It was past two in the afternoon when our car rolled into the driveway of Kingfisher, Haryana Tourism Department’s motel on the tri-junction on NH-1 at Ambala where it meets NH-22 that traverses 460 KM to the north-west to reach Khab on the Tibet border. Kingfisher started its journey as a tastefully styled motel and is a part of the chain of 40 odd Government-run motels that dot Haryana’s highways. Each of the motels is named after a different bird and much of the infrastructure was created in late 60s and early 70s when the mercurial Bansi Lal, the architect of modern Haryana, was its Chief Minister. The aesthetics and upkeep of the motels has taken a beating over the ensuing decades and Kingfisher’s interiors look dated and tacky. I was late for the scheduled rendezvous with the Scribe and he had most predictably reached on time and was waiting impatiently for us to start our journey. His vintage station-wagon had been given a nice wash and a rub and the old lady gleamed cheerfully under the pleasant mid-October sun. As I hurriedly shifted my bags from my car the Scribe examined the ankle-length shoes I had picked up for him at the factory outlet at Karnal. He had wanted the canvas jungle-boots that I had been using for the treks for some time and could barely conceal his disappointment at having to settle for the leatherette version as the canvas shoe was out-of-stock. The Scribe is generally not bothered about what he wears but is somehow extremely finicky about his shoes. We waved our goodbyes to my family who were continuing with their journey to Delhi and we were off.
Off for a 10-day Training Program on Wildlife Conservation that was being organized by the Wildlife Institute of India at Dehradun. We hoped to interact with the country’s leading experts on wildlife. The email by the course director had promised a 5 day camping and trekking experience in some of the finest tiger and elephant habitats in the foothills of the Himalayas and we could barely contain our ‘school-boyish’ excitement. It was a ‘men only’ trip and it felt refreshing and thrilling to be out on an adventure. Managing the leave from office had proved surprisingly easy. It’s not every day that a guy asks for leave to attend a paid training course and our respective bosses had decided against playing spoil sport. The Scribe had pinched his wife’s Bluetooth speaker for the trip and I had the music of the romantic 70s going as we made our way along NH 72 through the hilly tract from Kala Amb to Nahan to cross the Yamuna at Paonta Sahib. We continued on the Chakrata road and it was dark by the time we reached Dehradun. We were driving by the Google Map directions on my phone and we honked our way through the busy bazaars crowded with the Dussehra festivities as we found our way to the WII Campus at Chandrabani. A prominent flex signage announcing the start of the training program greeted us at the main gate. It was clear that the institute meant business and that it was going to be a ‘busy’ holiday.
We asked for directions for the New Hostel where the course participants had been assigned accommodation on twin-sharing basis. We had been assigned the same room on our request and it reminded me of the room I had lived in, some two-decades earlier, during my University days. It had two wooden cots with rather stiff-looking mattresses. There was a pillow and a blanket for each bed. We had a plastic jug for water. There was a small ante-room where a kitchen area had been created with a sink and a shelf. A small table with drawers was placed between the cots. There was an attached bathroom and a door opened into the balcony outside. It was quite dark and we could make out nothing from the balcony besides the outlines of thick undergrowth and the night time sounds of insects. We were to wait for dinner at the old hostel as a Dussehra function was in progress at the auditorium. We decided to take a stroll around the campus while we waited for the dinner. All major buildings had a curious architecture and were made to resemble gigantic tents of concrete. The campus had some impressive Sal trees and pockets of thick ground cover. Presently, the WII ‘family’ emerged noisily from the auditorium and trooped to the large dining area of the ‘Old’ Hostel. Nobody seemed to take any notice of us ‘oddballs’ in the din and we meekly tagged along trying to locate our course director. We had started with the soup when he finally appeared and shook our hands warmly. I noticed the natural confidence and athletic build of the man as he introduced us to the other participants. For reasons more than one, the ‘Tramp’ has decided to christen him as the ‘Tiger-man’. He was the in-charge of our training and was going to be assisted by the ‘Bird-man’, a lean, spectacled and more serious looking colleague of his. There was the usual exchange of pleasantries and we headed to our room after the dinner.
The first acquaintance in our training batch of 15 was made that night with ‘100-400’. A tall, sun-burnt, outdoor man, who was working with the World Wildlife Fund on a project to deploy trap-cameras for photographing the Sunderbans tiger in the wild. His work entailed long hours on the boat through the swamps of the dense mangrove forest and he awed us with a rare video of a male tiger with a cub. A friendly, easy-to-get-along-with guy with the best camera lens (100-400) in the group! We would all watch with envy as he would hammer his distant subjects with a burst of photographs. The intent look on his face, the staccato whirring of the camera and the massive zoomed-out lens made him resemble the battle-hardy Vietnam-war combatant of the kill-all mortar squad!
