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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : December 2000 : Glimpse rhinos in the mist in Indian nature preserve

Glimpse rhinos in the mist in Indian nature preserve

By Lisa Goff
Copley News Service
December 11, 2000

In Assam, the nature preserve where rhinoceros unicornis has come back from the brink offers a rare glimpse of the animal and efforts to save it.

I took my family to Kaziranga National Park, a wildlife sanctuary in the northeast Indian state of Assam, braced for disappointment. Elephant rides at dawn, one-horned rhinos in the mist it all sounded too good to be true. And given my experience of Indian hotels in the same price range, I didn't expect the Wild Grass Resort at the edge of the park to live up to its billing either.

But I had promised my two young daughters an elephant ride during the four months we lived in Shillong, the capital of the adjacent state of Meghalaya, and Kaziranga was my best opportunity to make good on my pledge. So, in early November, just as the chilly weather in Shillong was beginning to make us homesick for central heating, we struck out.

How delightful to find myself too cynical by half. We really did ride elephants at dawn and spy rhinos in the mist, along with a passel of other animals and birds. And Wild Grass Resort was straight off the set of a ''Masterpiece Theatre'' series on the Raj minus the pretension. On top of that, we got a close-up view of the country's efforts to save endangered wildlife, grossly underfunded efforts that nonetheless are showing modest signs of success.

Well before you arrive at Kaziranga, a World Heritage Site, Assam's tropical beauty unfolds. Marshy ponds covered with lotus and water hyacinth form an almost unbroken canal along the roadside. Telephone wires are alive with chattering green parrots, banana trees pendulous with dusky purple blossoms the size of footballs. If you're traveling in the early afternoon as school lets out, as we were, you'll see groups of young children wearing traditional British-style school uniforms bounding home alongside their sedate older sisters, who are swathed in crisp, white cotton saris trimmed in hibiscus red or sapphire blue.

The rolling hills around the sanctuary are covered with tea plantations, where decades ago tribals from neighboring states were indentured to work. It is their descendants you will see standing in line at dusk, baskets of tea leaves balanced on their heads, waiting to have their day's work weighed and their wages meted out accordingly.

It's fun to watch Assam unfold out the window, but for Westerners who consult a road atlas and make certain assumptions about the designation ''major highway,'' getting to Kaziranga is an ordeal. Regardless of whether you come by tourist taxi, local bus, so-called ''luxury coach'' from Guwahatior, as we did, in a private van driven by good friends, the drive is a misery of gasoline fumes, potholes and dust. But the street life on view makes up for the discomfort. And, at the end, you step out of your car and into paradise.

The 165-square-mile wildlife park borders the Brahmaputra River, the longest river in India and one of the country's most beautiful landscapes. In the vast fields beside the road, cattle egrets perch on water buffalo and deer, hitching rides through the tall grass. Rows of quaint bamboo and plaster Assamese cottages give way to tawny mud huts with thatched roofs and small front porches, where you often see women sitting at looms, weaving the Assamese textiles sold countrywide in handicraft emporiums.

The Wild Grass Resort, like the other tourist hotels that serve the sanctuary, lies well off the main road and about three miles from the park entrance at Kohora. Although only about a decade old, it has the ambience of a British tea planters' club. The lobby and dining room are located in a building with lofty ceilings and banks of windows frequented by fluttering, glowing butterflies. For drinks or quiet reflection, there's a patio on the back, overlooking the pool, and a two-story open-air structure stocked with tables, chairs and the two largest plantation chairs I've ever seen.

Nearby (but not too nearby) is another open-air pavilion geared to children, with board games painted on stationary tables. Did I mention the bamboo grove and the twining stream at the edge of the property? Must have been diverted by the heady aroma of the flowering tropical plants lining the garden paths.

Forty-eight comfortable rooms are housed in two nearby buildings, and if you find better for double the price anywhere in India, I'll eat my IndrailPass. For the equivalent of $20 a night, we got a quiet, comfortable, bright, nicely decorated room that slept two adults and two children. The price included tea in bed, that lovely Indian tradition of bringing a pot of tea to the bleary-eyed before breakfast.

That tea is particularly welcome if you choose the morning over the afternoon elephant ride into the park. The park guides all say you'll see more wildlife in the early morning (and you'll get back in time for breakfast at the hotel) than on the 2 p.m. ride, but we saw as many wild things during our afternoon jeep ride as we did at dawn on elephant-back. I recommend the early ride for the otherworldliness of the early morning fog.

We left before dawn to make our 5:15 a.m. departure. My 7-year-old daughter was a little disappointed to discover that she didn't get an elephant all to herself; riders sit four per animal, in bleacherlike seats with rudimentary seat belts. Trundling through the tall grass for the next 90 minutes or so, we came upon a rhino getting a sip of water from a stream, two kinds of deer and enumerable cattle egrets.

The mist inspired silence even among the five children in our group, which numbered 20 people on five elephants. The only sounds were the slow ''slish, slish'' of the elephants parting the tall grass, the occasional thwack of a wrangler's riding crop against an elephant's thick hide, or a rip as an elephant tore off a hank of grass to eat. And my normally reserved husband's excited voice, pitched higher than usual, pointing out the mist, the grass, the thickness of the mist, the glistening spiderwebs, the whiteness of the mist and finally the lifting mist as the lavender sky slowly, imperceptibly turned blue.

