TRIP REPORT, ARUNACHAL PRADESH, EAGLENEST, ZIRO & PAKKE, 24 AUGUST-11 SEPTEMBER 2017

 

Thursday 24 August

Endured the usual stiff neck no-sleep flight arriving in Delhi at 9.30am with the temperature at 27° and a 6 hour stop-over in prospect, getting away again at 4.40pm for Guwahati in a window seat with a hazy view, dark and raining when we bumped down. Arjan and Pam awaited us in a very smart airport from where the Mahendra car whisked us to the Radisson Blu hotel about 30 minutes away reaching its opulent surroundings at 8pm. 

 

Friday 25 August

Up 6.30 for breakfast at 7 ahead of an all-day transit to Bhalukpong. It took a long time to get clear of greater Guwahati despite the dual-carriageway and the customary crazy driving. The route took us east through the flatlands of Assam until a welcome snack stop in Baglan for chai and pakoras before crossing the Brahmaputra bridge - here the river isn't particularly wide (by its standards) nor spectacular. Beyond here the road became single carriageway interminably riddled with holes but at least the heat, 35° and very high humidity, was softened by the aircon. The road was bad all the way to Tezpur where we stopped for lunch, taken in a nice hotel. The final leg was pleasantly fairly short and we duly reached our bungalow-style accommodation, the Bhalukpong Tourist Complex, at 4.15pm. Immediately patrolled the lawn and flowery bushes where Common Birdwing (Troides helena), Common Mormon (Papilio polytes)Great Mormon (Papilio memnon), and Common Rose (Atrophaneura hector) busily nectared, all of them with rapidly vibrating wings. Down by the river with Adrian and Pam were the more mundane Dark Evening Brown (Melanitis phedima), One-spot Grass Yellow (Eurema andersoni), and Dark-brand Bushbrown (Mycalesis mineus).

 

A cool shower before a light dinner at 7.30, washed down by black ginger tea.

 

Saturday 26 August

Another long transit day lay ahead to our first major location, the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in the Himalayan foothills of West Kameng District, Arunachal Pradesh (AP). Got up at 6.30 hoping to find basking Swallowtails but they were already active. Down by the river were Purple Sapphire (Heliophorus epicles), Large Yeoman (Cirrhochra aoris), and Common Castor (Ariadne merione) plus a sole basking, albeit a tattered Yellow Helen (Papilio nephelus). After breakfast at 8am it was time to get on the road, but not until the border formalities had been attended to. Shortly into AP we stopped by a river bridge and small group of huts where the star turn was a number of White Dragontails (Lamproptera curius). The road followed the Kameng river, aka the Dirang, northwards along its deep valley through beautifully forested habitat but with a deteriorating road surface. Lots of horn! Just before Sessa we stopped for lunch near a small village at a bend in the road. Vehicle #2 was already having problems, namely a leaking radiator hose. An Autumn Leaf (Doleschallia bisaltide) was here as well as Paris Peacocks (Papilio paris) loitering right outside the dubious-looking ladies loo.

 

We then climbed relentlessly across recent landslides, often attended by bulldozers and JCBs, on appalling surfaces throughout the afternoon passing through an extensive area of what Arjan described as 'permanent fog'. In the large garrison town of Tenga we stopped for some supplies including a sack containing 3 live chickens which kept Adrian, Arjan and I company in the back of the car. From here the rain started becoming very very heavy turning the track into a torrent rushing towards us. This track became a real test for the vehicles and around a bend a landslide was actually happening in front of us. The two drivers and Arjan jumped out into the rain to shift the larger rocks, and I joined them. By the time I turned around to go back to the vehicle the track was strewn again. I feared for the safety of the following car as we hurried past. Around 5.30pm we finally reached Lama Camp at Eaglenest, and I was very glad to do so. What a journey!! Our tents were pitched on concrete floors protected by tin roof and rattan walls containing 2 single beds. It felt as if my mattress was made of concrete too. A solar-powered LED lamp lit the gloom. Three of Arjan's students waited to greet us.

