We took the early morning flight on Jet. Couldn't get an upgrade, so Mohan kindly offered to sit in the middle seat in cattle class and I sat in style in business class,looking out of the window as my home city slipped away. Couldn't recognize any landmarks in Delhi though!
Indu, Subhash and Rohan Sankhla were waiting for us at Delhi airport, having arrived by a different flight from Bangalore.…a pleasant surprise was that the temp was only 28 deg when we landed. We went outside to find our car and driver….the driver apparently was holding a board that said "Bharat Bhushan"instead of "K.Mohan", and Subhash had to ring him up to identify him. The driver, Surinder Bal, had also been told that the above-mentioned Bharat Bhushan would be spending all 10 days in Nainital. We more still wondering whose booking we actually got, and whether the real Bharat Bhushan ever found his car and went to Naini Tal !
We sailed out on the beautiful highway away from Delhi….and soon hit the hills (figuratively I mean, Surinder was a consistently excellent driver throughout, with superb stamina.) We soon realized that our plan was terribly ambitious, for hill driving speeds can only average 20 to 30 km per hour, But the air got cooler and cooler and purer and purer….at about 9 pm, we reached Haldwani, and phoned up the Club Mahindra Binsar resort (How miraculous it was, to be able to reach the resort on the phone, we only realized later.) The reception there actually asked us not to come the same day but to stay at Haldwani and come the next day. But we decided to press on…and reached Binsar at nearly midnight. Our driving time was not helped by the fact that the Sankhlas are not used to long stretches of hill driving, and we kept having to stop so that one or the other of them could deposit parts of their meals on the hillsides!
We hadn't been able to get accomodation in the main resort, but had to unload our luggage and take it, in two trips, up a chillingly steep and rutted, pitted road for about 3 km to the "Manipur Estate", where there is a building with 3 rooms, a common hall and a common kitchen…and yet another 50 steep steps up a hill, to the last two rooms which really reminded me of "The Princess in the Ivory Tower"…If only I had the length of hair that I used to have, I could have played Rapunzel from my room window! We crashed, quite exhausted.
A note about the Club Mahindra Resort at Binsar…it is a nice property, but the food and service definitely lag behind resorts like Munnar. The staff delight in telling you what can't be done, and service is definitely not their motto. For example, the path up to the Manipur Villa could easily be marked and would make a fun "trek" for families staying at the main resort; but they choose not to do it. Also, Mahindras could have (in view of the fact that Mahindras are also into automobiles!) have at least a second jeep, and have regular (say, once an hour) trips between the two properties, instead of the present random and bone-rattling arrangement. The resort also depends on one single phone line that gets shut off at the first drops of rain, and then the resort is cut off, and the Manipur estate is completely isolated too. Surely they could have some wireless arrrangements in this day and age. The staff at the Manipur villa keep the common kitchen in a completely dirty state and are happy to tell you that they can't contact the main resort for anything because the line has been cut off.
The next morning, I awoke and thought that it must be 6.30 am at least, it was so bright…no, it was only 5.30 am! However, we were surrounded by the pines and the eucalyptus trees…and plenty of birdsong. I rushed out and there they were….my friends of the feathers and wings….the ones I was familiar with from Karnataka , like theWHITE-CHEEKED, and BLACK BULBULS, the DRONGO CUCKOO, the SMALL GREEN and CHESTNUT-HEADED BEE-EATERS, the HILL and JUNGLE MYNAHS, and the JUNGLE BABBLERS, and some really decorative ones like theYELLOW-BILLED BLUE MAGPIE, four of whom kept us company throughout our stay. Even more amazing than this, to me, was a nest that RED-RUMPED SWALLOWS had built just over the door of one of the three rooms in the building below us; the parents would swoop and hawk for insects, and zoom around the valley, and keep coming to visit the nest and feed the nestlings. Alas for the people who had the room on the days we stayed..I did spend a lot of time sitting in front of their door, watching the birds. Thankfully, the three families who did occupy the room while we were there, were each as interested as I was when I told them about the nest (one family had thought that it was some form of wasps' nest, and were worried), and no one minded my spending a lot of time there!
