‘Where do you think I should get down for Kaziranga National Park – Kohora or Bokakhat?’ I ask the bus conductor.
He thinks for a moment, ‘Kohora.’
Getting to this national park from Tezpur is surprisingly easy. Kohora is right on the National Highway NH37. The park actually begins many miles before Kohora. The park is organized into three ranges – Central, Western and Eastern. Kohora is the best place for exploring the Central Range.
The road to the park facilitation center is lined with woods on one side and tea estates on the other. Hills in the background are covered with thick forests. Kohora river flows nearby. It is not a hot day but as is common in most of Assam the humidity makes things uncomforable. When I arrive at the booking counter, it is nine in the morning. I am told that the last booking for morning safaris is at ten. The woman at the counter explains to me the cost of hiring a Maruti Gypsy for the safari:
‘I probably won’t hire a jeep on my own. Can I share it with others?’ I ask her.
‘You can. We’ll let you know when anyone turns up but it’s unlikely to be this morning. Afternoon safaris start at 2 pm.’
I look around for rooms. Few paces away is the guest house of Kaziranga Wildlife Society. It is a society started by Robin Banerjee, a noted environmentalist and filmmaker who was awarded the Padmashree in 1971. There is a library and wildlife photographs on the walls. I take a nice double room for Rs. 300. It is a chance to catch up on sleep and do my laundry. Surrounded by forests and mosquitoes, my bed comes with a necessary mosquito net. I have a long outstanding shave. I am now looking quite presentable to the rhinos.
I return to the counter at half past one. Visitors come and go but no one is keen on sharing the ride. Its often easier to share with friends than families. Last bookings for afternoon safaris is at three. At about half past two, four guys turn up. They are businessmen taking some time off work. They agree to accommodate me. They wish to visit the Western range instead of the Central range. My contribution for the safari comes to only Rs. 200.
The road to the Western Range is the same NH37 I had taken this morning. For a National Highway, it is in bad shape. Potholes are common. Cattle wander freely on the highway making driving almost dangerous. We arrive at the park entrance to the Western Range. Formalities are sorted out. Our guide and driver is a young chap. We roll up the covering and quietly enter the park.
The businessmen are boisterous. One of them is sitting sullenly listening to his wife nagging on the phone. Another is smoking continually while also snacking on Lays chips. They throw the empty packets within the park. I am appalled. In general, visitors are not allowed to get off jeeps within the park. That’s how it is in Bandhavgarh. But here I am surprised to see my companions getting down and posing for photographs. The guide does not stop them. Not far away are wild elephants grazing in small herds.
As we drive through the park it starts to rain. The combination of quick showers and brief spells of sunshine brings out some wonderful scenes. I am starting to enjoy the ride even without seeing much wildlife in the first few minutes of ride.
The landscape here is mostly grasslands. The grass is often eight feet high, a perfect hideout for animals. Spotting one-horned rhinoceros is not a rare thing. There are lots of them grazing in isolation or in small groups. By colour and size, their camouflage is quite poor. We have the rare chance of observing a rhino and her calf up close, just 30 meters away. The mother is peering through the tall grass, chewing constantly. It observes cautiously our every move.
‘That’s quite a pile,’ I point to a big pile of dung.
‘That’s rhino dung. They have the habit of doing it in the same spot, probably a mark of territory,’ says the guide.
The park is also home to tigers but they are so rare that even the guide has never seen them. One wonders if there are any tigers left in this park. A notice board within the park gives some numbers from recent census. The last numbers on tigers were recorded in 2000, just 86 of them. As for rhinos, 2048 have been recorded in last year’s census. Swamp deer, wild buffalo, storks, cranes and water hens are other wildlife I observed.
‘How much do you make per trip?’ I ask the guide as he drives me back to Kohora. The others have left in their vehicle.
‘Well, I have spent Rs. 220 on fuel for this trip. My profit is about Rs. 400 only,’ he says. The park collects six hundred for the vehicle for the Central Range. For the Western Range it is seven hundred.
This young man is less a guide and more a driver of the Gypsy. He did not offer us any insights during the entire safari. I find that he has an Arts degree but he has been unable to find a suitable job the last five years. He has taken to driving visitors in and out of the park. He has been doing this for over a year.
On the way to Kohora I see women workers returning home from the tea estates. It is quite a sight to see them dressed in bright clothes, talking lightly at the end of a long day and walking home to the sound of their own lilting laughs. The women carry wicker baskets on their backs. An umbrella is an essential item and so are wellies to keep their feet dry through the day.
Unlike the hilly estates of Darjeeling, the tea estates of Assam are laid on flat plains. They say each part of Assam produces its own unique flavour of tea. What we normally call as Assam tea is not quite so simple for a real tea connoisseur.