 

Used the spare  bed to lay out some clothes etc then went down the steps to the 'centre' at 6.30 for a Tuborg beer, to charge camera batteries, and for a simple dinner. At times we could hardly hear what one another was saying due to the din caused by rain on the roof. Around 9, during a short lull, we went to our tents as the generator ceased and within 45 minutes, having removed a small black scorpion from the tent above my head, I was trying to get comfortable in bed. But about half an hour later I was awoken by a howling gale and the crashing of rain, so violent that I could envisage the site being swept away. So I got dressed again and held on to my passport and wallet, genuinely perturbed. But by 11.15 calm had returned, discovering water inside the tent (wet feet) and my rucksack with a wet bottom. Someone was snoring in a neighbouring tent! Back to my rock hard bed, and let's see what tomorrow brings…

 

Sunday 27 August

Apart from the storm I kept losing the sheet, blanket, duvet, and couldn't get comfortable on the hard bed, hips and knees especially. At least I didn't have a rat in the tent like Arjan did! Used the warm water in the bucket for a quick morning rinse. Light rain falling, though the wind had eased, low cloud rolling in filling the valley. Off just before 9am with Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis lidderdalei) the #1 target, accompanied by students Tarun, 'Deep' and Sarika and kitted out with leech socks from Arjan. Then in occasional light drizzle, no sun and still cool we saw our targets floating high above the trees, quite magical. Suddenly a mint specimen was seen on the ground, then another, but with about 3mm missing from the right side tail. Photography was easy as the butterflies were intent on taking minerals from the running water at the track edge, a lifetime experience beyond words! The cars picked us up and took us down to Ramalingam Camp where two of Krushnameg Kunte's researchers were busy with their dissecting, DNA testing and meticulous specimen setting. Very impressive set-up. A welcome cuppa too. Thunder rumbled announcing the rain, so it was back in the cars to Lama Camp for lunch, but on the way we jumped out to photograph the rare Small Tawny Wall (Rhacifera mantra) quickly getting to know its habitual circuit.

 

A late lunch of rice, vegetable curry, and machete'd chicken bits warmed us up. I re-made my bed, using the duvet as a mattress and inserted my sleeping bag liner, see how it goes. 'Showered' using the jug, ½ hot and ½ cold mix, before a light dinner of tomato soup, paneer and chapatis on what had become a cold evening. Adrian's best photos from his recent Russia trip passed some time and around 8.45 I went to my tent hoping for a better night's sleep…

Monday 28 August

Slept better though the liner was restrictive but it stopped the blanket migration, and it was cold latterly. At 6.30am the sun was through so I washed a couple of clothes and hung them out to dry. Nice porridge with sultanas and cashew bits for breakfast. Our drivers, Bittu and Raju, drove us up hill this morning in search of the second species of Bhutanitis, this time Bhutanitis ludlowi, as this is the only known place in India where both species fly. We drove a long way into the forest pretty much following the Dayankho river valley officially entering the Sanctuary at the Eaglenest Pass at 2,790 metres until a rockfall blocked any further progress. We were immediately met by leeches and I quickly picked/flicked 4 or 5 off my boots and socks. A Bhutanitis ludlowi sighting followed but it was very tattered and nectaring high up on a creamy white flower making attempts to photograph it near impossible. Large Green Hairstreak, Chrysozephyrus duma, was lower down and afforded slightly better opportunities. Otherwise it was very quiet with lots of cloud, little sun, and hardly any other butterflies. I walked back about half-way taking landscape shots mostly before being picked up by Bittu. Got back just before 3pm for a late lunch then 'showered' before dinner and watched part 2 of Adrian's Russia trip shots. Wandered down to the moth trap with Arjan and called into the research hut, but little activity happening. On the way back a snake resembling an 18" earthworm rushed to get out of our way, picked up in the light from my head torch. Before getting into bed I heavily sprayed a potential rat hole in the corner of my tent with insect repellent, better than nothing I reckoned.

