Our guest from Japan, Mr. Ken Endo who is a passionate photographer of old steam engines and steam locomotives had found our contact on the internet and he was very much interested in clicking pictures of the World’s Oldest Operational Steam Locomotives – ‘DAVID’ and ‘796’ which are present at Tipong Colliery in the remote easternmost part of Assam. ‘DAVID’ was manufactured in 1851 by by W G Bagnall Ltd. of Stafford, England and was brought to Assam by the British to work at the coal mines of Namdang Colliery. Later on DAVID was transferred to Tipong Colliery to carry coal which was dug out from the underground coal mines and later transported to the dump area at Tipong Chalet in coal tubs. DAVID was used to haul these coal tubs from the mining area to the Tipong Chalet. DAVID used burning coal and water to produce steam that powered its engines to make the requisite movement.Since many years now underground coal mining operations have been halted at Tipong Colliery so DAVID too has now stopped its operations. The Locomotive is now kept protected under a loco shed at Tipong Colliery and periodic maintenance is carried out on the engine and it is kept on regular short runs. Often visitors from across the World and VIPs from the country come to catch a glimpse of DAVID in action – the “Oldest operating Steam locomotive in the World!’
Mr. Ken had started planning his visit on the month of December 2017 from as early as June 2017. He had dropped me a mail regarding his interest in filming DAVID in operation at Tipong Colliery and I assured him that I could take care of the arrangements to make DAVID operational during his time of visit. As DAVID is made to run for visitors only upon specific request, I had to seek approval from the Office of the General Manager – North Eastern Coalfields (CIL) at Margherita to obtain the necessary approvals in order to make the locomotive operational. It was not a tough process keeping in mind that I had spent most of my childhood in that area and most people in the office knew me there. I finally had the approval to get DAVID operational and running on the 1st of January, 2018 as was the scheduled date of arrival of Mr. Ken was on 31st December, 2017.
After completing my other tours in December with guests from USA visiting Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary , I headed to Margherita from Guwahati and began preparations of welcoming Mr. Ken and his friend Kaho at Dibrugarh Airport in Upper Assam. It was the morning of 31st December asn I left at 10 AM to the Dibrugarh Airport from my home at Margherita to receive Ken and Kaho who were scheduled to arrive at the airport at 1PM in the afternoon. I reached the airport at 12.30 PM and went on to the arrival gate to receive them. But to my utter dismay, there was a delay in the flight and the new arrival time was 4 PM. So I had to wait for an additional 3 hours time at the Dibrugarh airport for their arrival. I decided to have lunch and there is a small restaurant at the Dibrugarh airport which is run by some Telugu folks and these people are very well known to make delicious Biryani. Since it was a long wait, I decided to treat myself with the Hyderabadi style chicken biryani. The Biryani was served hot and it was full of aroma and spices. The taste was quite good but the only thing it was a little too spicy for me as we Assamese people do not eat very spicy food. None the less I enjoyed it and the bottle of fanta helped to relieve the feeling on hotness running across my throat.
Finally the flight arrived at 4 PM and after a short wait I was able to meet Ken and Kaho and we alighted in our car and proceeded back to Margherita where they were scheduled to halt for the night at Hotel Royal Treat. We reached the Kundan Dhaba near Chabua and decided to have a cup of tea after their long flight from New Delhi to Dibrugarh. We ordered for 3 cups of black tea. The dup loved the flavor of the tea so much that they asked for another cup of tea each and after finishing our tea we headed for Tinsukia. It was the cold winter season and the sun sets early in this part of the country. It was hardly 5.30 PM and it was already pitch dark. We arrived at the Tinsukia Railway Heritage Park and Museum. Since they were very much interested in various Steam Engines, this museum has on display various Steam Engines from the British Era that plyed across the Dibru-Sadiya Railway which was one of the earliest railways tracks laid in India for the sole purpose of transport of Tea, Oil and Coal as the area of Upper Assam has huge resources of these natural products. We were able to see the Steal locomotives like 781, M G Steam Loco Garratt – 32086 and a few others.
After about an hours time we decided to take leave from the Railway Heritage Park and Museum and head on our journey back to Margherita. We reached Hotel Royal Treat at Margherita at around 7.30 PM. There was a huge new year celebration that was scheduled to happen here tonight to welcome the new year of 2018 and this party was hosted by the local MLA of Margherita. Our rooms here were already booked and we didn’t have much of problems checking in. Ken and Kaho had to fill in the Form C which is a mandate for any any traveller from abroad flying into Assam as this form has to be submitted to the nearest police station as a record of arrival of the guests. I left the Hotel at 8 PM to return home. My new year celebration was to retire early to bed and get up early morning the next day on the new year of 2018.
