Help Tourism and the Chilapata Jungle Camp
Help Tourism is an award winning tourism agency headquartered in Siliguri. It was founded in 1991 by a group of young men who had a vision of eco tourism which was rooted in the local ecology and wanted to involve the local stakeholders in the process of development. One of the founders of this unique movement was Raj Basu who I am proud to call my friend. Raj has been instrumental in guiding this group to the success story that they are today. They have received many accolades, awards from many influential tourist groups and have had the honour of being one of groups included by the National Geographic as the best adventure tourism groups in the world. They have put North Eastern India in the map of adventure tourism and they have made it possible for many well known scientists and birders to work in this area. If you look up any report of a bird watching expedition in this region, you are very likely to find that it was organised by Help Tourism.
The most important part of their work has not been to showcase the riches of North Eastern India to the world. Though this work is important, they have been even more successful in enabling local people to take charge of the tourism projects and to benefit from it. Not only have they made it possible for tourists from around the world to enjoy the region, they have worked at ground level to train local people, help them to organize themselves and to enthuse them with the possibilities that exist in tourism sector to make their livelihood. As an inevitable corollary, they have thus been involved in mobilizing the locals to save their environment, their trees and animals and their way of life. It is heartwarming to see them in action and they are one of the most useful and important NGOs working in North Eastern India today.
One of the byproducts of their work has been the development of many destinations in the lease known forests of the region where it is possible to enjoy the sadly less known forests of North Bengal and to enjoy the local hospitality and have a wonderful holiday. One such spot is the Chilapata Forest where they have partnered with Bua or Ganesh Chandra Sah, to give him his full moniker, to develop the Chilapata Jungle Camp. We spent all too brief a period in this camp a couple of weeks ago and can testify to the success of the approach that Help Tourism has pioneered.
Bua’s father used to run what was a dhaba in this place. It was then called Shibji ka Dhaba, and was a popular drinking hole for people from Cooch Behar. But with the help of Help Tourism, His son Bua has managed to set up an eco friendly tourist destination which is about a hundred yards from the Chilapata forest. The camp has two types of accommodation, some cottages built on stilts and two typically Bengali huts which, however boast of all the basic amenities that are needed. If you are looking for luxurious accommodation with a swimming pool and three restaurants you will have to go elsewhere, but if you are the type who likes to eat local grown produce, sample the fish from the nearby Torsa river or the pond that Bua maintains in the premises itself and like to wake up to birdsong and the sight of entrails of fog slowly moving away to expose the forest, this is where you need to come.
The camp, as I said, in just a stone’s throw away from the forest proper; and when paddy ripens in the adjacent fields, elephants are their constant companions. At this time of the year the ever present signs of their presence notwithstanding, most of the elephants confine themselves to the forest. The jungle can be visited using jeeps which are accompanied by local guides. Our guide, a local lad called Jayanta Talukdar, was knowledgeable and seemed to have a feel for the denizens of the forests where he had grown up. He was able to predict the movements of a rhino we had spotted in the grasslands of the Torsa and positioned us perfectly so that we could see it cross the road just in front of us. We were lucky in that we were able to spot gaur, elephants as well as the rhino. In these forests one is normally not as lucky because the animals are shy and the forests are often impenetrable.
The best part of the Chilapata forest is the watch tower that overlooks the Torsa River. The Jaldapara Sanctuary can be seen just across the broad river bed and the grasslands are the home of the rhino. Several species of birds were present, though one would have expected more migratory species. Perhaps we were too late to catch them.
The best part of the Jungle camp, ok, one of the best parts is the food. Served on brass utensils the way we used to eat in village homes generations ago, the food is tasty and fresh. The vegetables are grown in their own gardens and the fish is procured for m the Torsa, and one morning we also ate fish that had been caught moments ago from the Camp’s own pond. This was how the people of Bengal lived in those days before life became so complicated!!
The only problem is of course the roads. They are execrable, though, like the curate’s egg, ok in parts. The total lack of any attention to the well being of the people of North Bengal on the part of the State Government becomes clear when we travel these roads; in many places there are no roads, just a collection of potholes. Why this should be so, year after year after year is something for the local administration to answer. They are deafeningly quiet.
The local hospitality is also very touching. All the workers have been recruited locally and trained with the help of Raj Basu’s team. This has resulted in good service, comparable to those obtained in more sophisticated places with the local touch that makes staying here comparable to visiting your village home that never was!
In subsequent visits I plan to see more of the places Raj has helped to set up. Until then, I can easily award 10/10 to the Chilapata Jungle camp.
There is superb article by Raj Basu of Help tourism on the founder of this property here.