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EXPLORING INDIA : From Kaziranga to the Himalayas to the desert of Jaisalmer to the backwaters of Allepey to the sun baked coral beaches of Lakshadweep....A first hand account of exploring this beautiful country.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kaziranga - the original land of one horned rhinos


My last visit to Kaziranga, the original abode of one horned Indian rhinos, was well before I started wildlife photography. This is where I shoot my first wildlife photo. It was in 2003 when I was posted at Sivasagar, some 150km further east of Kaziranga. I was just a novice in photography then, but is heavily into wildlife photography now. I had a film SLR then, and now have a 5D III and 60D. Therefore this trip to one of the finest jungle of India was special.

The flash airfare sale of Feb came as an opportunity for an unplanned visit my hometown Guwahati after my daughter’s exams are over in March at unbelievably low fares. Normally I visit my hometown either in May-June or October when Kaziranga remains closed. Thus I have been missing opportunity to visit Kaziranga since I got transferred to Delhi. But this visit happening in March, and also the fact that the park would remain open, I squeezed in a one day visit to Kaziranga out of a hectic schedule. The 240 km road from Guwahati to Kaziranga via NH37 is in excellent condition this year as the tar is newly laid. As we had started early in the morning, it took us 4 hrs to reach our resort at Bagori. The Nature Hunt Eco Camp, our abode, is a small facility with 3 huts and 1 dormitory. All huts are made of bamboo and other natural materials to give you an ethnic feel. The campus had decent green cover and a small captive tea plantation. The location is about 4km from the Kohora junction on NH37. As I had a vehicle at my disposal, I did not opt for the lunch (grossly overpriced) at the resort.

Post a sumptuous traditional lunch at the Maihong Restaurant close to the Kohora gate, we proceeded to the safari booking office. The office is located about 1km from the Kohora junction on NH37. You can book jeep and elephant safari for the central range at this office. The Central range, also known as the Kohora range, is the most popular with tourist because most of the hotels / resorts are located within a radius of 4 -5km from here. There are two other ranges viz. Bagori and Agratoli. If you are travelling from Guwahati, then Bagori is about 10km short of Kohora while Agratoli is about 20km further east towards Dibrugarh. Each of these three ranges has slightly different landscape and hence its unique appeal. Central range gives an overall feel of Kaziranga. For general information, the park remains opens from November to around second week of April. It can close anytime after second week of April because of rain. Assam generally receives excessive rainfall.

Jeep safaris can be booked on the spot and jeeps are available at the booking office. I never saw any mad rush for booking and one can do it on his own without any hassles. Rates for gypsy are fixed by the union. This eliminates bargaining or possibility of getting cheated. If you do not have a vehicle at your disposal then you can opt for safaris through the resort. They tend to charge 200-300 extra which is quite nominal. It is advisable to get gypsy from your hotel for Agratoli ( Eastern range). I did not find any gypsy waiting there. The only resort at Agratoli has a gypsy, but they may be already booked.

We had our first safari in the afternoon at the Central range. Safari is generally along an elevated road with swamp, wetland or tall elephant grass on either side of the road. Game viewing is through open patches along this trail. Kaziranga is about rhinos and you will get to see rhinos against fantastic backdrops which are photographers delight. Other common species are elephants, water buffalos, swamp deer and hog deer. The jungle is generally very colourful. By end March, the dry elephant grass are set on controlled fire to let new grass grow after rains. Because of this clearing of grasses, you tend to get a better view. Thus March end – April beginning is the best time to visit the park.
Rainfall in Assam has been scanty this year. Compare this to the unseasonal rains in Delhi all though Feb and March. Climate is changing for sure. The afternoon drive at central range was quite dusty. Fortunately it had rained that evening, leaving us with a clear sky next morning. Drive into the park during peak animal activity hours of early morning and late evening is not allowed. It gets dawns (in March) by 5am. But park entry is allowed after 7 am which is well past prime wildlife hours. However elephant safari at Kohora range is allowed between 5 to 7 am. As this safari is conducted along the periphery of the forest, and also the fact that I had done this once earlier, I decided to skip this popular touristy activity in favour of another jeep safari. I had the choice of going to either Bagori or Agaratoli. After discussing with the resort staff, and also because of the invitation of my friend Bhaskar Baruah, who runs the only resort at Agratoli, I decided to visit the Agratoli range. This range is known to be good for birding. Bhaskar told me that Kohora range is for tourists, but Agratoli range is for photographers. The range is about 20km from Kohora of which around 16km is along NH37 and then a bumpy 4kms ride through a tribal village. On this stretch you get a glimpse of the Missing tribe style of living in plat-formed houses, locally called chang-ghar. During rainy reason, these areas often get inundated.

