For a true Himalayan birding experience : Sattal

Sattal-scape

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 !!!

Crested Kingfisher

Plumbeous Redstart

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.

Greater Yellownape

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 !!!

forests of Sattal

 

Bengal Special : Schön Chatakpur

Kanchendzonga from Chatakpur

After spending a good decade out of Bengal, I returned last year after having left my job. And over the course of the year, I discovered what I call the “Bengal Psyche”. More of that however on some different occasion. Given, the abundance of time and my sole authority on how to spend them – the hours…..it meant that I ended up travelling places. And this attempt at lettering my thoughts is aimed at eulogizing the Northern Hills of Bengal!! The millennials might have their heads full with imageries from Ladakh, Spiti and the likes…..but for all I know, the hills of North Bengal have a certain charisma, that can be the inspiration behind a hundred classics and everlasting romance….a romance that someone like Anjan Dutta still feels in his bones !!! ( I love to think of Anjan Dutta as the Bengali version of Bob Dylan.)

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On a comfortable March afternoon, we boarded the HWH-NJP Janshatabdi. The 8 hour ride was marked by little naps and snippets of hospitality by the Indian Railways!! They served frequent meals that we found easy to gulp but hard to digest at the same time!! At around 10:30 in the night, we reached NJP and put up in a rather shabby hotel. The uncontrollable ceiling fan and relentless mosquitoes ensured we had a semi-sleepless night !!! Early next morning, the bengali inside me drove me out and I scouted the empty streets for a tea shop!!! It was cold and the occasional street dog curled itself on the ashy remnants of a fire the rickshaw pullers had put together last night to beat the chill. Dark colored tea was served in the typical tapering glass and a gold flake was lit.

An hour later we were at the Tenzing Norgay Bus Terminus, Siliguri !!! This is among the most colorful and happy places I have ever been to …..tens of vehicles, ready to take you to your respective paradise !!!! Soon, we were on our way out of the city and headed towards Dilaram, a small locality just after Kurseong on the Darjeeling road. At Dilaram, our ride for the next leg of the journey was traced – a Bolero with 4 wheel drive. Our vehicle took us off the main road and we were soon inside dense jungles ….bitumen roads were behind us now and what lay ahead was a blasphemy in the name of a road !!! The 4 wheel drive served us in good stead as the car groaned and jolted over bold boulders strewn lackadaisically ……We quickly gained height and were now amidst the clouds….the jungle seemed dense and beyond penetration….occasionally, one could spot a flutter in the bushes as a thrush rushed to take refuge in the lovely bushes.

Chatakpur is a tiny habitation located inside the Senchal WLS in Darjeeling District. This sanctuary stretches beyond the borders of Bengal and merges into the more famous Neora Valley National Park. There are 50-60 odd houses, all scattered on the hill slope…. surrounded by tall pines and deodars……and the ever-present  clouds..that’s Chatakpur for you.

Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary

We put up at Phurba’s Home-stay, a newly built semi-wooden facility that felt homely and cosy. Away from the detailed urbane existence, this simplistic living felt beautifully different. Phurba, a lad in his early twenties and his wife were in charge. Their unassuming nature made us fall in love with them immediately.  Lunch was served to us starving tourists…..a combination of masoor dal, rice, aloo bhaja..some chopped onions and few innocuous green chillies!! Outside, cold wind blew unabashed and white fluffy clouds engulfed Chatakpur. My mother secured her place….deep inside two layers of heavy blankets….she shakily grinned ….it was cold, much more than what we had expected…but her smile comforted me. The evening promised nothing….and i was so cool with that !!! The mind (more than the body ) needs to be given  a break…. a break from everything remotely related to conditioned thinking. This was it….. a cold evening inside a dimly lit room, sharing unrelated stories….about travels…about cuisines….about leaders and losses…..devoid of the network externality ( wireless network that is !!!). We stayed close to the single filament heater and ever closer to each other while outside the spotless darkness outside slept tight. The wait was on for dinner…the promise of desi chicken curry and humble chapattis!!!

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The spooky woods…..

Chatakpur offers visitors an opportunity to get up close with nature on a short hike to a nearby Pokhri. The hills of North Bengal are interspersed with pokhris just like the Kumaoni hills abound in Tals!!! Pokhris are pristine water bodies, typically located deep inside the jungle….surrounded by greenery and serve as a life source for resident fauna and a place of worship for the semi-animistic hill tribes.

