Team WHEELS has just returned after traversing 2000 km by road in a Renault Duster after exploring Jaldapara National Park, Cooch Behar, Rasik Bil wetlands, Jainti and Buxa Tiger Reserves in North Bengal over an 8-day-long drive tour. In the next five consecutive issues of ‘Kolkata on WHEELS’ magazine we will be sharing our experiences of this exciting road trip from Kolkata to North Bengal. Keep trailing…
Contrary to common belief, the condition of National Highway 34 (NH-34) – the main connector between North Bengal and Kolkata has improved commendably. Team WHEELS now strongly recommends car owners to hit the roads and go on long drives to the hills and Dooars of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri from Kolkata.
The route to Siliguri from Kolkata is pretty simple. It’s absolutely straight on NH-34 from Kolkata – with just one right turn into NH-31 at Dalkhola (451 km) and there after following the same one until Siliguri. Also thereafter, keep on to NH-31 and NH-31C to reach Jaldapara – 715 km in total from Kolkata.
Now let’s elaborate on the route to Jaldapara. Turn right from VIP Road at the intersection with Jessore Road (adjacent to Kolkata airport) and proceed straight to Barasat. From Barasat just follow the NH-34 which goes straight through Krishnanagar (101 km), Baharampore-Murshidabad (191 km), Farakka Barrage (292 km), Malda (326 km), Raiganj (406 km) and Dalkhola (451 km). At Dalkhola, hit a ‘T’ junction with NH-31 coming from Bihar on the left. Turn right from Dalkhola (interestingly, the first right after Kolkata’s VIP Road) and get into NH-31 – a 4-lane expressway going straight to Bagdogra (574 km) and then to Siliguri (588 km).
From Siliguri, continue on the Coronation Bridge following the NH-31. Once you cross the bridge, turn right to enter the hills and Dooars region. Thereafter, follow NH-31 leaving behind Damdim, Odlabari, Malbazar to reach Chalsa Morh in Dooars. NH-31 turns right from Chalsa Morh towards Gorumara but you have to continue straight towards Jaldapara – 66 km from Chalsa Morh. The road name after Chalsa Morh becomes NH-31C and continues straight through Nagrakata, Banarhat, Binnaguri, Birpara to finally reach Jaldapara (locally called Madarihat) with just one left turn at Telipara ‘T’ junction – 24 km after Chalsa Morh.
Once you reach Jaldapara / Madarihat, look for the sign board on right for Jaldapara National Park. The WBTDC’s Tourist Lodge is 200 mts. from the forest gate on the NH-31C, located 600 mts inside from the highway.
Team WHEELS went on the route survey on April 6, 2014. At that time the road condition from Kolkata to Baharampore through the NH-34 was satisfactory with the patchworks done to offer a standard driving comfort.
After Baharampore, once you cross the bridge over River Bhagirathi, you enter a brand new 4-lane expressway (toll plazas yet to be operationalised). It stretches for 88 km (202 – 290 km) almost up to Farakka Barrage. You can glide through this modern expressway which has wide medians, proper lane markings, overhead traffic signage and solar traffic signals. Fly through this expressway to land once again into an average road leading to a narrow constrictive iron bridge before Farakka Town. You may have to carefully drive along the wrong Kolkata bound lane for a kilometer keeping to the extreme right along with other smaller vehicles to bypass the heavy traffic congestion of the lorries bypassing this bridge to the left and blocking the whole way.
Immediately thereafter, enter the Farakka Barrage and refrain from overtaking or blowing horn on the Farakka barrage as warned by the CISF. Slowly follow the traffic on the 2.4 km bridge over River Ganga. Cross over to the other side of the bridge to enter the renovated NH-34 once again. Once you reach Kaliachowk the road and traffic condition deteriorates and continues up to Malda town. This stretch of 22 km took around 45 minutes for us to pass. (We found out that new NH-34 will be actually bypassing Kaliachowk and Malda town after completion and hence the stretch has not been improved upon).
As planned, Team WHEELS halted at Malda for the night. We had prior reservations at Malda Tourist Lodge under West Bengal Tourist Lodge, conveniently located at Rathbari Morh – the main intersection of Malda town on NH-34.
