Arriving at our hotel in Lataguri (elephant country) we were greeted by the young owner with a big belly and a smile to match. The place was spacious and clean (except for the pile of rubbish round the back being set on fire by the gardener who worked all day long on legs as thin as straws) and the staff were enormously attentive.
Our well needed rest was disturbed around 430am on the first night by a shaking of the earth, (this is not a euphemism). Still half asleep an image of elephants trampling through the village came into my dazed head, but the truth was discovered when there was a knock on our door yelling “earthquake” and a request that we gather in the courtyard below (incase the building collapsed). Despite the potential threat to our lives, I was still remarkably reluctant to get out of bed and fortunately this natural disaster was short lived.
Next time we awoke, we followed the advice of our host and signed up for the usual tourist traps; safari tours and watch tower visits (to spot animals in their natural habitat).
The results however were rather disappointing. Whilst we enjoyed the scenery of lush jungle pathways or wide open planes, we had little luck sighting the more exotic animals, and the only elephants we saw were in captivity (being trained by keepers who ride them). The drivers treated the safaris as a kind of race, thundering down the dirt track roads, more interested in getting in front of the other groups than searching for wildlife.
Our most exciting moment was when our engine died and we heard a rustling in the bushes next to us, followed by the unmistakable sound of breath being expelled from a trunk! But the car behind was fast on our heels and our own engine soon spluttered back to life, dashing our hopes.
Despite the “limited” number of watchtower tickets released per day, we always found ourselves in the midst of selfie obsessed crowds playing music through mobile speakers destroying the ambience we had anticipated…
… a few pairs of binoculars wouldn’t have gone amiss either…
Fed up of being herded around, on the third day we set off into the jungle on our own and on foot, armed with a tree branch to fend off stray beasts. This became our favourite journey as we discovered the daily activities of the surrounding villages. We watched as they loaded lorries with newly felled tree trunks in teams of 20, using a method not dissimilar to how we had lifted the oil barrels onto our dis-masted yacht in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean… (see video below for demonstration)
At one point something special happened; we realised were alone for the first time since arriving in the country… or were we… as the trees around us began to sway and found we were surrounded by monkeys leaping from branch to branch.
Finally as the sun began to sink into the ground, we watched as a line of women slunk out of the undergrowth carrying huge piles of wood on their heads, far heavier than Micha or I could lift. And they had a long journey ahead, since collecting wood from the forest floor is illegal, thus it was too dangerous for them to walk back along the road and instead they chose a longer route through the forest to avoid getting caught.
The region here (known as Dooars, meaning “doorway” to Bhutan) is also famous for tea, so on our last day we set off on foot again through the villages to find the nearest tea plantation. Some locals joined our journey and gave us a personalised tour of the area and even their homes in broken english.
We noted that whilst the males seemed free to roam around, the women were mainly confined to house and its cleaning. We finished our trip with a tea tasting in a shack by the side of the road with our new friends.