My mother stayed back at the home-stay, preferring to observe the village life, over straining her old joints!! Neha and I, followed the narrow village lane, which took us past cute, cultivated tracts bearing humongous cabbages……. through aisles of houses…. past families of hens and cocks…….. a pretty primary school… at the end was a green/red board put up by the Forest dept. Beyond the board, the path disappeared into the pine woods of the Senchal WLS. The morning was not bright…clouds kept sunlight away…and the coldness kept things quiet…..the forests around seemed a looming darkness, ready to prowl on you….!!! We had heard a few stories of leopards and bears, inhabiting these forests, and felt an eerie tautness fill our thoughts during the hike.  There were not a soul to be seen on the trail and dense thickets of bamboo trees encroached upon the narrow path. I could only wonder what we would do if a sulking Himalayan bear crossed our path!! Bears, especially, are known to be particularly aggressive as compared to leopards, who prefer staying away from humans.

Humro Home

Rufous breasted Accentor

Rufous breasted Accentor – a bird of the high Himalayan mountains

We befriended a lovely cat, that seemed too curious about us. It won over our hearts without a ‘meow’ and brought upon itself tons of cuddles and caresses. From my little experience with feline and canine friends from the mountains, I can safely say that they are far more self-assured and adorable than their average counterpart from the plains. They make peace with all sorts of strangers and truly spread happiness!

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While bird watching was not on my agenda this time, habits die hard Sir! And as it turned out, this place hosts myriads of bird species. The colorful blue-capped redstart was everywhere, and I found myself wandering off into the woods with my modest shooting instrument. Our home-stay was at the far end of the village, beyond which the ridge sloped precariously into depths filled with thick jungle. The clouds would rise from the depths in front of us, accompanied by cold wind, cross over the ridge and cover the forested slopes. On the top of the ridge was a beautiful view point…a wooden 2 -tier tower, that provided beautiful sunrise and sunset views. There was serenity all around…hardly any sound except for the breeze whizzing through the bamboo thickets. And then you sense movement in the humble tract of grass, and zoom in through your lens to find a beautiful rufous-breasted accentor!! I found more than 7 lifers in a span of 3 days, even when I was not actually looking for them!! You may want to have a look at few of those beauties below.

White browed Fulvetta

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Blue capped Redstart

Himalayan Bluetail

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Ferruginous Flycatcher

The hen from the hills

Olive backed Pipit

Olive backed Pipit

Stripe throated Yuhina

Stripe-throated Yuhina

Dark throated Thrush

Dark-throated Thrush

 

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Green backed Tit

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Juvenile female Red Crossbill, another inhabitant of the high mountains

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Red-throated Thrush, a rare one

Even as I struggle to find flow in my words…..the memories somewhat weakened by time and the stress of MBA, the charm of Chatakpur lingers on. The rustic village life….. the magical clouds…..the lively avi-fauna…. the wild promise of the pine and deodar woods….and then the feelings and thoughts such environments breed, that are beyond evaluation or description.

Till next time…. Stay charmed ..Dear Chatakpur!!

 

 

Reflections on Youth

In the foreword of Che Guevara’s timeless creation – “Motorcycle Diaries”, there is a paragraph dedicated to the eulogization of youth……Youth is not mere sequential in this journey of life…..it is in fact the best of life…. life’s greatest blessing, with unbridled energy and countless possibilities. Now, looking back, I feel a bit sad …….the brightest years of my countrymen are spent slogging at exploitative jobs ….. or mindlessly gulping “tuition notes”……. or drugging themselves useless. An ocean of youth lies stupidly calm….just a few murmurs hither-thither ……. the possibility of a revolution, far far more powerful than the French revolution, stays dissolved …… the spread of convenience, knowledge, “so-called” good wisdom helping in compartmentalizing individuals’ consciences …… bringing nations closer while alienating neighbors….. the greatest paradox  in this stage of anthropological evolution.

Rough Thoughts on a Himalayan holiday : Kumaon

Sitting on a wooden stool, carved out of the trunk of a tree, overlooking a valley formed by the Kumaoni hills, even as the cool breeze played with my plumage, life felt wonderful !!

Himalayas Mountains

View point- Nainital

The Kampland Nainital ( a pretty resort located at Sigri, Nainital district)  near Pangot (Pangot : where the birds rule) is very aesthetically built and perfectly located. Comprising of a few cottages, the place offers beautiful views of the densely forested hillsides. These mountains of the Kumaon region are not like their elder brethren of the Greater Himalayas… they do not evoke, in the  mortals, a sense of incomprehensible greatness…. the spiritual serenity or the humbling experience highlighting the miniscule human existence, that one associates with the Himalayas, is missing. These 9000 footers make one fall in absolute love with them…so lively and rich… a feast for the tired senses. Decades ago, an exceptional gentleman – Jim Corbett, found the calling of his life in these mountains. He helped improve the lives of the naive villagers….. hunted man-eaters, spending scorching noons, misty evenings and star-struck nights in sub-alpine jungles. Today, he has pubs, cafes and eateries named after him. I love to imagine that on chilly winter mornings, he strolls through the forests…. treading intrepidly on dry leaves, playing with shy sun rays, fondling new-born leopard cubs.

