Kaziranga and the Big Eight

Kaziranga and the Big Eight

Kaziranga and the Big Eight

AMANDA MARKS

“We have our own Big Five here: the one-horned rhino, elephant, swamp deer, wild buffalo and tiger. I think we should have the Big Eight though, and include the Hoolock gibbon, Malayan giant squirrel and giant hornbill.”

“A tiger just swam across the lake and went into the elephant grass over there”

Our guide, Hrishi, was obviously proud of his park, but I had come with few expectations of what we might see here; perhaps one or two rhinos if we were lucky and maybe a wild elephant – I would be happy with that. I assumed a tiger sighting wouldn’t even be worth hoping for since, although the park has one of the highest densities of tigers, they’re not easy to see here; you’re far better off in central Indian parks such as Ranthambore, Kanha or Tadoba for tigers.

We headed off with a guide and driver in our Gypsy. These are the jeep of choice for Indian wildlife parks since they’re small and light which makes them suitable for the narrow tracks, though if you’re used to African game vehicles you might be slightly shocked by the lack of suspension and space.

We didn’t care though. Within three minutes of driving through the central gate we saw our first one-horned Indian rhino … with a baby! We stopped and Hrishi pointed out that there were also 3 other rhinos in the distance, plus an elephant and three hog deer (one of the three species of deer in the park – swamp, hog and barking). 

“Within three minutes of driving through the central gate we saw our first one-horned Indian rhino … with a baby! ”

AMANDA MARKS

 

As we carried on along the earthen track that wound through a pretty area of broadleaf woodland, we stopped again. A handsome jungle fowl assiduously kept his back to us but there was no missing the striking plumage of this ancestor of our domestic chickens.  Less obvious was the little owl hiding deeper within the foliage but, as it turned out, our guide was a good spotter and didn’t miss much.

The park was a mix of grasslands, swamps and lakes, and wooded areas. It was mostly very flat but, on the western edge, the Burrapahar Hills offered a hazy backdrop in muted tones of grey. As we reached a lookout tower near a large lake, there was definitely some excitement in the air. A group of six people were training their binoculars on a stand of tall grasses at the edge of the water.

“A tiger just swam across the lake and went into the elephant grass over there,” said Hrishi. We had just missed seeing it. A matter of moments earlier and … But no, it wasn’t to be.

 

“We left Kaziranga very happy to have seen seven of his Big Eight!”

We might not have seen a big cat, but we were really lucky with our sightings of wild elephants. Sometimes they hid shyly in the tall grasses, but one family came to splash in a muddy lake and it was joyous to watch them. Wild elephant numbers in India are dropping at a staggering rate and it’s thought there are now only around 27,000, with 1900 in Kaziranga.

The following morning we went to the far west gate and the sound of gibbons echoed round the forest. I hadn’t realised just how rare Hoolock gibbons are, and this is the only ape to be found in India. They weren’t easy to photograph, but you could definitely see them and hearing them was no problem at all. It felt like a privilege to stand beneath them as they peered imperiously down at us.

But it was the rhino sightings that surprised us the most. In two days in the park, taking morning and afternoon game drives from our lodge on the edge of the park (Diphlu River Lodge), we counted 65 of these armour-plated mammals!  Kaziranga has 2400 Asian one-horned rhinos, which is about 70% of the world’s population, and that number is slowly growing. It is the best place to see them, and what an accolade for the protection teams working here; they are doing an incredible job.

Hrishi was disappointed that we’d missed the tiger, but that definitely didn’t spoil our visit as we’d not really coming expecting to see one. In fact, we left Kaziranga very happy to have seen seven of his Big Eight!

Remote North East India trip

If you would like to explore the forests and unique living root of bridges of Meghalaya followed by safaris in Kaziranga National Park, home to two thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos, click here to view this unique trip.

See Amanda’s blog about the Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, also in northeast India. 

Living Root Bridges

Living Root Bridges

Living Root Bridges

 

AMANDA MARKS

It’s rare that you come across anything on this earth that hasn’t also been thought of by someone else in a totally different region. However, the living root bridges of Meghalaya are a uniquely special entity found nowhere else. As a tree-lover, I just had to go and see this for myself. It’s a long way to go to see a bridge though — would it be worth it?

“How long does it take to grow a bridge? About 15 to 20 years!”

