Kaziranga National Park, Assam: Located 216km northeast of Guwahati, the Kaziranga National Park is home to 1800-odd rhinos (just 200 in 1904), representing more than two-thirds of the world’s total. Jump aboard a jeep or an obliging elephant and venture into the expansive grasslands of the park, and you’ll be rewarded with a wildlife experience like no other. An encounter with the famed one-horned rhinos that inhabit the park is almost certain, so keep your camera trained towards the boggy grasslands. You are likely to spot elephants, swamp deer, a variety of deer, and if you’re very lucky, you may just catch sight of a tiger. The rides at dawn are particularly atmospheric, and you can literally sense the forest wake up to a new day.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Rajasthan: This famous bird sanctuary and national park in Bharatpur, has long been recognised as one of the world’s most important bird breeding and feeding grounds. In a good monsoon season over one-third of the park can be submerged, hosting over 360 species within its 29 sq km. The marshland patchwork is a wintering area for aquatic birds, including visitors from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China and Siberia.
Sundarbans National Park, West Bengal: The largest mangrove forest in the world is a mist-shrouded, river-riddled swamp region of shifting tides, man-eating tigers and off-the-beaten-track adventure. It’s surrounded on three sides by two of the most densely populated countries on earth – India and Bangladesh – yet it remains remote, inhospitable and largely uninhabited by people. This is truly wild terrain, and chug-chugging along its river channels into its swampy heart of darkness is as thrilling as it is serene.
Western Ghats: Welcome to the lush Western Ghats, some of the most welcome heat relief in India. Rising like an impassable bulwark of evergreen and deciduous tangle from north of Mumbai to the tip of Tamil Nadu, the Ghats (with an average elevation of 915m) contain 27% of India’s flowering plants and an incredible array of endemic wildlife. In Tamil Nadu they rise to 2000m and more in the Palni Hills around Kodaikanal and the Nilgiris around Ooty. British influence lingers a little stronger up in these hills, where the colonists covered the slopes in neatly trimmed tea bushes and created their ‘hill stations’ to escape the heat of the plains. It’s not just the air and (relative) lack of pollution that’s refreshing – there’s a certain acceptance of quirkiness and eccentricity in the hills that is rarer in the lowlands. Think organic farms, handlebar-moustached trekking guides and tiger-stripe earmuffs for sale in the bazaars.
Manas National Park, Assam: This national park in eastern Assam dons many feathers – it is a wildlife sanctuary, a biodiversity hotspot, a Project Tiger and Project Elephant reserve and, of course, a Natural World Heritage Site. Just about four hours by road, from Guwahati, Manas and its wildlife population bore the brunt of the Bodoland agitation of the 1980s. Animals – tigers, tuskers, leopards and even rhinos – were poached indiscriminately and trees felled. This triggered the Unesco to place Manas on its ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list in 1992. Almost two decades later, thanks to the efforts of poachers-turned-conservationists, Manas was taken off the ‘danger’ list. The allure of this less frequented wildlife destination is not confined to just spotting animals and birds. At night, the forest glows in the light from thousands of fireflies. And nothing is as surreal as spending a night by the river that runs through the park, marking the border between India and Bhutan.
Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks, Uttarakhand: If nature had to pick its favourite child, it would be the Valley of Flowers, best visited (be warned) during the monsoon season when roads and hiking paths in Garhwal are at their treacherous best. Part of the vast Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, the breathtaking sight of a profusion of multi-hued wild flowers carpeting the valley is worth every slip, slide and ache. You could either trek or opt for a chopper ride from Govind Ghat to Ghangria and then begin the incredibly invigorating hike into the beauty of this Valley, discovered accidentally by a British mountaineer.