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Published: March 13th 2014
After two days in Kolkata I set off for the real part of the Indian trip, Assam. Totally unexpectedly, there was no WIFI available anywhere along my route so there has been a slight pause in postings. There was
WIFI occasionally present in the areas, just not where-ever I was specifically staying. Most of the time my network connection signal remained blank. Perhaps this shouldn't have been a surprise – I flew into Guwahati and went straight to Kaziranga National Park, then to Nameri National Park and then Manas National Park. The only city I actually stayed at along the route was Guwahati for a few days at the very end (and there were a few WIFI signals there but my laptop wouldn't connect with any of them).
First stop in Assam was Kaziranga National Park. At the Travel Inn where I had been staying in Kolkata I had asked the night before my flight if I needed to book a taxi for the next morning at 6am or if it would be easy to get one at the time. “In the morning, no problem,” they told me. The next morning however it changed to “no taxis in the morning, it is too early, you will need to pay 500 rupees.” It had only cost me half that to get here from
the airport – at the same time in the morning no less – which really ticked me off, but I had to pay it because I had to go catch my flight.
On the way to the airport I realised what it was about Indian cities (or at least this
Indian city) which made them that bit different to other Asian cities. Ironically I had missed what it was because it was so in my face and obvious. In southeast Asia and China the towns and cities may be dirty with streets made of sand and with household rubbish just dumped alongside, but they are still towns and cities which look like habitable places where people are living their lives. Kolkata in contrast looks like one massive continuous slum in which people are just barely surviving. I could quite happily live in most of southeast Asia, but there's no way in hell I would ever live in Kolkata. I'd rather watch the movie Daredevil
than live in Kolkata! Whichever part of the city I travelled through it was just endless filth, with people scavenging through piles of refuse alongside the crows and starving dogs, men squatting in the gutters washing themselves next to people using those same gutters as urinals, and strings of corrugated iron shacks along even the main roads. It's like there was once this great and wonderful city and then something cataclysmic happened and all the residents were suddenly reduced to living like rats in the street amongst the mouldy decaying buildings of the past. Everywhere that is except the airport, where the terminal is like a huge gleaming glass spaceship, as if you've been suddenly transported to Singapore.
The airline regulations are really strict in India. At the airport you need to show a printed-out ticket and your passport to even enter the building (I also found this to be the case in some other places like China). Oddly, when checking in you also need to show them your credit card if you booked the ticket online – if you can't show them the same credit card the ticket was booked with then you can't get on the plane! Check-in bags are x-rayed and stickered before you can go to the check-in counter. When they x-rayed my bag they asked if I had anything made of stone inside. “No...” I said, a little confused, “stone as in rock?” They showed me the x-ray image where the field guide to the birds of India showed up as a thick dark slab. I had to take it out of the bag to show them, and then they x-rayed the book! I've never had that happen before. After I had checked in I went through the next security check-point where the hand luggage is x-rayed and everybody is swept with metal detectors. Again there was a problem with my bag, because I had all my torch batteries in there. The reason they were in there instead of my check-in bag was because when I flew with Air Asia they said I wasn't allowed batteries in my check-in, I had to carry them in my hand-luggage. With Spicejet I'm not allowed them in my hand-luggage, they have to be in my check-in! These are just regular rechargeable D batteries, nothing explosive or anything. It makes a bit of a mockery of certain “security risks” if different airlines have exactly opposite policies! Anyway I had to take the batteries back to the first check-point and get them parceled up and stickered, and then re-check myself in and put the little box of batteries through as check-in luggage. (I didn't even need them in the end because, as I found out, none of the parks allow entry at night so I couldn't do any spotlighting anyway).
Spicejet seats are the smallest I have ever seen on a plane, which is weird because generally speaking Indians aren't little people like in Thailand or Indonesia. And there were mosquitoes on the plane! It was a bit scary taking off in an Indian plane. I don't really like to fly, it is just something I have to do, and despite the advertising billboards I had seen for a plywood company which said “India Loves Quality”, India certainly does not
love quality. I half expected the wings to fall off or something. However the plane arrived safely in Assam, in the city of Guwahati, where it was still
raining! Fortunately by the time I arrived at Kaziranga National Park the rain had disappeared and stayed away for my whole stay there.