 

Tuesday 29 August

Washed my shirt after an ok sleep. After breakfast and a leisurely start waiting for the sun (?) we walked back down the track picking up Azure Sapphire (Heliophorus moorei) and Powdery Green Sapphires (Heliophorus tamu), Tailed Punch (Dodona eugenes) and Bhutanitis lidderdalei again in lovely condition. I passed through an area of midge-like flies and sprayed up for the first time on the trip. The sun was hot on the few occasions it broke through. Down in the valley we heard the elephants trumpeting = caution! Raju caught up with fruit juice, nibbles and water then returned us to base c11.15 for lunch. As activity was quiet we chatted instead until around 3pm when we decided to go for a final stroll but didn't see a single butterfly between us. Thunder was heard an hour later as we walked back developing into mist and sheet lightning during dinner. The rain arrived at 6.30 becoming increasingly heavy. Many moths came into the room presumably to seek shelter. Arjan and Tarun returned from a provisions visit to Tenga and bought us Bhutanitis mugs and cards, a nice touch. During a lull around 9.10pm we all took the chance to escape to our tents.

 

Wednesday 30 August

Woken by my alarm at 6.30 to a calm, misty but bright morning after rain until the early hours. Arjan's rat had been back, this time totally destroying the zip on his suitcase. We waited for some decent weather, then we walked again, down the track, all very quiet except for three Bhutan Glories on the ground by now in their familiar feeding positions. Way down the track a Veined Labyrinth (Neope pulaha) dropped in conveniently permitting easy shots and when tidying up a collection of fabric cement bags I disturbed a tarantula, eventually causing it off to rear up and show its red fangs. Further on still, the road-makers were lined up nervously watching a snake tackle a large toad - it was a Red-necked Keelback - which clearly was not venomous as the poor old toad struggled vainly to get free. The cars then picked us up and took us down to the entrance barrier at the Ramalingam visitor centre. Indian Fritillary Argyreus hyperbius), Indian Red Admiral (Vanessa indica) and Indian Tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis)  made this spot feel a bit like home though some Oak Blue (Arhopala) species proved puzzling. The beautiful Sorrel Sapphire (Heliophorus sena) had been seen around here earlier in the year by Deep and it was I who spotted it again, a very worn specimen drawing attention to itself by chasing a much larger unidentified Bushbrown (Mycalesis).

 

The Warden/Officer in charge of the barrier and visitor centre recommended me to learn Hindi as his English wasn't too good (I thought it was fine) then opened up for me, and the others. I bought some cards and a sticker sheet to send to my grandkids, and made a 300rp donation. We had to wait for our return to Lama Camp as a landslide had occurred after we'd come down which required the local JCB's attention. The road works being undertaken by girls, children, as well as young men was to prepare the base for a 'tar road' planned all the way up to Lama Camp, a mixed blessing as it would make access easier for ecotorism yet open up the habitat for timber extraction, small clearings, and shacks. The Bhutan Glories would also have to find somewhere else to take their minerals. Finally back to camp later than usual, around 5pm, and after a shower, we were treated to excellent fried potato cakes and coffee leading into dinner. Nigel showed us his very tasty photos from Szechuan and at 9pm we headed for our tents and the final night here. I dispensed with the sleeping bag liner but added thick socks and an extra t-shirt, deciding to re-pack the suitcase before breakfast.

 

Thursday 31 August

Heavy rain crashed down at 4.30am and at 5.50 I decided to get up and pack, the rain mercifully stopping around 6.30 leaving everything feeling damp and cold. At least the rat stayed away from me last night! Breakfast at 7.30 was followed by the group photo session, farewells, and departure by 9am. 