Kampland Resorts, Nainital

Trying to get a perfect Shot-Himalayas

The ills of tourism are yet to infect these hills. While much beauty of Nainital – Bhimtal and the likes is rubbed off, Pangot still survives. There are no queues for parking cars, no dazzling multi-storey hotels. no flashy eateries or departmental stores.The flutter of an Eurasian Jay makes more noise than that of wheels rolling on rubble. The anxious call of the Barbet, as it flies across the valley below and settles on a bald apple tree in front of you cottage, thrills the simple souls. A black, heavy – browed giant of a dog shall surely come over…..have a sniff of two….woo you with its compassionate gazes, before settling royally nearby, not a bark though !!! While I love to have my drinks with music, the evenings at Pangot were so fulfilling that i never needed to turn on my MP3 player. Rising up before sunrise was easy, and driving through the forest, negotiating bends with headlights on, was fun… all in an effort to find the perfect spot to capture the sun rise……..a spot where I was the only onlooker……. my blessed eyes feeling the pride all on its own, while Nature – the eternal artist painted non-chalantly.

Sunrise in the Mountains

Sometimes the black clouds gather together and decide to give these mountains a nice splash !!! There are nights when rain and wind make it impossible to move around ….. there is not much to do after sunset anyway!! On such a night in the hills, I found myself gazing out from inside my cottage, towards the blackness outside…the flashes of lightning revealing scenes from the big screen…. the silhoutte of the tress on the slopes…the dark clouds…and then, the brontide would shake a few loose joints !! One truly feels numbed by the powerful stimuli one’s senses are exposed to…. the response being a thought in your head and a thrill in your heart. The response thrives long though, so much that it has driven me, many weeks later, to give form to my thoughts !!

 

The empty mind that is ready to perceive shall be surprised happily every moment….there is so much joy around in the Kumaon….the stark red colour of the drooping Guraas ( local name for Rhododendron)…the red Guraas extract spread on your halwa… the Russet’s sparrow chipping away at your cottage’s roof (For a true Himalayan birding experience : Sattal)… the tale of a leopard, who is habitual trespasser and dog-lover (!!)….. most fertile seeds for figments of imagination.

Rhododendron

My first visit to the North Eastern frontiers of India : a walk in the tiger reserve and a village with no shops

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The Jia Bhoreli

From childhood, I had been intrigued by stories about headhunters of Nagaland. As I grew older, I got to read books like Highway 39 and Land of the Dawn Lit Mountains. In the latter, the author, a lady from United Kingdom, rides solo from Guwahati all through Arunachal Pradesh. She has done a fine job in exploring and presenting the enigma that is North Eastern India. I read numerous blogs on experiential travels, watched numerous vlogs on YouTube and reports of birding trips …all in these little explored states, to the far right of my country. When finally I got time to plan my trip,  I had too many locations luring me and finalizing a trip turned out rather tricky. More so, because, it was end of the year and travelers all over India had become super active. Tickets were available only at sky high prices ……only flight tickets !!! Trains were all running full…..

Given the numerous constraints, I finally chalked out a plan, that would enable me to explore a bit and off course, bird-watch a bit !! Ever since, this bug for bird watching has bit me, I try to find places where at least I can have one or two morning sessions of birding !! I decided to give Arunachal a miss this time ( it required more time and planning ) and looked to visit Nagaland !! I chose the relatively lesser known Nameri National Park (in Assam ) over the much famous Kaziranga. Partly because, Kaziranga would be all booked up and crowded, and because, Nameri was good for bird watching !!! From Nameri, I would travel all the way to Khonoma, via Dimapur. Khonoma ,though quite remote, was a much celebrated birding spot. You see …!!! Once this love for birding develops in you, there is no escaping its claws !!

On 23rd of December, we boarded an Indigo flight to Guwahati. At Guwahati, we put up in a hotel near the Kamakhya Temple. Early next morning, we walked to the temple and joined thousands of other devotees in a queue to pay homage to the Goddess. Red was the predominant color…buildings painted red, the priests wore red robes….the flowers offered were red hibiscuses…..we stood in queue and watched the sun rise and golden rays light up the temple tops….tens of goats (offered for sacrifice by devotees) thronged the premises. A tied and stressed bull at the sacrifice shed, made a painful sight..but …that is how things work here. The Goddess needs her thirst to be quenched,…blood needs to flow….for fertility to prosper. After an almost 5 hour wait, we could finally get into the inner sanctum and pay our homage to the deity. We were now ready to embark on our journey further to the east.

View from Nilachal Hill...

