Thursday 27th November 2014

By boat through the mangrove-lined creeks of the World’s greatest delta

After an all too brief night of luxury at the Hyatt Regency in Salt Lake City, not Utah but Calcutta (Kolkata), we bade our farewells with copious quantities of gin and tonic to three members of the Naturetrek group, picked up two others who had been on a Brahmaputra River cruise, as well as our new guide, Sujan Chatterjee, and headed out, bound for a small riverside town to the south-east, from where we were due to board a river boat for our great Sunderban adventure.

The Sunderbans is a vast network of mangrove-lined channels that forms the World’s most extensive delta system, and is shared roughly equally between India and Bangladesh. It is also home to one of the largest remaining populations of tigers, but as we were to find out for ourselves, they are none too easy to find.

Our boat was a typical wooden vessel of the region, with raised bow and stern, and with a covered seating and viewing area. We chugged out into the channel, and it was as if we were immediately entering a different world, so peaceful compared to the frenetic and chaotic drive we had just experienced from Calcutta. Our first voyage was quite short, taking us to our base for the coming three days, the Sunderban Tiger Camp, on Bali Island, which still has no mains electricity, although we were catered for by a generator.

Our boat was a typical locally built wooden vessel

From here we would set off each morning for a day of cruising gently along the channels, mud-fringed at low tide and extending into the mangroves at high water. Occasionally we would stop and scan from the watch towers that have been constructed in various places, in some places with cleared openings radiating out from them, which can help in observing the normally elusive tigers.

Sunrise over the river

Apart from an impressive array of five different species of kingfisher, the wildlife highlights included around ten saltwater crocodiles, quite large numbers of prehistoric-looking water monitor lizards, several wild boar and a number of cheetal, or spotted deer.

Black-capped Kingfishers were much in evidence

The Brown-winged Kingfisher was fairly common

Saltwater crocodiles are quite numerous in the Sunderbans

The water monitor is an impressive beast

The mangroves here are not tall, and they form an almost impenetrable wall along the highwater mark, interspersed in places by areas of phoenix palm. It was an amazing feeling to be nosing our way along these seemingly endless channels, weaving our way through this vast network of waterways. Somehow, however, perhaps because of the greater variety of birdlife I had seen in mangrove areas in Vietnam, Guatemala, Ecuador and Australia, I was slightly disappointed by the birds here, maybe unjustly so, but somehow I missed the waders and other waterfowl that I had expected to see in profusion. Apparently there was an extensive mudflat that we could have visited on the other side of Bali Island, but time was not sufficient to warrant an outing to that place.

Cruising along the mangrove-lined channels

The last morning involved a village walk from our accommodation, and it was quite an eye-opener. The local people here live extraordinarily simple lives that can hardly have changed in centuries – apart from the inevitable modern touches including mobile phones and satellite dishes for televisions powered by solar panels. Other than these items, the people live in dark, mud and wattle-walled single-storey houses without windows and with palm leaf roofs, and with a single pit toilet at the end of the “street”.

People here live in very simple conditions

The main drag, with cow dung cakes drying on the thatched roofs

Again all too soon, our Sunderbans excursion drew to a close, and we headed back to “civilization” (i.e. urban chaos), and said our goodbyes to the rest of our tour companions. A further day’s historical tour of Calcutta rounded off our stay in the East, and then we took a heavily delayed overnight (and half the next day) train to Lucknow, where we have just completed a moving tour of the places associated with what we refer to as the Indian Mutiny and the Indians name the First War of Independence. This will be described in the next episode.

Sunrise over the Sunderbans

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Sunday 23rd November 2014

Darjeeling – Queen of the Hills…or not? And Kaziranga, the Rhinos’ saviour.

Following our departure from Bhutan, we crossed the border into India, and the contrast was immediately noticeable – the frenetic rush of Indian traffic was around us at once, but initially not for long, as we had to stop at Indian immigration, which appeared to be housed in a private house, albeit with a kind of blockhouse at the entrance, manned by a military policeman.