We had to call for the jeep every time we wanted to go to the main resort in the valley (the Manipur estate is on the spur of the hill)…and this meant, often, waiting for about 45 minutes. But the solitude and the number of birds we saw more than made up for this. The next day, we moved down to two of the main rooms, and there was a nice covered sitout between our rooms, where the JUNGLE BABBLERS fearlessly hopped in to see what crumbs they could get from us! I was also lucky to see a SHAMA, which doesn't seem very common though. As we looked up the hillside, we realized that there were large numbers of BLOSSOM-HEADED PARAKEETS too, feeding on the fruits of the "Mayur Pankhudi" trees (the same which florists use for greenery in the floral arrangements in Blr.) There were several BLACKBIRDS and INDIAN ROBINS, too, which my husband succeeded in getting photographs of. In fact, I don't think he has done so much photography in the past few months…..
In fact, we realized that the main resort was probably a little too crowded for our taste,and though we did come down for some meals, we mainly kept to the Manipur estate. We also found out from the staff that there was a somewhat steep but very beautiful path down to the main resort, which involved crossing a lovely little stream. So as far as I could, I kept using the path, which was about a kilometre and a half. There was a tree there where there was a nest of theFLAMEBACKED WOODPECKER, and between the swallows, the parakeets and the bulbuls, I rarely made it to the main resort in less than an hour, when even climbing should have taken me only 15 minutes!
The rain seemed to have arrived with us…there were very heavy showers and we little realized what havoc rain can play in the mountains…more of that anon. As of now, it only meant that the family games that are organized in the resort every evening had to take place indoors. We didn't go in much for this as our focus was being more isolated.
The next morning, we decided to brave the rain and go to the Binsar Bird Sanctuary. The drive itself was so beautiful, with the Sankhlas picking up my enthusiasm for the birds, and helpfully pointing out birds through the car windows. At the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam guest house, we hired a guide, who took us on the the 2.5 km walk (well, amble, actually, stopping every now and then to spot, or try to spot, birds) to Zero Point, from where there is, in fine weather, a great view of the Himalayas. Well…as far as the view was concerned…Deepa Murphy's luck stood firm, and Zero Point was well-named for the number of snow peaks we could see.
The guide also informed us that due to the heavy rain, most of the birds had left the conifers of the high slopes and gone below to the shorter trees and orchards where they could get food….that is, the birds were near the Binsar Mahindra resort, which is surrounded by plum orchards! However, we were still pretty lucky…we saw lots of ASHY PRINIAS,CHESTNUT-BELLIED NUTHATCHERS, the VERDITER and the WHITE-BELLIED BLUE FLYCATCHER, VELVET-FRONTED NUTHATCH, HIMALAYAN WHISTLING THRUSH, BLACK-CAPPED SIBIA, the SPOTTED-, REDCAPPED-, and the JUNGLE BABBLERS, the WHITE- and the LARGE PIED WAGTAIL,the JUNGLE CROW, the MAROON ORIOLE, the SCARLET MINIVET (lovely bird, easy to spot!) and the HIMALAYAN BULBUL as well.
Another heavy downpour brought us back to our vehicle and we returned to the resort well satisfied with what we had seen….oh, and we did see a few LANGURS and a solitary JACKAL. My young, ten-year old friend made some friends amongst the other children in the resort and they succeeded in spotting, they said," some deer with a antlers,fighting each other";…and I am sure that if I had not damped their spirits, they would have spotted elephants, and perhaps even some big cats in the resort premises!
That evening, we decided to visit the town of Almora, where, true to our resolution of eating little and keeping our figures trim, we went to the famous shop of Khim Singh Rautela and bought lots of "Baal Mithai" (this might be so named because it is chewy, like fudge and probably given to children; but I said it was called "Homeopathy Mithai" because of the little round sugar balls the sweet pieces are coated with, which look just like the sugar pills that Homoepathic doctors prescribe!). We also tried "Singori", a sweet made with milk-solids, or Khoa, which is wrapped in triangular-shaped leaves. We drove back to the resort in pouring rain.