View from Nilachal Hill…Sunrise shot of Guwahati

Kamakhya Temple

Kamakhya as one of four primary shakti peethas

A light meal at Pudina restaurant, outside the Guwahati Junction, and then we boarded the ASTC bus to Tezpur. We reached Tezpur, after about 4 hours. The only noticeable part of this trip was that we happened to cross the seemingly unending expanse of the Brahmaputra. Tezpur is a little city, having its own little airport, and serves as a gateway to further travel into Arunachal. It also serves as good place to halt before further travel eastwards towards the famous Kaziranga. In our case, we would travel about 35 kms further east towards Nameri National Park.

Next day, after a small cab ride, we reached the Nameri Eco Camp. This was a beautiful facility managed by the ABACA – Assam Bhoreli Angling and Conservation Association. What was initially established many years ago to cater to the wishes of anglers worldwide, had now taken up the role of conservation and eco-tourism. The prized fish from the Jia Bhoroli river – the Golden Mahseer, was now protected and bred by the ABACA. It was a case of a social initiative, backed by good administrative support, and now they managed all conservation and tourism activities in the area.

Nameri Eco Camp

Nameri Eco Camp- true experience of camping in the wild

True experience of camping in the wild

Nameri Eco Camp

eco camp

The property itself, was located in the buffer zone of the Nameri National Park, about 1 km from the Jia Bhoroli river. On the other side of the river, the core area of the forest commenced, stretching for kilometres, before merging seamlessly into the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. The eco-camp boasted greenery all around and the facilities had been set up in unison with nature, not in defiance. Flocks of red-breasted parakeets stayed in holes of large tree trunks, that were a part of the camp. Comprising of few wooden cottages and few tents, this place provided a true junglee experience. Our cottage was named Diji – 7, after one of the tributaries of the Jia Bhoroli. In terms of birding, the place itself rewarded us with sightings of black naped monarch, spangled drongo, taiga flycatcher, white-rumped shama, white-throated fantail, blue throated barbet, hill myna, pin-tailed green pigeon, and the ever present parakeets.

Sunset- near Jia Bhoroli

Next day, early morning , we got our permits for entry to the forest. We were accompanied by a forest guard  and our birding guide.We walked upto the Jia Bhoroli, about a 15 min walk from the camp. The sky was cloudy and we all were concerned because such climate is not good for birding. Jia Bhoroli is a beautiful sight, anytime….may be a bit overenthusiastic in the rains.!! This is a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra. It has its source high up in the mountains of Arunachal near Sela Pass, and it has a different name in Arunachal – Kameng. The grayish background pigmentation of the dull climate made the environment around seem ….still, silent…sleepy. The sun was trying to shine on his child…but the clouds were like a ragged curtain

 

We crossed the flowing Jia Bhoroli on manually propelled desi boats. To imagine the wrath of this emaciated stream in monsoon…!!!The trunks of big trees and an odd boulder here and there, were proof of the seasonal predation of the Jia Bhoroli. Then we had to walk along the dry riverbed to reach the edge of the Nameri NP. At nights, this would be the playground for the elephants. Now we were walking bravely, entrusting virtually all the security on a guard with a gun. Anyways, the black-crested bulbul greeted us as soon as we stepped foot in the jungle. It twisted its black crested head in impossible ways, and its yellow torso, all puffed up. Safari in the park is absolutely along 2-3 predefined routes. Our search for the elusive, critically endangered White-winged duck, took us away from the main trail. We jumped over tree trunks, stooped under branches and moved through thick vegetation. The habitats of this duck are swamps and streams deep inside the forest. We found the chestnut bellied Nuthatch, the beautiful Scaly Thrush, tens of Minivets, the vernal hanging Parrot, pygmy Woodpecker, golden fronted Leafbird, Ashy drongo, yellow bellied Fantail, maroon Oriole, Eurasian thick knee, the Peregrine falcon, pin tailed Green pigeon and a few other species. After a 8 km walk cum hike in the forest, we were exhausted. The walk back was more of trudge-drag affair, but I was happy with my shots.

Post lunch, it was time to try rafting. Well, its nothing like Rishikesh…..the water is tame, absolutely pristine too, and there are only places with gradual slopes, where the flow breaks up and forms waves and auxiliary commotion. The forests stare at you from all sides with awkward silence. The boatmen..or rather the raft-men were from the Miri tribe…..once they used to be ace fishermen and fancy anglers would accompany them on fish-hunting. Now with modernisation and conservation, they have moved on. But the Jia Bhoroli remains a part, a beautiful part in their lives. On the dry river beds, on pebble and rocks, we could see cormorants drying their wings. Their beaks had turned white, it was their way to beautify themselves for the mating season. Black bird with glossy white beaks..they looked funny!!! Rudy shelducks were plenty….and so were the plain martins. We spotted a Peregrine falcon on a dry tree by the river and soon after, an Oriental Pied Hornbill on a similat spot. I had dreamt of the scene when multiple couples of Hornbills fly across the river as night draws in…and while on the raft, I saw a couple of Hornbills flying across right above our heads !!

