Friday, January 14, 2011


The day started on an ominous note, with mist descending on the streets and the light rapidly deteriorating. Lucknow, with streets dug out for laying drain pipes was bad enough without the mist. Fog made it almost un-motorable.

We had planned a road trip to Dudhwa National Park, a good 240 km away from Lucknow, close to the Nepal border.

By the time we packed luggage and loaded our gadgets into Suresh's brand new Wagon R, visibility had dropped to less than 20 metres. We were accompanied by Suresh's younger son Amitabh, an engineer from MIT, amateur film photographer and above all, an able backseat driver, guiding and warning his dad, as he negotiated the vehicle through misty turns and diversions. We ventured cautiously, almost by intuition, contending bravely with  UP's reckless truck fraternity that operates religiously without tail lights or fog signals. A welcome halt for breakfast after two hours of treacherous driving found us at a wayside Reliance Cafe, barely 50 kilometres away from Lucknow.  It was a bleak morning, frightfully cold, with no sign of any bird activity anywhere. But as Saramago says, you never cease to marvel the turns of life or weather. With a hot breakfast inside us, we were able to consider a more positive view of the weather. Fog on the road seemed thinner and a lot more easier to negotiate. By the time we crossed Sitapur, a run down district town, feeble sunlight had already set in . Our first stroke of luck was with a glorious pair of Sarus cranes in a half cut sugarcane field. Amitabh quickly unstrapped his movie camera for action. 

Oblivious of Our Presence, the Cranes Seemed to be Talking to One Another
Indian farmers love Sarus cranes, as they are considered to be harbingers of a bumper crop. On a rational plane, they rid the field of insects and miscellaneous pests. Meat of Sarus is considered taboo in Hindu scriptures. A story, Kronchwadh, probably from the Mahabharat, narrates the misfortunes of killing a Sarus crane. Sarus cranes are usually seen in pairs, and folklore has it that if one of a pair dies, the other one also dies soon. Amitabh tells me that on his previous trip, he saw more than a dozen birds together in a field. A recent report says that numbers of Sarus, the state bird of Uttar Pradesh, which had dwindled to about 1000 birds some time ago, are now up to a few thousand in the state.

We are passing through lush sugarcane fields, some of them partially cut. Water streams and small ponds run along the road. We are delighted to see a group of pied kingfishers, who for our benefit,  perform  the familiar dance of hovering  still against the wind and then suddenly diving into the pond below to catch a moving fish in a flash.   
Waiting for Action.....

Action !!

Mission Accomplished !!!
A little ahead, we pass  bigger, lake-like wetlands on either side of the road. A flock of roosting lesser whistling ducks, a few spot billed ducks and some pheasant tailed jacanas happily swimming in the shallow waters. A solitary muddy grey-white juvenile openbill tries to win over a group of lethargic egrets. A pair of Sarus cranes flies off, before we can  record its action. We are passing through prime sugar cane country. Every now and then, a small sugar factory emerges from behind the hamlets, with the road getting blocked by overloaded bullock carts carrying a bumper crop of canes, ready for crushing.  The Road further down brings us to the dusty town of Lakhimpur-Kheri, where we are intrigued by the number of liquor shops advertising chilled beer with adjectives like Maha Thandi  or Ghanghor Thandi and at one place, even Darun Thandi,  the typically Bengali expression. Obviously, no one here likes to sell beer less colder than the cryogenic temperatures suggested by these adjectives. A bridge across the meter gauge railway track gives a glimpse of the local railway station, with a packed train, bound for Lal Kuan puffing out. Little do we realise that this very train, overtaking us, would  stop our way at several  level crossings later during the same day.  

It was intriguing to see the numerous signs in Punjabi Gurumukhi script on the road. Suresh, who was born in these parts, informs that several Sikhs bought land and settled in the area a couple of generations ago. The fertile land returned rich rewards, and many of the farmers now own palatial farm houses, with their children studying abroad. The land here offers three or even four crops during the year. We step down to inhale the intoxicating smell of blooming mustard flowers in the yellow fields.
Mustard Fields in Bloom
The road from Lakhimpur is virtually a straight line. I have never seen  such a long stretch of straight road. When we eventually turn right, the first sign for Dudhwa National Park shows up. We are at Bhera, and further on at Palia. The metre gauge railway track has been faithfully following us on the left. Ahead of Palia we need to cross the river Sarada, by a solitary narrow bridge that is common for the railway track and the road. We patiently wait for the train to pass, as the queue of trucks and cars builds up. A group of monkeys is stealthily inspecting tops of stalled trucks, probably in search of food. It  zeros in on a truck packed with puffed rice. One monkey manages to tear one of the bags. Before the cleaner of the truck can  drive the thieves away with a long stick, the monkeys, their cheeks filled with puffed rice, have scampered off. 

