“Once inside the jungle, keep your voice low and eyes wide open,” the forest guard in our jeep advised us as we were about to enter through the main gate of the Manas National Park. He checked his rifle, and the jeep started. We were the fourth in a row of around 8 jeeps.
The Manas National Park, which has six national and international designations- UNESCO World Heritage Site, National Park, Tiger Reserve, Biosphere Reserve, Elephant Reserve and Important Bird Area, is divided into three ranges. The western range is based at Panbari, the central at Bansbari near Barpeta Road, and the eastern at Bhuiyapara near Pathsala. “The site is noted for its spectacular scenery, with a variety of habitat types that support a diverse fauna, making it the richest of all Indian wildlife areas“, notes the UNESCO website which lists the World Heritage Sites.
As the jeeps queued into the narrow forest road, dust billowed and covered the air. Our first encounter with the wild was when the jeep in front of us suddenly halted and signalled us to do the same. Somewhat confused about what the matter was, we realized that a segregated elephant had suddenly made an arrogant entry in between the row of jeeps. The jeeps screeched to halt and everyone stared at the young elephant with awe. Then we saw peacocks perched up on trees, calling out cheerfully and rhythmically swinging its feathers; and eagles marking the skyline sitting on branches of very tall trees. The road we were following, lead us to one of the view towers in the forest. From its top, we could see a rhino lazily grazing around- the guard explained about the rhino relocation project under which rhinos from Pobitora and Kaziranga have been relocated to Manas. From the view tower, we retraced back and took the other branch of the Y-shaped road.
“Now, we will start moving towards the river. You will see the sunset against it. That place is called Mathanguri, another side of the forest”, the driver told us.
We had moved into a rainforest like part of the jungle. A green envelope of dense tall tress lined the path and sun rays streamed in through narrow slits between the canopies. Then, we spotted a herd of wild buffaloes and another that of the Indian bison, quite far away. The jeeps stopped, and the tourists focused their cameras and binoculars as the animals moved away into the thick jungle against the yellow setting sun.
We kept on advancing and soon had a glimpse of the hills of our neighbouring country, Bhutan, and within a few minutes we witnessed the view that Manas National Park is best known for- the majestic blue hills standing firmly behind the gurgling waters of the Manas River, and a bright orange ball of fire gave a warm tinge to the entire scene. Mesmerizing, indeed!
On a small hillock just by the river, is the Upper Bungalow (forest guest house)- and it’s not very easy to get a booking here. But yes, it’s obvious that if you make an overnight stay in this guesthouse, it will be an experience of a lifetime, comparable to the most exotic of resorts in the world!
Our guard explained, “Right behind the Bungalow, a road goes up to Bhutan. Through this road, every morning trade vehicles cross the border and enter India. On the other side of the river, Royal Bhutan has a very beautiful guesthouse overlooking the river and the hills.”
The Sun had set, and it was dark. We got up in the jeep and the guy standing at the back, switched on a high voltage searchlight, connected to the jeep’s engine. He would stand there and focus the light into the pitch dark jungle, to search for animals.
And thus began our return trip- a night safari.
I have been to the world famous night safari at the Singapore zoo, but believe me, the raw thrill of the return trip at Manas is way ahead of that in Singapore. As a chilly wind blew across, the safari jeeps boldly made their way through the eerily silent and dark jungle. The most surprising thing was that we spotted about 5 big herds of elephants and at one point two segregated members of a herd had almost chased our jeep! It was the most nerve tingling moment of the safari! Apart from elephants, we spotted sambars and buffaloes (again!).
After driving for about two and a half hours from the Manas River we returned back to the main gate.
Overall, the visit to Manas National Park was a multifaceted experience. On one hand there is this extraordinarily magnificent jungle glorified with all its wilderness- flora and fauna, hills and rivers. But then again the jungle shrieks in the memory of its past- more than two decades of ethnic clashes which have ripped it apart- the animals were mercilessly poached, the officials left their posts, and the jungle was left to be roasted in the fire of human ambitions and political fiasco. The development of the jungle as a tourist destination was dragged by many a mile due to this insurgency, and it seems Manas has just missed the pivotal point in the Indian socio-economic situation when the tourism industry had boomed. Lower Assam itself lies in a pool of neglects and Barpeta Road- the major town nearest to the national park- shows no sign of a prominent tourist industry built-up around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Right from the National Highway leading to Manas from Guwahati to the condition of the lodges near the forest, everything needs improvement and a touch of professionalism in it to bring it on the list of fantastic tourist destinations in the country. To bring back Manas it would need a concerted effort from a lot of different quarters- be it the government, the UNESCO, the organisations associated with the different rhino relocation projects, tourism department, local people, or NGOs-and the sooner we achieve it, the better.
Text and Photographs by Abhishek Saha. All Rights Reserved.
Abhishek Saha, a third year Civil Engineering student at Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi, is a freelance writer and photographer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.