Jaldapara Sanctuary was the second spot on our Dooars itinerary. Initially there were some anxieties whether our booking at the Hollong Bungalow would hold good since there was some news of the forest department minister and dignitaries visiting the sanctuary at that time and that would have meant cancellation of all other bookings. But thankfully, we got our booking at the forest bungalow alright and if we did not stay there we should have definitely missed out on many things.
We reached Jaldapara at around noon. But in spite of the warmly welcome by the bungalow staff, we felt terrible hearing the news that lunch would not be served there. The forest bungalow is located quite inside from the main entrance of the sanctuary, around 2 kms I guess, and we had already released the car that drove us from Jayanti to there. After settling down in our room, named Hornbill after a species of bird, we decided to book another car for the rest of the day. We were contemplating to take a jungle safari in the evening but the hotel staff discouraged us against it since we would in any case take the elephant safari the following day. Following their advice, we decided to visit the Khoirabari Nature Park in the afternoon after having lunch in one of the restaurants outside the sanctuary.
Unlike Jayanti, we found Jaldapara to be quite a celebrated and commercialized tourist place and the forest bungalow staff too showed more proneness to being the urbane persons we are more accustomed to in our city, rather than the raw innocence we experienced earlier. The bungalow too exhibited a more hotel like atmosphere since there were many other groups staying there as well (there are six rooms to rent out at the bungalow for general public) in contrast to our Jayanti experience where we were all by ourselves. But then one must not forget that Jaldapara had been a favourite resting place of the former chief minister, Jyoti Basu, and hence the people at the bungalow also are familiar with the VIP guests and are at ease with us, petty commoners. Later on, one of the bungalow staffs even showed us the rooms (from outside) where Jyotibabu used to stay.
We had Chinese cuisine at lunch at the restaurant recommended to us by the hotel staff, a feat that is unbelievable in any other remote forest, I guess. After lunch, we went to visit a museum where remains of certain animals are kept, or so our driver told us. Though we reached during the working hours, we found the museum doors closed and the ticket counter empty as the staff had went for lunch. Some other tourists were also waiting nearby and we joined them in the wait for the staff to return. But when they did not return even after 15 minutes, we decided to move ahead as the sun was quite hard and the museum did not even look fascinating from the outside.
At the entrance of the Khoirabari Nature Park, a quote from “Aranyak”, one of the classics of Bengali literature written by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, is displayed which speaks against deforestation and warns that a day will come when forests will be so scarce that people will visit forests as they go to pilgrimage today. I could not think of any more apt quote and the fact that the book was written years before only add to the credit of the writer.
The nature park comprises a leopard rehabilitation centre and we looked forward to taking a leopard safari where one takes a ride in a well guarded battery driven car inside a wired place where leopards roam about freely. We were hoping to see leopards from close vicinity but blame it on the heat or our luck, we could only spot one of them from quite some distance and then it disappeared behind thick bushes. The driver of the battery car then took us to an earthen room with iron gates where the leopards take shelter and are given food to and we located another couple resting in the shade of the room. Though the doors were open, it would have been more exciting to see them in the open. However the leopards did not seem to come out of their den soon and we decided to leave without bothering them any more.
On our way back to the Hollong bungalow, along the Falakata Road, that goes up to Joyga which is an Indian border town, we noticed large grey clouds creeping in and enveloping the blue sky. There were a few drops of rain as well. Though the picturesque green stretches along the road added to its appeal in the dead light and the cloudy backdrop, we were getting anxious for the fact that heavy rains would keep away the animals in deeper forest and we would not be able to see them from the bungalow in the evening as was assured by the bungalow staff.
Thankfully, the rains kept away and when we were having our evening tea back in the bungalow a sudden uproar indicated that some animal had come to the close proximity of the bungalow. There was a narrow stream of water just beside the bungalow and on the other side the animals would come to eat the salt kept for them by the forest staff. There were a flight of steps bordering the stream towards the side of the bungalow and the inmates of the bungalow were waiting there with eager anticipation. At first I could not see any animal. Then after a little while I noticed some movement behind the bushes. After some more time an outline of an animal was visible and the bungalow staffs present there could distinguish it as a rhinocerous. As time passed on, the outline grew clearer and eventually we could see the rhinocerous. Slowly the animal walked up to the place where the salt was kept totally oblivious and unaffected by the fact that so many human beings were exclaiming in sheer awe at its sight on the other side and the shutterbugs were engaged in taking some quick snaps. The evening light was fading out and we had enough view of the lone rhinocerous. It was without any horn by the way. Some opined that it must have damaged its horn while some others were of the belief that it might be a young one yet to develop a horn. It was growing dark and we waited for some more time in the darkness in anticipation of some more animals to show up. After quite some time we could spot a deer (not the spotted one but may be of sambar variety) but it soon ran away into the bushes once the forest guards focused search lights on it. We were feeling worn-out from the day’s toil and retired to our room. Our decision was hastened by the fact that I could hear the sound of the Thakshak snake in the vicinity and was not feeling safe to stay any more there in the darkness. However, before returning to our room we made arrangements with the forest guards to alert us if any more animal visit the place in the late evening. From our room also we had a good view of the spot through the windows and any action from the other tourists would have made us aware.
We did not see any other animal on that day. Later, next morning, I heard some over-enthusiastic tourists stayed near the stream till lat e night and could witness one bison. We had our dinner (which had many courses and even sweets) and went to sleep early because next day we needed to wake up early for the elephant ride at six in the morning.
The next morning, the bungalow stuff woke us up with morning tea and after freshening up we went for the elephant ride. There were four elephants waiting for us and on each one of them a maximum of four tourists could board. Even tourists staying outside the sanctuary in some other hotels are eligible for the elephant ride but they need to intimate the bungalow stuff earlier. The hour long elephant ride takes place three times in the morning one in every hour, but the probability of spotting animals is higher in the first such ride that begins at six o’clock in the morning. The elephants in turn stood beside a cement stand which was at a flight of steps above the ground and from the stand one could easily board on the elephant. There is a howdah type seat with iron fencing around for the safety of the tourists. Once all the tourists were atop the elephants, the mahouts (elephant riders) gave some strange instructions and the elephants started moving in unison inside the forest. Our mahout Nurul told that our elephant was ten years old and her name was Mandakini. The elephants were moving along roads created by the movements of the animals and crossed a few creeks and ponds in between. In one such water body, we witnessed two rhinocerous taking baths. These two were with their horns intact. They looked up and gazed at the elephants for a few seconds but did not seem bothered. After pausing for a few minutes at that place the elephants again continued their walk. We noticed some peacocks and parakeets and another lone rhinocerous within the bushes but did not see any bison or leopard or wild elephants. However, I was content with whatever I could see. The only grievance I had was that the snaps I took were ill-focused and did not turn up well due to the constant jerking and shaking of the elephant ride. The ride ended at the same place it started from and we were welcomed at the bungalow with a nice breakfast.
It was time to bid good bye to Jaldapara and to move along to our next destination and we hoped to enjoy there as well as we did at Jaldapara.
I hope the readers would also be interested to come back to go through my next experiences in Dooars.