Having filed into the waiting room, we were called in one by one to be interviewed and photographed in order for us to obtain re-entry stamps in our passports. All went smoothly until it came to Rosemary’s turn – she had filled in her form in red, which was unacceptable; this was not nearly as serious an issue as that experienced by a French couple who followed us in: they had failed to obtain an exit stamp for Bhutan, and had to re-cross the border into Bhutan, get the stamp, and then re-enter India and re-present themselves at immigration.

There then followed a seemingly endless drive, initially through lowland tea plantations, then over the Teesta River via the Coronation Bridge, and then ever upwards until we eventually reached the ridge on which the “Queen of Hill Stations”, Darjeeling, is situated. First impressions were slightly underwhelming – chaotic traffic and an almost impossible one-way system that would be enough to put off even the most hardened of travellers.

The Coronation Bridge over the Teesta River, built in 1937

Once we had finally arrived, we checked into our charmingly colonial accommodation, the Elgin Hotel. The public areas looked marvellous, and Rosemary was half-seriously asked whether she would be leading the party in Raj-era dancing (as a “relic” of Empire), but I was none too impressed to find that I had been allotted a room with no windows other than a couple of long painted in and totally unopenable skylights. Luckily I was able to change rooms the following day.
Darjeeling is an extraordinary mix of old British buildings, chaotic mess, extreme traffic congestion and energy. We had a programme that was initially planned to be almost entirely culture-based, but a mild rebellion from the group altered the focus to more wildlife, and our local guide, although he had not experienced birding groups before, did manage to seek out some more rural locations and walks, so we did at least see something of Darjeeling’s apparently rather limited natural offerings.

The charming Elgin Hotel, Darjeeling

One of the standard attractions of a visit to this hill station is a trip on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), first opened in 1881, and which brought visitors up to the cool mountain climes from the steaming plains of Bengal. Sadly, since 2009 the lower section of track from New Jalpaiguri to Kurseong has been in flux due to a series of landslides, and it is not certain when (or if?) services will resume, but from Kurseong to Darjeeling the trains still snake their way along the 2 ft gauge track, these days passing within inches of local shop fronts and crossing and re-crossing the main road, which takes away some of the charm of the scene that I had imagined, of the railway snaking its way up through the tea plantations and Himalayan forests.

One of the splendid steam locomotives of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

We took the train from Darjeeling as far as Ghum, stopping at the renowned Batastia Loop to admire this engineering feat. It has to be said that watching the splendid old steam locomotives puffing and hissing around the station was almost more interesting than riding the train, with its grimy windows and cramped interior, but the staff who manage to keep the old locomotives running deserve every congratulation, and we can only hope that the line will be completely restored in the not too distant future. One very pleasant sight was an extremely keen team of school-girl volunteer litter pickers, who were sweeping up trash around the station – apparently schools take it in turns to perform this task, although this particular case may have had more to do with Prime Minister Modi’s Clean Up India campaign.

These girls were doing a grand job of cleaning up the station and tracks

Another major attraction of Darjeeling is the early morning excursion to Tiger Hill, which offers one of the most famous Himalayan panoramas, focusing on the Kanchenjunga massif but also including the more distant Everest. This autumn, however, has not been kind to those who brave the 03.30 start to reach the viewing area, with hazy conditions blocking out the view. We ventured to Tiger Hill one afternoon, and visibility was only a few hundred yards. We admired the non-existant view, and were disappointed by the hundreds of discarded paper coffee cups that the morning viewers drink out of to warm themselves in the freezing early morning temperatures, and then launch over the parapet. Where is the Clean Up India campaign here?

Enjoying the Himalayan panorama from Tiger Hill??!!

