The one abiding memory of Guwahati that I have is that of a street-vendor selling some insects as raw materials for food, along with a live reptile – a snake. After some misunderstanding and a few uncomfortable moments we ended up in a government guest house. Here our skills in communication were put to a rigorous test. I pride in the fact that I can speak good enough Hindi without a visible accent. But what if the guy you are talking to cannot?
R Burman was a cook at the guest house and for all his good intentions he spoke more Assamese than Hindi. The first task was to convince him that we were vegetarians. “Nimasi?” he asked. “Haan, haan, vegetarian, maas machchi nahi.” Delighted that he had understood, we waited for electricity. The power condition in the north-east is ridiculous. There are frequent cuts and here, the overhead tank at the guest house had gone dry. After some time, Burman-da came back, “Soti soti machli chalega?”
Somehow, we settled for a breakfast, lunch and dinner of Dal and Bhaat (rice).Luckily, we met Mr. D.C. Bora, who had formerly worked in Arunachal Pradesh. Our plan for Arunachal had been very skeletal and he was a godsend at that time. He not only gave us vital travel information, he also suggested a few hotels. The next day, we were ready to leave for our first significant stop, Manas National Park.
Manas National Park
Entry per person – Rs. 20
Entry for a vehicle – Rs. 300
Camera – Rs. 50 for still cameras.
Food: Provisions to be bought into the park.
The forest dept. has a cook stationed there.
Vehicle hire charges – Rs.1000-Rs.1200 per day. Fuel extra.
Accommodation – varied, needs to be booked
Elephant ride – Rs.100 per person
Barpeta Road is approximately 130 kms from Guwahati by bus. We paid Rs. 70 per head for the morning trip which lasted three hours. The mini-bus cramped you for space and it was generally crowded. But as we would learn later, this was one of our better journeys.
At Barpeta Road, there is a forest department office where we had to report and book tickets and accommodation. Manas spreads into Bhutan and has been declared a World Heritage Site. It is well-known for its bio-diversity and was a frequent haunt of wildlife lovers in the past decades. However, it had been closed for some time in the 90s after Bodo insurgency. The problem started in 1988 and lasted till as long as 2002, when insurgents ransacked the national park, cutting trees, butchering animals and even killing people.The forest department, in 2003, aided by the militants’ willingness to make peace, drilled into them the importance of conservation. This has become such a success now that erstwhile insurgents have become guardians of the national park. While we sat at the office talking to the affable Deputy Field Director, Mr. Ritesh Bhattacharjee, a couple of rough looking men came and chatted with him for sometime and left. We were told that they were former militants who had charted a different path for their lives now.
No one is allowed to walk to the park from the Barpeta Road office, which is 44 km away. It is imperative to take a vehicle to the park’s gates. Thus, we were led to Paresh Wari, a rotund, funny-looking, but smart chap who would be driving us in his Tata Spacio till our stay in Manas. We were to pay Rs.1000 a day, plus Rs. 500 for fuel. We bought some provisions from the market and Paresh tried to hide his dejection when he learnt we were vegetarians. The road to Manas National Park from Barpeta Road cannot be worse. In fact, where was the road? The vehicle moved like an involuntarily waltzing elephant on embers of coal. To the gates of the park, it is a journey of around 20 km. From there to Bansbari, where we were put up, it was a 24 km torturous path. To ease our mood, two peacocks came suddenly on our path and flew away with great splendour. Manas is famous for the golden langur and the pigmy hog. It was also once known for the rhino. But that and tigers were among the worst hit by the Bodo problem. The pigmy hog, apparently, is extinct. After the peacocks, we saw few langurs staring at our vehicle from the trees. At first we delighted at the thought of having seen the golden langur so soon. We were later told that they were capped langurs, and the golden ones could be seen only on the Bhutan side of the Manas. That night, we were taken on a night safari by a guard, Das, and Paresh Wari. We soon realized that Paresh was a nuisance. He would cough, talk, laugh, gargle and spit; nothing in whispers. Despite him, we saw few hog deers at night. The only thing he could think of when he saw the deers was, “Yummy! How good they would be to eat.”The Indian and Bhutanese sides of the national park are separated by the Beki river.