Our next destination was Khonoma. We left Nameri and reached a small railway junction by the name of Chaparmukh. It was a 3 hour journey and we reached Chaparmukh Jn., with 3 hours to kill before the train. Chaparmukh is a lustre-less, small village (or a very very small town !!) and we were here to catch the Dimapur bound BG Express. This single track non-electric railway infrastructure connected a major part of the North east. We reached Dimapur at around 9’o clock in the night.  Dimapur provided justification for bringing our heavy woollens…at Nameri, they stayed warm inside the backpacks. Early next morning, we hired a small hatchback outside the railway station and moved towards Khonoma. Our co-passenger , an aged professor in the BG express, had warned us of terrible road conditions. Well, the road was almost kachha all through….there used to be a single lane road and it had not gone through any repair for tens of years..now..another lane was being made..the result. But we made it through. We were now in the Naga hills !!

Chaparmukh Junction

Image courtesy: Dhrubajyoti Das

Khonoma is the mainstay of the proud Angami tribe….a small idyllic village of around 6000 people, an hours journey from Kohima. We found the village beautified with Christmas decorations. Lean tree branches had been painted and fixed by the side of the village path….and Origami-styled paper foldings of myriad shapes hung lightly on the painted branches.  Houses of earth and wood, looked serene and clean…..the topmost point of these homes bore the red Star…a star shaped decorative structure, that would be lit up with bulbs at night….the typical celebration of the Christian festive season. We befriended our guide for the village tour, the effervescent K. Louis and had the opportunity to learn about the Angami way of life. A whole separate account may be made out of my understanding of the Angami way. But what essentially became brightly evident was that they had a much developed philosophy of social existence. The old tradition of headhunting was a mere whisper in the wind…and devout Christianism rules hearts now. But the basis of their being was strength from unity and clever utilization (not exploitation) of natural resources. They loved hunting, but themselves banned it realizing its effect on nature. The rational implementation of jhum cultivation, the level of craftsmanship in weaving cane baskets or woodwork, social bonding, celebration of festivals…overall a very simple and organic way of living….I found these men, psychologically much stable and superior than the average confused soul from our urbane real space. Louis arranged few servings of  Zutho – a homemade, rice-based, fermented beverage…and we also got to taste tasty wild apple chips. The hospitality and simplicity was moving….indeed!!

Dovie Pie Inn

 

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As we found out over the next two days that the forests in these parts were largely pristine….we hiked and drove kilometers on dusty roads…..explored the trail to Dzukou valley….followed trails of the Mithun – an bovine creature highly prozed across the North eastern hills. The Khonoma Nature Conservation & Tragopan Sanctuary promised some great birds, and while so many could not be sighted…I believe that was much due to my luck and perhaps, my lack of commitment. The birds sighted were mostly unique to this part of the world. The crested finchbills maintained watch from tops while striped laughing thrushes shouted from roadside thickets…cries of bamboo partridges could be heard very close…and desperate flowerpeckers jumped from shrub to shrub. Sunbirds, especially the red tailed, were aplenty. Fire tailed myzornis was seen…and we also spotted a red liocichla, deep inside the undergrowth. Most were lifers for me..like the beautiful orange bellied Leaf bird and the silver eared Mesia. Grey sibias kept the mood alive at all times. A rather open looking field of pollared alder trees provided great opportunities to photograph the olive backed Pipit and the crested Bunting. We explored the initial leg of the Dzukou valley trek from KNCTS parking lot onwards. The trail moved up through dense forests and up ahead it vanished into pregnant clouds. From the highest tree on the high ridge above us, a Mountain hawk eagle looked down upon us…and on a tree nearby, the great barbet started cawing incessantly….our experienced guide told us that Barbets call only during specified hours – a technique used by hunters in the forest to know the time of the day (no watches or other fancy stuff !!) Interestingly, I could satisfactorily shoot at least two species of warblers at Khonoma…..I never thought that I could click a warbler, they are too small and too fidgety…..the only explanation I guess is that warblers of Khonoma are camera friendly!!!

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We left Khonoma and as our cab drove away from the Naga-styled welcome arch of the village, I felt a bit sad. I had fallen in love with the place.

Kohima was totally into holiday mood. All establishments- officer, eateries, shops, were closed. Every guy was back to his home in the village to celebrate the festivities with their family. We could not find a single restaurant to eat out and had to satisfy ourselves with the rather less-tasty food served by the hotel restaurant. A plate of pork momos I had on the footpath was a tasty consolation though!! We took a stroll in the Naga Bazaar and though, it was rather empty, we could find the fabled food items…snails, snakes, frogs, bugs and insects!!…. Dried chilli and dried fish….bamboo shoots, and some other items I could not hope to identify!! While love for pork was very evident, I found it difficult to imagine the way in which they consumed these delicacies .. …the snail and the frog!!! Much of our time in Kohima was spent relaxing in the hotel room…I ended up watching Wanted for the umpteenth time on television.

