The new day began rather early. In fact it was still dark out when i woke up. The previous night, when we reached the Jaldapara Tourist Logde in Madarihat, he had made bookings for the elephant safari. The elephants, along with their mahouts leave twice a day – in the mornings and in the afternoons. However, if you really want to spot wildlife, take the very first safari which starts around 5:30.
The safaris leave in groups of 2-3 elephants, each carrying a maximum of four people and a mahaut. One should try and get a place in the first group which usually leaves at 5 am during summers and 6 am during winters. For its size, the elephant is an extremely agile animal and manoeuvres easily through the various streams running through the forest.
Around 5 AM, a car came to pick us up from the lodge. It must be told here that the safari begins from the Hollong Tourist Lodge, which is seven kms from the gate of the forest and around 9 kms from where we were staying. Apart from us, the only people we saw were the mahouts and a British couple.
Elephants have a distinct advantage over the jeep safaris popular elsewhere because it lets the visitor get much closer to the wild animal without it being put off by the noise of the engine. The elephants used for the safaris are employees of the state government and draw monthly salaries, have a retirement age, and upon retirement are eligible for a pension! Apart from safaris, the elephants, also known as kunki are used to round up wild elephants that have gone musth (a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterised by highly aggressive behaviour, accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones) and help in patrolling for poachers.
For its size, the elephant is an extremely agile animal and manoeuvres easily through the various streams running through the forest. At the start of the safari, we veered off the tracks used by the jeeps and entered the dense forests. As i had said in the earlier post, the forests had just opened after the monsoons and the foliage was at its thickest. Though chances of sighting wildlife in such thick vegetation are very slim (all we saw were a couple of monkeys and a yelping wild boar), the feeling of being deep inside these luxuriant forests, surrounded by a quietitude so thick that a mere snap of a twig makes you jump on your high seat is priceless. So thick is the foliage that at times, the sunlight does not reach the forest floor.
The dense forests soon make way for the grasslands. The grass here is so tall that they are popularly called elephant grass. This is where most of the rhinos can be spotted – feeding, resting or wallowing in the muddy pools. We saw signs of their presence – hoof-marks, flattened patches of grass, etc but failed to spot the actual rhino.
Having said that, i must also point out that we did spot a monitor lizard, carefully camouflaged against the tree bark.
Anyway, since we had gotten up so early and trampled around in the forest for hours, the hunger demons were on a rampage on my stomach. The entire day lay ahead of us and whatever had to be done, needed to be done quickly. So anyway, i gulp down half a litre of milk, a couple of eggs, snatch some sandwiches from the breakfast table and rush to the car to head off to Chilapata forest.
Torsha river flows through the southeastern part of Jaldapara and separates a stretch of dense forests from the main wildlife sanctuary. Chilapata, as this forest is better known acts as an elephant corridor between Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary and Buxa Tiger Reserve. Chilapata has some of the densest forests of the region. In a struggle to reach for the light, creepers crawl up trunks of small trees while shrubs and smaller plants sprout out from every possible free space on the ground. So dense are the forests here that driving through them feels like going through a green tunnel.
Originally, Chilapata forests were home to a large number of rhinoceros, but they have since vanished due to excessive poaching, especially by the erstwhile ruling family of Coochbehar. However, during the winter months, when the Torsha is reduced to a lean, fast flowing stream, the occasional rhinoceros is known to cross over from Jaldapara to Chilapata.
Deep inside the forest are remains of an ancient fort which historians say could date back to the Gupta period (4th – 7th century AD). Locally known as Nal Rajar Garh (the fortress of the Nal king), the ruins are around three kms into the forest off the NH31A. While you are expecting soaring buttresses and sprawling complexes, do not get your hopes up. The heavy rainfall and the high humidity of the region, not to mention the 1500 years in between has really takes its toll. All that remains are some walls and a couple of neat looking arches. Anyway, it was here that we saw a baby elephant. While it was indeed a cute sight, i couldn’t but help think about the mother which would have been lurking nearby.
