Pobitora is one of the safari parks in India where you can get up close and personal with some pretty wild animals. We went on a day trip from Guwahati, in the north eastern state of Assam.
The State of Assam is and was a tea growing area. Much of it is hilly and forested. Two hours north from Guwahati is the border with Bhutan, and a bit over 8 hours north east is the Chinese border. And if you want to visit wildlife sanctuaries this is the place for you.
The great one horned rhino is the wild animal we want to see on our excursion. It is only found in Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and in Assam, India. i.e the tall grasslands and forests in the foothills of the Himalayas. I’ve got to be honest here and say that I though rhinos only existed in Africa, turns out that they are also native to India (and Java).
The difference between African and Indian rhinos is that Indian (and Sumatran) rhinos have one horn whereas the African rhinos have two. Male rhinos weigh about 2.5 tonne but can weigh up to 4 tonnes and the females weigh 2 tonnes. Say … whaaat?
As an aside rhinos are a remnant of the megafauna that is mostly otherwise extinct. Other examples are hippos and the Komodo dragon. Mammoths were also megafauna, and they existed until very recently (weighing up to 10 tonnes), and manatee or sea cows. There were 3.4m tall Moa birds in New Zealand and snakes measuring up 15m in South America and also in South America early condors had a wing span of 6m. This is all well worth a Google if you want to go down that rabbit hole.
Oh, and the collective noun for a group of rhinoceroses is a crash. Whaaat?
I was in Guwahati with a group of people on a (cricket related) work trip. We had spent our time going from the hotel to the stadium and back again, with car and driver. But we have one day spare and make the decision to take the day off and be tourists. I ask around at the stadium about what we should see and the advice is unanimous – go and visit one of the wildlife sanctuaries, and Pobitora is the closest and easiest to get to.
We ask our usual drivers if they wouldn’t mind working an extra day and we’ll pay them for the eight hour journey there and back. Eight people, two cars. We are a mix of people – of nationality and gender – and decide that we’ll divide the rides based on who wants air conditioning, and who doesn’t. Interestingly the girls end up in one car and the boys in the other. Then as we (girls & no A/C) get about one km along the road and open the windows the driver says that it is a car with air conditioning and we should use it. He doesn’t want to get the inside of the car dirty. But we are on a tarmac road with minimal dust, so we overrule. He is surly, we feel minimally guilty.
The route takes us through the old section of Guwahati, and along the Brahmaputra river.
Not long after leaving the edge of the river we arrived at the small village that marked the entry point to the Pobitora Wildlife sanctuary. It is the place where we show ID and pay the entry fee. Where the non Indians pay the entry fee that is ten times that of the locals. Should we divide up the total and pay equally? No – we can afford it so the Indians pay it forwards another day.
Safari-style we pile into open topped jeeps, and drive into the park.
The grassland of Pobitora is also home to thousands of migratory birds, and golden jackal, wild boar and feral water buffalo, barking deer, and indian leopards. All of which you may or may not see if you are lucky / unlucky.
Increasingly I’m interested in bird life. I don’t have the time or inclination to identify species so I’ve made up my own – water birds, raptors, small birds, medium birds, penguins, crows, magpies, parrots, pelicans and swans. Today’s spotting – water birds and medium birds.
The first spotting of a rhino about 500m away has us call for the jeeps to halt and we take too many photos of a rhino that you can barely see in the images. The jeep driver knows there is more coming up but he is patient.
We drive through some grassland, with all sorts of birdlife and animals, and occasionally a grove of trees. Taking it all in until the strangers who are in two jeeps behind our group pull out and overtake and then from then on we are annoyingly covered in dust. So we try to drop back.
At the next viewing area, in retaliation we try to park in their way to ruin their photos.
The day is a welcome relief for our group because we are just starting to grapple with Covid-19 and what it will mean for the cricket tournament and for our jobs. As it turns out Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary temporary closed to visitors the day after we visited, and two days later we were on a plane back to our homes.
Meanwhile I ask the driver if I we can get down and take a group photo standing in front of the jeep. He doesn’t speak English or much Hindi, but with some words and charades we realized that seated in the front of the jeep the gentleman who I thought was his mate along for the ride is actually a guard and the guard is carrying a rifle. Then I realise that rhinos have big horns and are probably dangerous. The guard and rifle are for our benefit. So I nod wisely, in agreement with the driver.
As we continue we see a family on elephants including a tiny baby, hardly able to stand. It is possible to book elephant rides, but the general consensus is that this is quite a cruel practice and unless you know that the elephants are well treated it is best not to.
The safari only takes a bit over an hour but it seems much longer because there is so much to see. The rhinos, the elephants, the birds, hides and the path itself through the trees is quite beautiful.
If you have time there are a number of other National Parks to visit in Assam. These are closed at certain times of the year, so best to check ahead.
Kaziranga National Park
A 430 sq km park listed as a World Heritage Site, famous for its conservation initiatives and has been a forest reserve since 1905. It takes two to three hours to get there by road from Guwahati. Kaziranga has 2200 two thirds of the world’s one horned rhino’s (approx. 2,200) and is also a listed Tiger Park. But in a good way – not the Netflex/Tiger King kind of way. These are Bengal tigers in the wild.
Orang National Park
Located on the northern side of the Brahmaputra river and is flooded during monsoon. This creates an natural environment for migratory birds, of which there are many. There is also a population of Bengal tigers and rhinos. As well as a number of endangered species such as elephants, pygmy hog, hog deer.
Manas National Park
A wildlife sanctuary that like Kaziranga is a World Heritage site, a Project Tiger reserve, also an elephant reserve and a biosphere reserve. Manas is half in India and half in Bhutan. The park is known for its rare and endangered endemic wildlife such as the Assam roofed turtle, hispid hare, golden langur and pygmy hog.
On the drive back we had the opportunity to stop and have an early dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Brahmaputra River. But no one could decide on the cuisine. Everyone was deferring to everyone else and as a group we faded out and went back to our respective hotels, even without a group dinner we were well satisfied with the day.
Wikipedia has a very comprehensive description and explanation of megafauna
Related Agatha Bertram posts: Cherrapunjee’s Living Root Bridges
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