We consider ourselves lucky for being  able to cross the bridge in less than an hour. Traffic from the other side patiently waits for its turn on the one way bridge. On our right are the unfinished spans of a new bridge that will end this ordeal. But no one knows when the new bridge will be completed. 
Unfinished New Bridge on Sarada
Palia is a relatively larger town with petrol pumps, ATMs and well stacked grocery shops. Activity is spurred by the large sugar factory of Bajaj Hindustan at Palia. Northern boundary of Palia is only 10 km from Dudhwa. On the way, we cross the picturesque streams of Suheli, where the Mahauts of the park are busy scrubbing the tame elephants of the park.
Elephants Getting their Daily Wash at Suheli River

On a treetop overhanging the river, a serpent eagle sits enjoying the afternoon sun, while on the rocks below, terrapins, crocodiles and birds are in blissful co-existence.

A Serpent Eagle over Suheli River

Terrapins, Egrets, Crocodile and Pond Heron on Suheli River
 By the time we reached the forest lodge at Dudhwa, it was almost evening. Tall sal trees overlooked the lodge, while the reception hall had some enlarged pictures of birds and animals. A graceful grey wagtail posed for us on the lawns. We return to the car to find that monkeys have stolen all the food packets through the half open window-pane. 

Grey Wagtail at Dudhwa Forest Lodge

The huts of forest lodge were modestly equipped with all facilities except running hot water. A watch tower on the premises offered a panoramic view of the Suheli river. As darkness fell, it was time to retire after an eventful day.
Suheli River in the Evening


We got up to a cold morning with a light mist in the air. A racket tail drongo was calling from top of the sal tree in front of the row of huts. One of the big attraction of Dudhwa is its gorgeous sal forests, which are arguably the best in the world. Sal forests are best seen in the first rays of dawn and we dressed up to face the chilly winds of the morning. 
First Rays of the Morning Sun touching Dudhwa

Dudhwa Tiger Reserve is the name given to the integrated forest area in Dudhwa spread over an area of 884 square kilometres. It consists of two parts, i.e. Dudhwa National Park (which has a core zone of 490 square km and a buffer zone of 190 km) formed in 1977 and the older, but smaller Kishanpur Wild Life Sanctuary (with an area of 204 square km) formed in 1972. Dudhwa National Park is spread with the Suheli river as its natural boundary in the south and Nepal as its boundary in the north. Kishanpur WLS is south of Dudhwa National Park around the Sharda river which we crossed on our way to Dudhwa.
Splendour of Sal Trees

Dudhwa is 60 percent sal forest, the rest being made up of other varieties of sub-Himalayan trees. We are headed for Salukhapur, the starting point for the famed Elephant safari. The trip on the animal's back is not a staged 'elephant show' like Bandhavgadh, but a real ride into the deep interiors of the forest on the elephant back where you can expect the unexpected to happen. Most of Dudhwa consists of Sal clusters, long stretches of tall 'elephant grass' and flat lands by the side of the rivers. The trained elephants romp  through paths which are uneven and almost inaccessible. On the flip side, from the point of view of bird photography, it is a rough ride, offering little scope for camera adjustment and even less for keeping it still, as Amitabh discovered quickly and wisely decided to leave some of his heavy paraphernalia back in the car, despite there being free space on the howdah , with only the three of us on the elephant back. Our elephant, Chhibli (an unusual  name for a tame elephant) was a cool animal, very obedient to the mahaut.
Elephants Getting Ready for the Safari at Salukhapur

We pass through tall grass, onto a path that leads to the riverside. In addition to a few migrant ducks, cormorants and herons dominate the scene. 
Suheli Riverbank Dudhwa

Every now and then, the elephant stops to gnaw at the tall grass. Amitabh is suddenly animated by a loud  growling sound behind us and gets excited at the prospect of seeing a tiger at close range. But the mahaut sheepishly informs that the terrific rumbling emanates from the elephant breaking wind! 

Encountering a tiger on elephant safari is rare, though not impossible. All mahauts are in the habit of showing fresh pugmarks of the tiger to the vistors. It is always exciting to learn that a tiger has passed the same path a little while ago. Some guides even specialise in showing you the tiger shit as a consolance for not spotting the animal.  

