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.

Serious ‘chillaxing’

Serious ‘chillaxing’

Serious ‘chillaxing’

 

With Mother’s Day this Sunday, March 31, a straw poll of the mums in the Tribes office revealed (not surprisingly!) that the chance to relax would be a most welcome gift. This then set us off onto a conversation about some particularly relaxing holidays or holiday experiences, with spa treatments topping the list  – we’re talking serious ‘chillaxing’!

‘In India they quite rightly take relaxation very seriously.’

Images © Ananda in the Himalayas

In India they quite rightly take relaxation very seriously, and just reading about the Ananda Wellbeing Holidays had us feeling tensions diminish.  Ananda in the Himalayas is a splendid palace set in 100 acres of grounds high above the Ganges River Valley. It’s a true sanctuary where you feel miles – and years – away from the stresses of 21st century life. There’s a range of programmes to choose from, including Yogic detox, stress management, Ayurvedic rejuvenation and even an active programme for those who want to combine spa therapies with circuit training, white water rafting etc.  Expert therapists, doctors and chefs collaborate to provide an immersive experience – all in a beautiful setting.

Another wonderfully relaxing location in India is SwaSwara, which overlooks Om Beach. This sanctuary is focused on refreshing you mind, body and soul, with three programmes that range from five to 21 nights in length.

A river cruise is, by its very nature, usually pretty relaxing, but an Irrawaddy River cruise in Burma on board the elegant Sanctuary Ananda is another thing entirely in the relaxation stakes. Seeing the sun rise over the temples of Bagan is a glorious way to start a day, and, while the trip has a fabulous range of activities to make the most of your being in this fascinating part of the world – including ox cart and rickshaw rides, pagoda and temple visits and demonstrations by local artisans – life on board the Sanctuary Ananda is designed to make everyday cares float away. Styled rather like a 1930s steamer, this luxurious craft has its own spa offering a range of theraputic and beauty treatments,  plus a plunge pool and a sundeck, which is a perfect spot for yoga.

‘Life on board the Sanctuary Ananda is designed to make everyday cares float away.’

Image ©Sanctuary Ananda

‘Spa treatments with organic, locally-grown Andean plants and herbs..’

Images © Sol y Luna

A number of the hotels in Peru’s Sacred Valley have spas, making them the perfect place to relax after exploring the stunning landscape and remarkable Inca archaeological sites. The charming Sol y Luna, for example, sits in a wonderfully relaxing location in the Sacred Valley, set in 25 acres of flower and bird-filled gardens. The Yacu Wasi spa of this Relais & Chateaux property offers daily yoga sessions as well as spa treatments with organic, locally-grown Andean plants and herbs. Tribes’ travel experts would be only too pleased to help you plan an itinerary that includes not only Sol y Luna but also the Belmond Andean Explorer – this luxury sleeper train has its own spa car!

Nyara Springs in Costa Rica (pictured above and in the image at the top of this page) is in a fabulous setting in the Arenal Volcano National Park. The mere fact that each room has its own private plunge pool fed by natural mineral hot springs is sufficient to initiate the relaxation process. Add a beautiful spa perched above the rainforest, with open-air treatment pavilions and a stunning yoga pavilion, and you’re likely to find it very hard to leave!

Having a spa treatment while on safari is a great treat, and there are some excellent spas to be found amongst the safari lodges of South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, including The Elephant Camp (Zimbabwe) , Saruni Samburu (Kenya), Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve (South Africa), and Lemala Kuria Hills in Tanzania. This overlooks the plains of the Northern Serengeti. The Melengali Spa at Lemala Kuria Hills is a very relaxing place for a muscle-soothing massage – and the views from the bathrooms of the tented suites are fabulous too!

Or how about a classic Indian Ocean getaway? The White Sands Villa and Spa boutique hotel on the east coast of Zanzibar offers barefoot luxury and a beautifully-located spa in lush, colourful gardens a stone’s throw from the beach

Want to get even further away in search of peace and quiet? There’s no spa or massage service at Fanjove Private Island (pictured above) but, with just six guest bandas and requiring a flight in a small plane then a boat trip to get to it, this 1km x 300m piece of castaway seclusion in the Indian Ocean is hugely relaxing.

