For Thanksgiving, we took a short trip up to the relatively remote Indian state
of Assam. This region doesn't
look like it should be part of India, but it is indeed continguous, and there
are a number of other states out there (Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, etc).
People don't usually go out to the small states, but Assam does get some fame
due to its tea plantations. It also has some of India's more famous animals,
including the one-horned rhino, plus elephants and tigers -- all in Kaziranga National
So, we headed up to Assam for a four-day weekend, with the intent
of finding some animals.
India is a big country! We flew from Mumbai to Guwahati, which is in the far eastern state of Assam. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Tibet, and Myanmar are all closer than Assam is.
Our flight took us to Guwahati, which is the capital of Assam. It's about three hours from Mumbai. We met our driver, who took us onward to Kaziringa.
We were told that we'd be stopping at a nature reserve to do some birding halfway through the drive. Well, here we are! It was not quite a nature reserve -- more like two trees in school yard by the side of the main highway. But there were some gigantic birds in those trees!
We saw a lot of birds on this trip.
Piper will know what this one is, I hope.
Piper: "I'm super excited to find some elephants! If I see an elephant from the road, I'm going to scream, everyone!"
Me: "Piper, calm down. I'm sure you'll see some on the road, but if they're on the road, they'll just be taking tourists for rides, ok?"
10 minutes later...
Piper: "Whoa, there's an elephant! And it's carrying a whole lot of trees."
So indeed, the elephants here are busy working. There are some that take tourists around (see below), but many more that carry heavy objects.
Just riding down the road. I think they were doing their chores.
Now we're at our lodge (Wild Grass, in Kaziranga). In fact, it's the next morning, and we've all just woken up, and are having tea in prepation for our early departure to go...
... elephant-looking! We head down the road. That's a small tea patch on the left.
It's early in the morning. Well, not so early... about 6 AM. Interestingly, India has just one time zone, so Assam keeps the same time as Mumbai, despite being about 2000 km to the east.
Through the mist, the elephants are getting prepped...
... and they arrive...
And we are walking slowly with a lot of elephants.
Astro holds on tightly.
Now we enter the tall grass. So awesome!
Whoa! And here we are -- Indian one-horned rhino!!
Someone's been digging in the mud.
And another rhino is in the grass. The horn looks so vestigial, compared to the African ones! I mean, clearly it is used for digging, but I wonder if it does not serve a functional defense purpose?
This rhino was hiding. But we found it.
Sun coming up!
The grass is so cool! I mean, we're about 13 feet off the ground, and we *still* haven't cleared the grass. It is super tall. It would be pointless (or at least unwise) to walk through the grass without being on a large animal. I suppose a giraffe would be better than an elephant, at least if they were rideable and native to Assam.
Indian one-horned rhino, in the morning with baby and flowers!
Elephant with a lot of deer!
Across the park, the sun is starting to come up.
So many deer!
OK, I know there are a lot of elephant photos here. But it was a really neat experience, so I couldn't delete them all.
More elephant with deer.
Elephants get a lot of attention for their trunks and tusks. But I found their toenails really nice too. I suppose they must be useful, in grabbing onto rocks in the muck?
These elephants are completely different than the ones which we spent many weeks watching in South Africa.
What might be hiding in that tall grass? Oh, maybe this, which was taken from essentially right here...
We actually went out for a second elephant safari the next day. This one started later, and was going the opposite direction... thus why we're now walking toward the sun, rather than away from it.
Elephants are really beautiful.
A few of the guides have rifles with them. This is definitely a tiger zone. And historically, northern India was really very dangerous... a century ago, an individual tiger could kill hundreds of people, and it was a major safety hazard. There are some really interesting stories of this in the books by Jim Corbett, a westerner who was hired to shoot tigers. He ended up a conservationalist, and one of India's Jim Corbett National Park (famous for tigers) is named after him.
Two baby elephants!
The skin on these things is really fantastic... much bumpier and more plate-like than the rhinos of South Africa., which do have larger horns.
One thing is universal about rhinos though: they always have evidence of rhino-birds on their backs.
So, the deal is that these were definitely tourist 'ride an elephant' safari trips. But having done that elsewhere and being kind of turned off by it, I thought these were done pretty well. The elephants go on two 45-minute trips daily. Then the have the rest of the day off, essentially 'in the wild,' or at least in a large outdoor natural field next to mountains and rivers. They're not chained up, and we weren't give the opportunity to 'wash' them or feed them bananas.
I love how tall the grass is.
I saw this animal standing here and it reminded me of a National Geographic pic of a black rhino in a Vietnamese forest, that the photographer had staked out for a month to get. After searching a long time, I can't find that article or the image, so it was probably a photo of squirrel in Borneo I was thinking about and not a rhino in Vietnam. Still, I liked the forest...
Baby elephant meets Astro!
Elephants coming around to meet the riders.
While plenty of people use elephants to carry heavy loads, for practical transport, a bike is faster.
There are goats here!! This one ate Finn's Minecraft jacket when I left it out (oops).
