Trekking in Hornbill country

If you ever wondered about a place that was still left to explore, try Namdapha. It has the sort of untouched wilderness where you can be the first to make a natural discovery. Tucked away in remote eastern Arunachal Pradesh, Namdapha is perhaps the most bio-diverse part of the sub-continent. The region’s altitude varies from 200-4,578m. Its geographical boundaries with Myanmar, the Dapha Range (5,000m) and snow-fed rivers have kept the area well-protected and largely unexplored. Spread over 1,985 sq km, Namdapha is also a Project Tiger reserve — and the only such reserve, and one of the few national parks in India, where you explore only on foot. The trek is about exploration and you are never in too much of a hurry to get from point A to point B.


Namdapha National Park (Photo courtesy of daktre)


For keen nature and wildlife enthusiasts, this is perhaps the best experience offered anywhere in the country. The trek cuts through lush primary evergreen forests along well-defined trails, criss-crossed by numerous streams. The tall tree canopy rises 150m above and the undergrowth is impenetrable with the presence of bamboo and cane. You camp at pre-designated campsites and, unlike other treks, the camping sites here are only a short distance away from each other. It is advisable to cover the area in short stages to maximise your time for exploring this virgin terrain. The park is accessible only up to an altitude of 850m but Namdapha does throw in its share of challenges. Heavy rains can occur anytime, causing mudslides, and you have to keep a constant check on the ever-present leeches in the soil below.


Namdapha’s Treasures


Namdapha is like the cauldron of a genetic soup that sometimes spills over to reveal its biological treasures. The unique blend of Indo-Burmese, Sino- Tibetan and Himalayan species has made Namdapha the most diverse habitat of the sub-continent. Three large mammals have been discovered in recent years, including the Javan rhino, the Malayan sun bear and the leaf deer. Declared a Project Tiger reserve in 1983, this is the only park in the world to harbour all the four big cats — tiger, leopard, clouded leopard and the snow leopard. The area is also home to rare mammals like the takin, Himalayan musk deer, slow loris and the Asian elephant. Namdapha is also home to India’s only ape — the Hoolock gibbon. The bird life here is equally amazing, with almost 665 species recorded in the area so far, which is half the bird species present in the country! It is estimated that to complete a comprehensive study of the botanical resources present in Namdapha, it would take at least 50 years. This unspoilt and unexplored wilderness sustains diverse and incredibly varied life forms. It’s the kind of stuff explorers dream of.

◆ Entry fee Indians Rs 50, foreigners Rs 350 Vehicle entry fee Rs 100 Cameras Still Rs 75, video Rs 750


Scenic beauty og Namdapha (Photo courtesy of daktre)


Keep in mind that this is one of the country’s largest virgin primary forests, so prepare accordingly and do not just drop in. Some of the first citizens of this lush terrain include tigers, leopards, elephants and wild dogs, so follow the advice of your accompanying forest guard, whose experience and resources in this area are invaluable. A pair of good binoculars is an absolute must for this trek as you would not want to miss out on the chance of viewing the amazing bird and mammal life present here. It’s worth keeping a few extra days in hand for a trek like this, as nature may spring some pleasant surprises.


Tip: The first thing to keep in mind when you set out to explore this area is that you must do it in the right season. We did it in mid-April, when the monsoons had set in, the leeches were out in the fields and the Neo Dhing River was nearly uncrossable because of the high water level. December and January are the driest months and the best time to visit Namdapha








The Sultan’s tit songbird (Photo courtesy of Francesco Veronesi)


You could walk right up to Gibbon’s Land, 11 km away, on the motorable dirt road back towards Miao, or turn back a little earlier. Or get your taxi to drop you to Gibbon’s Land and walk back to Deban. It is here that I got my first real taste of the spectacular bird life present here. In the streams we saw little and slaty-backed forktails, while the other birds included the flamboyant sultan’s tit, scarlet minivets, lesser and greater yellow-nape woodpeckers and my first ever sighting of the redtailed minla and collared treepie. In the area around Gibbon’s Land, we sighted a large group of Assamese macaque, peacefully perched on top of a tree canopy. We walked back slowly and returned to the Deban Rest House by evening. It is also during this walk that we first realised that Namdapha is also home to at least five kinds of leeches, which are present in large numbers. Fortunately, with some help from our accompanying forest guard, we ordered for a pair of Leech Guards (a large, thick pair of socks, up to your knees, that prevents leeches from penetrating), which was picked up from an oncoming vehicle from Miao. The Forest Rest House at Deban (390m) is where you camp the first night in Namdapha National Park. This picturesque rest house overlooks the Neo Dhing River.








