kaziranga and the forest is a proverbial dust bowl. The fine dust is pretty similar to what we'd seen on the banks of the Jia Bhorali back at Nameri, so this wasn't a new experience. That being said, it wasn't exactly how we'd pictured it. Speaking of pictures though, Kaziranga has to be amongst the best places in the country to photograph big mammals. A savannah more African than Indian, Kaziranga's landscape is dominated by tall elephant grass. And through their blades emerge some of the largest mammals you'll see in India. The Asiatic wild buffalo, swamp deer, the Asiatic elephant, the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Asiatic leopard and the mascot of the park  - the one horned rhinoceros, all take turns to throw visitors into a photo frenzy as they suddenly materialise.

But beyond megafauna, the grassland habitat, marshland, and moist tropical forests play home to over 500 species of birdlife. Add to that smaller mammals such as otters, mongoose, jackals, foxes, cats and pangolins - Kaziranga is an absolute jewel of India's wilderness.

Try not to get killed

Let's count our odds. Kaziranga is home to 80 odd tigers, some 140 leopards, about 2000 elephants, a similar number of rhinos and more than 1600 wild buffalos. Dangerous enough? To protect these animals, the guards have very strict rules - no one walks around the park on foot. If you do, there are no questions asked - you first get shot. If you stay in your vehicle, you're likely to stay alive. As a measure of the risk you've got to know that about seven guards lost their lives to wild animals last year, despite being armed.

I of course like to learn my lessons the hard way. As a lot of you will know, I love birds - and photographing them. Nameri hadn't given me much joy on the photography front, so I decided to exercise my shutter finger a bit extra in Kaziranga. So in search of birds we finally found a beautiful brown fish owl. Right on the side of the road. As it happens when you have four people with long lenses in a vehicle, we were indecisive about what the best angle for photographs would be. A little to the front and little to the back - the bird lost patience and flew to a less flattering perch. I was undeterred. That day we had a forest guard with us - I took his permission and decided to try and photograph the bird on foot.

Picture this. I get off the vehicle and walk about a 100 metres back to where the bird was. The forest feels unusually calm. As I get to the bird I pull up my camera and take a few record shots first. Then I decide to try a few different compositions. Even as I make up my mind on how to make the most of tricky lighting and a bad perch, my friends wave frantically to get my attention. "Is there something even more exciting to see?", I think to myself. And then, I see the guard leap down from the vehicle and pull out his gun. "Come back, come back.", he says as he runs towards me. "This can't be a photography subject...", I say to myself as I run back towards the vehicle, sensing some urgency. As I begin my leisurely jog, I see what everyone is worried about. Hardly 50m from where I am, a two-tonne male rhino is waiting to cross the road. Phew! That's a close one! I have to say, I didn't feel scared at the moment, but in hindsight I realise how close I was to dying - quite painfully. Rhinos of course have very poor eyesight and that's what worked quite well for me - it smelt me and so was tentative about whether to cross. At the end of the day, I've got to count the big guy as a really gentle being - one that preferred to wait and avoid conflict. That day taught me an important lesson - regardless of how calm things may seem, never take things for granted in a forest.

Rhinos like cows?

"We'll see so many rhinos, that you'll equate them with cows.", that's what Raji had said to me when we started out in Kaziranga. Ok to be fair, her friend said that to her and she repeated the statement back to me. I'm sure several others may have had exactly that experience, but I can't say I was tripping over rhinos. We saw our fair share and we definitely got some really good photographs. That being said, how many rhinos you get to see depends purely on your luck and the ranges you choose to visit. Kaziranga National Park has four ranges - Kohora (central range), Bagori (western range), Agoratoli(eastern), Burapahar and the Panbari reserve forest. The eastern range is a birder's paradise - not surprisingly we spotted more than a 150 bird species during our stay, most of them in that range. The western range is a great place to spend your evenings with large mammals. The central range is a best of both worlds. Tall trees make for great raptor perches and the proximity of grazing landscapes makes for great encounters with the bigger animals. No one wants to go to the Burapahar range and the Panbari forest which needs special permission was closed when we went to Kaziranga. Our decision to split our time across the remaining three ranges paid off - I think we got a good sampling of what Kaziranga has to offer; though I must say I'll have to go back and spend some more time there to get to know the forest better. And who knows what mysteries this forest hides that I haven't yet experienced?

