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    Friday, March 14, 2008

    Lawachara Rain Forest & Sreemangal, February-March 2008

    29 February – 01 March 2008

    It’s a real pity that I only heard of Lawachara last year (2007). I believe I’m quite an informed person as I do maintain my contacts and do go around the Net a lot. There are lots of other people who are much less informed than me. This only shows how poorly this place was marketed. And it gives me a lot of pain thinking that I couldn’t visit this place before. What a shame.

    I had been planning to go to Lawachara for several months. But wasn’t quite prepared somehow. Waited a while for a big telephoto lens which I could use over there shooting wildlife. The lens finally arrived in February and I thought I was ready. But what’s so special about Lawachara?

    Lawachara is one of the last remaining chunk of rain forest in Bangladesh. Lawachara National Park is located approximately 160 km northeast of Dhaka, 60 km south of the city of Sylhet in the civil administrative units of Kamalganj Upazilla, Maulvibazar District – about 10 kilometers from the town of Srimangal. The Park incorporates the southern and eastern parts of West Bhanugach Reserved Forest, within Lawachara, Chautali and Kalachara Beats, Moulvibazar Range, Sylhet Forest Division. The area was formally established as a National Park in 1996, incorporating an area of 1,250 hectares. Many of the large mammal species have long since disappeared from the Park area (e.g. tigers, leopards, bears, wild dogs, and sambar) probably as a combined result of hunting and habitat fragmentation. However, viable populations of many small and medium sized mammal species that can survive in disturbed or secondary habitats (e.g., jackals, small cats, barking deer, wild pigs) still remain. The Park also supports important populations of; gibbons, langurs and macaques. Two of these (hoolock gibbon and capped langur) are key indicator species for the development and implementation of conservation measures here. The Park and adjacent Reserved Forest support a documented avifauna of 337 species, one third of the total bird species known from Bangladesh. The avifauna includes a large number of species that are dependent on dense ground cover and undergrowth (47 species) and/or forest cover (175 species). The Park is also thought to support a rich diversity of other faunal groups (reptiles, invertebrates, some fishes and amphibians). However, very little information on these groups is currently available. Finally, the Park is drained by a number of small, sandy bedded streams, all of which dry up following the end of the rainy season in October November. Although limited in extent, aquatic habitats and riparian (streamside) vegetation are important elements of overall habitat composition. Both of these elements are thought to harbor specialized plant and animal species although inventories are incomplete.

    There are several other similar forest areas near Lawachara. Satchari National Park and Rema-Kalenga Wildlife Sanctuary are two such forest areas nearby. But those two areas are some distance behind Lawachara in terms of development for ecotourism. This is the main reason behind selection of Lawachara as my first venture into the world of rain forests.

    I had been out of the country for several days in February, so, I had to plan the whole tour before I could leave for the foreign tour. While I was looking for partners to accompany me in this venture, I got lucky that one of my colleagues had exactly the same plan for exactly the same time. So, without any delay I started to organize the tour. As my flight was on the 22nd, I had to bring everything into place by the 21st. I had a great ally in my wife’s uncle (“Khalu-Shoshur”) who happens to be a big voice in the tourism industry, Mr. Jamil Ahmed. He assured me of everything. Thus I was able to fly without any worry. The date was set at 29th of February.

    My colleague Lipu had two friends confirmed along with him. They were all very fit guys, unlike me. They climbed the highest hill in Bangladesh, the Tajindong in Bandarban district. My wife’s little brother Riad was accompanying me along with my childhood friend Saadi and my para friend and choto bhai Aurnab. My uncle had already set a guide for us, Mr. Khurshed, whom we were supposed to take with us. We were going by Shyamoli Paribahan bus, starting at 8:00AM from Sayedabad Bus Terminal. Before our journey could start, one of Lipu’s friends dropped out because of office duty. So, we were seven souls traveling: Lipu, Shajeeb (Lipu’s friend), Saadi, Riad, Aurnab, our guide Khurshed and poor old me. After a bit of mismanagement by Shyamoli Paribahan, we ended up scurrying for the bus at around 8:10AM. Anyway, it was a start at long last. The journey got stuck up in long traffic congestion and this lengthened the journey by almost an hour.

