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North-east India - Kaziranga

Sunday 23rd November 2014

After a few days, we braved the traffic-filled roads again to head down through precipitous tea estates to the airport at Bagdogra, from where we boarded a flight to Guwahati, capital of Assam. We arrived after dark here, and were split up into three separate Toyota Innova vehicles. The drivers were given strict instructions to keep together, but in the melée of traffic we became separated, and once we were away from the congestion, our driver really put his foot down. I did manage to drift off to sleep for a while, but when I woke up, we were already in the vicinity of Kaziranga National Park, where I clocked him doing 120 kph precisely where there was a sign saying “Caution Animal Corridor. Wild Animals Crossing. Max Speed 20 kph”. Rumble strips became launching pads as we flew over them. Rosemary slumbered peacefully through the entire adventure.

One advantage of this high-speed dash was that we arrived at our accommodation, the Wild Grass Camp, while the restaurant kitchen was still open, so we had already enjoyed a delicious (non-spicy) meal when I suddenly received a text message from our guide, saying “Call me immediately!!! Where are you?” He had become very concerned when the vehicles had got split up, and was extremely relieved to see us when the rest of the vehicles arrived later. No doubt that driver got a real earful later on!

Kaziranga is a jewel. Our days consisted of early morning game drives in the ubiquitous Maruti Suzuki Gypsy jeeps (we had three, one of which broke down consistently and had to be sacked – breaking down in close proximity to a Rhino, a Wild Elephant or a Tiger could have disastrous consequences), lunches back at Wild Grass, and afternoon Gypsy rides in another part of the Park.

Unlike in Corbett and some other tiger reserves, here one has to straddle the elephant, a position I found decidedly uncomfortable!

One morning included an elephant ride, which I have to confess I did not enjoy greatly! I had previously experienced a different style of ride, where passengers sit on wooden planks looking out from the howdah. Here, in contrast, you have to straddle the elephant, and as my position was in the middle spot of a clearly very pregnant female, my nether regions suffered so badly that I turned down the offer of a further ride two days later.

Undoubtedly the highlight of Kaziranga is its assembly of Great Indian One-horned Rhinos. This one park hosts perhaps 80% of the entire World population, which is under constant threat of poaching for the horns, which of course have supposed value in traditional Chinese medicine (what endangered animal product does not?), as well as being coveted for ceremonial dagger handles in Yemen and the Gulf. The Park now has a shoot-to-kill policy towards anyone seen who may be suspected of illicit activities.

Elephants lining up to take on riders at Kaziranga

Shocking though it is, we became almost blasé about Rhinos; from one watch-tower, we were able to count 48 individuals, and we had seen at least another 20 on the way to that spot. We saw several mothers with calves, and at least here it seems that the animals have a future, so long as the will to preserve them persists.

Rhinos love to soak in water

A Cattle Egret is dwarfed by a Great Indian Rhinoceros

A timeless scene, though luckily now it is tourists rather than hunters who head out to look for rhinos

Face to face with a Rhino taking a bath

The rhino was not pleased to be disturbed

Higher still on my list of wants was an even more endangered species, the Greater Adjutant Stork, of which fewer than 2,000 still manage to hang on. Supremely ugly, with their bald heads and hanging, bare “gular sacks”, these relatives of the African Maribou Stork can best be seen scavenging at the municipal rubbish tip in Guwahati, but our arrival there after dark had put paid to our chances of a visit. Our local guide Tharoon pulled out all the stops to find me this enormous yet elusive bird, but it was not until the third day that three of these prehistoric-looking giants were spotted, circling with a few of the closely related and more numerous Lesser Adjutants.

A Greater Adjutant, one of the world's rarest stork species

A Lesser Adjutant flying away

One of the other highlights was a packed breakfast on the banks of the Brahmaputra, one of the World’s great rivers. Here the waters are divided into many different channels, with great sandbanks between them. As well as such avian highlights as at least 25 Great Thicknees and a full adult and a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, we were treated to the sight of a Gangetic Dolphin rising to breathe right in front of us. A more idyllic spot would be hard to find.

All too soon our time at Kaziranga drew to a close, and we left Wild Grass for the relatively short drive to the tiny airport at Jorhat for the two-hour flight to Calcutta.

Looking out over the floodplains of the Brahmaputra

Flights of birds heading to roost

All photographs by James Champion

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