Our tour ended as we drove back to Dimapur and then, took the Nagaland Express to Guwahati. We had spent around 10 days, exploring the semi-evergreen forests in the Eastern Himalayan foothills and the evergreen sub-tropical forests of the Naga hills….lived amidst some genuine, free minded people, who took deep pride in their history…..Till the actual time comes, I shall keep wishing to visit Khonoma again … the village with no shops…with no sorrow….blessed by nature….inhabited by humanity in its truest, simplest form.

 

  • Photo's Credits: Dhrubajyoti Das

 

“Chupir Char” – an oxbow lake, a boat ride in the Ganges and birds!!!

Few months back, when I was looking for flower peckers and Yuhinas in the Darjeeling hills, our guide had enquired whether I had visited the wetlands of Purbasthali.  He was amazed to know that I had not because Purbasthali was only about 100 kilometres from my home !!

So, this November, when a certain chill in the morning air seemed quite pleasing and an old friend came along for a visit, I felt it was time for me to explore the wetlands of Chupi.

The Sun was yet to rise and our otherwise cramped G.T.Road lay deserted except for a few speeding trucks. I picked up my friend from his house and embarked on this 100 -110 km journey. Soon, we had left the G.T.Road and were speeding on the old Delhi Road, away from the urbane cosmos i.e Kolkata. The vast expansive cultivated fields opened up on both sides, and the air seemed fresh. We stopped for a pee & tea break at a typical shack by the road. The teenage boy was still shaking off his slumber, but he did serve us some tea. Our hearts felt light……the sight of our country side in winters, especially at dawn and dusk, is surreal…the layer of fog hangs precariously on the fields …all hazy and dim….the haze hides the bushy heads of trees and sometimes intrudes upon the roads. Except for a few diversions and rough patches here and there, our road journey was pretty smooth and we were soon in Zila Nadia, the place famous for one Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He was a Hindu saint, who was believed to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna himself. The practice of holding kirtan or sankirtan as a community celebration of Krishna, was propogated by him. As much as I find the songs (of kirtans) not-so-appealing, they definitely form an integral part of rural Bengal……among many old rituals, habits and ways, that are quickly getting lost in the age of consumerism and urbanism.

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The small locality of Purbasthali was behind us and we were at a village by the name Kasthashali. The localites informed us that now the wetland was called Kasthashalir Char !!!! Near the bank , there are a few staying options – a nice guest house and a few cottages.  We hired a manually propelled boat, and were soon afloat on the oxbow lake.

As a river flows into the plains, it loses momentum and its path is determined by local gradient and soil resistance. Thus, it tends to progress in a serpentine fashion. This leads to erosion and over centuries, a part of the river is cut off. Thus, an oxbow lake is formed, it’s name well deserved given its shape – like an O with a cut. A safe haven for fishes, birds –both indigenous and migrants, reptiles and a source of income for local folks – these wetlands are much more than an essential ecosystem, which it already is. It’s clear freshwater and the vegetation, both under and above the water, support myriad life forms.

 

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Our boatman cum guide kept identifying species …that one is the Bronze winged Jacana….that a Pheasant tailed Jacana…..the red one is Little Grebe…..!!! The boat slowly moved across the lake, through dense under-water vegetation….every now and then the boat would get caught in the tangle below!!! A common Kingfisher was spotted perched on a dry piece of stick….its plumage the perfect turquoise blue with orangish underside!! This was one little beauty I had wanted to see….at last !!! Chalk white Egrets jumped from point to point…..taking short flights….numerous Drongos  flew around…..sand pipers and plovers hopped around on the shores, picking their meals………Black headed Ibises and Asian Openbills foraged for food in the drier parts, alongwith lapwings. I never knew that there were Lapwings other than the one with the Red beak…..Here I saw the Yellow wattled Lapwing, River Lapwing and Grey headed Lapwing !!!! Little green islands of mush amidst the lake provided ideal resting spots for big flocks of Lesser Whistling Ducks….their tail ends rusty in color. They took to flights everytime we got close, raising a public outrage and swerved around in circles, before settling some distance away. I could hear Orioles calling from the trees by the lake side. Suddenly, Kousik –my friend noticed the grayish form of a structure emerging at the horizon….a structure with domes like the Taj Mahal !!!! Our boatman identified as the temple of Mayapur!!

