Should our dream destination always be far away from home? Minds wander away from our horizons into distant islands and continents. Yet, the locations within our vicinity may hold the thrill and wonder not to be found elsewhere in the world! I realized this to my surprise when I visited Jaldapara forest close to my home last month. My wanderlust has taken me mostly to far-off destinations, as though anything worth seeing must reside in distant places beyond my reach. But now a trip to the forest has so thrilled me with the view of nature and wildlife that I am left wanting to visit the jungle again and again.
Jaldapara is a deciduous forest in the floodplains of Himalayas and is home to India’s second largest population of one-horned rhinos after Kajiranga. It is a forest of mainly sal, teak and mahogany trees standing tall and forming thick foliage with a canopy at the top. Inside the forest, there is a quaint bungalow for the tourists to lodge in. This is Hollong Forest Bungalow. Accommodation in the bungalow is limited and tourists have to book rooms well in advance.
I, along with my family, set off early in the morning. We reached the forest, which is 80 km away from my hometown, Maynaguri, in just over two hours. The entrance to the forest is on the highway connecting Jalpaiguri with Alipurduar and the lodge is eight km inside. As we drove towards the lodge, we peered into the jungle on both sides of the approach road for wild animals. Was something stirring in the bush? Rhinos are sedentary animals and can be sighted easily. Finally, there it was! A rhino resting under a tree as we came near the lodge – a huge animal with a horn that would give anyone a scare! Our car stopped for a while for us to take some snaps. Then, within a minute, we were at the lodge.
Hollong tourist bungalow is a two-storey wooden house with five rooms, and around it are forest offices, cottages for foresters and a temple. The lodge overlooks a vast stretch of grassland surrounded by tall trees standing like walls on all sides. An attendant helped us check into the room named Kingfisher in the second floor. Opening the window of Kingfisher, we were thrilled to get the bewitching view of the grassland! There is a stream nearby and on the other side, a clearing made by removing the grass cover. The attendant told us that there was a salt pit in the clearing and animals frequented the spot to taste the salt, which was replenished by the staff of the lodge every morning.
I went near the stream, where tourists thronged to behold the scenic beauty of the jungle. Everyone was expecting to see some wild animals present themselves at the clearing. And they were not to be disappointed! Two bisons were soon seen coming out of the woods and tiptoeing towards the salt pit! I never knew that the taste of salt could be so enticing that they were ready to risk being sighted by people! But their wide open eyes and taut ears were indicating their alertness – the slightest hint of trouble was sure to make them run away to the safety of jungle. Then came a sub-adult rhino. Young and inexperienced, it stood there with its head down, relishing the salt, and looked up from time to time, giving the tourists the opportunity to have some good shots from a close distance.
The silence of the forest was seeping into my mind and soul. The cacophony of urban life makes us oblivious to the sounds of nature. But there the tranquility of the place aroused my alertness to the sound of breeze and the rustle of leaves. As daylight dimmed, birds started warbling and in the twilight, the atmosphere was filled with the song of birds. Suddenly, I noticed a rhino just at the gate of the tourist lodge. I was horrified, but was told that rhinos roam freely around the lodge at night.
We had a decent meal in the restaurant of the lodge. Returning to the room, we sat near the window and looked out towards the salt pit for more inhabitants of the forest. We stayed up till midnight as the staff of the lodge kept focusing their searchlights on the animals visiting the spot. A herd of chital was there and so also a herd of bison for a pinch of salt!
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up early in the morning to go for the elephant safari. There are four elephants for the safari. One has to climb the elephant’s back through a ladder and a platform. Guided by mahouts, four of us rode one of the elephants and left for the safari. As she ambled gracefully through the jungle, the mahout sitting in front of us kept putting aside the branches dangling from the trees along the way. He was raving about his skills as a mahout, the elephants he cared for and about how once chased by a rhino he took the tourist back to safety.
There are several streams crisscrossing the forest. The elephant dutifully crossed two of them with the load of five of us on her back. While crossing the stream, she drew water through her trunk, quenched her thirst and moved on. She entered the grassland that stretched far from the tourist lodge. And what variety of grass there was! Tall and bushy with blades spread like a fountain of water! It was elephant grass. We explored the pasture for a while. Then the mahout guided her back to the lodge, and the safari was completed within one and a half hours.
I wanted to spend one more night at the lodge. But, alas, my booking was for only one night! So it was time to pack up and return. It was drizzling and a cool breeze was blowing. The attendant came and put our luggage in the car. We had another look at the clearing and, while driving away, took some more snaps to treasure the memories of the trip for the future. We left with a desire to visit the place once again.