Dodwell Family


                         March 21 2014 

 This is a very well written story of life in Upper Assam in the 60's

by Kim Dodwell who is still enjoying life in Shropshire in England

at the grand age of 89. We are indebted to Kim's son Rick for

sending it for us all to enjoy. Thank you Rick

                          THE ROAD TO LAIKA  

by Kim Dodwell.


I have read that in the 1840s, apart from Sadiya, Upper Assam had three stockaded military camps, joined by a triangle of mule tracks.  Dibrugarth, on the main Brahmaputra has grown and prospered into the District Headquarters town; Jaipur on the Dehing has also grown, although to a lesser extent; only Rungagora, now called Guijan, on the Dibru has remained a small village.


Rungagora’s stockade has long since gone, and troops of the Assam Sebundy Regiment or the Assam Light Infantry no longer march out from it to counter the turbulent Arbors raiding the country along the Brahmaputra to the North, but Guijan’s raison d’etre remains the same – it is the site of the cold weather bridge over the Dibru river (built each winter and regularly washed away in the following April) at the southern end of the 10 mile track that runs almost due north through the 100sq. miles of the Dibru Reserve Forest to Laika on the big river.  It is the only road approach to Brahmaputra in the 40 miles from Dhola-Saithowa in the East to near Dibrugarh in the West.  Down it, once the bridge is opened each year, come tons of fish, maunds of buffalo milk, lorry loads of timber, firewood, cane, ekra, thatch and other forest produce, all destined for the markets of Tinsukia or Dibrugarh.


The month is March, the day Sunday.  An early breakfast and my wife, the dog and I, with the old outboard engine and some food in the boot, are off to Laika. 


Four miles of pot-holed tarmacadam, then another four of dusty gravel, thronged with tea garden labourers off to market in their colourful “Sunday best”, and we are at Guijan.  A crowd is ready collecting at the weekly “hat”, with the fish sellers setting up shop beside the road.  Through them, down the steep slope, to a momentary check at the bridge toll bar.  Not to pay (there is no other way out of the cul-de-sac we are entering and the bridge keeper is sure of his double fare on our return), but to enquire if the road is passable: “Thick hai-first class gari jaega” we are assured.  The car, as  if spurred on by the unaccustomed appellation and determined that, whatever its sins of the past may have been, on this day at least it will not let us down, lurches forward on the 75 yard long crackling, creaking, bamboo matting-and-timber bridge.


The water beneath us is clear but dotted with lumps of floating water hyacinth.  These come from “jengs" – loosely fenced enclosures at strategic points in the river that the fishermen fill with hyacinth at the end of the rains, and into which the fish congregate for refuge.  Before the next rains a long net is put round the jeng, the hyacinth thrown out piece by piece and the fish all caught.  One jeng the size of a tennis court may yield up to half a ton of fish, and there are jengs every few hundred yards along the river.


The Dibru crossed we go for a mile through a scattered hamlet on land recently reclaimed from the forest.  The fisher folk owners’ Sylheti origin shows in their lungis and the humped roofs of the houses.  Past the can mahal, where long lines of ratten cane, stripped of its thorny bark, hangs drying in the sun, and on to the elephant mahaldars camp on the edge of the forest.  He has caught four so far out of the quota of ten.  Patience, skill, wisdom born of experience and, not least, considerable courage is needed by these “phandis” who ride standing upright on the bare backs of their trained elephants, which work in pairs to find and follow the wild herd.  After waiting for perhaps days for a favourable opportunity when the mother’s attention is distracted they noose a likely youngster and hustle it away before the herd realises what is happening.  This is the traditional Assamese method and very different it is from the spectacular South Indian “Khedda”.  The young prisoners are kept closely tied for several weeks until they are accustomed to humans, and then sold off for further training and eventual work in the timber extraction camps in the foothills forests.  We ask the Mahalder where the wild herd is, and having learnt it is not near to the track ahead of us, drive on into the forest.