 

A trackside Bhutan Glory (Bhutanitis lilidderdalei) brought us to a stop after which we walked a bit before getting back in the cars. A further stop just before the Ramalingam visitor centre enable me to grab a shot of the Indian Fritillary, tracked a few more Oak Blues, and then great excitement erupted - Sorrel Sapphires  (Heliophorus sena) were nectaring at the same rocky outcrop where we'd seen the tatty one yesterday, and these were pristine. Fantastic!

 

On the far outskirts of Tenga we had to find a garage to repair a puncture in Raju's vehicle - in fact it only needed a new valve, quickly fitted in a Mad Max type of operation. The rain started again. Further on, in another garrison town, I was successful in getting cash from an ATM, solvent again. Now began the climb towards Sessa on a dangerous road, wrecked by massive landslides. Through the 'permanent fog' zone it was rare to see an oncoming vehicle with its lights on, typical India! Just through Sessa we stopped at the same spot where we'd had lunch on the way up. I didn't fancy the cold fried eggs and was lucky to take a spicy noodle dish, very nice too, washed down with masala chai, also very good. Two Paris Peacocks (Papilio paris) enjoyed whatever choice liquid was seeping from the ladies toilet block. The road from here towards Bhalukpong was like a perpetual Mam Tor (a moving hillside in Derbyshire, England), the loose mountainsides slipping relentlessly across the road down the steep valley sides, but it was nevertheless most scenic.

 

At the border in Bhalukpong we stocked up on nibbles then continued until dusk through flat Assam eventually taking a left turn through some villages to our overnight accommodation, the Assam Bhorelli Angling and Conservation Association's Eco Camp, arriving at 6pm. The rooms were also tent-like under a thatched roof with a toilet & shower block added on behind - very acceptable. A large wolf spider above my toilet just had to be captured and chucked outside! During dinner there was a power cut, a pop as loud as a coconut falling on a tin roof, immediately followed by a Roman candle experience, and darkness. No option but to return to our rooms guided by our headlights. With the fan not working the room became very muggy, and I nodded off on the bed, woken when the lights came back on at 10.30. Unknown to me, Adrian watched a sparkler event on his ceiling wiring which soon became a fire so he had to get out quick, but it was smartly put out: Adrian managed to get an upgrade to the Manager's Quarters. Yappy dogs outside my tent-room didn't augur well for the night ahead but I needn't have worried and it didn't take me long to catch a very fast-moving small frog and pop him outside.

 

Friday 1 September

Heavy rain fell in the night between 1.30 and 4am, waterlogging the lawn. Slow breakfast so got ready to leave for Pakke Tiger Reserve at 8.30. Many stops occurred en route for provisions, checkpoints, to view a Great Adjutant Stork, one of only about 300 left in the wild, and Pakke entry permits. The road was mostly poor through extensive paddy fields and ribbon villages, reaching our destination around 12.30, our stilted bungalows with see-through walls, two beds with mosquito nets, and a more substantial toilet block, very similar in design to the Eco Camp's. Immediately wandered around, soon dripping sweat. Laundry was available here but I still washed some items. Lunch was lazy, partly down to the 35° heat and humidity. Around 3pm we walked down the track to the rough road and back.

 

Set the mosquito net before ginger tea, more chat, and at 6 went to face a cold shower. Rigged up the towel across my open window that was jammed and saw a mouse shoot along one of the beams. Dinner at 7, and took along a bag of washing. As my pacamac was in the room we all waited for a lull before making a dash for it. At the sharp left turn my right heel continued straight on and down I went, bang, muddy backside and back of my shirt, laptop into orbit. A big swelling, like half an egg, came up just above my left wrist where I'd whacked it on the cobbles lining the path and I ran it under the cold tap to little effect. But there was no real pain and all my fingers were working. More washing! The last thing I want is a hospital trip! Got into bed at 9.30 having plugged in the mozzi tablet device, rain still pattering on the roof. The coir mattress was brand new, still in its plastic cover making the sheet quite slippy.

 

Saturday 2 September

Slept well though there was a lot of rain through the night, getting up at 5.30 and then returning for another hour. I thought the swelling had gone down a bit. Didi ('Sister') knew we liked porridge but didn't have any so she kindly experimented with corn flakes. Arjan generously presented me with a pair of leech socks which were in fact his spare pair.

 

At 8.30 we set off on a muggy morning with a local guide picking up an armed guard at the Pakke Reserve entrance equipped with an ancient rifle. The track was greasy and bumpy through brilliant apparently pristine forest but Bittu got us out of difficulties having gone too far to the left past a fallen tree and beginning to slide down the bank. Frantic gear work and pushing saved the day - phew! At the first dry river bed we stopped but soon had to shelter in the cars as the rain began. Onto the next crossing where we had better luck, but species and volumes were low. Back at base we enjoyed samosas and ginger tea, my new top tipple. The power was off again but only for a short time and a chirpy gheko kept me company during a cold shower. Dinner was the usual fayre, very tasty, and the rain held off. Today seemed cooler. Hung my washing on the newly installed balcony wire and turned-in around 9.30pm.

 

Sunday 3 September

A disturbed night because of the rain, very heavy from about 3.30 to 6 and still falling steadily when I surfaced at 6.30, my washing now even wetter than when I hung it out. The plan today was to retrace yesterday's steps as the ford crossing upstream was un-passable but I had my doubts about returning given all the recent rain. Arjan turned cook to prepare proper oat porridge that he'd arranged to come the 65km from Tezpur on the local bus, the standard delivery method in these parts. How typically thoughtful was that? The main news was that we'd be leaving here a day early due to a bund (State-wide strike) in Assam on the road to Ziro planned for our transit day. Probably not a bad thing. Set off at 9 switching travelling partners for the day with Pam replacing Adrian in the lead car. There was an initial delay at the Forest office as no armed guards had been assigned work on a Sunday so off we went, slipping and sliding through the trees straight to the second dry river bed. An armed guard suddenly materialised, a young lad with his shooter, making us feel much safer (?!). The rain didn't seem to deter the butterflies and when the hot sun came out activity jumped. Back at the first river bed we were met by rain again followed by sun around 2.30 and many basking beauties on the vegetation, reminiscent of Ultapani in 2013. We finally departed in the rain and as Arjan had a network in the village he kindly let me send an email home. The rest of the day fell into the usual pattern.

 

Monday 4 September

A very heavy but short downpour in the small hours resumed around 6 and continued through breakfast, Didi making a fine bowl of porridge. We heard about the local tribe seeking full independence from India, a racially distinct group with Tibetan and Burmese features. Their country would include parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Assam east through Ultapani (but they have zero chance). The Chinese support them, providing medical aid and narcotics to further their ambition of annexing AP into China…

 

We'd return to our dry river beds setting off at 9 in light rain, sometimes coming down heavily. As the rain continued through the forest we carried on to crossing #2 before thunder heralded the next lot of rain. We could hear it coming some way off, whispering across the canopy. Sitting in steamed up cars we sensed we should probably get out of the forest before the track became even more dodgy. And at the Forest office they told us they wanted us out because potential recovery would have been too difficult. Back at a rainy base by 1.30, my trousers and 2 shirts nicely re-rinsed in the rain. Having not seen any leeches here I decided not to wear my socks today - of course, I removed 3 of the little critters this morning! Chips and ginger tea around 3pm, rain again at 4, back to room to shower and pack. Arjan had found some strong Godfather beer which washed down a goat curry, then Pam commentated over the rain on her Ghana photos.

 

Tuesday 5 September

Up at 5.30 and away 7.15 through the ribbon of rural villages, rice paddies, tea plantations hitting the main highway where the road surface was much better. Tall brick kiln chimneys dotted the flat landscape, many flooded. The school run was in full swing, the kids thronging the road on their bikes and smart uniforms. Into Assam we continued east on the flat sandy Brahmaputra plain following the dual carriageway still under construction. At last we turned left back into AP at the Hollongi Checkpoint on a now deserted road back into the wooded hills towards Itanagar. This bustling city looks like it is being rebuilt with much demolition and construction activity including a widening of the main road. The lunch stop identified for us was no longer there having been demolished so the only quick alternative was a KFC, any port in a storm! Beyond the city the road climbed steadily through forest and landslides effectively on a single track tar road eroded deeply at the edges resulting in much horn blowing and games of chicken.