    Lawachara_The_Journey.........01
    Journey by bus..............

    Lawachara_The_Journey.........02
    Somewhere in Narayanganj.......

    Even though Lawachara is in Kamalganj Upazilla, we had to stay at Srimangal, because that is the nearest developed area to Lawachara. From there, Lawachara is around 8km road journey. On our way to Srimangal, we could gather some glimpses of the hilly plantations. This place is not new to me, but my last visit here was quite a while back, so the place beckoned to me like I had never seen it before. It is Spring, so, the trees are yet to gain their beautiful colours. Yet, it was a nice experience witnessing the transition of nature. The tea, rubber and pineapple plantations are all showing off their long struggle with a harsh winter. Even though the winter never reaches its extremes like in northern countries, a lowest temperature of 4-5 degrees Celsius is not uncommon. That said, we reached Srimangal; and it was already past 11:00AM.

    Sreemangal................03
    A partial view of Sreemangal town; the Habiganj Road

    Our guide took us to Tea Town Guest House on Habiganj Road. We jammed in a bigger room and felt quite happy about it. After a refreshing bath, we said our Friday prayers and finished our lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was beyond 3:00PM when we gathered around to plan for the rest of the day. Khurshed Bhai gave us an idea about visiting some lake nearby. This was out of our original plan though. We had originally envisaged a short trip to Lawachara on the first day. But the light left for the day didn’t seem enough for a trip to Lawachara. But we still kept the plan for an evening trip to Lawachara after finishing off the tour to the lake. Anyway, the lake looked a little far as well, as far as the time to sundown was concerned. A 45 minute journey would leave us very little time to have a look around. Khurshed Bhai didn’t see a lot of profit with us, so he decided to leave the job of guiding to another guy. A bit of persuasion from us wasn’t enough to take Khurshed Bhai with us. But he arranged for us an old Jeep for around Tk 850 for the whole round trip. The trip to the lake included a visit to a unique tea preparation shop, that is reputed to produce a tea that contains five layers of different colours. But we had to drop the plan for the evening trip to Lawachara.

    Sreemangal................06
    Speeding through.......

    Sreemangal................09
    Through the Tea Estates..........

    Sreemangal................07
    Pineapple plantations.......

    Sreemangal................10
    Betel Nuts........

    Sreemangal................01
    Tea plants.......

    We started off through the numerous tea estates and soon found out that our driver was not too informed about the road to the lake. He took numerous help from the passersby and also took numerous wrong turns before he finally brought us at Madhobpur Tea Estate. It was already around half past four when we reached there. We parked our vehicle and noticed some tourists. That gave us some idea about the popularity of the place. It’s a tourist place alright. A little bit of walk was required before we found a higher, but flat place. That’s our lake, the Madhobpur Lake. The lake’s water plane is higher than the surrounding land. It’s surrounded by hills on most sides. The hills are all under tea cultivation. This is not the green season, so the trees and tea garden looked a little dull. Our guide informed us that it’s around 3 km in length. The sun was setting on the other end of the lake. Our team took to the top of the surrounding hill on the left bank of the lake. I took the base of the hill and continued through the winding path edging the lake. The lake bed was decorated with lotus on numerous places. The sides not surrounded by hills were fenced by some nice trees. As I walked, I could see the reflection of the trees from the other bank on the lake. I climbed the shallow hills on the other side and continued to use the camera. I could see some birds flying around. They looked like migratory ducks. But our guide told us that these ducks are of local origin and they can found in nearby waters almost all year round. Of course during the winter months migratory birds increase the bird population of this place. I was just thinking about the number of birds that we would able to see at Lawachara.

