This piece was originally published in 1999, and is based on a 1996 camping trip. My thoughts have been drifting back to this experience lately, so I thought I’d share it. It’s a little overwrought, but it is significant for me personally because my writing voice first started emerging with this piece. Besides a few copy-editing and internationalization touches, I haven’t changed anything.
– One –
Namdapha, in an obscure corner of the subcontinent. Unobtrusive in a list of National Parks, among more famous names like Kaziranga and Corbett.
There is magic here.
I mean it. Many people know about it, and they carefully try to keep the place safe, by calling it a “National Park”. Not because there are tigers here, not because there are snow leopards, but because there is magic. There are other places that are wild — but nowhere else is there magic. You ride your bus through quaint places with names like Digboi and Miao, quaint but not magical; you pass through miles of lightly wooded country, green and natural, but again, not magical.
And then you enter.
The forest we are driving through, Wada explains over the noise in the cramped jeep, is secondary growth. “Real sub-tropical rainforest takes several thousand years to develop,” he yells. He waves at the yellow patches visible between clumps of trees, “When we get into the real thing, you’ll see the trees cover the land completely, with no gaps. There will also be dense undergrowth.” The jeep trundles through a rickety gate. We are now inside Namdapha National Park.
Namdpaha, land of four big cats. Land of the Hoolock Gibbon. The barren and cold Eastern Himalayas to the north, beyond the Dapha Bum Ridge. To the south, a troubled Burma across the Patkai Ranges. In the middle, the valley of the Noa Dehing and the Namdapha, the last magic kingdom on Earth.
At Deban, the trail starts. It cuts straight through 1985 square kilometers of untamed jungle, a relic of a time when ambitious men tried to build a road to Vijaynagar on the eastern end of the reserve. They underestimated the steady power of relentless rain, nine months a year.
I stand on the river bank. The others are still chatting excitedly about the sambar tracks we saw on the other side of the river. I look up; the Andromeda Galaxy is startlingly easy to pick out. The first piece of magic. Or is it just the clear forest skies? I am uncomfortable here, I do not really fit in.
We are ready to start, early the next morning. The consultations in torchlight over the planned route ended last evening. Hazrababu, our guide, has promised us at least a glimpse of the Hoolock Gibbon, the only ape native to India. The porters, Tiger, Gurav and Gangura, help each other hoist the heavy packs of rations onto their backs. They are silent, with impassive faces. Hazrababu makes up for their taciturnity with incessant chatter.
Crunch-snap-crunch, one step, another step, another step, the hike has started. Occasional laughter as some of the others exchange jokes. We stop every now and then, as someone spots a fluttering flash of color in the undergrowth. Salim Ali’s Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent is pulled out hastily and the binoculars handed around. A list is slowly growing, Black Drongo, Himalayan Treepie, Himalayan Whistling Thrush. Joshi has become a butterfly fanatic. “Did, you know,” he exclaims, peering at his guidebook, “there are some 3000 butterfly species in this region? That’s nearly half the world’s total!” Another list is growing as well, Dark Judy, Leopard Lacewing, Common Map. Wada is not as good with the butterflies as he is with the birds.
Five miles to the 22nd mile camp. I take off my shoes and discover that I have my first leech bite. A drop of saline and the little bugger drops off, leaving a wet, red smear. Need to lace up my boots and leechguards better next time.
Have the others noticed too? That the silence is very different here? They must have. Conversation has died down to a bare minimum. The crunch of gravel underfoot, the swish of huge leaves, Tiger’s steady breath as he walks ahead of me. Nobody has realized that this is a part of the magic, steadily growing stronger.
– Two –
Everybody is slightly constipated the next morning. Maggi Noodles and condensed milk; good camping food. Another five miles scheduled for today, on to the 27th mile camp. A third list is growing very slowly, Malayan Giant Squirrel, Eastern Mole (dead), Tiger ( pugmarks).
Someone wails, “When do we actually get to see the Famous Four Big Cats?”
“This isn’t like Corbett, where the tigers practically pose for photographs,” Wada smiles indulgently. This is his second trip to Namdapha. He says the illegal logging operations have already changed the landscape noticeably in just the two years since his last visit. Apparently rich businessmen buy up the logging rights of the locals and fake the paperwork, logging many times the allowed quotas.
