Recently, along with a group of Travel Writers, I was invited to visit some of the most fascinating bio-diversity hotspots in the virgin and unexplored North East of India by Suraj Sikder, a pioneer Eco-Tourism activist and a Mountain Tourism Consultant from Kalyani (Nadia) in the Indian state of West Bengal.

Suraj Sikder, who has led many expeditions to the Eastern Himalayas was keen to conduct an exclusive FAM Tour for journalists and travel writers in an effort to create awareness about the virgin North East of India. Our circuit comprised of destinations like the World Heritage Sites of Sunderban National Park, Kaziranga National Park and the Manas National Park. The later two being situated in the North Eastern state of Assam.

Being a resident of Greater Kolkata, I gave the Kolkata leg of the tour a miss, since the city’s multifarious tourist attractions had already been explored by me. But from what my journalist friends from abroad had to say about the Kolkata circuit, I can succinctly put it this way, as per Adrian Dostovisky from far away Melbourne: “Be it the ethereal sunset cruise along the Ganges, the heritage walking tour of the city that still evokes with the Raj nostalgia or visits to Kolkata’s famed Flower Market, the city indeed possesses a charm so unique and the people who are amongst the most friendly that I have ever come across during my 20 year’s career as a Travel Journalist”.

I got my rickety Rucksack ready and packed in all the essentials for the arduous and demanding tour of some of India’s most renowned wildlife sanctuaries. Cotton T-shirts, cargo trousers, shorts, binocular, first aid, insect repellent and even the sunscreen lotion were neatly packed into my Rucksack by my trusted Nepali “Kancha” of many years – Dharmendra.

The Sunderban Trip

The coach arrived bang on time at 8 a.m. and since I was the last passenger, we headed straight for Sunderban Tiger Reserve, leaving behind the meandering and crowded alleyways of Kolkata. After 2.5 hours of traveling through the picturesque Bengal countryside, we reached the Sonakhali jetty where a motorized boat was waiting for us.

As the boat glided gently past the dense mangrove vegetation, we were offered breakfast on board the boat. Sunderbans is mysterious, unpredictable, vast, untamable and perhaps, the last true wild frontier in the Indian sub-continent. The 2-hour cruise through the world’s largest estuarine forest, a landscape dominated by great tidal creeks and waterways and home of the Royal Bengal Tigers was every bit fascinating. The avian diversity of Sunderban too was something that drew our attention and my journalist colleagues from abroad were completely absorbed in their Bird Watching spree from the boat’s deck.

By the time it was evening, the sight of the red molten ball dipping across the distant horizon made for a truly ethereal setting and we arrived at the fabulous Sunderbans Jungle Camp ideally located in the fascinating island of Bali. This Eco-Lodge has already carved a niche for itself and has played host to many distinguished guests who come from all over the world to witness the mesmerizing wildlife drama as it unfolds in the Sunderbans.

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up to the chirping of the birds and had a rejuvenating early morning shower. After breakfast, we got on board the resort’s motorized boat for a day of extensive mangrove forest cruise. Of course this was a big day for us as we anticipated a date with the big cats (Royal Bengal Tigers). The resort’s manager had heard of a tiger sighting the previous night at Sudhanyakhali, which made us all the more excited.

As our boat cruised along merrily through creeks and canals, searching for the elusive tiger, there was enough enticement for the avid bird watchers and Timothy McKenzie, a Travel Writer from Australia’s Gold Coast who had been on several world tours before remarked thus: “I have been on countless wildlife safaris to Africa and even in my own backyard – Australia, where there is great diversity in terms of wildlife; I am yet to come across a Wildlife Sanctuary as captivating as the Sunderbans. All it needs is some smart marketing in the international arena”. Words of wisdom from someone who has seen it all before!

Although we halted at the Sudhanyakhali Watch Tower for an agonizing two hours, luck seemed to have deserted us with no signs of the big cat prowling. Every now and then the armed forest guard to keep us in good humor would crack silly jokes and offer stumps of “Bidis” (local tobacco) to us in a bid to prolong our stay here.

By sunset we returned to our Jungle Camp and this being the month of December and Christmas around the corner, the Camp’s manager arranged for an evening’s entertainment. A huge bonfire was lit on the lawns and we all huddled up in a circle as a team of local artists entertained us with their unique song and dance recitals. Although we couldn’t spot the elusive Royal Bengal Tiger; it isn’t all that easy either, given the vast terrain and the dwindling tiger count, we were all wonderfully happy with memories that we would cherish for a lifetime.

Tomorrow we would depart for the North Eastern leg of our tour and this being the penultimate night, there was wild partying and the choicest of spirits were on offer along with the very best of the North Indian Tandoori cuisine.

The Trip to Manas National Park (Assam)

We left Kolkata for Guwahati, the capital of Assam and the gateway city of North East India by an early morning flight. By 9.30 a.m. we reached Guwahati’s Gopinath Bordoloi Airport and boarded an air-conditioned coach that would transport us to Manas National Park, a designated World Heritage Site (Natural).

