The trip to Dooars in mid April was suddenly planned out of thin air. There was no deliberation earlier and I was looking forward to my trip to Uttarakhand in May but the opportunity for a short tour arrived as there was a long weekend around “Poila Baisakh”, the Bengali New Year and I grabbed it with both hands. My aunt and uncle were my companions in this journey to the Dooars and all of us were thrilled since none of us had a chance to enjoy before a vacation in the midst of uninhibited surroundings of forest.
The name Dooars has its origin from “duar” or door. Historically, the gateways to Bhutan were known as “duar” and hence the name Dooars which is the plural form of “duar”. Now the entire region is known as Dooars.
Our first destination was the Jayanti forest that is part of the Buxa Tiger Reserve. We took the Kanchankanya Express to Alipurduar Jn. which is about 25 kms and one hour’s drive away from the Jayanti forest. Before entering the forest area one needs to get the entry fee paid for individuals, cars and cameras at the forest check post. Once beyond the check post our cell phones did not catch any towers (though we were later told that the Vodafone connection works at some places within the forest area but none of us had Vodafone service provider) and soon we reached the forest rest house, we had out booking at.
The bungalow has an exquisite location with the panoramic view of the Jayanti River (which remains dry for most part of the year) just beyond of the fencing of the rest house with a range of blue hills bordering the other side.
There had been nor’wester rains the earlier night along with hail storm, the effects of which we had noticed on our way to the rest house in the form of uprooted trees. But we found that part of the rest house was damaged as well. However our rooms were spared, thankfully. Two suites named Hoopoe and Treepie respectively (both named after species of birds) were booked for us at the Forest Rest House also referred to as Jainty 1. The other accommodations available there are a dormitory run by the forest department known as Jainty 2, “Abakash” – a CESC guest house and another PHE guest house. I came to know about those other options from Tubu, our caretaker. Later on we noticed the “Abakash” guest house which was nearby.
After lunch we decided to go for a jungle safari. My uncle has acquaintances in the forest department and they informed the Ranger of our arrival in advance. The Ranger in turn arranged a car for us and also provided a forest guard to accompany us as a guide. Anyway, one must take along a guide for a forest safari and we felt happy since ours’ was an armed one.
Soon we were inside the core area of the forest where deforestation is not allowed. We were driving through a narrow road between the woods with trees like Sal and Segun on both sides and little by little the forest was growing dense. We were acclimatizing with the absolute silence of the forest punctuated at times by some bird voices and some rattling noises made by unknown animals and insects. This was quite a new experience for us who are more accustomed to constant city noises. Suddenly we noticed a Hornbill (known as Dhanesh in Bengali) sitting on a perch. Our driver Omprakash was alert and put the brakes on to allow us get a closer look. I was getting my camera ready but the bird flew away before I could take a snap, probably disturbed by the unwelcome interference of us – Humans.
Our first destination was a watch tower known as “Teish Mile” or 23 Miles named so because it stands at a distance of 23 miles from the Coochbehar Palace, or that is what our guide Amulya told us. He also made us aware that not all tourists are allowed to come to this point as it requires special permission. That information certainly boosted our ego of being treated with special care. The three storied watch tower is located at a crossroad from where one can see animals coming from one part of the dense forest and going to another. But our luck was such that over a stretch of three quarters of an hour we could only see one Indian Bison and that too for a few seconds. The guards at the watch tower told us that the previous day itself a herd of elephants came very near to the watch tower but that did not help our cause. The only consolation was a deer cub which had been abandoned in the forest and sort of adopted by the watch tower guards. Though it roams around the forest during the day, it stays at the watch tower at night and behaves like any other domesticated animal. I must also mention the different varieties of butterflies we witnessed around the watch tower. I have never seen so many at a time and of so many types as well.
On our return journey from the watch tower we did not anticipate that our day without any incident would end up being so much exciting and adventurous.
Only God knows what was going on inside our driver’s mind while he was driving back. Probably he was way too keen on keeping an alert eye on the forest at both sides rather than on the road ahead, so that he could make us take a glimpse of more birds and animals and make up for our disappointment at the watch tower. The result was that the car skidded into the low bushes beside the road and just avoided a head-on collision with a tree. We were safe and unhurt, thankfully, but it was difficult to put the car on the road again, at least for the few of us. The accident took place at more than 1 km away from the watch tower and the driver went back to the tower to fetch one of the guards for an extra pair of hands to help bring the car back to the road. But even with his assistance the car could not be restored back. After much discussion we finally decided to go back to the tower and call for more assistance from the ranger’s office via walkie-talkie. The light of the day was fading out and we were feeling a bit nervous being stranded out in the middle of the forest. Our guide Amulya loaded his double barreled gun and that made us more uneasy. He also warned us of possible leeches along the road and soon my aunt and I got the taste of the bloodsuckers tickling on our feet. Somehow we made ourselves free of the leeches but the lower ends of our dresses and socks were left soaked with our own blood that the leeches have sucked out of us.