The core area is still untouched though. Nobody knows for how long.
We are used to the silence now, as we trudge steadily. Occasionally the trail draws near the river. The view is becoming increasingly impressive, as we slowly climb higher up the valley. The trees are close together, an impenetrable wall of green a few feet from the trail. A fourth list is easy, Hollong, Hollock, Wild Banana. The bird list is growing the fastest.
“Rainforests like this, they reach such incredible stability over the centuries, the number of trees per square mile of any species stays nearly perfectly constant. Things get much more complicated than the equatorial forests though — those have no undergrowth.” Another illuminating nugget from Wada. He has been urging everybody who will listen, to read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, the cult classic on the philosophy of conservation.
Millennia of evolution, incredible stability. Food chains and nutrient cycles drawn taut by the creeping and inexorable power of natural selection. Nature using a stochastic search to move to ever higher local maxima on the fitness landscape. The blind and impersonal power of evolutionary optimization. I smile at my own thoughts. The words sound silly here.
Early tropical sunset. We make camp at the damp, abandoned shack at 27th mile. Everybody has encounters with the squiggly little leeches. Saline is passed around. I have far more leeches crawling over my khaki leech guards than the others, there is something wrong with my shoelaces.
I watch Tiger impassively flick a leech from his foot with the tip of a machete, as he relaxes silently after several hours of trudging with the heaviest of the packs. The porters fetch water from the river in long bamboo tubes, far more efficient than our clumsy pails and jugs. We listen open-mouthed as they tell us about the flavor of bamboo rice, rice cooked inside bamboo stems over an ordinary brush fire. Khichdi and aachar today. Amit is a revelation. He cooks like a professional.
Surely the others have noticed it now? Time and space are different here, rhythmic somehow. There is a startling homogeneity here that seems to capture all of infinity and eternity in a tiny box around me, just a few cubic feet in space and a few silent minutes in time. Time and space, they are unmarked here. Anonymous, unpunctuated by alarm clocks and the throb of cars pulsing through asphalt grids. There is a stillness here. You know that the place has been this way for centuries.
– Three –
We are moving faster now, not breathing so hard. There is an odd alertness to everybody’s walk. It takes fifteen minutes for the stiffness in my muscles to give way to a feeling of incredible power. With a shock I realize that despite sleeping on bumpy ground in a stifling sleeping bag, my nose open to the night chill, I have just had the best night’s sleep in several years.
I try to remember, there was no tossing and turning last night. I fell asleep within minutes of crawling into the sleeping bag, The sleep was heavy, dreamless, deathlike. And when I awoke, I awoke instantly, completely alert. No tired red eyes. No memories — it’s as if ten hours have simply vanished. Is it just the exercise? Can’t be. Even hours of swimming workouts under the glare of Coach Reddy’s eyes never bought me this sort of sleep. More magic. There is an odd loss of identity here. Am I a part of this forest now? A slave to its rhythm and tempo? It is a strange thought, reassuring and terrifying at the same time.
The seven miles to the 34th mile camp are being covered at a record pace. The bird list is still growing. We heard the Hoolock gibbons screaming last evening. More tiger pugmarks. No tigers, no clouded leopards. A heavy thrashing deep in the undergrowth brings us to a stop. We peer hopefully through the sea of green, might be sambar or gaur. We see nothing, the heavy silence settles again, instantly. The interruption is forgotten in a few minutes, Namdapha wraps a tight straitjacket of the present around us again.
Ajay and I have been walking faster than the others. We reach the 34th mile camp and have twenty minutes to ourselves, while the others catch up. We are on the edge of a cliff, with a magnificent view of the Noa Dehing flowing hundreds of yards below us, deceptively lazy. The entire sky is visible after a very long time. We can see vultures riding updrafts far above us. “Himalayan griffon,” Ajay hazards. We are not sure. The birds are too far above to identify clearly. Ajay collapses on the unexpected patch of grass just on the edge of the cliff. I sit down beside him and then get up with a yell. A fat greenish leech is hanging determinedly from my finger. It is fatter and bigger than the cousin we met earlier — the black leech. This one is more than an inch long. We decide to remain standing.
