Day Two in the North East: Kaziranga

Day two in Kaziranga began early. Sunrise happens early in this part of the country, so by 6 am, there was a lot of light outside. Kolita was waiting at the gates of the lodge to take me to the Central Range for an early morning elephant safari.

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Now elephant safaris are usually the top attraction at most wildlife parks, but I didn’t quite expect so many people in Kaziranga that early. It was fairly cold, and there were throngs of people, mostly Bengali, waiting to get on an elephant. Safaris begin at around 5:15 in Kaziranga and last till about 8 am, and are done on 24 elephants. Their sizes vary, so between 4 to 8 people can go on one elephant.

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I wasn’t terribly sure of animal sightings on the elephant safari. There were no armed guards, and the mahout seemed to have only one stick of bamboo to control the elephant. The seat atop the elephant had one very thin metal rod to keep us from losing balance – the very lack of security meant there would probably be no sighting to speak of.

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The slow and swinging steps of the elephant carried us deeper inside the thick grassland. And within minutes, we spotted our first rhino. This was my first time seeing a one-horned rhinoceros, and I am not sure I have ever seen one even in a zoo. The elephant went pretty close to the beast, through a field and tall grass, and the rhino seemed unfazed by it. A few other elephants with people also came close, but nothing could distrurb the rhino from chomping away the short grass around it.

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We saw more rhinos on the safari. There were a few wild boars too, groups of hog deer and a herd of large water buffaloes. We chanced upon a Sambar, which fled the moment the elephant tried to get closer, but there were no tigers. I knew that according to the last census, there were a number of tigers in Kaziranga, but we didn’t get to spot any.

An hour later, the elephant dropped us back to the same point where it had picked us up and Kolita drove me back to the lodge for breakfast. A hurried breakfast later, I was sitting in an open topped Maruti Gypsy on my way to the Western Range. A gentleman had said at the table that his driver had seen a tiger earlier that morning, but my driver wasn’t too sure of a sighting.

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The western range had fewer open grasslands, and we travelled through thickening flora. As soon as we entered the range though, a wild elephant blocked our road and began doing its business. The driver said we’d have to wait till the elephant gave us some space to drive by, and so we waited. Vehicles began lining up, hoping the elephant would amble off, but there it stood, unhurriedly going about its morning business. About 20-minutes later, a safari vehicle slowly inched its way behind the elephant, and our driver followed, speeding up as soon as we neared the elephant.

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There were more rhinos on this range too, but instead of the open grasslands, they were now near water bodies. There was a sliver of the Brahmaputra at one point, and we saw a large herd of rhinos on the other side, but the ones nearer to us were always in ones and twos, never a herd.

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There were fewer wild boars here, and more water buffaloes and hog deer. We didn’t see any more sambar deer, but the sheer number of water buffaloes was surprising. We were told that Kaziranga holds the largest number of these animals anywhere – up to 51% of the world’s water buffalo population lives in Kaziranga. But aside from water buffaloes and rhinos, and the occasional elephant, we didn’t spot any other wildlife – not even macaques.

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The Gypsy took me back to the lodge for lunch and post lunch was to be the third safari of the day – the Eastern Range. It was slightly farther from the lodge and seemed the most dense of the three ranges. The driver warned us that there would be fewer rhinos here, and sure enough, the numbers started falling. We did see a few, but the overwhelming population was that of elephants and we passed a number of herds on the safari. We even had to wait for a while for a herd to make way. This one had a few calves, and that meant they would be more aggressive, according to the driver.

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The forest grew even denser as we went deeper, and there was a stillness in the air in spite of numerous kinds of birdsong. This part of the forest is known better for its birding ops than mammal sighting, but since I know very little about birds, most of it was lost on me. I didn’t even have a good camera to capture the black-necked storks and the different kinds of ducks and geese. I even saw vultures – my first ever experience of seeing them in the wild. I don’t have good photos though – I really must buy a good camera!

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We didn’t spot any tigers though Kaziranga seems to have a fair number of them. It was just as well, because there were some very raucous tourist groups that would have killed the joy of seeing the majestic beast.

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There was a little stall selling tea and souvenirs just outside the gates and I got myself two very cute wooden replicas of an elephant and a rhino, while having more of the wonderful Assam tea. I only left early because of an overfriendly goat that wouldn’t stop following me around.

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It was a wonderful day, and seeing the rhinos – a healthy population too – was the best way to begin my holiday in the NE. I know I am coming back here the first chance I get – maybe next year when I go to Arunachal Pradesh.

Dinner was at the lodge again, and I learned to play 29, the card game from some fellow holidayers. Call it beginners’ luck, but my partner and I beat the other two hands down! This holiday was looking good, I’d say. The next day I was leaving for Meghalaya – a place I was going back to after 20 years, so yes, I was super excited!

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