BY ANITA BARUWA
Come spring, and the soul simply wouldn’t stay confined to the four walls, letting academic demands go to the four winds! The winds pulled me towards the call of the Hoolock Gibbons for a second time. Having known the futility of resisting temptations over these years, plans were afoot to reach the Hollongapar Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary in Mariani, Jorhat on the pretext of letting my nephew and daughter a learning experience during the Bihu holidays.
That time flies really fast, was befittingly reminded by Facebook’s memories of five years ago, just an hour after we said adieu to the Sanctuary. It was five years ago that I had accidentally come across the existence of such a Sanctuary so near to my hometown Dibrugarh and had gone ahead with the unplanned foray to be pleasantly surprised by the inmates of the forest as well as by the highly resourceful forest guide, Deben Borah. Being totally ignorant of the ABCs of trekking into a forest then, we had reached the Sanctuary in the afternoon when it was siesta time for these apes, the prime attraction of that forest. Nonetheless, the noble person that our guide happens to be, he had led us into the forest and managed to show us two families of Hoolock Gibbons taking their nap in the higher branches of fig trees. I remember a playful son and father duo, while the mother was asleep. Another family of five had lain motionless in their respective positions, least bothered by the noises that my daughter, about eight years then, was making. The forest had been silent that afternoon and apart from sighting some flora and signs of fauna, we had to retract, promising to come back again. Both Ma and Deta had accompanied us then.
With time moving fast, and technology even faster, the promises were almost forgotten and so were the important contact numbers that we had saved. So it took quite a few email exchanges and calls to reach the friend, philosopher and guide of the forest, Borah this time. We thank the timely response and help of all, especially the Beat Officer, Rupak Bhuyan and caretaker of the Inspection Bungalow, Jiten Gogoi.
We reached the Sanctuary by evening. Though the plan was to reach by late noon, yet it was already dark when we were greeted by Gogoi with a big torch light. He flashed it inside the car to guide the “man” of the group to the IB, and must have been shocked to find the only man in the car to be an under-teen kid. He hid his thoughts for the moment and I took the U-turn over the railway track, with the car headlights and my five year old memory to guide me to our den for the night.
Before Gogoi brought us his piping hot food, he came to enquire if we had carried any non-vegetarian stuff which he could cook for us. He had already conveyed to us that only frugal meals were available on payment and if we wanted fancy food, we would have to take it alongwith us. We vouchsafed that we were waiting to eat whatever the forest had to offer. At this, three pairs of eyes stared very hard, two belonging to the kids and one to my elder sister. Gogoi took the chance to lightly put in that of course, how could we, three women and two kids manage to buy stuffs on our way. “Dada” should have come too. I gave my usual stony look and sister-in-law told him politely that the “Dada” was too refined to come to the forest! SIL had done her research in advance and we were geared up with “everything”, as she put it, for our night in the forest, from candles to Odomos.
John Denver was already playing in my mind and I had planned to stay awake the whole night to soak in the sounds of the forest at night. The sounds came, albeit too early and earthly. Dhol and pepa and taal. It was April and the nearby husori dol (group of men and boys performing Bihu song and dance) from the nearby village reached the IB to perform for the guests of the forest. At first none of us were up to it. The rhythmic beats of the dhol kept playing. I looked at my sister in the other bed. She looked at me. Both of us jumped to our feet together. The same happened in the other room. SIL and the kids were already opening their door. And then there was Bihu for the next half an hour. Later, we did our bit of Bihu with Gogoi’s young daughter too, who danced really well, with SIL joining her in the IB verandah. We were surprised to find Gogoi’s wife google “Assamese Bihu Songs” for that session of Bihu, and realised sadly that the forest inmates, just a kilometer from the IB must have become used to technology too.