And then there was the ‘Charmer’, a jovial, affectionate, happy-hearted youngster, who had quit a banking job out of boredom and was experimenting with free lance photography. His infectious, unaffected laughter filled the air all through the course and lifted our flagging spirits whenever the going got tough on the impossibly long treks.
We settled down for the night after fortifying ourselves with the good old, literal-and-proverbial, bottle of rum. The Scribe complained about the lumpy mattress. He had of course carried his own pillow from home! His pillow has to be the right thickness!! And of course a sleep-mask, to cut out the ambient light!! Life is not easy for these forty-something insomniacs.
We wore woken up in the morning with the rude clanging of the doorbell. It was the mess-boy with the morning tea. We carried our cups to the balcony and woke up to a refreshing view of a wetland landscape. The institute has created its own water-body by building a dam across a stream that runs through the campus. The marshy area all along this stream and the man-made lake has been allowed to grow wild and is completely overgrown with shrubs. A micro-habitat of sorts has been successfully created over the years around this lake and it now boasts of a rich bird life. The ‘New Hostel’ building has been set up on the southern bank of the lake and we had been luckily assigned a room on the lake facing side.
The birds seemed to have woken up to the morning at the same time as us. It was a treat to watch them lazily shake off the last remnants of sleep and groom themselves in preparation of yet another busy day in search of food. I generally require several more cups of tea for achieving the ‘tipping point’ that can no longer be attained by the action of gravity alone. So a full hour would be spent each morning watching the birds, some of which I managed to photograph.
The WII lake is surrounded by pockets of thickly growing Sal trees and foliage to its east and west and a nature track has been created around the lake that runs through this miniature forest.
The faculty have photographed leopard visits on this track on several occasions using a trap camera. Also residing on the campus in this lake-forest is the Yellow-throated Marten in addition to the several species of birds. There is also the not so fascinating (to the tramp!) population of reptiles including the cobra, the krait, the viper, the yellow-headed tortoise and the monitor lizard. Then there is the large population of the pesky Rhesus Macaque that far exceeds the ‘carrying capacity’ of this pocket-sized habitat and poses a nuisance to the tranquil environs of the institute. WII is itself located on the northern-eastern fringe of the Rajaji National Park which is a big contributing factor to the richness of the wildlife that resides on the campus. The stream emerges from the Rajaji Park to the south of the institute and runs through the campus to join a larger stream to the north-west that runs westwards to join the Asan River that drains the western half of the ‘Dehra’ valley (dun). Asan in turn meets the Yamuna at Paonta Sahib that marks the western limit of the Rajaji National Park.
The Rajaji National Park was created in 1982 with the merger of the Rajaji, Motichur and Chilla Wildlife Sanctuaries. It is spread over 820 Sq. Km in the Shivalik hill region and is home to several wildlife species including the Asian Elephant, the Bengal Tiger, the Leopard, the Sloth Bear, the Himalayan Black Bear, the Goral, the Sambar, the Nilgai, the Cheetal, the Barking deer and the Python. It has an equally rich presence of Avian Fauna of pheasants, woodpeckers, barbets, kingfishers and hornbills. The park is named after C. Rajagopalachari who was presented with a hunting reserve near Dehradun on his appointment as Independent India’s second Governor-General. A Gandhian and a pacifist, this austere Tamil Brahmin had no use for a hunting reserve and desired that the forest be made a safe-haven for the wildlife. Thus came into existence, the Rajaji Sanctuary that has today taken the shape of a vast National Park.
Interestingly enough, we later learnt that the final notification of the Rajaji National Park had been issued only days before, after a long wait of over three decades.
The mess-boy banged on our door to announce that the breakfast had been served. The bird-man joined us for the bread-and-omelette breakfast and walked us to our ‘Porta-cabin’ classroom well in time for the inaugural session.
We gradually discovered that WII followed a military-style discipline for running its courses. The institute was treating us gang-of-amateurs with utmost seriousness and it was probably a shade more than what us pretenders-to-the-cause-of-conservation possibly could deserve. The training course was formally inaugurated by the dean who gave us an overview of the field of wildlife conservation. Then followed a series of detailed presentations and lectures on different endangered species of wildlife and their habitats, by the respective subject experts.