The others arrive. Gurav looks at my leech, now dead in a puddle of saline, and grins. He tells us that the green leech is more annoying — it sometimes drops down on people from branches overhead, unlike the black leech, which only crawls up from the grass. We grin uneasily at each other. Khichdi again today. I am not really that hungry. Ration master Tambe has increased the daily chocolate ration from one bar to one and a half and I have already eaten all of mine. I sit on a rock for a few minutes before turning in, staring at the river. The vultures have left.
There are dead leaves, dry branches, leeches floating dead in saline, yet the atmosphere is charged with an exuberant life energy, unbridled and oppressive. Trees, trees, trees all over, as far as I can see. A landscape of deathlike stillness, yet almost numbing with the smell of untouched life, miles and miles of it.
Why does this overabundance of life have such a still, deathlike facade? The place seems startlingly clean. Wait a minute. Clean? There is damp rotting stuff all around, there is a smelly green puddle just yards away. Would you sleep with a tub of compost in your room? No, this is not a clean place, not a tidy place. What is it then, this odd feeling of cleanliness?
– Four –
Six miles to the rest house at 40th mile. The view is getting so stunning that we can just stare. At some points on the trail, we have a view of nearly the entire valley, some hundred miles long, with the Dapha Bum peak dimly visible through the shifting clouds. We cross one treacherous stretch, where a landslide has destroyed the trail. We cross gingerly, slipping on the dangerous, shifting rubble. The landslide is fresh, so there is no tough shrubbery to grab for support. It takes nearly an hour for everyone to get across. Most of us are scratched and mildly bruised all over. Fortunately the weather has been bright and sunny for several days now, Hazrababu says the trail is nearly useless during a large part of the rainy season.
The rest house pops up suddenly around a bend. It looks ridiculous, sitting incongruously in the middle of the forest. The Public Works Department built it in the same bout of enthusiasm in which they built the trail. The trail was supposed to be motorable, but a few years of regular landslides put an end to that ambition, and the rest house stands, largely unused, a relic of that effort.
We have reached earlier than scheduled. There are dry rooms with level floors to sleep on, for the first time in days. We stroll around, exploring the terraced gardens, a pathetic island of order in the middle of chaotic, exultant greenery. Somebody shouts. A strange tree has been discovered, laden with succulent yellow citrus fruits the size of small soccer balls. I make my one contribution to the flood of biology trivia that comprises most of our nerdy conversation , “That’s babli mas,” I inform the others. Not Latin, but still, a label. We had a babli mas tree growing in the garden of the house I lived in as a kid. The others have never tasted the fruit.
Gurav has found a patch of chili plants. He carefully chops some up, tosses them with the babli mas pulp, and offers it to us with an innocent grin. It is liquid fire, deliciously sweet and cool citrus, mingling with chilies so hot, it is nearly inedible. We gasp and choke and reach for more. It is completely irresistible. We sprawl out in the sun, on the improbable lawns, eating. Gurav is delighted. He informs us that we are eating Chakma Jong.
Food tastes good here, I think lazily. No spices, no delicate flavoring. Eating is a messy business, juice streams down my chin. It is not just that I am hungry, no. Chocolate, condensed milk, they taste odd here.
A voice pipes up, “Hey, anybody else have this horrible itch on your feet?” Joshi is scratching furiously, his feet a splotchy red. Everybody has it, more or less severe. “Dumding,” Gurav says helpfully, pointing at the tiny fly like creatures swarming overhead. Somebody murmurs, “Damn Things.” Laughter. The name sticks. It will take a week for the Damn Things to be finally forgotten.
Inside concrete walls, the outside world makes a brief reappearance. Jokes are exchanged till late into the evening, biology and Namdapha forgotten for a brief moment.
We sleep an extra hour. We are not moving today, but exploring the trail a little way ahead, where a broken bridge across the river marks our turning point. On the way there we come across the highlight of the trip — the severed leg of a sambar deer. There are drag marks all around, and distinct pug marks. “Leopard,” says Hazrababu with assurance, “Last night.” We stare at the leg for a while before moving on.