After a few days, we braved the traffic-filled roads again to head down through precipitous tea estates to the airport at Bagdogra, from where we boarded a flight to Guwahati, capital of Assam. We arrived after dark here, and were split up into three separate Toyota Innova vehicles. The drivers were given strict instructions to keep together, but in the melée of traffic we became separated, and once we were away from the congestion, our driver really put his foot down. I did manage to drift off to sleep for a while, but when I woke up, we were already in the vicinity of Kaziranga National Park, where I clocked him doing 120 kph precisely where there was a sign saying “Caution Animal Corridor. Wild Animals Crossing. Max Speed 20 kph”. Rumble strips became launching pads as we flew over them. Rosemary slumbered peacefully through the entire adventure.

One advantage of this high-speed dash was that we arrived at our accommodation, the Wild Grass Camp, while the restaurant kitchen was still open, so we had already enjoyed a delicious (non-spicy) meal when I suddenly received a text message from our guide, saying “Call me immediately!!! Where are you?” He had become very concerned when the vehicles had got split up, and was extremely relieved to see us when the rest of the vehicles arrived later. No doubt that driver got a real earful later on!

Kaziranga is a jewel. Our days consisted of early morning game drives in the ubiquitous Maruti Suzuki Gypsy jeeps (we had three, one of which broke down consistently and had to be sacked – breaking down in close proximity to a Rhino, a Wild Elephant or a Tiger could have disastrous consequences), lunches back at Wild Grass, and afternoon Gypsy rides in another part of the Park.

The attractive Wild Grass resort, Kaziranga

One morning included an elephant ride, which I have to confess I did not enjoy greatly! I had previously experienced a different style of ride, where passengers sit on wooden planks looking out from the howdah. Here, in contrast, you have to straddle the elephant, and as my position was in the middle spot of a clearly very pregnant female, my nether regions suffered so badly that I turned down the offer of a further ride two days later.

Elephants lining up to take on riders at Kaziranga

Undoubtedly the highlight of Kaziranga is its assembly of Great Indian One-horned Rhinos. This one park hosts perhaps 80% of the entire World population, which is under constant threat of poaching for the horns, which of course have supposed value in traditional Chinese medicine (what endangered animal product does not?), as well as being coveted for ceremonial dagger handles in Yemen and the Gulf. The Park now has a shoot-to-kill policy towards anyone seen who may be suspected of illicit activities.

Face to face with a Rhino taking a bath

Shocking though it is, we became almost blasé about Rhinos; from one watch-tower, we were able to count 48 individuals, and we had seen at least another 20 on the way to that spot. We saw several mothers with calves, and at least here it seems that the animals have a future, so long as the will to preserve them persists.

One of the many Rhinos we met in Kaziranga

Higher still on my list of wants was an even more endangered species, the Greater Adjutant Stork, of which fewer than 2,000 still manage to hang on. Supremely ugly, with their bald heads and hanging, bare “gular sacks”, these relatives of the African Maribou Stork can best be seen scavenging at the municipal rubbish tip in Guwahati, but our arrival there after dark had put paid to our chances of a visit. Our local guide Tharoon pulled out all the stops to find me this enormous yet elusive bird, but it was not until the third day that three of these prehistoric-looking giants were spotted, circling with a few of the closely related and more numerous Lesser Adjutants.

The Greater Adjutant Stork, graceful in flight but ugly on the ground

One of the other highlights was a packed breakfast on the banks of the Brahmaputra, one of the World’s great rivers. Here the waters are divided into many different channels, with great sandbanks between them. As well as such avian highlights as at least 25 Great Thicknees and a full adult and a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, we were treated to the sight of a Gangetic Dolphin rising to breathe right in front of us. A more idyllic spot would be hard to find.

The Brahmaputra seemed almost like an inland sea

All too soon our time at Kaziranga drew to a close, and we left Wild Grass for the relatively short drive to the tiny airport at Jorhat for the two-hour flight to Calcutta, where we had one night of luxury at the Hyatt Regency Hotel before parting from three members of the Naturetrek group who had not booked the extension to the Sundarbans, the World’s largest mangrove delta – how we got on there will be described in the next installment.