Until the Great Earthquake the DibruReserveForest was ‘big sticks’ climax forest over most of its area.  On 15th August, l950, in the course of five minutes the hillsides over thousands of square miles of the what was then the North East Frontier Agency were shaken into the bottom of valleys, and the resulting silt raised the beds of many major rivers by 10 feet or more, drowning out millions of trees in the riverine forests.  The trunks of these trees, blackened by later fires which raged in the dead vegetation during the cold weather after the floods had receded, can still be seen in places, giving an eerie impression of desolation, even after 23 years.  The Reserve now is a mixture of primary rains forest still occupying the higher ground, secondary scrub, small trees of pioneer water-tolerant species growing through tick beds of elephant grass (“khagri”) in the lower areas, and innumerable sunken slumps and water courses full of water hyacinth.  The latter and the vigorous Mikania Micrantha creeper which tries to cover everything on the land are both newcomers and were unknown in years gone by: now it is difficult to imagine the area without either Mikania or the hyacinth.


In 2nd and 3rd gear we bump slowly along the earth track, across sandy stretches covered with reed mats, across many small, apparently purposeless “cold weather bridges” raised up over nothing, over undulations that date from 1950 when long stretches of the raised road subsided into a morass.  Sometimes the track is a long straight tunnel through the trees and khagri – not the sort of place to meet wild elephants, but we are relieved to see that the droppings on the road are not fresh.  White breasted waterhens and Jerdons bush chat are the commonest birds in the Khagri beds, but it is when they open out into swampy meadows or river beds, all covered in the ubiquitous hyacinth, that we hope to see more, and are seldom disappointed.  We have kept no list or records, but in about fifty trips to Laika over the past eight years there come to mind; spotbill, common teal, cotton teal, whistling teal, little grebe, bronze winged and pheasant tailed jacana darters, painted snipe, grey, purple, little/green, and night herons, cinnamon bittern, adjutant and white necked storks, the three white egrets, osprey, lesser fishing and spotted eagles, kestrel, hobby, shikra, brahminy kite, pied harrier, buzzard eagle, alpine swift, 3 types of hornbills, 4 types of kingfishers, broad billed roller, crow pheasants, blue throated barbet, piculet, 4-5 different woodpeckers, yellow headed, pied and grey wagtails, hill mynah, black headed oriole, racket tailed drongo, cuckoo shrike, scarlet minivets, Burmese shrike, white browed fantail and verditer flycatchers, white crested, rufus necked and greater necklaced laughing thrushes, 2 tree pies, jungle crow, red jungle fowl, swamp partridge, kalej pheasant, imperial, six types of green, and purple wood pigeons, emerald and long tailed cuckoo dove.  These are some of the more  spectacular; for the patient and dedicated ornithologist there must be scores of warblers, flycatchers, babblers and all the other “little brown birds” to be found in the thickets.  Memories that are particularly vivid for us are the great pelicans, like galleons flying overhead in a stately armada, keeping faultless station in their wide “vee”; a yellow headed wagtail, that most beautiful and graceful of birds when in full spring plumage, viewed from less than 12 feet away as it fed in a roadside puddle while on its way north on migration; the great fishing owl that flew out of the dusk and nearly took our heads off as we stopped on a bridge on the way home one evening.


We are only about sixty miles from the Burma border and we find Smythies’ “Birds of Burma” the most convenient and relevant reference book.


Soon after entering the forest we pass, nailed to a dead tree, a sign – “PROPOSED BIRD SANCTUARY”.  It was there when we first came in 1965.  The elephants have twisted the signs, its lettering almost gone, and the sanctuary is still no more than “proposed” – a pity.


Being Sunday the track is unusually busy, with people walking to the bazaar, carrying baskets full of fish to sell, or forest workers off to get their rations for the next week and enjoy a bottle of rum with their pay.  We overtake a whole village of Assamese on their way to a communal fishing operation in one of the creeks, carrying nets and baskets, meet creaking bullock and buffalo carts laden with cane and ekra heading for the mahaldar’s depot, and while stopping to try to identify a woodpecker, are overtaken by a battered jeep towing a trailer full of empty milk churns – the daily “milk run” to collect buffalo milk from the big herds grazing the Brahmaputra banks for sale in Tinsukia.