Next morning we got up early and accelerated to reach Jaldapara before sunset. After leaving Malda town, the condition of NH-34 improved once again with the renovation work in full swing and most of it completed. We encountered several road diversions of 400 – 500 meters each connecting the renovated highway on and off. Just be careful at the meeting points of the diversions with the finished highways and negotiate carefully.
After Malda, the NH-34, up to Raiganj is quite impressive. There is just one more pot-holed stretch for 4 km just before Raiganj. After Raiganj, it’s smooth up to Dalkhola. Dalkhola is busy and unruly with a bad road condition and a railway crossing across the main thoroughfare creating heavy traffic congestion. After crossing the railway tracks, enter into NH-31 from NH-34. Take a right turn into NH-31 immediately after passing below a flyover in Dalkhola which is an old 4-lane expressway with smooth surface condition on most it. The NH-31 was originally made of concrete but has been patched with tarmac over years. For the initial 15-20 km you may have to follow the extreme right or left edge of the road to gain high speed. After Islampur, it’s butter-smooth once again up to Siliguri via Bagdogra.
After Siliguri, the highway passes through a beautiful stretch through the cantonment and forest area. Then it crosses the Coronation Bridge after Sevoke over River Teesta to enter Dooars. From there, initially the road has hilly undulations for a few kilometers with several twists and turns. Be careful here of the oncoming traffic. Keep to your extreme left, blow horn and slow down at the blind turns. Use lower gears to slow down instead of frequent braking to gain better road grip and avoid skidding or brake jammings.
In Dooars, the NH-31 runs along River Teesta on the right through verdant greenery – mostly tea gardens. Here, the road condition is at its best with a silk-smooth surface without any inclination. This part, by-and-large, is the most pleasant to drive in the whole route connecting Jaldapara National Park – home to the one-horned rhinos in West Bengal.
For further details, follow the route map surveyed by Team WHEELS – given here. Just be careful of the ‘Y’ forks throughout as given in the route map and we assure you of finding yourself beside the grazing rhinos inside Jaldapara.
JALDAPARA NATIONAL PARK
It was completely dark and drizzling when we crossed Chalsa Morh. Team WHEELS had checked all the lights, wipers and tyres of the Duster prior to the trip and hence was confident. At the huge gate of the Jaldapara National Park on our right on NH-31C, we caught a glimpse of the sign which read, ‘Welcome to Rhino Land’. Immediately thereafter we spotted the Jaldapara Tourist Lodge entrance on right and Manager Niranjan Saha welcomed us at the gate inside.
I was six when I first saw a rhinoceros in a film called Hatari and was awestruck. It had a breathtaking sequence where a one-horned Indian rhino was being chased in an open jeep through the African savannahs. Suddenly the rhino rammed its horn into the man sitting on the jeep’s ‘catcher’s seat’ on the bonnet. My fascination with the rhino began from then onwards.
Located close to the Gorumara Forest, Jaldapara is covered by tall elephant grasses with River Buri Torsa passing through it. There are 8 territorial ranges of Jaldapara NP – Jaldapara North, South, East, West, Kodalbasti, Chilapata, Lanka Para and Neel Para. Although there are 15 watch towers, 4 are set aside for tourists. These watch towers are named Harindanga, Jaldapara, CC Line and Mednabari watch tower.
At present, it is home to 186 rhinos (last survey in 2013) – second only to Kajiranga National Park in Assam. The other animals consists of elephants, leopards, deer, sambhar, barking deer, spotted deer and hog deer, wild pig and bison. A few days ago, the extinct Indian Wild Dogs ‘Dhol’ were spotted at Jaldapara.
Jaldapara, spreading over 216 sq. km is a paradise for bird watchers. It is one of the very few places in India, where the Bengal Florican is sighted. The other birds to be found here are the Crested Eagle, Pallas’s Fishing Eagle and shikra, besides Jungle fowl, pea fowl, patridges and lesser Pied Hornbill. Python, monitor lizards, krates, cobras, geckos and about 8 species of fresh water turtles are also found here.