The 4-hour journey by road was beautiful as we passed by lush green Assamese and tribal Bodo hamlets and the countryside landscape with its undulating valleys, grasslands and marshes was every bit mesmerizing.

Midway though we stopped for tea at a wayside restaurant and were fortunate to have a glimpse of the famed “Bihu” dance, the native dance of the people of Assam. The beautiful Assamese village belles danced rhythmically to the accompaniment of flutes, cymbals and drums thereby earning accolades from the curious onlookers.

We checked in at The Manas Jungle Camp, which is run by the Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society formed by the local tribal Bodo conservators who are the messiahs of conservation in Manas today. We were greeted by our hosts in the most authentic manner as a group of gorgeous Bodo women enrobed us with their traditional “Gamosas” and tribal hats.

After dinner we saw a fascinating film on Assam’s rich wildlife diversity at the resort’s lounge and some of my foreign guests were so impressed with what they saw in the film and the subsequent discussions with the resort’s Manager that centered around how at one point of time, Manas National Park was under the clutches of terrorists and the manner in which Manas rose from the ashes of terrorism to the forefront of Eco-Tourism in the North East of India was truly commendable.

Lying on the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, Manas is the most stunning pristine wildlife habitat in India, comparable to the best in the world in terms of beauty and its spectacular landscape. It is also a UNESCO Natural World Heritage (in danger) site, a Project Tiger Reserve, an Elephant Reserve and a Biosphere Reserve - a unique distinction.

We were told by our guide – a local Bodo tribal, who gave up arms to serve the cause of conservation at Manas that the Brahmaputra Valley semi-evergreen forest Terrestrial Eco-region is also the richest of all Indian wildlife areas in India and the only known home for the rare and endangered Assam Roofed Turtle, Hispid Hare, Golden Langur and Pygmy Hog.

Situated in the north bank of the Brahmaputra river, in Assam, Manas lies on the international border with Bhutan. It is bounded on the north by the Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan, on the south by populous North Kamrup district and on both east and west by buffer forest reserves which are part of 2,840 km2 Manas Tiger Reserve.

In the daytime, we engaged in soft adventures like going on elephant rides, interacting with the local conservation volunteers or maybe do some light trekking inside the jungles.

A visit to Manas is not only about viewing wildlife. Anthropologically too, Manas is very special. The best thing about Manas National Park is that apart from the lone village of Agrang, all the other villages, 56 in numbers are located outside the periphery of the National Park. These villages are dominated by the fascinating Bodo tribes of Assam. No trip to Manas is ever complete without a visit to one of these tribal villages.

Our trips to the local Bodo tribal villages during the weekly bazaar or (Haat) as it is referred to, were full of surprises galore. Historical records from the days of Hiuen Tsang speak of the widespread existence of “bazaars” or “haats” in the region at fixed central places. This weekly bazaars continue to be centers of trade and are visited by people of the neighborhood, irrespective of their clan loyalties and the like. There are groups of people who deal in items like silk and cotton goods, salt, vegetables, oil and grain.

On the last day of our visit to Manas, we were fortunate to meet conservationist, Dr. Bibhab Kumar Talukdar from a renowned Guwahati based NGO – “Aaranyak” guiding his team of young environmental scientists on the pros and cons of bio-diversity conservation at Manas National Park. After his interaction with the group was over, I had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Talukdar with regard to the present status of bio-diversity conservation at Manas. His NGO – “Aaranyak” had pioneered the introduction of “Geo-Spatial Technology” in the forest reserves of North East India as well as the Eastern Himalayas. They have gone to the extent of preparing a GIS database covering almost all the wildlife sanctuaries of North East.

The Trip to Kaziranga National Park

From the serene forest forested landscape of Manas to the world famous Kaziranga National Park in Assam, which undoubtedly must be amongst the most beautiful and attractive places you can choose to visit in the virgin North East of India. An UNESCO World Heritage Site - Kaziranga’s 470 km2 of lush green flood plains is home to some of most fascinating wildlife species of Asia.

The park’s most prized possession is the rare and endangered One Horned Rhinoceros that thrives on the Burma monsoon forest of Kaziranga and the floodplains of mighty Brahmaputra River at an altitude of 50-80 meters. The habitat consists primarily of tall, dense grasslands interspersed with canebrakes, open woodlands, interconnecting streams and numerous lakes or “beels”. The three primary types of vegetation are alluvial grasslands, tropical wet semi-evergreen and evergreen forests.

We checked in at the impressive Wild Grass resort. This fabulous Assam-style lodge is surrounded by lofty trees, creepers, bamboo groves and gardens. The architecture is tribal to the core with a pleasant blend of wood and bamboo to create that rustic ambience. The bar too was well stocked and it helped a lot in fighting the weariness as a result of the 6 hours drive from Guwahati.

