I thought my early morning flight to Guwahati was going to be uneventful, and I would be able to grab some shuteye on the way. Halfway through the journey, when I was just about to close my window shade and get comfortable, I saw what looked like mountains in the distance. At first, I dismissed the sight as a trick my sleep-deprived mind was playing on me. After a while, as my plane began getting closer to those strange objects on the horizon, I realised that I was seeing the mighty snow-capped Himalayas from my seat! I clicked a hundred or so dazzling pictures of the Khangchendzonga peak in all its glory. I knew then that this was going to be the start of an enchanting adventure! For those of you who want to stare at these magnificent mountains, remember to take a window seat on the left side of the plane.
The four-hour drive through Assam to get to Diphlu River Lodge (DRL) at the periphery of Kaziranga National Park was not as back-breaking as you’d expect. The sights outside my window were so pretty that I barely kept my camera down the entire way!
My rendezvous with wildlife at Kaziranga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, began as soon as my car reached the highway at the park’s periphery. A wild elephant, with an egret perched casually on his back, was having a meal right beside the road. This was a particularly thrilling sight for me since I’d never seen an elephant in its natural habitat before! Little did I know though, that this trip was going to be full of many heart-stopping firsts.
Set on the banks of the eponymous river that forms the southern boundary of the national park, the Diphlu River Lodge began operations in 2008. The brainchild of Jagdish Phookan, it initially functioned as a small eco-tourism lodge for about seven years in the 1970s, but had to be closed due to rising local tensions. The project was brought back to life by his son Ashish and daughter-in-law Jahnabi Phookan. This uniquely designed eco-lodge became one of the first efforts towards responsible tourism inside Kaziranga. Blending in perfectly with its surroundings and without obtrusive fencing, the lodge is made up of 12 cottages, which have been constructed in the traditional architectural style of the Mishing tribe of Assam. Jungle Travels India Pvt Ltd (JTI), the parent company that manages DRL, is entirely owned and managed by this dynamic spousal duo. They have spent 29 years committed to crafting unique travel experiences and championing responsible tourism. Starting out in 1989 in a tiny back room with nothing more than a telephone, solid know-how and profound determination, they have built this boutique travel company into an award-winning enterprise with a number of reputed brands under its belt. Their ventures include Eastern Odyssey, a cultural travel specialist that crafts bespoke travel experiences in Eastern India, and Assam Bengal Navigation (ABN), a pioneering river tourism company founded in partnership with British couple, Andrew and Grania Brock. ABN currently operates on the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers and is the largest and most experienced river cruise operator in the country.
Since DRL is right next to the river, the lodge premises are extremely prone to flooding, especially during the monsoons. When the waters of the Diphlu River rise, DRL safeguards the animals from around the area by giving them sanctuary and safe passage as a part of the lodge is on high ground. It is remarkable to see the dedication of the management who continue to adhere to the highest levels of quality and environmental sustainability despite the massive maintenance costs brought on by the annual flooding, remaining open and ready for service throughout the year. They continue to use traditional building materials, despite it being more economical to use modern structural materials, and support local labour.
The cottages are made from locally-sourced bamboo, wood and thatch. Due to the indigenous style of construction, the lodge is not exactly handicap-friendly. However, the staff is very welcoming and supportive, gladly offering their services to ferry any differently-abled individuals to and from the cottages and restaurant. I was told about an elderly gentleman who had come with his family and was a wheelchair user. The staff carried him up and down the steps, and by the end of the trip, he just wanted to stay on and go for more safaris! Most of the staff are locals from the neighbouring villages, and are trained in-house, including DRL’s talented naturalists.
Tip If you haven’t availed the cab service provided by DRL, it might be a little difficult to spot the entrance of the lodge from the highway as they haven’t put up any signboards, as a measure to safeguard the privacy of their guests and stave off unwelcome walk-ins. Contact the lodge for directions.
In your room, you will find a handy booklet containing a list of birds and mammals that can be spotted inside the park. I did not know then that I would be religiously check-marking it every single day during my stay. It tickled me when I realised that I was in royal company – in 2016, the lodge played host to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Catherine Middleton, and they had probably pored over a copy of this very booklet.