 

Around 5pm we arrived at Ziro, a well-ordered untypically Indian kind of town and home to the Apatani tribe, and on to Punyu's delightful homestay, all of us very weary after a 10 hour, 250mile journey. Arjan and Pam stayed with Punyu whilst Nigel, Adrian and I stayed at his other place, guests of Tatu and his wife Oche, very comfortable, immediately switching on the geyser for some hot water and a shower and shave. Excellent! My damp smelly Pakke washing was hung up hopefully to dry. We went back to Punyu's for a lovely cosy dinner sitting around the open hearth in the centre of the room, his wife being the perfect hostess, modest and gentle.

 

Wednesday 6 September

Spent a comfortable night though slept little, if any, after 4.30. some rain in the night but the day started ok with the sun trying to get through the low cloud and mist. Picked up in a Suzuki Gypsy, ex-army issue, at 8am to rendezvous with the others on the trail. The track into the forest was very rough, challengingly rocky and muddy, and we were soon stuck, and then bogged down again. It had been cut into the steep hillside for the construction of a power line many years ago, a complete waste of time as no account had been taken of possible falling trees and the derelict line was down in many places. Leeches were super-abundant, waving to us in their dozens from the infested trackside vegetation - eerie. It felt like it would be a miracle if I managed to avoid being 'got'. We were here for the Kaiser i-hind (Teinopalpus imperialis), as it turned out, more in hope than expectation, as we were late in its flight period. Not much else was flying in this superb environment in the absence of any sun. A 'forest lunch' had been prepared for us at the Forest Officer's Camp, a great experience sitting around the smoky open indoor fire, not to mention great rustic food.

 

Walked back most of the way, around 8km, on the wet muddy track trying to avoid contact with the vegetation and leeches, surviving an encounter with one of the massive mithun cows and her calf, and even though this gaur/domestic cow hybrid is supposed to be docile this one clearly didn't like me being so close and snorted loudly as I edged past. With no sun the forest was gloomy, and silent. The Gypsies picked us up, then got stuck in the mud, so we dismounted, again, eventually returning in fading light around 6pm to the homestay. Back at the homestay Adrian's boots deposited at least 3 leeches outside his door but I succeeded in depositing none. I donated 4 packs of coloured pens to Tatu as he and Punyu are both local teachers. My boots had pinched the balls of my feet so I'll abandoned them here when it's time to leave. The others would come to our place for dinner tonight and the evening was lovely, cosy, gentle and so polite in the company of our drivers, Punyu, and Arjan all sitting around the edge of the room, and Oche's simple cooking was superb. An unusual and unmemorable butterflying day ended around 9pm when the others left and I returned to my room.

 

But the day wasn't quite over! For some reason, in bed, I felt a leech on my left buttock minutes after putting out the light - must have come in on my trousers! So hard to kill as well, like trying to squeeze the life out of a rubber band.

 

Thursday 7 September

Some blue sky, a dry night, and up at 6. We left at 7.30 with me in the Gypsy front seat retracing yesterday's route. Got out before a boggy stretch but there was little doing though a spell of sun raised spirits for a short while, hopes dashed when light rain began to fall. It was clearly better to drop down to the Kiwi fruit farm in late morning where we all failed to photograph Hill Jezebels (Delias belladonna), just too much human movement which unsettled them. We stayed here through lunch and into the afternoon, seeing Two-spot Royal (Ancema ctesia), Singleton (Una usta)  (only one, of course), Veined Jay (Graphium chironides), and the gorgeous Glassy Bluebottle (Graphium cloanthus). When the strong sun did break through, boy, was it hot, but the forest still looked dark and gloomy. Got back for a shower at 4pm and managed to avoid the leeches again, less evident now that the trail was drying out nicely.