We reached the watch tower soon and waited for the rescue party. Evening had set in by then and there was uninterrupted darkness around us. We were feeling pity for the forest guards who stay at the watch tower for two to three days at a stretch and were trying to imagine the loneliness they suffer from. After some time we were amused to notice fireflies blinking all around us and forming some arbitrary pattern of flash lights with the complete black backdrop of darkness. Suddenly there was a different kind of noise and with the help of the search light that our guide carried, we located a large solitary elephant with trunks which had come to eat salt kept a place near the tower. Afterwards we learnt that it is a common practice in reserved forests and sanctuaries to keep salt at some specific places for the animals and the salt actually act as medicine for the animals. The elephant was hardly 25 feet away from us and was a bit startled at the sudden light focused on it. We put off the search light and I along with the guard went to the furthest point of the tower fencing to take a snap. The guard again focused the search light on the elephant and I took some quick snaps (later I found that they did not turn up as well as I would have liked). The elephant was now at less than 15 feet’s distance and it took refuge behind a tree and looked at us with untrusting eyes. A few moments later it retreated further and could be hardly seen any more. The guards at the tower opined that there may be more elephants nearby since they generally move in a group. But we could not wait any longer since in the meantime the rescue jeep had arrived and along it came our car as well. We were a little surprised since the driver was with us and he had the car keys but we were told that there was another set of keys at the forest office and the rescue team had restored the car on their way to the tower.
However, the herd of elephants did not give us a miss. On our way back suddenly both the cars came to a halt since the herd was passing by (we were able to see around six to seven of them again with the help of the search lights and a couple of them were very close in fact) and only when all the elephants disappeared into the dense forests we again started our journey back to the rest house. Unfortunately I could not take any snap of the herd since the driver and the guards did not allow keeping the search light focused for long for the fear that the elephants might attack us.
A heart warming dinner was ready for us in the rest house. After dinner our caretaker Tubu left for his quarters which is nearby but before that locked all the doors and windows and left the key with us. We were left all by ourselves at the rest house, an experience I never had before on any of my previous tours. There was a chirping sound from nearby and I asked Tubu which bird it was. To my utter shock he revealed that it was not a bird but a “Thakshak” snake which resides on the roof of the balcony of the rest house. Seeing me panic he assured that it was a “vaastu” snake and won’t harm but I could not keep aside my fear for the rest of the night.
The following morning I woke up before six contrary to my late rising habit. There was enough light outside but the sun had not risen till then. We went out of the rest house and enjoyed the sunrise from behind the hills which outlines the dried up Jayanti river. It was a marvelous experience and this time I had enough time to take a few snaps. A couple of young kids were playing within the rest house complex and talking to them we came to know that they were relatives of the caretaker. To our much amusement, the elder boy’s name was Colonel. I had never heard such a name and could not help but chuckle at the fact that so young a kid could bear such a intense name.
After breakfast, we went to see another view point named the Tashi Gaon Lake on Pukuri Hills. That the name means a hanging lake in Nepali, we came to know courtesy our guide Amar who belongs to the local Rava tribe. The car halted around 50 metres before the lake and there was a steep road to travel on feet to reach the lake. On our way to the lake, we noticed many peacocks and peahens but they flew away before I could attempt taking any photo of them. The lake was not very spectacular but the peaceful calm around the region touches one’s heart. And there were many fishes and tortoises in the lake which came to the surface of the water as we scattered the puffed rice (“Muri” as we call in Bengali) we took with us to feed them, in the water of the lake. Just beside the lake there were many colourful festoons and a place of worship for the Bhutias. There was no temple of sort but a small block of stone over which some metallic symbols were present and from the amount of molten wax around the place, one can conclude that candles are lighted regularly there as a mark of respect.
Our time at Jayanti had come to the end. After lunch, we packed our bags and started our journey to the next destination. We booked the same car and this time one of the acquaintances of the driver accompanied us as he did not want to drive alone on his return journey back to Jayanti. The name of the new person was Sajal and he turned up to be very friendly and enlightened us with many anecdotes on the place. He told us that Buddhadeb Guha (who is a well known Bengali writer and writes predominantly on forests) had visited Jayanti many a times and he was the writer’s companion on a couple of occasions. He also said that his name exists as one of the characters in one of his books but could not name the book. On the way he showed us the road to Mahakal Mandir, a temple atop a steep hill which is one of the “Sati Piths” (i.e. according to Hindu mythology, a place where one part of the body of Uma fell when her husband, Lord Shiva, danced in rage over her dead body). We noticed some tea gardens on our way as well. The first of them was the Atiabari Tea Estate near Rajabhatkhawa and after that we drove for quite a distance just next to the rail tracks. It was a new experience to us and when the trains passed by our side we felt quite excited. Here I must mention a very interesting story on the origin of the name of the place Rajabhatkhawa. The saying goes that at one point of time, the Raja (King) of Coochbehar swore that he will not eat rice (bhat) until he defeats the Bhutanese army and drives them off. After a treaty was signed between Coochbehar and Bhutan and the Bhutanese army retreated, the Raja ate (khawa) rice at this place to end his vow and hence the name of the place.
Soon we reached Hasimara. Going further straight we could reach Phuntsholing, the border town of Bhutan. But we took a left turn on to NH31 and after we crossed the Torsha river, we were almost approaching our next destination, the Jaldapara Sanctuary. We witnessed elephants in Jayanti and hoped to see Rhinocerous in Jaldapara, for which Jaldapara is renowned for. But that is a different story that I would share in my next post.