It was 5 pm and the sun was already on the wrong side of the horizon. The flickering solar lights at the forest guest house we were staying at looked feeble from where we were standing. We were atop a small mound of sand overlooking the Noa-dihing River. The only sounds we could here were the occasional flaps from the birds, flying back home, and of the river making its way through its pebble-strewn bed.
We were at Namdapha National Park.
Namdapha National Park is the largest wild life sanctuary in India, with a total area of 1985 sq km, and is located in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh near the Myanmar border. This park is recognized as one of the richest areas in biodiversity and has the credit of being the northernmost evergreen rainforest.
The previous evening we had reached Miao, a village located on the fringes of Namdapha. Miao is a small settlement with some modern government quarters, a few traditional Singpho houses, a Buddhist monastery, a mini zoo and a museum, an inspection bungalow, an eco-tourist hut and a cute little market.
Our friend and host, Mr Phupla Singpho, had already arranged for our stay at the eco-tourist hut for the night. He stays in his very modern concrete house with his family right opposite to his more traditional wooden family home. He has been instrumental in bringing global importance and interest to the Namdapha National Park.
The Singpho tribe of Arunachal Pradesh inhabit the district of Changlang and are mainly Theravada Buddhists. They are traditional tea planters. The Singpho produce their tea by plucking the tender leaves and drying them in the sun and exposing them to the night dew for three days and nights. The leaves are then placed in a hollow bamboo and exposed to smoke over a fire. This way, their tea can be kept for years without losing its flavour. Mr. Singpho presented us with this ingeniously produced tea. I felt a bit awkward presenting him in return a plastic packet of Coorg coffee.
After checking into our room at around 2 pm, we had a couple of hours before sun down. Yes, the sun sets in these regions very early and before 5 pm the street lights are on. There is a serious demand to have a separate time zone for the northeastern states with suggestions for advancing the clock by at least 90 minutes. This is because the day breaks early in the northeast with the sun normally rising way ahead of other Indian cities. When we were in Miao in October, the sunrise was recorded at 5.05 am and the sunset at 4.55 pm, where as the same in Bangalore, where we stay, was recorded at 6.10 am and 6.07 pm, respectively.
The British were smarter. They had set the local time one hour ahead of IST for tea gardens, coal mines and the oil industry in these parts. Some of the tea gardens still follow the bagaan (garden) time!
Before sun down we decided to visit the Singpho monastery nearby. We were welcomed by a group of dogs who were loitering around the monastery.
The monastery itself is an imposing structure painted with vibrant colours of yellow and maroon. Narendar Bhikku, the head monk, was kind enough to spend some time with us, even presenting us with a book on Buddhism.
He had been staying at this monastery for more than 40 years. The altar had numerous idols of Buddha and there was a stupa and a Bodhi tree outside.
The museum and the zoo were already closed, so we walked back to the eco-tourist hut, had dinner and slept early.
About 25 km and 2 hours from Miao lies Namdapha National Park, a wildlife enthusiast and biologists’ dream come true. The next day, we stocked up on our dry provisions from the market and started our journey around 8 am in a Tata Sumo. The road on the way is so bad that only the bigger vehicles dare to venture into the forest. We were first stopped at a check post manned by the 18 Assam Rifles. The army is overpowering with its presence in Arunachal Pradesh and you can be stopped at any check post. Visitors entering the state are checked for their Inner Line Permits and Tourist Permits that must be obtained before entering the Namdapha National Park.
Our host had arranged for our stay at Deban, the forest headquarters within the park and the only accommodation option at Namdapha. The drive takes you through a jungle path that may take about an hour-and-a-half, depending on the state of repair of the roads or the intermittent landslides that occur in these regions. We were lucky not to face any landslides. We crossed the bridge over the Noa-dihing River, some traditional houses on stilts on the edges of paddy fields and reached M’Pen stream, a perennial stream that normally overflows during the rains.
Our driver said that visitors to Namdapha during monsoons often have to wait for up to two days for the stream to subside before it can be crossed by their vehicles. Sometimes one might even have to start walking from the M’Pen stream which forms the boundary of the park. As soon as we crossed the stream we reached the park entry gate and our credentials were checked by the Forest Department staff posted there.
The rest of the journey took us through a thick jungle. It seemed as if the sun had already gone down, and it was not even 9 am. On one side of the jungle path there were tall trees rising up to 100 m above us with a thick undergrowth of ferns, cane and bamboo. On the other side beyond a gorge, the Noa-dihing river was following us.