As we had reached Agratoli forest office, we found few foreigners and a lone Indian tourist (apparently a birder / photographer), in all max 6 gypsy. This indeed turned out to be one for connoisseurs. We had good number of bird sighting alongwith one very close range rhino sighting. This range is the only range where tourist can reach the bank of mighty Brahmaputra, and actually go down the bank to touch the river. The landscape is altogether different from central. The total distance of safari route at Agratoli is about 33km as against 25 odd KM of central and further smaller Bagori range. However a fair part of the route passes through open stretches without any tree cover and hence you require good sun protection.

We had two very productive safaris. Bagori range had to be left out in this visit due to paucity of time. On our return we came to know about the sad incident two rhino poaching that had occurred during past 24 hrs. Poaching rhinos for horns has taken an ugly turn with alarming rise in incidences this year. Lack of political will, changing demographics, rampant encroachment by illegal Bangladeshis which gets patronized by ruling political party for vote bank politics, are some of the reasons for increase in poaching incidences. Now the Govt is planning de-horning of rhinos which are objected to by all concerned. Hope the majestic beast who had survived since prehistoric times will survive this human onslaught.

Safari cost:

The applicable safari rates for as on March 2014 :
Jeep / Gyspy charges (as published by the local owners union):
Central range – Rs.1500/-
Western range – Rs.1600/- (Rs.1300/- if you hire vehicle at Bagori office)
Eastern range – Rs.2000/-

Entry fee :
Per person : Rs.50/-
Per vehicle : Rs.300/-
Guard fee : Rs.100/- per vehicle
Camera fee : Rs.50/- per camera

The cost for 4 adults is about Rs.2200/- per safari. Mid sized taxis like Dzire or Indigo are available from Guwahati at about 1500 per day + Rs.6 per km. So plan your visit to one of the finest jungle of India.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bleak feature for Dhikala grassland at Corbett


Was back to Corbett in March for yet another visit to one of my favorite destinations. The 3N/4D visit this time was split between Bijrani FRH and Dhikala FRH. This was my first night stay at Bijrani range. Dhikala has always been the favorite. The landscape of Bijrani range is altogether different from the Dhikala range. So are the animal dynamics. After a couple of dry years, tiger sighting reports at Bijrani is encouraging. My first trip to Bijrani was not that fruitful as we had missed the majestic animal. Or rather it decided that we need to come again in search of him.  
as mist rises from the Ramganga riverbed, the Dhikla landscpe transforms into a canvas
Bijrani FRH is somewhat similar to the Gairal FRH. However Garial is better located by a river. Bijrani has 4 double bedded rooms and 2 four bedded rooms. The canteen has been taken over by KMVN. There is no running electricty. Solar powerer electricity is provided between 6 pm to 9 pm. If for some reason you want to stay awake beyond that then you have to manage with a solar lantern provided in your room. There is not even a electric plug in rooms for you to charge your camera batteries. Me and my friend decided to sit on the open varandah and observe what happens after lights goes off. Under the moonlight we could see couple of deer and probably a fox roaming around inside the solar powered FENCED campus.

