Wildlife fantasy

From a sleepy wildlife park to a hot tourist destination, a lot has changed in Kaziranga
Bonani, Kaziranga's oldest tourist lodge
Bonani, Kaziranga's oldest tourist lodge

There are few wildlife destinations as well-ordered and symmetrical as Kaziranga. NH-37 bisects it neatly into separate universes &mdash animal on one side and human on another, or so it seems to the first-time visitor. Coming from Guwahati, you constantly look to the left, trying to catch a glimpse of Kaziranga&rsquos famous fauna. Maybe you are in a hurry to reach your hotel, but you still stop by a viewing point, and excitedly point your camera at the grey shapes in the distant yonder, hoping that one of them will turn out to be a rhinoceros. But if you turned to look at the other side, you would see an unending tableau of human industry, in the form of tea gardens, houses, offices and hotels. Particularly hotels. Every third house seems to have been turned into a hostelry of some description, proof positive of the tourist boom which has engulfed Kaziranga.

Finding a hotel in Kaziranga is easy they are strung in pretty much a straight line along NH-37. The Kohora Tourist Complex is the midpoint, and closest to all three ranges. The general rule of thumb is to find a place which is not too far from Kohora, to cut down on unnecessary travelling to and fro. All of the properties reviewed here are therefore within 10km of the Kohora complex.

Diphlu River Lodge
Finding DRL is a bit of a test of a traveller&rsquos mettle. We were warned in advance that it was not signposted and we duly overshot it by several kilometres, realising our error only when we reached the Hatikhuli tea estate. When we finally reached its discreet bamboo-gated entrance, we realised why we had missed it unlike all other Kaziranga resorts, it was situated on the left-hand side of the road in other words, on the animal side.

How was this so The Phookan family, which owns the lodge along with the Brocks of England, happened to own land very close to the resort, and chose to develop it for tourism back in the 1970s. But the lodge in its current state opened only in January 2008, under the management of the Assam Bengal Navigation Company. Situated about 100m from the main road, it is completely sheltered from the hum and bustle of the highway. From the one-storeyed front office, one walks across a campfire site, and then a few steps down into the residential area of the lodge. A dozen cottages on stilts &mdash eight standalone and four semi-detached &mdash are arranged along three sides of the resort&rsquos perimeter.

We were billeted in Cottage 8, one of the four directly overlooking the Diphlu river which borders the lodge on the north. Sitting on the river-facing verandah, I immediately fell into a lotus-eating trance which lasted through my entire stay at DRL. There were no TV sets in the rooms (bliss) and, at night, we were asked to keep lights down to a minimum and curtains drawn. As the sun paled over the west, a strange hush fell like a benediction over us. On our first evening we saw three pale, spectral shapes on the other side of the river, at a distance of about 30m from the dining-room verandah. They were rhinoceros, who had come out to drink from the waters and graze on the bank. For 15 breathless minutes we watched this unearthly sight, and felt privileged.

During the rest of the day, the activities of the resort follow the usual pattern elephant safari by dawn, return to a hearty breakfast in the spacious dining room, then maybe a snooze followed by a walk along the river. Afternoons are reserved for jeep safaris into the western and central ranges (for the eastern range, one has to set out much earlier). But the pleasures of DRL are not necessarily of an outdoors nature. Those not wishing to be rushed can while the day away lounging on the sunbeds and easychairs on the verandahs. The rooms are well-appointed and comfortable, and the glass-covered shower stalls in the large and airy washrooms make one want to linger over one&rsquos showers. Dinner is early but there is a cosy bar just outside the dining room from where one can look out at the Diphlu. During our stay, there was a fireside dinner as well and a performance by a local troupe of dancers. It was with great reluctance that we were finally able to tear ourselves from the Diphlu River Lodge.

