The beautiful Loire Valley, with its romantic chateaus, the flowing river and the picturesque countryside.
Welcome to my blog! This inaugural blog post is about a New Year’s Eve spent in a part of the world synonymous with good tea – Assam. And so I must begin by stating that, while in Assam, my coffee mug was filled to the brim with some good Assam tea during my trip to this amazing and underrated part of India. I began Jan 2015 with my family in open grasslands and forests in Kaziranga National Park. South of the mighty Brahmaputra river, the Kaziranga national Park in Assam is a perfect wildlife short break in North Eastern India. If you are looking for memorable and authentic, with a dash of the untouched, this checks all the boxes.
It’s much simpler than you may imagine. There are direct flights to Guwahati from all major Indian metros and we chose to fly via Kolkata, which has several flights a day. If you’re looking for some airport shopping while in transit, you can check out Kolkata airport’s wonderfully conceptualised “Biswa Bangla,” showroom, which displays the best of Bengali crafts and cuisine. I sampled much of the local sweets such as roshogolla and gud sandesh.
And then from Guwahati onwards to Kaziranga, it is a comfortable 4 hour ride on an excellent road (National Highway NH 37), with glimpses of life in the North-East. As to be expected, bamboo is everywhere – houses on stilts made of bamboo, baskets, trays, decorative wall pieces – all sold on the roadside. And fish! We saw many stalls and individual men and women standing on the shoulder of the highway, holding large fish in their hands and waving them at us, obviously freshly caught in the picturesque lotus ponds and lakes we had seen along the way.
The Kaziranga National Park is a UNESCO Heritage site and wildlife conservation success story. The biodiversity the park affords is astounding, especially considering how small it is – only 13km by 40km. It is home to the world’s largest population of the Asian one-horned rhino, which are more than 2000 in number. While Kaziranga is famous for its rhinos, it is a lesser known fact that it has the largest density of tigers among all the national parks in the world! It is also a refuge for almost every other large wild animal indigenous to India, including Asian elephants, water buffalos, sambar deer, and leopards, as well as some specific ones, such as India’s only indigenous ape species – the hoolock gibbon. Plus, there are river dolphins in the Brahmaputra River, which marks the park’s northern boundary. And, it’s a bird watcher’s paradise and has earned the status of “Important Bird Area” by Birdlife International. The park has 3 ranges open to tourists – the Kohora, Bagori and Agaratoli. Over a short break of 3-4 days you can experience them all, and perhaps spot an elusive tiger or two in addition to all the rhinos!
We stayed at the Diphlu River Lodge, which overlooks the Diphlu River, as the name suggests. The Diphlu River is a tributary of the Brahmaputra and in fact divides the lodge from the park. We were advised to ignore any snorting in the middle of the night, as it may just be a rhino on the opposite bank getting a midnight drink! We loved the lodge and highly recommend it – it is simple, comfortable and authentic, and boasts world-class warmth.
The cottages have gorgeous bamboo construction by the local crew, who are drawn from the local tribes with knowledge of traditional construction techniques
And then there is a “Machan” housing the bar and the dining space, conducive for drinking tea and looking out onto emerald green forests. If contemplating a stay at the lodge, remember to specify that you would like a river-facing cottage – the views are worth it. The winter weather can be cold and biting, so warm and comfortable clothing is a must for the activities, particularly the early morning and late evening ones.
On our first day at Kaziranga, we started off with an early morning elephant safari in the Western Range. Each elephant can take 2-4 people and once you are on, they gently plough through the swamp and tall grasslands (called elephant grass, and well over 10 feet tall), encountering rhinos only a few feet away.
Because they get off the beaten track, elephants are a good way to see things you would otherwise miss from a jeep. It is only a short 5 minute drive from the lodge to the starting point of the elephant safari in the Western range. Elephant safaris last an hour and are operated in the mornings (there are usually 3 time slots) only by the park authorities. Space is limited so plan ahead or make sure your hotel does! Tickets for the elephant safari need to be purchased a day ahead of you want to do it yourself. Bijoy, from our lodge, arranged our elephant safari tickets and all we had to do is get there and enjoy the ride.
