Between the three countries of Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh lies a narrow land bridge connecting the bulk of the Indian land mass with it’s smaller outlying Northeast states – a bridge somewhat comically named the “chicken’s neck” for fairly obvious aesthetical reasons. It was to a part of this narrow corridor that we would travel in search of one-horned Indian rhinos in the Jaldapara National Park. The national park is 216.51 km2 and home to the largest number of these rhinos after Kaziranga National Park in the eastern state of Assam (which was not open for the season when we were there).
A mere few hours on the train from Siliguri to our destination of Madarihat had us arriving after dark, and the taxi driver we flagged down (or rather flagged us down) near the station informed us that walking here at night was dangerous due to the wildlife, so without further convincing we jumped in and were at the mercy of his hotel choices.
As all National Parks in India are a) under government control, and therefore b) expensive we had to go through an agency to arrange the trip. The following day a taxi arrived to take us the 7km or so into the park and drop us off at the Hallong Eco Village Lodge – the cheapest option (that we could find) to stay within the park grounds. We had a really spacious room with a clean bathroom (amazing) and a half decent view to the surrounding forest area.
After we arrived we saw one of the park rangers setting up numerous piles of salt to attract the animals later in the day. Once the sun started it’s decline, we didn’t have to wait long before the first of the wild animals graced us with their presence. The gaur – or Indian bison – appeared first at the salt licks – sneaking suspicious glances our way at every camera click and movement. The peacocks who had been roaming around all afternoon ducked in and out of sight between the long grasses and screamed at each other from a distance. A ranger informed us of a small group of passing wild elephants just beyond the tree line, and a warning gunshot later confirmed they had reached the borders of a small outlying village.
We waited on until darkness surrounded us, talking in hushed tones, and listening intently for sounds other than the licking and chewing of the ever present gaur. But alas, the rhinos did not come. We were encouraged to leave the area and to go and enjoy dinner in the hope that the peace and quiet may prompt the rhinos to come into the proximity. We were called mid chapati-in-mouth by the spotlight touting ranger who excitedly reported that a mother and baby were now enjoying the salt licks. Wahoooooooooo!
We rushed out to see them and the park ranger swept his spotlight over them many times to accommodate this. Eventually we headed back to finish our dinner and give the animals some peace. About an hour later we were called as another rhino had come within 10 metres of the lodge and was standing in the driveway. We quietly snuck out and were standing within 15 metres of it. It was huge! And it’s hide was amazing to see up close: so wrinkled and rough. It wandered away from the lodge and across the stream to the salt licks, where it received some grunts and grumbles from the protective mother.
Our last venture out to watch the animals greeted us with a very strong and pungent smell: a leopard, according to the ranger. He had seen some deer here earlier which had since disappeared – obviously they smelt it too and took off.
The next morning we were awoken at 5am with tea in our rooms and got up and ready for our elephant safari. The reserve has a number of elephants that they use once or twice in the mornings to cart tourists around in the hope of seeing wildlife. After an hour or so of walking through the reserve they are left to roam around for the rest of the day. We mounted our elephant – each carried four people – and set off into the forest. It was about half a hour later that we were far enough away from the lodge that we started to see animals. We started downhill to cross a creek, when we saw a rhino bathing in the waters. It was amazing to see one so close again, and this time in daylight! And we kept at a far enough distance that it didn’t seen to bothered to have us watching it. Continuing on into the reserve brought us out from the trees and into a large open savanna where we could just spot deer and bison over the tops of the elephant grasses. We saw more wildlife in the form of eagles, kingfishers, and a number of other small birds on our way back to the lodge.
The four elephants stomped onwards and the wee baby that was with us crashed and splashed through the rivers and thickets that were much higher than it’s little body. The mahouts were amazing too. They neither used nor carried whips or hooks for the elephants, and guided them purely by nudging them behind the ears with their feet. The only weapon they had was a machete to cut any low hanging branches that would hit us (if the elephants didn’t eat them first!), and one had a rifle just as a protective measure.
Despite the steep prices (compared with other things in India) the trip was well worth it. We spent somewhere around 2,500R ($50) each (four of us) including the elephant safari, room and food – which is by no means outrageously expensive – and considering we actually saw rhinos it was money well spent. The only hiccup came when our taxi turned up and handed us the bill for the entry permit for the taxi – which turned out to be cheaper than what we were charged on our bill for the taxi the day before. Arguing about these things does little to solve anything in India, and it was a prime example of how there is corruption in everything here. In the end, it was only a dollar more. But, that’s never the point.