The park, itself has much more to offer. The dense foliage and tall trees with thick canopies – evoke an uncanny charm. The best part is that one is able to drive his own car upto 6.5 km inside the forest till Hollong Tourist Lodge accompanied by a forest guide. The forest check-post at the main gates for the vehicles and tourists to halt and obtain forest permit and forest guides. Thankfully, our interaction was brief and we obtained our permit in no time. Our assigned forest guide Ajoy showed us the way inside the park.
The light grey dirt track pierced through the green foliage – looking verdant because of the drizzle last night. The ride was not very comfortable because of the uneven pebbles on the track. We trudged along as our guide advised us against stopping since it was not uncommon to come face to face with a rhino or an elephant.
Our team photographer, who recently got married, was warned by the forest guide before he got down to take photographs. Despite all the warnings, the eerie feeling with the incessant cricket cries in the background we did not spot anything save the monkeys.
Our Renault Duster slowly rolled over the main dirt track leading us to the forest rest house complex – 6.5 km from the main forest gate. We arrived at the Hollong Tourist Lodge – an adventurous place to stay within the forest. A small elephant of the forest department was lazing around in the complex and started to run away as soon as it spotted our vehicle.
There is an open space with a salt pit right opposite to the lodge across a stream. This salt pit is the main attraction for the tourists putting up at the Hollong Tourist Lodge. The rhinos and elephants come here in the early mornings and late evenings in search of food allowing tourists to click photographs from the first floor lobby of the lodge. We could see vast swathes of grassland and huge trees spreading beyond it.
We had been listening to a shrill sound which turned out to be the call of peacocks loitering in the open ground opposite the tourist lodge. It was the mating season and the sight of two peacocks trying to impress three peahens was wonderful.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t see any rhino or elephant despite our long and patient wait at the Hollong bungalow. Silence reigned all around, broken at intervals by the calls of the peacocks. We went back dejectedly to our car intending to come back for the elephant safari, the next morning.
This is the best way to explore the national park. It is conducted early in the morning, every day. Taking you deep inside the grassland for the real excitement it also assures sighting of the rhino in a muddy pond, herd of elephants or deer running away at the slightest sound. The Assistant Wildlife Warden, Sweta Rai informed that at present there are 5 elephants for tourism activities while 58 assist in protecting the forest. A maximum of four people are allowed on each elephant. The ride starts from the Hollong Tourist Lodge, some 6.5 km inside the forest and has to be accessed by a vehicle – either own or hired. The elephant safari is subject to the availability of elephants since they are in short supply during the peak season.
The Forest Range office opposite to the Jaldapara Tourist Lodge provides all information and arranges permits and booking for the elephant and jeep safaris.
The forest department has several Maruti Gypsy vehicles which can be rented from forest office. However, in car safaris you can’t get very close to the animals since the vehicles cannot enter the grasslands.
Day Safari in personal or hired car
You can also take your own car inside the forest accompanied by a forest guide and drive about 6.5 km inside the forest upto Hollong Tourist Lodge though possibilities of animal sightings would be the least.
TIGER REHABILITATION CENTRE AT SOUTH KHAIRBARI
Located 19 km from the main gates of Jaldapara NP lies the Tiger Rehabilitation Centre at South Khairbari forest – is a must see and would take about half a day.
It has two routes – one through the Khairbari forests entering from NH-31C and the other which goes 16 km through the main road to Falakata and turning right at ‘Paanch Mile’ with the last 3 km through the Khairbari forest. We recommend the second route.
The Tiger Rehabilitation Centre is like a huge zoo open from 10 am to 4 pm. A 20 feet high circular iron net runs along a canal with a watch tower. It has leopards and cubs rescued from tea gardens and villages. It also has several Royal Bengal Tigers rescued from circuses following a ban by courts. We saw 6 leopards restlessly pacing inside the ground and waiting their turn to be released. We also heard the growls of Royal Bengals tigers but couldn’t locate them.
At Jaldapara, you are required to stay for 2 to 3 days. On the first day book the tickets at the forest department’s office so that you can enjoy the jungle safaris on elephant back or in a Gypsy, the next day. On day three, you can set out for Toto Para and South Khairbari Tiger Rehabilitation Centre.
The best accommodation option at Jaldapara is undoubtedly the Jaldapara Tourist Lodge under the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (see Accommodation box). It is 600 mts inside the NH-31C, connected by an unpaved pathway which goes over two wooden bridges, lending that adventurous setting. The Forest Range Office is located just opposite the Tourist Lodge and thus bookings can be done easily in peak season.