Further down the national highway, as the road leads towards Hashimara, a smaller track leads off on the right towards the Chilapata forest outpost. Located on a high spur of land on the banks of the Torsha, the building provides a stunning view of the forests on one side and the Torsha river bed on the other. During autumn, the bed of the Torsha river erupts with a profusion of kaash, white, fluffy, plume-like blossoms of tall grass.
So far in the day, we had completed an elephant safari and then driven into the heart of the forest for some wonderful sights. It would have been the day for the tourists, but one glance at the watch confirmed that it was not even lunchtime. We anyway had to get to this place called Rajabhatkhawa (literally, ‘where the king ate rice’), the ehtry-point to Buxa Tiger Reserve. Our driver suggested a shortcut through a village called Kodalbasti (literally, ‘a village of spades’). It turned out to be a narrow winding track through small hamlets, but in the middle the road had vanished! It was gobbled up by the Baniya River flowing alongside. So about turn and a longer drive to reach Rajabhatkhawa.
We reached Rajabhatkhawa by 2 in the afternoon and checked into the rest house operated by West Bengal Forestry. A quich shower and a change of clothes later we were off to explore the many mysteries of Buxa. Also in Rajabhatkhawa is a Nature Interpretation Centre, that helps the tourist grasp the delicate biodiversity of Dooars. It was here, via a mural on the wall and a very talkative guard that i found out how Rajabhatkhawa got its strange name. Long ago, the King of Coochbehar was in constant warfare with the king of Bhutan. The wars were severe and bloody and neither king emerged a clear victor. To put an end to the bitterness, the king of Coochbehar invited his Bhutanese counterpart for lunch to work out a settlement. As it turns out, the luncheon bore fruits and the two kingdoms never warred again.
Buxa Tiger Reserve, established in 1983 is sprawled over an area of 759 sq kms, of which 314.5 sq kms is the core area. However, the dense forests and the general shy nature of tigers make sightings here a rare delight. The northern boundary of the Park roughly coincides with India’s border with Bhutan. National Highway 31C runs along its southern boundary. A part of a contiguous forests that extend across North Bengal, Assam and Bhutan, it serves as an international corridor for elephant migration between India and Bhutan. According to the state wildlife officials, even tigers are known to move freely in to Bhutan through the continuous belt of forests.
We wanted to explore the more frequented Jainti beat of the forest. We paid for our permits at the forest check post at Buxa and headed in.
There are no permanent roads inside the forest. Like all forests in Dooars, the park is nurtured by a large number of rivers, most important of which are Jainti and Raidak. Jainti carves a wide basin across the Tiger Reserve. Most of the rivers change courses frequently and hence you have to cross a riverbed or two to get to your destination. At one such river crossing, i decided to get off the car and wade my way through. I was having a nice walk with the car ambling along behind me when all of a sudden i was startled by a loud honking. Turning back i was quite surprised to see an AUTO, full of people making its way through at breakneck speed. I quickly stepped aside to avert a collision and realised that even after a nuclear holocaust, the autos will survive, probably to be driven around by then roaches!
Anyway, re reached our destination without any more incidents. The wide bed of the river Jainti as it snakes through the forest is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see. Standing by the river, to the north one sees rolling hills, covered with dense forests. To the south, as far as the eyes can see, is the milky-white riverbed of smooth pebbles fringed by dark-green forests, known for their rare orchids and medicinal plants.
As a kid, every winters, our family, along with some friends would come here for picnics on sunny, winter days. The last time i came here, i was prolly 11-12 years old, but i could remember flashes of fun i had here. For once, i remembered that if you dug into the sand on the riverbed, you could get water.Then there was the hapless look on the face of our cook. All the housewives and my mother had nothing to do on the picnics, but get after the life of the cook and interrogate him for every additional ounce of ginger paste put in the mutton curry simmering on the wooden flame. Then there was my father, who is, without doubt the worst player of any card game in the world. So he would usually stand and watch others play and indulge me with stories of fantastic creatures that would come out of the forest once we left for the day.
We stood on the river for some times. shooting, talking but mostly enjoying the sight. As the darkness started to descend, we made our way to the forest lodge. The next day we would head to the beautiful town of Coochbehar where there would be more stories to tell and more roads to travel. Until then its time to say goodbye with these two pics: