Words: ANJUMAN DEODHAR
Photographs: T KRISHNA PRABAKAR
GREAT FROM: Kolkata, Guwahati
GREAT FOR: A chance to see some extremely rare species
Like any national highway, NH 27 is bustling with traffic. But, take the turn for Manas National Park, and you’re quickly transported to a different world. The narrow roads are lined with areca palms and tea gardens. Now and then, you’ll pass a school with cheerily painted walls, or a tea stall balancing precariously on a bamboo platform laid over a small stream. It’s a good way to prepare yourself for what’s in store. Situated in the north-west corner of Assam, Manas is very different from what you expect a national park that’s part of Project Tiger to be. There are no crowds jostling for space, no snaking queues of jeeps revving to get ahead of each other. Although the census puts the tiger count here at 60, sightings are rare. Fortunately, so are the hordes of tourists. This is exactly what a visit to a sanctuary should feel like – calm, serene, almost soporific.
Manas also happens to be home to the world’s last viable population of pygmy hogs in the wild, teetering on the brink of extinction. Only a few hundred of these critically endangered creatures survive. And they’re just one of the exotics found here. There are Bengal floricans, Assam roofed turtles, hispid hares (the Assam rabbit), golden langurs, and, undoubtedly the most exquisite of the lot, clouded leopards. You’ll have to be very lucky to spot them, of course, but that’s how it is in most wildlife reserves. Rhino, elephant, water buffalo and capped langur are a-plenty though, as is a host of different bird species.
Spread over 500sqkm, the flora at Manas is also incredibly diverse. Dense deciduous forests open out onto grasslands, and the thick undergrowth is crowded with over 500 species of flowering plants. Of the three ranges that the park is divided into, Panbari and Bhuyapara aren’t frequented much, and most of the traffic is concentrated around the central Bansbari range. Bansbari is also the main entry point into the park, from where you can book a jeep safari.
Regardless of what time of day you go on safari, the forest is charming. In the morning, visibility is low but the air is crisp. In the evening, it is filled with the sweet smell of half-burnt grass – the rampant elephant grass must be set afire regularly to keep it in check. Herds of gaur and buffalo move languidly through the undergrowth, deer dart for cover. Starlings by the hundreds draw fleeting patterns in the sky as they come to roost, and, slowly, the forest draws its toes in under the sheets.
But you don’t have to only drive through the forest. You can go river rafting from Mathanguri forest camp, where the road continues into Bhutan – a large part of Manas National Park lies in this neighbouring country, and Indian citizens can drive in with a government-issued ID. The 20km rafting journey takes you down the Beki, a tributary of the River Manas, to Gyati Gaon. It’s best to do this in the afternoon, as you’re going to want to spend early mornings and late evenings on safari, when the chances of sightings are higher.
For now, Manas doesn’t feature prominently on the wildlife tourism map, but, if the number of resorts mushrooming around the park is anything to go by, it isn’t going to stay that way for long. Get there before the word spreads too far.