What does a person calling Kolkata home and working in the North-East do when Arjun Mohinta gets a sudden and unexpected ten day leave? Hmmm. Well, if it’s an intrepid traveller and wildlife/outdoor enthusiast like me, I first jump in joy high-fiving myself for a few minutes and then sit down for some lightning-fast planning to set up a date with the eastern wild and finally tick off some places in the region which have been on my to-do travel list for a while.
After arriving in Kolkata and spending the customary day with family, the very next day finds me on a steamer lazily traversing the clear, green waters of the world’s largest river delta, the Sunderbans. Translated in Bengali as ‘Beautiful Jungle’, this watery UNESCO World Heritage site, with semi-submerged mangrove forest interspersed with water channels is home to the 2,585 sq km Sunderbans Tiger Reserve which supports the supposedly single largest wild population of Royal Bengal tigers on the planet. Interestingly, the tigers here are unlike any other and have adapted to an ‘amphibious’ life being capable of swimming long distances and feeding on fish, crabs and water lizards! While I was not fortunate enough to get a glimpse of the King on this trip, it was still sublime to do a safari on a boat cruising the broad waterways of the world’s biggest mangrove forest and watching wildlife from the comfort of a sun-deck. We saw spotted deer, wild boar, the nearly extinct River Terrapin turtle and a huge crocodile motionless on a mud-flat in addition to a large variety of birds, especially luminescent, brilliantly coloured Kingfishers whizzing by our steamer. Due the difficulty in spotting wildlife in the thick mangroves, the reserve has a tree-top level walkway and watchtowers with watering holes and cleared areas in front which greatly improved our viewing experience. Kudos to the forest department and local people for ensuring a plastic and trash free Sunderbans which was heart-warming. The evenings sitting outside my waterfront cottage with a hot mug of tea and a plate of steaming pakoras, soaking in the magnificent sight of the sun’s reflection setting the water on fire as it dipped below the green horizon were to die for.
After three days in the Sunderbans, it was time to wing back to the North-East and set out for the next adventure in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. With saddle-bags, tent and sleeping bag secured on the rear seat of my Royal Enfield and a smile and a prayer on my lips, I set off on an overcast morning for a solo motorcycle trip from Nagaland to Nameri National Park in the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Well, that’s Arjun Mohinta style! A hard eight-hour ride through Assam later I arrived at the delightful Eco-Camp located in Potasali village at the park entrance. A joint effort of the Assam Forest Department and the Assam Angling & Conservation Association, the camp offers luxury tents and a thatched roof dormitory in a wonderful jungle setting close to the banks of the Bharali river. After obtaining the requisite forest permits for the next day, I settled down to a well-deserved large mug of chilled beer and some good food in their atmospheric, open-sided bamboo restaurant followed by a good night’s sleep. Up at the crack of dawn, I was excited to be going for what promised to be another amazing wildlife experience. A walking safari in a tiger reserve! My forest guard-cum-guide Deep and I crossed the freezing river on a tiny row-boat and set off into the depths of the dark forest where wild animals could be lurking a few feet away with only Deep’s bolt-action .303 rifle for protection. Thrilling stuff considering the park is home to tigers, leopards, elephants, wild boars and wild dogs. The walking trail covered a distance of approximately eight kms with two watchtowers in between. It was an up-close and personal jungle experience without the usual noise and safety of tourist-laden jeeps in other national parks. We spotted elephant, bison, barking-deer, monkeys and my best sightings of the day, a Great Indian Hornbill in full, majestic flight and a pair of Malayan Giant Squirrels, jet black and bigger than a cat, frolicking in a tree, all at close ranges. The eco-camp also organizes two hour bird-watching, rafting trips which was a bit boring due to the very sedate pace of the river at this time of the year.
For my last trip, I decided to visit Mon district of Nagaland which is home to the Konyak tribe and truly one of the last frontiers of India, located at the junction of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Myanmar. Having heard about the Konyak Tea Retreat located in the remote interiors of Mon, I landed up at the doorstep of the feisty, always-smiling and multi-talented Phejin Konyak after lots of google-map-consulting. Her family owns the land as far as the eyes can see, around 250 hectares, and started the first and now largest tea garden in Nagaland here. Phejin, in need of her own space, moved out of her parent’s home a few years ago and built herself a house on a hill with tranquillity and greenery all around and the most mesmerising view ever. The small property has brightly coloured walls, ethnic paintings, pottery, handicrafts and books strewn all over, handmade furniture, a cosy guest-room and an open kitchen with a bar counter and is an amazing place to get away from it all with Phejin and her sister around to share a laugh, swap travel stories, cook yummy, home-style Naga food and give company for a drink in candlelight at night with the wind howling outside. No wonder she has visitors from all over India and the world inspite of the difficult-to-reach location and no marketing. Highly recommended by Arjun Mohinta.
At the end of the ten days, I went back to work happy to have explored these off-the-beaten-track places and experienced some adrenalin-pumping moments. The call of the eastern wild was irresistible and I was content to have been swept away by her charms.