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Eventually, our boat entered a hardly 3m wide channel, with the Kans grass forming our canopy!!! It seemed like some scene from Hollywood!!! Dense grass of the iconic Kans surrounded this stretch …and then the channel opened up to the Ganges. In this place, the Ganga divides up into a few branches, with little islands in between, before reuniting again after a few kilometres. Thus, this place is a unique maze of islands, with weak and strong water ways. It felt scary to imagine the face of this place in the peak of monsoon.

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We did a complete round trip of the oxbow lake, which took us about 5 hours. Though we did not find the prized Osprey, the visit was fulfilling. As winter intensifies, multitudes of migrant birds would fly into these marshes. Flocks of Shelducks and Pochards would bring alive this place. Birders and picnic parties shall arrive in herds and Purbasthali would come lively. Summer and monsoon see this place rejuvenating on its own…..left alone to its kingfishers and fishes. It is good that the authorities have mostly left this place alone and the localites understand the importance of this ecosystem. From one’s seat on the boat, one can decipher contours of high-rise buildings coming up at Mayapur……one can only wish that this insane drive of development gives Purbasthali a miss…because we, as a nation, have not been able to develop sustainably…….we fill up marshlands and build tall, unsafe buildings, narrow lanes…..and then keep beautifying a little park in the name of development ….. And after some years, citizens make a garbage dumping spot out of that park.

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The horizon in B&W from the boat…note the banana trees……

 

 

 

Tasting Chhang at Gairibas – Singalila NP and generic travel tales

There are times when one finds it difficult to accept the human existence or human company. The feeling of cramping on the inside…every morning seems a repetitive intro to a meaningless day. And for the one who has been touched once by the bliss of the mountains, all the above are symptoms that one needs a dose of the dope…the beauty of nature beckons. You can listen to the cry of the cicadas in your stupor and feel the mountain wind ruffling your hair !!!

Photo of The twitch to travel 2/11 by Dhrubajyoti Das
The jeep stand opposite to Tenzing Norgay bus stand at Siliguri is a legendary venue….

The area around Tenzing Norgay Bus stand is the point where the journey truly commences. You can feel the coolness even though you sweat outside, the boards inside the viewing glass of the boleros bear names of Utopic villages and towns —–Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Gangtok, Namchi, Rabangla, Jorethang, Sukhia, Mirik, Rongli, PaniTanki…!!! A lively crowd always throngs this place….taxi drivers, agents of travel services, helpers for the luggage, hordes of tourists of all kinds. The place exudes a feeling..the same feeling you feel when about to board a superfast train from HWH at night to reach some new place….. or when you are are at the Kashmeri Gate ISBT, where the Volvos read HRTC  and HPTDC !!! The place an absolute juxtaposed contrast to the green serenity one is going to be taken to in a matter of hours !!! I have few good memories of this place, especially Sher – e- Punjab bar !! sshhh !!!

The road leaves the busy city and rolls into the forests of the Mahananda WLS and then through interspersed tea plantations, into the hills. A cold, primitive aroma strikes your senses and before one realizes, Teesta has become one’s travel partner. There is the quintessential prayer-offering break at Sevokeswari Maa Temple , and the relaxing tea break by the river at Rambi or Teesta Bazaar. The forested hills lure at the end of the road. This journey through the forests and hills….known as the Dooars region of Bengal, is an essential part of the trip. As they say…Travel is about travelling, the journey as much the destinations.

This time my plan was to visit the Singalila NP in a leisurely manner !! Two or three nights at a serene place exploring and a little birding. I was going to a tiny hamlet, Gairibas,enroute Sandakphu.

The share jeeps for Sukhiapokhri and even for Mirik, leave from the smaller jeep stand by the Siliguri junction – just on the backside of the bus stand. The rucksacks and bags settle above, while 11-12 fit into a 7+ 1 seater Bolero, and the journey begins. There is intermittent chatting in Nepalese (!) and all you can do is give an odd smile and adjust your elbow or a knee !!! Scenes and vistas open up in front of you as the tattooed age less guy keeps deftly manoeuvring the vehicle at bends, with an angle in the range of 10-20 degrees !! ( hahahaha !!!)

The unassuming kiosk named Sunshine at Sukhia disappoints with bland and little undercooked momos . I hated them for ruining my appetite and for serving a disgrace to the reputation of momos !! The weather was cold and myself, half-hungry. The short ride to Maneybhanjan about 30 -40 mins) in a super-filled Omni comes next.

Maneybhanjan is the entry point to the Singalila NP, the starting point for the trekkers to Sandakphu and the place of the nowhere-else -to-be – found Land Rovers !! Ah !! it also lies at the Indo-Nepal Border, such that you cross a culvert over a 1ft. wide drain and you are in a Nepalese market, buying squash !!! The narrow sloping street that is Maneybhanjang, serves as the parking lot for about half a hundred refurbished Land Rovers.

