The charming Smiling Tusker Elephant Resort was my home for the two days that I spent in the delightful environs of the Manas National Park during my visit to Assam.
Smiling Tusker is an initiative undertaken by a local NGO called Anajaree for the conservation and re-utilisation of trained domesticated Asiatic elephants.
The camp was established by a group of like minded people, in order to generate funds to support this activity and is located just beside the core area of Manas Tiger Reserve, bordered by lush tea gardens, tiny water bodies and neighboring villages. An ideal setting in the midst of endearing rusticity.
(My Assam visit was a result of my visit to the Hornbill festival in Nagaland)
The camp lies in the district of Baksa, BTAD, which was carved out in 2003 from parts of other districts like Nalbari, Barpeta, Kamrup and Darrang. This was a result of the historic BTC (Bodoland Territorial Council) accord signed on February 10, 2003 which resulted in the formation of BTAD (Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts) with four districts namely Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri.
It is a bare 2 km from the Manas National Park, Barangabari, Bansbari range gate, where all the safaris start from.
Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp – How it began –
The focus of the camp is mainly the rehabilitation of unemployed domesticated elephants.
The camp was the creation of a few like minded friends from the nearby towns, who were advocates of wildlife and were involved in volunteering at Manas National Park right from their college days in 2005. Assam has many elephants that used to be involved in the logging trade and when this was banned by the government, it resulted in several of these animals becoming unemployed.
Being fascinated by elephants and wishing to do something for their welfare, the friends decided to rehabilitate these unemployed domesticated creatues and thus in 2008 they established this camp which was initially just an elephant camp that aimed to house the pachyderms in as natural a habitat as possible.
The neighboring Manas National Park had been opened to the public in 2003 and for a start, they thought of employing some of the elephants on the safari in order to create jobs for them via eco tourism and also to secure the income of the mahouts.
But maintaining elephants is an expensive business and they realized that they would need to generate further funds, hence very quickly they opened up the place to camping and this site brought in revenue from campers who would come there on a holiday and pitch their tents on the lawn. Common bathrooms and basic food facilities were provided.
Ever since then, the camp had progressed and they have been constructing and adding facilities in order to provide a comfortable experience to a larger base of visitors. The present cottages and amenities have just been added 2 years ago in 2016.
The camp is modelled on a community based ecotourism concept, which is environment friendly and utilizes the services of the local community and thus provides them a sustainable source of income.
Most of the material used in the construction, is as local as possible with thatched roofs, locally fabricated furniture, bamboo decor etc.
In recognition of its work, the TOFTigers wildlife tourism awards in 2014 in New Delhi, awarded the camp with a Runner up in the ‘Wildlife Tourism Related Community Initiative of the Year 2014’ category.
The premises –
The camp lies bordered by a vast private tea estate on one side, which makes for a stunning view.
A little trail between the camp and the tea estate, is lined with several trees that bear Ber fruit (Indian Jujube also known locally as Bogori) and it is quite fascinating for a fruit lover like me to gaze at the thousands of fruit that hang within arms reach. The fruit were raw when I visited in December but I was told that they would ripen by January.
Interestingly, the national park (not the main gate) lies right across the entrance of the camp, separated of course by an electric fence. If one is lucky, one can have amazing views of wildlife like rhinos, deer, elephants etc that come and unwittingly exhibit themselves at the fence.
Fields and water bodies belong to neighboring farmers, form the other boundaries of the camp.
The main reception area is an open pavilion of sorts and one enters the camp through it. The elephant enclosure is on the right. The dining and kitchen are on the left and the cottages form an L along the left and far end of the lawn. The staff occupy a couple of cottages.
The tents are pitched on the right alongside a few swings that have been fixed so that children too can have a swinging time 😀
Jungle mynas (that look like angry birds :-D) flit all over the place and peacocks call through out the day.
