Friday morning. Was feeling restless. The heat and dust and traffic of Gurgaon can sometimes be overwhelming. Decided to leave office early, around 3 pm, and drive away. To some place where I could immerse myself in nature. Called up the manager of KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nugam) Sigri Camp, he said that yes, a tent is available for that day and the next. Rushed back home. Took 10-15 minutes for packing. Grabbed the camera bag and checked whether batteries were more or less charged (they were, from a previous trip). Bison – my old but capable 4WD Fortuner – was ready, like always. OT: Reminds me of Field Marshal Manekshaw’s famous quote to Indira Gandhi “I am always ready, sweetie”. 😉
Bison, habitat shot
Hanuman temple in the middle of nowhere
I still have to rely on GPS when passing through Delhi. Perhaps I have become lazy and over-reliant. Was hoping that the Hapur jam would be kind on me. Actually, it wasn’t too bad. I only lost 50 minutes there 🙄 I have spent more than two hours traversing less than one km in the same place, so I guess I could count myself lucky. God knows when the flyover construction will be completed. I have a suspicion they are following Parkinson’s Law.
It started raining just as I started shifting gears after passing Hapur. Initially it was a drizzle. Then once it became dark, the rain intensified. Soon, I couldn’t see more than a few metres ahead. Parts of NH24 were waterlogged, so I had to drive carefully, trying to minimize aquaplaning. Perhaps I should have reduced my speed a little bit, but I was in a hurry to reach since I had miles to go before I slept. The Yoko A/Ts are pretty decent (for A/T tyres) in wet conditions, and I did have a fulltime 4wd system as extra insurance. So on and on I went, trying to maintain a decent but safe speed. A few other vehicles sped by. I was just shaking my head at them, since I knew that they were teetering near the edge of safety.
The rain stopped after I crossed Moradabad. Traffic was sparse in the Moradabad – Kaladhungi stretch. I slowed down when I was crossing the forest stretch between Bazpur and Kaladhungi (Kaladhungi is where Jim Corbett had his winter home, which today is a museum dedicated to Corbett). Well, I always slow down when crossing forest stretches. Was hoping to see a big cat, but no such luck. Only a couple of cheetal herds crossed the road.
Forest road, less travelled
There is a steepish climb from Kaladhungi to Nainital. The moon came out after I had passed Nalni (btw, in ‘My India’, Corbett talks about how a tiger attacked two guys who were walking to Nalni village). It was beautiful. The twinkling lights of the plains. The clean and cold mountain air. A bright moon above, playing hide and seek with the clouds.
Just before the turning to Pangot, it started raining again. And mist came from nowhere and engulfed everything. I couldn’t see more than eight feet ahead. And the road – it was a densely forested stretch – was pretty narrow, not much space beyond the wheels. It was already 11 pm. I was worried that the caretaker would have slept, so I kept on crawling steadily, through rain and dense fog. No humans were around. No leopards either – they wouldn’t have come out for a night walk in such a weather. Incidentally, locals swear that there is this one leopard that can be seen – very often – around 8 pm on a certain stretch near Kilbury forest rest house. Regular evening walker.
When I reached my destination, it was still raining. And the tents were like 200 feet below the road. Didn’t want to honk and disturb the environment.
Decided to brave the rain and started walking down with my camera bag, the usual bag, and my boots (I prefer to wear a sandal when driving). Luckily, the caretaker had been waiting for me, and opened the gate. Dumped my stuff in the tent (it was cold and musty and wet), and told the guy to rustle up some food. He asked “rice and dal chalega?” I was like yes, anything, I am famished!
Hot food tastes good when one is tired, hungry, cold and wet. While I was having dinner, the wind was roaring, and the rain was spraying on the dining table – it was an open air setup, with a tin roof. Raw nature. Simple mountain food. A friendly but sleepy caretaker who wanted to go to his warm bed as soon as possible.
