Wild Wild Pakke!
Trip Report

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Pakke Trip Report
by Sumit Sen
4 May - 9 May 2012


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© Sumit Sen
Pakke Tiger Reserve

I visited Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh in the company of my friend and crack birder, Sujan Chatterjee in May 2012. The trip was arranged by Help Tourism who manage a resort at Seijosa with a local tribal self-help conservation group named Ghora-Aabhe.

Departing from Kolkatain the morning, I arrived at Guwahati airport to catch up with Sujan who made the flight from Bagdogra. Given our late arrival at Guwahati, and the time it would take to reach Seijosa by road, it was decided that we would drive up to Tezpur in Assam and spend the night there. That drive included a long delay due to congestion and evening found us at our rather seedy hotel in downtown Tezpur. We were off for the 50 km drive to Seijosa early in the morning and I was thinking of a short trip and an early lunch at the Jungle Camp. But the road from Tezpur to Seijosa, aside from a short well-laid portion, made driving an adventure. In places it seemed that no road existed. A smart shower the evening before had also added some extra spice, and even the beautiful tea estates that lined the road did not help to take my mind off the journey.

© Sumit Sen
Road to Pakke

We eventually arrived at the one-horse-town called Seijosa – the gateway to Pakke Tiger Reserve around mid-day! Having bought our rations from a roadside butcher © Sumit Senwe headed towards the calm and noise-free (read no mobile signal) prescient of the Pakke Jungle Camp.

 My first real experience of how wild the Pakke experience would be came when I found out that the Camp was a full 200 meters uphill from the road and the 4 wheeler could not take the nearly vertical slope! My old legs being only 2 wheel, the daunting task ahead of me seemed like a mountain to climb, especially as I might have to do this twice a day over the next few days! *

The Camp itself, once I managed to make the climb, was rather quaint with a few cottages on stilts dotting the perimeter and an airy dining hall. Very basic, but functional with a great deck which looked down into the valley. Reaching the deck required you to walk up a pipe which bridged a 50 feet deep fall, a daily adventure in itself!

© Sumit Sen
Pakke Jungle Camp

A quick meal later we made our first trip in the area and walked along the picturesque road leading up to the Camp. Bird life was evident but extremely skittish making observation difficult. We did note Mountain Imperial Pigeons, Vernal Hanging Parrots, Asian Drongo Cuckoo, White-throated Bulbul, Thick-billed Warbler, Black-naped Monarch, Crimson Sunbird and some other common species.

© Sumit Sen
Fighting Black-crested Bulbuls

Back at the Camp a sumptuous dinner awaited dulling some of the memory of the last climb. The temperatures started to drop and a pleasant night awaited the tired legs. The Camp, it must be mentioned, lay in the path of a regularly used elephant corridor and the perfunctory electric fencing provided little resistance should the pachyderms choose to pay us an unwelcome visit. The arrival of the elephants that night became evident as the solar-powered lights began to switch off in Camp. But they stayed away from us and only the sounds reached us. Late in the night I was woken up by the sound of a large animal moving under the stilts of my rather precarious bamboo-and-thatch hut. The only thing I could do in the darkness was to tuck in the mosquito net deeper under the bed in the forlorn hope that it would offer some resistance to any wild intruder. The noise receded after a while but I slept lightly thereafter, not sure of what was to come next. Morning revealed the mystery visitor. A local bull had sought shelter against the rain and had moved to sleep under Sujan's hut – giving him a sleep-deprived look in the morning.

The next morning we left for the Lankha FRH which was about 6-7 kms east-north-east from the Jungle Camp. The drive was short and pleasant but ended rather abruptly at a stream crossing. The road bridge had been washed away a couple of years ago and one had to cross over a makeshift structure which could not be called a bridge. The FRH itself lay a kilometre away and was beautifully positioned at the head of a gorge where the Pakke River turned below the rest house.