If you’re anything like me you’ve probably never heard of Meghalaya. Last year was the first time I became aware of it, and I’ve worked in international tourism for over 30 years. This small state in north east India was born in 1972, one of the so-called Seven Sisters States along with nearby Nagaland, Arunchal Pradesh, Tripura, Mizoram and Manipur. Sikkim has since been given separate statehood too. All these north-eastern states were previously part of Assam.

Meghalaya means ‘the abode of clouds’. Sitting just to the north of Bangladesh, it is largely covered by the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills and is known for its green, forested landscapes. The Khasi are the main tribe here, though there are also smaller numbers of Garo and Jaintia tribes. It isn’t a densely-populated region (just under 3 million people), and the inhabitants mainly live off the land, be that small-scale farming or quarrying for limestone and granite in their many hills.

The state experiences unusually high levels of rainfall, with one town, Cherrapunjee, taking the prize for being the rainiest place in the world! The average rainfall here over almost the last fifty years is 12 metres per year. You can imagine the fierceness of the rivers in the rainy season (April to October – with June to July and sometimes August taking the brunt of the downpour), and it is this natural phenomenon that led to the creation of the bridges that drew me here.

 

A few hundred years ago, some bright spark decided to harness nature — Indian rubber trees (ficus elastica), to be precise — to help the community cross the swollen rivers. A length of aerial root was taken from one of these long-lived, fast-growing trees and trained across the river with the aid of bamboo or betel tree scaffolding. Over time, more and more roots were encouraged from bank to bank and interwoven to create strength and stability. This was no quick task. A bit like planting trees, this was a work-in-progress that future generations would reap the rewards of. How long does it take to grow a bridge? About 15 to 20 years!

 

You might think that with modern methods of construction such a natural and traditional solution to a problem would no longer be used or valued; it is sadly so often the case. However, you’d be wrong in this instance. In this harsh terrain, a bridge built of modern materials lasts perhaps 30 years with luck. The rivers smash into concrete and steel with unforgiving force. They hammer unrelentingly on the bullish pride of twentieth century workmanship and, before long, the waters begin to undermine and erode. Living root bridges, on the other hand, have the capacity to bend and give. Inflexibility in the face of nature’s power is not for them; they go with the flow and accept the attentions of the rivers with a strength married with tolerance. They endure, and they grow stronger with age. It is believed that root bridges can live for 500 years.

Meghalaya has 80 living root bridges in its hilly forests, 11 of these in the Cherrapunjee area which is where I came. The longest is about 50 metres. The oldest is thought to be about 250 years old, and the most unusual is the ‘double decker’ at Nongriat (presumably built because the villagers were still getting their feet wet on the lower level in the rainiest months!).

 

Being part of the forest, this botanical architecture blends in seamlessly with the surroundings. The bridges have no sharp edges, and no incongruous colours nor expanses of flatness to flag their presence. They look like something that Tolkien would have dreamed up; I didn’t see any hobbits crossing them but I wouldn’t have been too surprised if I had. I was almost on top of my first bridge before I saw it — its organic gnarliness seemed to appear magically in front of me. Tentatively setting foot on it, I half-wondered if the knobbly walkway of roots might recognise the footsteps of a stranger and twist its shape to block my entry: ‘You shall not pass!’ 

I stayed with my bridge for at least an hour. Only one farmer crossed in that time, and there were no other visitors. The forest breathed peacefully, butterflies and birds busied themselves around me, and I just looked. I had travelled many miles and for many hours to get here … to see a bridge! Am I crazy? Perhaps, but by the time I left I felt like I was leaving an old friend, and I’m sure you’ll agree that old friends are worth the effort. 

INTERESTED IN SEEING THIS FOR YOURSELF?

Currently, the two easiest areas to see such living root bridges in Meghalaya are Mawlynnong and Cherrapunjee. Some bridges get more visitors than others – there were perhaps 30 people at the bridge near Mawlynnong when I was there. At Cherrapunjee I was lucky to get so long without other visitors when visiting the bridge described above.

While Indian visitors come to the hills of Meghalaya throughout the year, including in the monsoon season, most international travellers tend to visit in the dry months from about October to March when there is often little or no water in the rivers.

You need to be fit enough to deal with a reasonable amount of walking up and down steep steps. There is one fairly accessible bridge (about a 15-minute walk from the car drop-off point) but others such as the Double Decker require a roughly 4-5 hour round trip hike down and up 3500 steps with a descent of about 750 metres.

