Into the hidden Valley of NEFA

There leeches can suck last drop of blood from your body, flying snakes carry diamond on their head, mosquitoes are bigger than birds and clouds are made from the smoking pipe of Yetis…

I’m not quoting J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter; these were the stories about north-eastern states I grew-up listening throughout my childhood. And stories of NEFA was my personal favorite.

 Arunachal even after attaining full statehood in 1986, was commonly referred as NEFA in the northern plains of India, commonly elaborated as “North-East Forbidden Area”. After being tuned so nicely in my childhood one can imagine how much exciting it would have been for me to plan my trips into these jungles.

My dear readers, be aware! There is something addictive in the air of the North-Eastern states of India. Once you get a hang of it, you simply cannot quit. And I accept after visiting once I simply couldn’t resist my craving to visit again…and again…and again…

Entry into the Cloud Forest

My trip started from Dhekiajuli with my reliable companion and chauffeur Devi Prasad. Devi loves his swift dzire probably more than his wife and that’s why driving comfort is the last thing I worry when I’m with him. We reached Tezpur in just half an hour had tea and patis (puff stuffed with sugar) and carried-on our long journey. As I crossed Balipara the transition in scenery was apparent; the concrete structures were leaving behind and large green blobs were filling their gaps, getting greener with every passing milestone. After Tipi, road traffic decreased significantly, only occasional Army trucks crossed waving their regiment flags. It was a pleasant morning, warmth of golden sunlight and burbling song of Jia Bhoreli made the whole drive heavenly pleasant and I could only realize when I reached Bhalukpong. Bhalukpong is border of Assam and Arunachal, there I got my permit checked by security guards and crossed border gate. Finally I stepped into the land of Arunachal, the land of “Dawn Lit Mountains and Cloud Forests”!

 After crossing Bhalukpong the geography was completely transformed. Grasslands and Terai swamp forests of Assam were replaced by foothill sub-tropical forests and bamboo patches. Jia Bhoreli was still accompanying me with new avatar and name, the Kameng River.

Winding up on Bhalukpong-Bomdila highway I took short break at Sessa for brunch and some road-side birding. Sessa is good for low altitude forest birds. I took pictures of Blue whistling thrush, white-crested Laughingthrush, Barred Owlet and a passing flock of Silver-eared Mesia and then carried-on my onwards journey. After a quick stop-over at Nechipu due to Trans-Arunachal road-widening work, I reached Tenga valley by lunch time.

Tenga

Tenga is a small town and so quiet that you can literally listen the bubbling brook of Tenga River while driving along. I had lunch at local Nepali eatery. There are many local eateries in Tenga who serve homely food. I encourage you to try Nepali cuisine at least once especially if you are non-vegetarian.  

After a sumptuous meal I dumped my luggage in familiar lodge ‘Afet’ and went out on stroll to renew my acquaintance with the locals. Devi Prasad was now free for couple of days as I had arranged a 4 wheel drive vehicle for my onwards journey.

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Spectacular Tenga Valley

Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary

I started my journey in a tougher vehicle chauffeured by a tougher guy Dambar. I don’t remember anybody who is as quiet as Dambar when driving, he was big fan of Nepali music though.

After an early start I was on my way to Eaglenest well before the sunrise and witnessed the illuminated Tenga Valley by first rays of the Sun. Eaglenest has a unique bio-diversity. With plains of Assam (altitude ~100m) in south and Gori-Chen mountain range (altitude ~6000m) in north you can imagine the bio-diversity coverage of this area.

My guide and companion Khandu, who is undoubtedly one of the best in business joined me on the way. We catched-up on old stories, asked well being of common friends and roughly chalked out plan for coming days.

Ramalingam was our first stop, where we collected the forest entry permit and decided to move on foot for some in-route birding. Ramalingam is midway between Tenga and Lama Camp and a good place to look for white-collared blackbird, Wallcreeper, Common Buzzard and many flycatchers. Khandu spotted a pair of Hodgson’s Frogmouth here in his previous trip. Ramalingam is also a good place to look for mammals as it offers some open habitats, I could not find any though.

© Bhanu Singh
Red-headed Trogon

Lama Camp

I reached Lama Camp at around 9 AM, where hot breakfast was waiting for me. The large dining area of camp seemed to build strategically. I could see the spectacular Gori-Chen range from the large window while sipping my tea.

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Gori Chen Range

I had to cover a long distance up to Bompu camp on same day so I finished my breakfast and got back on road quickly.

Lama Camp is undoubtedly one of the top birding locations here. Within an hour birding I got my first lifer; Long-billed Wren Babbler. The world of Wren Babbler is elusive, they dwell in thick undergrowth and it’s nearly impossible to see them if you don’t know their habitat. Lucky me, Khandu knew all their addresses.

Some other birds which I saw in the vicinity of the campsite were Rufous-fronted Wren-Babblers, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Blue-fronted Robin, Bhutan Laughingthrush, Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Rufous-breasted Accentor and Green-tailed Sunbird. The most sought after and celebrity bird of Eaglenest, “Bugun Liocichla” was still elusive.

Tragopanda Trail

Ascending further-up from Lama Camp there is a wonderful trail which passes through excellent stretch of temperate broad-leaved forest, rhododendron and bamboo. Khandu told this is good place to look for Temminck’s Tragopan and Red Pandas. And without much effort I could relate why it is called ‘Tragopanda’ trail.

Eaglenest Pass and Sunderview

Eaglenest Pass (alt 2800 m) is the highest point in Eaglenest WLS,we stopped there for some time but since there was not much activity so we decided to keep moving till Sunderview.