At Kaziranga I would be staying at a place called Wild Grass Lodge. This is the same place that Jon Hall from Mammalwatching stayed at when he went there. I don't normally stay where he stays because he spends far too much money, but I had emailed Wild Grass and they had a cottage for 650 rupees per night (about NZ$12.50) which was alright by me. It was a good choice because the owner Manju was incredibly helpful and sent me all sorts of information about the other places I would be going in Assam, and also booked me into the forestry department accommodation at the Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary. To avoid tourists getting lost between Guwahati and Kaziranga, Wild Grass also offer a meet-at-the-airport which I took them up on because I figured it would cost about the same as trying to organise a taxi to the bus station and save on being scammed by the taxi drivers. So I was met at the airport by a little wee guy who only came up to my chest, and he put me into a taxi and told them where to take me. The plane had arrived at 9.20am, and I sat in the taxi until 10am while the driver disappeared to round up more passengers. I got to the bus station at 11am where I was met by another very helpful chap called Deepak (everyone in India is very helpful it seems!) who got me onto the right bus, which left at noon. This bus went to the main bus station an hour away where I changed to another bus (and yes, both buses had mosquitoes in them), and then finally I was properly on my way to Kaziranga.
I don't know how big the city of Guwahati is but it must be pretty substantial given that it took an hour from the airport to the first bus station and then another hour to the next bus station. As a city it is still Indian in appearance but without the air of decrepitude that Kolkata has. Once outside the city the country was all open and brown with scattered huts and rambling villages. It reminded me very much of Indonesia, especially West Timor, and I felt right at home again. I had heard a lot about the terrifying traffic of India but from what I've seen it is no scarier than anywhere else in Asia. For myself, having travelled quite a bit in southeast and eastern Asia, I would describe it as “normal” rather than “scary”. In fact I'd say the driving in Indonesia is far worse. Interesting signage along the roads included “Do Not Drink Wine While Driving” which was obviously aimed at the more sophisticated of drivers. There was also a billboard advertising some local brand of beer where the slogan was “same taste, more dum”.
It's about five and a half hours from Guwahati to the village of Kohora where the main entrance to Kaziranga is. Kohora seems to be composed almost entirely of guesthouses and restaurants; the numbers of them is just staggering. It was already dark when I arrived (it gets dark at around 5.30pm here), but I was met by someone from Wild Grass who drove me the remaining 5km.
Kaziranga National Park is fantastic! I just thought I'd get that out of the way first. I saw ninety species of birds just on my first day there. At one point I was standing in a watch-tower and there were thirty-five
Indian rhinos in one view; I had been hoping I would see a rhino while at the park, and I ended up seeing between 60 and 70 on the first day alone.
I'll talk about costs first, for those people intending on going to India. Kaziranga isn't a cheap place to visit but I understand it is a lot cheaper than many other parks in the country like Corbett or Ranthambore. The accommodation itself isn't expensive – I got a cottage at the Wild Grass Lodge for 650 rupees (about NZ$12.50) which included breakfast, and the other meals are between 100 and 250 rupees each (about NZ$2 to $5) – but as soon as you start going into the park the costs begin mounting up. The daily park entry fee is 500 rupees (NZ$10), camera fee another 500 rupees, and then there's a road tax of 400 rupees, so you're out 1400 rupees before you've even got inside (those are foreigner prices – Indian prices are ten times cheaper). You are only allowed into the park in a jeep, and the cost per jeep depends on which part of the park you visit. The park is divided into various sections: central is 1500 rupees per jeep (NZ$29), western 1600 rupees, eastern 2000 rupees and Ghorkati 3000 rupees. Those are the prices for one jeep ride, either morning or afternoon (the park is closed in the middle of the day), and it is divided between however many people are in the jeep. If you're travelling solo you ideally need to try and team up with others to keep the amount of money you're spending to an acceptable level. The main problem with that is that there aren't a lot of other solo travellers around (but there are lots of tour groups), and a lot of the space inside the jeep is taken up with the driver, the armed guard and the guide, so there's only room for an extra person if the original group is at most three people. Obviously you also just have to take what you can get because you are joining on someone else's ride and thus you don't get to choose which part of the park to visit. I got lucky on my first day, teaming up with an Indian family (in the morning just the father and in the afternoon the others as well) who were really interested in all sorts of animals, not just elephants and rhinos, so we saw a lot; but on the second day I got stuck with a photographer who was only wanting to find spots to take photos of scenery and so I didn't see much at all. I was at the park for four full days though, so everything worked out all right overall.