Accommodation near the bridges is limited; most of it is very simple and some (which we don’t offer) is extremely basic. Please talk to Tribes Travel’s Indian specialists for our best advice on where to stay.

It’s easy to make a wonderful trip in this region. Have a look at our ‘Remote North East India’ trip suggestion or talk to us for other recommendations of what else to combine with the living root bridges.  I combined it with a trip to Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Read about that trip here.

Remote North East India trip

If you would like to explore the forests and unique living root of bridges of Meghalaya followed by safaris in Kaziranga National Park, home to two thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos, click here to view this unique trip.

Northern Serengeti in the Low Season

Northern Serengeti in the Low Season

Northern Serengeti in the low season

 

 

AMANDA MARKS

Sitting alone, a large, battle-scarred male with a chunk missing out of his top lip was trying to disassociate himself from the seven females and youngsters relaxing in the sunshine on the edge of a dry riverbed.

Not that we were counting at the time, but that made it twelve lions we’d seen that morning. Twelve lions (plus two small cubs), five oribi, two bat-eared foxes, six giraffes, four dwarf mongooses (so cute!), four elephants, four rock hyrax, three red hartebeest, two greater eland, dozens of zebras, quite a few impalas, hundreds of wildebeest, and a partridge in a … No, maybe not.

The point here is that I was in northern Serengeti in late November. This time is classed as the low season for this region: November to May. Ask around and you’ll find that the general received wisdom is that it’s not worth coming to northern Serengeti in these months because you won’t see anything.

Well, I’d like to let you into a secret: that’s nonsense!

The reason many people think June/July to October are the only months to consider for this area of the Serengeti is that these are the months when the migration is either resident here or passing through on the way to the Masai Mara. It is in these months that you are likely to see thousands upon thousands of wildebeest and zebras plus attendant predators, and it’s also the time when you stand a chance of spotting the famed river crossings. There’s no doubt that this is indeed an incredible place to be when this natural phenomenon is around, however, to dismiss northern Serengeti for the rest of the year is to act rather ostrich-like. Look around – the resident wildlife here is excellent!

Thousands of hectares of wilderness are yours for the exploring.

It just happened that my colleague, Tracy, visited the area in first week of November, and I visited in the last week in November. We both had superb wildlife experiences, but what made it even better was that we shared these experiences with almost no-one else. Really! Thousands of hectares of wilderness are yours for the exploring, and when you spot wildlife you’re not vying with a dozen (or any, in my case) other vehicles.

And it’s such a beautiful place. The granite rock boulders sprinkled liberally over the landscape shine with what seems like an inner light as the early morning or late evening sun warms them as it has done for thousands of years. It’s ancient land, and particularly when it’s empty, it still feels like the soul of the earth is speaking to you here.

Big cats love it: leopards love the rock kopjes and cheetahs love the flat grasslands of the Lamai Wedge. Lions are happy anywhere really, but they prefer it if they don’t have to make too much effort for their dinner, and if they can find a nice quiet place to sleep. The proud, scarred old warrior we met had chosen his spot well. Northern Serengeti is a good place to be.

Where to stay…

There are some fantastic camps and lodges that operate in low season in the Northern Serengeti. For example, Sayari Camp  is a deluxe camp next to the Mara river, while Lemala Kuria Hills Lodge  offers gorgeous glass-fronted suites with private plunge pools. 

NOTES:
Low season in northern Serengeti is from November to May. Camp prices are cheaper and there are far fewer people visiting at this time.

Rainy season is late March/ April to May, so many camps are closed.

 

Kwihala Camp

Kwihala Camp

Kwihala Camp

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

Kwihala Camp

Tribes’ director, Amanda Marks, explored Ruaha for 2 weeks in June 2018. Staying at or inspecting all of the lodges and camps, game driving in the east, west and centre, and talking to the camp owners, managers and guides.

It was the post-lunch siesta time at Kwihala Camp – believe me, after a lunch like that you need a break just to reflect on how on earth the chef came up with that in the middle of the bush; the food here is as good as meals I’ve eaten in top class restaurants in London.

But I digress. There are 6 gorgeous en-suite tents at Kwihala, but I was sitting alone with a cup of green tea in the main lounge tent. It was just me, my notebook and the view. It was June, not the hottest month of the year by any means (try October/November if you want to experience real heat) but still in the late twenties, so with the heat, and the sleep-inducing lunch after the excellent early morning game drive, I was feeling drowsy. Writing my detailed notes of the last couple of days just wasn’t appealing. Instead, I found myself simply staring. In front of me was a wide sand river strewn with natural debris including a huge tree trunk deposited after the last flood. It was hard to imagine a flowing river here in place of acres of sand.

