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Published: March 15th 2014
With a potential Assam-stopping strike in the air, I returned abruptly to Kaziranga. Better safe than sorry. If the strike went ahead I could stay at Kaziranga for a few days until it cleared, if it didn't happen I could go straight from there to Nameri National Park and arrive on the day I had planned to (I just had to miss out the dolphin search at Tezpur). In the morning I had another walk through the tea plantation. It can be a bit difficult birding in there because a lot of the birds tend to be down amongst the tea plants where it is impossible to see them. This morning I had some good luck with a whole flock of about twenty rufous-necked laughing thrushes bursting up out of the tea into a tree where I could see them. They were really beautiful birds. All laughing thrushes are beautiful, even the duller-coloured ones, but this species has really clean markings with none of the speckling and smudging of some, so they look even nicer. Totally worth googling a photo of to see what they look like.
After breakfast I found out some more about the strike. It was, according to the first version I heard, all to do with some political figure coming to Assam whom the locals did not approve of. Or perhaps it was to do with a guy who set himself on fire over a land protest, which was the second version I heard. You can imagine the sort of trouble which might brew when even the locals are confused about the reason for the strike. To avoid trouble it was the government shutting down all the roads, although I didn't really understand the connection between the government shutting the roads but the locals attacking the cars who did try to get around – it seemed a bit opposite. Anyway, what happens is that a strike is announced out of the blue, the roads are shut down, and because the Assamese still have a tribal feudal sort of mind-set it is easy for flash-mobs to form and disperse. In such situations it doesn't matter who you are or what colour your skin. Apparently it wasn't unknown for cars to even be set on fire with the occupants trapped inside. Definitely not the sort of time to risk travelling! The Indian tourists who had planes to catch at any time in the next few days were all packing up and leaving because they knew what the deal was. I found out that the strike was actually set for tomorrow, not today, and would be for two days (the 25th and 26th). I could stay at Kaziranga where the accommodation was cheaper but if I wanted to go into the park the costs were high, or do a quick run to Nameri where the accommodation was more expensive but the park costs were much much cheaper (because you are on foot and hence not paying all the jeep fees). Nameri made the most sense because I was going there next anyway and it would keep me more or less on schedule. Before leaving I made sure some other foreign tourists there knew what was happening, in case they had flights. One German couple had a flight on the 26th and I said they should probably go now to whichever city their flight was from, but the general manager at the lodge said “No problem, it will be fine to go on that day” and so they laughed it off. I had nowhere I needed
to be – I could be at either Kaziranga or Nameri, it didn't really matter – but if I had needed to be somewhere on a specific date for a flight and something came up like this, I would make sure I got there! Especially if I was travelling with someone else – you don't want anything happening to that person if your car is stopped by a mob. I prefer to listen to the vibe of a place rather than a hotel worker saying “nah, no problem”, and the vibe here was saying “don't travel on those dates”!
I had met an Indian birder called Rocky Singh last time I was at Kaziranga (before I went to Hollongapar) and he was leaving that day to get to Guwahati while the roads were still open, so I caught a ride with him to the junction which leads off towards Nameri. Rocky is pretty well-known in India because when not birding hard-out he is a famous tv personality. When at Kaziranga I had kept seeing all the Indian tourists coming to introduce themselves and wanting autographs and such. I would have preferred to have met Amrita Rao but Rocky was a genuinely nice guy – actually one of the nicest guys I've met over this whole trip, and I've met a lot of nice people. If I had got a car all the way from Kaziranga to Nameri it would have cost me almost 3000 rupees; instead I got a free ride about half the way, then a bus to a four-way junction near the city of Tezpur for 20 rupees, then a shared taxi from there for another 20 rupees to the little town of Balipara where Binod from the Jia Borhelli Wild Resort at Nameri met me.