The whole park is sort of a wooded-grassland which is largely flooded for part of the year. Some parts are more grass, some more forest, but it is really a bit of a patchwork. I visited west, central and east at least twice each, and tended to find the west was best for rhinos and the east for elephants, but really everything is everywhere. Apparently central is best for tigers. Everyone seemed to be seeing tigers, but always in a part of the park in which I was not! If I was in central then someone would see two tigers in the east; if I was in the west then they would be seen in central; and so on. In the National Parks of central India the tigers are completely blasé about people and walk along the roads amongst the cars like lions in Africa, but in Assam they are much more shy so seeing one is just a matter of luck and if one is
seen it is not for long. Birds were abundant everywhere but it is frustrating not being allowed out of the jeeps to just walk along the roads in the forest sections. There were loads of birds in the grounds of the Wild Grass Lodge too. Right by the restaurant and reception is a big red-flowered kapok (or silk-cotton) tree which was always full of chestnut-tailed starlings (called chestnut-bellied starlings by the guides here, which is a far better name!), pied starlings, Oriental white-eyes, golden-fronted leafbirds and blue-throated barbets. Just a few metres away is a big fruiting fig tree which was always full of yellow-footed green pigeons and bulbuls. Pied and great hornbills visit that tree as well, but never when I was there to see them. There are also hoary-bellied squirrels in the gardens which at first I thought were a new species for me, but it turned out that they are the same as the Irrawaddy squirrel in Burma (Callosciurus pygerythrus
) although they look quite different, the Indian version being even more nondescript.
On my first morning I was supposed to be joining up with another single traveller for a jeep ride at 7am. At 7.45 I was still waiting, and eventually it turned out that the guy had just decided to stay in bed and not go. But there was another person looking for a jeep as well, so after he had his breakfast I finally got my first look at the park. We went into the central section for the morning which is mostly grassland with a few waterholes. Most of the big mammals turned out to be incredibly easy to see, although central doesn't appear to have as many rhinos or elephants as the other sections. Hog deer and barasingha (swamp deer) were everywhere in big herds. Sambar are either rare or just more retiring than their open-country cousins and I only saw a few. There are common muntjac here as well but I never saw any well enough to claim them. Wild water buffalo are really common – these are genuine wild buffalo, not feral domestic animals, and their horns are insanely huge! Wild pigs are pretty common, as are rhesus macaques. The macaques here are a weird orangey-golden sort of colour; several times I would spot them at a distance on the ground and think they were hog deer because of the colour of their fur. From a watch-tower overlooking a lake we spotted a pair of smooth-coated otters, very far away but still watchable through the binoculars. They started out spy-hopping (raising vertically out of the water to see further), then swam around for a bit with just the tops of their heads showing, and then came out on a small island and rolled around in the sand amongst the bar-headed geese. The birding was very good in between the mammaling too. The water bodies were full of waterfowl like hundreds of bar-headed geese and varying numbers of ruddy shelducks, mallards, spot-billed ducks, pintails, wigeon, gadwall, common teal and northern shovellers, as well as spot-billed pelicans, little and great cormorants, oriental darters, black-headed ibis, various herons and egrets, and storks (including openbill, black-necked and lesser adjutants). It's not the greatest trying to bird from a jeep because you miss lots of the little birds, but by the end of the morning I had seen about seventy species amongst which were red junglefowl and kalij pheasants. There are lots of birds of prey here also, including (the ones I saw) Pallas' fish-eagle, grey-headed fish-eagle, crested serpent-eagle, changeable hawk-eagle, Indian spotted eagle, pied harrier and osprey. In the afternoon we went to the western section of the park, and that's where I was on the watch-tower where I could see 35 rhinos at once (not to mention the ten or so along the track leading to the tower). With the rhinos were herds of barasingha, hog deer and buffalo. In the water in front of the tower huge clown knifefish kept splashing up to the surface (they are called chital
here, like the axis deer, because of their spots). Around the tower area something had died and there were dozens of slender-billed and Himalayan griffon vultures collecting in the trees. Elsewhere a marshy area provided feeding for various waders such as little ringed plover, common greenshank, common redshank, green sandpiper, wood sandpiper and common snipe. By the end of the day I had seen exactly ninety species of birds (not including another dozen or so which the guide ID'd by call or by brief fly-bys, which wasn't good enough for me to count). Only thirteen of the ninety were lifers for me though: the birdlife in Assam is very “southeast Asian” so I was seeing a lot of birds that are common further east where I've done most of my travelling. However out of nine mammal species seen that day, five of them were lifers which is a much better percentage!
