September 28, 2009

Koliabor and Kaziranga

Filed under: Assam,Nature — loggers @ 7:57 pm

An exploration of the northeast is incomplete without an excursion to a tea estate. After southern China, Assam was only the second location in the world to produce tea on a commercial basis, beginning in the 19th century. In fact, southern China and Assam are the only two regions in the world with native tea plants. We decided to spend a night at Koliabor Manor, a “resort”, located off National Highway 37A The tea estate – Assam’s longest – belongs to the Williamson Magor Group and was set-up in 1925 near Silghat, Assam’s first declared town. It was a strategically sound decision as Silghat had a port which enabled easy transportation to Calcutta through the Brahmaputra, India’s widest river. Formerly, Koliabor Manor was the Bara Sahab’s (Manager’s) bungalow, which has now been converted into a spacious guesthouse to draw tourists. Positioned on a hilltop, it allows for marvelous views of the Brahmaputra on one side and the tea estate on the other.

Koliabor Manor

Koliabor Manor

We arrived at Koliabor at 10pm and were greeted by the amiable owner/manager of the resort, Mr. Prasanta Borgohain and his efficient service team. The bungalow had a very colonial feel to it, elegantly decorated with minimalist, Victorian interiors (armchairs, chandeliers) and pictures hanging on the wall reminding us of its previous residents. Prior to dinner, members of an indigenous tree tribe who work on the plantation performed a dance for us. The lyrics of the song they danced to aptly capture some of their difficulties – alcoholism and violence (~50% pick up arms to join ULFA, or similar separatist groups). We were then treated to a delicious vegetarian Assamese dinner consisting of pulses, rice (a staple of Assam), aloo pitikka (mashed potatoes garnished with raw onions, mustard oil, green chillies) and aubergine fritters, among others Tomato and onion chutneys (pickles) served as condiments.

Assamese dinner at Koliabor

Assamese dinner at Koliabor

To fully appreciate the topography, we woke up at 4.30am for a walk in the estate. Sunrise in the northeast induces sublime scenery as the region is cloud infested and hillocked. The frontage is a slope of well-combed tea plants and to the left of the mansion are an upcoming chalet area (to be fully equipped with swimming pool, spa and cottages) and a view point overlooking the Brahmaputra. The complex still has a functional sundial and an extra-grassy tennis court. This setup to draw tourists is part of an effort to increase “tea tourism”, which, when combined with a visit to the nearby Kaziranga National Park make for an even more attractive package. Our stay at Koliabor was topped off by a 6.3 earthquake that affected a large part of the northeast region.

Kaziranga is generally closed to tourists during this time of the year owing to the monsoon, opening only on November 1. However, we managed to convince a park ranger to take us for a short safari. After boarding an open jeep at the Rhino Gate of the park, we proceeded to pick up an armed guard at the security check-post. Kaziranga is famous for having the highest population of rhinos in the world (~2000). In fact, it has 2/3rds of the world’s one-horned rhinos. The park also has the highest number of tigers in a protected area. Naturally, we were excited to spot these endangered animals.

A few minutes into the safari, quarreling cows obliged us with their presence. Grazing wild elephants were next in line. Soon after, we jostled to stay onboard as the driver braked and pointed to deer right in front of our vehicle. Finally, we approached a vast clearing where rhinos were feeding or enjoying their afternoon naps. Although they were roughly 500 meters away, our guide provided binoculars that allowed us to see them very clearly. We were told that during peak-season, tourists can ride elephants into the park and get as close as a meter away from the rhinos. While we were on our way out, animated villagers told us that a tiger has been spotted half a kilometer away from where we were. As we approached the spot, bystanders confirmed that a tiger, albeit dead, was found earlier in the day. Upon inquiry, we learnt that the tiger had died a natural death, reducing the number of tigers in the reserve to 85. Two security guards had been deployed near the corpse till officials arrived to take the body for a post-mortem. Wild boars bid us farewell as we exited the park, quite satisfied with our off-season safari. We paid INR500 for the safari and during the peak season, the rates go up to INR1,200, still very reasonable by international standards.

Wild elephants grazing

Wild elephants grazing

Dead tiger in Kaziranga

Dead tiger in Kaziranga

Another interesting observation during our safari was the presence of a large number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh (~5% of the population). They have occupied the land bordering and sometimes encroaching on the reserve, by cutting down forest cover in favor of cultivable land. Now constituting a sizeable vote bank for the local government and claiming ownership of the land not previously their own, they have taken advantage of our porous border and put a further strain on resources.


1 Comment »

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    Comment by — January 1, 2010 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

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