The sky above us rumbled ominously when we woke up,but the downpour started much later. With its reputation of being one of the rainiest places in the Northeast,we were glad to get out of Namdapha National Park (NNP) and Tiger Reserve in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh dry that day. Armed with leech guards,flashlights,food,water purifiers and insect repellants,we were on a week-long trek to Gandhigram and Vijaynagar,Indian settlements on the Indo-Myanmar border. Away from the tourist map,on the eastern fringes of the park,the distance between Miao (the nearest town) and these settlements can be bridged through air sorties from Mohanbari in Dibrugarh (two per month for civilians and a long queue to boot) organised by the Army,or the recently started Pawan Hans weekly helicopter service. But we wanted to test our appetite for adventure with the 157-km trek along the Miao-Vijaynagar Road,that runs past some of the Lisu tribal settlements inside the park.
The NNP and Tiger Reserve is part of a 20,000 square kilometer contiguous forest that stretches from Arunachal into the Hukong Valley forest in north Myanmar. While Arunachal is known to be Indias richest biodiversity hotspot,NNP,spread over 1,985 sq km,is considered to be one of Indias largest national parks. It shares its boundaries with the Kamlang wildlife sanctuary in the north,the Miao reserve forest,the Nampong reserve forest,and Diyun reserve forest in the west and the Kachin Province in Myanmar to the south. The Lisu tribal settlement in Gandhigram is in the east. Listed among 12 biodiversity mega-spots in the world,NNP is known for its dramatic landscapes and a wide range of flora and fauna. Its also home to four big cats: the tiger,leopard,clouded leopard and snow leopard. NNPs freshwater lakes Raja Jheel,Moti Jheel,Bulbulia,Manpong,Dipi,Ganja,Katboi are also perfect spots to watch migratory birds.
Usually,travellers visiting Namdapha do a circuit-trek in the buffer zone of the park,in the hope of sighting the rather elusive tigers of the region,but its also permissible to trek through the buffer area of the park to reach outlying regions. We travelled to Miao last month from Tinsukia in Upper Assam,following the Stilwell Road,onto Jagun to enter Arunachal,and drove to MPen,the entry point to NNP. Our next port of call was the Forest Rest House in Deban,25 km from Miao inside the buffer area of Namdapha National Park. It was late in the afternoon when we reached and David Yobin,our 49-year-old Lisu porter and guide,suggested we camp there for the night and start early the next morning,since evenings arrive early here.
By the time we set up camp,around 5 pm,darkness had shrouded the mountains. For a city-bred person,its impossible to imagine how deep and inscrutable darkness can be. And how silent. With our cellphone connectivity long gone,and barring the forest offices wireless set that crackled with uneventful updates every hour,we seemed to have dropped off the worlds radar. As the evening progressed,the wind hurled dried leaves and twigs on to our shack,and the gurgling Noa Dihing river nearby lent the quiet night an acoustic theatricality.
In the morning,we awoke to the chirping of birds. After a breakfast of tea and Maggi,our four-member team set off along the MV Road,walking a mile before going downhill to a sandy embankment by the river. David informed us that the road ahead,locally known as the monkey trail,would be arduous. Soon we knew why. Rickety bamboo bridges spanned over the river at several places,our link to an undiscovered world. The bridges were a series of stilts placed vertically at intervals along the width of the river,with two poles thrown on top and tied with forest vines,made and maintained by the Lisus living in the forest. During monsoon,crossing the turbulent river becomes a nightmare,so the Lisus stock up on provisions in winter and early summer,walking for nearly a week to reach Miao.
For us,it was a nightmare even then. The acrobatics involved to cross the unstable bridges were enough to weaken even the strongest resolve. As we dithered,18-year-old Apho,Davids nephew and our second porter-cum-cook,dashed across the first bridge,in a bid to show us how easy it could be. We braced ourselves and struggled on,eyes straight ahead on the bank,never looking down at the fall beneath. A couple of hours later,we had cautiously crossed four bridges,arriving at the first big stop for our morning meal a camp with two straw huts,locally referred to as 19-mile.
After eight hours of trekking,we finally arrived at 27-mile stop,our camp for the night. Toll collectors awaited us. A Lisu family had set up base here to collect Rs 10 as fee per head per bridge from passersby. Payments done,we clasped our hot cups of tea and watched two frail-bodied Chakma tribals fish. After a while,I padded down to the river to dip my blistered feet in the ice-cold water. Apho (meaning first son in the Lisu dialect) was cooking dinner over a crackling fire,playing old English hits recorded on his phone,while David scrounged around for firewood. As dusk fell,and with it visibility,we huddled around the fire,eating our earthy meal of rice and dal,exchanging stories and listening to tales about the origin of the Lisu tribe. A solitary bird kept punctuating the night with its calls. David told us,it was a harbinger of spring. At this time of the year,it calls for days. When we hear the bird,we know its time to start tilling the land, he said.
It took us another three days to reach the 52-mile stop Davids village Nibudi named after the blue Patkai hills to the east. Here,we met several other boys named Apho. Apparently,every Lisu family names their first son Apho and their first daughter Anna. Liaso Yobin,their 90-year-old gram bura (village chief) came down to meet us one evening. Over cups of teeta cha (a local variant of black tea),he shared folk tales,stories of fighter planes and wreckages of World War II. The next few days were spent in playing volleyball with the Aphos and joining them for a swim. Nibudi became our destination and plans for Gandhigram were suspended. We ambled through forest tracks,spent hours by the riverbank watching the majestic ranges change colour and sat down with the village elders every evening for cha and gossip. At the end of our stay,on our way back to Miao,we pitched our tent at the confluence of the Namdapha river with Noah Dihing and sat by the bonfire one last time to savour the beauty of this untrammelled region before we returned to the chaos of our urban existence.
How to reach: By flight to Guwahati or Dibrugarh in Assam and then by car to Miao. Obtain Inner Line Permit from Arunachal Bhawan at Delhi,Kolkata or Guwahati before entering the state. Write to the Field Director,Namdapha National Park (Fax: 03807-222249/223131; firstname.lastname@example.org) for permits to enter the park.
Sharbendu De is a documentary photographer and travel writer