Excitements in safaris at Bijrani were low. The highlight was the rare sighting of a Yellow Throated Morten. We left Bijrani after two safaris and headed for Dhikala. As we left the Dhanagiri gate, we could feel the familiar smell of forest. In Dhikla range, there always is the possibility of facing a rampaging elephant at next corner. We missed the tiger in one of the safaris by a whisker. It came out of the bushes, but went back immediately seeing the waiting vehicles.  So no tigers this time, despite 3 days and 6 safaris. Yet we enjoyed every bit of out four safaris. I do not go to Corbett to see tigers. If you get to see one, then consider it as bonus. Unlike Ranthambhore, the tigers in Corbett are very shy.  

the view from platform at Dhikla FRH

What was of great surprise to me was flooding of the famed grassland at Dhikala. A substantial part of the grassland was submerged under the water released from the Ramganga reservoir. In fact water was flowing upto the walls of Dhikla campus. One can see fishes standing at the wooden platform at the campus. The floor of the grassland is wet and hence grasses had not dried completely. This is preventing forest department from setting them on fire to let new grass grow. Grasses have grown quite tall and are not allowing good game view. With next monsoon due in couple of months, the situation is likely to detoriate. Dhikala may end up losing the grassland again this year. It happened couple of years ago.

Dhikala grassland submerged
Let’s hope for the best and keep our fingers crossed. It has been the wettest March in Delhi (and North) in years. Climate is changing for sure. Before ending, I would like to warn roadies about the extreme condition of the road. Once you leave the NH24 at Moradabad and heads for Kashipur, the road has lost its topping completely. It is as bumpy and dusty as you can imagine. Then you compete with the trucks and overladen sugarcane tractors. Of the 90 odd kilometres thereon, around 10 KM are extremely bad, further around 30 KM are in bad shape. It will take years for tourism facilities in Uttarakhand to revive. Appalled at the road condition, I had booked train tickets for my next visit. Looking forward to my next visit in April first week as part of Canon Wild Click.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Is flying Air Asia cheap?


If you are flying from Delhi or Mumbai, then it is not. Air Asia had stopped its flights from Delhi and Mumbai couple of years back citing high cost of operation. This means a traveler from any of these cities travelling to South East Asia first has to fly to Kolkata or Chennai to catch an Air Asia flight. It may not be cheap even from cities it is currently flying from. Just read on.

I had flown to Kualalumpur and then to Singapore from Delhi when Air Asia started its operation from Delhi in 2010. Flying Air Asia was indeed economical at that time. When one of the mailer for annual sale from Air Asia arrived in my inbox in Januray 2013, I decided to book tickets for Bangkok almost on impulse without any research. On sale, I got Kolkata – Bangkok return fare for 7400 rupees. This was done in January for travel in October. As my travelling date was approaching, I needed to book a connecting flight to Kolkata. When booked in August, this cost me another 8500 rupees. Only when I started to explore for tickets for Delhi – Kolkata, I found that Indigo offers the best option for DelhiBangkok with two daily flights. The Indigo Delhi – Bangkok –Delhi fare if booked around 3 months in advance is almost the same as that of the combined fare on domestic Delhi – Kolkata – Delhi (on Indigo) and international Kolkata – Bangkok – Kolkata (on Air Asia). With Air Asia I had booked tickets 10 months in advance whereas with Indigo I could have booked tickets only 3 months in advance to get the same combined fare I was paying. Further, my trip became longer by 4 hours as I had to break the journey at Kolkata between the flights. Only saving grace in this combo is that a LTC traveler can claim IT exemption benefit for the domestic sector upto Kolkata, which amounts to almost half the ticket cost. If you are traveling as a family, then this amount may be substantial. If you take one single international flight from Delhi, then you lose the IT exemption benefit for LTC.