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Sunderview was almost equivalent of Lama Camp in terms of altitude, vegetation and birding opportunities. A Hill-Partridge that was calling for some time has given a glimpse and vanished quickly. I also got a glimpse of Himalayan serow who jumped from a cliff crossed the road and went straight into the valley. I could only admire the reflexes and the agility of that mountain goat.

It was almost evening and considering short days in north-east we decided to keep on moving to be able to reach Bompu Camp by evening as my night halt was arranged in Bompu.

Bompu Camp

Bompu was probably named after bamboo which is found in abundance near the camp site. It was almost dark when I reached there. It was quite windy and due to that feels-like temperature was quite low than actual. I sat near fire with my cup of black coffee and kept admiring the grand flat slopes all the way down to Assam. Those are the twinkling lights of Missamari (Assam), Khandu told me as he joined me at fireplace.

Bompu had a mixed habitat; open fields at one side and dense forest patch on other had made it a great place to spot birds and mammals both.

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Beautiful Sibia
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Rufous-headed Parrotbill

During evening stroll around the area, I was lucky to be able to see and photograph Bhutan giant flying squirrel ( a near threatened rodent species) feeding on tree leaves. I also got a glimpse of extremely rare and elusive Golden cat. It was the black tip on end of its tail that helped identifying this cat.

Bhutan giant flying squirrel
Bhutan giant flying squirrel

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Sessni

Next morning I decided to go on foot and took the road towards Sessni camp. From Bompu the road to Sessni descended down the steep hillside in a series of sharp hairpin bends and presented great birding along the road. Red-faced Liocichla, Beautiful Nuthatch, Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker were some of the highlights from this area.

After birding till afternoon I had to get back to Bompu and then after Lunch I proceeded back to Lama Camp to give another try to elusive Bugun Liocichla.

We were moving slowly, occasionally stopping for some in-route birding. The stretch between Chakoo and Sunderview runs along the tall temperate forest with hanging moss from the trees which is preferred habitat of Ward’s Trogon, popularly known as ‘Phantom of the Jungle’. Suddenly Khandu picked a faint call from deep inside the jungle and after reconfirming the response we decided to wait there for some more time. Finally after waiting for an hour or so a female decided to come out and posed from one branch to another. Soon after a shy male also appeared but he was too shy to pose and went back quickly.

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Wards’s Trogon

I had a glimpse of this bird in my previous visit but could not photograph. Trogons are elusive birds be it Malabar, Red-headed or Ward’s. Ward’s Trogon prefers to dwell in the most pristine mossy forests and in Eaglenest there are only few trails which are accessible for a normal person like me. So after such wonderful sighting I could not ask for anything more. It was already late afternoon and without any further delay we decided to keep driving to reach Lama Camp before dark.

Ward’s Trogon has already made my day and even after such long day I was not tired at all.  I met Umesh, Satem and Tashi from another group over dinner. They were here for far bigger purpose; they were running an eco-camp for kids to inculcate the knowledge about the biodiversity of Eaglenest. In today’s world this is really hard to see such dedication and passion towards work. I wished them all the best and to all children who were participating; they will surely be our torch bearer in near future.
Next morning I got-up around 3 AM as temperature dipped significantly or may be because this was my last day of the trip I wanted to maximize every second of it. This was a super successful trip by all means but at one corner of my heart there was still some space left for my most desired bird, “Bugun”.

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Lama Camp at 3 AM

At around 5 AM we set-out on final quest. I started with Khandu and asked Dambar to join later as we wanted to explore the area mainly on foot. About an hour later we reached near a dry stream-bed and started searching there, according to Khandu’ s local intelligence a pair was sighted in this area.

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A pygmy-wren babbler was calling from a nearby bush but at that time we were focused on something else so decided to let it wait. Suddenly a group of Barwing crossed and Khandu exclaimed, ‘Bugun’! And I pressed shutter.  This was extremely quick almost in a flicker. Only two shots and probably most prized ones. Later I got another decent picture of female as well.

Bugun Liocichla
Bugun Liocichla (Male)

Eaglenest was like a hidden valley until as recently as May 2006 when Ramana Athreya discovered a new bird species Bugun Liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum) from this area.

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Bugun Liocichla (Female)

With tremendous generosity he named this after local Bugun tribe. All hard work done by Ramana (and his team) and discovery of new bird played a significant role to establish Eaglenest as one of the most important birding area in the world.

After photographing Bugun, I decided not to point my camera at anything for few days. Living a dream for years is not easy and when that come true it brings a divine feeling of Nirvana.

I have many such dreams to live and I’m sure I will come out of this feeling of Nirvana very soon. 

Trip Tips

  • If you are planning to take your own vehicle, double check the ground clearance of your vehicle. There are some patches where vehicle with small tyre size can not cross. My recommendation is to take a 4 wheel drive if possible.
  • Wildlife photography in general requires patience; Eaglenest requires a lot. There were occasions when I waited for hours and even though I could not get the picture I wanted.
  • Many birders and wildlife photographers visit Eaglenest with a list of target species which is a good practice in terms of organizing your efforts; however my suggestion is to keep it flexible. You may keep running after your target species and miss the pristine flora-fauna spread around you in abundance.
  • Walking is permitted inside the park also most part of the park is accessible through motor able road. Jeeps/Sumo/Bolero can be hired from Tenga on daily basis.
  • Camps inside Eaglenest are equipped to serve a comfortable stay. At the same time one should not expect or compare it with any starred accommodation.
  • Tenga is nearest market area which is at 1.5 hour driving distance from Lama camp. Some basic medical facility is also available here.bps_7554_pub
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