We had a number of classes on the ‘large carnivores’, the first and foremost being the tiger. It was explained at the outset that the obsession of the conservationists with the tiger emanated from the fact that its survival signified the protection of a large ecological area that supported most other indigenous species of flora and fauna. Tiger is the ‘apex’ predator and the conservation of tiger habitat automatically signifies the conservation of all other species that exist lower down in the food chain. It is a kind of ‘ecological thermometer’ that gives us a measure of the health of the ecology. For the tiger to survive, its natural habitat comprising forests and the grasslands must survive. The forests support its natural prey, the large ungulates. Thus the cheetal, the sambar deer and the nilgai will survive in sufficient numbers only when their habitat is not ravaged by grazing of cattle. When the natural water sources are not poisoned by discharge of untreated urban sewage and industrial effluents. When the poachers don’t go unchallenged and unpunished. The tiger has always lived on its own terms, with the natural dignity and majesty of the ‘King’. It will not adapt beyond a point for mere survival. Thus unlike the wily leopard it shall not stoop to preying on village dogs and rodents once the Cheetal and Sambar have disappeared. It will not reconcile to scavenging of dead cattle like the lazy Asiatic lion of Gir. It needs to stalk and hunt down its ungulate prey like its ancestors have done through the ages. The male tiger with its large home range needs access to a large, unbroken stretch of forest to claim as its own. Fragment its habitat with highways and urban pockets and you might as well shoot down the majestic cat. For the males shall perish in the fight for territory. The species shall disappear through in-breeding if condemned to live in small isolated pockets of forests by the march of human ‘progress’ and colonisation. The lessons for conservation were simple and I shall list the core ideas I picked up.
- Relocate human settlements from the core areas of tiger habitat to minimize man-animal conflict. The tiger is generally wary of human contact but it remains an unpredictable animal. It can get aggressive if surprised. The tigress in heat can be irritable and nasty without provocation. Human casualties from such accidental encounters turn the locals to vengeful killing of the tigers through poisoning and snares. So does poaching of their cattle. Relocation minimizes such conflict and also saves the habitat from pressure of grazing and lopping and helps boost the natural prey population in the ‘liberated’ areas.
- Prevent fragmentation of habitats. Invest in elevated highways where roads must cut through forest areas instead of blocking development which would eventually turn people away from the cause of conservation. Create corridors to connect wildlife habitats by encouraging farmers to shift to agro-forestry.
- Put down poaching with a heavy hand. The pride and passion with which the Rhinos find protection in Kaziranga deserves emulation.
Experts shared their experience with the reintroduction of the tiger in Panna and Sariska National Parks. The Tiger-man spoke of the challenges involved in introducing tiger to the eastern part of Rajaji National Park, i.e., east of Ganga river. We were told that the Corbett National Park had achieved its carrying capacity for tigers and that they were now moving westwards through the corridor provided by the hilly, Lansdowne Forest Division to the Chilla forest range to the east of Ganga. A move was afoot to secure this corridor and the Union Forest & Environment Ministry had recently accorded an ‘in-principle’ approval for the inclusion of the Kotari, Laldhang, Kotdwara and Kalagarh ranges of the Lansdowne Forest Division in the neighbouring ‘Corbett Tiger Reserve’. The movement of tigers further west was interrupted by the Haridwar-Rishikesh highway and railway line, the Chilla Power Channel with its steep banks and the Army Ordnance Depot at Raiwala that was smack in the centre of the narrow corridor used by the wildlife for moving from the Chilla to Motichur range. An elevated road was under construction for past several years for replacing the existing Haridwar-Rishikesh road. The Army was also considering shifting its depot. The next frontier was the Yamuna river beyond which lay the Simbalwara Wildlife Sanctuary, the Kalesar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and the Morni hill forests that were once famous for tigers.
All this meant a greater commitment by the nation and we vowed to do our bit for igniting the passion in our community for the cause of conservation. One thing seemed obvious to the Tramp that at least some of us need to focus our energies on convincing our political leaders to commit greater resources to conservation efforts. We cannot simply wait for such time in the distant future when change shall follow from the education of the masses to the cause, as the game would have been irrevocably lost long before that.
Apart from the tiger, we also had a series of lectures on other important endangered species. We were told about the amazing success of the conservation programme of the Asiatic lion in Gir. How the lion had adapted to coexisting with the human kind. How the lions roam freely after sunset through the villages that lie on the fringes of Gir. How man-animal conflict has been reduced through a generous Government policy of providing quick compensation for the occasional poaching of cattle by the lions. We learnt about the reclusive ways of the Snow Leopard and its pictures taken by trap cameras. And about the ‘Chiru’ antelope of the Tibetan Plateau that has been mercilessly hunted at those impossible altitudes for its precious wool that is woven into ‘Shahtoosh’ shawls by the Kashmiri weavers. We were introduced to the temperamental Himalayan Black Bear in Kashmir’s Dachigam National Park. We were amused to hear the incredible story of a radio-collared bear that stubbornly resisted its removal from a human habitation area. The bear would promptly make its way back to the original place despite being repeatedly tranquilized and captured. We were educated about the differences between the Asiatic and the African Elephant. How the pachyderm is an efficient forest gardener. How its poor digestion yields fibrous dung that provides nutrients to the soil and helps in germination of seeds. How the elephant herd uses its brute strength for forcing its way through dense forests leaving a path (the ‘haathi-dandi’) to be followed by animals and humans alike. How the flapping of its massive ears reduces its body temperature by causing cooling of blood in superficial blood vessels. How its height at shoulder is twice the circumference of its forefoot. There was a class on the natural regeneration of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve after restrictions were imposed on entry of tourists and mountaineering expeditions. We were told about the differences between turtles and tortoises. How the sex of the turtle offspring is determined by the temperature at the time of incubation. How global warming may wipe out entire species by disturbing the natural sex ratios. Then there was the presentation on snakes. We were introduced to the ‘Big Four’ of the venomous snakes of India (those that cause the maximum deaths!) – the Cobra, the Krait, the Saw-Scaled Viper and the Russell ’s viper. We were told about the differences in their venoms. The Cobra bite hits the nervous system and causes respiratory failure, the Viper’s bite causes bleeding and the Krait’s bite causes muscular paralysis. Many die of sheer fright even when most bites can be treated with Anti-Snake Venom within four hours of the bite. The presentation included a picture of the hand of the young presenter, after being bitten by a Common Krait! There was an extended session on wildlife forensics. How wildlife species could be identified from hair, bones, scats etc. We were shown the state-of-the-art DNA fingerprinting facility where DNA profiling of endangered species is done. The WII scientists can tell with reasonable accuracy from which part of the country a tiger has been poached by studying its DNA profile. We learnt about the Himalayan birds. The bio-diversity of the Western Ghats.
