Tag Archives: Forest reserves in Assam

Tiger Census Part 2- The Aftermath

If you have not yet read my story of chasing a tiger trail, Please do! Because this story is the continuation of it. To give you a jist of Part 1: I was on a search mission to find tigers as part of a nationwide ‘Tiger Census’ activity. Another two of my friends too, had been allotted the same National park as me and hence, they were with me for company after the daily beat rounds and at the campsite. While at it, I was chased by wild elephants on three consecutive days, I climbed a tree, I got entangled between creepers and escaped a near miss casualty as I ran for life in the unknown territories of the elusive jungle. But even as a single tiger wasn’t spotted at the end of all the adventure, I was leaving the forest with a sense of accomplishment. But well.. the forest didn’t want to leave me, I guess! It followed me, home.. All the way to Bangalore.

Coming to the point, the forests had started to stick to me since one day before our departure from the forest. That evening, we were sitting at the portico of the guard’s kitchen and looking at the hundred lights glowing at a distance. They were the eyes of a hundred spotted deers glowing in moonlight, that congregate around the forest guest house every evening. We had gotten used to them during our stay, by now. It was nearing a week since we were living and walking in their habitat and we hadn’t been lucky to catch a glimpse of the Big-cat yet. Hence at times, my friends and I hoped that those eyes were of the tiger. While engrossed in our conversation, I had not realised that I had been subconsciously scratching various parts of my body. On noticing this, my friend asked me why I looked so uncomfortable.

Only after that, I realized that I had scratches and marks of my nails on almost every inch of my hands and legs. The irritation had gotten to the extent that my hands had to now reach into my shirt and trousers. I wondered if there was an allergic reaction due to some caterpillar or some plants that I had unknowingly touched. I borrowed a small bowl of oil from the kitchen and went inside our shelter to smear it all over (That’s the first self-medication / home remedy I use whenever I have an allergic reaction in my skin). But this time, it seemed to be getting worse. I had large rashes popping up on almost every inch of my skin. My body had turned red. Apart from a tribal family of Chikkanna who lived across the kitchen door and the cook himself, there was really no one else in the forest for my aid anyway. I assumed that I would be alright by morning and went to sleep that night.

The next morning was our last possible opportunity in the forest, to catch a glimpse of the striped beast. With all anxiety and excitement, I had woken up forgetting about the allergy. Anyway, even that day ended with a fruitless search for the big cat with no sighting. By late afternoon, my friends and I started our drive back, towards Bangalore. Half way through, I came to my real senses. My body was itching bad and it was itching everywhere. I was scratching my body uncontrollably. Initially, my friends found it weird and cracked crazy jokes at me. I too enjoyed their sense of humour and laughed along with them. There was a point when I was literally crying. Crying for two reasons: One, because the jokes were SO funny and I was laughing; two, because I couldn’t stop scratching myself so hard. It was insane. Only I knew what I was going through!

But why only Me..? God must have taken pity at my plight. The other friend in the car too slowly started to scratch herself. By the time we crossed Mysore, both of us were scratching ourselves. It was unbearably itchy! That’s when my friends realised the seriousness of the situation. For most of the road, we prayed that we reached home asap and got a good shower, hoping that would help us to get fresh and feel alright. But as we entered Bangalore borders, we saw the first clinic in our entire drive. we got desperate to do something about our situation and went inside this clinic at Kengeri Upanagara. The doctor took note of the backstory and injected both of us with anti-allergen shots. He assured us that we would be alright by next morning.

We reached our respective homes, took the best shower we had seen in the last 1 week, freshened up, applied some known home remedies and went to bed. The next day, the day after that, the week after that passed. Although the redness in the body had gone, the itching hadn’t stopped. At times, I felt like the itching had subsided. But yet again, I felt that it didn’t subside and I was getting used to it. I had scars all over my body due to the incessant scratching. Fifteen days later, my dad felt irritated at what I was going through and took me to a physician. He gave me a prescription with 4 different types of tablets and assured us that I would be alright within the next three days.

