After our whistle stop tour of the Taj, we dashed back to Delhi to catch a flight, originally scheduled for two days later but rebooked (due to airport construction…supposedly) for 8am the next morning. This was not a plane we were willing to miss. The flight, which leaves only occasionally, would take us to Assam and Kaziranga National Park.
Assam is one of the “Seven Sister States” of India’s Northeast. Known as the subcontinent’s “paradise unexplored,” the Northeast is relatively untouristed – at least by Westerners. Our primary purpose in traveling to remote Assam was to visit Kaziranga National Park, an expansive wildlife sanctuary, home to the world’s largest concentration of one-horned rhinoceros. And the best part about this sanctuary? You get to search for rhinos on elephant-back.
While in Kaziranga, we stayed at Unicorn Cottages (so named for the mythical equivalent of the one-horned rhino, perhaps?), where Debashish the owner was the most enthusiastically accommodating host I have ever encountered – even by Indian standards. He helped us set up our various expeditions into the park. Because it was his “duty” he escorted us down the road to a local restaurant and waited for us for an excessively long time thanks to a cricket game that distracted the waitstaff. It was a perfectly lovely stay, aside from the fact that the largest spider I ever have or will see in my entire life decided to make Jen and Jeni’s bathroom his home. (We are talking the size of your hand large.)
At 5AM every day, Brian and the ladies (Reena, Jen, Jeni, and I) climbed into the back of an open-air jeep that whisked us to the park entrance for our elephant-back safari. The elephants arrived one by one through the misty morning, plodding methodically across the flat plain. Each elephant was ridden by its mahout, and two of the elephants – much to my unrestrained enthusiasm – were followed by their babies. They are the freaking cutest things ever and were the highlight of my trip. In true Indian fashion, there were no rules (like don’t feed them) related to the baby elephants, so on our second day of safari-ing, I brought along some bananas. Like bloodhounds, those oversized toddlers sniffed out the fruit hidden in my coat pocket, snotting up my jacket as they rooted around with their trunks. Once I finally managed to dislodge their curious probosces from my coat (harder then you would think…they are STRONG) and pull their snack out of my pocket, the five- and three-year old babies snatched the bananas nimbly from my hands with their trunks and popped them in their mouths. They followed their moms during the entire safari, and when their curiosity accidentally lured them too far from the herd for comfort, they trumpeted a bellow and ran to catch up with the group.
The safaris themselves were amazing. Sitting atop our elephants, we crept up (as much as an elephant can creep) within thirty feet of many rhinos, including one with a six-month-old baby, water buffalo with enormous curving horns, and herds of surprisingly un-skittish deer.
In the afternoons, we took jeep safaris through the park. Despite topographic similarities (it’s pretty flat), the different park “ranges” offer very different landscapes – dry grasslands, sandy rivers, green watering holes, and shady jungles. The most amazing sight during our jeep safari was the herd of wild elephants that tramped through the jungle, less than fifty feet from our vehicle. (Despite having ridden elephants all morning and played with their babies, seeing a wild elephant is a completely different and spell-binding experience.)
Over the course of our three day Kaziranga visit, our partial list of animal sightings included:
- Lots of rhinos
- Hog deer, which Reena called “dachshund deer” because they are oblong and have really stumpy legs
- Many of the over 500 species of birds in the park, including: black-neck red-leg stork, which probably has a different scientific name because our guide was just making stuff up; eagles, perched in trees; almost fluorescent blue kingfishers.
- Elephants, both wild and domestic
- One porcupine, which our safari guide threw a rock at to get it to move. (Again, rules do not apply in India.)
- Monkeys, sitting in the road and then scattering like buckshot when they saw our jeep coming
- Boars with bottle-brush stiff hair
- Turtles, which covered every available log on the river
- Otters, bobbing and fishing in the water.
- Swamp deer. Bigger than hog deer.
- Crazy river monster aka fish that looked huge when they lunged out of the water but then we saw for sale on the side of the road and looked less intimidating.
- Water buffalo, wallowing in the mud.
While “tigers are available” in the park according to our guide, not one made an appearance. We did see some monstrous claw marks on a tree though. Close enough.
Kaziranga is a relatively little known land-before-time. We found ourselves humming the theme song to “Jurassic Park” as we rumbled over bumpy roads in our jeep and surveyed, from the safety of a concrete observation tower, animals at the watering hole. To preserve the park’s wild inhabitants and its pre-historic ambiance, Kaziranga maintains a controversial and complicated policy: park rangers have license to shoot poachers on sight. This Outside article, which inspired our trip to Kaziranga, explores the ethical dilemma brewing over poaching, poverty, and preservation in Assam, India’s wild west. Well worth a read, just as Kaziranga is absolutely worth a visit.