The classroom sessions were interspersed with tea breaks that afforded an opportunity for chit-chat and we gradually got introduced to the faculty and all our interesting course-mates.
One may start with the ‘Tiger-man’, for he is quite much as interesting as the magnificent, striped feline he studies. One cannot help but be drawn by his natural magnetism, the unaffected confidence with which he conducts himself and the charm of his understated wit. Later through the course when he led us through the forests we also got a taste of his remarkable endurance, his tiger-like love for ‘territory’ and the reckless streak that lies hidden under the cool exterior. An affable man whose smile never really reaches his eyes. A man whose passion for his work, commands respect. A friendly, likeable man you would definitely not want to trifle with!! He started his career with the study of nesting sites of the Olive-Ridley sea turtle on the coast of Odisha. The nesting season sees the simultaneous ‘landing’ of thousands of female turtles on the beach, who hurriedly bury their eggs in sand before returning to the safety of the seas. Not much is known about the behaviour patterns and movement of this small sea turtle. Our man spent two years of his life catching and tagging turtles in high-seas. A hermit living alone on a lonely island off the coast of Odisha, with only his two assistants for company. But he is not the one for being tied down to a spot for long. The restlessness within compels him to seek out new challenges. To brave new dangers! He left the obscurity of the turtles for the romance with the tiger. Maybe he answered to the call of his destiny that promises him a place in the sun. He has since been working in the Terai-arc that forms the tiger’s last surviving habitat in the north, systematically studying its movement and behaviour. He is intimately involved with photographing the tiger population in the arc by setting up camera-traps. He works on developing a knowledge base that can convince the nation and powers that be, to do what needs to be done to save the ‘King of the Jungle’ and its fascinating world from certain extinction.The Tramp could not resist pinching for his readers the Tiger-man’s prized photograph of a tiger watching Haridwar town from atop a hill taken by a camera-trap , a King cornered by the march of human civilization.
Then there was the lovable ‘Bird-man’ – soft-spoken and refined. A dedicated field-researcher. A man who spent years chasing his beloved birds living amongst the rat-eating tribes of the Far East (it was a pity that his ornithological pursuits did not leave room for a study of the quaint primitive cultures of these little known jungle tribes). A born teacher. He was there with us all through- the classes, the meals, the excursions, the bus journeys and the forest treks. He would patiently answer our every little query, however laughable, with utmost sincerity and seriousness. He was now engaged in a study to understand the reasons for the decline in diversity of bird species as one moves westwards along the Himalayas. He was also involved in a programme to tag the Amur falcons that briefly touch Nagaland on their long migration from Siberia to Southern Africa. It was amusing to see this serious scientist blush when kidded about the risks of being married to a spider-woman!!
And now for something about our other course mates. The ‘Hawk-eye’ – a sensitive young man, on a silent journey of self-discovery. He had returned from across the seas and was currently ‘between jobs’. A thorough gentleman, always alert to the needs of others. But what set him apart from all the rest of us, was that incredible hawk-eye vision that could pick-up the smallest of birds from the most impossible of distances. No camouflage seemed good enough to conceal a bird from his roving eyes. We would all follow the direction of his finger as he would announce his discovery with sudden excitement. The zoom lens would go whirring out and binoculars would be hastily focused with trembling hands as we scanned the landscape impatient to make the spotting. The Bird-man would then have us amazed by reeling off facts about the bird species in his scholarly, matter-of-fact style. And most of us would still be trying to spot the miserable bird!! Between the two of them, they were quite an unbeatable team.