The bridge is in shambles. We sit about on the rocks for a while, watching the river, which is narrow and rapid over here, as it flows between huge boulders. The bird list is still growing. Daurian Redstart, Plumbous Redstart, Little Forktail.
Another night on level ground. The khichdi has turned out especially well today. Large dollops of ghee for everyone. To bed.
The severed leg of a sambhar deer. Exuberant life, death in plain sight. Death does not hide here, I think sleepily. Death is necessary here, as necessary as life. I think of urban images of death: dry plants in moldy gardens, a squirrel plastered to the road by a speeding car, men chanting dolefully as they carry a body to the ghat. Death is ugly in the city, perhaps because we try to avoid thinking of it as necessary. Inevitable yes, undesirable, yes, necessary, no. Death hides in the city, and life looks tired and insubstantial. In Namdapha, death does not hide. Odd then, that life should still dominate the senses so fully here.
– Five –
Quick march to Embeong. We go back along the trail, to a fork at 33rd mile, where one branch, the one we hiked up, leads back to Deban. The other branch slopes down rapidly to the river bank, Embeong. The going is good, since the trail is now all downhill. We cover the entire ten odd miles to the riverbank by late afternoon. A record number of leeches: the last part of the trail has been unusually damp, with several pools and small streams adding some variety to the otherwise easy trail.
Up close, the river doesn’t seem quite so lazy. I have to walk briskly to keep up with it. We sit for a while waiting for the sudden, early sunset. Two rather interesting additions to the bird list: a flock of merganser ducks and a grayheaded fishing eagle, the largest bird we’ve seen so far. Up on the slopes of the valley, the birds are small and inconspicuous.
“This is probably the worst place to start birdwatching,” Wada says, “Mountain birds are extremely difficult to spot. If you want an easy, rewarding start, you should try someplace like Bharatpur, where you’ll spot two hundred birds on a single tree.”
Nothing about Namdapha is easy. Corbett and Kanha are better if you actually want to see a tiger, but this, densely wooded and shadowy, is the tiger’s real home. The largest of the big cats is a solitary stalker, preferring to hide in dense, wet undergrowth. Weighing in at close to 500 pounds, large tigers are much larger than the largest lions. Perhaps because they are so elusive, tigers have not been romanticized the way lions have. I suddenly remember the tigers I saw in Patna zoo, on the way to Guwahati. I remember I was slightly shocked at the size of the cats. It was the first time I had seen a tiger with adult eyes. The impassive stare through notched pupils, the restless pacing in an enclosure a thousand odd square feet in area. I tried to imagine the tiger here in Namdapha, staring at me from fifteen feet away, with no deep moat separating us.
Fifty odd tigers in nearly seven hundred square kilometers, giving each a territory of close to fourteen square kilometers. It is a shocking thought: this magnificent creature that needs so much room to be content, is now slowly vanishing, as another creature spreads inexorably, demanding more land than even this lordly five hundred pounds of raw power. Lesser creatures adapt better. Leopards, tiny by comparison, manage to survive very well on the outskirts of human settlements, reduced to lowly scavenging, but still, surviving. No such compromise for these proud striped loners though; they are disappearing, unable to come to terms with the new lords of the planet. And so they pace, restless and angry, in pathetic concrete recreations of their original homes, a thousandth the size, with a few dispirited, straggling shrubs where dense luxuriant and damp forest should be.
The others are setting up a makeshift tent. It looks like rain and there is no abandoned shack here. There is no way we could have carried enough tents for twelve. All we have is one two-man tent. We cut up our barsaatis, large doubled up hoods of green plastic, that we have been carrying as raincoats. Eight barsaatis and several bamboo poles make a nice cuboidal enclosure, about eight feet by fifteen feet. We crawl in after a special meal of kheer, made with rich condensed milk, rice, cashews and raisins. It turned out thick, rich and extremely heavy, and we have all eaten too much.
An ambitious plan for the next day: cross the Noa Dehing, walk a few hundred yards west where the Namdapha joins the Dehing, cross that, and then make our way back to Deban along the northern bank.
We get across the Dehing easily; the water is swift and knee-deep, but easy to cross if you are careful.