Because the track is so well used we are unlikely to see any big animals by day, but away from the road the forest holds wild buffalos (for which this Reserve is well known), sambhur, barking and hog deer, Himalayan black bears, about 200 elephants, a few tigers, leopards, hoolok apes, langurs, pig, and on occasion a peripatetic rhino.


The track heads on, almost due north, and after six long, slow miles through flowering chestnut groves, Forest Department stands of hillock and simul and still more khagri, the forest thins and suddenly we are into clearings, some overgrown, some still clear from last year’s rice crop or recently harvested mustard, showing that we are out of the Reserve.  We meet a party of Miri women, gay in hand-woven reds and oranges, carrying big baskets on their backs slung from head bands, setting out for their daily chore of firewood collection, and in another mile, we can see Laika.


Laika is a typical Miri village, scattered up and down the banks of the Laika creek, with long huts, each holding several families, built of timber, bamboo and thatch up on stilts so as to be above the floods.  Miris are now a river folk, living mainly by fishing and growing rice and mustard along the river banks, and are scattered along the Brahmaputra and its main tributaries in the Upper and Mid-Assam Valley, but not many years ago they were hill men, and a branch of the clan, speaking the same Tibeto-Burman language still lives in the wild mountains of the Subansiri Division of Arunachal (NEFA).  Visitors to Assam arriving by Indian Air-lines can easily spot from the air the plains Miris unmistakable long houses beside the rivers as one flies up the Valley from Guahati.

We slow down to negotiate a stream that is threatening to cut the road, and are immediately surrounded by a crowd of small children, cheerful Mongolian faces grinning as they point and stare.  We do not flatter ourselves – it is the Springer spaniel in the back who is the star, and we are always met with demands that he be let out of the car for them to have a good look at this strange creature.


One more mile and suddenly the horizons fall away and we are out onto a plain of close cropped grass.  In the foreground, 8 feet below us, 200 yards across, and grey-green with snow melt, is a channel carrying about one quarter of the Brahmaputra water.  Beyond it lies a waste of low-sand-and mud banks stretching into the distance, and holding the other channels that, in their progress down the valley, meet and divide, coalesce and bifurcate in a complex aquatic quadrille whose movements vary from year to year.


The sand banks vary from green where grass is already growing through to grey and blinding white.  Far out across the sand to the left a slowly moving carpet of black blobs betokens one of the big herds of buffalos that the Bihari or Nepali Gwalors keep for milk.  One man may own two or three hundred head of these huge beasts, their white socks and chest patch, long hair, thick legs and wide-sweeping horns betraying the big proportion of wild blood in them.  The long, low huts of the Gwalors showing against the skyline are for yarding the young stock until they become less vulnerable to the tigers that, still comparatively common here, hang on the fringe of the herds while they browse in the high kagri until they can find a youngster on its own.  These tigers swim readily and frequently as they cross from island to island, and I have seen tiger tracks on flat wide sandbanks completely devoid of cover, between two quarter mile wide arms of the main river.  In another month herds will be moved to higher ground, but now they are far out in the river’s vast flood-bed, and the rich milk has to be brought in over long distances by boat each morning.


To the right a steep symmetrical mound breaks the skyline, with a plume of smoke from its top like some miniature Vesuvius.  It is the work of the charcoal burner who each autumn as the river falls, spends two months gathering suitable driftwood logs especially prizing the resinous pine trunks that have come down from high hills on the China border.  He laboriously constructs his pyre about fifteen feet high and twice as much round, covers it with mud and sand, sets it alight and then spends the next month skilfully tending and controlling the slow fire.  Too much heat and his charcoal will become useless ash; too little and it will remain almost equally useless wood.  Finally, a few weeks before the floods rise, his cake is baked; the chef opens his oven, loads the results of four months solitary work into bags and takes it off to sell to the dhobis of the town, before returning to his family in Bihar for the rains.


