Thursday, 4 October 2012

Travel: A Kaziranga dawn safari on the wild side

The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros we spy

The alarm sounds like a distant drone in our room at the Bonhabi resort in Assam in March 2010. Krittika and I shake ourselves awake ~and bolt into the darkness outside, where our guide (now our friend) Mirza waits for us. 

Krittika’s German husband Markus and his friend Christopher decide they need to sleep-in. Or else, what’s a holiday about? Besides, we have already done the jeep safari around the Kaziranga National Park the previous evening, their heavyweight, sophisticated lenses ready to shoot at sight.

But Krittika and I feel the adrenalin surge of an adventure ahead. So, we’re shiny-eyed and bushy-tailed, even at 4.30 am. It is pitch dark outdoors. 

Krittika, Markus and Mirza clown after the jeep safari

By the time Ratul bhaiya drives us to Kaziranga in his Toyota Innova, we find dozens of beautifully-dressed ladies from Nagaland milling around. They giggle shyly behind their hands. They nudge each other playfully. They have all the bubbliness of truant schoolgirls sans an escort. They queue up and settle into seats atop tame elephants, six to each mount.

On a parallel soundtrack, Mirza tells us of the retirement benefits for the elephants at Kaziranga. They are allowed off-duty at the age of 60 (or is it 65?) The elephants are given shelter and food for the rest of their lives, according to Assam Forest Department regulations.

The Naga ladies are all set to go. There is just one elephant left ~ Babu. He seems sleepy, like us, but tame enough. Our seat is different from theirs: two of us face the front, one faces the rear. An elevated platform allows us to clamber onto Babu easily enough. We have a forest ranger with a gun with us. Just in case of an emergency, we are told.

Babu sways, tosses his head, then joins the queue of elephants lined up for the crack-of-dawn safari. How different will this be from the jeep trip the previous evening?

Very different, as we learn over the next hour or so. As we head into the tall, bristling elephant grass, we’re told not to reach out for it. Its sharp edges could cut our hands.

En route, Krittika and I joke with Mirza. About the green, orange and white chutneys we get at a traditional dinner at Guwahati. About the drunk local youth who comes up to me afterwards while we wait for Ratul bhaiya to bring our vehicle closer, with the puzzling query, “Australian or what?!!” Who, me?

From the simple wooden howdah atop Babu, we scan the grass. What will we sight? When?

“Look,” whispers Krittika. A grey shape looms ahead as Babu pushes through the grass. It’s a Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros. Kaziranga is home to two-thirds of the world’s population of these animals.

It has its huge derriere turned towards us. Turn, turn, turn, Krittika and I whisper to it silently. The rhino declines. Later, we see a group of rhinos. One faces us. Click-click-click, go Krittika’s camera and mine.

Statistics hit me in the face later on. For the rhino’s horn is prized as an aphrodisiac in Asian cultures. As a result, between 1980 and 2005, 567 Kaziranga rhinoceroses were killed by poachers. Despite armed patrols and legislation including Assam Forest Regulation of 1891 and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 2002, 18 more died in 2007.

A group of gaur or Indian bison

As Babu sways from side to side, our mahout Raju puts his finger to his lips. We need to chatter less in the wilderness.

We scan the horizon. No tigers in sight. The only elephants we see are the procession of tourists who lead the way ahead of us. We spot some impressive gaur or the Indian bison. I’m not trained to identify birds, though some perch on the swaying grass, others fly overhead.

Suddenly, we come to a standstill. Babu puts his head down. He pulls up a clump of elephant grass. He chews. Slowly. Meditatively. With rapt attention.

A minute goes by. Two. Five. Babu continues to chew. Raju is impatient now. He prods the elephant with his pronged metal prod.

Babu flaps his ears. He continues to pull up tufts of grass. He chews some more. He seems disinclined to move ahead. The last of the elephant procession with other tourists have long vanished from sight.

Raju is irritated now. And impatient. Even angry. He prods Babu’s head. The elephant brushes him away.

The mahout tries once more. And yet again. With the same result.

Raju prods Babu’s head hard. Once. Twice. A few times. Krittika and I want to scream. Blood appears on the elephant’s forehead. We gasp. It hurts to even watch.

At this, Babu trumpets. He rears his head. He rises up, briefly on his hind legs. He shakes us from side to side. Quite unexpectedly. Even violently. We clutch the wooden bars of our seat in fright.  

Long minutes tick by. Raju goads him some more. More terrifying sounds emerge from the elephant. He sways from side to side. Babu refuses to give up. The prod pokes the bleeding spot once more.

Please don’t hurt the elephant any more, Krittika and I plead.

Mirza suggests that perhaps Babu should retire from these safaris. Maybe he is too old? Or hungry at this hour?

After what seems like aeons to us, Babu reluctantly rambles through the grass once more. We spot more bison. The odd rhino or four.

But all we mull over is odd thoughts. What if we had fallen off the wooden seat? What if Babu had tossed us off? Would Mirza, Krittika and I have turned into the tricolour Assamese chutneys underfoot?

 What if we had a closer encounter of the rhino kind? Despite their bulk, they are known to charge at upto 50 km.p.h. We are grateful that we are able to shrug off the fear ~ and laugh once more.

Krittika and I watch Babu make friends with his mahout again

Once we dismount after the dawn safari, we find that Babu and Raju are friends once more. The elephant gives his mahout a trunk up, so that he can clean his wound.      

On our way back to the Bonhabi resort around 7.30 am, Krittika, Mirza and I stop at a little roadside shack.  The sun is now a red ball of fire in the sky.   

Settlers of Bangladeshi origin man the shack on National Highway 37 between Kuwarital and Tezpour in Assam. Clad in a coarse cotton sari, she cooks us hot parathas and potato sabji for breakfast. Her man, in a checked lungi, looks at us with sleepy eyes.

We try to read the unasked questions behind his cloudy eyes. Who are we? Where are we from?  We do not belong in their midst, for sure.

A fiery post-safari sunrise at Kaziranga
I have not shared this story often. But it all came back in a rush of late. I thought of Raju early in 2012 when unprecedented flooding of the Brahmaputra took a toll in Kaziranga. Over 540 animals, including 13 rhinos and numerous hog deer perished. 

The safari on the wild side was rekindled when our friend Mirza visited me in Bangalore just last week. Over cake and limoncello, we re-imagined Babu vividly from the standpoint of almost ‘tricolour chutneys’ who survived.

Where is Babu today? Is he safe? Does he still take tourists on Kaziranga safaris across its 378 sq. km. at dawn? I wish I knew the answers.


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