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Running with rhinos

There is, indeed, something called reverse altitude sickness.

Rediff.com's Rajesh Karkera, on the fourth leg, of his 1,800 km, 10-day Mahindra Adventure-organised road/offroad journey across Assam, Arunachal and Meghalaya, encountered it and survived to tell this tale.

When he descended swiftly through 4,615 feet, from Dirang (at a lofty 4,910 feet) to Kaziranga (at a lowly 295 feet), he became ill.

Melancholy. Heart pains. Longing. Pangs.

You can take a man out of the mountains. But it takes a while longer to take the mountains out of the man and get him used to lower altitudes.

Rajesh started pining for Himalayan air and the warmth of the hill people (and his SUV's sixth gear).

But Kaziranga, with its lush tea estates, Assamese food and those cuddly-wuddly-waddly rhino babies (muah, muah!), won him over.

Yup, the enchanting rhinos sorted out his low-altitude affliction.

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

Do you know what's the best part about travelling in the Northeast?

Waking up.

You can fill your lungs with that special cold, pure, crisp air. It's a great start to a day.

A wonderful pick-me-up. Better than rum. Makes you feel happy to be alive... and travelling in the Northeast!

The windows in our Norphel Retreat room were fogged up. Your fingers itched to etch a message on the glass. And I did :)

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

The obligatory posing session before departure: There's, left to right, our trip doc Dr Manjul Agrawal, photographer Milind Kale and Nikhil Pratap Singh from the Xtreme Sports Organisation team, the company that organises these expeditions for Mahindra Adventure. Nikhil was also on MTV Roadies.

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

Again breakfast, like our previous visit to Norphel, meant food, side by side with wonderful vistas, that were a treat to look at (food for thought too).

At the start of the drive we passed kiwi fields. Our second visit to Norphel was all a rewind.

Even the smiling Rinchin Chomu and Tilek Ratan were there again, insisting on taking our bags down from the room.

Our route was also a backtrack into Assam along the way we came on the first day of our trip. Lunch was once more at the Nameri Eco camp after a six-hour drive (with one rest stop halfway).

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

Leisurely lunch. And a brisk game of kabaddi on the lovely lawns of the camp.

Bangalorean Sunil Parvataneni (in neo orange here) took the game rather too seriously and injured a knee. Fellow player Dr Manjul Agrawal fixed it.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

But that knee (which troubles him even today) put a slight spanner in the works. He wasn't able helm his Scorpio.

The Mahindra team quickly rustled an extra driver. No delays.

"We have done good time. Good driving," was the team leader's verdict as we left the eco camp after lunch.

"Good job, Convoy!" Made all of us feel heroic.

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

We had now left behind the broken tarmac pathways that passed off as road earlier and it was all straight flat highways.

But that was more a matter of sadness for me -- I would miss the sixth gear of the XUV.

Driving the Scorpio was not bad at all. But like all things in life you needed to compromise somewhere.

With both these cars it was either pure power and grunt as against smooth flying on the highways.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

Welcome to Kaziranga! A huge signboard on the super flat NH715 greeted us at 4.15 pm.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

After that we were travelling on a raised highway -- at least 6 to 10 feet above the ground through flatlands.

Guess what? Rhinos were all over these flatlands!

To our joy they were everywhere. Grazing. Like one sees cattle grazing in the other parts of India!

Night arrived as we left the highway and headed towards our next night halt, on an uneven path of loose sand.

We passed small village houses -- raising clouds of dust in our wake -- as we trundled towards the Borgos Resort.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

Borgos is a beautiful property. We encountered elephants in the parking lot! What a great hotel greeting.

The rooms, the common spaces, the exterior, the lawns, the views from the sit-out areas of almost every room were just perfect.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

It's full of grace and class. Felt more like a five star hotel.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

The quietness was restful.

Sadly it lacked the warmth of the mountain hotels we had stayed at earlier. Slightly cold and indifferent.

Maybe we were back among cities once again. The warmth of the mountains and its people seemed missing.

We were prescribed an early night by Group Leader Saab Vikram. Tomorrow was an early, early morning safari to the Kaziranga National Park.

We were asked to choose between an elephant ride and a jeep safari. We all opted for the elephant.

Thinking maybe the quiet footsteps of these gentle giants would not disturb the wildlife. Some opted for the one-hour elephant ride and a jeep safari too.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

5:30 am: It was a 20-minute drive to the elephant mounting bay by the side of a river (above).

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

Four on an elephant. Almost 15 minutes into the safari we came to a clearing and our first rhino.

The elephant quietly squished through the marshland. It was a fantastic joyride.

I couldn't help thinking the weight of us all might be hurting the pachyderm.

There were regular requests from guests for flowers from the bushes.

Elephants handed them to the guests -- to their glee -- using their trunks. Of course, the mahout expected a tip!

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

We saw an adorable mother rhino and her kid. The baby very reluctantly followed his mother, who kept moving away from us.

The wee rhino just wanted to eat where he was.

You immediately noticed the care endangered species get. Or the animals that bring in the money.

Assam takes care of its rhinos. But forgets to treat its elephants the same way; which is the case almost everywhere in India (like in the south where elephants are put on display for tips at temples).

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

These pink flowers (above) grow best where there are rhinos droppings.

"Rhino potty flower," our mahout called it, ha ha! These pink bushes were spread all across these flatlands giving it a lovely look.

We came across sambars and wild boars too.

VIDEO: The Rhinos of Kaziranga

Some stats: As per the March 2015 census Kaziranga is home to 2,401 rhinos (1,651 adults rhinos, 663 males, 802 females, 186 unsexed).

You can also find tigers, wild water buffalo, jackals, swamp deer, leopards, fox, dolphins, sloth bears and more.

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

Borgos had laid out a lavish breakfast when we returned. Lunch was close on its heels.

A local Assamese thali at a nearby restaurant. We were introduced to a number of Assamese vegetarian dishes which I can't even name!

Photograph: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

It was all absolutely delicious. Every bit of food in this plate (above)!

With stuffed bellies some of us chose to explore the tea estates nearby.

Not a soul in sight. A nap in the cool grass. A strange feeling: To have come down from the mountains and be lying in a tea estate in the flatlands around...

Even the sun seemed different. So did the sky!

I was missing the mountains. Reverse altitude sickness! Meeting the rhinos was curing it.

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

Borgos put on a cultural show on its back lawns that evening.

Bonfire. Music. Dancing, with local performers. Fun. Yay Mahindra!

Photograph: Milind Kale/Mahindra Adventure

It went on to the wee hours of the night.

The next day was an easy start. We would roll at 8 am for Shillong.

The fifth and last leg coming up: Kaziranga to Shillong. And the living root bridges of Meghalaya.

 Fourth Leg: Route map

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