A Week on the Plains of Assam

elephant skull


It’s easy when you are sitting in a comfortable chair in Shillong, with a guide book and a cup of coffee, to make an ambitious plan to for an extensive tour of N.E. India.  We could go from here to Silchar, and then Mizoram and then up through Manipur to Nagaland,



stopping in at Manjuli Island before returning to Guwahati.  That sounds like fun!  But after a couple of weeks of hard travel in

Meghalaya, as great as it’s been, the reality of what this involves sets in.  What it means is lots of bad hotels in transit towns after long days of cramped Sumo seats, and very little information of how and when transportation is available. Plus it’s getting colder.  But we’re not quite ready to leave the N.E. yet, so we scale back the plans and decide to spend a further week on the warm plains of Assam, at the Brahmaputra-side town of Tezpur, and Orang National Park, which is one of the last homes of the Indian one-horned rhino.

A mini-crisis happens the day before we are to leave Guwahati.  The laptop isn’t charging!  Usually this is the fault of Indian wiring, and jiggling the plug around in the socket will eventually find a connection.  This time it turns out our power cable is defunct.  No one here has genuine Panasonic parts, and we spend an N.E. mapentire evening in an auto-rickshaw following lead after lead around the mean streets of Guwahati.  Without success.  The next morning we have one more option left. Purvajoti Infotech, a hole in the wall shop down a grotty alley, had enough marketing savvy to buy an impressive-sounding banner ad in the Guwahati yellow pages, which drew us in. It certainly isn’t the kind of place we expected from their superlative-laced description, but there on the counter is a universal adapter kit, and one of the connecters fits!  We scoot back to the hotel, collect our bags before check out, get back to the bus-stand, and get good seats on a decent-enough bus heading out at 11:30 for Tezpur, 170 km and 5 hours away.

Any long distance bus in India is a bit of an ordeal, with the usual high-decibel incessant honking, the dusty road construction, the dilapidated seats and the lip-smacking betel-chewers.  But even all that can’t take away from the beauty of this place.  We are tezpur1heading east on the north side of the Brahmaputra River.  The dry paddy rice crop is being harvested, the golden stalks scythed, stacked by hand, and loaded on double-yoked ox carts, like some Asian inspiration for a work of Breughel the Younger.  Small villages set amid palm trees have gardens of chrysanthemum and marigold.  In the distance preside the white peaks of the Himalayas.

We get to Tezpur just as the sun sets and – luck is holding – get a room at the government-run “Tourist Lodge”.  Often these places are institutional and run-down, the guaranteed state subsidies replacing the need for any customer service or maintenance.  The Tezpur Lodge is OK (hard mattress, par for the course out here) and even has a satellite box that gives us the clearest TV we have seen in weeks!

If Guwahati is the hip twenty-something updating profiles by iphone, Tezpur still wears polyester pants and has a moustache.  It’s a throwback to India in the 1980’s – in a good way.  Life saunters along at the pace of the cycle rickshaws on the main street.  For drying on a cartthree days we enjoy Tezpur’s languid charm, strolling through the town or along the slow-flowing Brahmaputra.  On the sand banks of the river are a collection of god and goddess figures from an old festival.  Slowly falling to pieces, they seem to be abandoned to the happy dementia enjoyed by former creators and destroyers of the universe when their time on the big stage has passed.  Even the railways have abandoned Tezpur.  The passenger service was terminated a couple of years ago; now kids play cricket by the marooned station, and friendly vendors still godssmile from their stalls, even though business must be as thin as the weeds on the tracks.  To see our “Quick Tezpur Minute” video on youtube, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptWGx0FleV4&list=UUzPNkH_3cH9Oz3q-g71UkUA&feature=share&index=1

Tezpur has been a pleasant surprise, but the destination for our excursion into rural Assam is Orang Park.  Although having the second highest density of rhinos of any place in India, no one seems to know anything about Orang – such as where it is.  It’s not in the guide books, and we only discover by looking out the bus window on the way to Tezpur that it isn’t – as the tourist info and the web suggest – 32 km from the town, but 32 km OFF the Tezpur highway, from a junction 67 km from here.  We are confident there is a tourist lodge there, but not certain.

The bus drops us at the hamlet of Orang, a small collection of shops along the dusty margins of the highway.  Then it leaves.  No one approaches us, but the eyes of every man woman child and dog are glued to us as we try to figure out a next move.  We have no idea how we will make the next 32 km, but this is India, and something always happens.  A man with a car says he will take us to the park, but his price is outrageous. I tell him how much I am prepared to pay, and he waves to an auto rickshaw across the street.  That settled, we bundle into the 3-wheeler, and putter off into the unknown.

It’s a relief to find there is a Tourist Lodge at the park gate.  They do have a room: mildewed walls, broken windows, and coir mattress and pillow barely covered by Mickey Mouse sheets. We soon meet Ali, the precocious fixer.  He looks 15, throws out uncertain English colloquialisms, and can arrange anything is this, his little domain.

