RADventure - April 2018


1600 Kms Drive : Kolkata – Lava – Kolkata

The route : 
NH 12 (old NH34) – NH 27 (old NH31) – NH 10 (old NH 31A) – SH 12 – NH 17 (Old NH 66) – SH 11 – NH 12.

This April, my family and I decided to stitch a trip covering 14 days of birding in the North Bengal forests of Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Neora Valley National Park and Gorumara National Park. To spice up the trip, we decided to self-drive all the way from Kolkata and back.  

Call of the Wild

One of the main reason for the self-drive was to experience first-hand the change in driving conditions from Kolkata to North Bengal (Kolkata – Raiganj – Siliguri – Latpanchor – Lava - Gorumara and back). Much has been said and reported on the highway conditions of this section. I had myself driven upto Raiganj in 2016, still, wanted to see for myself the current state of affairs, how things had changed in two years. In a years time we wish to drive extensively to the North East and beyond, hence this was a  precursor in a way.  

In a nutshell, the roads are much improved, about 60% of the stretch is double-laned, but the chaos remains ... work is ongoing in much of the remaining stretches.  There are 3 bottlenecks that can ruin your drive – (i) Murshidabad By pass; (ii) Farakka Barrage, (iii) Malda By-pass. Man-made indiscipline, is the only issue, in these  stretches. I personally feel there are local motives and vested interest to create such conditions.  Other than these 3 man-made chokes, the rest of the route is by and large free of encumbrances.

In no other place in India, does one see such consistent chaos day after day at the same spot. You will witness 5 – 6 kms of trucks queued up. One of the truck driver said he had been stuck in the same spot for the last 30 hours. Mind you some of these are sections where double-lane exist! typically 75% of the road is occupied by trucks, balance 25% is for up and down traffic, where no road rule exists, its purely ‘might is right’!  The volume of traffic being high, and being a densely populated region, it has its predicament. The only way to avoid these hold-ups is to take a detour avoiding NH12, and /or drive overnight. Having said, I believe, it will take atleast 2 more years for the road widening project to be completed. Whether it will solve the problems at the places mentioned above, only God knows! We wasted couple of hours at each of these obstructions, and made it thru sheer brute force and luck.  

Apart from  the above mentioned impediments, the rest of the drive, or rather the entire trip was wonderful and worthy!  North Bengal is truly mesmerizing for any wildlife and nature enthusiast!

The Itinerary;
      ~  Team members : 5 Adults (Wg Cdr TK Sarkar, Aditi Sarkar, Arunava Dutta, Sanghita Dutta, Amitava Dutta)
Through the entire trip we sighted well over 200 species of birds, each encounter worth remembering. Lifers such as the Rufous Throated Wren Babler, Black Eared Shrike Babbler, Chestnut Crowned Laughing Thrush, Rusty Fronted Barwing, Rusty Cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Greater-Necklaced Laughingthrush, Chestnut-Winged Kuckoo, etc.  I feel good having sought  guidance from Mr Chandramouli Ganguly (Travel2Wildlife), a young IT professional who has dumped his '9 to 9' job and taken up taken up 'wildlife adventure tourism' as his career. Hats Off! Chandramouli curated the birding sessions at Latpanchor and Lava for us.
We drove into ‘Kharkha Home Stay – Latpanchor’….on April 17, 2018 our home among the cloud, for the next 3 days.  Kharkha Home Stay is run by Mr Bidhan Chetri (ex Gorkha Rifles). Pleasantly surprised to encounter an infantry soldier, so well versed in nature, and birding in particular.  Here was a person with the etiquette of the army and the enthusiasm of a birder. His willingness to serve and make your stay comfortable was absolutely remarkable. He was available to 24 x 7, and fulfilled every dietary and culinary request. On the other hand, accomplishing our birding desires remained his numero-uno priority. It was amazing to see Bidhan managing all these roles, without an iota of sweat or gloom.

Kharkha Home Stay is definitely well maintained. It is still a work-in-progress but the expansion activity does not interfere in any way. At the moment there are 3 rooms which can house 10 - 12 people. I am told more rooms will be ready in a year's time.

We were pleasantly surprised to see teams from Chennai, Pune, Mumbai all dropping in at Latpanchor. That goes to say that brand Latpanchor is well established due to the Sultan Tits, Rufous Necked Hornbill, Long-Tailed Broadbill, and the untiring efforts of folks like Bidhan Chetri. I do hope and pray that the Mahananda WLS habitat continues to thrive, in support of the fauna and the Flora of the region.

From Latpanchor we moved on to Lava. PP Lodge was our chosen place of stay, right in the heart of Lava Bazaar. Personally I hate being in the midst of a bazaar location, but on hindsight, it was easy to visit all the birding locations from this place, being the hub of the region.

Much has been said and written about Neora Valley National Park (NVNP). I am not going to write much here, the video clip will do justice. All I can say, is that it is a Birder’s and Nature lovers paradise. At Lava, we came across Mr Josephlepcha Tingbo, guide, driver, guru and above all a superb human being. What a marvelous person, with over 8 years of birding experience in the region, he is an encyclopedia on NVNP wildlife.Joseph and Chandramouli made the trip truly memorable.

