Op-Ed: Kaziranga Diary II: Among the Rhinos on Elephant Back

Going to bed at 1 AM and getting up at 3.45 AM is not exactly how you would like your day to begin, especially when you are on vacation. But that is what happens when you carry your office with you while vacationing. On return to Prashaanti from the exhilarating Assamese folk dance performance, the manager Shyam broke the news I had dreaded all evening. We had been allotted the 5 AM slot for the elephant safari. There was nothing he could have done about it, he said rather apologetically, since the allotments are done by the Forest department personnel.

There was nothing I could have done about it either, I consoled myself and reconciled to the idea of losing out on some much needed sleep after a rather long day. Dinner was ready, Shyam said and asked us to come to the open dining space near the kitchen. The spartan vegetarian dish was nothing to write home about, except that it was piping hot and made of what appeared to be fresh vegetables cooked with precious little spices. My friend and fellow traveler Parikshit munched on what looked like a piece of cucumber, only to find that it was a piece of a local variety of lemon, sliced into a size cucumbers normally are!

Dinner over, the three of us –Sunil, Parikshit and me – sat on the verandah and soaked in the atmosphere for quite a while; gazing into the pitch black darkness beyond the stream, deep inhaling the fragrance of the Sugandharaj that soothed the senses and listening to the chirping of crickets that seemed to follow the notes of a well composed sonata. I lingered on for some time even after Sunil and Parikshit retreated to their beds and then began typing out my ‘Scandeep’ piece (not the Kaziranga diary though), which kept me awake till 1 AM.

May be it had something to do with the ambience. When I woke up less than three hours after going to bed, I had none the feeling of irritation that I normally have every time I have to do such a thing back home in Bhubaneswar. Just as he had promised, Jitu, The driver, arrived at 4.30 AM and we set out for the elephant safari some 10 kms away.

And what a sight it was! A whole herd of elephants with only their mahouts atop them encircled the wooden platform specially built for visitors to mount the elephants from. On the back of each of the elephants was a frame made of iron with two seats on either side. Just as the first batch of four persons was getting unto their seats on the elephant’s back, we heard a collective shriek from the assembled crowd and looked around to find that a lady in the group desperately trying to cling on to the elephant as it, instead of standing still, moved about for no particular reason. Despite her fierce efforts to hang on, the lady fell to the ground beneath. And sure enough, the hunter of the mahout fell on the back of the unruly elephant.

What followed sent shivers down the spines of everyone present. The whole herd of elephants began trumpeting together in protest against the mahout’s act. For someone who had never been on the back of an elephant before, it was scary to say the least. We wondered if the safari would go ahead after what had happened. But to our surprise, it was soon back to business as usual. The fallen lady, who had mud all over her salwar, managed to get on to the elephant on her second attempt with a bit of help from the mahouts and other staff present. The elephants, who had beaten the living daylights out of us just moments ago, turned a most obedient lot in next to no time. We were third in the queue and made it to the back of the elephant without much of a problem. Sunil and his wife Sashi got on first before the elephant took a 180 degree turn and positioned itself to ensure that the other side of the iron four-seat frame touched the wooden platform for us to mount.

And off we went into the meadows, scrupulously avoiding the track made for the jeep safari. I forgot all about the lost sleep as I breathed in the fresh early morning air. At the beginning, it was a bit of problem coping with the involuntary back and forth movement thrust upon us by the elephant walking. But it wasn’t long before we got used to it and even fished out our mobile phones to click pictures of just about everything we saw, including a group of four elderly persons, two men and their wives, atop another elephant that walked alongside the one we were seated on. “Look there, Sir. Can you see the rhinos?” our young mahout Biju said all of a sudden. We looked around in the direction he was pointing at to see a couple of rhinos at a distance. Just as were beginning to wonder if this would be the closest we would get to the rhinos, Biju pointed to a bush ahead. Lo and behold! There was a rhino grazing on the thick foliage of wild grass barely a few feet away from us. On Biju’s orders, the elephant stood still for a few moments so that we could see the magnificent, full-grown rhino and click photographs to our heart’s content.

Biju turned out to be a wonderful guide and answered all our queries with aplomb and patience. By the end of the ride, we acquired a fair knowledge about the behavioural patterns of the elephant, its likes and dislkes. The male elephant, he explained, gets unruly and violent under two conditions; first, when he doesn’t get his food or, curiously enough, he has more food than he needs and second, when he wants to mate. As if to assure us, he volunteered the information that the one we were mounted on was a female. “And the one that caused the lady’s downfall was a male, I guess,” I said. “You are right, Sir. It was a male and a kid at that. That is why it is not fully accustomed to its ‘duty’,” replied Biju. “The males are all the same in every species; unruly and violent. And the females docile and obedient,” Sashi commented in an apparent dig at the two males of the human species seated on the elephant.

There was more to come. Sashi spotted a couple of deer which ran away on seeing the elephant approach, but did not vanish from sight altogether. They have obviously learnt to live with the mighty animals around. Just as we were marveling at the sheer beauty and innocence of the cute animal, Biju pointed to a stag merrily munching away at some leaves. Even as got close to get a good picture, it showed no signs of budging. It was now my turn to give it back to Sashi. “The males of all species are indeed alike. Brave and fearless, unlike the females who run away at the first hint of trouble,” I said with a chuckle. A collective laughter followed.

The next sight turned out to be the high point of our safari: a group of three rhinos bathing together in a water body. Their smooth skins glistened in the first few rays of the sun that had just broken out. It was a family of three, Biju explained: a male, a female and their girl child. We marveled at the sight as we watched the mother rhino bathing her daughter. “Mothers are the same in all species,” my wife commented.

It was truly an experience of a lifetime and well worth the Rs 900 each we spent on getting it. I would strongly recommend every reader of ‘Scandeep’ to visit Kaziranga once – with friends, families or even alone. And for those interested, let me play the tourist guide and inform them that the elephant safari closes at the end of April and begins in October, after the monsoons. So, if you are planning to visit Kaziranga, come after September. And ideally, check into Prashhaanti!

 

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)