We passed a small temple, turned a curve and reached a cross road. There were two roads, one going downhill to the forest guest house at Deban and the other going uphill all the way to Vijoynagar, 157 km away, right on the India-Burma border.
We followed the road downhill and reached our home for the next three days and nights. The Deban Rest House is located within the Namdhapa National Park and is managed by the Forest Department of Arunachal Pradesh. The rest house stands on a thickly wooded hill slope overlooking the Noa-dihing River. The mysterious forest seems to engulf you and certainly there can be no better option for the adventurous.
We were booked into a double room on the ground floor in this conical shaped rest house. The more luxurious top floor rooms were meant for government officials and VIPs. Because we were neither, we settled for what we got which was the next best. Tourist huts, dormitories and traditional huts are located away from the main structure towards the river. Right next to the main rest house is a mess room where meals are prepared by Gogoi da and his efficient team.
There is no electricity in the park. The rest house is electrified by solar powered batteries. There is no public telephone service in Deban and our mobile phones were happily hibernating inside our backpacks. Once a day, and if any emergency arises, a wireless is used to communicate with the outer world.
Namdapha Park is unique in many ways. Declared a Project Tiger reserve way back in 1983, this is the only park in the world which has all the four big cats; the Tiger, the Leopard, the Snow Leopard and the Clouded Leopard. The reason being the region’s varying altitude, it ranges from 200 m to more than 4500 m. The Dapha bum, the tallest peak in Arunachal, overlooks the park and is snow covered during winters. Namdapha is also home to India’s only ape, the Hoolock gibbon. And the most unique factor – Namdapha is one of the few national parks in India which you can explore only on foot.
The first thing to keep in mind when you set out to explore this area is that you must do it in the right season. In the monsoons the jungles are inaccessible, the river uncrossable and the blood-sucking leeches are out on the grounds and tree tops looking for preys. Yes, on the tree tops. There are about 5 species of leeches and some can even sense the human blood from about 10 feet away. There are leeches that hide in the ferns and branches and jump onto you from above!!
We visited Namdapha in the right season. The river was flowing low, it was not the rainy or snowy season, but the forest staff were a bit behind schedule in clearing the jungle. It is an annual ritual of the forest staff to clear the jungle by marking well-defined trails for the convenience of the trekkers and wild life enthusiasts. There are camping sites inside the jungle at various places.
Entering the jungle was out of the question for us. But the rest house surroundings is a mini zoo in itself. The whole place was swarming with butterflies, and it was not even season. The constant sound of the crickets seemed like an alarm clock that somebody forgot to turn off. And there was even a small snake lurking among the bushes right in front of our room even as we were checking in!!
By the time we had checked in and freshened up, it was time for lunch. After lunch we decided to explore the park by ourselves. We walked up the road on which we had come down a few hours earlier. The sounds of the jungle were mesmerizing.
A lot of birds were singing, hooting and clucking away merrily in the foliage. The constant sound of the river flowing by, adding up to the melody. As is normally the case, it is so hard to spot birds and even harder to photograph them. The luck with butterflies were better.
The sun was going down slowly and we decided to walk to the river side. A small concrete platform was built overlooking the river. But we walked down further to the sand mound to get a better view. The mound makes a perfect natural watch tower to check the river below, giving you good views of the huge mountains across the river.
Right next to the watch tower is a huge tree belonging to the Ficus species that towers over the guest house with its height and appearance. The lower portion of the trunk is split and it looks as if the tree has two legs, ready to walk away.
The sun was down in a few minutes and there was nothing to do other than enjoy the night sounds coming from the jungle – the occasional hoot from an owl, the crickets with their raucous calls and the cry of the barking deer somewhere nearby only enhanced the surreal nature of the surroundings. The sight of the huge yellow moon, whose glow surrounded the valley was overwhelming. We decided to turn in early as we had a long day ahead of us.
For the next two days we had planned to trek along the jungle road and had already spoken with the in house wild life enthusiast and expert Mr Pung Jung.
Tomorrow was going to be busy. There were butterflies to be captured (on lens), birds to be identified, and leeches to be dodged. And if lucky, we could even spot a Hoolock Gibbon, a Hornbill, or one of the four big cats……
I love to be optimistic.