The apes are early risers and so our guide had advised us beforehand to sleep off soon. After returning to our beds once again, my old nerves must have decided that I needed rest and so I was snoring away before I knew; putting all plans of romancing the night in the forest to sleep. We started the foray at about 6:45 AM, taking the first track. There are at least three well-beaten tracks into the northern side of the forest where we were in. For me and my daughter it was a second coming. Butterflies, mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, earthworm poops all were exciting for her until she came upon a cobweb. The spider was having its meal, at that moment, enthralling us with its exquisite black and yellow colour combination. A sense of familiarity greeted me as we kept moving into the deeper parts. Yet, new and newer visuals sprang up at each bend.
When our guide mentioned about a particular smell that attracted the apes, asking if I could sense it, I pretended that I could, and imagined the smell, of which I would never have a clue! He explained that fig (dimoru) seeds are the favourite food of the hoolock gibbons.
Unlike five years ago, when we had been lucky to have sighted the apes even at midday, without much foraying, this time it wasn’t that easy. Might be, even the forest inmates had sensed the presence of two senior citizens then and had coalesced for their sake. We could not sight even a single gibbon on the first track. Pig tailed macaques there were many and a slow loris. My budding birder nephew sighted red-headed trogons, oriental magpies, white-tailed robins, pheasants, barbets and a few more variety of birds right from the beginning of the track and in the excited gushes, managed to shoo away most of them before he could say “cheese” with his camera!
We backed out of the first track to move towards the mid range. The sun was coming up and we started feeling pinches in our lower limbs. No wonder we had been warned beforehand, to cover them with stockings. As I pulled out the leeches, I could count more than a dozen, with two of them making deep holes into the skin. As we were reaching the mid range of the forest, a rat snake slided by my right leg, transfixing me to where I was. The rest kept marching ahead. And as always, whenever I sight a creepy crawly, I lost my voice to call out.
Just then, we all heard it.
Of a male gibbon. This was followed by another, that of the female. And then a chorus ensued. This sequence was repeated, engulfing the entire forest. I found my feet back and reached my team in no time to hear our guide whisper in glee, “There, that’s a family of four!” he exhaled. We were sure they were waiting for us to see them as we entered through a thicket. The forest guard did not feel enthusiastic at all because there was no beaten track to follow. This gibbon family, being familiar to our guide, used to be at ease when he was around. But this time they must have seen two bubbly kids, whose pretended adult moves must have put them on guard. Amidst the resonating chorus, we failed to locate them. It was frustrating and the guard was almost backing out. Our guide would not give up and changed tracks, taking us through dense shrubs and bushes, once left, then right and back left again. The chorus was becoming almost deafening at times. That there was another male nearby was what our guide surmised as we reached a lesser dense part, where the sky was clearly visible. It was then that we saw them. All four of them. Performing acrobatics from tree to tree. The mother had a tiny baby in her arms, gliding skilfully from one tree to the next. The male was black and the female was dull brown. We stood rooted to the ground for a long time, only to be brought back to our senses by leech bites. This time we were not given time to de-leech. Something seemed to be on our guide’s mind, as he led us into the first track again and veered off left somewhere midway. We reached the railway track after ten minutes or so. The sun was almost overhead and we were tired and thirsty. Once on the railway line, he pointed to our left to show us a canopy bridge.
This was a pleasant surprise for me, as my last visit had been an impromptu one, and presently I had no time to research about the place before the visit. We were informed that the bridge had been constructed, to partly undo the harm done by the British period railway track through the middle of the forest, in an attempt to encourage the northern gibbons to meet their cousins in the southern part of the forest and vice versa. It was hoped that this might increase the dwindling numbers among them. The monogamous nature of the apes seemed to be one of the main reasons of their diminishing population. So far, the bridge did not seem to lure the gibbons out to the other end. We urged our guide to take us to the southern part, but it seemed that the numbers in that part were very less and it would have been a futile trip. We had to call it a day and returned to the forest beat to be greeted by a lone capped langur’s antics up on the tree at the gate. We bade adieu, promising to return, each of us carrying back something of the forest within us.