On the North Bengal Wilderness Trail

Mahananda-Jaldapara-Gorumara-Chalsa trail

4 FEB 2014
by

The North Bengal Wilderness trail was earlier ranked among the lesser known wildlife circuits of India, but not anymore. The Mahananda-Jaldapara-Gorumara circuit is becoming more and more popular among wildlife enthusiasts from other states as they have begun to discover the still-unspoilt forest expanse. These reserves may not have the glamour of some other big game reserves in India, but they are increasingly becoming the preferred holiday destination, particularly with the world-weary Calcuttans.

The Gorumara-Jaldapara-Mahananda-Chapramari-Buxa stretch is characterized by vast forests over miles of undulating land at the foot of the Himalayas. The Reserves teem with a bewildering variety of animals that are free to snoop around adjacent villages and tea plantations. When the first showers arrive in June, the terrain puts on a show that no entertainer can reproduce. The trees wear a fresh washed look and the earth exudes a distinctive wet smell.

Spacious Bungalows welcome you to spend the night in the middle of the wilds, each with a verandah and patios. Large windows bring the outdoors right inside your bedroom. For the more adventurous, there are tents pitched around the Bungalows. You wake up to the call of a wild Fowl, or perhaps the alarm cry of a deer.

And that’s not all. How about being pampered with a luxurious retreat overlooking the mighty Himalayas? The renowned Sinclairs Group of Hotel have added one more feather to their already existing chain of luxurious properties. If you are someone who will not compromise on anything when it comes to living life king-sized, there is a fabulous option for you in this part of the world, courtesy the magnificent Sinclairs Retreat that is ideally located right on the imposing Chalsa hill top.

The Retreat is a destination in itself and has ethnicity written all over. The décor is classical and blends perfectly with the surrounding ecosystem. The intonation is on solitude and inner peace, two ingredients that have become very precious in today’s fast paced urban lifestyle. From the spanking Swimming pool to the wide assortment of world cuisines, the Sinclairs Retreat has it all. If you want to give the jungle Safari a miss, the option of a rejuvenating Ayurvedic Massage at the Retreat’s exclusive Nature Cure Center is just what the doctor ordered.

The Sinclairs Retreat can be an ideal launching pad for excursions to the North Bengal Wilderness trail covering the stretch of Wildlife Sanctuaries like Gorumara-Jaldapara-Mahananda-Chapramari-Buxa. One huge advantage that this retreat offers is by way of its locale. Not only is the Retreat perched on an impressive hilltop, thereby commanding mesmerizing views of the surrounding mountain panorama, the setting is such that it is literally at a walking distance from the famed Wildlife Sanctuaries.

An overnight’s journey from Calcutta is all it takes to reach this “Eden on Earth”. We boarded the ubiquitous Darjeeling Mail that departed dot at 7.30 P.M. and woke up next morning to the sight of the towering Eastern Himalayas in the north. At New Jalpaiguri, a tourist coach waited to take us to our destination – the fabulous Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary.

It’s an exhilarating 18 Kms drive skimming the mountain slopes that gradually rise from 150 meters to an imposing 1,300 meters in height. Nature has created a “Botanical Garden” of sorts here and the Sanctuary spreads over an area of 127.22 Sq.Kms. The Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary was granted the status of “Reserved Forest” way back in the year 1976.

As our coach passed through Sukna and hit the National Highway 31, cutting right through the heart of the Reserve forest, we came across the pretty sight of a herd of Deer grazing in the grasslands. Much to our delight, the herd came very close to the marshy area bordering the road. Our knowledgeable guide – Victor, shouted instructions not to make noise as the herd might get distracted and vanish. There was however no stopping the cameras. They went click, click, click..

After a thrilling drive we arrived at the Sukna Forest Bungalow where the amenities are not luxurious but you may expect clean toilets, clean linens, hygienic food and breathtaking views from the large windows. The next morning, we woke up to the chirping of the birds and sipped at the aromatic Dooars tea, which is famous the world over.

As per our itinerary, we headed towards Gulma Tower. In the years gone by, this tower used to be a Railway Cabin and was later on leased out to the Forest Department. The cabin was innovatively converted into a Watch Tower and it now serves as a vantage point for Forest Guards as well as Tourists. At Mahananda, the pachyderms are the main attraction and we spotted a herd of tuskers sun bathing.

Our next stop was Ponding Beat. On the way to Gulma Beat from Ponding Beat, a road leads off to the left to a hideout that offers a veritable treat of wildlife drama unfolding right before you. This is where one comes across Elephants, Deer and Wild Boars that can be seen roaming around freely. At certain points, the Mahananda Forest is so dense that it becomes dark even during daytime.

Situated at the Western end of the Elephant migration route, this area shelters more than 150 Elephants during the monsoon and winter seasons. This is also the nesting ground for a host of migratory as well as resident birds like the Red Wattled Lapwing, the Spur Winged Lapwing, the Pied Crested Cuckoo, Peacocks, Barn Owls, Spotted Owlets, Falcons, Barbets and Coopersmiths.

The most beautiful spot in Mahananda is, however, Latpanchar, ideally situated at its northern edge. Among the animals found here are the rare Mountain Goat (Serrow), Tigers, Leopards, Gaurs, Wild Boars, varieties of Deer and Monkeys, Jungle Cats, Porcupines, Civets, Monitor Lizards and Snakes. The agility of the Indian Gaur, despite its size, is amazing. After an arduous day out in the wild, we returned to the stately Bungalow to unwind in front of a crackling log fire.