    Madhobpur Lake................05
    Madhobpur Lake seen from the shallow hills on the south side.........

    Madhobpur Lake................03
    Madhobpur Lake is well-decorated by lotus......

    Madhobpur Lake................01
    Madhobpur Lake seen from the west bank........

    A Sreemangal Sunset................01
    No journey is complete without a sunset picture. Sunset at Sreemangal............

    The sun was setting on the lake. We took to the top of the shallow hills and came back to the back where we had started. The hills had the lake on one side and a sparse forestry and shallow hills on the other side. We boarded the vehicle and again took to the road through the tea estates. The evening fading lights produced the dreamy fog through the distant trees in the tea estates. We simply had to come out of the Jeep to take some snaps. It was already quite dark. So photography was a bit tricky without a tripod. Anyway, we were again on our way. Destination was the famed five-layered-tea. Before long we arrived at a place teeming with people. It looked like an open air restaurant. There were many tourists coming in by a lot of vehicles. It looked like rush hour and we had to place our order quick. An order produces the tea in front of you after around one hour. There are different types of preparations. The difference was in number of layers. Each layer costs Tk 10. We went for the highest number of layers and ended up paying Tk 50 for each cup.


    Nilkantha Tea Cabin

    Can you count five layers??

    After waiting almost half and hour, our tea finally came. Our curiosity reached the limit. We could actually count the five layers! There was a brief photo session for the cups. And then we started off. The top layer tasted a bit spicy. The other layers were not too easy to identify through taste. The second last one tasted like lemon though. The cups were empty and excitement, well, not as high as it was when we started. It seemed like exploring something new. It no longer seemed new when the cup was empty. The taste didn’t seem as exciting as the view of the cup itself. We were told that the guy was offered a lot of money to sell his formula, which he declined. Whatever the case, he seemed to have a good business running now.

    We were on our way back to Srimangal after the exciting tea break. On our way back we saw some kind of weird cultural program being held at the local Shaheed Minar (monument for the Language Movement of 1952). The program forgot the very thing that it was being held at such an important monument. Anyway, as soon as we were back, we had hardly anything to do. It was around 8:00PM. We decided to finish off our dinner before we freshened up totally, because that would make us feel the toil of the journey. A local restaurant was again the place. But this dinner was worse than the lunch we had at the other restaurant. But the dinner was enough to fill our stomach and let us catch some sleep. We walked around for a while getting an idea about the small town’s life and then went back to the hotel. The tiredness of tour didn’t put us to sleep too early though. We had a gossip until quite late, even though our target was to see the first light at Lawachara. We had already confirmed the same Jeep to take us there before the clock hits six. The Jeep was supposed to come by around quarter past five. It was our duty to board the vehicle before 5:45AM if we had wanted to see sunrise at Lawachara.

    We were six people in one room, using only one bathroom; so, there was no way we could get ready that quickly. Our concern about the ride was soon replaced by the concern about our own timing. After a busy day and a late night sleep, it was almost too much of a task for most of us to jump out of bed. But at least, we were out of the room before the clock could hit six. But when we were boarding the Jeep, we could easily realize that we were a bit late. The sky had already started to clear up. We jammed into the vehicle and raced through the beautiful setting of tea estates. The foggy morning was yet to wake up among the tall shading trees of the tea gardens. It was a dreamy sight. Some of us were interested enough to even get down to get some decent shots. But we had our eyes fixed on our prize. We knew that a small delay here could ruin our very purpose of early rising. The race was on; a race with time, through an empty road.

    It wasn’t too long before the tea estates were replaced by trees; their height and their density both began to increase fast, until, before long, we found ourselves turning the headlights on! This is where the real thrill started. We found ourselves completely surrounded by giant trees on both sides of the road. These tall and ancient trees were trying their best to delay sunrise here. All of us in the vehicle were awed by this brilliant setting of nature and began to count the moments to our freedom from this mechanical confinement.