I was at 7000+ feet, and the night was cold. When I entered the tent, I carefully checked everywhere – below the bed, under the pillows, under the quilts, on the tent walls etc. – whether any friendly snake or nasty creepy crawly creature had decided to pay a visit. Thankfully not. I am ok with snakes but I hate centipedes or scorpions or even innocent earthworms. Went to bed. It was a world away from Gurgaon and civilization (this place was heavily forested, frequented by leopards and bears and even tigers from time to time). Not sure when I fell asleep, listening to the sound of rain doing tap dancing on the tent.
Clouds, green, valleys…
The rain had stopped when I opened my eyes in the morning. It was quite chilly. I do try to keep a subconscious ear open when sleeping in a flimsy tent in the middle of wilderness, but I felt quite rested and fresh. Nature is rejuvenating!
Unzipped the tent flap and put my head outside. The grass outside was wet. There were a few birds calling from a tall deodar just outside the fence. A few parrots flew in for an Arnab Goswami session. After a spirited argument, they flew away, just when I was getting out the camera. A raven appeared over me, and then kept on going, its haunting croaks slowly disappearing as it went down into the 3000 feet deep valley. A black eagle soared far above, effortlessly making use of a thermal (convection current). Eventually it disappeared beyond a forested ridge.
Breakfast was simple. Hot alu paratha and butter and achaar. And hot tea. I never have tea in the city, I prefer strong black coffee. But when in the mountains, and especially when it is cold and wet, tea works just fine.
After fortifying the inner man, I decided to go out for a drive. It had started drizzling on and off, but I was familiar with the area (there was a deserted 18 km forest stretch ahead till Kunjhakarak forest rest house), and knew where I could park the vehicle and perhaps enjoy the mist. In most places the road was too narrow for two vehicles to pass, so one had to make sure that one parked in an appropriate place.
The tyres crunched over small rocks and fallen leaves as I slowly drove on the broken road. The rain had stopped for a while, so I decided to park at my favourite place. There was a steep drop of at least a couple of thousand feet. This was khaleej and cheer pheasant territory, but I knew they wouldn’t be around because of the weather. The wind was energetic and in a mood to roar. The clouds were all around – beside me, above me and below me. Such a place triggers my theta brainwaves. I am happy to sit for hours, look down into a deep and steep valley, encounter occasional ravens and eagles, and see the mist assuming so many forms. And just think of anything and nothing, especially during communion with a buddha sadhu.
Misty forest road
Green. Ferns, moss, silence…
After a couple of hours, I decided to drive ahead. I kept on hoping that I would encounter a leopard, but because of the rains that didn’t happen this time.
I would have spent more time in the middle of nowhere, but I started feeling greedy and hungry. I had ordered desi chicken from Nainital, and had asked the caretaker to cook it properly. Desi chicken masala, rice and lots of salad. Delicious. I can’t stay away from that for too long.
Drive through the mist
Took a nap after the heavy meal. Not a good idea, adds inches to one’s waistline. Whatever! It is supremely relaxing to sleep in a tent, with the main door flap and windows open, with mist coming in, and with the sound of rain joining hands with Morpheus to seduce you.
The rain had stopped when I woke up. It was almost dark. It was cold. I could hear the alarm calls of a kakar (barking deer) on the ridge above the road. I wanted to enjoy that lovely forest road before it became totally dark. So quickly splashed some water on my face, got myself ready for a wet and lonely forest walk, and started.
Had to keep an eye for overfriendly leopards and bears. Tigers were unlikely this time. And the caretaker had told me that the leopards in this region were following the protocol and were rather decent i.e. they were only interested in village dogs and goats and cattle. So no incidents of human-animal conflict in the last few years. Still, it sharpens the senses when one is walking on a lonely mountain road, with the wind making its own symphony, and with the dark shadows lengthening every moment.
I always check with the local folks before venturing out alone. Once, in Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary (a lovely rhododendron and oak forest, 8000+ feet high, with perhaps the best Himalayan view in Kumaon), the KMVN tourist rest house folks told me that there were mating leopards around (they get very cranky and aggressive around that time), and that I shouldn’t go for a solo walk in the forest around/after sunset. I still went. I was comfortable maintaining a certain distance – and diffusing the situation – if I encountered the amorous cats. But I have to admit. When I was walking alone, especially after the sun had set, the adrenaline was flowing high.