After resting a while, it was time for lunch at Machan, DRL’s all-purpose common area and restaurant. While the food was indescribably delicious, the view from the restaurant deck was nothing short of exquisite either. You have a clear view of the Diphlu River, which originates in the Karbi Anglong Hills and goes on to join the Brahmaputra. As I sat there greedily devouring my food, I admired the beautiful scenery in front of me. Fisherman slowly made their way across the river in hand-crafted boats. Two hornbills flew across the sky as many other birds danced across the branches of trees. A magnificently large and beautiful dragon fly perched itself on my table. A mere lunch had never been this magical! All the ingredients used to prepare meals are sourced straight from local vendors and food waste is dumped in a compost pit, a step towards sustainability.
Though the dramatic scenery during lunch was refreshing, it wasn’t enough to keep me from nodding off in my chair. I headed back to my cottage for a well-deserved nap. I woke up in the evening, and not a moment too soon, for the sun was starting to set. The sky was ablaze in an orange hue and I sat in my cottage’s balcony marvelling at the spectacle till it turned dark. But that was only the beginning of the show that the heavens put on every day at Kaziranga. Before the moon rises and washes out the darkness with its iridescent glow, the stars shine brightly for all to see. Make sure you get out of your cottage at this time because the Milky Way is easily spotted since you are a great distance away from the air and light pollution of Indian cities. Even with my amateur photography skills, I managed to take some spectacular pictures of the clearest night sky that I had ever witnessed in my life! You can also download stargazing apps to make your night enjoyable as well as informative. Please note that all the lights outside the cottages are switched off at 10.00pm every day. Each room is provided with torches but if you still need help getting back to your cottage, the staff will be happy to assist.
After a hearty dinner, it was time to hit the proverbial hay since I had a morning safari booked and I was not planning on being groggy for that experience. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and my eyes only opened when my alarm rang at 5.00am.
As we set off towards the core area of the park, my naturalist cum driver, Qutub informed me that we were heading towards the western zone of the park since that’s where chances of spotting a rhino are quite high. At one point, I spotted a huge shape in the tall grass that I assumed was an elephant. “No, ma’am. That’s just a grazing rhino,” said Qutub, who was more intent on drawing my attention towards an egret perched on a branch near by. As my camera clicked away (thank you, zoom lens!), he continued to tell me about the many bird species one can see within the precincts of the park, while pointing to the egret excitedly. I had to explain to him that while egrets were very interesting, I had already seen them before but I had never encountered a rhino ever in my life. Thankfully, he took the (very obvious) hint and we began inching closer to the two-ton behemoth. Everyone has seen rhinos in wildlife documentaries and tourism brochures, but nothing quite prepares you for the actual sight of one. For starters, they are exceptionally strange looking creatures! But if you look beyond their armoured grey skin, their behaviour is… even stranger! Due to their poor vision, rhinos are quite unpredictable. They run at speeds upwards of 50km/ hr and have been known to chase after and even bump into safari jeeps.
As our jeep slowly crossed the designated safari path, the rhino decided to cross over to the other side as well. It must not have been pleased with the purr of the engine because it suddenly gave chase! In those few seconds, my open jeep seemed like the worst place to be! Before the angry rhino could knock into us, we raced forward. Thankfully, it changed its mind and its course, veering into the shrubbery.
We slowly made our way towards the Beel Scenic View Point, a watchtower that gives visitors panoramic views of the Dighali Beel Lake. The watchtower has markings on the side, which indicate where the waters of the lake reached during the recent floods – the water level was at its highest in 1988, with the 2017 reading right below. Kaziranga National Park is exceedingly prone to flooding; three-fourths of the western region of the park is submerged during the monsoon. As we stood at the edge of the lake taking in the splendid view, Qutub pointed out a romp of otters swimming in the lake. On the lake shore on the other side, we could see a herd of barasingha (swamp deer) along with a sounder of boars.
