Jungle Book

Viveck Crishna

© Copyright 2023 by Viveck Crishna

Rhino in Kaziranga National Park - Photo courtesy of the author.
Rhino in Kaziranga National Park - Photo courtesy of the author.

My earliest memories revolve around the animals that shared our home as I grew up in India, and later the experience of many drives through thickly forested trails, of seeing deer, elephants even the occasional tiger, as well as the wide variety of bird life in their natural habitat. These outings never fail to bring back a flood of images which in turn translate into happiness in my mind.

On one of our holidays, together with another couple and along with four young children between us, we decided to drive from our homes in Guwahati, in Assam, to the Namdapha National Park which is in the extreme northeast corner of India, bordering northern Myanmar. During the second world war this area served as a staging point for the allied forces to launch a counter attack against the invading Imperial Japanese Expeditionary troops which had marched through Burma, (as Myanmar was called at that time).

The state of Assam is a lush green valley that runs generally east to west with the Himalayas to the north and a large hilly massif to the south which straddle the Brahmaputra river on its journey once it emerges from Tibet. This amazing water course, the fifth largest in the world, starts life as the Yarlung Tsang Po at 17000 feet in the western highlands of Tibet, east of the sacred Mount Kailash (21000ft) , and Gurla Mandhata (25000ft), which in turn abut the pristine freshwater lakes of legend, Manasarovar and Rakshas Tal, which are situated at 15500 ft above sea level. This area is holy land to four major religions and to millions of people who live in the Indian subcontinent and Tibet.  

The Yarlung Tsang Po flows east for around 1700 kms in Tibet and then abruptly turns right carving its way in a U turn cutting through the hard granite of the eastern Himalayas, creating one of the most dramatic gorges in the world, far deeper than the Grand Canyon, descending more than 15600 feet along its journey before entering India as the Brahmaputra in the Assam valley in where it turns west flowing for another 700 kms before it makes another sharp turn to the left through Bangladesh for another 700 kms, its waters mingling with the Ganges on its way to the the sea in the Bay of Bengal.

Our drive took us past the beautiful Kaziranga National Park with the Great One Horned Rhinoceros roam and we were fortunate that day to see a few of them grazing in the marshy open areas by the side of the highway. I have over the years visited this amazing Park on many occasions and have seen its many mammals and birds. Indeed, on one or two instances I have had close encounters with the heavy weight, short sighted, thick skinned armoured grass eaters which appear to have been left over from the time of of the dinosaurs. 

On one occasion I was driving a small Fiat compact on one of the muddy tracks inside the Park, when we came face to face with a female standing in the middle of the trail with a young calf by its side. I was accompanied by an armed forest ranger who asked me not to panic but to be ready to reverse at short notice if the mother began to move towards us. A not very happy thought as the trail was narrow and surrounded by elephant grass, not something I would like to be chased down in reverse by an unhappy vegetarian with an impressive horn protruding above its nostrils like a lethal nose ring. Luckily she did not take umbrage with us and after ten or fifteen minutes looking short sightedly in our direction, she disappeared into the high grass with her calf in tow. 

On another visit, I was seated with my camera in an open safari jeep on a different trail in the Park, when we stopped beside two young males minding their own business who eyed us unhappily with grass fronds drooping from their mouths like an immature  green moustache. As they stood below the track in low brush, the forest guard watched their nostrils flaring uneasily and quietly told the driver to start moving away slowly, so as not to provoke a charge. With a snort they wheeled noisily into the tall grass. 

I have seen a video on social media taken by a motorist driving behind a rhino running at high speed down the same highway we were on, for a couple of kilometres, making ill tempered charges at vehicles coming from the opposite direction, which braked hastily turned around and accelerated ahead of the animal, before it finally left the tarmac into the cultivated fields, so I did not harbour any illusions as to who would get the best of an encounter between a safari jeep and a rhino !

We continued our drive past the towns of Jorhat and Dibrugarh, stopping for the night with a friend who was the manager of a tea estate near Tinsukhia, which is a major tea growing region on the south bank of the Brahmaputra. The next day we passed by Margherita and Ledo and then drove to Miao in Arunachal Pradesh on our way to our destination, Namdapha.

The forest rest house in Namdapha was a circular two storied building which sat in a clearing over looking the Daphabum river which runs from north to south through the centre of the Reserve. The river flowed through a dense stand virgin tropical forest which had at one time populated most of Assam. From the rest house the view looked directly up to the snow peaks at the eastern end of the Himalayas while beyond a small village with a sprinkling of almond and peach trees. The road we had travelled to Namdapha on, continued behind the rest house, steeply up into thickly forested foothills which led to the last Indian border outpost of Vijaynagar , before leading into Myanmar. At the time of our visit this section of the road was not metalled and even in March it was still covered in a deep muddy, which required a strong engine and a four wheel drive to negotiate. 

We had booked the rest house for three nights and in the evening, while we enjoyed tea and biscuits, the trees behind us echoed with the calls of Hoolock gibbons, all dark fur and long limbs, as they swung from branch to branch. We also saw flying squirrels which sailed across the clearing from one tree to another. We tried our hand at angling in the icy melt water of the fast flowing stream with no luck, not surprising as we had no fishing tackle with us, while the four children, ages ranging from 1 to 7, enjoyed paddling in the water. 