When out for such walks, I try to follow certain precautions. I carry a torch. I wear a cap (as backup) that has an LED light. And I keep track of which way the wind is blowing, and where there is undergrowth encroaching on the road, especially from the hillside.
The stroll stimulated all my senses (how many senses do we decay when we have been long in city pent?). When I went back, it was dark. I had to use a torch to travel the last one km. I had earlier asked the caretaker to get firewood for an evening fire. Told him to start building the fire. He said, “saab, aap thoda hojao, I will call you when the fire is ready”. I love seeing a fire getting lit. So I told him that I am getting a chair and sitting in front of him while he got it going. I could have started it too. I love doing that. I used to have regular winter campfires in my garden when I was in Bangalore. Always tried to build a roaring fire with one matchstick, without any kerosene; building a fire is an art; what fun is there when one pours fuel and just throws a matchstick? Anyway, sometimes one should just relax and enjoy.
The caretaker and I started talking. I invited him to come and sit beside the fire, and offered him whatever I was having.
He was full of questions. Why I am here alone? Where do I work? Why do I come here in the middle of the night? Have I seen a leopard or a tiger? After the last question, I had to show him a few of my photos. Then he asked me where I was going. Quo Vadis. I had no answer to that.
I asked him a few questions too, while his craggy face was lit by the crackling fire.
Where you are from? A village three km away.
How long have you been here? X years.
What are your kids doing? Studying, they hope to do higher studies in Nainital and then …
Have you encountered a leopard or a tiger here? Leopard, many times!! Once I was driving on that road around 8 pm, and this leopard was sitting right on the road. He didn’t get up for 10 minutes. I was on a bike, and I was afraid to push it, because it was huge male leopard. Tiger bhi dekha a few times, but not on the road. We generally try to not walk or ride after dark. Last year a cow was killed by a tiger in this village two km away.
One can make out whether it is a leopard or tiger kill. Let me not get into the gory differences.
I had requested him to get – if possible – juniper and resinous pine wood. He had. The fire smelt amazing. The breeze was cold; the flame was warm; and the hysterical alarm call of a barking deer was harsh. Some people are not comfortable in the midst of nowhere, especially in such a basic place. I happen to love such places when I am traveling alone.
Dinner. Rice, delicious desi chicken, lemon, and lots of onion and cucumber. #Perfect.
After dinner, I decided to go for a drive. Went back to the afternoon spot. Village lights – many km away – were twinkling deep in the valley. I sat on a rock, at the edge of a cliff. Grass all around. And just three feet away, a two thousand feet drop. The moon decided to pay a visit. I had parked Bison right next to me, so that frisky cats or bears would think twice before making a pass at me. Was not in a mood to fraternize.
Sat there for two hours. The moon flirted with the clouds. Heard the sawing of a leopard in the valley below. Barking deers kept calling from time to time. I somehow love those kakar calls. Haunting. Reminds me of Jim Corbett stories. The wind became colder. The homestead lights in the valley started dying, slowly, one after the other. It was time to go. It was too bloody cold anyway.
When I came back, the embers were about to die out. Sat for a few minutes, trying to enjoy the last few minutes of warmth. Then entered the tent. Went through the usual reconnaissance checklist – turning over the damp quilts and pillows, looking below the bed, checking the canvas, and shining the torch around the corners of the tent.
A lovely morning. The sun was up. Much warmer. Many more birds. But it was time to go. One slow, last drive to the pheasant place. No luck. Not even a griffon vulture. Decided to drive a few km ahead and wait at a birding place. Managed to get a few (snap) shots after careful stalking.
Sometimes light gets interesting
The trip back was meh. Got stuck in a jam for ‘only’ 1.5 hours near Hapur. Asked myself whether it was worth it – such a hectic drive, so much time in traffic, and the “nature immersion/silly travel” ratio. After some soul searching, the answer was the same. YES!