 

Picked up at 5.30 for dinner at Punyu's place and took my laptop hoping to log in to his wifi hot-spot. Though connected and frequently disconnected, I struggled to get my emails read and sent but finally it was 'email sent' to Jean. I also discovered that Leeds United lay third in the table!

 

Friday 8 September

Up 6.15 after another rainless night, the sun working hard to penetrate the morning mist. A small toad had found its way into the bathroom during the night but there was no sign of it in the morning. Usual breakfast of 'vegetable oats' porridge, 2 warm fried eggs on toast, and a cuppa of black ginger tea. Returned at 8am to the Kiwi farm majoring on the HIll Jezebels (Delias belladonna) requiring stealth, and a 'one at a time' approach.  Success at last! We stayed there until 2.45 adding a Common Windmill (Atrophaneura polyeuctes) until light rain caused us to head back. Discovered that I'd been leeched on my right calf, concluding that the blighter had been in my leech sock from yesterday.   

Dinner was chez nous, another enjoyable bit of Apatani hospitality. Tried one of the three local rice-based hooches, tasted a bit like Amyl acetate, and finished off Adrian's.

 

Saturday 9 September

Buzzed twice by mozzies in the night, the first time on this trip. Heavy rain began at 5am and continued through the alarm, set this morning for an early breakfast and with a long transit ahead. Thanked Tatu and Oche for being great hosts then met up with the others chez Punju. A cuppa, photos, farewells etc and off at 8.20 in the rain. The road was broken, interrupted by landslides, it was raining, grey, cloudy and misty, until we hit the first bit of smooth tarmac near Lichi after several hours. At North Lakhimpur we turned left along the highway on the flat Assam plain and soon came to a standstill, the road completely blocked by a large crowd. Never did discover whether it was a political rally or some other event. Drivers spread across the road, jockeying for the slightest advantage. And then a white uniformed policeman appeared and the traffic began to funnel into a single lane as vehicles came the other way towards us. Bittu drove, weaving in and out, narrowly missing cows, goats, oncoming vehicles and occasionally people, to make up lost time in order to catch our ferry otherwise we'd have to stay overnight somewhere. Assam was often waterlogged through the tea plantations and brick factories but the rice seemed happy enough. The spur road to the ferry was thankfully quiet. The ferry 'port' was reached at 3.45 in the shadow of the new 4½km road and rail bridge nearing completion across to Dibrugarh, and we duly loaded-up, 4 cars across the boat, but the reason for the mad rush wasn't apparent at all as everything was very relaxed! The skipper, a swarthy man chewing a match, gestured to me and my camera requesting a photo, and sat down expressionless. I gently smartened him up by 'putting a hair in place' much to the mirth of the young lads comprising his crew. He remained expressionless as I rattled off 3 shots. Then I said 'how about a smile?' at which point he bared his teeth and I took the last shot. A woman who makes the crossing regularly said his nickname was 'the Magician' a reference to his boat skills on this wide and fast-flowing mighty river. The Brahmaputra took an hour to cross in the gathering dusk, city lights on the other side now sparkling in the gloom.

 

After 10 hours on the road we arrived at the Tea Garden Hotel in Dibrugarh at 6.30pm, a modern hotel with wifi, a power shower and my room infused with the smell of mothballs in the wash basin. The buffet dinner at 7.30 was very good, a wide range of dishes to choose from. 