The group scanning for the elusive and camera-shy Gangetic Dolphin

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Wednesday 12th November 2014

All good things must come to an end – goodbye to the land that measures Gross National Happiness

So, here we are in Phuentsholing, in a hotel that is literally ON the Bhutan-India frontier, ready to cross the border tomorrow morning (although that plan may be curtailed as there is a tea planters’ strike in West Bengal, and transport is currently blocked).

Our time in Bhutan has been an absolute delight. The flight into the spectacularly situated international airport at Paro was an experience in itself (described in the previous post), followed immediately by a visit to a magnificent medieval dzong (fortress), then the sighting of the long sought-after Ibisbill on the river just below our hotel, all of which made for an impressive first day.

The next morning saw us leave the hotel at 04.30, spy a probable Spot-bellied Eagle Owl in the bus headlights, and then wind our way ever higher through seemingly endless oak and pine forest to the Chelela pass, at 3988 m, which we reached just as dawn was breaking, and where we were treated to the sunrise illuminating the 7320 m Himalayan giant of Jomolhari. Just below the pass, on the descent towards the precariously perched settlement of Haa, we were privileged to observe both Himalayan Monal and a group of perhaps ten Blood Pheasants skulking through the frosted scrubby vegetation, neither of which are easy birds to find.

Jomolhari in the morning sun

The afternoon excursion was to the Tiger’s Nest monastery, perched in an almost impossibly precarious position on a sheer cliff. Most members of the group made it right up to the site itself, but my very delicate internal condition meant that I was feeling distinctly under the weather and I was forced to turn back in search of sanitary facilities (which I did not find).

The dramatically situated Tiger’s Nest

From Paro we headed eastwards, crossing the Dochula pass and then descending into the next valley to the small town of Punakha, where we commenced a search for perhaps the rarest (and largest) birds of the trip, the White-bellied Heron, Ardea insignis, which is second only to the Goliath Heron in size. The White-bellied Heron’s only known site in Bhutan has been destroyed by the construction of a dam, and the very few birds have moved up river and now frequent the rocky riverbed, where they have now belatedly received full protection. Nobody knows the precise world population of this species, which occurs sparingly around North-east India, Bhutan, Burma and Bangladesh, but it may not exceed 200 individuals.

Our scanning for herons was interrupted early on by the sight of a group of eight or nine Otters fishing and performing underwater acrobatics just below us, which kept us entertained for quite some time. We were unable to ascertain whether these were Common or Smooth-clawed Otters as they were precisely on the altitude boundary of where the two occur, and the visual distinguishing features are minuscule.

The otters put on a splendid show

One member of our team, Adrian, has perhaps the sharpest eyes of any naturalist I have ever encountered (indeed he has been teased about having a Tibet list as well as a Bhutan one!), and needless to say it was Adrian who spotted the first heron; these enormous birds are extraordinarily hard to find on the rocky islets in mid-river, as they stand motionless among the stones, their subtle grey and white colours blending in with their surroundings.

The White-bellied Heron may be large but it is well camouflaged

We finally went on to see three of these splendid birds, and it was heartening to know that efforts are finally being made to give them a chance in this ever-developing world, a development which has now reached even the formerly isolated kingdom of Bhutan, which makes stringent moves to protect its magnificent forests and environment, but which is also fragmenting crucial habitats through road and dam construction.

The next day saw us working our way up the beautiful Punakha valley on a rough road, stopping at suitable-looking spots and checking the forests for birds. The rice-fields, now either already harvested or soon to be so, were glowing an orangey-brown colour in the morning sunlight, interrupted here and there by traditionally-styled farmhouses (all buildings in Bhutan, whether old or new, conform to the traditional Bhutanese style, with ornately carved wooden window-frames, walls painted with Buddhist motifs, and a pitched roof set up off the actual flat roof of the house itself, providing a space through which the wind can pass and dry crops or newly cut hay).

