Search This Blog

Loading...

Horn of plenty

Patrick Horton
Rhino
A tourist spots a rhino from the back of an elephant in Kaziranga. Picture: Patrick Horton
BED tea is a wonderful Indian institution and a most effective alarm clock. My door is knocked, quietly at first, but then rising in persistence and volume. Still numbed by sleep, I scramble for the light switch, hurriedly add clothes for respectability and open the door.
Mumbling a good morning, I take charge of a tray containing teapot, milk and sugar, and close the door. Thoughts of returning to sleep come to mind but then, more sharply, does the reason for being woken at 4.30am. I pour my tea, quickly shower, dress and assemble cameras, and rush out of the door. I'm off to visit rhinos.
Outside a jeep purrs quietly. I hop in and the driver speeds us down empty narrow lanes between tea plantations. I'm in Kaziranga in Assam, one of those mysterious states in the country's far northeast that dangle, geographically, off the main body of India.
It's a short journey to the edge of Kaziranga National Park. A noticeboard by the entrance tells visitors what they may see: about 1855 rhinos, 1293 wild elephants and multitudes of deer and wild boar. There are also 86 tigers in residence, but I have little hope of spotting one of these shy creatures. I leave my jeep, pay the entrance fee and walk a short distance to where my next transport is waiting . . . an elephant.
Mounting an elephant is not an easy task. You have to trust that the beast won't move while you step off a high platform down on to its broad back and then lower yourself to sit astride. If you're lucky, your elephant will be fitted with running boards for your feet. If not they dangle, useless and heavy, threatening to dislocate your hips with every lurch. Fortunately my elephant does have running boards plus a hold-on rope that's really there to secure the huge mattress on which three of us are sitting.
It's a quick matter of getting anchored and comfortable before our convoy of elephants lumbers off into the grasslands.
It is still early; the sun isn't up and neither are the rhinos. As we travel the gloom lifts and the first rays of the sun glisten the tops of the aptly named elephant grass. It is indeed as tall as a jumbo; our convoy appears to be floating on a sea of green with just the heads of the elephants and their passengers visible.
Only when we clear this patch of tall grass do I notice the baby elephants trailing their mothers and getting used to the idea of their future employment.
Suddenly, the lead elephant trumpets and a rudely awoken rhino pokes up its head, looks around and then all but ignores us. It's seen it all before.
In the excitement the passenger in front of me drops her handbag into the grass. With grunted commands from the mahout, the elephant carefully picks it up by the strap with its trunk. Such
a surreal image creates much amusement among our party.
Soon plenty of rhinos appear. They're not at all fazed by the intruding elephants but carry on munching. Close up they deserve every tank-like simile, with armour-plated skin hanging in thick folds as though sheets of it have been welded on. And they are ugly. No one, except maybe their mothers, would think these animals attractive.
As we approach, the elephants fan out and stop, giving us time to steady ourselves before lifting a camera. Fortunately, rhinos are not skittish creatures but stare back at us.
They also don't mind the company of other wildlife and share the grasslands with herds of buffalo, deer and wild pigs. The rhinos are easy to spot in the distance from the blobs of white on their backs, which close-up reveal themselves as egrets feeding off the insects that the animals attract or disturb in their grazing. The single-horned Indian rhinoceros once roamed much of eastern India plus the lowlands of Nepal and Bhutan, but hunting and the encroachment of man has depleted their numbers severely. In the early 1900s, before hunting was banned, it was estimated that just 100 were left. Now there are between 2500 and 3000 in Assam, neighbouring West Bengal and Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Such has been the conservation success that rhinos have been exported to repopulate other parks.
As elephants are not speedy transport, we don't get far into the reserve, so the rest is covered by jeep.
By now the early December morning has turned pleasantly warm, nudging 22C; three months from now that temperature doubles and scorches the grass to a stubble. Then the animals are easier to see and there's a better chance of spotting tigers.