 

Sunday 10 September

Up at 6.30 and off an hour later or so later. Arrived at the Jaypore Rainforest 90 minutes later, home to a distinct racial group, just as the rain started! This is surprisingly good habitat stuck amidst the rice monoculture. The going was slow but a Red-base Jezebel (Delias pasithoe) was a good start especially as it had been sitting high up until a well-aimed stoned persuaded it to come down to the ground. Last night's left overs were served up for lunch at 12.30, very tasty too, taken within sight of the river. I'd then gone ahead on the track and was about 300m from the vehicles, and out of sight round a bend, with Pam some way behind when there was a sudden crashing in the trees between me and the river. About 40 yards away was an elephant going towards our vehicles and the others. Immediately I set off briskly but the elephant was outpacing me silently even though ambling. I didn't want it to cross the track between me and the cars and as soon as I got to the bend I bellowed to the others 'elephant'. This spooked the beast - and it had a calf - resulting in a pandemonium of crashing in the undergrowth. Arjan shouted 'run' and I took off faster than Usain Bolt, passing Pam who didn't see what all the fuss was about. This is one very cool Aussie lady! The drivers had spun the cars around towards the exit, engines running. Fortunately, the elephants had turned back, excitement over, and Pam vindicated. 

 

The sun came out properly around 1.30, and it was hot, and out came the butterflies too, especially Lycaenids, namely Common Imperial Cheritra freja), Chocolate Royal (Remelana jangala) and a species of Flash (Rapala) which could not be readily identified. Bittu had invited us back to his home for tea so we left the forest at 2.30 for his humble house in a small village in the paddy fields. None of his family spoke English and we were treated like royalty, each being presented with the red on white cotton Assam welcome scarf, a nice cuppa and a bowl of rice pudding with raisins, cashew bits and cinnamon. Bittu's 15 year-old daughter was the perfect hostess, all very humbling.

 

In the dusk we got back to our hotel and met for dinner at 8, another excellently varied buffet meal. I lent Adrian my laptop so he could read and send his emails, and turned out the light at 11pm, much later than usual.

 

Monday 11 September

Homeward bound starts today with a 5.30 reveille. Got the hotel to print off my Indigo boarding pass for the flight from Dibrugarh to Kolkata and Nigel, Arjan and I departed the hotel at 10am for the airport in light rain. Adrian and Pam were staying on in India for another 10 days. But first Bittu (he lives on the edge of this city) and Arjan took me/us into town to find a sidestreet jewellers so that I might be able to find something to welcome my latest grandson, Dylan into the world - and I did, a traditional silver 'first meal bowl and spoon' for a child. As we headed out of the city the rain increased in intensity and soon the roads were awash, pot holes obscured, but driving speeds not reduced nor headlights turned on. It felt like an appropriate 'farewell' for this trip!

 

The airport and security processes were immaculate and courteous despite multiple checking of documents and bags. Treated myself to a warm slab of pineapple upside down cake and a coffee at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf café. We descended after 90 minutes over extensive flooding and through a massive cloud into Kolkata with a 2½ hour stopover and transit to Jet Airways, all of which went extremely smoothly, great customer service, close to perfection, prompting Nigel to ask 'can this get any better?'

 

The next leg to Mumbai took 2 hours 10 mins in the dark and the chicken curry, rice and dal meal was really good. During the flight we passed over a wide area of continuous sheet lightning and could see vast black areas of Mumbai subject to flooding as we approached the airport at 9.45pm. The airport is stunning architecturally, the best I think I've ever seen, being spacious with mushroom Muhgal-style columns, huge 'fuschia' gold chandeliers with smoked glass stamens, and a lot of green planting. An airport worker took Nigel and I out of the very long queue for Security and walked us around to the First Class lounge area for instant access in exchange for a tip but he wasn't very impressed with the amount we offered. Wandered the standard shops, full of overpriced and un-tempting tourist tat.

 

Tuesday 12 September

The flight for London left on time at 1.45am. As usual I didn't sleep at all well, the usual stiff neck syndrome, and was annoyed as we approached Heathrow, 20 minutes ahead of schedule but forced to make 3 loops but at least we still arrived on time at 6.45am. The suitcase took a long time to appear on the carousel, Meet & Greet was efficient, the car turning up after a 10 minute wait, on a crisp sunny autumn morning.