Three days exceeded a fortnight since the that visit to the doctor. It had been more than a month in total since I returned from the Tiger census and I was still scratching my body. That’s when my mom suggested me to go to a dermatology specialist at the KIMS hospital (Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences). I was ready to do ANYTHING, to get myself DONE with this. It had started to get embarrassing to go to office and public places by now. I had started to feel like people around me were distancing themselves because this seemed like a dirty habit to them!

I went inside the doctor’s cabin. He asked me what the problem was. No backstory, I only showed my hand and said that I had similar rashes all over my body. Straight to the point, he asked me: “Did you go to any beach?”. “No, I had been to a forest for a trek.”, I replied. He nodded (god knows what and why!) He handed over a prescription with tablets for two days and an ointment. Without really any hope if it would work this time around atleast, I walked out with yet another list of medicine in my hand.

I went home and popped the first pill from the latest prescription. It took me half an hour, THAT’S ALL….. I was relieved of all the mind-blowing (like LITERALLY!) struggle I was going through, since over a month. The itching STOPPED… like to ZERO! Like CRAZY…… Why hadn’t I gone to this doctor earlier!!! Why oh, WHY?? Anyway, I completed my medicine course and the ointment helped me to lighten the scars on my skin over the next 1 month. I suggested the same medicine to my friend as well and she too recovered.

Well apparently, My friend and I were bitten by tiny mites that live in the forests. These mites enter the blood stream through the skin and lay eggs inside the dermis. The doctor at KIMS got this absolutely right and hence, we were cured of our embarrassing situation.

Lesson: Always go to a doctor who is specialized in the related subject unless and until you are unaware of what is the source of the problem.

The Mis-adventurous trip to Haflong

As I had mentioned in one of my previous stories about my first solo trip, I had tagged along with two Bengaluru boys whom I met at Shillong. After covering Meghalaya, we took delivery of a brand new ‘Maruti Swift’ from a showroom in Guwahati and set out on a random road trip across the North-east. (click here to read the complete story). We finished exploring the Ziro valley and were left with 4 more days before our return flight to Bangalore. We worked out many options to best utilize the available time (4 days were too little to go ahead to Mechuka and return to Guwahati, we would be on a tight time if we did Tawang and had no backup in the eventuality of a car breakdown on those bad roads, Sandakphu was doable but we weren’t equipped with sufficient gears).

The National Highway at Ziro

That’s when I popped the option of visiting Jatinga. An unheard place for the other two with me, I explained: “It is a place where mass suicide of migratory birds takes place due to an unknown phenomenon. And this is THE season to witness it!”. There was enough curiosity inside the car but no clue on how to get there. We browsed quite a bit, scrolled through several web pages of the forest department and landed on a random contact list of IFS officers in Assam. We picked a random name (it sounded very South Indian, hence we wanted to try our luck). We got lucky and the call got through. A little perplexed at why random tourists may be interested in visiting this place, the IFS officer asked us to call him a day later as he was travelling. We were ok to wait for confirmation, as we were anyway going to reach Itanagar only on the following noon. That’s where we had to pick our route, whichever worked out- Guwahati or Jatinga.

On the following day, we called on the same number again when we had reached a good network zone. The IFS officer got us connected to another forest officer, posted in Haflong. We got in touch with that officer, who then guided us to reach his office in Haflong. He warned us against stopping ANYWHERE along our way and keep updating him every now and then about our location. We relied heavily on Google maps and were driving through Asian Highway no.1. PS: We would be heading towards Dima Hasao district and the entire route was notoriously infested with anti-social elements.

We commenced our drive on a road that would lead us to Thailand (only if we extended our holidays by a fortnight more), guided by Google maps. But for now, it was destination: Haflong, the only hill station in Assam. The under-construction road was patchy every few kilometers, alternating with smooth asphalt and bumpy gravel. At one point, the road with endless stretch of forest cover was so beautiful and intimidating for a photo stop but we were scared for even a pee-stop. We were however, at the mercy of google-Mata’s directions!

The Asian Highway through Dima Hasao

So, the scene what happened after we passed the Mahur cross is documented in another post for you to read. Long story short: we missed a diversion in the under-construction road, continued on AH1 as per google maps and our car got stuck in a deep ditch, in the middle of a forest reserve. We were stranded without help almost until sunset. Finally help and the forest officer’s army, all arrived together to get us out to safe haven. We waited at the officer’s makeshift container workspace until he finished his day’s work and took us to Nothao lodge, a place where our stay in Haflong was arranged at. It was a nice resort (good for a less touristy place like Haflong) but most of all, the owner was a resourceful person who was going to take care of our travel activities for the next couple of days.

