THE LAUGH­ING TREE AND OTHER STO­RIES

A trip to Dud­hwa on the bor­der of Nepal will ex­pose you to stun­ning wildlife, fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tions and green­ery you may never have heard of be­fore

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - Travel - Text and pho­tos by Kal­pana Sun­der

End­less stretches of sug­ar­cane fields and bright yel­low mus­tard fields… with jack­als, jun­gle­fowl and mon­gooses dart­ing through the fo­liage, and wild pea­cocks strut­ting ma­jes­ti­cally be­fore our jeep, we pass tur­baned farm­ers on trac­tors and girls on bi­cy­cles with har­vested canes strapped be­hind them. We fi­nally tra­verse a bumpy, track lined with litchi groves, reach­ing our ho­tel, and there we are: at Palia Kalan near Dud­hwa, which is on the Indo-Nepal bor­der at the foothills of the Hi­malayas. This is the swampy Terai grass­land be­tween the mighty Hi­malayas and the plains. We are ex­cited to

be in this re­gion which has ac­cess to four wildlife sanc­tu­ar­ies – Kis­han­pur, Katar­ni­aghat, Pilib­hit and Dud­hwa Na­tional Park.

TIGER, TIGER, BURN­ING BRIGHT

Long ago, Dud­hwa was an un­tamed land of marshes and grass­lands, and hunt­ing coun­try for the roy­als. Now, some of the grass­lands and forests have be­come sug­ar­cane fields. There are small vil­lages in the buf­fer ar­eas, where cows graze in the for­est re­serve and women hang their colour­ful saris, like bor­ders be­tween fields. This was the ter­ri­tory of fa­mous hunter­turned-con­ser­va­tion­ist Billy Ar­jan Singh. His ex­ploits are the stuff of le­gend in th­ese parts. A mem­ber of the royal Ka­purthala fam­ily, he was a hunter, till one day he shot a leop­ard and felt re­vul­sion for his act; he gave up hunt­ing and turned con­ser­va­tion­ist.

Our first sa­fari takes us to Dud­hwa Na­tional Park, where the one-horned rhino was rein­tro­duced from As­sam’s Kazi­ranga in 1984. At Dud­hwa, the best way to see a rhino is to take an ele­phant sa­fari. Lum­ber­ing our way atop the pachy­derm, tram­pling through the thick un­der­growth and trees, we fi­nally reach the am­ber sa­van­nahlike grass­lands, catch­ing sight of a mother and child rhino duo walk­ing through the tall grass.

The next day, we drive to Kis­han­pur Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary with its dense forests of trees like sal and teak, in­ter­spersed with swamps, taals (shal­low lakes) and scrub grass­lands and mead­ows. This rich ecosys­tem sup­ports a zil­lion species of birds, in­clud­ing mi­gra­tory birds. We see ma­jes­tic vul­tures, fal­cons and more, soar­ing high up in the sky, pointed out by en­thu­si­as­tic guides with binoc­u­lars. From the watch­tower, we see pied king­fish­ers and a lot of teals, egrets and ja­canas. The list is end­less and I try to re­mem­ber them all – ori­oles, bar­bets, fork-tailed dron­gos. At Jhadi Taal, a large wa­ter body, we see herds of ma­jes­tic yel­low­ish­brown baras­ing­has (deer with gi­gan­tic, 12 pronged antlers) sit­ting on tiny is­lands, and tur­tles cling­ing to float­ing logs. But the most mem­o­rable mo­ment is when we spot a tawny ti­gress, not far from the path, mark­ing her ter­ri­tory and lop­ing ma­jes­ti­cally in front of our jeep.

DANC­ING DOL­PHINS

Katar­ni­aghat, ex­tend­ing over 154 square me­tres, bor­ders the gar­gan­tuan River Geruwa (a trib­u­tary of Nepal’s long­est river, Kar­nali), and is a habi­tat for ghar­i­als. We see them sun­ning them­selves on sand bars in the mid­dle of the river. Glid­ing around the Maila Nala, an Ama­zon-like nar­row in­let in the river that leads to in­ner chan­nels – we spot an In­dian rock python on (where else?) a rock. This is also the splash­ing ground of play­ful Indo-Gangetic dol­phins, and on a wind­less day, you can catch them pranc­ing on the wa­ter! Af­ter a quick pic­nic lunch of

kathi rolls and biryani, we take a game drive through the forests of Katar­ni­aghat. The veg­e­ta­tion is lush and trop­i­cal. Driv­ing through ja­mun and silk cot­ton trees, as well

DUD­HWA WAS HUNT­ING COUN­TRY FOR THE ROY­ALS... THE TER­RI­TORY OF FA­MOUS HUNTER- TURNEDCONSERVATIONIST BILLY AR JAN SINGH

as tall kans grasses that look like bul­rushes, we see ad­ju­tant storks and keen fish ea­gles. We also see some­thing we’d never heard of be­fore: the laugh­ing tree or the

gudgudi tree – when he taps it at the bot­tom, it shakes and quivers right at the top, as if an elec­tric cur­rent were flow­ing through it!

