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Sobar Sera Gorumara, this is the mantra the wildlife division of Jalpaiguri chant when they start describing Gorumara National Park. The slogan means “Gorumara is the best of all.” This one sentence is enough to describe Gorumara in brief.
Declared as a national park in 1955, Gorumara was announced the best national park in India by MoEFCC in 2009. The question is, why? Luckily, I was gifted with the opportunity to experience the answer last year.
My mom’s office colleagues planned a family tour to Gorumara and Lataguri, the village where the main entrance and permit office of Gorumara are situated. My parents decided to take me with them as a ‘freeloader come coolie for the luggage,’ which was very meeeaaannnn of them, but the excitement of visiting Gorumara engrossed me totally, so I tagged along.
There are plenty of routes to reach Lataguri, we took the shortest one. We boarded the Kanchankanya Express train from Sealdah Railway Station at night and reached New Mal Junction in the morning. We had our four pre-booked minivans waiting for us outside (Yep! We were about 30 people in number). I bolted ahead of others to one of the cars, dropped our luggage and managed to grab the shotgun seat – my precious!!!
The journey was short, we took the national highway through the jungle, and the greenery was so soothing for me that even now I can see it with my eyes open. Within one hour, we reached our lodge.
We booked two adjacent lodges. They were so close that it was like a tennis court – two sides divided by a low wire fence; a fence that encouraged me to be lazy every day there. You see, only one of the lodges had a proper cafeteria where food could be prepared and served for our group, and we, me and my family, got a room in the other lodge.
Now, who would be insane enough to take a minute-long walk to reach the cafeteria by road when you can just cross over the fence and reach there in seconds, especially when a low dirt mound is situated in one part of the fence to help us cross without tearing our pants? Not me, nay! So like many other smart and lazy people in our group, fence crossing became my daily routine there too.
Anyway, let’s get back to the topic. Our lodges were very close to the Nature Interpretation Centre of Gorumara. If the name sounds fancy, you should know it is mainly the ticket counter where tourists have to collect forest entry passes. So why have such a long name for it? We will come to that later. Our tour coordinators went there early in the morning and secured the 8 am – 10 am visit passes.
At 7:45am sharp, our forest guides and jeep drivers were standing at the lodge’s gate. I could not believe my eyes when they just drove the jeep for 3-4 minutes and there we were, at the main entrance to Gorumara Forest. We were staying right beside the entrance the whole time! I went outside to pee last night… alone!!! I could have been killed by a wild animal! I was transfixed and enchanted at the same time by this thought. I have some weird death fetish it seems.
We entered the outer area of the forest, the zone where tourists are allowed. Forest Department Tourist Lodges and Tourist Watchtowers are all situated in the outer area. Many villages are located here too. Suddenly a bush on my left shook. A young, female spotted deer (Chital) ran away seeing us.
We kept going deeper and stumbled upon a road barricade, beyond was the core area, totally off limits to anyone but forest department staffs.
Our guide said “Even trees that fall in the core area do not go to auction, they stay and decay there as a part of the ecosystem. No one gets a permit to cut any part of the trees in the core area, not even the local villagers.” We took a side turn, going around the core. The view was amazing! Peacocks every now and then, Gaurs grazing in the distance. We stumbled upon some fresh elephant tracks. They were nearby, but knowing the fearsome reputation of wild elephants, we moved on.
A few minutes later in the jungle and chill, our jeep driver suddenly hit the break. We were like, what the hell?
“Why did you do that??” we yelled. Our guide pointed his finger to the vast field to the north. We could not see anything, but a few gaurs and sambar deer grazing. After focusing a bit more, we saw them. No, not leopards! As if our luck was that good! A female Indian Rhinoceros with her cub hiding behind her. I could not get a good shot from my camera at that distance, but it was a breathtaking experience for me, seeing the main attraction of Gorumara in front of us. Since the clock was ticking, we moved on to go to a watchtower.
Here is a fun fact. I knew that Gorumara has five watchtowers – Jatra Prasad, Rhino Point, Chandrachur, Chukchuki and Medla. The watchtower we went to was not one of these five. I was astonished at first, not seeing any signboard stating the name. Then our guide told us that this site was not officially open to the public yet, and it will be a resort with a watchtower; the newly built cottages around the watchtower supported his claim. Apparently, we got a sneak peek! After leaving the watchtower, we went for the exit. Our time was up!
Have you ever ridden a jeep going at high speed on the highway while you are standing on it? Where the climate has a slight chill? The chilly air hits your face, making it difficult for you to keep your eyes open, and still you are enjoying it to the fullest – isn’t this one of the greatest feelings ever! The moment we came out of the jungle and onto the highway, our jeep driver started driving fast. It was risky since the highway goes through the jungle’s outskirts, but luckily nothing happened. It was fun. I just had one of the greatest times of my life!
The rest of the trip was spent going to some nearby attractions, like seeing the Murti River and crossing it on foot. We went to the Dhupjhora Elephant Camp too. There you can see trained elephants along with their trainers, interact with them, ride them and, if you are lucky, you can go with them to the river and bathe them – a thankful gesture we humans should make for their great service to the forest department.
In my free time, I would go out by myself to walk around the neighbourhood. We were staying on the outskirts of the jungle, but it was a village too. On the opposite side of the road from our lodge entrance, there was a narrow lane leading to a huge playground. In the morning, I would go for a walk, through the narrow lane, making a round on the playground, and then to the Nature Interpretation Centre. I told you before that this name was given to the office for a reason. It’s an enclosure, next to the permit room, where they keep injured or orphaned deer, gaurs, and other animals and take care of them until they are able to go back to the forest.
I was lucky to see two deer cubs playing there. The maintenance staff said that they were found near a river bank, orphaned. After making a round or two around the enclosure, I went back. The air there was so refreshing that it felt heavy. It’s like the purity of the air was trying to cleanse my polluted city lungs (perks of living in Kolkata). At one part of the enclosure, the fence and beams were bent inside from a huge impact, standing as a firm reminder of the might of wild elephants.
Staying there for three days, I learnt why Gorumara won its award. The villagers, who were dependent on the forest, lost their means of survival after Gorumara was declared as ‘reserved.’ They were eking out a living, forced to choose poaching and wood smuggling to live. Then the forest authority decided to get them to partake in the preservation of the forest and their culture. Now, the locals run the entire ecotourism infrastructure in Gorumara along with the forest department. The locals protect the forest from dangers too. If you ask me, they deserved the praise.
Oh, and on the second day, our lodge owner let us try a local fish delicacy. Small fish cooked in a curry, it was heavenly to taste.