If it is a clear day after rain we will be able to see the half circle of hills to the North, East and South that ring us in.  For years after 1950 they were all pinkish grey in colour from the scars of innumerable landslides, but now they are almost completely grown over with a peacock range of greens and blue, greens that fade to grey in the distance and finally the white of the snows that divide us from Tibet to the North, the Sikang Province of China beyond the Mishmis Hills to the East, and the Patkoi Range of the Tirap Frontier Tract between us and Burma to the South.  More usually however, the air is hazy with the smoke of distant jhum fires in the riverine khagri belts and the sub-montane Arbor Hills, and with the dust storms that sweep across the sand flats, and it is all we can do to make out the line of tall trees that marks the northern edge of the eight mile wide flood bed.  The Northern bank is the Kobo Chapri, famous as a haunt of game where, entirely thanks to its inaccessibility, deer still abound.


The road ends at the river bank which has been sloped off to allow a jeep to board a ferryboat.  The latter calls occasionally by prior arrangement on its irregular voyages from Dibrugarh up to Murkong Selek, Jonai or Sadiya on the North bank of the river.  There is one hut there, belonging to the Miri chowkidar.  He also looks after our old dug-out for us.  We off-load the outboard, and with a prayer that this will not prove to be one of its more temperamental days, putter off upstream.

We never tire of the river; there is always something of interest or beauty or both to be seen.  We start off hugging a tall khagri bank because that is where the deep water is.  Families of little turtles have climbed up onto the branches of drift-wood on the water’s edge to sun themselves, and drop off one by one, “plop-plop-plop”, as we get close.  Dolphins blow lazily, sometimes rising right out of the water in a slow plunge to show their long snouts and slimy grey-brown sides.  We pass two big country boats joined in parallel by a bridge like structure on which is piled a mountain of thatch grass, high, shaggy, top-heavy and almost hiding the boat.  Next comes a log raft: fifty yards square of multi-hued logs bound for Dibrugarh, with two men heaving at their rhythmically creaking oars as they try to move their unwieldy craft in response to the shouts of the look-out perched twenty feet up in a tripod crow’s nest.  If they ground on a shoal they may be stuck for several weeks until the river rises and lifts them off.  The deep resonant Behari voices carry far across the water, contrasting with the soft nasal tenor of the Nepali herdsmen on the bank behind us.


We head North across the river following the deep water in a maze of shallows.  On a nearby sandbank a flock of greater stone curlews watch us warily.  Big birds with grotesquely thick, clumsy, beaks that make them seem some relation of the pterodactyl.  They rise with a flicker of black and white against their predominant russet, giving a soft sweet whistle strangely out of character with their ugly appearance.


A pair of Brahminy ducks, ever alert, get up at a distance and circle us honking their far-carrying call that is half goose’s, half duck’s.  An osprey flies over with determined, regular wing beats, scanning the water below for a fish to dive upon.  Terns fill the air with their clamour as they fly, cork-buoyant in the air, to the next shoal of fingerlings.  Ahead we see a big raft of duck sleeping in a still back-water, but the noise of the engine has alerted them, and long before we get within range they are up and away.  Mainly spotbills, this lot, but a flock of pintails is with them and a spring of teal.  The pintails, as if mindful of their reputation as the fastest flying duck, soon draw ahead of the ponderous spotbills, and the little teal weave among them like fighters escorting bombers.  Some of the pintails and teal have been here all winter, but most of them are passage birds, on their way north from the plains of Bengal; they rest for a few days, safe out on the open river, and then continue their long journey up the gorges through the mountains of the north to the far-off lakes and marshes of Tibet and Mongolia, where their instinct tells them the ice is already melting.  Sometimes we see wild geese, which may be either grey lags of bar-headed.  They too, are on migration, stopping to rest on a mud bank or graze on the young grass shoots appearing on the higher flats.


We now come to the area where we used to see the big, fish eating gharial alligators.  Four of them, the biggest, a full twenty feet long, would come out of the water on clear days to sun themselves on a mud bank, lying with wide open mouths for hours on end, and always in the same place.  This predictability must have been their undoing, as we have not seen them for the past four years and the Miris tell us that “shikaris” shot them, no doubt from driftwood hides similar to that from which we found it so easy to watch and photograph them.  A great pity.  These harmless and most interesting of reptiles are now rare in Upper Assam where previously they were widespread in the bigger rivers.