One af­ter­noon, we drive to the nearby Sathiyana Re­serve. This for­est range named af­ter the last Sati site in th­ese parts has beau­ti­ful av­enues lined with sal trees, and huge ter­mite mounds that look like cathe­drals. In many places, the tow­er­ing trees let in only small streams of light, mak­ing it rem­i­nis­cent of an Im­pres­sion­ist paint­ing.

JUN­GLE BELLS

There’s more to Dud­hwa than the wildlife: the lo­cal tribes liv­ing in about 40 vil­lages in and around the forests are Tharus, who ac­cord­ing to lo­cals, mi­grated from Ra­jasthan, when the Mughals in­vaded it. To­day, the Tharu tribe is fe­male dom­i­nated and many live in Nepal too. They live in har­mony with na­ture, work­ing in sug­ar­cane fields, build­ing eco-friendly homes out of mud, straw and ma­nure. We visit the Tharu vil­lage of Mund­no­chini, with about 400 peo­ple. Women cut veg­eta­bles out­side their homes, some chil­dren ride bi­cy­cles, while oth­ers sit on char­poys with their school books. I am in­vited to in­spect one of the homes – it’s neatly kept, with two storeys, and huge mud con­tain­ers for stor­ing grains. At Man­jula Taal nearby – a swampy wa­ter body in­fested with bright green clumps of wa­ter­cress – I see vil­lage women with small bam­boo bas­kets tied to their waists cast nets to catch the lo­cal kharsa fish.

Come evening we re­tire to the lounge at the lodge, fur­nished with old mem­o­ra­bilia from the area, and wildlife books. Over drinks and snacks, we catch up with the nat­u­ral­ists and other guests about the day’s sight­ings. I am in­trigued as to why the nat­u­ral­ists Amit and Yo­gesh came to re­mote Dud­hwa from their state of Kar­nataka. “We are mar­ried to the jun­gle, and when the jun­gle beck­ons, we just pack our bags,” they say with a twin­kle in their eyes. Talk­ing to them, I learn the lit­tle se­crets of the for­est – that one needs pa­tience and a good eye, one has to lis­ten to warn­ing calls by birds, bark­ing deer or black-faced lan­gurs that alert the jun­gle to the pres­ence of the big cats. The owner of the prop­erty, who is in town, re­gales us with sto­ries of how herds of baras­ing­has once roamed around this farm land, and adds vi­gnettes of his child­hood in th­ese parts.

As I leave Dud­hwa af­ter spend­ing al­most a week there, with my days pep­pered with sa­fari drives (and we don’t see more than a cou­ple of jeeps) and lounge evenings, it is not just the pro­lific wildlife sight­ings that I re­mem­ber, but the small de­tails like the cold wind whip­ping my face dry in an open jeep, a Tharu woman giv­ing me some jun­gle pi­pli (long pep­per) for my hus­band’s cough, how a ter­mite hill felt un­der my hand, and the shrill call of a bark­ing deer.

THE LAUGH­ING OR THE GUDGUDI TREE, WHEN TAPPED AT THE BOT­TOM, SHAKES AND QUIVERS AS IF AN ELEC­TRIC CUR­RENT WERE FLOW­ING THROUGH IT

HEAD OVER HILLS Gar­gan­tuan ter­mite hills that look like cathe­drals at Sathiyana Re­serve

HOME AF­FAIRS In­side Tharu homes, th­ese huge clay con­tain­ers are used for stor­ing grains

MEAL MARVEL A machaan with a twist is set up for aa h ew

WILD WAYS When in Kis­han­pur, you can be lucky enough to spot crea­tures like this Royal Ben­gal ti­gress

SUNNY SIDE-UP Ghar­i­als with their dis­tinc­tive snout sun­ning on sand banks at Katar­ni­aghat

TRIBAL TRYST A bas­ket made from lo­cal grass by Tharu tribes

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