The time came for us to leave Kaziranga in Assam and take the 6-7 hour drive into the hills of Nagaland for our next stop in Kohima.
However our dashing and fearless tour leader, Rohan (rumored to be the inspiration behind the Jason Statham – Transporter films), had a little detour planned for us. While out “networking” the night before, he had bumped into some staff from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and using his considerable silver tongued charms had managed to wrangle an invite for all of us to visit.
The Centre does a lot of great work, rescuing, sick, injured and orphaned animals, nursing them back to health, before releasing them back into the wild.
A young volunteer gave us a tour explaining what they were doing and the processes involved, before finally leading us to the leopard enclosure where 3 leopards were being cared for, one baby and two adults.
The Boss, unable to contain her excitement upon spying the ‘big fluffy pussycat’ had to be restrained from putting her hands inside the enclosure to pat the animal. After all what use would The Boss without hands be to me? Who would massage the knots out of my tired shoulders after a day spent thumbing through the books on my Kindle?
One of the adult leopards was quite docile, but the other was angry and distinctly annoyed at our presence, constantly pacing back and forth in it’s enclosure, snarling away.
After a few minutes spent taking photos and marveling at the majesty of these big cats, we prepared to leave and it is then that I witnessed a sight, the memory of which has woken me on many a night, bathed in sweat and shaking with fear.
The Boss strayed a couple of feet too close to the angry leopard and in a split second the cat had covered the 10 meters from the other side of the enclosure in a single silent bound. Thankfully the first the Boss knew of it was not a pair of sharp incisors sinking into her neck but the sound of a huge adult leopard bouncing off the wire link fence that made up the leopard’s enclosure.
The speed and sheer power of the cat’s movement was an incredible sight to behold as I stood frozen in awe, The Boss making her exit as fast as her gazelle like legs would allow.
I will never forget that sight (the leopard, not the Boss’s legs) and it has given me new-found respect for this majestic animal.
A change of underwear all around, we thanked the staff and headed off on our journey to Kohima.
The early morning elephant safari and breakfast over, the other members of our group retired to their rooms to catch up on sleep. The Boss and I however consider sleeping during the day a waste of valuable time, particularly when travelling so we decided to explore our surroundings.
The early morning chill had eased by now and warmed by the sun we wandered out of the resort and down the dirt tracks that make up the access through the village.
A mother passes by, dressed in a traditional sari with a woolen shawl draped over her shoulders. Her young daughter walking beside her on the way to the village school, a picture of Mickey Mouse smiling back at us from her back pack filled with school books. A row of Safari jeeps waiting for their next trip into the jungle, their would-be occupants still breakfasting or napping after the elephant safari.
As we venture further up the lane we see the villagers busy tending their gardens, collecting eggs, or just drying their luxuriant black hair in the sun. Without fail we were greeted with beautiful smiles and a cheery “good morning”. Tiny goats and cows wander freely around the lanes their diminutive size making one think that we had wandered into some lost Lilliputian world.
Spotting a sign for craft teas we wander tentatively through the gate to see what we can find. A young boy runs out of the house, all eyes and sparkling white teeth. “Good morning “he greets us, “would you like to see our looms?” Captivated by this little angel we follow him into a large hall, where a number of bamboo framed looms are set up. A lady appears, silently seating herself at one of the looms and proceeds to weave a traditional Assamese pattern. The boy explains what she is doing and then shows us another loom where cloth is being woven using a mixture of cotton and recycled materials. The result, a table runner sparkling with the colored foil in the weft, yet still soft to the touch.
We are joined by the boy’s mother, an attractive, effervescent lady, and she explains that she is running a self-help group to empower the local women, teaching them skills and providing them with looms if they are unable to afford it themselves. She also has a shop selling the finished goods as well as organic teas.
By now the whole family has joined us and we chat for a while, eventually making plans to join them for a traditional Assamese breakfast the next morning.
We leave their compound still stunned by the eldest son telling us that he is studying English Literature and that his favorite writer is Christopher Marlowe! India never fails to surprise!
Exiting the gate we look back and see the entire family lined up waving and smiling.
