Into the Pulsating Wild of Jaldapara National Park
This was a different world that was adroitly engulfing us, the strangers, gradually infusing its spirit by convergence. All of us in our safari gypsy were becoming alienated from each other and getting individually hypnotized to focus vision through the impassable thick green around. A strange silence ensued as the wheels rolled into the woods over a dusty gnarled path.
I was inside Jaldapara National Park, one of the coveted destinations in my bucket list since a long time. This jungle, bordering the foothills of Bhutan and hosting a bunch of rivers including river Torsa, is a hub for elephants, bisons and most importantly, the endangered one-horned Asiatic rhinos. Apart from these, leopards, Royal Bengal tigers, wild boars, sambhars, barking deers, hog deers, spotted deers, numerous species of birds, peafowls and other animals are also preserved in this riverine forest. In 1941, this forest area located in Dooars, West Bengal was declared a wildlife sanctuary, covering an area of 114 square kilometres. Throughout the years, it grew up to more than 100 square kilometres preserving exotic varieties of flora and fauna and has been issued the status of a National Park. Currently, the forest area is spread over 216 square kilometres.
It was around 6:30 am when I had started my journey towards Jaldapara from my resort at Nagrakata. It’s merely an hour drive to reach Madarihat, the entrance point of the sanctuary where visitors need to get their permits and payments done at the counter before moving on to the forest area in designated vehicles. Around 7:30 am, my car parked at the parking area. Not before 8 am the enquiry counter would have opened, so I took a wise decision to have my breakfast done at one of the adjacent eateries.
I, along with my group, was very excited. We didn’t have a plan for an elephant safari, so gypsy jeeps were what we zeroed in. And this happened because we did not have our homework done well before arriving! Elephant safaris begin early morning with duration of one hour for which bookings have to be made before. Car safaris last for one and a half hour and have both morning and evening options. We had already missed the morning booking and no other options were left open for us other than the evening time – 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm. We got the forms from the counter and filled it up and kept things ready.
It was a huge time to pass and the excitement level made this waiting seemingly exhausting. The vast area around with age old enormous trees, various flight of birds, tourist cars, dusty grounds, exciting forest stories being told by forest staffs and returning visitors – the air bore a strange energy initiating even higher doses of excitement shots through the central nervous system – a strange urge of getting unified with Nature and becoming one among the wild! By 9 am, a lot of tourists were flooding in to stand in the queue well before time. Most of the tourists arrived in groups and it is convenient to do so in these forest trips because six people are allowed in each gypsy. Else, one will need to wait for other people/groups to have their gypsy full before commencing the journey.
After getting our permit, there were over 5 hours left for the safari to start. I made up my mind to explore the place and visit other nearby spots in the meantime and I was glad that my dear driver was very enthusiastic about the plan. Without wasting any more time, we drove to visit South Khairbari Nature Park, 15 kilometres away from Madarihat. This project of the West Bengal Government is very unique and was inaugurated in 12th November, 2003 with a noble objective of building a rescue centre for leopards and tigers. These animals, rescued from circus, poachers, tea gardens and forests are provided a replica home here with adequate care and proper treatment. The timing was perfect when I arrived at the park. The leopards and tigers were bathing in their individual areas inside; some were playing across patches of grass while some were busy brushing up their playful stunts and somersault skills, impervious to the presence of humans and therefore, attracting all visitors and their cameras’ attention. This Nature Park covers an extensive area and it is a great place to study the behaviours of leopards and tigers. Watching them take bath, shrug off water from their fur, groom, eat meat, lick paws, play around, twitch their ears, stretch their bodies, yawn like ‘there is no worry in this world’ and roar so closely was such a satisfying experience. South Khairbari appropriately had soared the excitement of visiting the non-confined wild inside Jaldapara.
Spending about 3 hours at South Khairbari, we went to a roadside restaurant at Madarihat to have lunch. Varieties of fish are available here so, we decided to satiate our appetite, pumped up with the overdose of excitement, by gorging into delicious platters of fish. By 2 pm, we drove back to the Madarihat entry point of Jaldapara and enquired about our jeep. While some chose to rest and charge up themselves for the upcoming wild encounter, I quickly slipped in to the tiny museum built a few steps away from the counter.
The museum is a small space with pictures, real preserved samples and replicas of the species existent in Jaldapara forest. It is pleasing to get some scientific information about the animals and birds one is expecting to see in the wild out there. There was some time left for the gypsy to arrive, so I engaged in a conversation with the caretaker of the museum sitting inside. A middle-aged lady with a warm welcoming smile, seemed very happy when I asked her about the animals and her experiences. “Elephants and bisons come out from the forests often. In the morning, elephants arrive right here, sometimes”, she said. Staying in Jaldapara for more than 13 years, she had a lot of wildlife experiences to share and I listened to her like a child.
The designated forest vehicles arrived at sharp 3 pm. Finally, the happy hour had arrived and the excitement level reached a new zenith! We almost jumped on to our gypsy with our hobos, securing ourselves and garlanding the cameras around our necks. The driver and the forest guard gave us a brief on the forest protocols quickly, then ensured that the vehicle doors are locked properly and soon we started off towards the check post. It took some 5 minutes to reach the check post and the driver stopped the vehicle inside the gate. Here the permit papers are re-checked at the counter and the final clearance is given to head off inside the National Park. With all the formalities done, we were good to go within a few minutes and the most awaited journey begun!
It was hot and humid. The gypsy took the uneven dusty path fanning whirls of dust behind. There are two villages inside, not much distant from each other and the gate of the sanctuary. “Is it safe for the villagers to stay here?” asked one of the members of our group. The forest guard looked back and grinned. “Almost every day the folks have encounters with elephants and sometimes with rhinos that come out of the forest in search of food in the farmlands. They destroy the farms but do not harm people unless frightened or provoked”, he said.
As the gypsy moved deeper into the forest area, invasive grasslands and monstrous trees became more frequent blanketing the extensive area. Peafowls were moving about here and there and everywhere on either side of the path. Some trained elephants were spotted with mahouts, some bathing in the streams while some was being fed. The wind and dust forced to put on the glares as the car sped to the first watch tower. The unscathing beauty of the forest was gradually casting a strange spell.
The gypsy slowed down suddenly and the guard whispered, “Look! There’s a rare bird, Neelkanth on that branch”, pointing his finger on a huge tree. I craned my neck to follow the tip of his finger and spotted a silhouette of a bird. From a distance, the shrill call of peacocks reverberated through the greens. Our gypsy driver asked the driver of a returning vehicle if they have spotted something. “A group of bisons”, he winked and smiled at us and sped off. I had never seen a bison before and got very excited at the news. Our vehicle hurried to the watch tower. The guard unlocked the doors fast and we almost ran up the stairs along with him. There was already a crowd at the watch tower. Swiftly making a place for myself amidst the crowd, I stretched my vision through the swaying grasslands and was disappointed! The group of six bisons have already gone quite far grazing, scattered and half camouflaged, allowing partial visuals of their hunches, back and faces. The forest guard looked upset just like us and after 10 minutes, he clapped and waved to call all of us to board the gypsy. In the meantime I spotted a peacock in between the trunks, sitting with all its glory.
While the jeep took its course towards the second watch tower, he tried to cheer us up. “Here you can have no idea what you will see. You might not see what you’ve come to see and you might see what you have not come to see…” The driver suddenly hit the brakes and the jeep stopped with a rough jolt before the guard finished what he was saying. We stiffened like a rock – there was a big bison standing in front of us! The guard asked us to maintain absolute silence through his gesture. The bison stood still and rolled its eye towards the jeep, throwing out an expression of dislike at the sudden intruders. Within seconds it gave a freaking jerk and scrambled into the bush. The jeep started slowly and we had our eyes glued at the bushes but it completely disappeared from the scene. “I told you”, grinned the forest guard and we broke into a mild laughter describing what we saw just now. “Bisons are dumb animals. They don’t understand anything and you can never predict their actions. Sometimes they even attack the jeeps without reason. It’s best to keep silent and still before them”, he continued.
Perked up with the chance encounter, we headed towards the second watch tower to spot the most yearned one-horned rhinos. There are about 160 rhinoceroses in Jaldapara, second in number after Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam. These one-horned animals, pushed to the brink of extinction within a century, are the main attraction of this wildlife tourism developed around this forest area. The driver of a returning vehicle whom we crossed mid way informed that three rhinos were spotted grazing. This is a common practice prevalent here that I noticed – the forest guards and drivers ask every returning vehicle if they have spotted anything and if they get an affirmative answer they rush towards the spot. It really feels great to find how enthusiastic these forest staff are about wildlife they are daily used to, how strong their urge is to get the visitors or tourists reached on the spots so that they can enjoy the glimpse of the wild animals, how responsible they are in terms of maintaining the forest protocols and how professional they are in handling the entire safari.
We reached the watch tower by 4 pm and climbed our way to the top fast. It was windy and the extensive grasslands were swaying to and fro dancing to the rhythm of the wind. I knew that the light goes dim in the forest within seconds but had never experienced it this way. The temperature dropped by a few degrees making the weather pleasant. I stood leaning at the balcony railing and stretched my vision as far as I could up to the horizon. “They said there are three. Where?” whispered one of my group mates. I kept silent and focused through the gaps of the swaying grass. A sudden movement caught attention. Something was moving! And it came out offering us a mighty glance! There was this one-horned silver-brown thick skinned creature painted with soft dim light, standing gracefully and grazing peacefully. This was such a rewarding sight! As the light grew dimmer, the rhino hurried its way back into the thick greens towards the horizon within a couple of minutes. The vegetation at the horizon that was appearing deep green when I had arrived at the tower, now seemed to be sucked off all colour and light. A mysterious darkness was filling up all spaces and gaps inside the thick forest.
The guard called us to move on. One more spot was left to explore in this safari. The jeep headed towards Hollong Bungalow quickly. Within 10 minutes, we reached the spot. There were many safari jeeps parked outside and a crowd was already present inside the premises. As we walked our way inside, someone shouted, “Dancing peacock! Dancing peacock!” On hearing this, I ran to catch this spectacular scene. I have never seen a peacock dancing with its plumes spread, except in television and a blink-and-you-miss-it tryst at Simlipal National Park, Odisha. Hollong Bungalow is famous for its salt lick where wild elephants, rhinos, bisons and other animals come to lick salt almost every day in the morning. This area is also frequented by various species of birds and is ideal for birdwatching. Just at the opposite bank of the stream, a peacock was dancing graciously, pulling all attention of the visitors. It went on like that for a few minutes!
People watched and recorded the scene and each looked very content and happy. I was left awe-struck at the beauty of this bird. I could also spot some green pigeons and some unknown birds afar appearing like silhouettes. Scattered in small groups, some were sitting on the seats while some sat at the bank of the stream talking and sharing their experiences. It was amazing how the wild had united so many strangers, as if they were one unit. I wish the world was like this forever. I looked down at the blackish water of the stream and a shoal of fish streaking through it. I felt an unusual calmness inside.
It was time to bid adieu. The gypsy started yet again but this time to return. I would have been happier if I could stay there longer, soaking my senses in the spirit of the wild. Continuously tossed and flung in the jeep, enveloped with layers of dust from tip to toe, there was a very refreshing and elevated energy infused in us. We talked our way back sharing about the encounters as the setting sun played peek-a-boo through the grand trunks. One can never have enough of the wild and I made a silent promise to the woods that I will be back. Again!
How to Reach Jaldapara
By Road: Jaldapara is well connected by roads. The best way to go to reach is by hiring a car to Madarihat, 12 kilometres away. Cars can be booked from New Jalpaiguri (NJP), Siliguri or Alipurduar depending on the starting point of your journey. Buses are also available.
By Train: Nearest railway station is Hasimara/ Birpara which is about 12 kilometres distant from Madarihat. However, all trains do not halt in these stations. Most trains are well connected with New Jalpaiguri Station (NJP). Then you have to take the road route.
By Air: The nearest airport is Bagdogra, 145 kilometres away from Jaldapara. From Bagdogra, you can hire a car and reach Jaldapara via Siliguri, 13 kilometres from Bagdogra.
Where to Stay:
The best place to stay is Hollong Bungalow, located inside the forest, about 8 kilometres from the Jaldapara National Park check post. Madarihat Jaldapara Tourist Lodge is also a good option. If you stay in any of these, you get the first preference for the elephant safaris over other visitors. Bookings can now be made online by logging into the West Bengal Government Tourism website (www.westbengaltourism.gov.in). There are also many private hotels and lodges in Madarihat to stay.
Best Time to Visit:
The best time to visit Jaldapara is November – March. The park remains totally closed from 15th June to 15th September as it is the breeding season.