The Garo Hills - Part 3 / by David Johnstone

Nokrek National Park

Monday 26th March 2018 

I said my goodbyes to the lovely folk at Balpakram - the guides Tooshor and ‘Super Uncle’, Nitwell the cook and his wife - and headed west, first travelling back to the Forest Department to see the orphaned elephant calf - not something I was particularly looking forward to - then onwards to Williamnagar with many stops enroute. There was much to see.

A motherless calf, a living victim of poaching, destined never to return to her forest home

A motherless calf, a living victim of poaching, destined never to return to her forest home

FROM BAGHMARA TO WILLIAMNAGAR (VIA SIBU)

We left the quiet town of Baghmara, the beautiful Simsang River idling through large, sand-filled banks, it’s source in the upper forested Nokrek Wildlife Reserve, winding down towards Bangladesh where it would become part of the much larger Kangsha River near Mymensingh. It then feeds the Bengali landscape as part of the greater Sylhet Haor Complex (large seasonal inland lakes) a series of lower wetland areas crucial as a biosphere.

The Simsang River at Baghmara

The Simsang River at Baghmara

 

CAUSE AND (A)FFECT

I’ve mentioned several times in these posts about slash-and-burn agriculture and acute deforestation in this region - Burma, Bangladesh and now North East India - that’s occurred in the last 30-40 years and it’s best illustrated in it’s Impact on how water acts and reacts.

The larger, natural cycle occurs when cold Himalayan air collides with the warm southerns pushing upwards from the Bay of Bengal to produce extreme rainfall particularly in highland regions like Meghalaya, filling the large rivers and wetlands in the flat plains below.

 

The larger, natural cycle occurs when cold Himalayan air collides with the warm southerns pushing upwards from the Bay of Bengal

 

This Monsoon season is largely predictable and, not unlike our Spring in the UK, can happen earlier or later. Taking out climate change from the equation, we’re left with how this excessive amount of rainfall is managed within the natural environment.

 

Cherrapunjee, the wettest place on Earth, suffers droughts and nothing is farmed there

 

Destruction of local forest reserves have resulted in several key changes. The highlands that have deforested their headlands can no longer hold the water, lose their ability to grow crops through the loss of topsoil and fertility - Cherrapunjee, the wettest place on Earth, suffers droughts and nothing is farmed there - and the effect downstream is felt with even greater force as both water and soil push into the land below, silting rivers, the Simsang in Baghmara an obvious visual example. Unable to cope with the deluge the plains in both Bangladesh in the south and Assam in the north are swamped, resulting in catastrophic damage to crops and livelihoods with great loss of life  

The flagrant destruction in Meghalaya and the horrendous loss of lowland forest in Bangladesh needs to be approached by providing alternative agricultural methods and, fundamentally, education. Otherwise it’s essentially committing suicide for everyone involved. It has to stop.

The main water catchment area is at Nokrek National Park. And I was on my way there. 

PEOPLE & PLACE

We had what felt like the first heavy rain of the season, on time, amid broken roads and through lush, picturesque countryside with the sweetest people. The whole thing was just peachy.

We stopped at deep caves, forested bird sanctuaries, rivers, villages, viewpoints and waterfalls. A stunning landscape. 

WilliamNagar: To Wednesday 28th March 2018

YOU”VE GOT A FRIEND IN JESUS 

Arriving late and in darkness from too many stops, we hit up the only hotel in town, a governement tourist lodge. The whole thing was a fiasco, overpriced with no water and I was thankful for Dipu’s help. We eventually glided in from the heat to a quiet newly-built lodge provided by the local Baptist church in the small town of Williamnagar to the east of Nokrek.

Simple, clean and, at 600rp/£7 a night, a real find. I’d spend two nights relaxing here.

I baptise thee

I baptise thee

WilliamNagar to Darobokgre Village (Nokrek): Wednesday 28th March 2018

Off we went next morning passing villages, forest and jhummed hills with one particularly memorable tea stop with the locals.

We bought some delicious dried fish for Nokrek and it gave me the chance to photograph the older members of the village, one lady astounded that she was now inside my phone! They were incredibly friendly and genuinely pleased to see me, the women and men stopping for a cha and cake break before returning to their farms.

Dipu reminisced of a time when the waterfalls were fuller and the jungle everywhere.

 

THE PARK

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Established in 1988 and named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2009, Nokrek is a large-ish biosphere - where people and nature are in ‘balance’ - a thin strip of highland jungle stretching down from Tura in the west to Siju in the south of Garo. It’s largely virgin, untouched forest and stunning with it.

A mix of evergreen, moist deciduous, sub tropical broadleaf and bamboo forest, it’s a vital water catchment area. It’s core, buffer and transition zones cover almost 820sqkm though some land is privately owned and subjected to quite brutal jhumming. Home to the progenitor of all citrus fruit, the Citrus Indica, it’s the last remnant of it’s kind in the region.

A 12km dirt road took us to our lodge for the evening, past the village of Daribokgre and on the edge of the park proper. Most of the hills were bare with pockets of rich forest, the whopping of Hoolock Gibbons reverberating noisily.

Next morning me and my guide Wallach - Dipu bottled out - set off on a 24km walk, the first part hard work. We passed through dry riverbed and thorny undergrowth, the whole place enchanting and full of the tall trees missing in most places.

Shelter

Shelter

It started raking it down and we sheltered under a pile of rocks watching neolithically as the storm eventually subsided.

ELEPHANT GRAVEYARD

Nothing hits home harder than actually being on the ground. When you read distant stories of the world’s wildlife disappearing it’s not so important when you’ve got to put the washing on or go to M&S. It’s quite different when you see it in reality.  

The bones of a poached elephant - the park was once the hideout of the GLA who massacred the animals and extracted the timber to profit their ‘political cause’

The bones of a poached elephant - the park was once the hideout of the GLA who massacred the animals and extracted the timber to profit their ‘political cause’

A gravestone of sorts

A gravestone of sorts

BEAUTIFUL TREES

The place was exquisite. Sumptuous and living, Hoolock Gibbon checked us out for 30 seconds before bolting. The trees are stunning, sentinels. I’ve been in lots of forests and this one was up there. 

The final destination before returning was Tiger House, an outcrop where the big cat slept. Long gone. But Stunning too. It’s difficult to take in sometimes. 

It’s hard to look up in a jungle. You’re too busy watching your feet. You don’t want to break your ankle over here. But it opens up into a different world when you stop and watch in silence. 

Local reserves jhummed near the park’s border

Local reserves jhummed near the park’s border

THE PEOPLE & THE PARK

It’s a remote park. But human encroachment grows. Elephant rampage through crops that were, until 20 years ago, deep forest. The GLA - the local ‘independence movement’ - were rife here until 2015 culling wildlife and forest with impunity. I met the son of the village headman in Daribokgre, his father shot in the head in 2013 for opposing their environmental vandalism.

The people who served us were brilliant. They always are.  

 THE OUTTAKES

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