Then there were those ‘Techies from the South’. There was that tall, suave, perfectly groomed gentleman who had easily the best trekking gear in our group, if not the country. He talked very little but had a friendly presence and seemed a die-hard nature enthusiast. Most of his stylish stuff was from ‘Olive Planet’, a store that specializes in ‘premium military gear’ and I promised myself a better gear on the next such training! His younger colleague was the son of a forester and was in the serious business of conservation. He captivated his friends with his tales of his many escapades in the forests- the brush with a bear, the encounters with elephants, the photo shoot of a leopard.
We had a ‘Happy Banker’ – a decent, mature gentleman whose love of forests and nature had not let the monotony of his job get to him. He had found out some wonderful forest ‘hideouts’ that offered him a respite from the drudgery of our mundane existence. A deceptively fit man, who handled his bulk with a natural ease.
The atmosphere would have been heavy with the boring shop talk of us foggies but for the cheerful prattle of the ‘Talkative-one’. She talked to anyone and everyone about nothing in particular! Her companion had definitely decided to compensate for the din and managed to maintain a scrupulous silence for the most part. She did have us shocked though when she announced that she rescued snakes for a hobby!
We also had in our team the laid-back, well-fed ‘Lion from Gir’. And a ‘Doctor Sahib’ who would not be dissuaded from applying his daily quota of ‘Keo-Karpin’ even at the risk of offending the olfactory sensibilities of the notoriously ill-tempered pachyderms of Rajaji National Park. There was the tech-savvy ‘Ad-Guru’ from Mumbai whose journey ended in a pilgrimage of sorts. And there was this refined, well-mannered honcho from the corporate world.
Finally, there was the ‘Nasik-Tiger’, that unforgettable man from Malegaon. He was a man on a mission. He had found the evidence of a tiger sighting in Nasik and he was not going to let any half-baked expert talk him out of it! An inquisitive man, whose natural curiosity led him to endless rounds of questions that could exasperate and amuse at the same time. A confident man, who knew where he was going and did not care a fig for your opinion. Gregarious and energetic, there was never a dull moment while he was around.
That was our group of fifteen. On the whole a happy, queer bunch.
While the classroom lectures were absorbing, yet we were all there mostly for the field trips. The true enthusiasts amongst us had woken up early on the very first day and had checked out the nature trail that went around the lake. I could spot the Hawk-eye and 100-400 from my balcony, making their way through the shrubs on the far side of the lake, with their cameras trained on some distant targets. The duo had bagged a picture of a Pied-Hornbill even before the games were declared open! The Bird-man took us on a campus familiarization walk along the trail that evening after the classes were over. I clicked the pulpy red flower of the Wild Ginger. The dainty pink flowers of Barleria cristata that were growing wild all over the place. I zoomed to capture the woolly white flowers of a small tree that could not be identified.
We learnt to recognize the wild pear tree. We were told about the timber qualities of the tall Sal trees that brought the British to Dehradun. Sal was best identified by the deep vertical furrows in its distinctive orange-brown bark. I established my credentials as an amateur nature-enthusiast by pointing out the ‘Tree of Damocles’. The Pilgrim spotted a Monitor Lizard. And also the Skittering Frogs that walk on water! The tall erect shrub with large yellow flowers that caught your eye was the Wild Lady Finger.
The New-Hostel building where we were housed was looking like a luxury lakeside-resort from across the lake. It was beginning to get dark and I regretted not having carried my Fuji HS50 for the walk as the Scribe gleefully flaunted a nice picture of a giant spider that he had managed despite the poor light. This triggered off a photography war between us (Fuji versus Nikkon) with the Bird-man choosing to bet for the Scribe. The Scribe does manage to charm people with his ‘I am a gentleman and he is a crooked cop’ look!
The Snake-man from the East was accompanying us quietly on the walk. He would lift the Kota-stone slabs lying along the forest trail every once in a while to check if some snake had chosen the damp spot under it as its abode! We were told that the thick Sal pockets near the lake were visited frequently by a leopard from the adjoining forest. The leopard’s visit triggers a panic exodus of the otherwise aggressive Macaques who love to terrorize the campus dwellers. The Bird-man was peeved by their cheeky raids on his precious fruit trees and could barely conceal his intense dislike for their creed.
The Bird-man had an excursion planned for us after lunch on day 3 to the Benog Wildlife Sanctuary near Mussoorie. We cheerfully clambered on board the Institute bus with our cameras and water-bottles like a bunch of excited school kids. I noticed the overbearing and ill-tempered bus driver as he glowered at us for no reason. He was an old hand at the Institute and didn’t think much of the city-bred researchers and nature hobbyists. The faculty, however, chose to ignore the cheeky behaviour, much to my astonishment. The Dehradun traffic was killing but once we had left the city the hill drive to Mussoorie was pleasant. The monsoons had made a delayed retreat this year and the seasonal springs were still in full flow. We saw how the Indian Army had successfully reclaimed large parts of the ‘hillscape’ that had been ravaged by limestone mining. The miners had covered the ugly exposed scars in the hills with green paint when the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had decided to do an aerial survey to assess the environmental damage due to the mining. We nature lovers have a lot to thank the old lady for, whatever her other failings. She was undoubtedly the first political leader to have championed the cause of environmental conservation in an era when the problem was not so well understood.