Today we spy several wild elephants, backsides only, and a line of sun-baking turtles arranged in parade-ground order on a branch sticking out of a river. As we watch, an otter slips into the water, creates a v-wake across the mirrored surface and scurries on some errand into the bush on the opposite bank. Late afternoon and I'm in another national park, Pobitora, which is smaller and with a much greater concentration of animals. Its 18sq km is home to about 80 rhinos.
Another advantage is that it's less up-country and only 40km from the state capital of Assam, Guwahati, so can be visited as a day trip. The elephant rides are also longer at two hours, but this time there are no running boards on my jumbo.
Our line of five elephants pads slowly through forest before emerging into grassland. Here the grass is only (human) knee height and we soon rouse a mother rhino and her baby. Maybe it's the father nearby who takes more than a glancing interest in us. In fact he looks distinctly unfriendly and advances aggressively. I do have a man with a gun behind me on my elephant, but his weapon seems a pea-shooter.
Firing at this four-legged tank would be like flicking cherry stones at it, but I needn't worry as my elephant has matters in hand. With a big shake of its head and a loud trumpet, it scares off the rhino.
There does seem to be a bit of excitement in the air, and a challenge, as we soon come across a private argument between two males over a female. We vicariously gawk from the safety of our elephants as the two face off.
I expect a battle of the horns but discover that rhinos can make quite a wimpish squealing noise. It rather destroys the image of fighting juggernauts, but squealing is all we get. We also make our retreat as our time is up, but on the way back we have another surprise. As we approach a mud hole, the placid surface quivers and then erupts into the muddy forms of buffaloes.
We return to unload and I am glad to put my legs back together again even if I do walk like a bandy-legged cowboy.
Checklist
Guwahati, capital of Assam, has a regional airport with connections from all main Indian cities and is well connected by rail. Kaziranga National Park is six hours by road from Guwahati; Pobitora National Park is two hours. There is a good range of accommodation in Kaziranga. More: networktravelsindia.net (for Kaziranga and Pobitora tours) or jungletravelsindia.com (for Kaziranga).
Patrick Horton
Rhino
A tourist spots a rhino from the back of an elephant in Kaziranga. Picture: Patrick Horton
BED tea is a wonderful Indian institution and a most effective alarm clock. My door is knocked, quietly at first, but then rising in persistence and volume. Still numbed by sleep, I scramble for the light switch, hurriedly add clothes for respectability and open the door.
Mumbling a good morning, I take charge of a tray containing teapot, milk and sugar, and close the door. Thoughts of returning to sleep come to mind but then, more sharply, does the reason for being woken at 4.30am. I pour my tea, quickly shower, dress and assemble cameras, and rush out of the door. I'm off to visit rhinos.
Outside a jeep purrs quietly. I hop in and the driver speeds us down empty narrow lanes between tea plantations. I'm in Kaziranga in Assam, one of those mysterious states in the country's far northeast that dangle, geographically, off the main body of India.
It's a short journey to the edge of Kaziranga National Park. A noticeboard by the entrance tells visitors what they may see: about 1855 rhinos, 1293 wild elephants and multitudes of deer and wild boar. There are also 86 tigers in residence, but I have little hope of spotting one of these shy creatures. I leave my jeep, pay the entrance fee and walk a short distance to where my next transport is waiting . . . an elephant.
Mounting an elephant is not an easy task. You have to trust that the beast won't move while you step off a high platform down on to its broad back and then lower yourself to sit astride. If you're lucky, your elephant will be fitted with running boards for your feet. If not they dangle, useless and heavy, threatening to dislocate your hips with every lurch. Fortunately my elephant does have running boards plus a hold-on rope that's really there to secure the huge mattress on which three of us are sitting.
It's a quick matter of getting anchored and comfortable before our convoy of elephants lumbers off into the grasslands.
It is still early; the sun isn't up and neither are the rhinos. As we travel the gloom lifts and the first rays of the sun glisten the tops of the aptly named elephant grass. It is indeed as tall as a jumbo; our convoy appears to be floating on a sea of green with just the heads of the elephants and their passengers visible.