The forest at Nameri was first protected in 1878 as the Nameri Reserve. A lot of the parks in India have a long history of protection thanks to the British and their hunting lust. In 1985 the area became the Nameri Sanctuary, in 1998 the Nameri National Park, and then in 2000 it was designated as a Tiger Reserve, so now the full name is the Nameri National Park And Tiger Reserve. There are said to be almost 40 tigers in the forest, as well as elephants, gaur and all sorts of cats (clouded leopard, golden cat, jungle cat, etc) – not that you're likely to see most of those because you're not allowed in at night. Unlike Kaziranga however you are allowed to walk around in the forest on foot, in the accompaniment of an armed guard. (Kaziranga used to have foot safaris too, but in a complete over-reaction they were stopped after one tourist got killed by an elephant a few years ago). There are only two trails in Nameri (yes, just two trails) but the main one is quite long, about 3km or so, and goes through a variety of grassland and forest habitats. The combined entry-plus-guard fee is only 620 rupees per half-day (about NZ$12) plus a 50 rupee camera fee. The national park camera fees are just a scam really because there's no reason in the world to have a fee for non-professional photography, so it is good that at Nameri it is only 50 rupees (instead of 500 like at Kaziranga). If you go into the park twice a day you pay twice a day, but I found that it was too hot for the birds in the afternoon anyway, so I just did morning trips. There are only a few places to stay at Nameri, the most expensive being the Wild Mahseer (just for rich people), and then there's the Nameri Eco-Camp and the Jia Borhelli Wild Resort which are better for normal visitors, and which are right next door to one another. Most people stay at the Eco-Camp but I chose Jia Borhelli because it was much quieter and more peaceful (from what I'd read the Eco-Camp often had a bit of a “party” atmosphere and was also pretty run-down), and the owner Binod seemed more in tune with nature watchers. I was very impressed with the place and would highly recommend it. I think it is cheaper than the Eco-Camp as well.
The last part of the road from Balipara to Nameri is one of those horrible pot-holed dirt roads. It is a bit strange, but it seems like almost every national park I go to in Asia has an access road fit more for mule treks than tourist vehicles; even if all the other roads in the region are perfect, the ones into the national parks are almost always awful. From Jia Borhelli and the Eco-Camp there is a walk of about 1.5km along the final stretch of this dirt road until you reach a river which is the boundary of the park. Once ferried across the river there is a walk of just under another kilometre to the guard-post where your permit is checked. This second part is more like a trudge because it is across deep soft river sand the whole way; it isn't so bad in the morning but on the return it feels like you are lost in the Sahara because the sand is white and all the light and heat from the noon-day sun is reflecting straight up at you from the ground. The sand is always covered in the footprints of animals from the night before: birds, wild cats, dhole, buffalo, gaur and elephants. The elephant footprints are interesting: they are huge of course, like dinner plates, but the entire surface of the print is covered in little ripples like a breeze-blown pond. I imagine they are caused by the rumblings going through the elephant's body, vibrating the sand as the foot is lifted. Live animals which can be seen on the riverbanks include sand larks and big flocks of small pratincoles.
At Nameri the animal-watching in the forest (largely for birds) is all done on foot. There are no jeeps and you are accompanied by one armed guard. The best guard is Minaram because he is also an excellent birder. I went in the forest on five days. Twice were with Minaram and those were the best visits; another guard did not know the birds which was fine with me because he was quite enthusiastic about participating; one other guard was just useless and spent most of the time slouching about and kicking the ground while I was looking at birds, exactly like a young kid being forced to go shopping for towels with his parents. The loop trail has a watch-tower on it, overlooking a patch of small muddy pools, and this is a good spot to spend some time. There were always dozens of green imperial pigeons here, as well as sometimes wedge-tailed and pin-tailed green pigeons (the latter has a long tapering tail with a sort of whip coming out the end – really odd-looking). On all three occasions I visited the tower I saw a pair of black-tailed crakes, a shy species I had seen only once previously, at Doi Inthanon in Thailand in 2006. On two of the visits there was a black stork fishing in one of the pools, and once a lesser adjutant. The trees directly around the tower often had bulbuls and woodpeckers and nuthatches and minivets in them. It's a nice spot. There are three species of hornbills in the park – great, wreathed and Oriental pied – and I saw all three. I love watching the big hornbills flying. They take just two or three wingbeats, which because they are so big carries them 30 or 40 feet, and then they just glide, wings out flat, looking like a model aeroplane, then a couple more wingbeats, then another glide, and so on. They sound like jet engines when they fly overhead because of the size of their wings. Another bird I enjoyed seeing was the vernal hanging parrot, of which I saw one large flock. I have seen blue-crowned hanging parrots in the wild in Malaysia, and both blue-crowned and vernal hanging parrots in zoos, but I've never seen them hanging before. They are so-called because they roost upside-down, hanging by their feet under the branches like bats. I had read about this and seen photos, and now I finally got to see it in real life.