Our car being towed by RSA

“Not all who plan and come here get lucky, as the weather plays a crucial role in being able to see it, even after reaching here. The wind direction tonight is very favorable. You are here at the RIGHT time to witness the mass-suicide of the birds. Be ready by around 12.00.a.m., the jeep will come here to pick you all. The officer and I will join you at my house and then we shall proceed to Jatinga.” The Hotelier said before leaving us. We were all excited! After freshening up, we placed an order for a hearty Dimasa meal for supper. ‘Try Local cuisines, wherever you are’ was a mantra all three of us religiously followed. The must try-dishes were recommended by the friendly chef at the lodge.

The poor car had gone through so much abuse on its very first road trip that it deserved a good shower. While the boys drove out to the town to find a good spa for the car, I decided to stay back at the lodge. The wooden furniture in an open dining space with mellow music playing in the background and cold misty breeze from the green trees around, blowing on my face was enough reason for me soak up some inspiration to write my next story. As a couple of hours passed, the boys returned. I don’t know if the car found a spa, but the boys for sure found a bar 😛 They returned with a few liters of judima, the local brew of rice beer.

We were the lucky few who were to witness nature’s phenomena, one so rare that it is unexplainable by science. We had braved quite an adventurous drive to make it thus far… But the weather was such, that I can’t blame them. The two drank up the stock ignoring all my alerts, warnings and requests! It was now nearing 9.00.p.m. and so, blame it on the ambience of the dining area. While the meal was being arranged on the table, the two were dozing away. Jatinga and the birds were all flying away from me now, faintly to the elusive distance 😛 I tried to keep the two up, at least to finish up the meal and not waste it. The two walked up to their room and had passed out within the next few moments. “See you Jatinga, next time!”, I silently spoke while breaking the roti in my hand.

It did not feel right for me to drive into a forest alone with someone whom I barely knew. Hence, I decided to make ‘Nothao’ my destination for the night.
I requested the hotel staff to serve the same food on the following morning (there was SO MUCH food, that neither of us would want to throw it off), informed the hotel owner and the forest officer of my situation and silently slid into the comforting warmth of the rugs in my room.

Anyway, the miss was made up for, by the two boys who had been my travel partners for the last 2 weeks (well… partially). We explored a little bit 9f Haflong. The duo spoke to the officer and a hike to the highest peak of Assam- Hapeo peak was organized. That’s yet another story you might want to read here. Thus, happened our misadventure to Jatinga and the last bit on my fortnight in the north-east.

Tracking the Big Five at Kaziranga

The monsoon has caused the mighty Brahmaputra to take a toll on the North-eastern part of India causing innumerable and irreplaceable losses. I saw this one particular photo of a floating carcass of the striped beast- the National animal of India in the newspaper this morning and I was taken back in time when I visited Kazhiranga last year, post monsoon. After a wonderful drive through the National highway from Guwahati, we reached Kazhiranga on a night lit with Diwali lamps all around. Kazhiranga national park is divided into four main areas: The Central range at Kohora, Western range at Bagori, Eastern range at Agaratoli and the Burapahar range at Ghorakhati. Here, the tourists can enjoy the elephant and jeep rides into the forest that are organized by either government or private parties. It is closed during monsoon and we were lucky that the Central zone at Kohora had just opened. We had a nice meal and settled down at one of the numerous resorts that exist on the boundary of the National park in the Kohora range. Meanwhile, our resort guys helped us to get tickets for a safari ride scheduled for early next morning.

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Enroute to the forest gates

We woke up the next morning and headed towards the gates where the elephant ride was supposed to commence. The drive itself was so refreshing… With the addictive smell of wet ground, Mud roads with green paddy fields dotted with bamboo huts here and there; Thick mist slowly clearing up with dew drops reflecting the rising sun- It was a wonderful drive all the way till the tourist tower inside the forest gates. Kazhiranga is synonymous with the one-horned rhinoceros. Even before we started our ride, we spotted rhino families all around the tower we were standing at. With about 2/3rd of the world’s population of these beauties found in just this area, it was no surprise that we began to spot them one after the other. We even found a few of them grazing by the roadside fields on our way back. With that we realized, that Kaziranga was something beyond rhinos. Our elephant had arrived, we sat atop and started our ride into the haze of the misty green grasslands of the Kazhiranga.