Or, if you want to get away from – pretty much – it all but still have a spa to hand, may we suggest Easter Island? A five hour flight from the Chilean mainland, Rapa Nui is an intriguing place to visit, and the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa is a fantastic place to stay on the island. Spa Manavi overlooks the Pacific Ocean – fabulous!

‘Chillaxing’ at Lemala Kuria Hills in Tanzania…

A week in Bhutan

A week in Bhutan

A memorable week in Bhutan

Paul Cook

Wendy and Anne Britt travelled with us to Bhutan in October, and told us “We fell in love with Bhutan, the nature, the people, the ethos, everything.” Bhutan is a unique place unlike anywhere else on the planet. Where else in the world is a country’s prosperity measured by its Gross National Happiness?

“We fell in love with Bhutan, the nature, the people, the ethos, everything.”

WENDY SCOTT

October is the ideal time to visit Bhutan. The monsoon rains have ended and the mountains are clear. Paro is the only international airport in Bhutan and the gateway to the country, with flight from Delhi, Nepal and Thailand. The trip Wendy and Anne Brit visited the highlights of Western Bhutan, starting with the capital, Thimpu, not far from Paro and then continuing over the mountain to Punakaha where they rafted along the Po Chhu and Mo Chhu river and then returned to Paro for what is the highlight of many visits to Bhutan, the hike to Tigers Nest. This ancient Buddhist monastery is perched on the side of a cliff only reached by a five hour hike. They gave us some great feedback from their trip and sent us some amazing photos.

“We loved the mountains, the space, the high tree line, the birds, the flowers, the tranquility, the attitude, the temples and monasteries, the people, feeling safe, never being quite sure what tomorrow would bring. The trek up to the Tiger’s Nest was tough, but with spectacular rewards. The white water rafting was a first, and loved it. Sharing temple moments with our guide and driver was very special, as was having the nuns in the nunnery way up in the mountains chant just for us with wishes for a long life. The visit to the farm with dancing, archery, cooking and lunch was a tiny insight into ordinary life in Bhutan. (We realise the dancing etc was not part of ordinary life, but everyone was so friendly and it was fun) Sitting in the early morning at Dhumra Farm Resort overlooking the river and the Dzong shrouded in mist way below us, with a scarlet minivet preening itself right in front of us – a memorable moment.”

WENDY SCOTT

“Given the way the system works in Bhutan, we know that money was being ploughed back into the system in many ways. It was good to realise that monasteries and nunneries, as well as children’s education, would all benefit in some way from our trip.”

WENDY SCOTT

Not just a load of hot air

Not just a load of hot air

Not just a load of hot air

ALEX NEAVES

When you think about a holiday to India, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? The Taj Mahal? The hustle of the Delhi markets? Tigers? Well, we were no different. So when the opportunity to do a hot air balloon ride over the Indian countryside came up, we thought this would be an alternative excursion to add to our trip , little did we know it would turn out to be one of the most incredible and outstanding experiences.

“why are we up so early on our holiday.”

ALEX NEAVES

It was an early morning as we were picked up from our haveli in Jaipur at 04:15am. After the initial thoughts of “why are we up so early on our holiday” we soon realised that we were in for a very unique experience. We had arrived on the outskirts of the city and the sun was just rising. Our transport for the day was already fully inflated and ready to go. There was just enough time for a swift safety brief and a cup of tea (the essentials!) and we were ready to board our flight.

I had never done a hot air balloon ride before and am not that comfortable with heights, however our pilot for the day made everyone feel extremely relaxed and even made time for jokes on lift off. It was a this point that I hoped not everyone in the basket had estimated their weight on the waver form as I had done, and that they all had consumed a moderate breakfast that morning! In a matter of seconds we were off and away!

I guess the first thing I noticed, and what separates balloon flight from most other modes of transport, was the lack of engine noise. There was silence. We could only hear the sound of cattle below and the chatter of local villagers and they made their way to work or school that day. So quiet in fact that we often startled farmers who were busy working on their fields only to look up and see 16 western tourists in a hot air balloon floating about their heads! For some reason, both parties found this highly amusing.