It has started to rain gently, visibility is down to a few dozen yards and we have a glimpse of the true Namdapha, the Namdapha of the nine months of heavy, incessant rain. It takes us over half an hour to get through a wide patch of wild banana, to the banks of the Namdapha. We stop.
The Namdapha is extremely swift. Tiger struggles across with the first of the backpacks and comes back struggling, with a wide grin on his face. “Tough,” he says, “Very tough.” It doesn’t take a long time to decide that this is beyond us. Watching the surefooted Tiger, veteran of the mountains, struggle grimly across twenty odd feet of raging water, we realize this is more than we can manage. Tiger is furious, he has to go back and fetch the first backpack. He is furious with Hazrababu, not with us. The porters have not bothered to conceal their contempt for Hazrababu so far, but now they are outright angry. They think he is not fit to be a forest service guard or trail guide.
Hazrababu, protector of the magic. A dozen odd guards for 1985 square kilometers of magic. Most of those are busy providing personal security for government officials. There are effectively just two guardians of the magic, and they double as peons. What keeps the magic safe then? Something does, for there are no poachers here, no noisy tourists. Can the magic hold out much longer?
We head back, but decide to cross the Dehing right there, at the confluence. It is swift, but looks manageable, and nobody is in a mood to struggle through the wet banana patch again. The southern bank is at least open and sandy.
Joshi crosses first. He is solidly built and moves steadily. He seems to hesitate for a moment, but then goes on. He reaches the other bank and waves to us, shouting something that we can’t make out. The roar of the Namdapha pouring in is difficult to shout over. I go next. I am much lighter than Joshi, so I have to be careful. No shoes on this wet day — we’ve been wearing rubber flip flops to avoid delays at the river crossings. I carry mine in my hand. The water is really cold.
I start to cross. And halfway across, I stumble. The water snatches away the flip flops I am carrying. I struggle to stand up. All of a sudden I realize that the hard round stones hurt my bare feet. I fight to stay upright; the water is only knee-deep, but fast enough to sweep me away if I try to sit down. But staying upright is tough with the water whipping around my legs and the backpack making me top-heavy. So I stand frozen there, unable to move. The current is strong enough to drag me off balance if I try lifting a foot to take a step. So I wait, mind as frozen as feet.
It occurs to me that I could die in the next few minutes.
Gurav casually grabs me by the arm as he comes up behind me, and supports me the rest of the way across. He lets go of my arm as we reach the other bank, grins and walks off. I still don’t have my voice back. Joshi comes over and says, “I was trying to tell you guys not to try crossing here. The current is too swift.” I just nod dumbly.
The others have given up the shortcut and are headed back to the banana patch on the opposite bank. Joshi and I walk slowly back to camp. He spots a butterfly and yells at me to come look. I don’t think he realizes how scared I was. I still can’t believe it. I could have been swept away to the rocks a hundred feet downstream.
Suddenly, I realize why I felt uneasy on my first day here. It was not because I did not fit in, it was because I did. Namdapha does not lie to me. It tells me that I am part of it all, does not allow me to forget that I am mortal, that it is necessary that I must die someday, so that Namdapha can remain green.
Tomorrow I will be back in the real world. With that thought, another idea pops into my mind uninvited. Time is not unnatural here, in this unchanging place, it is the time in the outside world that is strange. That time has direction, purpose, a goal. Surely, that is not natural? Which one is the real world?
We made it back to Deban in one day, walking fast. Amit and I walked all the way, silent most of the time. The others stopped at 22nd mile, where they got a ride on a truck. The PWD still hasn’t given up hope of making the road motorable, and trucks are struggling up, laden with men and material.
Namdapha National park is in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh, tucked away in the easternmost corner of India. It is not frequented by tourists due to its inaccessibility, however with proper planning, it is possible to enjoy this most unusual of the Indian National Parks. Though it has more tigers and other wildlife than many more famous reserves, it is so well preserved that it is actually difficult to see anything here. The only large animal we managed to see was a barking deer. If you want to see a truly wild place though, Namdapha is probably the finest example in India.
Photo credits: Yogesh Wadadekar (Wada), who also provided feedback on the original piece.