After lunch we decide to stroll through the neighbouring village.  If Tezpur was India in the 1980’s, this is India @ 1890.  A kidsvisitation by alien beings wouldn’t have caused as much of a stir, and we see people running across the field to tell neighbours.  It is a really bucolic place, with neat mud huts, rice sheaves piled into golden mounds, and rich afternoon light pouring through the palm trees, but with the entire village silently following us, and more arriving all the time, it’s getting a little uncomfortable, and we turn around to go back.  To break the ice I decide to take a photo of Katheryn with the kids, and show it to them.  Miming what I am going to do, I am taken by complete surprise when they all scream and run away.  Well, not quite all.  For two or three kids – the ones, possibly, who will go on making their own choices – this is just too much fun, and they crowd around and point and laugh at the view screen.  Then the others rush back.  Soon almost all have decided the benefits of this game outweigh the risks. With the kids onside and happy, we leave the village as friendly monstrosities, rather than just strange and unpredictable life forms.

foggy lightIt isn’t cheap to visit a National Park in India as a foreigner, and after a few no-so-great experiences it is one of the reasons we have rarely done so.  Official prices for everything are magnitudes higher if you are white, and this morning’s excursion – entrance to the park, jeep ride to the elephant staging area, elephant ride and jeep back – will cost us about $100.

The early morning light needs an accompanying harp it is so soft, as it angelically splays through the foggy forest canopy.  All we get are the revving gears of Ali’s ancient jeep, as we bounce around its sharp edges standing in the back.  He lost pole position to the only other vehicle to have shown up here, it seems, in weeks; a plush private jeep with a guide hired by a Czech couple, and we are forced to eat their dust with mounting resentment.

We all arrive together after ½ an hour at the staging area, which is the compound of a beautiful forest bungalow set on a bank foggy light2overlooking a vast plain of tall elephant grass.  Prime rhino habitat.  I want to stay here, and when I ask Ali about it he says it is only for government officials.  The Czech couple, at least, aren’t doing the elephant ride, so we won’t have them as our view for this, the most interesting part of the trip.  After a while our mount arrives.  He’s a big old tusker, marshalled in by a park ranger sporting an iron-tipped goad in one hand and a shotgun in the other.  The ranger tries to tell us the elephant’s name: it sounds like “Sacrot”.

We love riding elephants.  They don’t stride they sashay, each foot fall landing with a soft “poof”, somehow cushioned by the sheer good will the world has for its distinguished elder states-creatures.  Sacrot, however, isn’t happy.  He lets out a bellow and starts to veer for the underbrush.  The ranger corrects him with a thwack from the goad.  What happens next is best appreciated by listening to the audio clip (the video wasn’t on) we happened to catch on the blackberry, but in case I can’t get it posted I will try to describe it.

The elephant shouts out at the top of his lungs that he has had it with howdahs, and his tooth hurts, and he didn’t get his breakfast and above all he really has to pee.  This sounds to us like he’s possessed by Satan and is about to birth the antichrist.  He is backing into a tree, and I am worried that he is going to use it to smear us into a paste.  The ranger gives him an almighty whack on the skull.  This seems to have no effect except to make Sacrot vent louder.   Then he lets loose a vast torrent of urine.  The clinking you hear next in the clip is me handing the footboard chain, which had come detached,  to the ranger, and then the not-entirely-convinced “Are you OK?” “Yup. You good?”  And we continue.

storksSoon we turn off the trail onto the elephant grass wetland. There is a boggy stream to cross, and suddenly and surprisingly we are in muddy water up to the elephant’s belly.  If I were our tusker, planning revenge for his sore head, this is where I would do it.  All he has to do is roll over and lie down for a couple of minutes, and we are left embedded underwater in the mud, to be disposed of by whoever finds us first: the tigers or the crocs.  But I judge his temperament too harshly; all he wants is breakfast, which he takes by pulling up stooks of succulent marsh plants in his curled trunk.

There is impressive bird life on the flats, with snowy egrets and massive maribu storks unconcerned by the elephant bulk; but no rhinos.  Ali had warned us not to be too optimistic: at this time of year the elephant grass is at its highest, and they are hard to see.  And then there is a rustling by the river, and I’m sure we’ve flushed one out!  We plot a course through the grass to intercept the wake of rippling stalks…and it’s a wild pig.  There is no doubt it is great fun riding an elephant through tall grass looking for rhino, and we have to content ourselves with that.  The closest we get are lots of tracks and fresh poop.  And a tiger pug mark for consolation.elephant shadow

All in all, as much of an adventure as it is, I don’t think we’ll be back to Orang.  But as far as Assam and the wonderful N.E. States, it won’t be too soon.

To watch the Orang Nation Park  video, including the incredible elephant rant, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnpnSGHSxpo&list=UUzPNkH_3cH9Oz3q-g71UkUA&feature=share