The next day was not so productive because there were no morning jeeps with which I could join up. I only ended up with 48 birds for the whole day. Some of those were obtained in the tea plantations just near the lodge. Tea plantations are a bit odd-looking. The tea leaves are the new shoots plucked from the tops of the bushes and the result of this constant pruning is whole fields of flat-topped bushes less than waist-high, like acres of finely-attended topiary. I have seen tea plantations before but the ones in Assam have something a little different in that they are grown in combination with pepper trees. I never knew pepper came from trees! I had never really thought about it at all, it is true, but if I had I would have assumed some sort of vine rather than trees. The pepper trees turn the tea plantations into very open woodland which is supposed to be good for birds not otherwise found inside the park, but it was too late in the morning before I got there and the birds had all gone for siesta. I tend to find that open-country and wetland birds don't seem to care about the time of day, but woodland and forest birds just disappear as soon as the sun starts heating up. The afternoon wasn't much better because the only jeep I could join with had a photographer who wasn't interested in stopping for birds. However I did see pied kingfisher and woolly-necked stork which were both lifers, as well as four species of Psittacula
parakeets. I was surprised there were four species all living here together – Indian ringnecks, Alexandrines, moustached parakeets, and blossom-headed parakeets – but by the end of my stay I could even identify the four unseen, just by the different sounds of their screeches (which is quite something for me because I can't usually tell most bird calls apart).
I returned to the tea plantations at sun-rise the following morning, which is about 5.30am here. It's quite good having the plantation just up the road (literally less than ten minutes walk away) because you can get there and find some birds before breakfast and then go to the park in a jeep afterwards when they start running for the day. There actually weren't many birds around this morning, but a blue whistling thrush and grey-headed woodpecker were good, and even better were three different Asian barred owlets being very showy. My plan for the rest of the morning was in fact not for a jeep into the park but instead a boat to look for Gangetic dolphins in the Brahmaputra River. This is not a good time of year to look for dolphins because the river levels are too low, but it is obviously still something I wanted to have a go at. When I booked at the Wild Grass Lodge, the owner Manju was incredibly helpful, sending me all sorts of information in emails. However when I arrived at the lodge I regrettably found out that the general manager Dilip was as good as useless. I had asked him on my first night about the dolphins and he told me the cost of the boat (1900 rupees) and the cost of the return trip to where the boat left from (1200 rupees). I had also asked him to book me into the forestry department lodge at Manas National Park which he said he would do. At the end of the next day I checked with him about the Manas accommodation and he said “yes, I am doing that now, I will let you know” – it never got done. For the dolphins, I asked him the night before to arrange the boat and jeep (I was just going to pay for it all myself because there was no-one else to join in with me) and he told me to be at reception at 8am to meet the jeep and I would get to the boat at 9am. After I had been round the tea plantation and then had breakfast I went to reception at 8am. Nobody knew anything about the boat or the dolphins, because it had not been arranged at all. I never did get to go look for the dolphins while at Wild Grass. With that not happening I got a jeep for myself to the eastern section of the park. I had been to the central part once and the western part twice, and it had been looking like I wasn't ever going to get to the eastern part unless I went by myself, so I did.