The next morning, we drove about 65 km to visit the temples of Jageshwar. The main temple is revered as one of the original Jyotirlingas, or "Idols of Light of Shiva". There are about 124 temples there…and what, to me, was even more awesome were the ancient deodar trees,gigantic, living monuments, towering into the sky, that the temples are nestled in. The mountain stream near the temple, alas, is awash with plastic…but that still could not take away from the beauty of the temples, the earliest of which dates back to the 8 th century, and the most recent (!!) to the 11th century. (They are maintained by the Archaelogical Society of India.) We kept stopping here and there to watch birds ( my poor friends had no choice in the matter, but then THEY kept stopping for nausea!) and we returned only in the evening, and we joined the resort campfire and games. After the first day, when I was at least able to send some email (my Live Journal entry wouldn't get posted for some reason) the Internet connection never did work…another instance of the easy going way things run in remote areas. Not once did we feel like watching television, checking our email, or any of the other things we do in the cities! On every drive, Mohan and I provided the music…I must have sung almost ALL the old classic Hindi songs I know, and many of the songs in Tamizh and other languages too.(We even worked our way through the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady!) We told the Sankhlas that we would be charging them extra for the live entertainment!
The next day, the initial plan was to take it in easy stages to Munsiyari, a small town which lies in a little triangle of land where both the Nepal and the China (Tibet) borders are not far away. But we decided to take the detour to see the Paataal Bhuvaneshwar Temple..and we were really glad we did. As usual, pouring rain accompanied us all the way there, but it stopped when we reached the place. The entrance to the cave temples was through a frighteningly narrow- and steep-looking hole…and we were worried when we saw a group of extremely muddy people emerging. But then, we decided that we couldn't possibly go off without seeing it…and consigning our souls to Lord Shiva, we went down the steep, slippery incline (the authorities have provided chains to hold on to on the way down and up.) . About 100 ft down, the caves opened up to reasonably level, large caverns, and there was plenty of lighting. Our guide couldn't tell us any facts about what the stone was, or about the stalagmites and some of the incredibly breathtaking white stalactites we saw…but we kept on going, often stooping low and sometimes crawling through to the next cavern, as our guide recited the mythology of the caves, of how the Pandava princes went through these caves, and how Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu lived here too. Well…in that eerie, dank atmosphere, it is not surprising that people assign the caverns to the gods and look for protection! We walked for more than a kilometre about 800 ft underground, and came out after more than 2 hours, when we thought we would be back in less than an hour! Yes, we were muddy with the clay that was on the walls and floor…but we were awed and impressed, and glad that we had not …to use birding parlance…quailed at the prospect.
Our trip to Munsiyari, too,was through the coniferous forests that made every step of our journey a beautiful one. But alas, we had really underestimated the time it can take to cover the distance in the hills…and some of the roads were in pretty bad shape, so it was past 6 pm when we finally began the steep climb into the hills of Munsiyari…and we were very tired. The tiredness disappeared in an instant when, at one turn, we found….oh my goodness, no matter how many times I see it in my life, my breath stops and I am struck dumb….the Pancha Chuli range in all its majestic grandeur before us, with the eternal snows shining in the evening sun (sunset is only around 6.30 pm here and the afterglow lasts beyond 7 pm.). Pancha Chuli herself, with a perfect pyramidal tip, towered over the others…what a welcome to Munsiyari!
Alas, the welcome at the resort, which we reached at nearly 8 pm, was a comedown….the Zara Resort, which I had booked through an agency called Nivalink on the internet, was quite dirty, and dank. Grey towels, dirty bedlinen, shoddy fibreglass walls…we don't mind low-cost accomodation, but why can't it be clean? The resort got its water from a waterfall nearby, and they managed, when heating it, to make the pure Himalayan stream water into a muddy brown concoction in which we felt bad to bathe! The service, though, was pretty efficient, and we decided to make the best of it.
In the morning, the manager asked us to take our pick of easy or demanding treks—and my husband chose a 4.5 km trek to a place called Khalia Top. With more rain threatening, we went in the car for about 8 km and then began a steep upward climb. However, within an hour, Indu, myself and Rohan were really worried about our slipping on the wet leaves that carpeted the forest floor, and we decided to stop and let the men go ahead with Kishenji, our guide. They too made about 3 km before they decided to come back. However, just sitting on the slopes (there was, of course, no snow-mountains view because of the mist and rain) was a wonderful experience. Indu, who is a Jain, did her meditation and "jap", and I went wandering around looking for more birds. I must say, the magpie, which is such an exotic, decorative bird, seems very common to the area.
