Of all the people I meet in Nokrek, Watesing is the only one who insists he has seen a tiger. He announces this as he leads me through the blinding mist towards the matcha nokpante, clumsily translated as “bachelor tiger’s den". The Nokrek National Park —spread over 47 sq. km, within a 800 sq. km biosphere reserve—is supposed to have housed tigers once, and probably still does. But, ever since man decided ginger and rice were more valuable than tree and shrubbery, and the periphery of the park was encroached on by cultivation, the animal has grown exceedingly shy and is reported to venture out only at night.

A Garo farmer and his family outside their hut

Next to the Balpakram National Park in the South Garo Hills district, Nokrek (named after a local Garo clan) evokes awe and dread among the local population. Its jungles were once supposed to be the hunting grounds of the mandeburing, or savage man (I have half a mind to ask Watesing, my irascible 60-plus guide with suspicious buttonholes for eyes, if he had bumped into him as well), and leeches are said to drop from the trees at the merest whiff of human blood.

Nokrek’s similarities with Balpakram, regarded as the temporary abode of departed souls, are quite uncanny. If the South Garo Hills park is referred to as the Land of Eternal Winds, Nokrek could easily be the Land of Infernal Winds. On my first night in a borang (a traditional Garo tree hut) in Nokrek, a storm had threatened to uproot the structure and toss it into the valley carved nearby by the Simsang river. The walls were shaking; the roof was dripping; and the winds, routed through a million channels, seemed to merge into one giant stream of thunderous noise. Luckily, the tiny thatch and bamboo structure survived the onslaught.

At the nokpante, Watesing coaxes me to stand at the edge of the tall boulders in whose crevices the tiger was once supposed to have slumbered, while he climbs up a tree. From our respective vantage points, we separately wonder what the view would have been if we could see anything beyond the span of an arm.

Earlier, atop the 1,412m Nokrek Peak—the highest point of the Garo Hills—Watesing had rolled himself a cigarette, while I took in the smoky atmosphere over the hazy plains of Baghmara and Bangladesh in the south, and the tall metal tower on top of the Arabella hill in the north. The forests, with their perennial mist cover, seemed a world apart from the demonic abode described by local villagers.

It is ironic, then, that these much-feared woods should breed rural life at its harmonious best. Having given Watesing the slip one evening, I walk down the banks of the Dideri river, just outside the park, but not before witnessing the idyll of Daribokgre unfold before my eyes. Conical wicker baskets or koks lie about the mud courtyards, children sway about the pillars supporting the thatch over the porch, young men lie on the grass next to grazing cattle and neat stacks of firewood, enough to last all summer. The nearest village with electricity is 8km away.

In the Dideri, a few villagers fish for anke, river crabs. Much like humans, the crustacean’s tendency to latch on to everything thrown at it results in its downfall. Purple wild flowers have overrun the river banks and seem to mimic the cloud patterns above. I walk up to the river, and drink to this magnificent spectacle of an evening.

At Baladingre, a few kilometres from Daribokgre, I notice electric wires running on poles and, needing to charge my camera batteries desperately, consider walking up to the village square. In the last two months of my ramblings through the state, the sight of this alien in a sun hat has led to kids wailing in fright, village dogs behaving like lunatics, classrooms interrupting their lessons, believers walking out of church, construction workers laying down their crowbars and farmers their daos (machetes).

Nevertheless, I approach an aged woman, whose deeply etched wrinkles suggest she might well have been one of the original Garo settlers from Myanmar. The matron probably thinks I am looking for a plantain leaf or my lost cow, and guides me to her nephew’s house. I step into the confines of a typical Garo hut: a corner for a kitchen, wooden stubs for seats, a corner fireplace demarcated by stones embedded in the mud floor, and soot-blackened walls of bamboo strips wound horizontally and vertically together. While laughing about the communication gap, the nephew and his wife spontaneously offer me a welcome cup of cha (tea).

At Sakalgre, the highest village in the region, I walk towards a concrete building at the centre of the village. It seems to be a school, since children are hard at work on its porch. A toddler’s sharp eyes spot me, he calls out to his fellows and, suddenly, they all flee, as if they have seen a bear. It is no wonder—I learn later from the adults over another cup of tea that the last tourist to have visited the village was a Japanese woman in 2000.

While leaving Nokrek, I realize that the only animals I have encountered over three days are the numerous snakes feigning paralysis across my tracks and the stubborn leeches that I had to constantly pluck off my legs, waist, forearms and neck. The overwhelming impression I carry away is that of innocence—of a place, its people.

As I turn to take one last look at Nokrek, I see Watesing waving at me from the top of his house. I imagine it is an affectionate farewell and move closer to catch his words. “Have you paid?" he asks.

Trip Planner

How to get there:

The Nokrek National Park is located in the West Garo Hills district, Meghalaya, around 45km from Tura, the district headquarters. The nearest airport and railhead are in Guwahati, 230km away. All major airlines—such as Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airways, Air Deccan—operate daily flights from major Indian cities to Guwahati.

Meghalaya Transport Corporation operates a helicopter service between Shillong and Tura (one-way fare, Rs1,985), and Guwahati and Tura (one-way fare, Rs1,725) thrice a week. For reservations, call 0364 2223129. Tura is also connected to Guwahati by road (Rs175 by bus, Rs230 by a shared cab).

To reach the national park from Tura, get down at Oragitok village on the Tura-Asanangre-Williamnagar state highway (Rs20 by bus), and walk 12km to Daribokgre village. Alternatively, hire a cab (Rs1,000 per day).

You need a letter from the divisional forest officer, wildlife division, Dakopgre, Tura, to visit Nokrek. Call 03651 232225 for details. Permissions are easy to secure, and come within a day. There is a still-camera fee of Rs25 per person per day for Indian citizens and Rs100 per person per day for foreigners. Video camera fees are Rs500 per person per day for Indians and Rs1,000 per person per day for foreigners.

For more details, visit the Meghalaya Tourism website (‘megtourism.gov.in’) and the district administration of West Garo Hills (‘www.westgarohills.gov.in’)

Where to stay:

In the traditional Garo huts—opt for the ‘nok a’chik’ (4-bedded, Rs400 per night) or the ‘borang’ (two-bedded tree house, Rs200 per night) inside the Nokrek National Park at Daribokgre village. The ‘nok a’chik’ has a wooden floored bathroom with water provided in buckets, which is also shared by the occupants of the ‘borang’. For reservations, call 098628 64387 (secretary, Nokrek Bandasal). Cellphones work in the area, and can be charged at a nearby farmer’s hut through solar panels.

What to eat:

The management of the traditional Garo huts provides simple meals of rice, potatoes and eggs, along with some ‘lal cha’ (literally, red tea or tea without milk), which cost about Rs45 each. On request, they can do a ‘nakham bitchi’ (the fiery Garo dried fish soup). There are no restaurants or local eateries in the area. The nearest tea house is at Chandigre, about 10km from Daribokgre village.

What to do:

Trek to Tura from Daribokgre via Sakalgre and Tura Peak. The journey takes 5-6 hours, and passes through dense forests; a guide is advisable. You can also trek to Arabella peak, overlooking the Oragitok village, and both the Nokrek and Tura peaks. It takes about half an hour to reach the 60m-tall cellphone tower at the summit of the hill from Oragitok.

Nokrek does not offer medical facilities or electricity. Leeches and snakes abound, as in any true wilderness destination.

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