On enquiry from the forest ranger officer, we were told it was possible to make an overnight trek to a forest camp site in the jungle appropriately called First Camp, which was situated approximately 15 kms away from our rest house abode, and the next day my friend and I set off with one of the forest guards named ‘Pehalwan’ or Wrestler. He was a well muscled young manlike, as his name indicated, dressed in ‘mufti’ in a subdued bush shirt,  slacks and sneakers.

We started at 3 pm after a leisurely lunch, leaving our wives and children, and carried between us a single sleeping bag, a blanket, a towel and a toothbrushes, a cake of soap, and a change of clothes and some sandwiches and dry snacks for dinner. The first two kilometres was across a largely dry section of the river full of round river boulders carried down from the mountains during the rainy monsoon season when the river was in full flow. We then crossed over to the far right bank and carried on up a gradual upward climb on a grassy track that could at first have accommodated a Willys Jeep. But soon the forest soon closed in around the walking path which was so thick that it was difficult to see past the foliage beyond at arms length from us. We were perspiring freely and as the sun began to set, our faces and bodies wet with sweat and soon the back pack began to weigh a ton on our shoulders, despite continually passing it between us to ease the load. 

Our muscular forest guide was not wearing a uniform and only carried a large machete in one hand. When we asked why he was travelling so light, he said that the route we would be traversing was often used by illegal arms dealers and drug smugglers crossing over from the golden triangle region in Myanmar, and that it was not safe for him to wear his uniform as he would easily become a target; similarly he said that if he had carried a firearm, he would definitely attract attention and be likely be killed sooner merely for the weapon, hence only the machete in his hand to pass off as a simple woodsman. 

As soon as the sun set it became pitch dark and the trail which had now become just wide enough for us to negotiate in single file, with our guide carrying a dim torch which was not very effective to light the way forward. We had to cross several streams and then the trail started moving steeply uphill. There were strange jungle sounds all around us, over the buzz of insects and the plaintive bird calls in the trees. Our burly guide asked us to keep quiet, as we could easily bump into a lone elephant in the dark. A single male he said, would not be a good thing to blunder into and every now and then he would wave us to a stop when a twig cracked in the pitch black surrounding us, before he cautiously began climbing again. To keep our spirits up he informed us that the best way to behave if confronted by a lone tusker: if the tusker came charging from the front then we should jettison our backpack to the left and sprint  down hill to the right; however if the tusker came barreling up from behind us, then we should throw the backpack to the right run uphill as fast as we could upwards to the left. Apparently single elephants are not the brightest bulbs in the animal world, and all in all it was not very reassuring advice. 

Finally a couple of hours later we arrived exhausted in a clearing in the forests and he announced that we had safely reached our campsite. There was not a soul to be seen and it became apparent that the First Camp was not manned, and consisted only of a wooden hut which jutted out over an open glade in the forest, through which a rivulet meandered visible from our resting spot. I had thought that we would be treated to a nice camp fire and maybe a glass of rum to warm our weary limbs, but that was not to be. The rivulet glowed dimly in the light of a full moon which had just risen. Pehalwan pointed out to us a small spring directly below the hut through which he said a gas bubbled through the water, causing it to become cloudy, and it was because of this transformation in the water that the stream was visible  in the moonlight. He said that many animals came to the spring at night to drink because the soil was like a salt lick, and if we kept a vigil late at night we would be able to see the animals as they quietly came and went as shadowy creatures in the night.

The hut consisted of a single room, surrounded by an open veranda and the floor of the structure was made of unevenly fitted planks of wood which allowed cold air to blow through the gaps. The guard switched on his torch, and we took off our shoes and pulled off our soggy socks which were wet from the streams we had negotiated on the journey to the camp. To our horror we found that our bare feet were covered in leeches that we had picked up from those  very streams. It took us a while using salt supplied by our guide we were able to be able remove the leeches from our feet. 

It was now after 8pm and the temperature had plummeted. We were cold, tired and damp with sweat and though we had changed out of our sweat soaked T-shirts, we had not brought a change of pants which were wet unto the knees, and perforce we had to sleep in them.  We shared the cold snacks and tried to bundle our selves up in the totally inadequate covering we had brought with us as best we could. I spent an uncomfortable night shivering and tossing and turning as the cold drafts funnelled through cracks in the planks, and my aching over worked muscles soon felt as if they had frozen solid.

The next morning we were up as dawn broke, as our man Friday had promised, there was the distinct spoor left indented in the soft mud, a record left as clearly as the words in a book all around the spring and the rivulet, of deer, bison, birds, even the fresh wet pug marks of a visiting leopard. We went down to the spring and as he stuck a match above the centre of the spring, a light blue flame flickered above the water for a few seconds.

We shared the bananas we had carried with us and made our way back down the trail we had travelled in the dark the previous evening. Everything looked brighter in the morning sun which filtered through the foliage, but at ground level it was still impossible to see through the jungle we were walking through. 

Our companion now kept us in splits with his detailed explanation of how we should deal with a black Himalayan bear if it appeared in front of us. His plan consisted of having two sturdy wooden staves at hand so that when the bear rose up menacingly on its hind legs, as apparently it is wont to do, we should hold one stave against the front paws to engage the beast, at the same time proceed to belabour the bear with the second stave till he cried ‘Uncle’ !

A weary four hours later we emerged at the river bank we had left the previous evening and painfully made our way back across to the rest house much to the relief of our wives and children. The leech bites on my feet itched for several months afterwards to remind me that I was a true man of the outdoors.

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