Driving away from Delhi towards Moradabad, for me, always means Nainital !!!! I have been multiple times to the Kumaoni hills following this same via-Moradabad route. Starting early, it took a rather peaceful 8 hours to reach Sattal. This drive takes one through mandis of sugarcane, crazily vibrant Islamic settlements, Sikh majority settlements ….. and beautiful Corbett land. The statutory break at Gajraula for brunch…..treated us to some fine tandoori rotis and matar paneer. A few tea breaks and we found ourselves taking an easy-to-miss left turn after Bhimtal. A steep and desolate narrow road took us to the footsteps of V Resorts Sattal. The pleasant sunshine revealed before us green valleys interspersed between little mountains….trapped Alpine style lakes.. the land of the Tals….seven Tals, hence, the name Sattal!!
It is sleepy village named Suryagaon, a little above Sattal. The emerald green water of a lake emanated an aura of purity and puerile imagination. A yellow flock of white eyes frolicked in the thickets lining the lawn and played water sports in the little earthern water basins. The silence was so serene and the resort, so very beautiful, added to the experience.
Sattal is famous as India’s premium destination for bird watching and photography. I was informed that the forests and land, covering these lakes and a few neighboring hills, were under supervision of the Christian Ashram. An endeavor pioneered by the British, long back, has today led to the preservation of an Eco system with flourishing avi-fauna. There has been limited settlement or forest activity in these areas, and the blessed resident birds seem happy and care free. I, for one, found the birds of Sattal rather human-friendly !!!
For the first tryout, our able guide, Mr. Puran Joshi, took us to Christian Ashram hide. The sun had just woke up, and jacket-clad photographers breathed silently, with index fingers, resting on their DSLRs. Sitting inside the green hide, I could feel the air hanging heavy with expectation. The next hour and a half was among the most rewarding times of my life. A pair of Green Magpies raised temperatures!!! What beautiful creatures!!! The most beautiful green with black streaks across the eyes….a dash of red there.. and some blue here !!! A pair of grey-winged Blackbirds strolled in front of us…..two great Barbets kept us busy with their bold antics…..flocks of red billed Leothrixs and white crested Laughing thrushes kept the scene lively. I could go on and on like this!!! To cut things short, we further photographed Rufous Treepie, Chestnut bellied Nuthatch, White bellied Nuthatch, greater Yellownape woodpecker, Rufous chinned Laughing thrush, red billed blue Magpie…and a royal pair of Khaleej pheasants !! The elation and satisfaction I had accumulated within an hour of sunrise was simply peerless. We now followed Puran on an easy downward walk along the road towards Sattal YMCA camp. Our souls happy…our eyes and ears alert…..scanning the bushes and treetops for any flutter or bird song.
The 6 kilometre walk was rejuvenating. There was minimal traffic and looking down, we could see the pristine lakes of Sattal. We shared birding tales. Puran told us how prolific bird photographers visited Sattal year after year to get the one perfect perching shot of a one rare bird. Apparently, the months of March and April are the most appropriate for spotting the maximum no. of birds in the Himalayas. The receding winter and the oncoming spring creates the perfect climate, such that some cold-loving species linger back and warmth-loving species come back from the lower jungles. One such bird is the Long tailed Broadbill, which would return to these semi-evergreen deciduous forests soon and hundreds of birders would follow the superstar. The packed breakfast was unfolded…veg-cheese sandwiches, boiled eggs and tea.
We took a detour from the main road to pay a visit to the Sattal Studio. Not quite the right time, as it turned out!! The water of this isolated water body had dried out much….and a lone Common Kingfisher stood protecting its territory. While returning back from the studio, we spotted Oriental White eyes, Blue winged minlas, spotted forktail, slaty blue flycatcher, common bushchat and bar-tailed tree creeper.
Back at V-Resorts, we had a hearty lunch!! After some rest, we drove our own vehicle towards Ramgarh. I, for one, find great pleasure in driving on the curving hill roads. There is this need to keep control, minimal criss-cross traffic, the mountain air blowing in through the downed window glass…and greenery that seeps in through your eyes!! We reached a small, idyllic hamlet called Chaffi, and left the main road. The semi-pucca village track took us past little farms, humble houses and soon, we were in woods of high oaks and pines. A lively stream flowed frivolously below to the left. Within minutes of looking out , the Crested Kingfisher came flying along the stream and perched on a cable not very far. Despite some trouble with focusing and fading light, the pics turned out satisfactory!! We took a steep trail and descended to reach a rocky bed by the stream. The divine aura of the Himalayan dusk was all around us…and we, three naïve souls, sat on suitable rocks…observing …listening. The irritated kingfisher had flown far downstream….the super-tall oaks on the hills to our right seemed primitive and dark….the hills to our left shone bleakly in the fading sunlight…the stream flowed along….a couple of redstarts grew familiar with our presence and came in quite close……little school kids, returning from schools, whistled from far having spotted us down by the water. That evening we further spotted the Brown dipper, a fish like bird that loves to dive and swim !!!
The next day was spent looking for Goldfinches in the fields of Bhowali. The weather played spoilsport and we did not get the morning sunshine. But nevertheless, we were treated to fantastic views of Striated Laughing thrushes, Himalayan woodpeckers, Bronzed Drongos, Siberian Rubythroat ( this one was seen right at our doorstep at the resort), Black chinned Babbler, Slaty headed Parakeets, Brown fronted Woodpeckers. The sheer density of wood peckers in these places was astonishing!! At one point, I was surrounded by at least four Woodpeckers , with a couple of them pecking away on the same tree trunk at ground level !!! Later that day, we again ventured into the forests of Sattal and got good view of the Himalayan Bluetail. In two days, we photographed about 50 species and developed an understanding of Nature…we breathed fresh air and laughed with the waving trees.
This little account of our visit to Sattal would remain incomplete, if no special mention is made of the marvelous V-resorts. The place where this resort is located is quite remote and scarcely populated; thus, boasting of pristine nature all around. The white eyes and minlas play around the property…and streaked laughing thrushes give a visit every now and then. There are beautiful winding trails where you would not get lost, but would love to get lost!!! The hospitality of the staff is touching and the food they serve is sure to spoil you. Our guide, Puran, was excellent in all aspects possible and no words can actually express our gratitude towards him.
It is not very far fetched to imagine why Jim Corbett fell in such love with these mountains and forests. It had its share of man eaters and sly panthers, but juxtaposed with all that is the affection of Nature….the softness and forgivingness…quite unlike the dread emanating from the mangrove forests of Sunderbans !! The forests remain ever inviting….where the soul wants to sublimate …. and glide away whistling a Himalayan shepherd’s tune, amidst the thick trunks of chir pines…. vanish behind the farthest ridge, where there are no choices to make and promises to break !!!