It turns out that a dry riverbed is a busy place. The sand is pitted with footprints of a myriad of different creatures, and as I sat in my only-half-awake state, I was aware of a couple of male antelopes walking on the other side of the ‘river’, and a small troupe of monkeys playing on the dead tree in the middle.

And then they came. Was it a dream? Or was I really sat watching a large family of elephants as they sauntered along the sand river as if it was a Sunday morning walk in the park? They were on the camp side of the river, close enough to want to hold your breath, yet far enough away to feel safe. The very little one was in playful mode and was pestering the adults who just gently ignored him. I had a good 15 minutes enjoying their antics from the comfort of my sofa. This was big screen TV and some!

When they eventually padded silently out of view, I heard something behind me, and a voice breathed ‘Wow.’  It was the waiter. He’d quietly shared the moment with me and was as moved as I was. It means a lot when the staff of a camp or lodge are as enthralled by the wildlife as the guests, and know when to stand back and let a moment happen. I wasn’t surprised – the staff at Kwihala are all excellent.  In some ways, it’s a shame I didn’t have my camera with me, but you know, sometimes just being there is enough. Being at Kwihala is enough.

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

You can read Amanda’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, and she’s always happy to chat about Ruaha if you’re considering a safari here. Visit our Tanzania specialist site to find out more about a safari in Tanzania.

Other Ruaha blogs by Amanda include:

Kigelia Ruaha

Kigelia Ruaha

Kigelia Ruaha

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

Kigelia Ruaha

Tribes’ director, Amanda Marks, explored Ruaha for 2 weeks in June 2018. Staying at or inspecting all of the lodges and camps, game driving in the east, west and centre, and talking to the camp owners, managers and guides..

You couldn’t make it up really – a tree that has fruits like whopping great Milano salamis. It’s known as the sausage tree (of course) but its proper name is Kigelia Africana. Woe betide you if you’re under the tree when one of those 15lb monsters falls!

This iconic African tree is the namesake of one of the camps I stayed in for 2 nights in June 2018 on my in-depth research safari in Ruaha National Park. Kigelia Ruaha is owned and run by Nomad Tanzania. They have 10 camps throughout Tanzania. Not only are these all very special camps in terms of location, but I also highly rate their accommodation (sometimes simple, as with Kigelia Ruaha, but always stylish), their food, their strong ethos as regards conservation and community involvement, and especially and very importantly for their guests, their guiding.

I was lucky enough to have my guide, Hussein, all to myself, so he could tailor my safari to what I was interested in. I’m quite a generalist, in terms of interests – I’m as happy watching birds, finding out about the trees and plants, and sitting watching a group of impalas or zebras, as I am searching for big cats or the big five. Ruaha has 4 of the big 5 (no rhinos, sadly, despite it being perfect black rhino territory), an incredible 575 species of birds, lots of elephants, a very strong population of lions … this is a park that impresses on many levels, including scenery.

Kigelia Ruaha is in a great location in an area central to some of the best wildlife viewing of the park. Not far away there is ‘Little Serengeti’, which, as the name suggests, is a wide open area of grassland and favoured by the park’s few cheetahs, and both the Mwagusi and the Great Ruaha Rivers are in easy striking distance. This is also a camp from which you can easily take the early morning hot air balloon flight over the park – an experience I loved, and wrote about in a separate blog (see below).

There are limitless options for a safari including Kigelia Ruaha, but may I offer my own personal ‘fantasy safari’ itinerary from Nomad Tanzania:
3 nights in Serengeti Safari Camp
3 nights in Kigelia Ruaha
3 nights in Greystoke Mahale

Ah, but then there’s Katavi too… Decisions, decisions!
What’s certain though is that you can’t go wrong choosing Kigelia Ruaha or any of its sister camps. The guys running these camps get it right.

 RUAHA, TANZANIA SPECIAL 

You can read Amanda’s various blogs from this journey if you’d like to know more, and she’s always happy to chat about Ruaha if you’re considering a safari here. Visit our Tanzania specialist site to find out more about a safari in Tanzania.

Other Ruaha blogs by Amanda include: