March 2, 2010
It's been a long time.
I just got back from four days in Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam.
I intended to head first to Kaziranga but my cell phone doesn't work here and when I tried using a PCO/STD booth to call ahead there was no answer. On Thursday morning, I finally reached the more expensive of the only accommodation options known to have rooms in my budget. All they had had was one room in the low sticker shock category (a distressingly common problem on this trip) and only four two days when I wanted four. Rather than spend another night in my cheep but crummy hotel room, I booked a bus to Jorhat.
Jorhat is the jumping off point for Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary. I didn't need a reservation to go to Jorhat, at least I didn't think I did. I admit being a little concerned when the bus rolled into town after 10:00pm and I had to find a place to stay with no map and no phone. I did, however, have options. One of them was easily visible from the bus station. They had a room. It wasn't the cheapest deal imaginable but it was OK and far nicer than the last place I slept.
The next day I set out to make arrangements for the Sanctuary, again with no map. A small but significant error in the description of the town's layout cost me some time but I managed to find the forest office, book, and get out of my hotel room on time. (Well, by Indian standards of on time)
Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary has no mention in Lonely Planet. Footprint has a brief mention with almost enough detail to get there and lists the park under an incorrect name. It's not far from the trail, at least what passes for a tourist trail in Assam, but you have root around a bit to find your way.
I got off the bus in Mariani and, after picking up fruit and walking back and forth a bit (I didn't really have a map for Mariani either.) I checked in at the range office. I expected to sign a few papers, hear that someone has called ahead, and the proceed the last 5K by foot or by rickshaw. I was a surprised when, after tea, I was informed that my transportation was ready. It was a scene straight from a Hollywood cliché of a Westerner arriving in Africa. I tossed my belongings into the back of a sputtering jeep driven by a native speaking just adequate English that I had met only moments before. We drove down a dusty road past villagers and a tea plantation into the park. Of course, it bore no resemblance to the way I actually arrived in Africa years ago.
But that is as far as the analogy goes. Assam is rain forest country, the only rain forest in India and the North East is where South Asia meets Southeast Asia. It is a bit of a homecoming for me, but not for my favorite continent but my favorite island.
On first trip into the jungle, I was amazed at how easy it was to see the gibbons. I'm sure having a guide helped but, more importantly, the canopy is lower, the forest is more open, and the gibbons do not seem inclined to flee. Decades of regrowth can not compare to the splendor of Danum Valley's ancient dipterocarps but if you want to see and photograph gibbons, this is by far the better place.
The second day was less successful. It rained the previous night and some of the morning. This meant sticking to the road, since the park doesn't have leach socks available for tourists. It meant poor visibility in the early morning and a rain out for mid-morning. Still, I managed passable photos of Caped Langurs and Pig Tail Macaques. I also managed snaps of Hornbills and Giant Squirrels but their quality leaves something to be desired. More gibbons as well. They are practically the consolation prize here.
It rained again on the morning of the third day. The face flies, worse than anywhere else I have been, were as bad as ever and the leaches were out in force. This is one area where the park needs to improve. Leach socks are critical when the rains come and foreign tourists can not be expected to have them. They are neither needed nor readily available outside the tropics. Danum Valley sells them. Perrier (in Kerala ) loans them out for walking safari's. Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary needs to get with the program.
But there were some wins. I managed several snaps of the seldom seen stump tailed macaque under difficult conditions. The Malayan Giant Squirrel, which dodged my lens in Borneo, showed up to pose. Sort of. Giant Squirrels may be nearly four feet long, head to tail, but they are still squirrels. I probably took forty or so frames and found eight or nine acceptable.
The fourth day was washed away. By rain, by staff being occupied with a wedding, by limited time. I considered staying an extra day but I would guess that it would still be leach season even if it doesn't rain still more, I also think I've seen much of what there is to see here. There are seven primates here and I've seen five. Actually, there is a good chance I've seen six being as the Assamese Macaque is difficult to distinguish from the Rhesus Macaque. The last is the Slow Lorris. It it is nocturnal and the park is not equipped for a night walks.
Next stop is Kaziranga for a rendezvous with the Greater One Horned Rhino. Today would be the obvious day to move but, when I called in, there was only room available for the next day. And for only two nights. Booking that much was like pulling teeth. Ever since I came to Assam I have had great difficulty communicating time with the locals. Even when they knew English words and grammar well enough, I would be asked strange questions like “Do you take lunch?”. With the Kaziranga hotel staff, I found that “day after tomorrow” worked when “Thursday” and “the 4th” failed to get the point across. Assamese is supposed to be closely related to Bengali so maybe Sudarshan can shed some light on the issue.