This is one day when you do not want to sleep late as the excitement unfolds the moment you open your eyes. I woke early the next day to find the action had begun in the grounds of the rest house itself. A solitary barking deer was feeding a little distance away from the rest house and, moments later, the accompanying forest guard called for me to sight a fire-tailed sunbird. While sipping my first cup of tea I heard the loud whooping of Hoolock gibbons. I followed the evocative call leading to the forests behind the rest house — and came across a pair of these apes. They were swinging from one branch to the other using their extended arms, stopping now and then to get a look at us below. It was barely seven in the morning and so much had already taken place. Such is the magic of the Namdapha National Park.


Hoolock Gibbon (Photo courtesy of Programme HURO)


After breakfast at the rest house, we got ready to cross the Neo Dhing River for the trek onwards. A ferry boat waiting for us, plunged into the gushing torrent and before I knew it, the fast rapids combined with the skilled maneuvering of the experienced boatman had deposited us on the left bank, a considerable distance downstream. It is from here onwards that you are on your own, with the accompanying team of forest guard, cook and porters. A trail from here takes you up an incline for about 300m, before you walk along a ridge to reach Haldibari, your next camping site. The walk to Haldibari is replete with birdcalls and we saw the magnificent great hornbill and great slaty woodpecker. After lunch at the Haldibari campsite, we explored the area only to be rewarded with yet another rarity — the Malayan giant squirrel. It was enough action for one day. The campsite of Haldibari (425m) is reached before lunch. It houses a small shack amidst a clearing. We set up camp here in tents.








On the third morning, it felt as if I had gone to bed in Namdapha and had woken up in Vietnam. It was raining heavily, the army of leeches was out in the trenches and stepping out of the tent seemed impossible. Determined not to waste precious moments of the trip, I decided to brave a session of early morning birding. All signs of life had decreased considerably except for the streaked spiderhunters, which were present in large numbers. We broke camp to carry on to our next site at Hornbill Glade (520m), a distance of 5 km from Haldibari. Within a few hours of continuous rain, the number of streams on the trails suddenly seemed to have increased and so had the leeches on the muddy track.


Rufous Necked Hornbill (Photo courtesy of Kalyanvarma)


Having covered hardly a kilometre, I decided to wade right through the streams on the path, rather than hop across the rocks, which were deceptive and slippery. In any case, it was pointless trying to stay dry under the given conditions. The hike was gentle though. It took 3 hrs of easy walking through mildly undulating terrain to reach Hornbill Glade. This was the only point during the entire trek that I came across other travellers. Five American birders were camping the night here with an army of porters, local agents, cooks and other staff. It had stopped raining by late afternoon and I ventured out into the adjoining area. Hornbill really does live up to its name. Within 200m of the camp, I saw a rufous-necked hornbill, giving a short monosyllabic bark-like call at regular intervals, its distinct colours glowing in the fading light. Hornbill Glade is an open patch with two large sheds and a makeshift hut, which serves as the kitchen.








Zipped inside a tent, you learn to identify birds and the jungle’s creatures by their calls, and not by sight. The dense foliage also contributes to this. We moved to our next campsite at Bulbulia, a short hike away. The terrain got more undulating than the previous days, with streams flowing across at regular intervals. The rain had come down heavily again and, after a little over an hour, we came to the base of a hill, atop which was our next camp. Strategically located on top of a hill, the shack makes a perfect watchtower to check the stream below, giving you access to good views of the tree-top canopy. It’s perfect for sightings of long-tailed sibias and greater racket-tailed drongos, who make regular halts on the perches close by. Being a marshland, thick undergrowth is missing here, making way for better viewing.


