Kaziranga on a Misty January Morning

How does one describe people who have a treasure in their own back yard but are busy exploring others’ back yards? Stupid, right? Well, then that’s what we’ve been all these years…downright stupid. Coming as we do from a state that’s rich in flora and fauna and where natural beauty abounds, it’s nothing short of sacrilege to ignore it all in pursuit of attractions elsewhere.
But we decided to set things right when we went home in Jan this year. Kaziranga was definitely on the agenda this time. We had to visit Mintu’s folks in Jorhat anyway, so it wasn’t difficult to include it in our tight schedule. Bookings were made online at Bon Habi Resort…other resorts were more or less booked for the period as the Republic Day holiday on a Monday made it a long weekend.

Cosily packed into our old familiar Honda City, we set off on the roughly one-and-a-half hour journey on the Guwahati highway. The highway is in pretty good shape—much better than some we had driven on in north India. Plus there’s the bonus of driving through tea gardens on either side.

By dusk (it gets dark earlier in this part of the country), we turned into a muddy village road off the highway. But a short distance later we were driving in through the gates of Bon Habi (a loose translation of which in the local lingo would be “forest grass”). Going by the silent and peaceful environs, one can’t imagine that it isn’t at all far from the busy highway.
reception area at BHR

The resort turned out to be a very pleasant surprise indeed. One doesn’t wish to sound condescending, but we weren’t too sure what to expect so when we saw what the place had on offer we were happy with our choice.

The cottages are pretty tastefully decorated and spacious too.

The layout of the place is quite good with the cottages spread out in different directions and connected by narrow concrete paths, providing enough privacy.

The innovative use of items made of locally available material is laudable. We couldn’t help comparing it to the place we’d stayed in when we visited Corbett during the New Year. Those cottages had been good too but the overall maintenance of the place was better at Bon Habi. And the staff too was very courteous and well-trained. We seemed to be the only family there that day and it suited us just fine. We seem to have a knack of being the only ones wherever we go…Manali, Kufri, Bhimtal….

Of course, as in Corbett there was no TV, which is great really…I see no point in going all the way to a haven to be one with nature only to be disturbed by the contraption. So there was much family bonding and the kids enjoyed themselves on the swings.

There’s one thing lacking in Bon Habi, I felt. They could perhaps arrange for some games or activities to keep people busy. Dinner was a quiet affair and pretty decent too with the attentive staff looking after our needs. Arrangements were made for an elephant safari in the morning. The resort made the arrangements for us as one has to obtain permission from the forest authorities in advance. The safari cost us Rs 200 per head. The ride lasts for about an hour or so. One can also opt for jeep safaris which roughly cost Rs 800/-.

Everyone got dressed early—even the kids. We had a 20 minute drive to the place where we were to meet our elephant friends. Soon enough we drove off the highway onto a rough muddy road and over a rustic bridge that led into the forest. There was an early morning mist and we observed our surroundings in awe expecting some beast or the other to leap out of the vegetation. We met other vehicles on the way returning from their safari experience. I looked closely at the passing faces in the hope of reading the thrill they’d experienced but found them looking equally curiously at us! On either side of the narrow track dominating the landscape was tall dry grass (ikora as it’s known in Assamese), shrubs, and bushes. Trees were few and far between. Our guide pointed to long scratch marks on the bark of a tree to our right saying they were made by tigers residing in the park.

Up ahead we could see a clearing coming up. We were almost there when all of a sudden to our left we saw a rhino ambling out of the tall grass and undergrowth on to the track! I like to think that tired of all those humans in jeeps and elephant back gawking at him, he probably wanted to check out the people for a change. Our car slid slowly into the car park and we couldn’t get enough of all that was happening around us. Up ahead to our left were 3-4 elephants with their mahouts waiting patiently for riders.

To our right was a platform with steps leading up to it. Some forest officials and locals were standing around. But the moment belonged, undoubtedly, to the curious rhino. We were asked to stay back in the car as all eyes were on the unpredictable beast. He took a few hesitant steps towards us, took a good look, decided it wasn’t worth it, or perhaps, simply felt outnumbered. Whatever it was, he seemed to come to a decision, did a u-turn and disappeared the way he’d come.

Wow, what a dramatic start to our safari! We were thrilled to bits. The forest officials told us that we were lucky to see one of these creatures from so close.

We were ushered quickly to the platform past the board with the census figures on it. It was only then that I realized that the platform is used to get onto the elephant’s back. Ma-in-law, sis-in-law, the two kids, and Mintu clambered on to the seat atop the poor elephant’s back. That left Mintu’s bro-in-law and me to take our seats on the other one. There were a few pleasantries exchanged with the official and with a wave of his hand, he bid us a good time. “Usually we send a guard along, but with Rai Bahadur you’ll be safe,” were his parting words. I thought the mahout was probably a very experienced and skilful man and knew what to do in an emergency.

