The colour of this trip is green”, sighs a friend as we gaze at the different shades of emerald that flitter past our windows on the highway. But then, this is Assam. The highway in question is taking us from Guwahati to Balipara, in Sonitpur district, towards the northern edge of Assam where the state rubs cheeks with Arunachal Pradesh. As you traverse the road in the breezy early hours, it runs along this long thin eastward finger, passing by Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, and moving towards Arunachal, while the imposing Brahmaputra remains a constant presence on the map.
The only ‘male’ river in India, the son of Brahma seemed wide, slow and thoughtful, making many sand islands and nursing life along its way. A distinctly different fluid experience was on offer the night before at the new rooftop bar of the Novotel Guwahati GS Road, as our glasses tinkled like wind chimes.
Now, starting early on that green highway, we are moving towards refreshments at the Misa Polo Club, a colonial-era haunt for British officers located in the Kellyden Tea Estate. All old wood and World War photographs, the club makes an extremely pleasant break with its old trees and rolling golf course. The tea factory in the estate is a must-visit for understanding the process of CTC tea making—from maintaining the correct acidity in the soil to sorting, withering, oxidation, rolling and drying the leaves.
In another couple of hours, we reach the Balipara tehsil. Soon, the air begins to feel like some transparent young mountain stream through which you can see the pebbles below. The luminosity is bursting through the leaves, and we have reached the Wild Mahseer estate.
Though it feels like we reached something even more heavenly. Prepared for some old planters’ bungalows set in tea gardens, we instead find ourselves in a veritable ‘Eastern Himalayan Botanic Ark’ instead. This property had been part of a tea garden since 1874, and within its 22 acres the owners have created a centre for biodiversity, conservation and re-wilding since 2008. Simply put, your host is nature herself.
It is a carnival of birds, butterflies, amphibians, reptiles, insects and vegetation, all surrounded by vast tea plantations. It is impossible to have a bedroom window that does not look out on some outrageous greenery. Mynas sing around bamboo plants, monkeys chew on fallen fruit, jackfruits hang in luscious groups, Indian skippers fly busily around flowers, frogs think deep thoughts outside the orchidarium, and at night, fireflies light the way as you meander back to your cottage after an excellent dinner.
In the morning the in-house botany expert takes us on a long immersive walk, aptly described as a ‘jungle shower’. The trees make a shining tunnel overhead and we exclaim over the wild strawberries, mulberries, ginger and cinnamon to magnificent specimens of ashoka, palash, Assamese rubber and some 38 different species of bamboo.
Wild Mahseer expands its understanding of nature and eco-restoration by going beyond its borders. Its tourism activities are closely interwoven with the Balipara Foundation, which carries out ethno-botanic surveys of surrounding tribal communities, encouraging the recording of traditional ecological knowledge and medicinal systems as well as helping the locals earn sustainably via homestays and weaving products.
We are taken to a traditional food haven that a local NGO runs in the Wild Mahseer grounds. The fragrance of the local joha rice is incredible. It is served on green leaf plates with masoor dal, dhekiya saag, pumpkin pitika, baby potatoes, tomato tak chutney, chicken curry, fried fish, kordoi tanga (starfruit) curry, papad-peanuts-curry leaf bhujiya, coconut-sesame ladoo, and black rice kheer to top it off.
After two days of having thus stepped off the grid, one dawn we sleepwalk our way into a caravan of vehicles. We are on our way towards Kaziranga National Park. Sleep makes us, variously, cynical (“Rhinos will be sleeping yaar”); lethargic (“Okay, I’ll have a sandwich if you open the packet”); pessimistic (“I never ever see any wildlife, never mind what!”), or just silent. All of which is good because Kaziranga can then burst upon our consciousness like some green and wondrous lightning.
Spread over almost 43,000 hectares, Kaziranga is a dreamscape of grasslands, waterbodies, marshes and forests. It is much feted for having helped conserve the greater one-horned rhinoceros after the animal had reached the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th century. For once, the tiger is not the star of the show, though these alluvial floodplains of the Brahmaputra are home to tigers (more than a hundred), as well as elephants, bear, swamp deer (barasingha), hog deer, wild buffalo, the Gangetic dolphin and a treasure of birds. Storks, kingfishers, fish eagles, kestrels, hornbills, parakeets, ducks and geese can be spotted easily among the flat grasslands and near the lakes.
Back in 1904, when Lady Curzon visited Kaziranga to see its famous rhinos, she could not spot even one. With their prominent horn and seemingly armour-plated bodies, the fabled rhinos used to be compared to the mythical unicorn (the scientific name of the animal is Rhinoceros unicornis). Lady Curzon’s disappointment was a major reason for the conservation efforts taken to protect the animal, and Kaziranga was declared a reserve forest in 1905. It then became a wildlife sanctuary in 1950.
Today, even before we enter the gates of the National Park, we can see far-off little specks that are rhinos dotting the horizon. The greater one-horned rhino with its two permanent features: a pure keratin horn on its nose, and an egret on its back busily gobbling insects. It is enough to wake up the most overfed and sleep-deprived city type.
Once we bought the tickets and got into our open-top jeeps, Kaziranga spreads out before us—a vast, flat spread of tall grass, distant woodland, lush water bodies and wildflowers, periodically punctuated by herds of magnificent elephants or sightings of solitary rhinos chomping away at the midday meal, with Indian rollers painting the sky blue... and the odd jeep full of awed tourists who scream at you as you drive past: “We saw a tiger, we saw a tiger!”
Well, we didn’t, but any excitement missing from the adventure was made up by our colourful guide-cum-driver, Swapanda, who had blood curdling Kaziranga tales to unfold. His narrative went something like this: “My grandfather used to take the British on tiger hunts in these parts...Look look, a kingfisher... If I wasn’t driving I would show you my back where the tiger clawed at me...Yeah, this is one shy deer... It is called Kaziranga because our people used to call the deer a red (ranga) goat (kazai)...The tiger came straight at me and I froze...You missed that fish eagle...”
Despite what Swapanda says, the etymology of the name ‘Kaziranga’ is not settled. Apart from the ‘red goat’ explanation, it is also believed that the word comes from the Karbi language’s Kajir-a-rong (the village of Kajir). Other romantic local legends abound too.
One of the features of the landscape here is the chapories, the elevated areas which are so useful for animals to retreat to when the Brahmaputra’s waters cause flooding. For the incredible biodiversity of Kaziranga, the river is both a scourge and a lifeline. The floods leave these plains awash with nutrient-rich silt that allows the tall grasses (up to 20 feet high) to thrive. Which is why it is not only the rhino that flourishes here. There is also a relatively healthy population of tigers, the wild water buffaloes add up to the largest population of the animal in the world, and the rare barasingha too is holding on well.
So lovely is the Kaziranga landscape and so visceral the thrill of seeing the rare rhino in its own domain, that it is only after several sightings you realise: Kaziranga is precariously a home to about two-thirds of the remaining greater one-horned rhino population. Poached for the horn, which is valued as medicine in East Asian markets, and suffering—like all our wildlife—from severe depletion of forest habitat, the animal numbers approximately 3,550 in India and Nepal. Locals tell us that the state of Assam and the central government have raised a rhino protection task force trained and equipped, for the first time, to take on the poachers in the area.
Sighing over the rhinos and, inevitably, sharing photographs, we return to Guwahati. It is good to be treated as warriors back from an honourable battle. We had been promised a tea trail, but it turned out to be much more: a tea-biodiversity-tribal villages-Kaziranga exploration that left us replete. And like all who declare themselves replete, we came back wanting more.