It was Sankara, who put the idea of visiting Jaldapara into my head. I was in the process of planning my December trip to Kolkata, Darjeeling and Gangtok, and, happening to meet him, asked his advice. “Why do you want to go to Darjeeling?” He asked. It is so crowded. Why don’t you try Jaldapara instead? You will like the jungle experience. Besides, you just might see some Rhinos!” That word clenched it. I altered my plans, and made time for Jaldapara.
Where to stay, was the first question. The obvious choice was the Hollong Forest Bungalow run by the Forest Department, inside the sanctuary. Unfortunately, the online booking didn’t work, and on calling up, they told me that I could only book it from Kolkata, or through an agent. I couldn’t possibly make a trip to Kolkata, and I generally avoid agents, so I began looking for other options. Almost at once, I came across the Jaldapara Jungle Camp. It was just off the main road, but near the sanctuary, and a number of friends seemed to have recommended it, especially Geetanjali, whose trips to the North East I had been following enviously! I sent them a mail, and received an immediate response from the owner, Mr. Biswajit, who took the entire planning out of my hands, saying he would make all the arrangements. Advance paid, I relaxed, looking forward to the experience.
Then, fate intervened, denying me train tickets to Hasimara, the nearest stop for Jaldapara, and Samhith and I ended up in a night bus to Siliguri, and, Mr. Biswajit, once again, responding to our SOS, arranged a car to pick us up!
The drive to Jaldapara, though a long one, was pleasant, taking us through mountain roads and tea estates. We had our first sight of the Teesta River…
And stopped a while to take in the ethereal surroundings near Coronation Bridge…
It was afternoon when we reached Jaldapara Jungle camp, too late to explore the forest, so we chose to relax, enjoying the peace and serenity in the camp.
Later, we went for a night drive on the highway, which passes through the forest, and, though it was a good drive, we didn’t spot anything. The utter silence on the highway seemed to amplify the sounds of the jungle, making it an interesting experience.
Early in the morning we headed into Jaldapara for our Elephant Safari. Our wildlife experience began on the way, when we spotted a pair of young Sambhar deer crossing a stream…
Waiting at the Hollong Forest Bungalow for our elephants to arrive, we watched birds for a while… a pair of Rose Ringeed Parakeets gave company to a flock of Yellow Footed Green Pigeons, which vied with the other pigeons for the grains scattered around.
The forest Bungalow’s location is ideal for wildlife sighting, and even birdwatching, and I can understand how they get fully booked so soon. However, I do wish they would make the booking system easier for us!
Our elephants eventually arrived, and we set off. This was my first experience with elephant safari, and I must admit to being nervous of climbing on one. It was easier and more comfortable than I imagined though, and I realized why they were in such demand when they managed to make their way through areas where there were no paths.
We surprised a couple of Sambhar and also a Gaur in the dense undergrowth….
I enjoyed far more, the play of light on the trees and leaves, especially as we were seeing them from a height!
Then, we came to the grasslands, specially being developed to encourage Rhinos. It seems to have worked, because according to the forest department, Jaldapara has the second highest number of Rhinos in India, second only to Kaziranga! It was fascinating to see how such a huge animal managed to remain hidden in the grass…. Can you spot the Rhinoceros in this photo?
As we get closer, he comes into view...
And this is how close we got. We were on the other elephant, but we got our turn to get close too.
That's when we get close up pics like this....
The only other spotting of the day was this Crested Serpent Eagle…
And this, is a shadow selfie of sorts… us on the elephant, busy clicking away!
Returning to the Lodge, we spotted another rhino, just outside, near a stream! These two photos were clicked by Samhith, who was even more thrilled with this sighting!
And finally, here we are, on our elephant mount.
Before I move on, I must mention that I am still not a big fan of Elephant Safaris, in spite of our excellent experience. I feel sorry for these animals, hate climbing up on one, and forcing it to take us inside its natural territory. I normally avoid such safaris, and will continue to do so. I only decided to go on this one, since this was Samhith’s first experience with one too, and he wanted to.
We next headed to Rajabhatkhawa in the Buxa Tiger Reserve.
We had been warned not to expect any animal sighting, which was sad, considering that this forest is home to many elephants, many of which routinely die on the railway tracks which pass through this forest. In fact, right at the entrance to this forest, is an elephant memorial, for all the elephants which have died this way. It was a sad sight, and one which made me wonder once again at the cost of development.
Rajabhatkhawa has an interesting story associated with the name. It is said that the local kings here were at war with the kings of Bhutan. Seeking an end to the war, they met in a neutral area in the dense forest. A truce was decided, and the kings shared a meal here. And that is how this place got its name – Raja Bhat Khawa (kings ate rice)! A ruined fort within the sanctuary is the only remaining link to those times. A trek to the fort takes about 4 to 5 hours, so we didn’t even attempt it!
Instead, we drove to the Jayanti river, which must be quite impressive when she is in full flow. In December however, she was completely dry, her white sand bed and rounded pebbles shining in the glaring sun.
Samhith was soon bored, but he decided to walk to the other side, hoping to find at least a thin stream of water. Here he is, posing on a fallen log…
A watch tower gave us a canopy view of the forest and the path that ran through it…
And we headed next to another river, for a boat safari.
We were the only ones there, and the boatman was reluctant to take us alone. Then, another family turned up, and then another, and then, yet another. You get the picture? The boat was then so filled that we wondered if we would have to get off!!! In any case, the boat was so crowded and the people so noisy that it was a miracle we saw any birds at all!! That we did see some, only goes to show how many more we could have seen if the boatman had taken us alone when we first came!
Our boat companions were more interested in these huge gaps in the foliage, which were probably made by elephants coming for a drink…
It was a wonderful ride, but one we would have enjoyed more alone!
We returned to the camp by evening, and spent the rest of our time relaxing, and talking to our host, his wife and daughter. It was almost like being guests at their home. Travelling to the east for the first time, that too with just Samhith for company, I had my qualms when I set out. However, people like Mr. Biswajit and his family made sure we felt safe and comfortable, and perfectly at home, in a new part of the country!
We left the next morning, once again in a car arranged by Mr. Biswajit, to embark upon the next part of our journey, but we had made more friends in this short jaunt, than we had, anywhere else!
P.S. I visited Jaldapara in Dec 2014 with Samhith, and I paid the full cost of my stay, travel and safaris there.