We turned for the road to Kempty falls at the ‘Library Point’ at Mussoorie and drove for another half-hour till we reached the ‘kutcha’ road to Benog. We then began the pleasant hour-long uphill trek to the sanctuary gate.
The Bird-man was accompanied by a botany researcher who helped identify the wild flowers as we walked up the hill track. We saw the Yellow Dandelions, the colourful white and pink Daisy fleabanes and the beautiful yellow bells of the Himalayan Clematis.
There were also those large, brightly-coloured spiders that were happily feasting on the wide variety of bugs that they had ensnared into their silky webs.
We crossed an adventure camp that had diverted a hill stream to run the water through a swimming pool!
We spotted a number of ‘croaky’ Grey Treepies and also the Red-billed Blue Magpies that look spectacular in flight with their long trailing tail feathers. A Blue Whistling Thrush posed for a picture. The Whistling Thrush is a frequent winter visitor to Morni hills and it sometimes lets out a clearly discernible whistle just before it lands from flight. I photographed the peculiar looking nuts of an Oak tree from up close. And a Wild Pear Tree that we had learned to identify on the WII campus. There were Chir pines and Fir trees all over the landscape. There were other trees with curious woody flowers or fruits.
100-400 was lost in his world happily firing away with his monstrous camera. It was comical to see him jolted out of his spell by the Nasik-Tiger who would demand that his picture be clicked at every scenic spot on that lovely jungle track. The Tiger (Nasik T-001!)was having the time of his life and he wanted to take back with him the blow-by-blow photographic evidence of the same! When rude sleeve tugging failed to yield the desired result he would embarrass 100-400 into agreeing to click that ‘one last pic’ with his loud plaintive appeals! The man does not understand ‘NO’ for an answer and is destined to make a real contribution to the cause of conservation while the likes of the Tramp will content themselves with writing blog posts!
The track went through the gate and ended in a grassy meadow with an idyllic cottage and a beautiful stream of clear water. There were beautiful wild flowers all around. The tiny wild red strawberry, the delicate pink Himalayan Balsam and the feathery white seed head of the Dandelion. We were told that the area was a part of a private tea estate during the British era but the estate had eventually proved nonviable. The owners had experimented with sheep farming but the venture did not succeed. The area is now a bird watcher’s paradise and the Bombay Natural History Society organizes birding treks to the ‘Benog Tibba’. The Sanctuary is now a part of the Rajaji National Park and is supposed to be home to the Himalayan Quail that was last sighted in 1876! There have been unconfirmed reports of sightings and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is yet to declare the species as extinct. The Uttarakhand Forest Department has recently declared a reward of Rs. 1 lac for anyone who brings evidence of the existence of the bird.
The Bird-man had made arrangements for a picnic at the small forest rest house at Benog. It felt happy to be sipping the hot tea and munching on biscuits without a care in the world, feeling the fresh hill breeze in your face and hearing the light-hearted banter of those new found friends.
One could opt for a jeep ride on the way back but most of us decided to trudge back to the bus. The Scribe managed to snatch a picture of a Grey Treepie while I was struggling with my zoom lens.
I pooh-poohed the picture that he triumphantly presented as the trophy of the day of a beetle having immobilized a caterpillar with its venomous sting before devouring it. It was the ‘Assassin bug’ in action, if the Hawk-Eye was to be believed.
It was the Scribe’s lucky day and he went on to click an unbelievably beautiful picture of the near full moon that had risen in the evening sky.
We halted briefly at the Mussoorie mall that offers a nice night view of the twinkling Dehradun lights. I persuaded the Scribe to accompany me for a walk till the bookstore near that quaint, colonial-style building of SBI.
The mall had not changed much in the last 15 years. It was here that I had spent the most memorable time of my life, romancing the lass who taught me the business of living.
On day 4 we were taken for a visit to the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology that was set up in 1968 and named after Dr. D N Wadia, the father of Himalayan geology. The institute has a small museum that houses fossils recovered from the Shivalik hill region. I was joyous to see the fossils from all around the Morni hill region- Pinjor, Nada, Raipur-rani etc. There was a scaled down fibre glass model of the Sivatherium Giganteum, the four-horned antelope that went extinct. There were fossils of extinct species of elephants and hippopotami. There was an incisor of Homo Erectus (early human species that appeared 1.8 million years ago) recovered from Nada in Pinjore. The Nasik-Tiger ignored the repeated suggestions to refrain from photographing the exhibits. I shamelessly stole a few with my phone camera! There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity of photographing pieces of the evolutionary history of my precious Morni hills!
We then visited the Forest Research Institute with its imposing 75 year old Greco-Roman style building, probably the grandest structure to be built during the days of the British Raj.