Only when we clear this patch of tall grass do I notice the baby elephants trailing their mothers and getting used to the idea of their future employment.
Suddenly, the lead elephant trumpets and a rudely awoken rhino pokes up its head, looks around and then all but ignores us. It's seen it all before.
In the excitement the passenger in front of me drops her handbag into the grass. With grunted commands from the mahout, the elephant carefully picks it up by the strap with its trunk. Such
a surreal image creates much amusement among our party.
Soon plenty of rhinos appear. They're not at all fazed by the intruding elephants but carry on munching. Close up they deserve every tank-like simile, with armour-plated skin hanging in thick folds as though sheets of it have been welded on. And they are ugly. No one, except maybe their mothers, would think these animals attractive.
As we approach, the elephants fan out and stop, giving us time to steady ourselves before lifting a camera. Fortunately, rhinos are not skittish creatures but stare back at us.
They also don't mind the company of other wildlife and share the grasslands with herds of buffalo, deer and wild pigs. The rhinos are easy to spot in the distance from the blobs of white on their backs, which close-up reveal themselves as egrets feeding off the insects that the animals attract or disturb in their grazing. The single-horned Indian rhinoceros once roamed much of eastern India plus the lowlands of Nepal and Bhutan, but hunting and the encroachment of man has depleted their numbers severely. In the early 1900s, before hunting was banned, it was estimated that just 100 were left. Now there are between 2500 and 3000 in Assam, neighbouring West Bengal and Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Such has been the conservation success that rhinos have been exported to repopulate other parks.
As elephants are not speedy transport, we don't get far into the reserve, so the rest is covered by jeep.
By now the early December morning has turned pleasantly warm, nudging 22C; three months from now that temperature doubles and scorches the grass to a stubble. Then the animals are easier to see and there's a better chance of spotting tigers.
Today we spy several wild elephants, backsides only, and a line of sun-baking turtles arranged in parade-ground order on a branch sticking out of a river. As we watch, an otter slips into the water, creates a v-wake across the mirrored surface and scurries on some errand into the bush on the opposite bank. Late afternoon and I'm in another national park, Pobitora, which is smaller and with a much greater concentration of animals. Its 18sq km is home to about 80 rhinos.
Another advantage is that it's less up-country and only 40km from the state capital of Assam, Guwahati, so can be visited as a day trip. The elephant rides are also longer at two hours, but this time there are no running boards on my jumbo.
Our line of five elephants pads slowly through forest before emerging into grassland. Here the grass is only (human) knee height and we soon rouse a mother rhino and her baby. Maybe it's the father nearby who takes more than a glancing interest in us. In fact he looks distinctly unfriendly and advances aggressively. I do have a man with a gun behind me on my elephant, but his weapon seems a pea-shooter.
Firing at this four-legged tank would be like flicking cherry stones at it, but I needn't worry as my elephant has matters in hand. With a big shake of its head and a loud trumpet, it scares off the rhino.
There does seem to be a bit of excitement in the air, and a challenge, as we soon come across a private argument between two males over a female. We vicariously gawk from the safety of our elephants as the two face off.
I expect a battle of the horns but discover that rhinos can make quite a wimpish squealing noise. It rather destroys the image of fighting juggernauts, but squealing is all we get. We also make our retreat as our time is up, but on the way back we have another surprise. As we approach a mud hole, the placid surface quivers and then erupts into the muddy forms of buffaloes.
We return to unload and I am glad to put my legs back together again even if I do walk like a bandy-legged cowboy.
Checklist
Guwahati, capital of Assam, has a regional airport with connections from all main Indian cities and is well connected by rail. Kaziranga National Park is six hours by road from Guwahati; Pobitora National Park is two hours. There is a good range of accommodation in Kaziranga. More: networktravelsindia.net (for Kaziranga and Pobitora tours) or jungletravelsindia.com (for Kaziranga).