After an hour and a half of motoring, broken by spells of pushing off or over shoals and a short stop to replace a safety-pin broken on a submerged driftwood stump, we reach the sandy island covered with tall khagri that we have been heading for.  Deep in the tall grass is a secret lagoon, once a running channel of the river but now land-locked, and still, about three hundred yards long and fifty wide.  Some duck prefer this to the open river; perhaps they tire of being washed or blown down-stream too far and having to rise and fly up again every half hour or so, or perhaps the boatmen disturb them too much.  Whatever the reason, about a hundred duck are always here; mostly spotbills and gadwell, but I have also seen mallard (strangely uncommon and local in Assam), pintail, common teal, red crested and white eye pochard, and tufted duck here.  We creep forward towards the sound of muted quacks, moving slowly to avoid being cut by the sharp-edged grass, collecting ticks and leeches on the way, but it is worth it.  From behind a convenient termite mound we look down onto what might be a scene from Slimbridge.  After watching for a while, I step forward and put them up.   They make off after circling, but the spotbills are soon back, offering easy shots, and with four of these fat tasty duck for the pot we go back to the boat, leaving the other to return to their sanctuary unmolested.


We eat our sandwiches on the bank.  It was from this spot a fortnight earlier that we had watched three Pallas’s Fishing Eagles catch an unfortunate grey heron over the middle of the river, harry it by repeated feint attacks until it was over the land and then quickly kill it.  Through the glasses it seemed that the two adult eagles were teaching one in mottled brown, immature, plumage to hunt, although it was the big female that ate the victim while the smaller male and the youngster sat on the sand nearby and watched – women’s lib triumphant!”


Today there are neither herons nor eagles to be seen, but we watch a great crested grebe fishing offshore until it seems to remember an appointment elsewhere and with frantically beating wings and racing, pattering feet, it takes off like some overweight seaplane that requires a maximum run to get airborne, flying off just above the surface until its pied wings are lost in the cloud of sand blowing across the river upstream of us.

 We wait, in spite of the sand, until punctually, just on four o’clock, the “basa” fish start to rise in their favoured place, where a side current comes into the mainstream.  The shoal jumps and splashes on the surface, and when we start casting the local “spider” lures (deadly, multi-hooked monstrosities that would give the purist apoplexy) first one, and then another, and finally ten of these most edible mackerel-like fish weighing between half and one-and-a-half pounds are in the bottom of the boat.

Then it is “Up anchor”, and we are homeward bound.  The setting sun tints scattered clouds far to the west, the reflections down the length of the river making a scene that Peter Scott could not have bettered, and to complete the picture a wide “vee” of cormorants comes beating up the river heading for their roost.  Away to the North range upon range of foothills show up a clarity of separate outline that is never present in full daylight, the nearer hills a deep blue-green, each range successively lighter in colour, through blue-grey to the palest lavender in the far distance.

We reach the ferry landing just as the light has left the river, and unload the boat.  Before starting off we light a fire on the river bank, brew a kettle and watch the moon come up.  From out across the water a brahminy duck calls its far-carrying, ghostly cry and then  there is a sudden whisper of wings, rising quickly to an urgent whicker and then as quickly dying and gone, as a flight of pochard from off the river pass over, invisible, heading for their night’s feeding on some deep bheel in the forest.  We sit for a while looking into the flames, skins burnt by the sun and dried by the wind.  I wonder whether we will see anything on the slow journey back through the Reserve, and recall the time we followed a big male leopard in the bottom gear for a quarter of a mile as he walked straight down the middle of the track, apparently oblivious of the following headlights; of the herd of elephants that crossed just ahead of us the previous year, as we sat and debated what to do should they stop or come towards us; of the woodcock we once saw probing in the mud of the road after a wet spell.

From the khagri thickets behind us a hog deer calls once only, short and sharp, and then is quiet.  We get up stiffly, tired but content.  It is time to go.