Walking back into the resort we hear a strange sound from high in the trees. A gardener beckons me over and points to a large bird perched on top of one of the trees. It’s a Great Hornbill and as I frantically grab for my camera and remove the lens cap it launches into flight, the whoosh whoosh from it’s 1.5m wingspan like the sound of a helicopter’s rotors starting up. It’s an incredible sight and though I fail to take a decent photo, the sight and sound of this magnificent bird will remain with me forever.
The elephant pauses to grab a trunkful of elephant grass and stuffs it into it’s mouth. Breakfast on the move.
From my vantage point on the elephant’s back I scan the surrounding grass lands for signs of movement, hoping to get a glimpse of the One Horned Indian Rhino that Kaziranga National Park is famous for. I’ve never seen a Rhino in the wild and I am desperate to see one up close.
We had arrived in darkness, late the previous night, from Guwahati, and this morning is the first chance we get to take in the surroundings. It gets light early in these parts and we sacrificed a full night’s sleep to ensure that we could be in the park early enough to view the wildlife at the optimum time before the animals retreat from the heat of the day.
The elephant’s rolling motion resumes and we pass silently through the grass, in places the grass long enough to brush against our legs high up on the elephant’s back. The air is cold and crisp, the sun’s rays not yet strong enough to burn off the early morning mist still clinging to the ground.
I glimpse an ear flickering in the grass ahead and as we slowly approach we spot a Sambar Deer grazing in the thick undergrowth. It seems unafraid, perhaps unable to distinguish the humans astride the elephant, and as we move closer we see that it is in fact injured, a big wound in it’s side. The unfortunate result of a lost sparring match with another deer. The mahout explains that sadly it may not live for long. Kaziranga has one of the highest concentrations of tigers in India and a wounded deer will be easy prey.
We move on and the elephant grass gives way to an open plain filled with deer. All different types and sizes, Sambar, Swamp deer, Muntjac, Hog deer. Hundreds of them moving slowly across the grassland, pausing now and then to graze on the sparkling dew-covered grass, but ever watchful for signs of predators.
The tranquility is disturbed by the sounds of shouting and banging of drums from a distant village. A rhino has strayed too close to the houses and the villagers make as much noise as possible to send the rhino back into the park. We spot it in the distance moving slowly back into the grasslands and the mahout urges the elephant towards it.
By the time we get close, the rhino has disappeared into the thick elephant grass and we move slowly and silently forward, breaths held in anticipation, eyes feverishly scanning for signs of the great beast.
And there it is! Staring back at us from amongst the grass, clouds of steam billowing from it’s nostrils. A strange conglomeration of parts, plates of armor and lumpy skin, all combined into the oddest looking creature I have ever seen. It’s like something left over from prehistoric times, unusual to look at but at the same time magnificent. Even from our perch high on the elephant it is obvious that it is a huge animal, filled with power. We take photo after photo trying to capture it in all its glory, while it stands and looks placidly back at us, chewing grass while a group of Mynah Birds stand line astern on the prominent ridge of it’s backbone.
Eventually tiring of us and our stage whispers, it turns and moves off into the undergrowth eventually disappearing from view, leaving us to excitedly discuss what we have just seen.
Our day is complete.
The first time any of us have seen a Rhino, and the first time for some of us to ride on an elephant.
NOTE: Our trip to Kaziranga was made possible by the awesome team at The India Trail
I have just spent the past two weeks in the North East of India, an area that not many Indian tourists visit let alone foreign tourists. I loved it so much that my original one week trip was extended out to two weeks.
The countryside is spectacular, the people unfailingly friendly, hospitable and kind, and the food delicious (even the more, shall we say “exotic” dishes which I will discuss in a later post.)
The main focus of the trip was the annual Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, a celebration of all the tribes, where they get together to showcase their customs, costumes and food. It is spectacular and I highly recommend anyone traveling to India in the first week of December to make sure it is on their itinerary.
I travelled with The India Trail, run by a couple of young guys passionate and extremely knowledgeable about the region. They are very professional and can organize a wide range of activities to sort all interests.
I will write in more depth soon but in the meantime here are a couple of photos from the festival.