Walk in the woods

Bappaditya Paul gives an account of a trip to the Buxa Wildlife Sanctuary in the Dooars

A holiday these days is no less than an endangered commodity. This is especially true in the case of a working person’s calendar ~ a scheme of things that is stiffening by the day. The worst sufferers, therefore, would make every effort to extract the most out of a holiday if it does happen to come by. For, as the Urdu verse goes, Mil jaye to mitti hain, kho jaye to sona hain…

The idea was to celebrate such a holiday on Holi in a “holy” place away from the mundane. The Buxa Wildlife Sanctuary in the Dooars was the unanimous choice.
And thus set out a group of ten ~ consisting of two newlywed couples and six eligible bachelors. It was 7 in the morning and the party boarded the Alipurduar bound Intercity Express from Junction station in Siliguri.

Train enroute the Dooars
The wheels followed the rails and within 15 minutes or so crossed the picturesque Gulma station, beyond which was the beautiful Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. As the train continued its journey on the serpentine tracks, with dense woods on either side, within the compartment it was time for some rejuvenating music.
From Lata to Lalan, and Bollywood jingles to Bangladeshi hits, our notes filled the air, at times even crossing the acceptable decibel limit. But none in the packed compartment complained, as everyone seemed to be quite enjoying the music.

At around 11 am, the train halted at our destination ~ the tiny Rajabhatkhawa station. From there, a 5-7 minute walk along the rails took us to the Buxa Jungle Lodge, which has been developed by the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation.
The very first glimpse of the new building of the jungle lodge left everyone spellbound, as none expected to see such lavishness amidst a forest. Marbled floors, decently decorated interiors and sophisticated bathrooms equipped with modern gadgets ~ what else could one ask for in a place like this?

New Buxa Jungle Lodge
The newly constructed lodge, inaugurated on 29 January this year, has 24-hours check-in facility and accommodates five large double bedrooms and one 12-bedded dormitory with a lovely surrounding veranda. For the sake of information, a double bedroom costs Rs 800 per day while the dormitory comes for Rs 1,200. The rooms can be booked in advance at any West Bengal tourism department counter.

On the east of the lodge lie broad-gauge rail tracks. On the western fringe is a vulture culture centre of the forest department and a few old lodges. The south is covered by dense forests and in the north lies the narrow trail that connects the lodge with the lone village market.
Santhalabari ~ the last human habitat on the way to Buxa Sanctuary, is located at a distance of around 15 km from Rajabhatkhawa village. Jayanti and Buxa Road ~ the other two tourist spots in the vicinity, are located at 15 and 10 km respectively.

After sipping two rounds of refreshing tea served by the lodge canteen, it was time for lunch. And here, it would be unfair if one does not take time off to describe the food served and the hospitality of the concerned staffs.
Meals at the Buxa Forest Lodge would remind one of homemade delicacies. Although the usual fare could be called a non-vegetarian’s delight, the canteen readily dishes out vegetarian and even continental stuff on request. The general air of cordiality adds much to the feeling of well-being and enjoyment.

It seemed as if time stood still as we loitered across the nearby forest, all through the afternoon ~ listening to the whispers of wilderness. A small bridge in the vicinity lent itself as a perfect rendezvous while we watched the sun sailing into oblivion.
There are a few sites one should not forget to visit while at Rajabhatkhawa – the Forest Interpretation Centre, the sprawling garden of herbs and the animal rescue centre ~ where injured wild tigers and leopards rescued from the Buxa forests are treated.

The next morning dawned earlier than usual; we were to start our journey into the Buxa forests by 7 am. But with due honour to the Indian Standard Time or the IST, we finally took off an hour late ~ as the gongs from a nearby tea garden suggested.
Prior to entering the Buxa territory, it is necessary to obtain pass from the WBFDC tourist registration gate located at the Rajabhatkhawa T-point. Charges are nominal – Rs 10 for an adult and Rs 25 for a vehicle.

The 15-km journey up to Santhalabari would seem like a 150-km ride on camelback ~ if not more. The road is simply terrible. However, one does not end up blaming the state government, as it is this very road condition that suits the ambience most; after all, one is deep inside a jungle and not on a Delhi expressway!

Wonder of wonders ~ the cell phones that flashed “no network” message at Rajabhatkhawa, suddenly become functional at Santhalabari. Due to being located at a higher altitude, this is the lone spot enroute the Buxa where from one can make calls.
At Santhalabari, prior to intruding into the deep woods, it is mandatory to register names with the Sasastra Seema Bal’s 23 Battalion post located there. This facilitates the tracking of tourist inflow into the Buxa and at the same time works as a database in case of any untoward happening.

From Santhalabari, one is required to chart the expedition on foot. It is now a five-kilometre uphill walk along the narrow serpentine path. And before long, the fascinating Buxa Fort is in view – to reward the day’s hard work.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, India / the article first appeared in The Statesman on 25 March 2006)


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