The primary attraction in the forest for most birders is the white-winged wood duck, a highly endangered forest duck. It is a species which is spread over a wide part of south and southeast Asia, but the populations are now fragmented through hunting and habitat loss. I had seen the duck previously in Sumatra in 2009 but I always like to see animals again, no matter how many times I see them. Because of the limited number of trails (two) there are really only a couple of pools in the forest where you can try and see the ducks, although I was told there are an estimated sixty of them in the park. The main problem with seeing white-winged wood ducks is that they are incredibly shy. Here, whoever sees the ducks first in the morning scares them away simply by their presence, so you need to get there first! The first time I tried I got there too late (I had been told the park opens at 7am when in fact it opens at 6am) and a bird group from Finland had already been and seen them. The next day I got into the park as early as possible. When we came to the main pool where a pair lives we crept in along the approach trail as sneakily as we could, but the ducks were wise to us and both flew off immediately. However one of them happened to fly straight past us through the forest so we got a good look at it in flight. After more birding further up the main trail we returned to the pool, maybe an hour later, and one of the ducks was back, cruising around in the middle in the open. He didn't realise we were there so we got to watch him for a while before I decided to leave him be, and we snuck away again leaving him completely undisturbed.
Apart for walks in the forest, the other birding attraction at Nameri is the river-rafting trip. This isn't a white-knuckle spray-drenched rapid-riding trip, but a much more preferable sedate cruise in a rubber raft down a mostly-calm river. There are a few small rapid sections, but mostly it is for looking for ibisbills. In case you aren't aware the ibisbill is the world's most awesome wading bird. It breeds high up in the Himalayas and migrates to lower altitudes in winter, but it only lives along rocky fast-flowing rivers. There aren't many places where it is easy to see and so it is one of the world's most-wanted species for bird-watchers. Nameri is fairly reliable if you're there at the right time of year, and even more special is that I can't really think of anywhere else where you can potentially see both ibisbill and white-winged wood duck on the same day!! The rafting trip is 2700 rupees (about NZ$52), so quite expensive if you're alone, but I was fortunate in that I managed to join up with a group of five (non-birding) Indian tourists and so only had to pay a sixth of the cost. The ride was probably about an hour in length I guess – I didn't keep track – and for birds it was really good. There were a lot of ruddy shelducks and common mergansers (aka goosanders), and some mallards, common teal and pintails; four species of kingfishers (common, white-throated, pied and crested); river lapwings, small pratincoles and Indian river terns; and even a peregrine falcon sitting on stones in the middle of the river which the boatman said was a Pallas' fish-eagle (in Assam “Pallas' fish-eagle” is the fall-back call for any bird of prey seen). Two birds usually seen, but not on this trip, were long-billed plover (which I had already seen in China) and great thick-knee (which I haven't seen before). But did I see an ibisbill? Yes I did! And I even managed photos! I had looked for ibisbills in China whenever I was in suitable places but without any luck. Here I found three. Actually I only saw two but there was a third one behind the stones which the boatman could see but I couldn't. They are brilliant birds! They are called ibisbills because they have a long downcurved bill like an ibis, but they are much smaller than an ibis, maybe the size of a largish seagull I suppose but with longer legs and neck (basically imagine a pale grey ibis the size of a seagull). They are the same colour as the river rocks and when they are standing amongst them they can be quite difficult to see. I did the raft trip a second time a few days later with another guy that had turned up. Of course I had to pay half the full rate rather than a sixth like the first trip, but it was worth it to see the ibisbills again. This second trip I saw five ibisbills all together and mostly the same “regular” birds as the first trip – still minus the thick-knee and long-billed plover – but with the added bonus of a wild elephant on the bank.