It has three types of rooms –wooden, bricks and cottages. Most of the rooms have balconies of their own and are fitted with all modern amenities and the best of brands. The restaurant here has a long menu to offer along with a bar.
The unique half-an-hour-long ‘Light and Sound’ show describing the flora and fauna of Jaldapara was an amazing experience.
Our Duster, parked inside the compound, got a much needed wash by a service staff of the Tourist Lodge even before we got up next morning.
The Holong Tourist Lodge located 6.5 km inside the forest has a locational advantage but is deficient in the superior amenities and service offered by the Jaldapara Tourist Lodge. The Hollong Tourist Lodge has 8 rooms – 5 out of which are booked by West Bengal Tourism and the other 3 rooms are kept reserved by the forest department for their official guests. The rooms are modestly furnished. Although it has air-conditioning, we were informed, they don’t operate.
Other than these, there are plenty of private hotels and lodges – most of which look impressive from outside but fade out on inspection. But the Jaldapara Inn, 3 km from Jaldapara gates, was impressive. It has 6 new cottages, a huge dining hall and a watch tower beside a tea garden with a good scenic beauty.
If you are fond of authentic Bengali cuisine you may try Jaldapara Wild Hut (Cell: 9832048343/9593711555). Although small in size, the hotel prepares real fine Bengali dishes such as Bhapa Mach, Murir Ghanta etc at very reasonable rates; it is for their boarders only and requires prior intimation for serving food to outsiders.
DAY SAFARI IN CAR:
Route: Toto Para, about 26 km from Jaldapara Tourist Lodge, is another attraction for those interested in adventure and ethnic tourism. The whole trip would roughly take half a day.
The route begins from the road opposite to the Madarihat Police station and continues by the Oil India depot towards Bhutan Range, further north. The destination is across two river beds, accessible only in the dry season between November to May.
There are two routes to Toto Para – the first one is shorter- across a river bed with a relatively better road condition than the other which follows the course of a river for a few kilometers and crisscrosses forest tracks in between to offer a challenging driving experience along with a superb scenic beauty for the courageous ones. Team WHEELS drove their a Renault Duster across the tougher route and was comfortably through. Crossing the river beds were real fun. We followed the path which got somewhat flattened by the movements of heavy vehicles collecting gravels from the river bed. Maneuvering the steep gradients with sudden falls were really tricky.
Tips: Do hire an experienced route guide to Toto Para – preferably a driver who can guide you through the trail. Since sedan or hatchback vehicles will not be able to access the route, you will have to hire a SUV (if you are not driving one) to reach Toto Para. If you have not driven earlier on rough terrains and don’t have off-roading experience – do not try this on your own with your own vehicle – you might damage the under-carriage or suspension and get stuck and it might be difficult to extricate the vehicle.
TOTO PARA: This village bordering Bhutan is the only settlement of Toto tribe in India. Totos are one of the most endangered and smallest ethnic communities in the world. The tribe was forced to carry tota (ammunitions) for the British troops in the battles against Bhutan and that is how the tribe got its name.
The number of Totos has dwindled to a few hundred. Toto Para is a small village with a market place. It has rows of tiny wooden houses belonging to a mixed population. The traditional huts of the Totos are hardly seen today. Made of flattened bamboos on lifted platforms, these are naturally ventilated with no doors or windows. The cattle and pets are kept below the houses and double up as guards. Totos are quite hospitable these days. The Totos, we met, were tall and handsome unlike other hilly tribes. The males carry big bhojalis (knives) by their sides and indulge in drinking haria during leisure. They earn their livelihood from betel-nut plantations and work as daily labourers these days.
Carry drinking water and light snacks since there are no proper eateries in Toto Para. Carry a few candies as well, to distribute among the children and make them smile.
Toto Para remains inaccessible during the monsoon – June to September due to the turbulent waters of mountainous rivers.
NOTE: For returning to Kolkata, follow the same route through NH-31C, NH-31 and NH-34. Although shorter, do not deviate to Siliguri via Falakata and Jalpaiguri for the heavy traffic and bad road condition.