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Assam Part 1: Kaziranga, National Park and UNESCO Site.

Black Necked Stork, Kaziranga

OK, I am certainly not in the top many thousands of people who have visited and after just 4 nights/5 days, I can hardly call myself an expert but, having being totally immersed in India as my specialist subject for the last 20 years, and having just visited Assam, I realised just how little I knew and indeed still know about it. Whether this was lack of interest or lack of the destination being promoted adequately, who knows, but what I do now know is that what I was able to witness in 4 short days has me convinced that a return visit is imminent, and plans are already underway. It is to be noted that, given the chicken and egg situation of lack of tourists = lack of infrastructure = lack of tourists travel here may not be quite as polished as in other parts of the country, but then one also doesn’t have to battle the hordes and it does lead to the kind of charming, and often amusing, encounters that only a young, developing tourist destination can bring.

To get onto the main topic for this post – Kaziranga, what an incredible park! I am reasonably au fait with India’s wildlife, I love it and will take advantage of any opportunity to spend time in one of her parks. Naturally, I had heard of Kaziranga, the Rhino conservation effort there is one of India’s best conservation projects after all, but for some reason I have never really been that enthusiastic about promoting it. How totally, utterly and completely wrong and negligent I have been. The fact that it is a UNESCO site, should have given me a bit of a clue, but seriously, the first twenty minutes on safari delivered more fauna and avifauna than is usually sighted in a four-hour drive in other parks (and that’s taking into consideration that in October in Corbett we saw 6 elephants and 2 tigers).

 

One-horned rhino, Kaziranga

I am going to put you out of your misery right now and tell you that no, I didn’t see tiger. However, we did see the photo’s taken by the jeep who did kindly call in a sighting to us, but we were just two minutes too late. However, I certainly don’t feel cheated. If there was ever a park which supports the argument that I have followed for years, which is that wildlife tourism in India should be sold as just that, wildlife tourism and not tiger tourism, then Kaziranga is it. I only had two game drives and yet we had a very close up encounter with a rhino, sat and watched an adolescent male elephant gradually munching his way through the grasslands, we saw a family of otters playing in the shallows, only to be distracted by a pair of pied kingfishers hovering and diving (and catching) fish. There were picture postcard scenes of a waterhole, a rhino, a water buffalo and calf with the usual array of cattle egrets on standby. What most people don’t bother telling you is that Kaziranga has the largest population, globally, of wild water buffalo. We also saw several hog deer, a barking deer and a herd of swamp deer, oh, and a few wild boar too.

For twitchers, well, where to start! We had an Osprey fly overhead with a fish clutched in its talons, later on a Red-Necked Hawk flew by with a small bird clutched in his, I am not going to name them all but from memory, the rest of the list included Lesser Adjutants, Common Shrike, Woolley Necked Storks, Great Hornbills, Black Necked storks, Grey Herons, Stints, Lapwings, Pond Herons, Rollers and Kingfishers (several varieties), Red Jungle Fowl, a White Wagtail, Magpie Robins, Blossom-headed Parakeets, a Grey Backed Shrike, a Lesser Adjutant or 4, an Asian Open Bill, Common Redshank, Asian pied starling, Crested Serpent Eagle posing in a tree, several Green Imperial Pigeons, a Tiger Fly Catcher, Gadwal, Mallards, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Spot-billed Pelican and a Common Green Shank.  The other thing is, and I did check this to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, but the birds are particularly obliging here, and sit around vitually waiting to be photographed rather than scurrying off as soon as they spy you. If ever there was a day I regret having left my camera back in Delhi, this was it.

Diphlu River Lodge, Kaziranga National Park

Now, I only had time for one drive each in two of the zones as initially only one safari was planned, but I was told I had done it the wrong way around and should have done the Central zone in the morning and the Western zone in the afternoon, I would have seen more. I personally didn’t think that was possible.

What is definite, is that I wouldn’t have seen a quarter of what I did see if it hadn’t been for my phenomenal naturalist, one of the team at the rather fabulous Diphlu River Lodge. I stayed at one other lodge in the park, (the less said about those the better), and visited two more, and trust me when I say, if you are into wildlife and have the cash, Diphlu is the only place to stay. It is the only true wildlife lodge in the park and they have got it just right, location, staff, service, ambience and naturalists. Oh, the homemade cookies are a nice touch too! The lodge is built using local architecture, all of the rooms are on stilts, some over-looking the river, some over-looking the grasslands and rice fields in the middle of the lodge grounds. The welcome was just right, particularly after a fairly long journey. A team of four, warm smiles, a warm face towel, tea, a choice of black or chai, small squares of sandwiches with the crusts cut off and the aforementioned, home-made cookies. Even I couldn’t grimace at the twee heart-shapes, well not much anyway.

We chatted whilst the paper work was done, and then I was walked to my room, given a perfect show around with an added touch of humour. Of course this is Assam and so three types of tea were available in the room, with a tea pot (no making in the cup) and a small jug of fresh milk placed in the fridge, no packets and powder. . A settle in and freshen up and I made my way to the machaan, comfy sofas overlooking the River Diphlu, birds flitting in the trees, a faint breeze blowing in and staff who are tactful enough to know when to leave you to your tea and dreams.

The Machaan, Diphlu RIver Lodge

A short while later, the other guests returned, back from safari, full of excited chatter. We all gathered in the machaan for introductions and a pre-dinner gin and tonic. There was something familiar about them, it turning out they’d been my first guests eleven years before when I had been managing Shergarh in Kanha National Park.

Dinner was served, buffet style and then we all headed off for an early night, as one does in the jungle. Back to my room where the furnishings were tasteful, piping hot water blasted down from the shower and a hot water bottle had been placed in my bed at evening turn down to stave off the slight winter chill. I couldn’t have been more ready the following morning to start the day’s safaris. But there was to be one more pleasant surprise. There was to be no 0500 wake up call. Safaris here start at a much more civilised hour in the morning resulting in a wake up call at 0615, meaning a full breakfast can be enjoyed before safari and what almost felt like a mid morning departure (0715) to the park!

Now wildlife I may love, terribly early mornings I don’t, and after what was witnessed on my two safaris, it is easy to see why Kaziranga may have just made it into my top three safaris parks in India.

How to reach:
The nearest airport is Jorhat followed by a two hour drive.
Where to stay:
It absolutely has to be Diphlu River Lodge.
Website: http://www.diphluriverlodge.com/

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