This led me to check Kolkata – Bangkok sector fares from Kolkata. There also Indigo was matching Air Asia prices. Air Asia has been able to create the image of the cheapest airline. It actually is, in some of the countries in South East Asia. So beyond Bangkok or Kualalumpur, it still offers the cheapest choice. But you would require planning 10 – 12 months in advance to travel Air Asia. The much hyped sales by Air Asia are a misnomer where one has to wait keeping fingers crossed, praying and expecting to get you in the queue as soon as one of the sales opens. By the time you get into their website, all zero fare is gone. Before booking, I advise you to find what their normal fare is for current month. If the prices on offer are almost similar to current month fare, then skip the sale. You can save your money by getting some interest in your bank account and book only 2 or 3 months in advance.

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Monday, November 04, 2013

How cheap is travelling in India


Just back from a wonderful week of holidays in the land of thousand elephants – Thailand. The immediate thought on return was that when are we going back again? My family had given a dictum to cut down on my wild trips to wilderness in India and chalk out plan for a trip to Koh Samui next year.

This second trip to South East Asia had also made me ponder- is travelling in India is really cheap. The answer is probably not. The kind of money we had spent on inland travel annually in India can give us a couple of international holidays every year. Two main reasons for travel in India becoming costlier are very high hotel tarrif and steep airfare. In recent years, the airfares in India have gone through the roof, yet most airlines are claiming losses. Let me present a comparison of travelling to two of the exotic destinations of India – Andamans and Lakshadweep. As I have been to both these places, I vouch for the unparallel natural beauty of these places offers. Both can give a run for money to any of the island destinations in terms of beauty. The ex-Delhi fare on date (Nov 1st wk 2013) for travel in January 2014 end to Port Blair is Rs.16000/-. Ex-Delhi return fair to Agatti, Lakshadweep for the same dates are Rs.20000+. Compare these to ex-Delhi return fare to Bangkok – Rs.17600/-. To add to the flair, all inclusive Thailand packages are available for around 22-25K from many leading travel portals.

Bhimtal near Nainital in Uttarakhand

The second factor contributing to high cost of travel in India is hotel tariff. Most hotels in India are self styled star rated. As there is no independent agency validating these rating, one is forced to consider experiences of fellow travelers on sites like trip advisor. Yet I was in shock to see my hotel at Portblair. If someone is giving a high rating for a hotel in trip advisor, then make sure to check his travel credentials. The possibility is that the enthusiastic rater might not have seen a better hotel or may be was on his maiden trip. Any decent hotel in India cost not less than 2000 without breakfast or meals. As my travels are generally to wilderness of various national parks of India, I am often forced to stay at one of luxury resorts that have mushroomed around these parks. A 2N/3D family trip to any of the national parks of India costs around 25K. The room rates of these resorts are generally mind boggling. Yet the facilities many of them offered are lower than the resort I had stayed at Phuket that cost me 3000 bucks for an ocean view room with breakfast. I had paid Rs.6500/- per night (with meals) for Lakshadweep resort way back in 2007. Most hotels in India do not have net presence. Thus the ones available on net are always costlier. I generally travel through our peer networks and use their contacts which have allowed me to get best value for money in India. But not every traveler is fortunate to have such networks.

Given the fact that you are willing to spend 30K per head, which destination will you choose – Bangkok or Andaman or Lakshadweep? I am sure you have found the answer. Even travelling to Singapore was not that costlier till rupee started its slide. The rupee had eroded by about 14 rupees against SGD since my visit in 2011. Yet a trip to Singapore is affordable to many. Only place that has become real costlier is Hong Kong beacuse of the ruppe slide. You can have two trips of Thailand at the price of one to Hong Kong or can do Singapore + Thailand at that price. So, are you packing your bags!

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pench Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra


Wild Click Season-IV was an opportunity to experience the virgin wilderness of Pench (MH). The jungle of Pench, also known as the Kipling County, was made famous by Rudyard Kipling through his immortal character - Mowgli. Tourism in Pench had been operational for years from the MP side. The Maharashtra side has been thrown open for tourism only 6 months back. Tourism is yet to pick up at Pench MH despite its proximity to the city of Nagpur. For wildlife lovers, it is an opportunity to experience a quiet and colourful forest rich in flora that is yet to witness exodus of tourist.

