Monday, June 16, 2003

Where was I? Or rather, where have I been? Had a short week in Dharchula at the outset of June before taking off on short notice for Assam in the Northeast. That region may be the only place in India more remote than Kumaon. But because of its far remove on the opposite side of Nepal from where we are and distance from the mainland as well, the Northeast – which includes not just Assam but famed Darjeeling and little known Sikkim – remains a little more pristine than Uttaranchal.

Assam is home to many of the tea plantations in India, as well as the majority of the petroleum operations here. Like the spice region of Kerala we visited last winter, it’s lush and green and river filled, especially now when pre-monsoon storms push through once or twice a day, drenching the rolling landscape. As India goes, Assam is culturally unique however, with competing Buddhist and Muslim influences giving rise to a blended Hinduism that uniquely values the community-at-large and natural values, providing a verdant welcoming mat for visitors such as myself.

The reason for this latest trip was actually work related, as a major American magazine was interested in wildlife viewing opportunities in India. Because the parks in the plains are generally closed, thanks to steamy weather and the coming summer rains, the Northeast proved to be the ideal destination for a little research. So we pounded down to Delhi, caught a flight, and booked a room at the splendid Wild Grass Resort just outside of Kaziranga National Park.

Found on the banks of the massive Brahmaputra River, KNP is home to the majority of the world’s white one-horned rhinos, a species that like the Asian elephant is distinct from its African cousins (in this case, the black two-horned rhino). The population is booming after a 100 years of habitat protection, a move prompted by the Brits after the viceroy’s wife Lady Curzon visited the region in 1904 only to find that most of the rhinos had been wiped out. Since the 1960’s, the population has been up and down, and it’s topping out today at a remarkable 1,600 animals. The Lonely Planet guidebook claims that Marco Polo visited and thought the rhino was actually a unicorn, but either the famous explorer was a fraud or he was blind as a bat.

Generally speaking, I didn’t know much about the park when I set out for Kaziranga (much less when I pitched the story) and even before arrival I wondered if the reassurances that I would have “no problem” spotting wildlife were just another instance of Indian promises-yet-to-be broken. Given that it took a couple of days to get to the park that would have been a major, major pain in the arse. Fortunately, it turned out that animals were easy to spot, including not just rhino, wild elephant, dozens of bird species and YET ANOTHER Bengal tiger – my second of our time in India.

The tiger came out on the day after C’s 34th birthday, when we were taking our fourth and final ride through the park. We’d had a spectacular night before, being the only guests at the lodge, enjoying wine and music in the cool evening (as opposed to the 110-F degree heat that met us in Delhi), and even dining on a rare birthday cake the Wild Grass staff had procured from an unknown bakery somewhere up the road. The tiger was unexpected; in fact, though wildlife sightings had been assured, the big cats are virtually impossible to see this time of year with the grass and brush in the park ranging up to six feet almost everywhere you look.

Content with a few more rhinos and a couple of rare birds, our attention was focused on the immediate roadside, the jeep idling, when I noticed some movement at a distance of about 50 yards. Having seen boucoups deer in the near distance, as well as having paused already to let two rhino take the right of way during our visit to Kaziranga, my first thought was “Hmmm… I wonder which ungulate is breaking from the brush?” But the colors and the movement were all wrong. Then came my second thought, “Oh… My… God… Tiger!”

As the 8-plus-foot orange beast then proceeded to cut the distance between its lair and the jeep to about 25 yards, a third thought dawned on me: “I hope it’s not hungry.”

Christina was near tears with excitement, and our guide was fairly beaming at our good luck. I didn’t know whether we’d done something to somehow “deserve” this sighting, but it made for a dynamite conclusion to our already way memorable trip to Assam.