Day 6 -7: Kaziranga National Park
Almost a week on the road and we still had a week more to go. After Kaziranga, we didn’t know where we were headed (probably not the wisest thing to do in the NE). We left Shillong at around 7 or 8 in the morning. This time, as we passed along the winding inter-state roads , I had a tough time fighting nausea. Within two hours we reached Guwahati, but our driver bypassed the main city to enter the wide open roads, flanked on either side, by green fields. Unlike Shillong or the other neighouring states, Assam is primarily flat land bound by Arunachal’s imposing mountains.
At 1:00 pm we stopped for lunch, at a lunch home, near the border of Kaziranga National Park. The drive to the main gate took another hour and we were fortunate to see our first Rhino sighting from one of the viewing points. The experience of seeing a magnificent animal like the rhino, in the wild, is unparalleled. At 2:00 pm we reached Nature-Hunt Eco Camp. The Camp is located nearly 5 km from the main gate of the park. Surrounded by fields, village houses and a speeding highway; there’s nothing really to do in the camp. The spartan rooms are mud huts with thatched roofs and have basic lighting. The absence of a fan turns out to be a killer in the heat of the plains. After unpacking and settling basic check-in facilities, we rested for a bit. By 5:00 pm, you begin to feel restless. We walked to the main road and clicked photographs, observed ducks behave silly around dogs and cattle chase wildly. We desperately waited for dinner (a wholesome meal of whatever you ask) after which we tried to decide what to do after Kaziranga. The camp manager gave us many suggestions, but they didn’t seem feasible with the days we had. So we decided to go to Tezpur, the day after the next and probably go to Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh.
We skipped the elephant safari and opted for a jeep safari. The camp has an arrangement with the park and therefore the jeep picks you from your doorstep. Khan Chacha, as he is called fondly, works as a driver for Nature-Hunt Eco Camp during the tourist season. The first stop is to pick the forest guard (compulsory for all parks in India) and make an entry fee. We passed by the tea plantations, on our way to the park. As with most national parks and forest reserves, the entrance of the park is flanked by fields of green. The answer is always same to the question, “Is it safe for the villagers to be staying here?”. The belief of a co-existence between humans and animals doesn’t really exist. But for those without an option to survive otherwise, belief is the only hope they can survive on. Although, Kaziranga National Park is known for its rhinos, there is an astonishing number of birds and other wildlife. Khan Chacha eagerly blurted names of birds around us, showed us turtles sun-bathing on logs of wood in the river and watched alertly for a tiger. We saw our first rhino within the first half hour of our tour. It was barely 100 m away. It knew that we were there, just as we knew it could sense us. My heart almost skipped a beat when it looked up. At that distance, with an open jeep for protection and a pot-holed jungle road; there was no way we would be able to beat this magnificent beast on its turf. Khan Chacha said that a chasing rhino can charge at speeds of about 60 km/hr. With poachers penetrating the park and killing rhinos; it’s difficult to predict the behaviour of the animal when it encounters a human. Respect works best in the animal kingdom and since we’re in the cage and they are free; it’s best to be quite while observing a rhino. We weren’t lucky to spot a tiger (neither in the elephant grass zone or the central watch tower). Secretly, I was happy. I didn’t fancy seeing a tiger while I was on an open jeep. We finished the tour by 12:00 p.m. After picking a miniature rhino from the park’s memorabilia shop, we said bye to Khan chacha. We thought we would have a lunch at Maihang, a local restaurant and probably walk the 5km back. It’s possible that you might be at a loss for words when you open the menu. With exotic meat such as snake, pigeon and an assortment of fish might want you to rethink your decision to order. I placed an order for fish cooked in mustard gravy and confirmed what type of fish it would be. The food lived up to the promises made in the menu. It was 2:00 p.m. and the heat was excruciating. We saw three backpackers wandering in the afternoon heat. We hitched a ride in a local minivan and headed to the stop near our camp. The minivan is the only mode of short distance transport for the villagers who don’t have vehicles. Basil occupied a lot of space and probably didn’t please the little kids who hopped on the vehicle. For 20INR we reached our stop. Incredible! We were still a little undecided about the plan for the next few days. The evening was quite dull and we packed our backpacks and counted the seconds to sleep.