The guide then suggested that we go to visit the temple dedicated to Nanda Devi, which would only mean a 2.5 km walk over fairly level ground. We had our packed lunch, and after topping up our mobile phone card at the village, went for our walk. It was lovely to pass the "Munsiyari Alternative Education School" , and to see so many girls coming back from school, too; education seems to be taken pretty seriously in this area. The little temple to Nanda Devi is situated at the edge of a rolling meadow which is as beautiful as an Alpine meadow I have seen in Switzerland. The Panchachuli range, which was right ahead, was still shrouded in mists and clouds, and we decided we would spend the rest of the afternoon there, wandering around. There were not many birds of prey hovering, though; I spotted what might have been a black eagle (that's what the guide said, but I don't know if it was or not); many swallows swooping, and bulbuls in the trees around. There were also some MAGPIE ROBINS around, and we were lucky to see a couple more woodpeckers.
We came back to the resort by 6 pm…and then were awestruck by the opening up of the majestic peaks once again. Panchachuli, Nagling, and the other peaks slowly threw off their veils of mist and clouds, and we could even see, from the terrace of the Zara Resort, the stark, bleak beauty of the Panchachuli glacier. As we watched, the white of the snow turned to gold with the setting sun, and slowly faded into the dusk. Every human being on this planet should visit the Himalayan foothills and watch the snowcapped peaks at least once in their lifetime. There are no words to describe the wonder and the awe of the sight.
Our driver told us that our plan of driving directly from Munsiyari to Corbett was not feasible..it was just too far. So we decided that we would break journey at Kausani, which, too, is famed for its view of the Himalayan peaks. So we left at 6.30 am, determined to reach Kausani by about 3pm or so.
And now the mountains decided to show us a bit of what it means to live and travel here….luckily, the lesson was a gentle one, but enough to teach us a lot of respect for the hill people and the conditions under which they live and work. Within 12 km from Munsiyari, a small but very heavy landslide had taken away the entire left-hand side of the road which wound, clinging, around the steep side of the mountain…it was not even possible to walk across the huge hill of rock and debris on what was left of the road. We were told that a gang of people would be coming to clear the debris and perhaps do some blasting.
So we came back to the resort to have breakfast and a wait…and Panchachuli consoled us by revealing her majesty once again. From the picture window of the dining room, we watched the peaks in their glory. We made our next try at about 11.30am. All this while, the mobile phones would only work erratically, and the tremendous stock market crash of the Indian Sensex meant that my husband wanted to be in constant touch with his brokers in Bangalore and Delhi….but the mountains have the last say in everything here, and he could only get through to them sporadically. I was amazed at his ability, after the first shock on Thursday, to absorb the huge losses he suffered in pragmatic fashion, and his ability to use the few minutes of phone time to quickly make arrangements for transactions to minimize his positions.
Our next approach to the landslide area made us realize that it was going to take two, if not three, days to clear all the debris; so, after a lot of discussion, we decided that since an alternative route, with a detour of nearly 50 km, was available, we would chance it. And as it happened, it was wonderful. We drove along the banks of the Gori Ganga, which soon changed from a tinkling stream to a rushing, mighty river, rushing over the rocks that she brought down from the peaks. The road was much lonelier, but in many places, had been recently built; and we were very impressed by the people who toil to build the roads in such inhospitable terrain so that plain-dwellers like us can easily access these remote parts of our country.We drove over wooden bridges, which must have been built before concrete came into common use…our hearts were in our mouths as we rattled our way across, but the construction engineers those days had done their job extremely well.
On the way, I was able to spot the "poster-bird of the Himalayas"...the MONAL PHEASANT...andthe WHITE-BREASTED and the SMALL BLUE KINGFISHERS (these were near the river as we crossed over rickety-looking but really sturdy wooden bridges). I saw, in the dusk, a few MONGOOSE, and then two MARTENS, caught in the headlights before disappearing. The forest changed from coniferous to decidous back to coniferous again as we descended and ascended, and we finally reached Kausani at about 8.30 pm. I found the name of the Krishna Mountain View Resort in a brochure-cum-roadmap which I had bought, and a phone call to them ensured accomodation in a really beautiful resort. It was such a refreshing change to have clean bedsheets and towels after the dingy grey-dipped-in-blue linen of Zara! It transpired that Suresh Nath, the manager of the resort, was from Kerala, and we exchanged some humourous notes about the Indians from various states who visited.
