The roads not taken
If you think Assam only has Kaziranga National Park to boast of, you are mistaken. C Gangadharan Menon goes off on an expedition to two lesser-known sanctuaries of the North-East � the misty Orang National Park and the panoramic Nameri National Park
Best from: Guwahati
You need: 5 days
What’s now Orang National Park was a densely populated tribal village exactly hundred years ago. Villagers deserted their homes en masse when a virulent epidemic called Black Fever struck their village; and they never returned. Over the next hundred years nature healed herself, tree by tree. And today, Orang is one of the most beautiful sanctuaries of Assam, and has earned the sobriquet of ‘Mini Kaziranga’.
All along our drive from Guwahati, we see innumerable pukhuris or ponds, one in front of every house. In Kerala, they are called kulams. But in both these states, the ponds are steadily being filled to satisfy the greed for land; little realising that these ancient ponds maintain the water level in the nearby wells.
We pass by Mangaldoi, better known as the vegetable farm of Assam, and the farmlands stretch as far as the eye can see, without a single tree to obstruct the view!
On the outskirts of Silbori village, school-going kids don two distinct sets of uniforms — one for Ahomis and another one for Bodos. An indication that ethnicity runs deep here.
At the far end of this village, is the gate to Orang National Park. And on the fringe of the forest is our abode for the day: Prashaanti Tourism Complex with a gallery view of the forest.
When I wake up next morning, the forest is missing. Slowly the morning mist that has enveloped the forest shies away, revealing the greenery layer by layer.
We drive through the mist, the driver steering the jeep more by instinct than by sight. And lo and behold, there is a lone one-horned rhino in the distance, emerging from the mist like a pre-historic animal. When the mist finally clears, it lays bare a stunning tapestry of green grasslands dotted with blue waterbodies, the kind you see in nearby Kaziranga and faraway Dudhwa, both of which are the preferred habitats of the endangered one-horned rhino.
The jeep soon stops at the forest quarters, where our guide Sunil shows us the overnight pugmarks of a tiger, and the horn-marks on the mudwalls of a rhino desperately needing mineral supplements.
We have an inquisitive co-traveller on our return. An owlet who flies ahead of us and patiently wait for us to catch up. The moment we do, it flies again to the next waiting branch, as if inviting us to come and take a photograph. The moment I get my shot, it disappears into the wilderness.
Then there is a hog deer peering from behind a tree, a crested serpent eagle strategically perched on a tree top, a green pigeon that flashes past as a green streak, a rose-ringed parakeet that lands in slow motion next to its nest, and a warbler delicately balancing on a moving blade of tall grass.
Back at the forest gate, as we were sipping black saay (that’s how an Ahomi pronounces chai!), we spot a tame baby elephant, nicknamed Kaancha, nibbling at the oltenga fruit, considered a delicacy by the elephants. And I think to myself — good taste is inborn.
Nameri National Park
This park has a completely different topography compared to Orang and it adjoins the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh.
A gentle walk of a kilometre from the Eco Camp takes you to the banks of the Jia Bhoroli River that is teeming with golden mahseer. And across the blue river you get the first panoramic view of this stunningly beautiful sanctuary.
A ride in a country boat takes you across to the forest department jetty, and then you walk on sparkling white pebbles that remind you of pre-historic eggs. The puddles on the riverbank have reddish-brown algae and that adds to the special aura of this landscape.
In the distance, I see a pair of ruddy shelducks, and this inspires the guide to share a local myth. Lord Ram came to these forests looking for Sita when she was kidnapped by Ravan. When he came across a lovey-dovey pair of shelducks, he asked them whether they had seen Sita. To which the haughty male shelduck retorted, ‘What kind of a husband are you that you can’t even look after your wife?’ Hearing this unjust insinuation, Ram turned as red as the ruddy shelducks and cursed them. ‘Henceforth, you will only be together during the day. In the night you will be separated, and you will spend the whole night pining for each other!’ An interesting explanation why these ducks move around in pairs during the day, and sleep separately in the night.
The forest guard who doubled up as our guide proudly carries an antique single-barrel gun that hangs from his shoulder on a frayed rope about to give way. As he walks in front of me, I kept stealing glances at the rope, wondering when it will break, and the gun will come crashing down to the ground! Every guard in the forests of Assam has one such gun purportedly to be used against crouching tigers and hidden terrorists. But eventually it remains a mere psychological booster than a weapon of any significant use.
A few yards into the dense part of the forest, and there are tell-tale signs of a rampaging herd of elephants. The guide takes a real close look at their dung, makes a quick forensic analysis, and declares that it was around 48 hours ago that they were here. Heaving a sigh of relief, we continue our exploration.
Only to run into a lone tusker fortunately separated from us by the security of a river in spate.
Further ahead is the claw-marks of a sloth bear on a tree trunk. Looking up, we see that a bee-hive that has drawn him here.
Further on, we come across a patch of silk-cotton trees, leafless but with a flaming efflorescence covers the treetops. Flashes of colour are added to this flower garden: by green bee-eaters, scarlet minivets, emerald doves, red-whiskered bulbuls, golden orioles and purple sunbirds.
Ahead on an oltenga tree, I see an animal found only in the North-East: the Malayan squirrel. And this underlines the ecological fact that these beautiful forests were once contiguous with the verdant forests of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Yes, much before the world became a global village, it was a global forest.
Where to stay
Orang: Prashaanti Tourism Complex
Call +919854165351 or +919854003188 for bookings.
Nameri: Eco Camp
Call office on 03712220004 or Pradip on +919957199227 or mail email@example.com
Orang is around 140 kms from Guwahati on the Guwahati-Tezpur Road, 40 kms before Tezpur.
Nameri is around 215 kms from Guwahati, 35 kms after Tezpur.