Rhino country – grasslands viewed from elephant back on a misty morning in Kaziranga.
We can see a few rhinos in the distance, and now we’re getting closer.
Spotted! A rhino and her baby
A Rhino lifting up his tail to poop!
We saw almost 40 rhinos on our safari in all manner of poses, so clearly, despite serious issues with poaching, the rhinos of Kaziranga are thriving
As usual we heard stories of tiger sightings by others but unfortunately the tigers gave us a wide berth. They most likely were watching us while we had no clue!
The other way to experience the park and cover more ground is the jeep safari. The jeep safaris are operated by a local Safari Operators Association and you will need to pay for the entrance into the park by jeep at the local office near the entrance to the Central Range of the park. Normally, if you stay in one of the resorts or lodges in Kaziranga they will organise this for you like Bijoy from Diphlu River Lodge did for us.
After the elephant safari, we took a break for breakfast, nap and lunch (that’s what you do on vacation, right?) and embarked on our jeep safari. It lasted about 3 hours and we explored a large part of the Central range of the park, which has beautiful grasslands and several water bodies – rivers, swamps and lakes. At our stop at a watchtower on one of the lakes we saw a herd of water buffaloes enjoying the winter sun and a small herd of elephants taking a gentle stroll.
A glimpse of wild elephants! The mothers are usually extremely protective of their young, and used her body as a shield the entire time we were in the vicinity.
The Central Range, too, offers elephant safaris, where we saw many rhinos, deer and birds of all kinds.
Hog deer and swamp deer (bara singa in the local language) dot the grasslands.
There is a fun side story to the elephant safari here: Kaziranga has a relaxed childcare policy for working mothers, and so elephant babies accompany their mothers on safari. Our elephant safari had a line of elephants with their babies dutifully (or in some cases not so dutifully) trotting along. This little fellow, Jai, who was a year old was particularly playful and chased all the visitors for his morning breakfast. Ever seen a baby elephant charging at you while practicing his trumpet? It’s adorable and terrifying all at the same time, because he still weighs at least twice as much as you do.
The next day we went looking for river dolphins in the Brahmaputra at its widest point, near Tezpur. The river was so wide at this point that we couldn’t see the other side. And we were told with some nonchalance that in the monsoon, everything we see around us as land also becomes submerged! We got onto the roof of a tiny wooden motorboat made of – what else – bamboo! Once the boat started, we felt the chill of the wind in our bones (please note: warm clothing is a must!), and kept our eyes peeled for dolphins.
The view from our bamboo boat with not another boat in sight!
The Brahmaputra is a river of Amazonian proportions.We saw no sign of dolphins for the first 30 minutes, but then suddenly found ourselves right in the middle of a school of them. They jump out of the water so quickly that you literally can blink and miss them, and unfortunately we were unable to get any photographs. There were a few dolphins who clearly liked to show off and jumped high out of the water demonstrating their perfect swimming form. There were other, more staid, risk-averse dolphins, who only revealed their snout. In this entire time, lasting about three hours, we only saw one or two other boats on the water. It was a surreal experience.
The lodge organized an elephant bathing in the Diphlu River (highly recommended for the kids!) which was super cute, and a taste of local tribal culture. We had a bonfire night with a program consisting of traditional music made out of homemade bamboo instruments, and dancing by the local tribe. Some of us even joined in the dancing around the bonfire!
Note: Do not try this at home! Notice the elephant’s trunk is above water at all times.
Overall, the evenings at the lodge were lovely – some great conversations on the day’s experience with some simple and tasty food, which, we were told, is locally sourced or even grown within the lodge. The lodge serves both local Assamese and western cuisine and we got to try some local dal (lentils), bamboo-cooked fish, and vegetables.
I’ll sum up with this: Go to Assam before the tourist blitz! Go now! Go soon! It’s waiting to be discovered.
I have found time to travel to many countries and live in 2 countries (3 if Scotland ever does becomes one!) and 6 cities during my career in finance. I was a diplomat first and started in the Indian Foreign Service with my first posting being Paris – The City of Light. And began my lifelong love of travel and coffee there! An MBA followed and I’ve been in finance since.