We scheduled our departure to Tipong from Margherita at 8 AM in the morning from the Hotel. The Breakfast was served a little late so we could manage to leave the Hotel only at 8.30 AM. We headed to Tipong crossing the coal mining areas of Baragolai, Tikak, Ledo and Tirap. After crossing Tirap we reached Lekhapani – the land of the famous Stilwell Road that was built by the American Army during World War II to stop the advance of Japanese forces and to supply resources to China from across Myanmar.We halted for a while at the Stilwell Road Zero Point Park and paid our respects to the soldiers who had laid down their lives during the fierce World War II. At around 10 AM we reached Tipong and we headed to the Tipong Guest House where we had to change our vehicle to head into Tipong Colliery. We were served with cups of tea by the caretaker of the guest house Mr. Naidu who also took in our request for lunch. At around 10.30 we reached inside Tipong Colliery. The entire drive is beautiful crossing dense forests surrounding us and the pleasant smell of tea always welcoming us. Upon arrival we could hear the sound of the roaring engine of DAVID. It was a beautiful sight to see one of the World’s oldest machines still operational and performing in front of our own eyes. We got down from our car and we were greeted by the people of Tipong Colliery. My father had spent a major part of his life here heading the operations of the underground coal mining at Tipong Colliery and hence most of the people new him and me too as his son. I asked Ken and Kaho to get their cameras setup for the photo shoot while i headed to meet the Agent of Tipong Colliery to thank him for all these arrangements made at his office.
When I returned, Ken and Kaho were ready with their cameras an the people operating DAVID were ready to show us DAVID on the run. Since the rail tracks were not proper we couldn’t manage to take DAVID on a long run. The coal to power DAVID had to be brought across from Tikak Colliery as Tipong had no production of underground coal so it too was in short supply. Nonetheless we asked the operator to take DAVID a little backwards and then proceed to bring it forward so that Ken and Kaho could take a perfect click of the Steam Locomotive. They clicked many pictures and after about an hour we decided to wind up. It was the last time DAVID would be in operation for display for guests as the person who was responsible for the maintenance of DAVID for all these years would be retiring shortly from his service and henceforth there is no one else to maintain DAVID. We thanked him for all his efforts and decided to take leave after visiting the entry point of one of the underground coal mines of Tipong Colliery. We witnessed how coal tubs are pulled out from inside a coal mine. We saw how underground rainwater was being pumped out of a coal mine and after a short hike in one of these underground coal mine we decided to leave Tipong Colliery.
We came back to the Tipong Guest House where the caretaker had prepared a delicious lunch for us. The lunch had rice, roti, dal, mixed vegetable curry, chilli chicken, fish curry, salad, curd and pickle. The guests relished the lunch and also asked for a second helping. It was around 2 PM and we decided to move back to Margherita. At Margherita we had planned to visit India’s only Coal Museum that too had on display some very old Steam Locomotives like Shelly, John and Hassang. This one of a kind museum in India was the brainchild of Mr. A K Bora, my father and the Ex-Chief General Manager of NECF who had a long dream of preserving the age old practices of underground coal mining that were used in the Makum Coalfields and also the various heritage of the Stilwell Road and various artefacts of the World War II that was a part of the part of the Margherita area during the Burma campaign of the War. The Coal Museum at Margherita depicts the various practices of coal mining – Underground and Opencast and also has a demo underground coal mine that depicts how workers used to travel deep into the coal mines to extract coal from these mines.
As the people around here knew me we did not have to wait in queue to purchase our tickets and we entered the Coal Museum at Margherita. At first we took our time to see and click pictures of the Steam Locomotives of John, Shely and Hasang that are kept at the entrance of the Coal Museum at Margherita. After spending our time here we went to to visit the various old transformers that are kept on display which were all brought in from England. Later we visited the demo underground coal mine and the model depicting the practice f open cast coal mining. Later we entered the hall of the Margherita Coal Museum where we could see the various methods of coal mining that have been adopted across the World. Later we entered the main hall of the Coal Museum where we were greeted with the statue of Dr. John Berry White who was a pioneer in establishing the operations of the erstwhile AR&T Company who had major operations of Coal mining, Oil drilling, Tea Production and plywood manufacturing in eastern India during the British regime. John Berry White was responsible in establishing India’s first X-Ray unit at the Assam Medical College at Dibrugarh. We continued to explore the Coal Museum at Margherita where we could see a collection of stamps from across the World, the major milestones in the construction of the Stilwell Road, the visit of various foreign guests to this remote part of India, various methods and equipments used in coal mining, various artefacts from World War II like empty bombshells, etc. After about an hour we left the Coal Museum at Margherita.
After this I took them to meet my parents at our home at Dehing Colony in Margherita. My mother and father welcomed Ken and Kaho and they had a short discussion with my father about the various coal mining operations in the area around Margherita. My mother offered them tea and I asked Ken if he wanted to taste the ‘Bhoot Jolokia’ which is the hottest pepper in the World indigenous to Assam and Nagaland. He agreed and I offered him little white rice mixed with the oil and a pod of the Bhoot Joia pickle which we had at home. Ken tried it and it immediately put his tongue on fire with its hotness. He asked for some cold milk to get him to cool down. We decided to head back to our hotel and grab a drink to celebrate. Unfortunately it was the 1st of January and it was a dry day. All the wine stores were closed and we had to wonder across a few roadside dhabas and we somehow managed to buy two small bottles of whiskey at a much higher price that the market rates. We had no option but to buy it and we headed back to out hotel. We ordered our glasses and a started to go along with the drink and we toasted to a job well done of being a part of the final journey of “DAVID – the Oldest operational Steam Locomotive in the World!”
The next day I dropped Ken and Kaho back to the Dibrugarh Airport and we bid goodbye and hoped to meet again sometime soon.