Elephant and a calf (Photo courtesy of Rita Willaert)


Elephants often frequent the streams below. I spotted the rare blackbacked forktail skimming the stream, and a hike up to the campsite yielded a solitary and rather lonely Hoolock gibbon. The excitement in Bulbulia continues past sunset and, if lucky, you could see flying squirrels gliding on the tree-top canopy. I went to bed wondering whether the owl hooting close by was a brown fish owl or a tawny fish owl. You realise that absorbing the throbbing jungle from the very perch of your bed is a lot better than being zipped up in a tent!


Bulbulia houses a large opensided shack offering a spectacular view of a large aquifer below with several natural springs (bulbule), from which the place derives its name. What’s even better is that the shack remains totally dry and leech-free. This is easily the Presidential Suite of Namdapha as it offers the luxury of a large bare wooden platform, which was to serve as my king-size bed for the next two days.








From Bulbulia, your trek carries on along the trail towards Ranijheel. Although there is a campsite at Ranijheel where you can pitch tents, we took the unanimous decision of exploring Ranijheel and returning back to the comfort of Bulbulia. The lack of any shade at Ranijheel makes camping a little more demanding. Cooking and other tasks can be a problem, especially if it rains. In this walk, you face a few steep slopes on muddy tracks and the trail is broken in parts, though walkable.


A thicket of Bamboo trees (Photo courtesy of Clerkwheel)


After 3 km of walking from Bulbulia, the trail suddenly caves under a thick bamboo patch for a good stretch. The forest guard warned of rogue elephants that often wandered here. It is advisable to stay close to your forest guard. This patch is popular with birders for species like great rufous-headed parrotbill and red-billed scimitar babbler. It is in this walk that I saw some of the tallest trees in Namdapha, garlanded with orchids. There were surprises everywhere. A grey peacock pheasant dashed across the trail, wreathed hornbills glided over the top tree canopy, and a pair of courting changeable hawk eagles perched high up and gave out shrill calls. This walk is sure to take you in a state of trance. Soon enough, we stumbled across a clearing with the small lake of Ranijheel to the right. We explored the area and looked for the highly endangered white-winged duck, which was reported here. If you want to spend more time exploring Namdapha, it is possible to trek from here to Firm Base, Embeong and cross over the Namdapha River (if the water level permits) to complete a circular circuit back to Deban via Camera Point, in about 4-5 days. We headed back to Bulbulia after lunch, to reach before sundown.








This is the last day of your trek, and it is best to start early to cover the entire distance back to the Neo Dhing River and cross over to Deban. It is advisable to reach the riverbank while there are still a few hours of light left. This will help you plan the return journey with your boatman. The water level in the river can rise considerably by the evening, like in the case of any snow-fed river, and more so when it has been raining. This can make the river crossing on the ferry boat quite tricky and may require more than one run if there are over eight persons. Stay overnight at the Forest Rest House at Deban. It is good to have a reliable local agent in Namdapha for booking of circuit houses, local transport, the Deban Forest Rest House and obtaining the necessary permits for visiting Arunachal Pradesh. You can contact Tsering Wange at himalayanholidays. com



Namdapha Facts


Contact the Field Director in advance to inform him about your visit

Postal address Field Director, Project Tiger, Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Miao-792122, Dist Changlang, Arunachal Pradesh

Permits Both Indians and foreigners require entry permits to visit Arunachal, which can be obtained from the Secretary, Govt of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar, or the Resident Commissioner of Arunachal Pradesh, Arunachal Bhavan, New Delhi




Written by Vikram Singh


About the author – Vikram Singh currently runs Wild World India, a wildlife promotion company. He has conducted bird durveys in the North-East, undertaken wildlife explorations in the Western Ghats, spoken on ‘Wildlife Films as a Conservation Tool’ at Sundarbans and is developing Uttarakhand as a premium sport fishing destination through the Mahseer Conservation Society.