Early morning also brings the peafowl to the vicinity of the camp along with several other species of birds that can be seen in the surrounding trees with the help of binoculars or good zoom lenses. The mountains also display themselves at certain vantage points.
The garden is simple but bright with bougainvillea and other flowers and a small patch also bears Rosella, the bright red edible calyx of the Sorrel plant. Rosella is called Tengamora in Assamese (I gathered that Tenga referred to sour).
In the evenings, the sky paints itself for your viewing pleasure and one can gaze at the moonrise over the trees.
At night, petrol fueled lanterns turn the place into a fairyland of lights, with a little bit of competition from the fireflies … and energetically crackling bonfires keep the cold at bay on the crisp lawns.
One can sit there as long as the fire lasts, watching the crystal clear winter sky sparkling with a zillion, diamond like stars and the elephants providing the background music with their snorting and harrumphing.
Stay options –
There are 8 ‘Cottage tents’ and also some regular tents that can be pitched on the lawns. The cottages and other structures were constructed in 2016, before which there was only an option of staying in tents that could be set up anywhere within the premises.
The cottages are well equipped with all basic amenities including western toilets, shower bath, 24 hours running water etc. and have provision to accommodate 3 adults. The green oxide floors, green bath towels, camp chairs and other decor are completely in keeping with the jungle aura. Stainless steel buckets and mugs make for lasting bath ware and presently the hot water is carried by the staff from the kitchen to every room.
The camp is work in progress and future plans include closets, safes, solar powered running hot water etc.
Solar energy and petrol fueled generator are the available power supplies. Even the water is pumped using solar energy.
Those camping in tents, have access to common bathrooms that are as well equipped as those in the cottages.
During winter though, thin skinned folk like me would be well advised to stay in the far warmer cottages than in the tents, however adventurous it may seem 😀
They called it simple, local, traditional food … I called it gourmet !!! Being my first time with Assamese cuisine, I was blown away by the flavors and variety of the seemingly simple cuisine and my taste buds went into excitement overdrive at the new dishes and ingredients that I sampled.
Providing flavorful and hygienic food is what they strive to do and a lot of the produce is locally grown in the surrounding villages and kept as pesticide free as possible.
A tasty meal with a few dishes is provided at breakfast, lunch and dinner and sometimes there are teatime treats like pakodas (fritters).
Since I was there as their guest and there for a limited duration, they pulled out the stops for me and showcased an elaborate meal with the most enticing of chutneys, vegetables, curries, fish, meats, desserts etc.
The kitchen staff of course are the local men and between the 3 chefs they create quite a bit of excitement at every meal 😀
I will let the pictures do the talking … and will elaborate on the food only if you really really insist (one should earn one’s information, right ? So leave a comment if you want to know more) 😀
Apart from whatever they cooked for me, I also requested them to make something out of the home grown Rosella that bountifully graces their gateway. They obliged willingly and created a delightful Rosella chutney (and also gave me the recipe and some Rosella to carry back home … how is that for hospitality ?) 😀
The Elephants –
Jayamala and Ratnamala (who are as fancy as their heroine’esque names :-D) are the 2 gentle pachyderms that are the fulcrum and reason behind this camp.
They are housed within the premises in their enclosure right at the entrance and make for very interesting viewing and photography, under the watchful and diligent eye of their mahouts of course.
Sleeping in a tent with a elephant tethered a few feet away from you, would certainly qualify as a memory of a lifetime.
The 2 animals spend their entire day juggling between safaris, going to the village to bring back their food (mostly banana plants donated by kind villagers) and having their ablutions performed on them at the nearest water body or hose pipe. They also entertain the guests with their demonstrations of responding to commands etc.
Visitors to the camp can view/take part in the various activities and sessions listed below, some chargeable and some as a part of the package.
Elephant safari – a) Jungle safari and b) Village and tea garden trail
Elephant command demonstrations
Visitors can learn the basics about their trained, domesticated and Asiatic elephants and spend time in their companionship by helping to bathe and feed them.