    Lawachara_Canopy...........01
    The awe-inspiring canopy

    Lawachara_Trail...........05
    The giants of nature........

    Lawachara_Trail...........07
    The ancient..........


    The map of Lawachara National Park

    We jumped out of the vehicle by about quarter past six. We knew that the sun was already up; but this is a place where nature has her own rules, and the sun has to go by that rule too. Anyway, we began to proceed through the unguarded roadblock that had some mobile tollbooth attached to it. We carefully looked at the map and took the way to the left, which was supposed to lead us to the three-hour trail. There were forest range offices, but hardly anyone there. One or two souls walking here and there, but none asked anything. So, we took our own way, taking the maps in our cameras. We could now see the railway that goes through here. When we just arrived at the gate, we could hear a train. Just across the railway, two trails get divided. The right one was obviously our way. But these road dividers didn’t end so quickly. There were more divisions ahead, with no direction sign anywhere. The maps unfortunately don’t reveal all the trails and sub-trails that create all the confusion. But as the map showed we were supposed to go right in order to reach the other end of the trail at Bagmara. Thus “go right” was the policy we took for the tour.

    Lawachara_Trail...........09
    Everyone takes this shot; so I did too....... :)

    The forest had its own sounds and smells. It was quite as anything and at the same time, it was noisy as anything. There is nothing here that makes any unnatural sound expect us. We could hear the dews falling; on the leaves and on the sandy trail itself. It was not short of a drizzle! We could feel that we had missed the sunrise. Life here starts early and goes by the clock of the nature, if you miss that clock, there’s no way rewinding it. Even though the sun was up, it was still gloomy in the trail. The sun was still not high enough to reach the top of the trees. Seemed like a twilight zone. Our cameras struggled with the lower than ideal light. We could hear the birds; many of them actually. When I say many, I mean many types. I haven’t never heard that many types of birds singing at the same time. Almost all the singing seemed alien to me. But the most interesting part of it was that we could hardly see any bird! I had my big lenses ready to shoot birds; had set up the tripod at numerous places. But where are the birds? I could hear them. Some of them can be seen jumping around the top branches of the tallest trees! Even a massive 500mm lens was finding it difficult to bring the birds closer! They were simply too far away! It wasn’t too long before I realised the amount the patience I need to shoot birds here. That would curtail the time needed to see the whole place. So, I had to sacrifice my photography to go forward.

    Lawachara_Trail...........10
    In some places sunlight really struggles to come in.......

    Lawachara_Nature...........03
    This is a Rain Forest........ dew stays for a while.......

    The trail took us through some of the densest forests I had seen. Some places are so dense that it feels like twilight there, even though the sun was well up by then. There were small streams across the trail every now and then, which were more or less empty of any substantial flow of water. But we could see some small fishes in those starved-off streams. Many types of flowers decorated the path and butterflies tried hard to improve the decoration even farther. Lots of different types of undergrowth offered lots of macro photography opportunities. By I had to be satisfied with a few as I had to lose my macro equipment to others in the group. I was frustrated with the lack of tele shooting opportunities even though I was carrying the massive weight of the big tele lens. Many insects could also be seen making their marks on the sides of the trail. The trail was sometimes going up or down rather than just carrying on monotonously. As the sun began to hit the top branches, the insects increased their tone. It was almost like a change of volume along with the intensity of sunlight!

    Tropical Dreamlights.............01
    Tropical Dreamlights............

    Lawachara_Nature...........05big
    Lawachara_Nature...........05

    Lawachara_Nature...........01
    Lawachara_Nature...........01

    This is a forest and there is wildlife to be seen. And all on a sudden our eyes caught some movements. Black Squirrels were jumping between branches. They were making some unique noises. These squirrels are somewhat rare I had learned. We spent some time trying to get some decent photo of these creatures, but no chance. We had to move along. It was already past three hours in this three-hour trail. We were moving pretty slowly. We had a little bit breakfast that we took with us, though it wasn’t enough considering the amount of walking we were doing.