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The elephants marching into the forest

The elephants that we were sitting on were walking through dense thickets of elephant grass- The grass that was taller even for elephants to walk through. Slowly, the mahout started to point out and show us the animal sightings. First, it was a wild elephant with its calf. We were told that Rhino and elephant conflicts were common and that particular mother elephant was wounded just that morning in a bid to protect its new born calf. So, that meant we were not safe sitting on one either! We slowly moved out of tall grass to another area where a couple of rhinos were finishing their morning chores. It was very surprising for us to know that large rhino groups identify space where each rhino marks its own spot (making a private toilet space for itself) and does not let any other rhino enter the area. Wow! We slowly passed that place and spotted herds of swamp deer. World’s largest population of these herbivores too is concentrated in these forests. They are handsome animals. Just as we were photographing them, we saw a herd of Asiatic wild water buffaloes marching out of a slush pool. We had no idea that over 57% of the world’s water buffaloes too were accommodated in the woods here! Another surprise awaited us- Kazhiranga national park has the highest density of the Royal Bengal tigers in the world!!! Whoa!!!! That’s like……..!!! So we had checked off 4 out of the big 5 of the Kazhiranga before heading towards the exit gates- The One horned rhinos, Asiatic elephants, swamp deer and wild water buffaloes… We need real luck to find the last one- the elusive beast: The Royal Bengal tiger…

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Clockwise: The Single horned Rhino, Swamp deer, Wild water buffaloes and the Asiatic elephants

We realized that we still had time to make it for the morning batch of jeep ride. I strongly recommend to try both ways of exploring the woods- on elephant back and by a four wheel drive. Both are different experiences and the type of terrain and sightings are different. While an elephant will be able to take you through the tall grass, a 4-wheel will be able to enter deeper areas of the forest. So, we had a gypsy to take us in… Needless to mention- Herds and herds of rhinos greeted us all along our way. Wild boars, barking deer etc. were spotted in abundance. The highlight was however- the innumerable varieties of migratory birds that we spotted. Our driver mentioned several names, out of which only pelicans and spoon-billed storks were the prominent ones that I have managed to remember. At the end of the drive one way, the guards took us to a watch tower from where we could catch a very good view of hundreds of animals that come to drink water from the flowing river. It was a very calm and a serene place to spend a while with nature… What caught our curiosity was some random years mentioned on the wall of the watch tower. So, here is a picture that may give an idea of the monsoon fury and severity of floods that affect this area year after year. The tower itself is located at an elevation from the river. My friend in the below picture is a 6-footer. The water level of 2016 is marked above him… Can you imagine how impossible it is for the animals to escape out of the area??? It’s insane to think of…

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Record of the flood water level of the Bramhaputra

Although a little disappointed for not being able to spot a tiger, we were feeling content for having our long pending wish of visiting this heritage site come true! We then headed back to the resort for breakfast. The drive back on the highway was an extremely nice one which had gone unnoticed during the hurried drive through misty roads in the morning… Tea plantations flanked the roads on both sides. The famous Assam tea grows in flat lands and under shade, totally contrary to what I had seen and grown up with, in down South. We stopped by to sip on some hot brew and bought some procedded tea leaves for our caffeine addicts back home. A quick visit to the Orchid research centre was an interesting place to drop by too…

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The Assam tea estate

So, that was an eventful day at Kazhiranga with warm memories from the woods before heading to our next destination- Jorhat. If you wish to spend more time with nature, I recommend you all to explore all the 4 ranges of the national park. Don’t go by recommendations of people of which range to go in… Each area is distinct with different types of vegetation, landscape, flora and fauna concentrations.

Hiking up Assam’s highest point- Hapeo peak

This trek happened by chance. It was an instant plan when the activity aimed at was not happening due to unfavourable conditions. That said, here’s what happened to the backup plan: The hike to Hapeo peak, the highest point in the state of Assam. We wanted to reach the peak for sunrise. However, due to the clouds that had hovered that morning, we decided to snooze for a little longer before going ahead with the plan.