Swaying to the elephant’s rhythm, I readied my camera afraid to miss out on anything interesting that may spring up. We followed the other one carrying the rest of the family. I was amused to note that my ma-in-law was looking pretty comfortable on her seat. We’d teased her earlier on her choice of sari for the occasion—the pattern vaguely resembled a tiger’s skin.

Soon I got talking to our mahout and he was happy to oblige us with any information we sought. He’s been around for almost 20 years, he said, but his family stays in Dibrugarh.
As we talked, the morning mist swirled thickly around us, making visibility low. Our mahout pointed at something in the distance…

we just saw a silhouette enveloped in the mist…it was a rhino grazing. They start breakfast early, I thought to myself. Suddenly, out of the mist emerged 3-4 elephants with people on their backs. It was pretty eerie. Everyone was conscious that there was a need to be quiet. I clicked furiously at anything I could capture in the thickening mist. Our mahout cum guide told us that tiger sightings are very rare. One has to be very lucky indeed to spot one. The chances increase when all the grass is burned down (I think he said Feb-March…not sure though). The rhinos like to feed on the ashes it seems. That’s when one can spot more animals.
I asked if rhinos ever attack visitors and he replied that it’s not entirely unheard of. He told us about a foreigner who was dragged down from her perch on an elephant and had to be rushed to the nearest clinic. He said it is an extremely unpredictable animal and can charge without any provocation. It can get under the elephant and turn it over. My feet curled involuntarily at that piece of information. “But you don’t have to worry, Rai Bahadur here is a pro. No rhino or tiger can dare to challenge its superiority,” he said patting the head of the elephant beneath us. Oh, so Rai Bahadur was the name of the elephant and not the mahout! A veteran of many seasons, our elephant roams these parts majestically, unafraid of any attacker. Warming to the subject, our mahout proudly informed us that the elephant had even acted in a movie a couple of years back! Not bad, I thought, we’re astride a celebrity elephant. And, as if on cue, Rai Bahadur decided to show us some attitude.

He would want to go off in another direction but his mahout would whack him on the head with an iron rod he was carrying making a dull sound on impact with the poor thing’s skull. I cringed and asked “Wouldn’t that hurt him?” “That’s the idea,” came the laconic reply. “He’s pretty moody…since he was young…needs to be kept in check.” It was then that I noticed the large holes in its ears. The mahout told us that those were signs of the disciplining that Rai Bahadur had to undergo as a restless youth. (More cringing.)

We spotted herds of deer scampering across in the mist, and quite a few rhinos too. I wondered how they felt, curious onlookers watching them at breakfast time.

Our elephants walked over the uneven ground silently, tearing out the grass with their snouts, giving them a good shake to rid them of the mud near the roots, and then shoving it into their mouths. That was the only sound to be heard-chomp, chomp, chomp….

We emerged into a clearing and chanced upon a rhino pair—mother and child sharing quality moments. It made me feel we were intruding. They continued doing what they were doing, immune to all the attention they were getting. We carried on in search of other animals.

Soon we spotted a wild buffalo, with white birds on its back getting a free ride. More deer. Another rhino. A couple of hares. Then Rai Bahadur decided he’d had had enough of following Shompa (the other elephant) around and overtook her as if to prove to her that that’s where he belonged—up ahead. Shompa’s mahout wasn’t too happy about Rai Bahadur stealing his protégé’s thunder. Rushing to her defence, he said, “Shompa too has acted in a movie.” “She’s not looking too clean today as she sprayed herself with mud yesterday, but when I spruce her up, she looks very smart!”

We realized that we were close to the track we’d driven over—the mist had thrown the mahouts’ sense of direction off track. We crossed over to the other side and saw the tree with tiger claw marks once again.

There were no animals on this side—just some exotic bird which we couldn’t really see through the mist, and some vultures.

Another wild buffalo emerged through the grass with the freeloaders in tow. The grass on this side seemed to be taller and scraped against our legs. Some more minutes of roaming around in the wild, and then it was time to go. We proceeded on the track once more. Our car had been driven to a place at the edge of the forest near the bridge we’d crossed earlier. It was fun swaying to the elephant’s rhythmic walk through the misty forest on that cold January morning. Like Tarzan or Mowgli.

Just short of the bridge on an incline was a small wooden platform on the edge of the road. The elephants made their way to it and one by one we got off, almost reluctantly.

But I was sure that Rai Bahadur was glad to see our backs. There’s just so many humans one can put up with.

It felt funny at first to be back on terra firma. Then we made our way back to the car, crossing the bridge once again. Shompa gave us a salute with her trunk…and needless to say Rai Bahadur didn’t condescend to do the same. We bid goodbye to Shompa and Rai Bahadur and their mahouts one last time and watched them swaying away in different directions. We refreshed ourselves with hot cups of tea at a small makeshift tea shop bordering the road revelling in our experience which had already seemed to acquire an unbelievable quality. And in that pensive mode we made our way back to the resort ready for a sumptuous breakfast.

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