Further into the forest, rhinos made a frequent appearance but the other denizens of the park – various kinds of deer and the most elusive resident of all, the tiger – remained hidden. We parked on the pathway near a known tiger trail, but the big cat was not curious that day. Waiting by the side of the road was not a completely fruitless experience – the breeze was lovely and the wind made a mesmerising sound as it rustled the grass and leaves of trees. Eventually, two forest rangers atop baby elephants passed us. These adorable pachyderms were the newest recruits of the anti-poaching task force at Kaziranga. Soon after, Qutub received a call which intimated him to the presence of a mother and baby rhino near the viewpoint, so we rushed back to our first stop. I had no idea that I was about to witness something so spectacularly bizarre that even as I write this article, I have difficulty fathoming it. There are washrooms at the viewpoint, with an outlet for the waste to disseminate behind the structures. This causes the mud behind the washrooms to act like a salt lick of sorts. Rhinos visit every day to get a dose of nutrients that they don’t otherwise get from their daily diets. Though the sight is a little nauseating, you will be able to see the rhinos at incredibly close quarters.
Tip All safari costs are included in the room rates.
After the weird and wonderful sights of nature, it was time to head back to the lodge. Once I had reached, I roamed around, enjoying the scenery and breathing lungfuls of fresh air. I sat awhile at the gazebo next to the pond and got some reading done. The pond is the receptacle of all the grey water (waste water from showers and sinks) of the lodge, which is then used to irrigate the rice and mustard crop grown in front of the cottages, while the gazebo is strategically located to cover a pump used in the irrigation process. Soon, it was time for another night-time stroll and I happened to spot a jungle cat running across the path. It’s not uncommon for wild animals to enter the lodge’s premises. DRL’s charismatic manager, Mr Ranesh Roy, always quick with a joke and a story, told me about an elephant that visited the lodge every day to eat mustard plants. The gentle giant used to enter the lodge so silently that no one knew about his comings and goings until someone spotted his footprints!
The next morning, it was time for me to head for the elephant safari, which I was waiting for with bated breath. I reached the western zone at dawn and was greeted by a beautiful sunrise and clear blue skies. Once all the paperwork was out of the way, I climbed a tower besides which my tour guide – elephant Poornima – stood. Once my seat was secured, we were off into the jungle. I was beside myself with happiness and had a silly grin on my face throughout the journey. I highly recommend this experience because the animals inside the park are not the least bit afraid of pachyderms. After waiting patiently for a rhino to cross her path, Poornima stood poised at the edge of the lake, and then she waded in. I almost dropped my camera because I did not expect the safari to be that adventurous! All the other safari elephants followed suit. The waters of the lake almost reached my feet! It was terrifying, thrilling and, at the same time, absolutely amazing! As soon as we reached the other side, we came across a herd of wild buffaloes with dangerous-looking horns who stared at us uninterestedly.
Mist hung low on the beautiful Mikir Hills, which made for a stunning backdrop to the vividly green forest that was before me. As we ‘swayed’ our way through the jungle atop Poornima, who was using a branch to sweep brambles out of her path, we were witness to sights and sounds that you would not encounter if you were on a jeep safari. Somehow we got separated from the other elephants and Poornima began making rumbling noises. Our mahout informed us that she was communicating with the others. The undergrowth slowly enveloped us and we found a small herd of hog deer. The male deer must have felt like a celebrity because he did not move an inch as at least five elephants from the safari (including ours) surrounded him and a dozen tourists took pictures of him.
All too soon, the elephant safari was over and we were dropped back to the tower. I took the opportunity to thank our guide, Poornima. As I pet her, another elephant wrapped its trunk around my other hand. They both looked at me with their soulful brown eyes, probably curious about the little creature that was making such absurd squealing noises. I said (an almost tearful) goodbye and headed out of the park. But the adventure was far from over.
The next thing on my agenda was a safari through the central zone, one of the most sought-after areas of the park. The thoughtful staff at DLR had packed a small picnic for me, which I enjoyed by the side of the road in a grassy patch outside the zone gate. I decided to give my share of bananas to some friendly baby goats who were roaming about in my vicinity. After eating, we hopped back into the jeep and made our way into the park. This zone’s topography is very different from that of the western zone. Initially both sides of the pathway are covered in impenetrable elephant grass. True to its name, it’s as tall and, at points, even taller than elephants! We actually encountered a herd of wild elephants hiding in there with only their grey backs visible! We spotted a herd of swamp deer and wild buffaloes in the distance, but besides these and a few species of birds, we did not see anything. For those keen on a safari experience, I’d recommend giving this zone a miss. Because of hordes of tourists making a lot of noise inside the park, and the tall elephant grass on either side, sightings are rare. For avid birdwatchers, the eastern zone is the best area.