The Institute chiefly focuses on forest research in the terai-arc and the Himalayas and houses several museums. For some curious reason we were rudely denied entry to the Timber Museum that houses the transverse section of a 700 year old deodar. We saw the Entomology and Non-Wood Forest Products museums that felt musty and dull with no one around to do any explaining. The place looked dead despite all its imperial grandeur. The Scribe and I cut the visit short and spent the evening browsing books at Dehradun’s iconic ‘Natraj Bookstore’ that has an excellent collection of books on wildlife and environment. I picked up JC Daniel’s book on the ‘Leopard in India’.
We packed up that night for the 5 day camping at the Laldhang Forest Rest House. We double-checked for the rucksack, the camera charger, the jungle boots, the torch, the water bottle, the jungle hat and the sun-glasses. We were to vacate the Hostel and had been given a room for storing the excess baggage. The Scribe persuaded me to leave the Old Monk behind in the interest of maintaining camp discipline!
We loaded our stuff onto the bus after lunch and I could not help but note the wry expression with which the driver greeted us. He was narrating some incident to his assistant within our ear-shot, about the day when the ‘sahib log’ had fled in the face of some danger (probably an encounter with a rogue tusker) leaving him saddled with the responsibility of saving the bus. He was not going to mince words while letting us know what he thought about the likes of us! The portly mess-commander was a complete contrast to this cynical man. He was getting the enormous cooking pots and LPG cylinders loaded onto a jeep, a 4X4 soft top Gypsy with stylish alloy wheels. He was anxious to reach Laldhang ahead of us so that he could set up his kitchen in time to serve us an early dinner. The Tiger-man was going to pilot our bus in his personal 4X4 Scorpio. I had also spotted him earlier on the campus, riding his 500 cc Enfield Bullet Classic with mind-blowing accessories from Cramster. The best job in the world. The best jeep in the country. A motor-bike one could die for. Some guys have all the luck!!
We took the Dehradun-Rishikesh road that crosses through the Rajaji National Park. The driver fumed at the idiocy of the cops who had parked their jeep dangerously close to a couple of tuskers standing close to the edge of the forest and were attempting a photograph with their phone cameras! We crossed the historic Rishikesh Railway Station that was the terminal station for the railway line built by the British to transport timber from the Sal forests of the Terai region. We now took the scenic road that runs along the ‘Shakti Canal’ that runs along the left bank of the Ganga River. Water is diverted into the canal from the Pashulok Barrage, built across the Ganges at Virbhadra, 5 KM south of Rishikesh. The canal carries the water to the 144 MW Chilla Power House that lies some 15 KM downstream of the Virbhadra barrage. The water from the power house is then discharged back into the Ganges. This ambitious run-of-the-river power project was started in the mid- 70s and was commissioned in 1981. It involved the ticklish construction of the 14.3 KM long power channel (the ‘Shakti Canal’) that had to traverse the path of several torrential nallahs and rivulets that flow down from the hills to join the Ganges. The engineering problem was tackled by building aqueducts to carry the water across two nallahs through an overhead channel. The largest rivulet was negotiated by diverting the canal through an underground channel. We had taken this circuitous route as the Tiger-man wanted us to see this narrow corridor that is still available for the movement of tigers and elephants from the Chilla range to the western part of the Rajaji National Park. The elephants, we were told, are excellent swimmers despite their gross look and easily swim across the Ganges stopping only for a short breather on one of the river islands! The Shakti Canal, however, poses an additional obstacle for approaching the Ganga as its banks are far too steep to be negotiated by most animals. The wildlife thus prefers to follow the path along the bed of the rivulets and cross the canal under the aqueduct bridges or at the point where the canal goes underground.
We stopped at one of the aqueduct bridges and walked down to the bed of a nallah that flowed under the canal. Tigers had been photographed with camera-traps at this location.
Vultures circled the sky at a distance. I pointed out the spiky green pods of the Nicker-nut bush that originates from the beaches of the Caribbean islands. I couldn’t help feeling pleased with the distance I had traveled from being a complete illiterate in matters of nature.
We crossed the Chilla Power House and stopped for tea at the nice tourist reception area on the entrance of the Chilla Forest Range.
A shop selling T-Shirts and animal books to the tourists had on display a half-burnt wooden log with mushrooms growing out of it! But then maybe they were not mushrooms at all.
We continued along the road to hit the Haridwar-Najibabad road. We then turned left to take the road to Laldhang, a small township on the bank of the Rewasan River. Laldhang was the place where the Rohilla Chief, Faizullah Khan made peace with the Nawab of Oudh after his defeat at the hands of the joint forces of Oudh and East India Company in 1774. Rohillas were the Pathan highlanders of the Yusufzai tribe of Afghanistan who were brought in and settled at Bareilly and Rampur by Aurangzeb to suppress the Rajputs. Faizullah Khan was thereafter installed as the first Nawab of the Princely State of Rampur after the dismemberment of Rohilkhand.