Although we spent 4 nights and 3 days at Lava, although we had a packed program starting at 4.30am everyday until 5.30pm, although each session was highly fruitful, it was simply not enough! It was tough, it was grueling, but above all exhilarating.

There is so much more to explore and experience at Lava! One of the dream trips would be to trek upto Rachela Peak, camp there for a couple of days and then trek across into Sikkim. May be next time!

.... Flavors to mesmerize.

From Lava onto Dooars! 'Natures Trance'!!  
The drive through the clouds, tea gardens and forests seemed unreal at times. One felt like pulling over and gaze at the unfolding beauty..... you could hear birds chirping, raptors surveying above, the cool breeze gently blowing, an infinite horizon of lush green tea bushes on one side, the rolling mountain ranges on the other side and rivers snaking their way through the valley in between ! If that is'nt bliss?  

On the banks of river Murti, at the border of Gorumara National Park, was our next abode - Wagtail Resort. Compared to the rough and tough terrain of Latpanchor and Lava, this was a delight as far as stay was concerned! Nice big rooms, curated open garden, plain terrain and above all just the five of us in the entire property made it a great stay. It is quite easy to navigate into the resort, though we misjudged the route and took an off-road detour through adjoining village which was quite a fun. Specially the village folks were quite taken aback to see a Scorpio going in between their huts and real narrow lanes. The culverts, where scarry as the Scorpio, just about managed to cross over. 


For those who are focused on Gorumara National Park and its various safaris cum watch-towers, Wagtail Resort is perhaps not the best of the location from a distance perspective, it is better to stay closer to the park main office, as you have to collect entry passes each day and for each session. There are 4 sessions a day. However if you are a keen birder, a wildlife enthusiast and/or with other interest in Landscape, Tea Gardens, etc, then Wagtail Resort is an apt location.  You can very easily drive out to other points of interest, Chapmari, Chandrachud, tea gardens, water reservoirs at Gajoldoba, Jhalong, Bindu from Wagtail Resort.

For birders, Wagtail Resort, is perhaps an apt place. The road leading from Murti outpost until the National Highway is one of the best location for birding. Vehicular traffic on this road is very limited, and hence the advantage. Very often Elephants, Gaur (Indian Bison), Reptiles stray into the paddy field adjacent to Wagtail Resort. We witnessed some of it on our first night at Wagtail Resort. It is a life-time experience to watch a wild lone elephant in the midst of the fields (100 metres) and the villagers, trying to steer the elephant back to the forest, lest it destroys their homes and farm. We were told that during the harvesting season, this is quite a common phenomenon, and elephant - human conflict has been on the increase.

Overall, I felt that the visit to various parks under Gorumara National Park, was by and large frustrating. In my personal opinion, Gorumara NP authorities have made it too complicated and time consuming. Guess the tourist pressure is too high for the Park authorities to ignore, and thereby the restrictions. Nevertheless, there are many other National Parks in the country who do a pretty good job inspite of the tourist pressure. My advice to fellow wildlife enthusiasts would be to avoid spending time and effort at Gorumara NP. Just focus on what you want to experience. And the best way is to connect with someone in the forest department and leverage that connection.  Otherwise, at the watch towers, clutter and cacophony rules. 

Having said, the experience was well worth. I now clearly know, how to explore Gorumara without the hassles. 
Finally, after 4 nights at Wagtail Resort, we started on our way back. Had the road and traffic been good we could have made it to Kolkata within a day. The notoriety of the traffic forced us to make a night halt at Farakka. The driving distance to Farakka is a mere 336 Km, regardless, it took us almost 11 hours to reach, due to the traffic bottlenecks at Malda-Bypass and Farakka Barrage. Frankly speaking it was a big relief to get past Farakka. 

With thunder, rain and darkness looming at us, NTPC Guest House was a huge relief at the end of the day.

The next day was supposedly a home run, which everyone thought would be without turmoil. Luck had decided otherwise. We ran into a chaotic situation at Murshidabad Bypass. No apparent reason! Every body wanted to overtake and beat the other guy in clearing an over bridge under repair. No different than all the other sections where chaos rules. With luck and sheer effort of my family members we steered out of the mess, albeit losing about an hour in the process. At Krishnanagar, we decided reward ourselves and savoir the local favorites 'Sarbhaja & Sarpuria'. One of the inherent advantages of self-drive trips. 

Minus these unruly traffic, NH12 otherwise is good for driving, and can surely be a predictable drive, if and only if the WB Traffic Police and local authorities put their minds into disciplining the traffic. 

Overall a monumental trip! Hoping and praying that NH12 improves quickly. There is so much more out there in the North East! There are almost 10 Wildlife Sanctuaries / National Parks in North Bengal alone, if you add the neighboring states the number more than doubles. Imagine the beauty the region beholds!

Mother, the folk who live up in the clouds call out to me
"We play from the time we wake till the day ends.
We play with the golden dawn, we play with the silver moon."
I ask, "But how am I to get up to you ?"
They answer, "Come to the edge of the earth, lift up your
hands to the sky, and you will be taken up into the clouds."
- Cloud & Waves - Rabindranath Tagore

Do share your comments and feedback!

 au revoir!!