Then began a series of four consecutive days of immensely long drives, something I think the planners of this tour could have avoided, but our first port of call could not have been omitted, the remote Himalayan settlement of Gangtey, in the Phobjika valley. This high, cold area plays host to another almost mythical bird, the Black-necked Crane. Breeding way up on the Tibetan plateau and in Ladakh, a flock of these elegant creatures fly over the high Himalaya to winter here.

As we descended into the valley, we were offered the choice of either hiking through the forests to a crane-viewing point or remaining with Rosemary in the bus, stopping on the way to the hotel to look for cranes from the other side of the valley. I found myself in two minds; the hike sounded good, especially after being cooped up in the bus as it powered its winding way up the immensely-scaled Himalayan mountain roads, yet the thought that Rosemary might see the cranes and I might miss them was a worrying prospect indeed! Nevertheless, I did opt for the hike.

Our route took us steeply down through pine forest, over a rushing stream and then along the valley side, with occasional gaps in the trees offering views down across the marshy valley floor, but I became more and more worried by the silence. My experience of cranes is that they can normally be heard from a long way off, bugling with their evocative calls that can carry for miles; here the silence was ominous.

I need not have been so concerned, however, as a sudden cry of “Whoa!” from our guide Kartikeya Singh brought us all to a standstill, and there, way down in the valley, was a group of perhaps thirty Black-necked Cranes peacefully feeding in the evening sunshine. Considerably larger than the Common Crane, these birds appear grey in the books, but in reality they seem much paler, appearing almost white, with contrasting black “bustles” (cranes appear to have bushy tails, but these are in fact long, curved wing feathers which hang over the tail when the birds are at rest).

Our first group of Black-necked Cranes, a bird I had long hoped to see

A further scan revealed several more groups of birds dotted across the valley, and we were treated to a long and wonderful viewing of these very special birds, accentuated by a beautiful male Hen Harrier (spotted by Adrian!) quartering the grasslands just beyond, his pale grey colouring with jet black wingtips matching that of the cranes perfectly.

We were out early the following morning, wrapped up against the icy cold, and were treated to a further sighting of two adult cranes with their two young; seeing these birds through the mist as they strode through the frosty grass, and then watching them as they winged their way off to their daytime feeding grounds elsewhere in the valley, with Oriental Skylarks flitting around us, was a fitting finale to an all-too-short visit to this magical spot.

The Black-necked Crane family winging their way off to feed

We then retraced our long and winding way out of the Phobjika valley, over a high pass, then right the way down the next valley, over the river near the dam that had displaced the White-bellied Herons, then up and up to the Dochula pass again, before finally descending into Bhutan’s diminutive capital, Thimphu, where we had a look around the slightly shabby but nonetheless interesting centre, before checking into our hotel for the night.

The following morning, we were pleased to have the chance to see a little more of Bhutan’s capital, this time from the slopes above the “city”, where we visited a huge gilded Buddha that is under construction on a high bluff overlooking Thimphu, apparently shipped as a kit from Hong Kong. The views of the town were spectacular, as was the extraordinary creature we visited in a breeding centre next, the highly improbable-looking Takin. This extraordinary mammal, something like a cross between a goat, a cow and a pony, is Bhutan’s national animal. It breeds in the alpine meadows of a small area of Bhutan, descending in winter to the more sheltered forests, but this beast is now endangered by road construction and competition from domestic yaks, and is extremely hard to see in the wild. Here at least one has a chance to wonder at this bizarre creature, and hope that its wild cousins can continue to exist in an ever-developing future.

Bhutan’s capital Thimphu seen from the new Buddha

The rest of the day was again spent in the bus, as we descended ever lower towards Phuentsholing, the steamy, bustling border town, where we are spending one final night in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, a unique land that cut itself off from the corrupting influences of the outside world for so long, only opening itself to “mass” tourism a few years ago, and only passing from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 2008. Our very good humoured and ever-smiling guide Jotschu said rather feelingly “We preferred it when the King made all the decisions.” Perhaps that sums up Bhutan, a land that really is different from any other country that I have visited so far – long may that difference remain.

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