Stroll along the Tea gardens
A visit to the neighboring markets and shops
Traditional and cultural shows – Bihu, Bagrumba, Jhumur and other local dances.
My experience –
Since I was there for only 2 days, my time was pretty much consumed by the elephant safari and jeep safari at Manas National Park, arranged by the Camp itself. I also managed a quick visit to the adjoining village and a few photographs at the addictively verdant tea garden, on the morning before I left the place.
My Village visit –
A conscious effort to get up with the rising sun so as to make the most of my morning, found me strolling along the path to the nearest village a few hundred meters away, kindly accompanied by one of the ever willing staff.
The villages are very clean and the family that I visited, had school and college going children.
Goats rearing is one of the activities here and most of the goats are of the black variety, though there are some startling exceptions 😀
The goats were frisky and bent on putting on a show for me, with one big guy constantly picking fights with the others and inciting more of them to join the fracas. Of course my guide assured me that they were only playing but I was sure that the big one was trying to show off his strength to his visitor from far away Bangalore 😀
The Tea Garden –
This is a private tea estate and unlike the tea gardens that I have seen in South India, this had the tea bushes growing on plain land and not on slopes. The tea is intercropped with pepper vines that grow on the shade giving trees in the estate.
The tea pickers mostly female, start their job early in the morning and continue for a couple of hours, after which they are free to perform other jobs in the village.
The sea of green bathed in the early morning light, interspersed with the colorful attire of the ladies with their large baskets strung on their back, is a sight that soothes the senses and keeps one riveted in fascination.
Unfortunately I had to leave that day, so I returned to the camp via the peacock inhabited trail.
The peacocks slunk away into the bushes as I approached, instead of miraculously dancing for me with their plumage in full bloom 😀 My bucket list awaits that tick.
Elephant and Jeep safari at Manas National Park –
The camp organizes elephant safaris in conjunction with the forest department. The 2 onsite elephants are used, with each one having provision to carry 4 people at a time including the mahout.
The camp also has their own jeep and guide and jeep safaris take up to 4 tourists at a time, accompanied by the guide, the driver and a mandatory armed guard from the forest department.
Read more about Manas National Park and my Safari experiences here.
Social and environmental commitment –
Being responsibly committed to environmental sustainability, the camp makes as little use of non biodegradable material as possible. Power is obtained mainly from the solar source, failing which there is a generator that takes over.
It is run on the principle of community based eco tourism and all the staff are from the surrounding villages. There is no manager as such in charge but each person knows his set of duties and they are being constantly trained to encompass greater responsibilities. For eg the person who showed interest in wildlife and birds, has been trained to be the safari guide and his skill in spotting animals and birds and his ability to identify them, is commendable.
Likewise the chefs are villagers trained in cooking up delicious local fare and they innovate and create dishes that are truly appreciated by the guests. Yes and if you ask very nicely, they give you the recipes too 😀
Locally available material is also used in the construction of the buildings on the site.
Visitor Profile –
This is a good place for all categories of visitors ranging from solo to families. The bumpy roads and safaris however, should be avoided by those with associated health issues.
It is of course a haven for lovers of wildlife and avid bird watchers.
Photographers and artists can get quite addicted to the surroundings.
Best time to visit –
November to March is said to be the best time to visit. Nights are quite cold with temperatures dipping below 10 deg c (of course to me it felt like 5 deg c !!!) but days are pleasantly warm.
From June to September, the Manas national park remains completely shut due to heavy rainfall and reopens partially in October. So if it the safari that you are looking for, this will not be the right time. However, one can still enjoy the camp stay and visiting the surrounding villages.
April to June are the summer months and temperatures range from 25 – 37 deg c and are not considered an ideal time for a safari.
Phone and internet connectivity –
Being pretty much within the jungle, chances of phone and internet connectivity are bleak. BSNL and Jio are the best options and there is no WiFi. This certainly forces one into cutting off from the rest of the world and focusing on nature, regardless of how desperate one is to access social media 😀
Getting there – The nearest airport is at Guwahati, around 140 km away.