A good night’s sleep is enough to prepare you for the journey to Jaldapara Reserve Forest. We were told that Jaldapara was a mosaic of woods, grasslands, swamps and streams with an amazing diversity in flora and fauna. We traveled via Hasimara and reached Madarihat, a settlement that serves as the entrance to Jaldapara. The reserve forest is shaped like a pair of trousers. We trudged along the scenic Peacock Avenue, a tree-lined road leading to the Holong Dak Bungalow. The building is in the middle of a large clump of Sal, Khaer and Sisu that lends a picturesque dimension to the bungalow. Closeby, the rivers Torsa and Malangi flow gently from east to west. We were shown a salt lick on the banks of the Torsa when a herd of Deer sauntered in to quench their thirst. It seemed we were in the Garden of Eden. There was silence all around and the forest hauntingly wild and beautiful.

We visited the Interpretation Center at Madarihat next morning. The resident Forest Officer informed us that West Bengal was a pioneer in the concept of “Joint Forest Management” formulated to protect forest resources. The concept was recently modified and called “Joint Protected Area management”. The district administration, in association with academics, technocrats and politicians, have taken active interest in helping make the project successful. Coordinating committees for the protection of wildlife, investigation of crime and ensuring follow-up action have been set up in the northern and southern parts of the state, and they involve the law enforcement agencies in their activities. Meetings are held periodically, information exchanged and strategies worked out and implemented jointly. The project has succeeded in checking the illegal trade of animals through Siliguri.

In the middle of our discussion, a group of wildlife photographers arrived on Elephant back. They had started off early in the morning and penetrated deep into Jaldapara for a glimpse of the rare and elusive one-horned Rhinoceros. Leader of the group, Tubloo, was ecstatic after taking several exciting shots.

At the moment, there are 50 Rhinos in Jaldapara. It is believed that shortage of food is one reason why their population is dwindling. At the Cheetah Rearing Center, located close to the Forest office, you have the opportunity to see how young Cheetahs are scientifically reared and prepared to live in their natural habitat once they become adults.

We took the bus to Jalpaiguri via Hasimara on our way to Gorumara. We passed by Madarihat and Birpara and then took a left turn at Chalsa towards Lataguri. This 10 Kms. stretch cuts through chest-high tea gardens that still breathe of the Raj times with Victorian style Manager’s Bungalows standing in the middle of the greens.

It is here that we sighted the magnificent Sinclairs Retreat. The Retreat has it all – the ambience, the locale, the ethnicity and above all the gracefulness. Located at a height of 1000 feet above sea level, this Retreat is ideal for the up-market tourist. We could see a group of Western tourists from far away Birmingham (UK) embark on a trekking trip to the tea gardens surrounding the Gorumara Sanctuary. Since we were traveling on a coach, we reached the tea garden well before their arrival. What followed was something that will linger on for a lifetime.

We sought the help of a Resident Factory Manager who took us on a tour of the tea estate. We were joined by the tourists from Birmingham and together explored the little known facts about these remote tea garden estates. According to Jonathan Gower and his fellow mate Rodney Hoog, their forefathers were posted in this tea estate and spent more than 25 years in this part of the world. They were the pioneers in introducing tea in this part of the world. It was to rekindle their forefather’s memory that they had come all the way from Birmingham just to have a feel of the place.

The workers of the garden, as we were to discover were fourth generation descendants of Adivasis brought in by colonial planters from Chhotanagpur, the Santhal Parganas of Bengal and Nepal. Not much had changed in their lives since the British times. It must be said that the Sinclairs retreat has come as a boon to the local Adivasis and native people of Gorumara and Chalsa. The “Multiplier Effect” of Tourism is to be seen to be believed. The local economy has become robust and the local people have benefited immensely both directly as well as indirectly.

Gorumara National Park is one of the recent introductions to the “National Parks” map of India. It is one of the last pockets left in India with a wild population of the elusive Indian One-Horned Rhinoceros. Native elephants and bisons too are found in plenty.

Gorumara National Park is spread over Lataguri, Chalsa and Nagrakata, bordered by National Highway 31, which connects Siliguri with Guwahati. Adjoining Gorumara is the Matia dam or reservoir. The Naora river flows gently on one side and on the other, the Bamni and Murti.

After sunset, Wild Boars, Nilgais and Deer assemble at the banks of these rivers to quench their thirst. Trekking and outback touring are the most popular activities here. We concluded our tour in this picturesque forests with a starlit dinner comprising barbecued lamb; a memorable experience indeed.

Traveler’s Fact File:
Reaching the Mahananda-Jaldapara-Gorumara-Chalsa trail is easy. The nearest airport is at Bagdogra. Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Kingfisher Airlines etc. have regular flights from Delhi and Kolkata to Bagdogra. Hired Taxis and buses are readily available at the Bagdogra Airport that will take you to the sanctuary.

If you travel by train, the nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri. Dadar Express, Rajdhani Express, Knachenjunga Express, Kamrup Express and Saraighat Express connect new Jalpaiguri with Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata.

Accommodation:
Apart from the standard Forest bungalows and lodges, the Sinclairs Retreat located splendidly on the Chalsa hill top on the Guwahati – Siliguri National Highway is in a class of its own, offering 66 impeccably appointed bedrooms that draws inspiration from the local vernacular cottage style design pattern.

The multi cuisine restaurant offers a wide variety of international gastronomic delights and the well stocked Tusker Bar offers the very best of spirits and the ambience is every bit haunting.

For the jaded world traveler, the Ayurvedic Centre offers relaxing massages and a bewildering variety of nature based rejuvenation packages.

For further information on North Bengal wildlife and reservations, please feel free to contact:
Pressman House,
10 A Lee Road,
Calcutta – 700020,
West Bengal, India
Tel: 91-033-2801317, 2801318, 2801319, 2801320
Fax: 91-033-2800813 / 14
E-mail: sinclairs@vsnl.com