We flew into Guwahati over neat squares of rice fields and then rattled and shook our way to Nameri. For five hours. The last hour was on a tortuous road of sand and boulders, and was perhaps a new highway under construction; or it could have been a road untouched since the days of the Raj. By then night had fallen and it was impossible to tell. After reaching our Eco-camp in the National Park, we eventually fell asleep, not to the noises of the jungle but to the hawking and retching of other campers.
We woke in a scenic, tranquil spot far from anywhere (apart from a nearby army camp) and well off the beaten track – or even unbeaten track. Nameri is home to tiger, leopard, elephant, buffalo, sloth bear, wild boar to name but a few – and we were accompanied on our walks by an armed guard to protect us. It’s mandatory. In fact, we encountered nothing more ferocious than a barking deer – briefly glimpsed before it disappeared back into the shadows of the trees. We saw elephant spoor and we heard other, more distant, barking deer. With the aid of binoculars, black dots were transformed into red-vented bulbuls, crested red-whiskered bulbuls, mynahs …
We went for a boat trip along the Jia Bharali River. This was not the last word in luxury cruises – more of a rafting trip than anything resembling G&T decadence. We sat on wooden planks supported by the sides of an inflatable while our ‘crew’ paddled and steered us over shallow rapids into the racing current. Egrets flew off unhurriedly at our approach, always keeping a constant distance ahead. At lunch-time we pulled in to the shingle riverbank and lounged on our seats (those same hard, unforgiving planks) while chicken curry was prepared and cooked for us over an open fire.
The following morning we bade farewell to black-capped langurs that had invaded the camp-site trees after breakfast and we set off once more through the roadworks. In Assam the workforce is plentiful and no doubt cheap, but road mending is a slow process and hard labour: hard labour equally for both men and women – although I don’t know about equal pay (or promotion prospects). Huge smooth stones, collected from the river and amassed at the sides of the road, were being laboriously hammered into small bits. Shovelfuls of earth and gravel were being chucked into holes. The only nod to a labour saving device was a cord attached to a shovel so that two people with a push/pull action could double the exertion – and perhaps double the output.
In the early afternoon, we reached Kaziranga National Park, where we hoped to see the Great Indian One-horned Rhino. We set off in jeeps, again with an armed guard. The cynic in me did wonder if it was just a ruse to extract more revenue from (perceived) affluent western tourists, as we passed other jeeps (over)-laden with noisy, colourful local tourists with no sign of a shotgun or a man in uniform. Kaziranga is a very large reserve – and a beautiful one: a mixture of forest, grassland and swampy areas. We drove along sandy rutted tracks, hoping, hoping – and suddenly, in the distance, in the golden grass we could discern armour-plated grey blobs with a pointy bit at one end … rhinos. Later we saw others at the sides of the road, all but concealed in the high elephant grass; and others at the water’s edge, with mynahs or egrets on their backs and streaked with birdlime. We were amazed at just how many we saw.
Kaziranga is a success story – at least as far as rhinos are concerned. Numbers have steadily increased over the years and now there are over two thousand, according to the latest figures given (2009). The census board in the park also shows rises for other animals, but many years have gone unrecorded. The latest date given for tigers is 2000 – when there were apparently 86. We saw none – but that isn’t to say there weren’t 86 lurking in the long grass, perhaps watching us.
We went for an elephant ride in the cool, clear early morning with the idea of getting closer to the rhinos. An elephant is an elephant, as far as rhino are concerned. Even elephants topped with garishly-attired tourists wielding cameras are no cause for alarm. A line of elephants steadily fanned out, a couple of babies gambolling behind their mothers and all but getting lost in the tall grass. And we did get close to the rhinos. Close enough to see the rivets on their armour-plating; close enough to see every lump, bump, fold and wrinkle; close enough to see their little piggy eyes. And when they decided that they wanted a little space, they moved off with a surprisingly sprightly step. Beautiful creatures.