The eastern part of Kaziranga has more wetlands than the other parts so it is better for birds. Generally the jeeps come equipped with a guide who points out the animals and identifies them, but on this trip I just had a driver so had to do all the work myself (which is how I prefer it really). Most of the 73 species I saw today were repeats of the other days of course, including two more barred owlets, but new ones were a distant greater adjutant (the only lifer of the morning) and the first brown fish-owl I've seen for years. The numbers of pelicans and other waterbirds were much higher than in the other sections as well. In the afternoon I managed to score a jeep with two Indian birders (casual birders, not hard-core birders) to the central section where I saw a couple more woolly-necked storks, two swamp francolins (the only lifer of the afternoon), and a Bengal monitor basking outside its burrow. The monitor was seen from one of the watch-towers and this was also where two tigers had been seen just that very morning while I was off in the eastern part. At the end of the afternoon we stopped by the tower just in case. The guide scanned the far side of the clearing and suddenly went “Tiger!” “Where, where?!” “On the corner,” he said, pointing across at the forest. Some of you reading this will have been out birding with someone who sees a bird and is telling you something like “it's just there, past that branch” and you cannot tell where they are seeing this bird which to them is so obvious. It is much worse when it is a tiger! Especially when the person says it is “on the corner”! The corner of what?!? I got onto it just in time as it walked across the edge of the forest – about a kilometre away for about five seconds, and then it went back inside the forest! It paused just inside and I could see it glowing orange in the sun, and then it was gone. It was not a great sighting – far from it – and if it had been a first sighting of something like a barasingha I wouldn't have counted it, but it's a tiger! I am counting it!!
Three days down, one to go. The final day at Kaziranga went very well. I had joined up with a Canadian lady and her Indian friend who were both proper animal-watchers like me. We went in the morning to the eastern end. We saw a spotted owlet and several Asian barred owlets, but unfortunately no brown fish-owl to make a three owl day. The greater adjutant I had seen the day before was still present but on the near side of the lake rather than the far side so I got to see him much better. A pair of hill mynahs was unexpected, and we found a tree full of spot-winged starlings which were great. In amongst the haul of regular mammals (rhinos, elephants, etc) was a Himalayan striped squirrel and a whole family of smooth-coated otters, including pups, which unlike the pair from my first day were actually close enough to get some photographs of (albeit needing cropping to be able to see them properly!). Even more unexpected for me than anything else, on the drive back to the lodge for lunch we found some capped langurs just sitting in a tree beside a field. I was hoping to see these later at Nameri National Park but was totally not expecting to see them here in the farmland. For the afternoon we went to the central area, looking for birds and hoping for tigers. Best birds were swamp francolins feeding out in the open, a flock of striated babblers, grey-capped pigmy woodpeckers, and a whole group of male kalij pheasants. The bird total for this final day was 78 species. There were also a couple more Bengal monitors and yet more otters! These otters were a pair and they looked very small to be smooth-coated, but the guide said that is the only species in the park (and even if small-clawed otters are found there they weren't close enough for me to have been sure either way). The last bit of excitement was that a tiger had been sighted by the same watch-tower as yesterday. By the time we got there, there was a whole cluster of jeeps sitting on the side of the road with everyone pointing binoculars off across the clearing. Apparently it had crossed the road and was somewhere in the elephant grass. I went up into the tower to see if I could see anything from the higher vantage point. I really wanted a good sighting of a tiger, but it was fairly obvious that with all the jeeps down there the tiger wasn't going anywhere. It was just going to lie low until everyone had gone before coming back out. Suddenly someone else in the tower cried out “I see it!” They directed the rest of us to where there was a tawny-coloured blob showing through the grass. “I don't think that's a tiger,” I said, trying to be tactful (for one thing tigers aren't tawny-coloured, and for another thing the object was a hog deer). “No, no that's the tiger – it's lying down, it must have been there the whole time. I can see its tail.” “Yes, I can see it moving.” “Oh wow, that's the tiger all right!” After everyone else had left the tower congratulating one another, one of the guides took a look and said simply “that's not a tiger, that's a hog deer”.
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