The night we stayed at Manas was a full moon night. The river glistened and gushed, while the mountains on the Bhutanese side formed a delightful outline in the background. We were told that the next morning, we’d get to do the elephant ride, and quite possibly row over the river into Bhutan, with requisite permission from authorities there. As Paresh made more irritating noise about the 24km journey to the front gates for the elephant ride, we had to cough up another Rs.350 for fuel. “We don’t get fuel here, so I have to pay more,” he said. Bullshit! That’s all we got that morning. The mahouts hadn’t been informed beforehand and as a result the elephants weren’t ready. We instead saw few more peacocks on our way back to Bansbari. Unlike Kaziranga, Manas isn’t as popular. Hence, there are no regular elephant rides.We came back to our room and waited for Das to get us permission to visit Bhutan’s Manas. Meanwhile, a group of Bengali engineers had come to the park. They became friendly with us and soon we were chatting. “Would you like to river-raft with us?” one asked. “Well, not quite, we have to be in Guwahati…” or something to that effect, I mumbled. “Are you saying you want to miss this opportunity to river-raft in a national park, which you cannot do anywhere else in India?” another of them said. I was taken aback by the intensity of his. I had not known him for more than five minutes and he was talking with such interest that it shook me. I guess as time moves on and I look back at that day and remind myself of that offer, I will kick myself.However, at that time, it was a proper decision as buses from Barpeta Road to Guwahati stop after 3 PM and they were to raft at 1 PM. This effectively meant that we would have had to stay another day at Manas – not a bad proposition had it not been for time.The Bhutan entry was finalized and we were rowed over the river by an oarsman whose family hailed from Allahabad, and who spoke very much like a man from UP. The famous question here everyone was asking was, “Golden mila?” Apparently, the goldens, or the golden langurs, had retraced back into the deep of the forest a couple of days back and weren’t to be seen. It was another disappointment as all we saw was an angry gaur.
The gaur was so lonely that around twenty visitors kept staring at it with wide eyes and long lenses. Having taken a couple of photographs, I moved back. A local guide kept staring at me all the while. I didn’t understand and kept walking back while the others were still stalking the poor gaur. This guy came up to me after a while and asked, in all seriousness, “You are so tall, yet you ran away from the gaur?” If only I had the gift to deliver some smart-ass answer. The idiot!
We returned empty handed, but with few breathtaking photographs of the boat ride. We met a group of four oldies who had been staying at Manas for the past two days. One of them, Mr. Sen, a Bengali from Tripura, took special interest in our tour plans. He suggested us the Namdapha National Park in eastern Arunachal. This involves a trek of 27 km to the park from the forest office at a place quite exotically called, Miao. Here was a man who could so easily have ignored us, but who not only gave us ideas but also promised to give us his visiting card. But for some reason the cook had misplaced some 200 visiting cards of Mr. Sen which he had given him especially for us before he went for a walk. They surely couldn’t have eaten it!
Manas was a wonderful experience not so much for the wildlife we saw, but for the possibilities it put forth to us. People like Mr. Sen, the Bengali engineers and Mr. Bhattacharjee will inspire, always. The moonlit view of the Beki and the entry into Bhutan were special memories. The Bhutan part of the national park was frequently visited by the King and he took special interest in it. The difference between the two parks is glaring. The trees that have been cut and the animals that have been butchered are part of horror stories that shouldn’t be repeated. The good news is, they might not be repeated. This trip also taught us to travel in a group of four to cut costs, and make sure that one asks the exact terms of the taxi hiring charges. Paresh charged us for two days even though we had used his vehicle over a period of 24 hours. We hopped onto one of the last buses to Guwahati and this time, he took five hours to traverse the distance between Barpeta Road and the capital as the bus trudged remorsefully past Pathshala, Rangiya and Nalbari.