The other surprise (amongst many) was the height in which we travelled at. I had preconceptions of being high above the clouds and needing binoculars to pick out sites and landmarks. This was not the case at all! As our pilot explained, the balloons are controlled very easily and we spent most of the trip at approximately 10 meters from the ground. This allowed us to brush across the tops of tall trees and even pass sweets to the village children below, an experience I will never forget.

“This amazing experience is always first on the tip of my tongue when describing our time in India.”

ALEX NEAVES

Although I mentioned the balloons are easily controlled, they do mostly rely on wind direction which is why the landing site can often be unplanned and improvised. Today would be no different. As we were all just getting used to our new surroundings the pilot announced that we would be landing in an open field nearby. The touchdown was smooth and was welcomed with a huge applause from 16 highly satisfied passengers.

It was at this point we realised we would not be alone for long, after all it’s not every day that a 30 foot, multi-coloured hot air balloon lands in your back garden and we were soon the talk of the……village. Lots of locals came out to greet us and we were humbled at how welcoming and friendly they all were. We had just enough time to take some photos and have a brief conversation with our new friends before we were picked up by our chasing transfer vehicle.

I had thought this balloon trip would be a story I would tell friends after I had explained the Taj Mahal visit, the tiger sightings and the bike ride through Old Delhi, instead this amazing experience is always first on the tip of my tongue when describing our time in India.

With short grass

With short grass

With short grass

18

MAY, 2017

India
Pench National Park
trees

I was in Pench National Park in central India a few weeks ago, looking for tigers and wild dogs. It was hot, up in the 40s, and the forests were shedding their leaves. It stuck me how strange it is that our trees at home shed their leaves in the winter to avoid damage from frost, snow and high winds; but in this punishing heat of India the trees shed their leaves to stop themselves from dehydrating. There must be a changeover point somewhere on earth where the trees can’t decide whether to shed in winter or summer.

It’s quite a varied forest in Pench with no single tree species predominant. Sure, there were teak trees but I wouldn’t really call it a teak forest for all the other varieties like Indian blackberry trees, crocodile-bark trees and even the occasional white barked ghost tree. My guide was extremely knowledgeable so I thought I’d find out what you call this type of forest. I love the Indians’ tone of phrase; not because it is wrong but because it is so different to ours.

“Well…” he said, pondering for a moment. Then he came up with his answer. “Miscellaneous” he proudly announced. Then he qualified his answer with absolute authority. ”Yes, it is most definitely main category dry deciduous; sub category miscellaneous.” Then, almost as an afterthought, but to give me the full and proper definition, he added “with short grass.”

Wilddog-Pench

Wild Dog – Pench National Park

Photograph by Guy Marks

“So there we have it, the forest in Pench is dry deciduous, sub-category miscellaneous…with short grass.”

If you’d like to follow in Guy’s footsteps and see this special forest for yourself, we recommend a stay at Jamtara, a gorgeous tented camp set in a forest glade, just 2 minutes’ drive from the entrance to Pench National Park. The en-suite guest tents are spacious and decorated with wildlife paintings and colourful textiles. Between trips into the park you can unwind in the open-sided lounge, swim in the rim-flow pool and enjoy delicious food. To make your stay extra special you can opt to spend a night at a four-poster star bed set on stilts, where you can take in the sights and sounds of nature as afternoon melts into evening and then night. Magical.

Jackal-and-pups
Langur-in-banyan
Langur-and-baby
Mottled-wood-owl
Jamtara sky bed

Jamtara Wilderness Lodge

Jamtara consists of 12 luxury tents in a secluded glade near Pench National Park. The decor of the lodge harks back to the era of colonial safaris, with polished hardwood floors and hand-crafted wooden furniture. The tents are spacious, light and airy, with an en-suite bathroom. All have private verandas facing the riverbed where you’ll see a variety of wildlife.

This is the perfect place to unwind between safaris. The lodge has an outdoor pool and sundeck, too. There’s a large central, open-sided room with dining and sitting areas, though many meals are served outside. Sundowners are usually enjoyed around the firepit by the large banyan tree.

Jamtara-tent
Jamtara-pool
Jamtara-breakfast