Nestled at the foothills of Eastern Himalayas along Torsa River is Jaldapara, a quaint settlement which is not just an epitome of natural beauty but also home to some of the rarest species of flora and fauna. Having descended from Darjeeling, we were following the National Highway to Siliguri in our SUV when a hoarding informed us of the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary being in close vicinity. All of us being avid nature lovers, the temptation was much too great to be ignored and soon we found ourselves having taken a diversion and headed towards Jaldapara, the home of the Asiatic one-horned Rhino, which was just about an inch away from extinction.
Even though our visit was unplanned, we were lucky in terms of timing because this area is at its best between the months of October and March and it was still early January. Finding suitable accommodation was a little difficult since the town is yet to raise its standards in terms of tourist lodges and my suggestion would be to book into a government bungalow beforehand. There is provision for accommodation within the renowned sanctuary too, something that we were to discover later, but again it is high on the priority list of every traveler and hence needs to be booked way in advance.
That said, our main objective was to visit the sanctuary and to this effect, we booked our tickets for the early morning trip the next day. Few regions are as perfect for qualifying as natural habitats for the Indian rhino and this is one of the areas that have served as a traditional home for the magnificent beast since time immemorial. And rightly too, considering that the tall grass which is native to this soil is the most perfect natural cover the bulky beast could hope for in terms of camouflage, protection and solitude.
Driving through the gates, we arrived at a point within the sanctuary beyond which vehicles are not permitted. By this time, we were already in the midst of a dense jungle with the parking hub serving as an oasis offering snacks, beverages like tea and coffee and plenty of advice. From there on, the ride would be on an elephantâ€™s back since this animal alone had the ability to penetrate deep into the lush green forest and negotiate the rough terrain comprising of undergrowth and streams.
As we began our trip to the interior of the forest, our guide started out by informing us that circa 2012 Jaldapara had joined the elite list of national parks in India and prior to this date it had just been a wildlife sanctuary, declared as such in 1941 with the sole purpose of preserving the rhino. Through the forest we plodded on with branches of trees brushing past us and a variety of birds either following us or watching us go by. All we could in our ignorance was to appreciate the variety and diversity surrounding us, also noting that for a botanist or an ornithologist such a trip would probably have been a God-send.
Soon we came upon a stream and were about to exclaim on the clarity of water when our mahaut silenced us completely and pointed ahead. There, in the midst of the stream with cool water flowing past its legs and huge body, was the rhino, reveling in an early morning bath. Whether or not it was perturbed by our intrusion is something we could not ascertain but what became apparent as minutes ticked by was that it was enjoying the leisurely bath so much that it really did not mind anything.
So the rhino continued to bathe and we stood on the fringes of the stream watching it in awe, not taking our eyes off even for an instant for the fear of missing something about the huge mass of flesh. After what must have been about 5 to 7 minutes although it did seem like an eternity, the rhino stirred out of its complacency and decided that it was definitely not worth being stared at by a bunch of human beings perched atop an elephant. With surprising agility it made its way out of the stream and clambered on to the far bank to blend into the thicket and simply vanish as though it was never there in the first place.
We took a few minutes to recover from the experience and moved on to finish the safari which comprised of catching sight of a sambhar and a wild boar. In spite of several weeks having elapsed after this incident, the memory of a rhino standing a just a few meters away and bathing with not a care in the world is still etched as clearly in my mind as though it was just yesterday.