© Sumit Sen
View from Lankha FRH

Lankha FRH and Camp lies outside Pakke Tiger Reserve, which ends across the Pakke River from Lankha. This part of the forest is known as the Papum Reserve Forest and there is forest-related activity evident here. It is also a safe place to walk around and is well suited for birding. © Sumit SenThe grounds around the FRH (see image) attracted a lot of good birds and one of the first surprises was a brilliant male Violet Cuckoo which stayed very briefly but gave Sujan great views. With Jerdon's Bazas doing regular fly-pasts and Maroon Imperial Pigeons feeding in flocks below, I decided to spend the entire day at the FRH. Sujan went off on the trail and found Barred Cuckoo-dove, Chestnut-winged Cuckoo, Silver-backed Needletail, Wreathed Hornbill, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush and other good birds. I feasted on the Jerdon's Bazas, bulbuls, pigeons and a Blue-bearded Bee-eater that spent hours hunting from the © Sumit Sensame perch. Down below in the river there was no large mammal activity, but every now and then a Crested Kingfisher would fly past and the call of the River Lapwings were not drowned by the roar of the fast-flowing river. Towards evening the activity around the FRH increased and an inquisitive Barred Owlet was joined by some squirrels and a Indian Monitor (image left) that had somehow managed to survive in the area despite being considered a delicacy! It was around this time that we discovered the roosting site of the Jerdon's Baza pair which was strategically located a few hundred yards away from the FRH and benefited from the protection that was available. We returned from beautiful Lankha at sunset and part of the day's thrill was the fact that we only had to climb back to Camp once! I deserved my drink for that bit of strategic thinking and with no jumbo visitors (or cattle for that matter) disturbing our sleep, we woke up fresh and ready for the adventures that lay ahead next morning.

Day 4 of our travels was to be the most adventurous. We would cross the Pakke river and travel about 30 kilometres deep inside the heart of Pakke Tiger Reserve, touching base at Khari, Upper Dikhorai and Nameri(E) camps. We reached the Forest Department Headquarters on the opposite bank in the early hours after a short drive from our base camp. Accompanying us were two guards who were armed to the teeth with assorted weapons. Much is made of the threat from elephants in the forests of Pakke, by my belief is the real danger comes from armed poachers in the forest, and hence the precautions.

Pakke's forests are beautiful. Deep and foreboding! The Forest Department © Sumit Senheadquarters are a short drive from the river. Permits are obtained here, and armed with them we ventured into the vast silence of Pakke. Bird life was scarce but the occasional Red Junglefowl and hornbills flying through the canopy kept our interest alive. Overnight elephant activity on the road required some cleaning up at frequent intervals before the car could move on, and some of the weapons carried by the guards were put to good use. That added to the wild experience!

© Sumit Sen
Pakke's deep forest

Eventually we arrived at the beautifully located Khari Camp which overlooked the pretty river by the same name. We were told that the river attracts wildlife, though none were evident during the time we spent there.

© Sumit Sen
View from Khari FRH

At Khari I chose to bird around the large electric-fenced compound and picked up a few good birds which included a Pied Falconet and Hooded Pitta. Sujan took a walk in © Sumit Sensurrounding forests in the company of heavily armed guards and was rewarded with the sighting of a Grey Peacock Pheasant and narrowly missed meeting a pack of wild dogs who had left their scat behind a few minutes ago. Overall, Khari FRH is a great place to watch birds and wildlife from the safety of a protected area, and is recommended as a place where you should spend a night. We could not because the FRH was being renovated when we visited Khari.

© Sumit Sen© Sumit Sen
Large Cuckooshrike and Pied Falconet at Khari

We left Khari around mid-day and drove to the new FRH at Upper Dikhorai. That drive would have done off-road rallydrivers proud! There were parts where the four-wheel drive had to be pushed across steep rocky slopes and parts where you had to drive over fallen branches. A back-breaking ride, and not one for the weak hearted! Once we overcame these hurdles Upper Dikhorai's attractive riverine landscape was just reward for the effort. The FRH itself is on a high bank and overlooks a vast marshy expanse which should attract wildlife at the appropriate time – mid-day was not the appropriate time. We did see a few birds in and around the place, including a Blyth's Pipit, a Black-backed Forktail and Himalayan Swiftlets.