Now we're out for safari! The earlier elephant safari was organized through the park itself. Now we just have our guide and his jeep, and we'll drive through the park with him. The park is known for tigers, elephants, and rhinos, so we're already 2/3 of the way there...
Inside the park, these guys were riding elephants around. I don't know what for, but we kept seeing them.
Astro is telling a joke!
Water buffalo! Oh, and a bunch of rhino.
Heidi scans for tigers.
Our guide says that this is the best place to see tigers. "They cross the road when the sun goes down. We wait." So we did, but no luck.
They are really here, because these are... tiger footprints!
And an elephant.
And these guys again.
It's a crazy huge toucan! There were a ton of birds at Kaziranga, and a lot of them were huge.
Water buffalo! With gigantic horns.
JUNGLE FOWL!!! I am really excited! Finally I have seen one.
So does Astro.
More charismatic megafauna!
We did find another rhino, though.
Finally, leaving the park at the designated time. We spent a total of probably 10 hours in the park, on three different drives with our guide. No tigers, and no pangolins.
The birds are amazing and seem to be very dense and diverse. It's very different terrain from South Africa.... at times the animals are more dense, and at times much less.
... but no tigers. Only a wild boar.
Ghost trucks of Assam! After 18 months in India, this was one of the first times ever we've been able to see the stars. I walked out to the highway, set up my camera for some 30-second exposures. I held a flash in my hand, and fired it manually each time an awesome Indian truck went past. Cool! That's Orion just right-of-center, partially inside the truck.
There's an orchid farm and museum nearby, so we go visit. It's run by the Assam government.
Astro gets some exercise in pounding. It's good -- she was actually graded on 'pounding' a lot on her preschool report cards, so it's good to see her put her skills to practical use.
Brontosaurus! Plus a very, very, very long train. All associated with the orchid garden.
In the afternoon, we had a boat 'cruise' scheduled through an isolated part of the park. The village in the area we drove through to get to our boat was really incredible. The houses are built on stilts (to avoid the floods), all out of wood and bamboo and reeds. People farm and eat. It was very rural but a small, dense village. She is drying rice (?), and had to pull it off of the road for us to pass.
Our schedule has it for late-afternoon, but our guide says it's better if we go now, so we show up around noon. Sure enough, there's no one there to pilot our boat! Our driver calls around, and about 45 minutes later, the captain shows up on his bike.
A couple more crew have shown up, but we're still waiting.
And here's our boat! It's made mostly of re-purposed lumber, and looks like it's run maybe once a month.
Then again, you could say the same about this boat here, but it works reliably every day for these guys.
Anyhow, we're cruising down the river now, on our 100-passenger party boat. Do we expect to see any wildlife on our safari cruise? The driver tells us: "No, no. I've never seen any animals here. Maybe in the summer. But usually never."
Bicycles on a boat!
Oh, this is cool. This is a fish trap! It's in the middle of the river, and the fish swim downstream. If they get stuck in the gigantic V-shaped formation between the reeds, they get pushed downstream into the net. Tricky!
These guys are putting up more sticks.
Our boat cruise is going up and down the Brahmaputra river. It's a big river (the biggest in Assam), and there's definitely a lot of water. I think it's coming from glacier melt -- we're not far from Tibet & Bhutan, and we can occasionally catch glimpses of their peaks.
Not sure what happened here exactly...
Not sure what happened here either. But I'm guessing if we come back in the wet season, that boat will start to float. I hope the cows don't have to wait that long. Seems like there should be a Herzog movie here.
The thing in front is a fish weir, and there are a lot of those set up in the river.
This guy's balance must be really good.
These are fishermen setting their nets. Note their bicycles in the background (if you click on the big version).
I do love this pic. I converted it to black and white, but the natural colors are almost a monotone as well.
And back at our lodge! That's our excellent guide, who loves Astro...
... and Finn.
"Here, hold these flowers. Now, stand here and we will take pictures of ourselves with you!"
We saw this first in Sri Lanka, but it happens all over India too. Only once in South Africa -- and that was with Japanese tourists, who forced me to take $10 for the deal.
Astro is very careful with her tea.
And now we're leaving! But first, we have a lot of elephants to pass.
And, um, King Kong.
Of course we stopped. There's a jungle-themed restaurant just below the giant gorilla.
But oddly, the present operators of the restaurant and hotel clearly didn't build it themselves, and their webpage DOESN'T EVEN MENTION THAT THEY HAVE A GIANT KING KONG! The photos show the tastefully decorated rooms, flowers, and advertises their "standard quality fare", but they've omitted the chopper, fake rock walls, and cave-themed dining room with stalagtites and giant cobras.
What are they even trying to say? "HORNDO. SLOW DRIVE -- LONG LIFE. WAIT 4 SIDE. STOP. OK. GOOD LUCK"
In India, there are signs for everything. Trucks are heavily decorated with them. No, I don't really know what "EGGS WITH CARE" means (except this is not an egg truck). The "HELLOW PLEASE SOUND HORN PLEASE" is a variant on the more common "HORN OK PLEASE."
Back in Guwahati, Piper finds a few puppies to adopt. We buy them (and their mom) some rotis.