Day 2 of our visit commenced with an early morning elephant ride and we were lucky we didn’t have to exert ourselves spotting the Rhinos. As our “Mahut” (Elephant Rider) directed the elephant along the dedicated “Rhino Corridor” through rugged reeds and marshy areas of the park, we came face to face with a herd of Rhinos grazing with their young ones. Our knowledgeable “Mahut” informed us pointing his fingers to the smallest baby Rhino, that it was born just a week back and that it had already become the cynosure of all eyes.

There was another group of visitors that converged in the same area that we were in and I must admit, infinitely more adventurous as two hefty 6 footers got down from their elephant back and began toying the baby Rhino with feeds. Normally, the mother Rhinos are fiercely protective of their newborn calves, but in this case it was an aberration.

After lunch at the resort, we drove for an evening safari to the Agoratoli range that covers the eastern part and comprises of woodland interspersed with grassland and water bodies. This part of the woods is rich in avian species and we spotted birds like Bengal Florican, Jungle Fowls, Brahminy Ducks, Giant Hornbills, Pheasents, Pelicans, Egrets, Fishing Eagles (they are a treat to watch), Falcons, Magpie Robins, Pied Hornbills to name just a few.

What impressed us the most was that Kaziranga with its “Wet Savanna” grassland covers 56-70% of the National Park. The grassland comprises of tall elephant grass. To make the most out of our trip to Kaziranga, we had come with an outlandish plan – “Watching Wildlife by Night”. One of my journalist friend from far away Canada came to this trip armed with a “Night Vision Goggles” and decided to have a new kind of experience and to explore the wilderness of this one-of-its-kind National Park of North East India. The concept of viewing Wildlife at night is yet to take off in India but they are very popular in the U.S. and Canada. We knew it would be exciting and so we proceeded with a naturalist guide provided to us by the Wild Grass Resort.

Let me inform you, venturing inside any National Park of India after 6 p.m. is banned but in our case the forest authorities relaxed the rule somewhat as we were mostly journalist out to have some good fun in the wild. There was enough ambient light, courtesy of the moon, to see the trail and not get into serious trouble. Pretty soon things got interesting.

Since we had gone to a place with which we were already well acquainted with from our daytime visits, as a routine we would check for game trails and other sign, such as tracks and scat, in the daytime, and pick a good vantage position for nightfall. A flashlight is a must and we would cover the lens with a circular piece of red plastic wrap or plastic sheet cut to size. Let me tell you, the eyes of the nocturnal creatures do not pick up the red end of the spectrum.

Some of the best places to view wildlife by night at the Kaziranga National Park are the edges of lakes and rivers. All sorts of animals: Frogs and Snakes, Fish, large aquatic Insects and other weird and wonderful things can be seen prowling in the shallows, right next to the shore. You must have a keen sense of hearing and your ears become even more important for locating and identifying wildlife. Foxes yap, Deer snort, Coyotes yip and howl. If it is spring or summer, a nocturnal symphony of frogs may be performing.

In today’s world of high-tech gadgets, a few companies now produce night vision viewing devices. Originally developed for law enforcement and military use, night vision goggles reveal the nocturnal world in a soft, greenish light and provide an entirely new dimension to wildlife viewing after sunset.

Any mention of Kaziranga would be incomplete without a reference to one of India’s greatest modern day naturalist – Dr. Robin Banerjee who single handedly catapulted Kaziranga National Park into a name to reckon with in the international wildlife landscape through his epoch making 50 minutes Documentary entitled – “Kaziranga” sometimes in the 1950’s. He went on to make 32 Wildlife Documentaries in all and in the year 1971 was awarded with the Padmashree from President V.V. Giri. The last day of our Kaziranga trip was spent visiting the modest home of “Uncle Robin” at Golaghat town and paying homage to one of India’s greatest wildlife conservator.

Tomorrow we would start our return journey to Guwahati, a fascinating 6 hours road journey that would traverse through miles after miles of undulating tea gardens, exotic Assamese hamlets and even the odd Spotted Deer crossing across the National Highway.

The entire FAM Tour conducted by Suraj Sikder covering the World Heritage Sites of Eastern India was high on quality. Having been a part of countless Safari trips to some of India’s top-end National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, I can vouch for the fact that in terms of logistical arrangements, Suraj’s methodical approach, professionalism of his crew and their passion to go that extra mile just to make you feel at home was absolutely awesome. This in the backdrop of a terrain, which many in mainland India consider a taboo – visiting what they feel is a dangerous terrain infested with terrorists.

Outdoor champions like Suraj who hails from “Small Town India” honed his skills in the renowned Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in India’s hill station - Darjeeling, whose first Director was Tenzing Norgay, has proved yet again that if you are looking for raw talent when it comes to promoting “The Great Outdoors” – it is “Village India” and not “Metropolitan India” that scores high.

Kudos to the Suraj Sikder and his team! You have been wonderful mate.