Nanda Devi and her court at Kausani did not oblige us in the morning, so we took leave and drove off through more of the most beautiful countryside I have seen, and luckily, the rain seemed to have stopped.The route was so scenic that in spite of the roads often being little more than a collection of pebbles and rocks, we were fascinated.
We reached the outskirts of Corbett through a village called Mohan, where of course I had to stop and take photographs of Mohan with the milestones that said "Mohan – 1" and "Mohan – 0"..! We were not able to get accomodation at Dhikala within the forest, but at the Corbett River View Retreat, which is on the banks of the Kosi river.
After lunch, we asked for a wildlife guide who drove our jeep into the forest at about 4.30 pm….and we were pretty lucky with our sightings; we saw a JACKAL, several SPOTTED DEER, WILD BOAR, RHESUS MACAQUES and LANGURS, and the PARADISE FLYCATCHER (this seems to be plentiful in this area of Corbett) BLACKBIRDS, INDIAN ROBINS, MAGPIE ROBINS, the INDIAN PITTA, the WHISTLING THRUSH, and both the THREE TOED- as well as the PIED WOODPECKERS. We went further and further into the forest and could see nothing more, and finally the guide turned the jeep back and we went to visit the ancient (protected by the Archaelogical Society of India) temple of Sitavani ("Forest of Sita") in the forest, and came back on to the main road.
Then the guide just happened to turn the jeep facing the gate into the forest road, because we saw a barking deer very close to the gate. It ambled off, and we were about to turn the jeep back and return, when there was a movement up ahead.
And there SHE was....
For thirty years I have been to wildlife resorts and the jungles; I have been to the Sunderbans; I have been to all the areas of the forest in the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka-Kerala border…and never once have I seen the majestic cat that rules many of the jungles of India. It would have come the previous day, it would be expected the following day, I would see the pug marks, I would inspect the scat (scat is a nice synonym for another four letter word that we don't normally use.) and be told what the big cat had eaten….but never a sight of the animal itself. I have always been satisfied with whatever I have been able to spot; porucpies or otters, leopards or the crested serpent eagle, a spotted owlet or a mongoose; but the wonder of the Indian jungles has always, always, always eluded me.
So I couldn't believe my eyes for a few seconds. It was orange…it had stripes…WAS it….?
"TIGER!" said our guide, finally, in a very quiet, yet very intensely excited, voice.
And as he said that, the tiger moved. From the left-hand side of the track, the beautiful animal wheeled, and quite slowly crossed the track, and went over to the right-hand-side.
Our guide later told us it was a full-grown tigress.Unfortunately, neither Mohan nor Subhash could see her, as we had not alerted them, staring in wonder; the guide, Indu, Rohan and I were absolutely jubilant,though subdued because we were in the forest. We did try going back into the jungle and also driving a little on the same track, to see if we could spot her again…but had to come back home, seeing a few more spotted deer, and being able to see several NIGHTJARS. By the time we washed and went to dinner, the news was all over the resort and we were repeatedly congratulated! I managed to send an SMS to my naturalist friends and they promptly called back, and I had my dinner feeling on top of the world (apart from the fact that I was in the Himalayas, that is!)
And now, the news that made me feel really lucky…..the guides and drivers in Dhikala had gone on strike since the previous day, and NO jeeps were going into the core area of the forest. Even the visitors who are in Dhikala could not take any safaris..and we just sat near the Kosi river….there are so many mango and plum trees in this resort that it is a haven for birds and a heaven for us. Mohan was clicking away, unmindful of the sun and the heat. We didn't know if the strike would be lifted in time for us to take another journey into the forest before we left the day after the next. How amazing that we were the last jeep to go for a safari, and that the last thing we should have seen was the tiger!
At dinner at about 9 pm, I was not too happy to see a live orchestra with a singer belting out old Hindi film classics, but realized that many of the other guests, who could not go on safari, were enjoying themselves…so after I ate, I actually went up, turned down the volume of the loudspeakers….. and sang a few songs with the orchestra too, and got a lot of applause and compliments! What a great way to wind up one of the most wonderful days of my life!