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The iconic Land Rovers of Maneybhanjang – the Sandakphu circuit is as much about these beasts as much the mountains.
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The region is under supervision of SSB and mother Nature. The road till Phalut from Maneybhanjang, is someplace concrete, bitumen in patches and a layer of uneven stones, mostly. And the jungle thrives all around, the nature of the vegetation keeps changing with height. 180 degree view of the great Himalayan peaks accompanies one through an extended section of the route. I could spot the static form of an eagle floating in the void against the backdrop of the white mountains. The Rovers stop at regular intervals enroute and the drivers keep popping the bonnet to check the i-don’t-know-what. They splash in/pour in a few mugs of water, and the beast is ready to rumble again. In the meantime, you get to soak in the rusticity of the place, sipping some ‘liquor tea’ and a Shikhar cigarette. Every now then, a group of trekkers shall pass by, enquiring about the distance left.

Gairibas is located about 20 kms from Maneybhanjang, It is a thickly forested little valley, with a few trekkers’ accommodation, a few homes and a small SSB checkpost. Though seemingly innocuous, the place may mesmerize someone who looks to notice. The climate was cooler than usual, this October. I  braved the chill to venture out to the balcony early in the morning to find the shrubs, bushes and grass white with thaw. The whole phenomenon of the forest awakening as light increases is a worthy experience….a half of the valley gets the first rays of the Sun, while the other still stays dark and cold…..the light seems golden…the pines and the oaks sparkle….a myriad whistles and caws erupt from the bushes and the branches. During my recent visit to Lava, early mornings would be spent gazing out of my window at the forests below. The rolling in and out of the clouds….the cry of the hill francolins from the fields below, even before sunrise….the periodic protests of the cicadas like a rising revolution…..the monk on his way to the monastery. At Gairibas, however, I had a couple of Yellow billed blue Magpies to celebrate the day break. They would emerge out of their hidings, just behind the GTA Trekkers’ Lodge and bring the whole valley alive with their antics and hullah-bullah.

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A flock of Red Crossbills made my day….

I spent a good part of a day at Gairibas, sitting at Magnolia Hotel. All the Land Rovers take a stop here. I sat with a serving of Chhang, called Tongba and observed daily life. The host family kept busy, preparing momos, chicken and veg curry…cutting vegetables and serving tea to tourists. On the other side of the road, a couple of SSB jawans played carrom…while a group of visitors tasted Rhodendron wine. It is said that Chhang and Rhododendron wine from these parts are valued all across the district and beyond. The acerbic taste of the beverage kept me hot  among other things !!

A note : You can easily try Chhang without a worry, if you have tried Beer and not freaked out !!! Its actually good for health. Make sure you are having one at a place where you see others drinking.

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I sipped Chhang..and the life around seemed to run in slow motion !!!
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Tongba – the hardware that holds the Chhang – a millet fermented beverage, indigenous to this region.

Apart from the famous Sandakphu trek and the legendary Land Rovers, these places are also known for gifting lookers with sights of the rare Red Panda. Many people earn a living here by its name. Wildlife enthusiasts spend thousands to photograph a shy red panda hanging on to the slender bamboo stick.

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Trails near Kaiyakatta, up ahead on the trek route, are especially known for Panda sightings.

The decor of little shacks by the trails seem pretty. Their humble attempt at prettiness, no matter how low budget, fits in the place. The Union Jack…a guitarist…a tiger….the Barcelona club logo..a landscape reproduction..a few lines of wisdom…you can find so may unconnected things painted on the wooden planks !!! The same art in an urban setting would not seem appreciable. But here in the high mountains, sitting in a little wooden shack , eating and “drinking” Maggi off a bowl (they serve their maggi in a thukpa fashion, all soupy !!!), while a saintly serene dog dozes off at your feet….all is romantic and beautiful.

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The entrance of a shack at Kaiyakatta.
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The Singalila dawn in HD…..

While I did not get too many birds (allegedly due to the climate, Mar-April is best they say), I got a taste of the life inside Singalila NP. I got to taste Chhang, which had been a long standing wish.

This trip ended with a tiny visit to Darjeeling, where I got to know about the classifications of Darjeeling Tea. The flavour of the black, the orange color of the Oolong, the benefits of the Green and the White….!!! Darjeeling Tea is for serving without milk, and Assam Tea is best with milk – an info not known to many.

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A cup and a pot…underexposed….

My haphazard tour to the North Bengal mountains was thus fulfilled. With my share of experiences, I have realized that it is so much about the little things….not necessarily about the grand panorama or the perfect sunset shot. The aroma of tea as you move through the plantations….the wood fire in the kitchens….the resilient and smiling hill folks….the spectacle of a winding road covered in haze..the distant contour of the conifers against the dusk sky. All so addictive..that’s why lovers keep coming back.