© Sumit Sen
Upper Dikhorai

We pushed on beyond Upper Dikhorai to further explore Pakke and headed towards Nameri (East), the last outpost on the road. Nameri (E) has a salt lick that attracts large herbivores. Unfortunately for us, the area was devoid of life when we visited as the herds had moved on a few days before our visit. The short road from Nameri (E) ends at the river which looked very promising in terms of birds and animals. But we had a long way to go back and regretfully had to retrace our steps without spending time here. Our aim was to reach the Pakke River before sundown and see the “guaranteed” Wreathed Hornbills at their riverside roost. Ever since I have been birding, the one word that really scares me is “guaranteed bird”! In my experience, any wild© Sumit Sen bird species, anywhere outside a cage can never be guaranteed at a particular place at a particular time – not even House Crows! But here we had a guide who was the biggest know-all that I had met, and who was confidence personified. He almost broke into tears when our scepticism about the hornbill roost was conveyed to him. So, to cut a long story short we hurried back from the forests of Pakke to make it in time for the large roosting flock to fly in. Minutes turned into hours and even the pratincoles (image left) lost interest in us and our car. But the hornbills chose to sleep somewhere else that day and we returned to camp with a rather crestfallen guide. So crestfallen that he chose to go home the next day – his job unfinished!

Our original plan was to return to Guwahati on 7th May. But trips planned across Assam always need to factor in a variable other then weather – the political situation. As we settled down for dinner news trickled in that the Peoples’ Joint Action Committee for Bodoland Movement had announced a 36-hour Assam bandh (strike) from 5am on May 7. As the bulk of our return journey was through Bodo tribe inhabited parts of Assam, it was evident that our plans had to be altered to factor in this development. We were safe in Arunachal Pradesh where life was normal, but we had not taken into account the needs of a longer stay in a place where few necessities were available, and where meeting telecommunication needs required a long drive into town. My wife still remembers the rather scary phone call she got from an unknown person who spoke in a language she could not fully comprehend – his message that I would not be returning home anytime soon because of problems drove her nuts till I managed to speak to her a couple of days later.

So we settled in to spend the next day at Pakke Jungle Camp. Sujan decided to visit Lankha again and I chose to bird around the campus, the choice influenced no doubt by the dreaded climb back to camp. © Sumit SenThe campus itself offered good birds like Asian Fairy Bluebirds and Crow-billed Drongos and a variety of bulbul species. Sujan came back having seen Slaty-blue Flycatcher, hornbills, Banded Bay Cuckoo, Blue-bearded Bee-eater (image left) and more Jerdon's Bazas. Our plan was to go down to the river in the afternoon. But plans in the wild east do not always get executed for a variety of reasons, and this one was no stranger to us. Our vehicle had run out of fuel and Seijosa town was left with only 5 litres of the precious stuff when that truth hit us. Drivers across India will, for some strange unknown reason, not fill up the car with the fuel needed to make the return journey when they have the opportunity. This is specially true in North-east India. Our driver had enough left in the tank to take him to the next filling station – but a strike in the area meant that 'the next filling station' was now another 50 kilometres away! Needless to say that any further trips to town or the riverbed were cancelled immediately and a king's ransom was paid to secure the last 5 litres of diesel oil within 50 kilometres!

While all this was happening frantic plans were being hatched to risk the journey back through Bodo country because news had started to filter in that the All Tai Ahom Students' Union had called a 36 hour bandh which started immediately after the earlier one ended. Getting stuck for a couple of days because of the political situation in these parts is difficult but acceptable - 4 days would be like being marooned on a treeless island! As a result of the new circumstances it was decided that we would leave on mid day on the 8th for Tezpur (which was outside the purview of the influence of the bandh). Mid day was chosen because all of Assam sleeps after lunch, even people who enforce bandhs. Our driver was not very sure if Bodos slept after lunch and drove like a maniac across the lunar road surface. His informed stories, that if stopped the car is burnt and the victims left to find their own way back, took our minds away from the discomfort of the drive. At one point a group of well-armed people wearing army fatigues stood blocking the road. Thinking of the worst we rolled ahead and were relieved to find that the group were not bandh-enforcers but security personnel who told us that it was safe to move on as no trouble had been reported ahead. We reached the 'bandh-free' National Highway soon thereafter and found a filling station which met our fuel needs for the rest of our trip. After spending the night at Tezpur we headed back to civilization the next morning, even finding time to catch up with the critically endangered Greater Adjutants at the Guwahati garbage dump.

© Sumit Sen
Greater Adjutants at Guwahati

Thus ended a memorable adventure to one of the most beautiful places you can find in north-east India. Go there and have a wild holiday – it is not to be missed at any cost!

*The track from the road to the camp was under repairs when we visited the Jungle Camp. It should be car-worthy now!

© Sumit Sen
Trip Map

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