One of my clearest memories of Kaziranga will be watching a white heron peering into the river, waiting for breakfast to come swimming by, her sinuous white form reminding me of those slender Assamese girls walking home from school in their white saris. One of my children's clearest memories will be the juicy sucking sounds the elephants' hooves made as they galumphed through the mucky river. That, and the way the baby elephant tickled their necks with her trunk.

However, it must be noted that the week after we were in Kaziranga, an elderly American woman was killed when the elephant she was riding suddenly attacked another elephant. Neither of the two elephants had ever been violent before. I believe a tourist in India is at more risk riding in buses and cars than on elephants, but this sad episode is a reminder that elephants are wild and therefore unpredictable animals.

That afternoon, refreshed by breakfast, lunch and a stint in the cloverleaf pool at the hotel, we returned to the park for a jeep safari. This 2 1/2-hour ride took us into a different section of the sanctuary. Tourists can choose between three different areas to explore, some better for observing birds than mammals. Both provide an intimate view of wildlife preservation efforts.

An armed guard, courtesy of the park, escorted us on the ride. When someone in our jeep made a nervous comment about hoping our armed guards didn't have to shoot any charging elephants, an Indian tourist corrected him.

''No, they are here to shoot the poachers.''

Poachers are a big problem at Kaziranga, which houses the world's last significant population of rhinoceros unicornis 1,552 at last count. In 1966, when serious conservation efforts began, the rhinos numbered just 309. Anti-poaching laws haven't landed many poachers in jail, but the park guards' authority to shoot them in the act 60 have been killed since 1990, another 56 arrested has become a modestly effective deterrent.

From our jeep, we watched elephants bathing in the river, and added more rhino, water buffalo and deer sightings to our list. I saw about a dozen adjutant storks the ones that look like they could carry babies in their neck-sacks strolling beside the Brahmaputra and, later, circling overhead, pterodactyl-like.

Our driver stopped beside the river so we could get a better look at the wildlife. I stood with our friend from Shillong and watched a small herd of one-horned white rhinos eat a late lunch in a field just across the Brahmaputra from us. My friend, a former banker, recounted the time he'd been on a business trip not far north of here and found the bridge closed for repairs. A local fisherman took him across the river in his sliver of a boat. It took four hours, and he passed silty islands full of birds that looked positively prehistoric. I pointed to the adjutant storks. Maybe so, he said.

We spent one more night at Wild Grass Resort. The service in the resort's restaurant is slow, really slow languorous even. This might be fine if you're reclining in the oversize cane deck chairs on the porch and sipping a frosty Assamese beer while waiting for dinner to be served, but it's a tragedy when you're herding a flock of children worn out from elephant riding and jeep safari-ing.

Also, the resort has a wonderful pool, but if you're a woman, be prepared for disapproval if you go swimming. I got a very long, very cold stare from an Indian woman when I got out of the pool at Wild Grass. I returned the look, Fahrenheit for Celsius. One has to pick and choose one's culturally inappropriate moments: I swam but didn't sunbathe. As soon as I got out of the pool I tucked myself up in a lungi and headed for my room to resume decent attire, which in India means long pants or skirts for foreign women, or, preferably, a salwar kameez cheap and easy to buy, and comfortable and cool to wear.

My only other complaint about the hotel was that it was difficult to get an unambiguous answer on the cost of jeep rides and taxi excursions, although no more so than in the rest of India. Let's see, the towels were stiff and a little frayed, and they brought two cups of tea for breakfast instead of four. That's about all the negatives I can dredge up from what was for us a charmed two-day holiday from the demands living in India made on our often inadequate Western coping skills.

The morning we left, I got up early and watched the village wake up from my hotel room window. Women carried water on their heads in brass pots the shape of tulip bulbs. Their neighbors bathed and brushed their teeth in the stream. Dogs barked, children chased them. The real India. I was ready to go back.

IF YOU GO Kaziranga Park: It is open from November through April (opening dates vary according to the monsoon's duration, so call before you go in November). The tourist information center is at Bonani Tourist Lodge (011-91-03776-62423), where you also sign in, make reservations for elephant rides and jeep safaris, and pay park entrance fees. Consult for weather conditions and travel options.

Getting there: Jet Airways India (by far the better choice) has a daily flight for $210. Indian Airlines has five flights a week from Delhi to Guwahati, the capital of Assam, for about the same price. It's also possible to fly to Jorhat, about 50 miles from Kaziranga, from Calcutta. Both domestic airlines offer four flights a week for about $90 one way. Avoid trains because those in the northeast are frequent targets of local rebel tribal groups.

From Guwahati, Kaziranga is about six hours away by car or eight by public bus. Green Valley, a private tour company, runs an air-conditioned bus. Highway travel is safe during the day; after dark, rebel groups sometimes stop vehicles.

Where to stay: In addition to Wild Grass Resort (011-91-036776-62437) there are Forest Lodges operated by the park (011-91-03776-62423). There is a 10 percent tax on rooms more than $5 a night.

Where to eat: The restaurant at Wild Grass has good food but slow service. The numerous dhabas on the road leading to the park are a good budget option. These open-air veggie restaurants serve all-you-can-eat meals of chapati (Indian bread) and dal, perhaps with scrambled eggs or spicy vegetables (masala). Choose a dhaba that has its oven going a dead fire suggests aging ingredients.

Lisa Goff is a free-lance travel writer.

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