Tezpur is a small town, but like Dibrugarh, looks better than Guwahati. Our initial plan was to keep going directly to Kohara (which is where Kaziranga is), but given the absolute rattling we got in the now legendary Potala Express, it was felt necessary to freshen up. We checked into what was to be the worst room of the trip at a hotel called Kanyapura. For 3 hours it still cost us Rs. 250 and had it not been for the TV set, it would have been a terrible waste of money.
India had, while we were on the bus, won the first Test at Johannesburg. So it becomes even more pertinent that I not forget Potala Express.
From the local bus stand, we got into a mini-bus to Kaziranga. It cost nothing more than Rs. 35 per head. All these mini-buses are owned by private operators but are run under the ASTC (Assam State Tourism Corporation). Even though the guy at the counter gave us a nice seat number, the fellows in the bus asked us to sit in the cabin, so that people traveling to Jorhat (which is where the bus was going to), could see vacant seats.
This wasn’t a major issue as the journey was, for a change, on good roads. Some 30 km from Kaziranga, the wilds started and it became apparent that wildlife tourism was taken seriously by the government. There were specific public view points on the road and regular road signs displaying information.
However, I still couldn’t make our why the bus driver had worn his watch upside-down. Well, we did feel it was just a minor error on his part, but he checked time like that. It was one more in the list of oddities we had seen.
Kaziranga National Park
Entry per person – Rs. 20
Hiring a jeep – Basic Rate of Rs. 550 to Rs. 1500 depending on the range to cover. In addition to this, Rs. 200 for the jeep to enter the range and for a security guard.
Camera – Rs. 50 for still cameras, Rs. 250 for professional still cameras, Rs. 500 for Handycams.
Food – Available inside the park.
Accommodation – varied, needs to be booked
Elephant ride – Rs.140 per person and Rs.200 for the jeep
After meeting few people and after unleashing few references, we got a good room in the main complex of the Kaziranga National Park for Rs. 250 per day. There are few lodges nearby which were all full. The rates start from Rs. 250, but go up into four figures. There is a restaurant and a Network Travels office too in the complex. That day, the crowd was huge. Since we arrived at noon, we were in time for the jeep safari which would start at 2:30 pm. This was divided into four different ranges – Central, Eastern, Western and the Burrapahar range. Per jeep, they cost, Rs. 550, Rs. 650, Rs. 950 and Rs.1500, respectively. This is just the basic charge as we also have to pay for the vehicle’s entry into the range. So the Eastern range, which we chose to go, came up to Rs. 990 for two people, including the fee for our still cameras.
We thought we had a lucky break when we were told that another two people would join us in the jeep. They turned out to be a young couple who wanted to go only with our driver (who was a relative) and not us (who weren’t relatives). So the first driver apologized and the man at the counter, who too had lived in Bangalore for some time, led us to another driver. His name was Junmunee.
The organized manner in which the Kaziranga works has to be commended. There is not much opportunity for a visitor to be fleeced if he is housed anywhere near the complex. The jeep safari is well-regulated and the elephant safari has a nice process about it. We had to register for the elephant safari before going on the jeep ride. A friend at the complex did that for us. At 2:30, we were off to the Bagori
The higher rate of jeep fare is because of the distance. It takes 11km to reach the range. After the formalities the driver had to go through at the gates, we were on our way. A couple of jeeps with foreign tourists went ahead of us and soon, ours was a convoy of half-a-dozen vehicles. We made the tail.
After just about 100 metres, the rest of the vehicles had stopped. They were looking at something to the right and I thought I saw an elephant. We went closer, slowly, and a huge, very huge, Rhino came on to the road. It stood, as if posing, 15 metres from us. No photograph in school had told me the rhino could be so huge. I had glimpsed the hind of the rhino and thought it to be an elephant.