Nameri National Park isn't really somewhere you go for mammals. There are lots of species there, including very exciting ones like clouded leopards and golden cats, but you can't do any spotlighting in the park and with only two trails you'd have to be lucky indeed to see anything major during the daytime. The only mammals I saw were all ones I had seen already: hoary-bellied squirrels and bicoloured giant squirrels (the only two squirrels in the park, or so I was told), rhesus macaques (but again I could not find any Assamese macaques), capped langurs (but no photos), a wild pig, a couple of common muntjac, and a bull elephant on the second rafting trip. There was also a “wild elephant” by the watch-tower one day, which I saw a couple of days later being ridden by two forest guards and I don't think they tamed it like Crocodile Dundee and his water buffalo! I saw some water buffalo too, come to that, but I don't really think they were any wilder. On one of the days a sambar turned up – on the end of a tether. It had been the pet of an army officer in Tezpur and was now being released at Nameri; I reckon it would have ended up as tiger food before more than a couple of days had passed. (And speaking of tigers there were fresh pug-marks on the trail one morning). I spent one whole morning just sitting in the watch-tower hoping for gaur because I was told they are common in the park and this was the best bet of where to possibly see them, but the only ungulate I saw was a muntjac. However there was one very special and exciting mammal I did see, just not inside the park.....
I have mentioned the Gangetic river dolphin already in other posts. It is a highly-endangered blind river-dwelling dolphin endemic to the Indian subcontinent. I had been led to believe it was going to be a bit of a long-shot trying to see a dolphin at this time of year because of the low river levels. There is a site east of Kaziranga which I never got to, there is the site on the river by Tezpur which I'd had to temporarily bypass due to the strike, and I had also found out that they can be seen from the main jetty on the river in Guwahati. Tezpur is the small city I passed by on the way to Nameri. I had been going to stop there overnight on the way to Nameri but couldn't, so my slight plan change was to stop there overnight when leaving Nameri. However it is only one or one-and-a-half hours from Nameri so I thought I could just as conveniently get there as a day-trip out of Nameri if it didn't cost too much. Binod (the owner of Jia Borhelli where I was staying) got hold of the boatman who does the dolphin trips – there is apparently only one person who does them, and it cost me 1500 rupees (about NZ$29) for the boat – and he was told that the dolphins are just as reliable now as they always are, which was excellent news. Just as excellently, Binod also arranged a free ride for me from Balipara to Tezpur on his friend's motorbike (so I got free transport and his friend got a free dolphin viewing, so it worked for both of us). The little carnival-coloured boat came puttering noisily up to the beach, black smoke belching from the motor, and we jumped on board. I checked my watch so that I could write here how much time passed before I saw a dolphin ...... and that length of time turned out to be three minutes!! I hadn't expected it to be that easy. I'm not sure how many dolphins there were; I saw a maximum of two at once but I think there must have been at least four or five total. They were even more difficult to photograph than the Irrawaddy dolphins in Burma. At least with those ones I could track ahead of one and sometimes get a photo when it came back up for air, or keep the camera on the spot where one went down because sometimes a second one would come up right after in the same spot. With the Gangetic dolphins they came up completely randomly and always singly, and they spent a long time underwater, so there was literally no way to anticipate it. The best – albeit terrible – technique was to just point the camera at any stretch of water and hope one came up in frame!! I got exactly one photo which was sort of worth looking at. On the other hand, the actual views were better than with the Irrawaddy dolphins, where I rarely saw more than the top of the head and the curve of the back as they arched up to breathe and ducked under again. With the Gangetic dolphins they mostly shot the whole head upwards out of the water followed by the body in a sort of half-leap – sometimes you could even see between the body and the water surface – and then splash back down. Fantastic animal, and the best wild mammal I have seen in India by far.
One more very special thing I did at Nameri was getting to see pigmy hogs. These, as the name might suggest, are a very tiny species of pig. They are endemic to Assam and now found solely in the grasslands of Manas National Park. There are a couple of captive breeding centres for them, one at Basistha near Guwahati where there are between 60 and 70 hogs, and a smaller newer one here at Nameri where there are twelve hogs. Some have also been released at Nameri, despite the park probably not being within the species' former range and not having suitable habitat; the released animals don't appear to have survived. I saw two pairs of pigmy hogs at the breeding centre as well as a juvenile. They are great wee animals. I have wanted to see a pigmy hog for years and seeing them in captivity is a good start (there are none anywhere in the world outside Assam) but in the wild would be even better. The main aim for going to my next destination of Manas National Park is to attempt this although the chances of success are not high. In fact they are pretty infintesimal. The pigmy hogs don't like coming out in the open and the grassland where they live is not short grass, it is elephant grass over head-height. But I don't let little things like impossibility dull my spirit! The only problem I anticipate is the one of getting anyone to actually help me look for them because they will just be like “it is impossible to see them” and not want to even try (and at Manas all the access in the park is by jeep only like at Kaziranga so I can't just wander round by myself).
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