Tyres can be bald, bits of chassis can be hanging off, engines can belch out foul-smelling fumes … in India a horn seems to be all that’s necessary for a vehicle’s roadworthiness. It serves to warn slower vehicles of your intention to pass; it advises people, cows, goats and dogs to get out of the way; it announces your arrival in town; and it’s the required response to the instruction painted on the back of every truck:
We drove past miles of tea plantations inter-planted with acacia trees to give soft shade for the delicate leaves; the trees in turn had pepper vines growing up them. Some rows looked to be so tightly serried as to leave no room for any pickers; other rows stuttered off into irregular ones and twos. Bushes were uniformly hip height as though a spirit level had been used. We passed acid yellow fields of mustard. The rice harvest was in full swing and cows had been let loose to graze in the fields of stubble. Men walked home bearing sheaves on shoulder poles; they wheeled bicycles all but submerged under mounds of sheaves; they pulled and pushed barrows stacked high. No-one had a horse and cart.
We were headed for Jorhat, to cross the wide grey Brahmaputra River to Majuli Island. We stopped at what appeared to be a random spot on the river bank, with little to indicate that this was where we were to board a boat. There were a few shacks selling snacks, a few men standing about talking, idling, watching – as men do in India; there was the usual litter; a couple of boats were moored to the bank. No activity, but yes, this was the right place.
A makeshift gangway was formed from two planks roughly positioned so our vehicles could drive down the steep bank and onto the boat. We ourselves teetered across on another, single plank. More planks allowed the vehicles to drive off on to another featureless mud-bank, on to the largest river island in the world.
We stayed at Mé: Po Okum, in the village of Chitadar. This was home to the cleanest rat on the island, judging by the number of small bars of soap it made off with in the night during the short time we were there. We were in stilted bamboo semi-detached cottages with verandahs; attached bathrooms catered for the Westerner’s basic needs.
It’s impossible to tip-toe on a bamboo floor! It moves up and down, every creak amplified in the dark and guaranteed to disturb the neighbours. The electricity supply was temperamental. After one particularly long power cut – which hadn’t affected us, but had our ‘other half’ powerless for hours – two ‘electricians’ arrived with a cloth carrier bag of tools. They investigated the fragile joints of wires strung loosely along the bamboo struts; they poked around in live sockets with a screw driver – and then we were powerless too …
Somehow, eventually, power was restored – and I’m not convinced it had anything to do with the workmen’s efforts.
The clacking of a loom encouraged us outside to explore. We wandered through the village and met the Mising people – and their pigs, cows, chickens, dogs and especially their children, who were delighted to see us and to pose for our cameras – and then to crowd round to see themselves on the monitor. It’s a very relaxed pace of life: women were spinning, weaving, pounding grain. Children gathered firewood. Every house had a loom and a bicycle underneath – and a dug-out canoe for use in the monsoon. The village was encircled by fields of rice and vegetables.
We jolted and bumped our way on roads of compressed silt and stones – and met the inevitable roadworks. Workmen were filling holes and building up the sides of the road with a truck load of silt. Hand-shovelled, of course. Hold-ups are a fact of life. No-one hurried.
Majuli is rich in culture and tradition, and famous for its arts and crafts. We couldn’t get to the pottery centre – the road was impassable for quite a distance – but we visited the mask makers. These masks usually represent gods and goddesses and are used in music and dance performances. They are huge and made of wood, bamboo or pottery; some have articulated eyelids and jaws; some are full body masks, others just the heads. All are grotesque.
We visited some of the satras or Vaishnavite monasteries, where the priests dedicate themselves to serving Vishnu in order to seek total surrender to god, while expressing his doctrines through ritual music and dance performances. We saw a few young acolytes chanting with their teacher and met one or two of them; they just seemed like lost little boys. At Shri Shri Uttar Kamalabari Satra we were treated to a display of dancing, which involved priests clad in white robes banging drums, clashing cymbals, and lots of energetic whirling. At least it looked like they were enjoying themselves.
After that we were on our way to Nagaland. En route we stopped at the town of Jorhat for ‘essential supplies’ … Nagaland is a dry state, which means you cannot buy alcohol there. But the state border officials never check tourist vehicles … and hotel management usually turns a blind eye and allows their guests to drink it – if not in the restaurant, then in their rooms. I don’t know how the inevitable empties get explained away.