It stayed for a few seconds and crossed over to the grasslands on the left. From then on, rhinos were aplenty, everywhere. Hog deers and Sambars were omnipresent. Tigers, they say, are visible in March and April. Our joke was that maybe all this was organized as well. On the way back, we saw a nice sunset and it became evident from the way Junmunee conducted himself that he was aware of wildlife unlike Paresh in Manas. While Paresh had let out every possible sound from his larynx, Junmunee spoke, quietly, only when needed.
We came back to the room and Junmunee promised to be at the elephant ride “selections” in the evening. The registration for the ride is only the first step. Given the rush, the earlier you register, the better your chances are for getting it. There are two rides a day, at 5:15 and at 6:15 in the morning. Junmunee, seeing our cameras, advised us to take the 6:15 one.
Our names were called, after about ten others’ and we couldn’t get the 6:15 ride. It had to be 5:15, and Junmunee confirmed that he’d be ready at 5. We were ready at 5 as well. This time we were to drive through the central range.
Our elephant was called June and the mahout was very friendly. The early morning darkness that seemed to have killed any chance of photography was in fact, one of the most beautiful sights we would see on the tour. As June trudged into the grasslands, one could sense a distinct discomfort in the backside. But no, that isn’t the lasting memory.
In a grass clearing, there stood scores of Sambars, Hog Deers and a “Neel”. A little farther down, a rhino and its young one stood staring at the 12 elephants and their riders. There were two more elephants, babies of the working pachyderms, which would follow as through the journey. A few water buffaloes lazed around looking rather disinterested. The mother rhino was sure we were up to something as she kept her kid next to her and watched us closely. It didn’t help that our fellow tourists were using their camera flash. It wasn’t the best time to photograph without flash, but it never is a good time to use flash in these conditions.
Slowly, the darkness cleared and the sun peeped out. Immediately, we could notice the virtues of the elephant ride over a jeep safari. Other animals don’t run away as quickly as they do seeing motored vehicles. Elephants also traverse difficult terrain and thus cover regions which jeeps cannot. They are also a lot quieter.
After the elephant safari, we were sure we’d seen enough and were ready to leave for our next stop. The Network Travels office told us Guwahati would be a good choice and we decided to go to Shillong from there. But before we bid adieu to Junmunee, Kaziranga and the rest, there was a small job to be done.
The library at the Kaziranga Wildlife Society was well-stacked. Some of the books were very good. Naga felt obliged to return some of the favour done to us, and he large-heartedly donated Thus Spake Zarathustra. Our bus was at 9 in the morning.
The bus to Guwahati was surprisingly uneventful. We had got tickets for Rs. 150 per head and the guy at the travels told us not to tell our fellow passengers about it. They had booked earlier and hence had paid the entire fee for Jorhat to Guwahati. I remember the front right tyre had a puncture. Apart from that, we only wondered how it could take an hour to get to the main bus-stand in Guwahati, the Paltan Bazar, from the outskirts. At 3:30, the bus stopped. We got down, all empty stomach and headache, looking for a bus to Shillong. There was no way we would take a Sumo or for that matter stay back in Guwahati. We got a lucky break in that there was one bus to Aizawl which would be leaving at 4. We hadn’t eaten anything since morning and it wasn’t a good idea to keep traveling. But we took the bus anyway and requested the attendant to stop the bus, just for a minute, so that I could buy something to eat. He did, maybe because we paid him Rs.100 per ticket for a journey of 96 km.
The moment we crossed the Assam-Meghalaya border, we could sense a change. There was something very unique about Meghalaya. Perhaps, it was because of their names, or because of a certain characteristic on the people’s faces, the place looked a lot different to Assam or Arunachal. Villages were lit up and butcher shops were aplenty. The roads were better than those in Arunachal, but the terrain wasn’t as taxing as it was there. Trucks hogged much of the road and travel was generally slow. It took three and a half hours to cover the 96 km. When we got down at Police Bazaar in Shillong, for the first time after a while, we saw lights, people and activity late after 7 pm.