Accommodation 12 air-conditioned cottages in bamboo and thatch on stilts Best rooms Cottages 5-8, with views of the Diphlu river Service Excellent and courteous Food Continental and Indian, served with elegance Tariff Rs 5,000 (for Indians) and Rs 10,000 (for foreign nationals) per person on twin-sharing basis, including all meals, safaris, national park fees Contact 0361-2602223, www.diphluriverlodge.com

Jupuri Ghar
This property is located inside the Kohora Tourist Complex and used to be run by Assam Tourism. Recently, the property was leased by Network Travels and the result is a small but pleasant property of eight standalone cottages and an open-air restaurant. The property is small but tastefully landscaped and with its pocket-friendly tariff, a big draw for both Indian and overseas visitors. We were informed that the birding season from February to April is booked through the next three years, till 2012. Another attraction of the place is its location &mdash next to the post-office and within walking distance of the range office where one can make bookings and obtain permits for jeep and elephant safaris.

Accommodation 8 double-bedded cottages Service Friendly and helpful Food Untested Tariff Rs 1,600/Rs 1,200 off-season. Taxes extra Contact Network Travels, 0361-2605335, 9435196377

Also situated within the Kohora Complex, this is your typical sarkari guesthouse, but with a history going back over three decades. From 1977-86, it was called Forest Lodge and run by the ITDC. It was taken over by Assam Tourism in 1986 and various wings of the state government have run it since then. With its 29 rooms and dormitory, it offers a wide range of options. The rooms are no-frills comfortable though the furniture is a bit rundown. While the architecture of the main building is somewhat featureless, the cottages are more attractive, some of them giving on to a large and undulating playing area for children, with slides, swings and the like. Children will be further delighted by the monkeys which seem to reside near the lodge. The in-house Rhino restaurant serves Indian, Chinese, Continental and local delicacies, and is complemented by the Buffalo Bar. There is also a gym and badminton court on the premises.

Accommodation 12 standard rooms, 10 deluxe rooms, 6 cottages, 1 suite Best rooms The cottages Service Untested Food Untested Indian, Chinese, Continental. Tariff standard Rs 650 (May-Oct)/750 (Nov-Apr) deluxe Rs 750/900 cottage Rs 800/900 suite Rs 1,850/Rs 2,300. Taxes extra. Contact Assam Tourism, 03776-262429

This property has been in business for seven years now, and is tucked away inside a village about 300m from the main road. It is excellently located, just a kilometre away from the park at Kohora Tourist Complex. Though the brochure describes the property as &lsquoexotic&rsquo, &lsquomajestic&rsquo and &lsquogorgeous&rsquo, it is mercifully none of these, and is a very pleasantly landscaped, unobtrusive and quiet retreat, with eight separate cottages. There are plenty of green spaces, and one does not get the sense of crowding, which marks many of the more recent places. There is plenty to do after hours, with volleyball and basketball courts, and indoor games along with a video library.

Accommodation 14 cottages Best rooms All Service Courteous and unobtrusive Food Untested Tariff Rs 1200-1,800 Contact 03776-2622675, 9435504268, www.bonhabiresort.com

Wild Grass
Situated in Bossagaon village, 6.5km away from Kohora, Wild Grass is architecturally striking, with a colonial-style building with high ceilings, French windows, wood panelling and an extremely elaborate dining area straight out of a Raj novel, with liveried waiters in attendance. On enquiry, however, we found that it had been built in 1991. The 24-bigha property boasts lush gardens, which reportedly have over 40 species of trees and over 200 species of shrubs, creepers and climbers. Amidst all this greenery, one almost misses out on the two jungle lodges, which contain 18 rooms. There are also two cottages on the grounds, as well as facilities for tenting.

Accommodation 18 rooms, 2 cottages Best rooms The cottages Service Good Food Untested Tariff Rs 1,850 for double room or cottage, including breakfast. Taxes extra Contact 03776-262085, 9954416945, www.oldassam.com

This hotel is situated about 20m from the main road, which can be a mixed blessing. The place is just over two years old, and contains 24 rooms housed in a somewhat featureless building. The front office and the grounds are pleasant enough, but the architecture is somewhat at odds with the surroundings. There are 24 rooms with the usual appointments, and a restaurant along with a conference room. The resort also boasts babysitting arrangements, doctor on call and email facilities. (The last-named is devilled by general poor connectivity in the region, and during our four nights in Kaziranga, I was able to check mail only once.)

