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Of dreams and elephants—Meghalaya and Kaziranga National Park, Assam

KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK, ASSAM. It was a sunny December afternoon. The time was 3 PM and the temperature was around 8 degrees celsius. Although it was bitterly cold, I felt sweat trickling down my face. My palms were moist and the hair at the nape of my neck were standing.

The reason I was petrified was because there was something coming through the tall twenty five feet grass that bordered the path and I could make out by the sounds it made that it was huge and dangerous. And then there they were! A herd of adult elephants along with their calves walking majestically across the path led by a towering cow elephant with gleaming tusks and beady eyes.

I was on a Journeys with Meaning tour to Meghalaya and Assam. There were 10 of us eager beavers on the tour, a potpourri ranging from IT professionals to students to aviation engineers.

We arrived at our homestay, MaplePine Farm in Mawphlang, Meghalaya at 10 o’clock in the evening after a 5 hour road journey from Guwahati Airport. Over the next 6 days, we had a very exciting and interesting itinerary.

We met the King of the Khasi tribe who to our amazement was a young college professor and spoke immaculate Queen’s English. His name was Pabok Paul Diengdoh, you can check him out on Facebook! Pabok enlightened us about the culture and lifestyle of the Khasi tribe. We witnessed an archery game in which bets were placed.

We also saw some pristine lakes, and living root bridges which are formed by natural roots of trees over babbling brooks below. And we went for a boat ride on the Dawki River where the water was so clear that we could see the river bed.

The next day, I bit into Bird’s eye chilies, one of the spiciest chillies in the world that is grown in Meghalaya and I tasted the best home baked bread made by Mr. and Mrs. Perry, the couple who own and run MaplePine Farm. Another must try is the delicious pineapples which grow here.

A week later, we checked into Aranya Tourist Lodge at Kohora in Kaziranga, in the neighbouring state of Assam. It’s best to book into a hotel at Kohora due to easy access to Kaziranga National Park.

Wildlife safaris can be booked from your hotel. Your jeep driver is also your naturalist or guide. Our group was divided among three jeeps as we sped along National Highway 715 at speeds in excess of 80 kilometers an hour. The temperature was 6 degrees celsius. Even after being fully kitted out in thermal innerwear, over which I had worn a warm jacket, two pairs of gloves on each hand and a faux fur aviator hat on my head, in the open jeep it felt like 0 degrees celsius.

Along the way, we passed paddy fields and tea plantations. If you’re lucky, you could even catch a glimpse of wild animals such as elephants, rhinos and spotted deer along the way.

There are four ranges to explore in Kaziranga: Eastern, Western, Central and Burapahar. 3 of these ranges: Eastern, Western and Central are easily accessible from the Kohora hotel, in approximately twenty minutes. The fourth range, Burapahar is approximately an hour away.

We spent our first morning in Kaziranga at the Eastern Range, a paradise for birdwatchers which for a bird photographer like me is heaven on earth. And it was also the first time that I used the newly launched Nikon 200-500 millimeter super telephoto zoom lens. I came home with some amazing pictures of parakeets, vultures, pipits and many more birds.

And if you’re looking forward to seeing the great one-horned rhinoceroses, then you can’t miss them, they are everywhere!

That same afternoon, after a scrumptious lunch, we visited the Western Range where we saw more rhinos and birds.

The next day I bid adieu to the rest of the group after exchanging telephone numbers and email addresses and promising to keep in touch. Later that afternoon, I explored the Central Range where I saw more birds, a large lizard, a number of turtles sunbathing near a stream, and of course more rhinos!

On the second last afternoon, I went back to the Western Range. We were driving along a mud path when suddenly my driver and guide, Jatin pulled over to the side and switched off the engine. I was about to question him when he turned towards me wide eyed and put his fingers to his lips motioning me to keep silent.

Then he pointed to the dense twenty five feet grass that the track cuts through. And then I heard it, the sound of grass being uprooted and the swishing sound of huge animals coming through it. I felt sweat trickling down my face. My palms were moist and the hair at the nape of my neck were standing.

And then there they were! A herd of adult elephants along with their calves walking majestically across the path, led by a towering cow elephant with gleaming tusks and beady eyes, followed by a herd of adult elephants and their calves. I counted 27 in all.

As I watched them disappear into the grass on the other side, I realised with a start that I had not clicked any pictures, a decision I regret till today.

On the last day, I went back to the Central Range, where I had seen the elephants the previous day, but I had no luck. I returned to my hotel room with a heavy heart.

As I flew back to Mumbai with my indelible memories and photographs of the adventurous time that I had in Meghalaya and Assam, I knew deep down that I would come back to explore it more and hopefully click some good pictures of the elephants that I had missed.

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