We did try to take our own vehicle into the main roads adjoining the forest at 4.30 am in the morning…but back came the rain, and we were hoping that we would be able to take a safari in the evening…… our hopes came true when we were able to hire a jeep to take us to the Jhirna area of the park (Dhikala is the core area into which none other than govt. vehicles may go. There is a HUGE amount of corruption going on there...but more about that in a separate post.)
The jeep took us from the Khara gate on the road into the forest,and our sightings were truly plentiful. We saw more spotted deer, a MONITOR LIZARD which went off the road and froze on the neighbouring pebbles so beautifully camouflaged,that it was hard to spot it at a distance of a few feet. Further on, we saw a male and female NILGAI, and several more RHESUS MACAQUES and Langurs too. We saw large numbers of the COMMON GREY HORNBILL with their characteristic flight pattern and since it could not have been a Malabar pied hornbill, I think I spotted an ORIENTAL PIED HORNBILL. Several PARADISE FLYCATCHERS glided in and out of our path with their long white tails streaming behind them. We saw more HIMALAYAN BULBULS, and a BLACK PARTRIDGE. TOn the way back, we saw ELEPHANTS...a tusker and two younger ones. (Don't ask if they were males or females, I didn't look that closely!) Experience had taught us to be a little careful around tuskers, so we didn't get out of the jeep at all. But it is amazing that we saw all this without going into the core area at all!
On the way in, we had seen smoke coming from the inside of a tree and asked our guide what it was. He said that obviously, the tree was on fire and he had no way of getting people to come and douse the fire. On the way back, it was quite dark, but when we crossed, we were stunned by the sight of the tree burning fiercely from within, with showers of sparks flying out of the knotholes at intervals. Though there was no light, I made the jeep stop and asked Mohan to take a few snaps. And this turned out to be yet another blessing, as the headlights went out...and we realized that we were surrounded by fireflies, which made a sequinned blanket of the surrounding darkness as they shimmered to and fro. I have seen, long ago when our train stopped in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, just such an astonishing collection of fireflies...we drank in the sight silently. Another thing was that everywhere in the forest there seemed to be the Night Queen (Raat ki Raani) blooming and shedding its heady scent into the air...Mother Nature fills up your senses for you if you go to her, indeed!
Back we came to the resort, to be told by the manager, Vijay Iyer, that since his directors were coming to inspect the ongoing construction, he would be upgrading us to the Corbett Hideaway, half a kilometre down the road. Nothing loath, we packed up our stuff and asked for special permission for a late night swim in the pool, which normally closes at 8 pm. Not only was that granted, but we also got a lovely cream sponge dessert with the compliments of the resort, thanks to Vijay, who was extremely helpful and very able throughout. We realized that this was a Club Mahindra resort and we could have booked at no cost at all...but that's life!
We were packed and ready to leave in the morning, but a misunderstanding about the bill took a long time to be cleared, and we left finally only at 11.30 am for Delhi. A tip for anyone....please do direct bookings when you can, and you will probably spend less. Because we had booked through an agent and had to cancel one night, we had to pay for it, whereas, with a direct booking, it might have got waived.
Back we came to Delhi, with the weather being quite cloudy and quite unlike the forty-degree oven that we had been told to expect. We had lunch at a wayside restaurant where I spotted the most amazing bird of all, and insisted that Mohan take my photo with it. I will learn from amoghavarsha how to post pictures on my LJ and post at least a picture of this bird. I guarantee that NO expert birder can ever identify it, I challenge everyone to do it!
We reached a friend's place at about 9 pm and after a hearty dinner and a session of cards, went finally to sleep.
We got up in the morning at 4 am to catch our flight back to Bangalore. This time I did get upgraded as the flight was going full, but alas, I was feeling queasy after the late night dinner and couldn't eat any breakfast! ...and as the plane circled over the Whitefield bridge and the Chennai-Bangalore railway line, I thought that the only thing nicer than going on a trip is....coming back home! Cool, cool Bangalore with its 23 degrees and clouds in June, when the rest of the country is baking....feels so good to be sitting in my own home, typing away and ruminating over the highlights of the trip!
Well..if you enjoyed the account, let me know...and if you didn't, let me know, too!