There are totally 13 native tribes in Dima Hasao and each tribe has its own village. A local NGO called spectrum is working for the upliftment of local tribes and improvement of tourism in the district. They helped us in getting this event organized. They drove us in their 4WD vehicle from Haflong to the village called- N.Liekung. This a village of the Kuki tribes. We got the required permission from the village head and thus, a local guide was arranged to take us through this off-beat wilderness. After a small stop in front of the holy Cross at the prayer area of the Kukis, we began our ascent towards the highest peak in the state of Assam.

Hardly 4-5 trekkers climb this hill in a year apart from the tribes who like to party atop the hill. The climb wasn’t a very difficult one as compared to what we had done back in the Southern India. But what made it seem difficult was the high grass that had grown to cover the entire stretch through which we had to find the trekking trail. The first half of the trek has a well traceable path with steps laid. However, at some places, the stairs have been lost amid the thickets. We had to cut the grass and bushes in order to find our way… The first 3rd of the path was full of high grass with occasionally placed animal traps which our guide ahead would carefully move aside to make way for us… Then we reached at the only flat area and grassland vegetation for not more than 500mts. This was the only place apart from the highway from where we could actually see the peak that we were apparently scaling up!

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The only grassland in Hapeo trek

The next part was through thick jungle with a canopy of trees that allowed very less sunlight to penetrate. Varieties of innocent looking wild mushrooms had bloomed at several patches, but we were careful by not picking them as they could actually be lethal with allergens or venom. We were accompanied by strange sounds all being the cries of migratory birds around. Our Kuki guide enlightened us with their tribal customs, culture with a few videos on his phone of their traditional dances performed on their festivals… It was barely two hours and we had already scaled up the hill top. He jokingly told us how his fellow folks are named in the tribe. The names may not mean anything, anything random that sounds nice goes as a name and thus he was called after a ‘Song that was Sung’ (I’m sorry, I don’t want to give out his name). But the tradition is that the maternal grandfather selects a name for the granddaughter and the paternal grandmother picks a name for the grandson and vice-versa. It is a patrilineal system of inheritance.

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A view of Dima Hasao district from Hapeo peak

Suddenly, the darkness of the jungle had turned into snow white of the clouds. We were told that one could see the entire district of Dima Hasao from up there but we were greeted with thick fog and clouds… We spent some time soaking in nature’s beauty and waiting for the clouds to clear so that we could catch a glimpse of the beautiful view. There is just one small shelter with a bench atop the hill and nothing apart from yourself there! Our guide mentioned about a 2×2 patch right behind the bench where there is a natural and strong magnetic force due to which none of the mobile phones work. Yes, we did observe the phenomenon too. Although all our phones had FULL network, we were unable to place any calls. But none of us had any scientific reasoning for what he told. In the next fifteen minutes, the clouds had slowly started to clear. We spotted the railway bridge at Lumding onto the right side of the horizon. This is the longest and highest in the Silchar route. Our guide pointed towards another hill onto our left through which the longest railway tunnel in the North-east passes… It is around 3.5kms he said! The Silchar-Lumding railway route has been featured in several tourism websites and has been one of the scenic stretches in the country. As the weather slowly worsened and began to drizzle, we decided to start our descent.

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The thick forest path in the Hapeo trek

When we had just started to climb down when we received a call from the NGO… We were told to reach back the base of the hill ASAP as cyclone alert had been given in the Bay of Bengal and heavy rains were expected in this region. Within no time, it started to pour cats and dogs… The fastest pace we could catch is roll down the hill… With all the rain, thick grass covering the path and steep down, the descent was extremely slippery and we had to struggle to walk steadily… There was nothing enroute to take shelter and waiting at any place made no sense because the rains would continue for the entire day or two. We were already drenched till our bones and hence decided to simply continue… We were back at the base by 11.00.a.m. and thus ended our trek to the highest point in the state of Assam.

We were invited over to our guide’s house to dry ourselves up and have a cup of hot tea. We thanked him much and bid adieu with a warm heart to this lesser known corner of the world!