This time around, the mahaut suddenly hushes us up. We are approaching a female Rhino with a cub close behind. Rhinos can sometimes charge at intruders. 
Rhino at Dudhwa

It is a majestic animal, with the cub hidden in the bushes. Rhinos were natural habitants of Dudhwa, but lost the last of their tribe due to indiscriminate poaching. Re-introduction of the Indian Rhino to Dudhwa (from Kaziranga in Assam) a couple of decades ago has been an eminently successful operation, with the park now boasting of nearly thirty rhinos. The female eyed us very cautiously for a few minutes, and after ascertaining our peaceful intent, quickly lost all interest.
Spotted Deer
Further up, another rhino and an an inquisitive spotted deer male with tantlers crossed our path. Dudhwa is also known for its swamp deer and the rare hispid hare, but we were not fortunate enough to get a glimpse. A lesser adjutant in the thick foliage surprised us. We were told that there are quite a few around.
Lesser Adjutant Stork

A hearty breakfast and  vegetarian fare for lunch saw us waiting impatiently for another ride into the forest. We were immediately rewarded with a jackal out on an afternoon stroll. When we stopped our vehicle, the Jackal also paused and sat back on his haunches, like a true guardian of the pristine forest.
A Jackal Watchfully Guarding the Forest 

Jackals are usually very shy and run away instantly on seeing people. This jackal stood his ground for a long time, before deciding to run.

The Jackal that stood his Ground
We were headed for a watch tower by the side of a small stream beyond Sonaripur. Beyond it lies the buffer zone of the forest which has its Northern boundary touching Nepal. The last stop on the Indian side is Chandanchowki, a small village, where the road ends.

Hog Deer or 'Pada' in the Local Language

A pair of hog deer were cautiously grazing by the side of the watchpost, which offered a good view of the river and the land beyond. A variety of ducks, cormorants and herons were busy in and around the waterfront. A group of lesser whistling ducks flew away at the slightest sound in the breeze.

Ever Vigilant Lesser Whistling Ducks
On the way back, paths of the forest were once again lit by the evening sun. As the darkness descended,  the cold, crisp air of the forest filled our lungs.

Dusk at Dudhwa

 At the Forest Guest House, they tell stories of the legendry Billy Arjun Singh who had tamed a tiger that had to be eventually let off in the forest, where it turned a killer because it did not know how to hunt.  Dudhwa, despite its open spaces, is being encroached from all sides by prime agricultural land that will surely surround and dissolve it one day like a huge amoeba. Nobody has the will to stop the metre gauge train that cuts along Dudhwa forest, carrying hundreds of people, several times a day. People, with their lethal waste of plastic bags, pan masala foils and other unfriendly stuff. It is a miracle that Dudhwa has survived so far.

The last day at the Forest Rest House begins with the customary packing of bags. We have been advised to leave well before lunch. We are impatient to get back to the forest. We have decided to go to the river and the small pond. There is no dearth of water in Dudhwa and that means there is no congregation of animals and birds at the water holes or rivers.
Road to Eternity through the Sal Forest

By the side of the pond, we were lucky to see a pair of Great Hornbills. Our guide tells us that it is a favourite spot for these fabulous birds.

Great Hornbill at Dudhwa

Nobody is quite sure about the tiger population at Dudhwa, but logistics of organised poaching cannot be ruled out here. Besides different types of deer, there are assorted animals like porcupines in the forest and at Salukhapur, the Forest Lodge inside the park, you can see them looking for food at the garbage dump in the dark.. On our night drive to Chandan Chowki, we see one on the road and it quickly disappeared into the foliage.

Innocent Eyes

Our enthusiastic street-smart guide Sonu (alias an impressive 'L.D. Singh Naturalist & Member of the BCN' on his visiting card) tells us  that at this time of the year, the best location for birding is the Kishanpur Wild Life Sanctuary some 50 km from Dudhwa. We decide to look it up on our way back, but are in for disappointment. The Chief Justice of India is visiting these parts and the Kishanpur WLS has been closed to  outside visitors for two days in honour of his visit. We have also been advised to vacate our rooms at Dudhwa asap. A massive painting drive is on at Dudhwa for the VVIP visit, after which, we are sure, everything will fall back to its normal lethargic pace.

A Painter Giving Finishing Touches to a Board for VVIP Visit

On the way back on  the Suheli river, we found a stork billed kingfisher looking for a catch and a lesser adjutant flying off.

Stork Billed Kingfisher at Suheli, Dudhwa

As before, crocodiles were basking in the sun in the company of terrapins and an assorted birds. And an elephant was off to work.

Elephant off to Work

              Dudhwa in Early Morning
Suresh & the Author                      

As we returned, each one of us was recapitulating in his mind, the most enduring image of our visit. For me, it was definitely the morning sun touching sal trees of the mesmerising jungle that is Dudhwa.

--Jitendra Bhatia from Dudhwa
December 2010
Jitendra Bhatia


  1. Jiten

    Fantastic photos and great narration.


  2. Uncle, you write so beautifully! I loved the description of your drive to Dudhwa and the story about the Sarus cranes. Your first effort at blogging in English is a resounding success!! The pics of the pied kingfisher and Sarus cranes are lovely, but the best ones are of the early morning light in the forest, and both pics of the jackal! Looking forward to reading more from you!

  3. what a classical peace of writing here... Dudhwa is really a full fun with tiger and birds species and also a great view of flora and fauna...

    Dudhwa National Park