The 60km drive through partial tolled highway from Nagpur to Pench generally takes about 90min. You leave the Nagpur-Jabbalpur highway at Pawni and proceed to Sillari. After making an entry at the forest outpost, our journey continued for 6 km through sparse human habitation till we reached the Amaltas complex of forest department at Sillari village. A permit for park visit is to be obtained from Amaltas complex.

The wild click is a live photo competition where participants vie under similar conditions. All photographs were to be captured in 5 safaris and one nature walk. The season-IV of wild click had the patronage of Maharashtra Forest Deptt looking to promote the location as a potential wildlife tourism center. 32 participants from various parts of India congregated there for the event. It was too big a crowd there for the facilities in place. Gypsys were called in from Pench MP.

The event was kicked off with the nature walk along the Sillari Nature Trail emanating from backside of Amaltas. This area is the territory of a leopard with cubs. The leopard had made a kill during the event. The foul stench indicated that the carcass was in the near vicinity of the campus. We were advised to walk the trail only with trained guides. We never met the leopard, but nevertheless the walk around was thrilling because of expectations. Routes for safaris were charted out carefully to give us a complete experience of the park. We were covering different parts of the forest in each safari. The forest turned out to be one of the most colourful I have been. Many a times, it unfolded before us stunning landscapes. The forest being virgin had seen very little footprint. In most areas animals and birds are not used to human presence. They would generally run away on sight of gypsy, even the langurs,  that would generally block your path in other parks. The team in all could spot several species of birds including vultures, leopard, wild dogs, bisons, jackals, sambhar and spotted deer. Count of these species was healthy to sustain a good forest eco-system. We were appraised that the total tiger population of the reserve is around 26. There were 11 gypsys with 4 participants in each who had done 5 safaris each lasting about 4 hours. Yet none saw a tiger. This is an indication of how tough sighting is. We did saw fresh pugmarks on final morning which proved presence of tiger in the area. However the bottom-line is that tourist will come only if a park provides decent chance of sighting tiger. I mean, one can not expect a tourist spending 2500 rupees for a trip to come back again or give some good word of mouth publicity, if he fails to asses a decent chance of seeing the big cat. This is why Tadoba is such a hit last year. We also had a trip to the adjoining Mahadeo Singh WLS, which is a part of Pench. That was a damp squib as even deer were scarce to spot. One would be better off spending time in Sillari than Mahadeo Singh.

A game drive is best experienced in an open gypsy, not in an AC car. But the no of gypsy for park visit are too few and rickety. Therefore private vehicle had to be allowed which always is a nuisance. We could see a decent crowd on Sunday, mostly using their private car for visiting the park. But the flow of tourist on weekdays was too low for local employment to sustain. Tourism being nascent, the facilities at the park is limited. There are three places for one to spend a night. The first one is a private resort (Go-Flemmingo) located very close to the highway. This will not give you a feel of jungle. Very close to the core area are the Amaltas complex of forest department and a small MTDC resort. Amaltas is a facility with about 14 basic rooms spaced around a large green compound. Room capacity of this facility is being enhanced. The third facility is the Sillari Jungle Resort run by the MTDC located some 100 mtr further is also not luxury class, but decent place with a small swimming pool. We had stayed at both Amaltas and the MTDC.

The main park has another Achilles heel.  There exists a large colony of a hydel power plant at Totladoh inside core area of the forest. Though a large part of the colony is deserted, there still lives a decent population. Buses run through this park to cater to this population. Buses were seen running even after dark. The setting of the power plant deep inside the forest had definitely left a deep scar on wildlife. Many scared animals might have migrated to MP side of Pench. It will take some more time for the wound to heal. I hope that facilities will improve with time and teething problems will wither away. In the years to come, this beautiful park has potential to become a hotspot. Next time you plan a trip to Tadoba or Nagzira, you can plan to include Pench for a day.

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