How many tigers?

I usually have pretty good luck with big cats. I will say this though - don't go to Kaziranga if you want to spot a tiger or a leopard. The grass is so tall that sometimes you have to struggle to spot an elephant. Secretive, solitary hunters like tigers are difficult to photograph unless of course you're Steve Winter and can set up camera traps all over the place. Go to Kaziranga for the birds and the large herbivores. If a tiger's what's on your mind, pick another park. We came tantalisingly close to spotting a tiger - but it gave us the slip. All fair and well though, since we didn't miss the big cats at all!

Travel Tips

If you're planning your trip to Kaziranga here are a few tips that'll come in handy.
  • The best time to visit Kaziranga is between December and February. This is a relatively dry season, there's good light; the forest department also burns the grass during this time which makes for relatively unhindered wildlife viewing. Plus, it's absolutely brilliant weather for the most part.
  • Kaziranga is quite close to Jorhat airport. As compared to Guwahati which is about 230km away, Jorhat is just 80km from the park. If I had to go only to Kaziranga, I'd perhaps choose a flight into Jorhat.
  • We stayed at the Wild Grass Resort. Mr Manju Barua (+91-3776-262085), the owner is a very knowledgeable man and extremely hospitable towards wildlife lovers. The manager, Dilip Gogoi is a bit of dead-fish by appearance, but don't get fooled by that facade. He quietly makes sure that he caters to all your needs.
  • We got a pretty good deal from Wild Grass. All four of us stayed in one huge room at just ₹1300 per night with breakfast included. Our meals were an additional ₹750 per person per night.
  • There are several other accommodation options too. The Assam tourism lodges are perhaps the most inexpensive, though I'm not sure of the service. There's lodges like the Dhansari eco camp and luxury resorts like Iora that complete the picture. From the number of homestays and small hotels I saw on the road, I can't imagine that it'll be too difficult to backpack into Kaziranga either.
  • Wild Grass will arrange your safaris too. We got a rate of ₹3200 for two game drives a day from them which is about ₹400 less than that of the gypsy association at Kohora. That said, the side facing vehicles at Wild Grass didn't feel very photography friendly for a group of four. I can imagine they'll be fine for two people, but for four of us with telephoto lenses, we got front facing vehicles from Kohora.
  • Wild Grass has some amazing guides. Kunwar, Palash and Naqeeb are perhaps their most talked of guides on the blogosphere, but I'm pretty sure that their other two guides are also pretty good. I'd recommend Wild Grass most highly just for how knowledgeable their guides are.
  • If you'd like to go on an elephant safari, you should plan your morning drive at Kohora. The elephants set out for an hour at 0530 in the morning and the ride costs ₹325 per person. While you don't always have the best photography angles, the elephants give you a good chance of getting very close to the rhinos and swamp deer. Your best bet of seeing a tiger is also from atop an elephant. We of course, almost fell off the elephant in the excitement of seeing a Siberian Rubythroat.
  • Wild Grass arranged our pick up from Nameri for ₹2500 - I suggest asking for an AC vehicle if you're coming in from there so you can beat the dusty roads. The drop back to Guwahati was ₹4000 - this seemed like a reasonable rate.
  • The Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary is just a stone's throw from Kaziranga - home to the Hoolock Gibbon; India's only ape. I strongly recommend a visit - more about that in another post.
  • Most importantly - if you want to photograph, be mindful of the dust. My friend Chirdeep's 100-400mm lens stopped functioning mid-way through the trip. Of course, he'd been through similar hell in Kanha and Bandhavgarh in 2011, so it may not have been entirely because of Kaziranga.
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