After returning to the lodge, I ran to the riverside where a domesticated elephant was taking a bath. Best of all, the guests at the lodge were supposed to help clean her. I watched Laxmi follow the commands of her mahout impeccably and swim through the water, using her trunk to splash water on her back. I couldn’t help but notice just how incredibly clean the river was. The staff at DRL is very conscientious about keeping it pristine, and ensure that no waste is disposed off in the river. After a (now mandatory) petting session and my heart full to bursting, I headed to Machan for a hearty meal.
By afternoon, it was time for me to head for a short trek, which took me through the narrow lanes of the village opposite DRL, to its edge where a rubber plantation was situated. I chanced across a cute little village belle, who couldn’t stop giggling when I told my tour guide to translate to her that I wanted to take her picture. My tour guide, Benu, told me all about the village and its hardy people. He explained that, in the past, the village’s surroundings were home to a dense forest, but most of the trees had been cut down. Though I felt disheartened at the thought of the destruction mankind has wrought on nature, the walk was a blissful, educational and rejuvenating experience.
Before I knew it, it was time for my last dinner at the lodge, and I was in for a treat. I had the pleasure of tasting Assamese cuisine (lentils, sticky rice and a mixed vegetable curry) and it was absolutely delectable. After some ritualistic stargazing, I drifted off to sleep. While you’re here, do visit DRL’s weaving centre. As a step towards fulfilling JTI’s commitment to rural community development, Jahnabi spear-headed the founding of the Tribal Heritage project, whose function is to preserve Assam’s rich textile legacy. Weaving is an intrinsic part of Assam but hand-spun textiles are a dying art. Tribal Heritage seeks to counter this by providing training in hand-weaving and design to rural men and women, giving them a space to work and share in the profits. The weaving unit supplies most of the upholstery inside the cottages. Situated in a lovely, spacious cottage behind the reception, the unit was abuzz with the sound of expert hands manipulating fascinating handlooms. It was a pleasure to see the villagers so engrossed in their work, creating fine textiles with beautiful, intricate designs. They continued to deftly operate the loom even as they smiled and posed for my camera. Not only do they have a wonderful place to work, Tribal Heritage also helps in sales and marketing. They have a retail space in the lodge near the restaurant, as well as one in Guwahati.
I headed back to the Guwahati airport with a heavy heart, but definite plans of returning. My experience at DRL is one that I will always cherish. I highly recommend this wonderful venue to anyone who is a nature lover or simply someone looking to gain a measure of peace and fulfilment. So, make use of those vacation days and frequent flyer miles you’ve been saving up and go here for a life-changing taste of Kaziranga and all its beauty!
When to go November to early April. The best sightings are from end of March to early April
Diphlu River Lodge
Kaziranga National Park, Kuthuri
Near Bagori Police Outpost
Dist. Nagaon, Assam
Cell: 08811036371, 09864032322, 09435146414
Tariff ₹12,000 per person, with meals
- Jungle safari
- Elephant safari
- Boat safari
- Village walk
- Elephant bathing
- Tea garden visit
Air Nearest airport: Guwahati 230km/ 4–4.5 hrs) is served by flights from Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangkok. Services to Tezpur and Jorhat airports, though closer, are erratic. Diphlu River Lodge is 2.5hrs away from Jorhat and 1hr away from Tezpur. The resort helps arrange transfers to the lodge for ₹11,000 (return; swift dzire)
Rail Nearest railhead: Guwahati Jn and Kamakhya Jn are well-connected to major metros and cities. Taxi as above
Road From Guwahati, take NH37 to Nowgaon toward Kaziranga via Jakhalabanda (45km), which is 30km away from the lodge. The lodge lies a little ahead of the Bagori police outpost. Taxi for a drop costs ₹6,716
Read more in the new Outlook Traveller Getaways Responsible Escapes