Kaziranga park is one of the highlights of India’s less-well-known North East area. It is in fact special enough to have been designated a natural heritage sight by UNESCO. This is thanks to its local star, the One-Horned Indian Rhinoceros: the park is actually home to two thirds of the world’s population of these Rhinos.
Getting to the park from Guwahati is relatively straightforward. Busses depart semi-regularly from the ISBT bus station, which is just south of the city – easy distance for an Uber or auto-rickshaw. On arrival at the bus station a cabal of touts descend and follow you around, making it difficult to assess what bus you would like to take for yourself. However the fares offered by these touts are reasonable (we paid 260 rupees each), and the busses are decent enough (ours had nice comfy seats but no A/C). We took the 1:30pm bus, and arrived in Kohora – at the gate to the park – at around 6:30pm. Despite not booking accommodation in advance we were quickly offered a room at the Rhino Cafe at a better rate than any we had seen online. We ended up with a 5-bed room for the three of us and paid 1200 rupees a night.
Independent hiking in the park is not permitted, and there are armed guards, allegedly immune from prosecution, on the look-out for poachers or anyone they possibly think might be a poacher. So in order to see wildlife in the park, one must go on a guided safari, either by elephant or by jeep. Since the elephant tours take place very early in the morning (5:30am and 6:30am starts are available) it is very possible to do both types of Safari in one day. Official prices for both tours are available here – note that entry is on top of the tour price, but only needs to be paid once per day if you do both tours.
Elephant safaris can be booked the night before at the counter near the big group of hotels a few hundred metres south of the main road gate. The counter opens at 7pm, and if you want to go the next day it is important to be there promptly. We made the mistake of ambling over there around twenty past and found that only two tickets were left for the following morning. Since we had just one day to see the park, Philip nobly agreed to have a lie in instead of going so Aleks and I could go together.
When booking the tours it is also vital you confirm what the arrangements are for getting to the starting place. This is actually around 2km along the track running north from the main road gate. We showed up just after 5:20 by the gate with an impressive statue of a mama Rhino and her baby as we had been instructed and saw no elephants of any kind. Realising something was very wrong, we asked around and just kept being pointed along the road. We ended up with a stressful early morning run and it was only thanks to the kindness of one of the guides who summoned our elephant back that we were able to go at all. We still don’t know if we were supposed to be picked up at the gate, and if we needed to be there any earlier. I believe that many hotels do elephant tour bookings and probably organise lifts with this, but if booking at the counter be really clear about where you need to be.
The elephant safari is fantastic mostly for the opportunity to see rhinos incredibly close up. The animals seem most unconcerned by the nearby elephants and humans, and most terrain is accessible on elephant back. As well as the rhinos you may also see deer, wild boar and beautiful bands of fog rising off the long grass in the orange glow of sunrise.
By comparison to the elephant tours, jeep tours are easy to book. The jeeps are rented for up to 6 people in both a morning (7am-10am) and afternoon (1pm-3pm) session. As the price is per vehicle, you may well find people waiting in the queue willing to team up if you are alone or in a small group. 6 people will be fairly tight, 4 is quite comfortable, but we definitely saw many more crammed on to some. The booking window is right by the jeeps and in the same area as the elephant booking window. As we had seen some of the central Kohora section of the park we decided to rent a jeep to tour the Western Bagori range. As we had extra space, our driver picked up a friend of his, a local english schoolteacher, who was able to tell us plenty about both the wildlife and the local area. A jeep safari lasts longer than the elephant safari, and we saw a greater variety of wildlife on ours, including otters, water buffalo, different types of deer and birds, an eagle as well as the ubiquitous rhinos. Of course you don’t get the same up-close views from the jeep as from an elephant, so a combination of both works really well if you can manage it.
Also of note in Kaziranga is the orchid park, 2km down the main road, which exhibits traditional weaving and dance shows as well as the hundreds of different orchids its name refers to. You can get there easily from Kohora on a local trolley-bus which can be flagged down for ten rupees. Entry is bizzarely 500 rupees for an individual and 300 rupees each for 2 or more visitors, so buddy up if you can. Surprisingly enjoyable also was our visit to the small local temple. This is only 100 metres from the park gate and is not particularly grand. However we were lucky enough when visiting at sundown to be invited to join a handful of ganja-smoking locals who had gathered. We were given fruit and joined in with the music before being given blessings on leaving. Be warned; when handed a percussion instrument, although the rhythym may be initially easy to pick up it will get faster and faster until you can no longer keep up.