    Meet Paan Rani......

    Alas! That’s an elephant! It was a real surprise to see an elephant coming towards us. But there was a man guarding it. And seemed like the animal was friendly enough to him. We approached this “Paan Rani” and took some snaps in the low light. Avoided any camera flash though. Riad was really interested in her and touched her going close. Others were happier staying a little farther down. The animal wore a large sickle on one of its feet. But this is one heck of a strong animal, which you can never trust with 100% certainly. Paan Rani left us in no time. And we proceeded.


    The Team........

    We stopped at a divider once again and contemplated. A sudden movement in the nearby trees revealed several Langurs. We went quiet all on a sudden. Set up cameras and observed. The Langurs were playing the branches, but they didn’t bother to show themselves to us. We only saw them behind a forest of leaves. And had to be satisfied with that one! But it was at least one success finding some wildlife around here. Riad tried to go really close to the animals to get some reasonable shots; but in vein. These creatures, along with most others are increasingly becoming rare. We were yet to get a sight of any Gibbons. That would’ve been the real prize of the tour. Khurshed Bhai told us that if we were lucky, we could see a whole family of them. But so far we didn’t seem that blessed. Their habitat is under tremendous threat now. The canopy is degrading and without the canopy, these severely endangered animals cannot survive. Already they are down to their bare minimum numbers, making them one of the 25 most endangered species in the world.

    Lawachara_Nature...........07
    Lawachara_Nature...........07

    Lawachara_Nature...........06big
    Lawachara_Nature...........06

    Anyway, after watching the Langurs for a while, we decided to go straight instead of going right. The canopy began to fade away fast in this direction. And there were people up front. No sooner they spotted us, we could hardly see their traces. They were off in a flash. They were loggers. This is the Reserved Forest part of Lawachara. We were officially out of the boundaries of National Park. The NP is well protected it seems. But this area doesn’t seem like having any potential to last more than several years! Already there’s hardly any canopy left and still the loggers are at it. And definitely there is a need for protection. We saw numerous cut stems beside the trail. This indicated that these were cut in a hurry and needed to make it as convenient as possible.

    Lawachara_Evidence.............01B&W
    Evidence of destruction.......

    We saw more than one effort going on to cut trees here. People fled at the sight of us. We had heard that these people are indeed locals. And I didn’t get too much evidence to suggest otherwise. We didn’t see any industrial level logging. Only scattered efforts. These are poor people from the neighbourhood, not satisfied with their current level of earnings. We were depressed, but we felt lucky to have witnessed the real picture. If we were to have taken the right track, we probably wouldn’t have seen these misdeeds. These small efforts of these small people can be the difference between our future generations being able to see rain forest and not seeing it at all.

    Lawachara_Nature...........04
    Lawachara_Nature...........04

    Lawachara_Portrait............01
    Bagmara villager...... hard life; but still can smile........

    Lawachara_Portrait............03
    Hiding from the lenses, are you??

    We were tired like hell. Its been almost five hours since we started. At around 11AM we arrived at a village called Bagmara. We rested a bit there. The villagers told us that we needed to walk a couple more miles before we could reach the main road. We were thus off once again. Walking through a village setting now. No forest here. We walked and walked. The village roads are winding. They never go straight and touch almost every house in the area. These winds increase the length of the journey by several folds.

    Lawachara_Portrait............09
    Village smiles..........

    Like finding an oasis, we arrived at a small stream. We decided to wet our feet for a while. The water was really cool and provided a nice relief to the otherwise tiring journey. We were off again and by around 11:45AM we reached a small village shop and decided to rest a bit. Lipu discovered that he left his glasses somewhere near the stream. So some of us rested in the increasingly crowding shop, while others went with Lipu to recover his specs. Lots of village children gathered to watch us. We took some tea, caught some well-earned rest and did some photo session with them and decided to leave the place by around 12:20PM. Yet another walking streak followed. And by around 1:00PM we reached the rail line. The line was crossed by a village road that everyone said leads to the main road. We could hardly rest. Once again the village road followed. But in the end when we could see the road, we found that we were simply making it tougher for us by going along the village road. We decided to go off track; through the dried-out paddy fields.

