I have probably been to Kaziranga National Park dozens of times. And when you see too much of a place, it might just begin to feel like home. There are countless memories here, some of them solitary, some with friends, some with family, and some with tourists of Greener Pastures! Yes, the wildlife is spectacular and you can never be bored whenever you are inside the jungle, no matter how many times you see the same rhinos, or elephants or deer or birds, or the occasional glimpse of the tiger. But my experiences here are more than the jungle – it is about people and connections and adventures on the road.
Like hitting the highway in the middle of the night to find food in a distant all-night trucker’s diner. Or trying some pot at the local Shiva temple with the local stoners. Or celebrating the birthdays of family members at some of the lodges that dot the park. Or like once when we at Greener Pastures took local schoolchildren on an educational tour to nearby Sivasagar where they had tons of fun and got to see some of Assam’s ancient medieval ruins. Or that one time when I and Benno Furmann, a famous German movie star were headbanging to Led Zeppelin blasting in the car stereo. Over the decades, the small national park has rather grown profoundly. From the days when the moderate Wildgrass Lodge was the most sought-after place to stay to the development of luxurious resorts such as Iora and Borgos.
I have stayed in a lot of properties here. My favorite would still be the Wildgrass Lodge. Maybe it is just the nostalgia that keeps me coming back to this rugged property – that familiar scent of its wooden cottages that I have known since childhood, the grand dining hall which reminds one of the fine colonial tea planter’s architecture that has got infused into the memory of the people of Assam. I have also stayed with our drivers in small Assamese village huts that cost just a few dollars a night but feels like home. I have stayed in big luxurious resorts such as Iora where you can avail luxuries such as a swimming pool, a spa with special Ayurvedic treatments that can be pre-booked from the room and choose between two different fine-dining restaurants and a bar.
The winters are special here. Folk dances run late into the night and tourists gather over campfires to discuss their travels and wildlife sightings. You can almost always spot the ones who have seen a tiger during their safari in the day. They got this excitement in their eyes and an urge to talk about the ferocious predator that they encountered. I too have been lucky to see the tiger, twice in my life, both times in Kaziranga. This one time when I was with my dear friend and colleague Nandita, we just about entered the western range on a jeep safari and out of the blue spotted the magnificent beast. He was sitting right on the jeep trail with his back to us and he just sat there for like almost an hour and we admired his back for as long as we could. We never got to see his front, or his face, just his back. But it was thrill, and we were fully alert and thinking that anytime the tiger could turn around and attack us and we needed to be ready to reverse the jeep as fast as we could. Well thankfully, he just sat there and bathed in the mid-day sun!
The food is lip-smacking here. From the high-end restaurants of the resorts which serve delicious local, Indian, Chinese, and European cuisine, to the many dhabas that dot the highway where you can eat the best Assamese thalis for just a few dollars. You can never get enough of exploring the food in Kaziranga.
The jungle is filled with stories. Like that one time when a rhino charged an elephant and tore him apart. Or that one time when a sensational video went viral all over the world of a fabulous tiger leaping from the thickness of the grass and attacking a poor mahout and snapping his finger out as he sat on top of his elephant. The jungle is also a battlefield. Between the forest rangers who protect the animals from poachers who are ever ready to intrude and kill rhinos for their horns. Kaziranga is perhaps the only national park in the country where the rangers are free to shoot and kill any person they deem as a threat to the jungle without any prior permission. And there’s another battlefield, the national highway that cuts right through the national park, and is responsible for many wildlife deaths every year.
The circus of bureaucrats and politicians and elites is always a constant disturbance. They treat the jungle with disrespect. Like celebrating occasions like new years in the resorts with DJs blasting loud music. And recently, when that cunning CM of Assam, entered the jungle late in the night along with a well-known self-proclaimed Godman and when the local communities lodged an FIR against them for entering the jungle at a time when visitors are not permitted, he was seen laughing. Well, this is India, and the rules of law can always be bent, especially when it comes to Goodmen and ministers of the government.
And perhaps the most important story of Kaziranga is its timeless love affair with the river Brahmaputra. Like all love affairs, it is about the good times and the hard times, about agony and compassion, and growth. The river which ravages the park with floods every year is also what nurtures it. Without the river there will be no jungle, there will be no tall grasslands! And a lot can be done to keep this natural paradise flourishing. Building river embankments, creating raised platforms for animals to wade the floods could mean wonders for the national park and the beautiful creatures that call it their home!