There are several state run and private buses as well as several trains in a day. However they do not go beyond the station called Barpeta Road which is around 25 km from the camp.
From Barpeta road there are private non sharing taxis that will charge around Rs 600-Rs 1000 for a drop or one can avail of the more economical option of Shared vehicles, which is how most of the locals opt to travel. Rs 30 to Rs 50 per head can get you a shared seat in an 8 seater auto or a public passenger vehicle like the Tata Magic or similar.
Depending on the vehicle you ride in, the 25 km drive will take anything from an hour to two hours, the exclusive taxi of course taking the least time.
Also if one has a bit of luggage, then it can be quite a squeeze in the shared vehicle but it is not an impossibility. There is also the option of ‘buying’ more than 1 seat by 1 person, so as to be a bit more comfortable.
The road is currently under construction and the ride can get pretty bumpy in parts and delightfully smooth in other parts 😀 but the River Beki flowing alongside and the rural scenery all around, does take one’s mind off the atrocities that the back is undergoing.
This trauma however, will be short lived because the construction of the new road seems to be rapidly progressing and it will probably be ready within a few months.
The shared vehicles are available right outside the Barpeta road railway station and also at another location behind the station around 500 meters away. Helpful locals are quite willing to show the way.
From Guwahati one also has the option of taking a cab to the camp. An approximate 3 hours would be the duration taken (3 1/2 hrs from Guwahati airport). Cabs are definitely a more expensive option (around Rs 3000-3500 for a drop) compared to buses or trains but the road is said to be excellent all the way to the camp since the route is different from that taken from Barpeta Road station.
Driving down by private vehicle is the best option for residents of nearby towns and cities.
My journey –
After returning from my trip to the Hornbill festival in Nagaland, I stayed the night in Guwahati and the next morning I boarded the 7.45 am train, Kamrup express, from Guwahati station and reached Barpeta road station by 10.10 am. A shared auto was what was available and he took me all the way to the actual camp in a semi bumpy ride of around 2 hours which of course I survived … and if I can do it, then anyone can. Also, arriving at lunch time is always a smart thing to do 😀 so I would definitely recommend this train.
Besides, the journey itself is an adventure of sorts with a steady stream of vendors selling everything from phone chargers, power banks, cables, cucumber, pineapples, betel leaves etc.
Makeshift apparatus churns out bhel puri (which you compel your bewildered co-passenger to display for your camera) 😀
And then there are those strange, mysterious types offering what they called holy prasad, which of course no one dared accept.
Alongside, the alluring countryside of Assam delights you and keeps you mesmerized with views of golden mustard flowers and emerald green fields inhabited by several exotic looking birds (that you cannot click from a fast moving train).
And all these, interspersed intermittently with quaint little railway stations in red and white.
On the return journey I booked the 12.48 pm Kamrup express train to Guwahati, which gave me enough time for breakfast (see how we focus our lives around food) and for the return ride to the station. This reached Guwahati by 3.35 pm. The trains run pretty much without delay. I stayed the night there and the next evening I took the Indigo flight back to Bangalore. In the interim I had my few hours in Guwahati city which you can read about here.
Mention has to be made here about the friendly staff at the railway station, especially the Coolie whom I engaged. Along with helping me with my bags for a small sum of Rs 50, he also proceeded to give a lot of advice on life in general, apart from probing into my entire history from the time I came into existence 😀 Sadly with my poor memory, I have forgotten his name, which I assure you was something very important sounding.
Booking and Contact –
Address – Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp, Bansbari Range, Baksa District BTAD, Assam
Phone – +91 94352 06296 (please leave a comment on the blog if you are unable to get through and I will have them connect with you)
Please Note – This is a collaboration, based on the invitation of Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp and I thank them for hosting me with their warm hospitality.
The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
Dec 9th-11th, 2018