    Lawachara_Portrait............05
    Curious??

    Lawachara_Portrait............07
    Just back from school...........


    Riad and friends........

    We reached the main road by 1:40PM and found a bus. Our tired bodies had found the heaven that we had been looking for. The shelter was more than enough to put us to sleep. We drooled to Srimangal within a short time. We left our stuff to the hotel and finished off the lunch in a hurry. We knew our bus was at 6:45PM. That left us enough time to touch the bed for a while. This was one of the most desired sleeps I ever had. Over seven hours of walking took the price of this nap to the highest level. We don’t know what happened during the next couple of hours. By 6:00PM we were out of bed and rushing for the rest room. We called Khurshed Bhai for the last time and he helped settle the room rent to a more tolerable level. The bus stop was very close by. So, without a trouble we reached there and before we could wait, we boarded the bus. It was really timely.

    Thus ended the fascinating tour to an amazing place. I could hardly do any photography there. Yet that didn’t make this journey a failure for me. Lawachara remains in my memory as one of the most beautiful places I ever visited. This is a place so unique and rare that I cannot wait before I can make yet another visit there. I can still see the high canopy and hear the dewdrops. I hope to take my patience with me the next time I go there. Perhaps a little more nature photography can result from such a tour.

    9 comments:

    1. I won't make any comment about any specific photo but I really appreciate the overall way of presenting the event as a pictorial travelogue. There is a story and it is told as is, no sugarcoat; very specific and blunt.

      Photos are completely anti aestheticized to a point where only the flesh remains and that focused me to look into the photo journalistic narrative from a very neutral point, I can create my own construct out of it and still enjoy it as much as you did.

      Stylistically the album is not flashy, it will never be a part of a poster or a calender neither it will ever be my desktop background because you cannot separate a single photo from the bunch and make sense of it. It didn't turn into a botany or zoology class full of bugs, butterflies and flowers it reflects the fragility of man-nature symbiotic relationship through camera.

      I always believe that enormity of a place like this ( or any other landscape ) cannot be captured by a photography only medium that can get close to do that is Cinema. This album didn't even dared to do that but quite the opposite, it talks about the delicacies of different relations in a natural landscape, it shows the whole as fragments that makes storyline very elusive, it compels me to go there and see it for myself and I think that's why this travelogue is so successful.

      Andalib

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    2. A very well written. Thanks for sharing. I have visited Lawachora several times..but ur pics again unleashed the beauty of this great Rain Forest

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    3. i think u've done a great job...i am bookmarking yr page and next time i intend to go anywhere...i surely will visit this page first hand...many thanx to u.

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    4. I just came today morning at 4:30 AM in Dhaka after having 1 day short trip of Lawachara Rainforest (4 hours tracking) + Madhuppur Lake + 5 layer Tea. :)

      Btw. you post is more detail. Hope it will help me for the next time plan! :) Thanks bro for the great post! :D

      Really enjoyed tracking this time though it was very short planned.

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    5. Its Sharif... your post helped me a lot while visiting in Sylhet. Our driver didn't know where is lawachara then i searched in Google and find your blog..... thanks a lot........

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    6. It is sure that u have done a great job...
      i am pleased of ur work and also bookmarking yr page and tell my others to visit this site.Thanks bari for ur grate job.next time hope u will add more pic and details of others location's...many than'x to u.

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    7. It's a great job!
      I like and appreciate your writing skill, photography and mainly the way of your thinking.

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    8. fatafati...................

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    9. great!! I'm a person of sreemongal...but i don't know that my sreemongal is so beautiful...I can know it just now from u and yours......

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