Accommodation 24 rooms Service Untested Food Untested Tariff deluxe Rs 1,900, executive deluxe Rs 2,400. Taxes extra Contact 03776-262404, 9435042868, www.emerald-resort.com

A brand-new Kazi-ranga property which opened its gates in October 2009, Grassland still has the smell of fresh paint about it. It is unashamedly shiny and corporate in its architecture and d&eacutecor, and does not bear the slightest trace of local influence. Along with the usual facilities, it has a swimming pool, playground and well-manicured lawns, spread over a large area. But the real highlights are a golf course, and a pond for angling and boating. Other facilities include a spa, an elaborate business centre with two conference rooms, one of which, the Durbar, can seat 200.

Accommodation 11 cottages Tariff deluxe Room Rs 4,000 executive suite Rs 8,000 master suite Rs 15,000. Taxes extra Service Untested Food Untested Contact 9435011133, 9435107409

Yet another example of easygoing sarkari tourist management (the front office is closed on Sundays), the place nevertheless has an old-world charm. It also has the added distinction of being the oldest tourist lodge in Kaziranga and was taken over by Assam Tourism in 1992. Situated on an elevation inside the Kohora complex, it has a wonderful view of the park grounds and the central range in the distance. Though it has only five rooms on its two floors, it has two ancillary facilities in the form of Bonoshree Lodge, which has nine rooms, and Kunjaban which is essentially a dorm.

Accommodation Bonani 5 rooms Bonoshree 9 rooms (one of them four-bedded) Kunjaban 2 rooms (three-bedded) and 2 halls (12-bedded). Tariff Bonani Rs 280-410 Bonoshree Rs 150-400 Kunjaban Rs 100 Contact Deputy Director of Tourism, Govt. of Assam, Kaziranga, 03776-262423

Lora the retreat
Our last port of call was Iora, a 20-acre resort situated within two kilometres of the Kohora park, and about 100m from the main road. The road to Iora passes through a serene little village, and the first impression of the resort is one of sheer size and scale. Several buildings are set within a large, elaborately landscaped area dotted with gardens, badminton courts and walkways. For some reason, the place seemed to be a favourite of the Indian army, whose vehicles would periodically arrive in stately convoys.

Our ground-floor room came with a charming verandah, which looked out upon a distant prospect of misty mountains. We did not spend much time indoors though. There was a lot to do in the resort, from badminton and table tennis games (or a swim, if the weather was warm) to walks in the ethnic village just outside. We were particularly gratified to discover a kitchen garden set at the back of the resort, which grew four varieties of lettuce along with broccoli, marjoram and thyme.

Cooking is taken very seriously at Iora, and we spent a lot of time in the huge dining room sampling various delicacies created by chef Faruk Ahmed and his staff. The crowning glory in his oeuvre is a grilled chicken marinated in tea liqueur and a tea-infused tiramisu. We sampled the former and found it exquisite. We also received a crash course in Assamese cuisine, and the sequence in which a meal should be eaten, starting with khar (an extract of boiled raw papaya) and ending with tenga, a light and sour dish. Then there are the meat dishes &mdash pork (gahori) and duck (hanh) &mdash cooked with bamboo shoots or bah gaj. For those who like to stick to the tried and tested, the restaurant also offers excellent Continental and Chinese. For the adventurous, there is the special chilli vodka created by the adjacent bar, which is supposedly made of one of the hottest chillies in the world. Both the restaurant and bar tariffs are very reasonable, and there were a fair number of local diners during the time when we were there.

This is certainly a place which offers a wide range of options to its visitors and at prices which do not break your bank. The only complaint we had was the complete lack of Internet connectivity.

Accommodation 19 deluxe rooms, 15 luxury rooms, 4 supreme rooms, 2 suites Service Average Food Excellent Tariff deluxe Rs 3,900 luxury Rs 4,500 supreme Rs 5,000 suite Rs 9,500 Contact 03776-262411, 262412, 9957193550, www.kazirangasafari.com 

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