It was dark by the time we reached the Forest Rest House that seemed to have emerged straight out of a Jim Corbett book. The colonial-style 19th century bungalow had a tiled sloping roof and a large verandah. The main sitting room had an operational fireplace and a gun-rack!
The rest house had a fairly large, grassy campus with a grove of tall trees. The campus was surrounded by a low barbed wire fence and a thick line of trees, mostly teak, that had been planted by the forest department. The wooded low hill that overlooked the campus from the south seemed to cast a gloomy shadow over the entire area. It did not help to know that the enthusiastic lady DFO of the area had recently spotted a tiger on that hill. Thankfully it was a full moon night!
The Rewasan river flowed silently in the north and beyond it lay the Chilla and Laldhang Forest ranges that were home to the tigers, leopards and elephants who suddenly seemed much more real.
The men were to be housed in the five large tents that that had been pitched next to the fence, the typical Kumbh Mela variety. Each tent had four folding-cots and two rather rough-looking tables. The camp organizer had thoughtfully provided two power points for charging our mobile phone and camera batteries. The bedding seemed clean though basic. The toilets had been set up at the far end of the campus. Squatting toilets surrounded by flimsy tin sheets and with doors that defied attempts at locking! A leaky water tanker was parked right next. The freshly bought colourful plastic buckets gleamed cheerfully in the Moonlight!
It was early dinner for us that day as we were to take an early start in the morning. The Tiger-man introduced us to a Gujjar tracker, Imam Hussain who was his companion for the past fifteen years. The mutual respect between the two was apparent and it felt good to know that he was going to be with us all through.
The Scribe and I shared our tent with the Tiger-man and the Doctor-sahib. A powerful breeze caused the teak trees to rustle rather menacingly. The Tiger-man told us about the terrible night he had spent in the Bhutan forests in a tent next to a tree that housed a Viper! How he had nightmares of the reptile slithering into his sleeping bag. He promptly slept-off thereafter, his snores competing with the creaking and rustling of the teak trees. Doctor-sahib spent the night keeping his quilt tucked in tightly, lest a snake should find its way up the end touching the ground! I recalled Corbett’s vivid accounts of the gory deeds of the man-eaters that prowled in these forests and the disturbing jungle sounds of the night would not allow me to get into deep sleep. The cacophony from the Ramlila also did not help! Curiously, the Ramlila in these parts does not end with the burning of Ravan’s effigy at Dusshera and continues right up-till Diwali.
The mid-night trip to the tin-shed toilets, with the moon-lit trees swaying noisily in the breeze and that gloomy hill casting its haunting shadow on the campus, tested your nerve to a point that you would not readily admit!!
We woke up at 5:30 AM to the cheerful call of the mess boy who brought us the morning tea. I dragged myself out of the bed with some trepidation and prepared myself for the painful squat! The ordeal was followed by a cold water bath under the teak trees with the noisy babblers and the colourful Flameback for company. We had a heavy breakfast and were raring to go by 7. The Forest Range Officer of the Laldhang Range had decided to join us for the trek and he was accompanied by two armed guards. Imam, our bearded tracker, was there with his nephew and two sons who were dressed in long shorts and plastic slippers. I felt sorry to see the poor lads clad in slippers, happy to have my own feet secure in the ankle-length canvas jungle boots. We were to walk along the bank of Rewasan River to reach the hills to the north that formed the corridor for the tigers that crossed over to Chilla from Corbett through the Lansdowne Forest Division. The Bird-man was the group leader for the day and we trooped out of the rest house with an air of anticipation. The adventure had begun.
We followed the short track that led us to the Rewasan River, which sparkled softly under the morning sun. We would have to wade through knee-deep water to cross the Rewasan. As I sat down to unlace the ankle-length jungle shoes I realized that our Gujjar guides were far better equipped for the task with their shorts and slippers. I rolled-up my jeans, held on to my shoes with one hand, keeping the other free for the balancing-act as I cautiously made my way through the swift current. It was tricky business and one was presented with the dilemma of choosing between danger and discomfort. The large smooth rocks were easy on the feet but were dangerously slippery. The smaller stones were safer to tread on but were tough on the feet. Progress was slow and I realized that I was lagging behind. The prospect of suffering the ignominy of a fall so early in the day, however, kept me from trying any heroics. I was, after all, the oldest participant of this Course!
We now entered a level forest patch with heavy teak plantation. The Bird-man was not too happy with the forest department’s decision to plant teak for reclaiming disturbed forests as the species was not indigenous to the area and did not help in the sustenance of wildlife. The teak tree allows no undergrowth and thus inhibits the herbivore population. Diminished availability of prey in turn finishes off the carnivores that lie higher on the food chain. The tree is shunned by even the avian fauna. Furthermore, the high quality timber of the Teak tree makes it a liability as the forest department has to guard it against illegal felling. Teak has however been popular since the early-sixties for forestry plantations in the Terai due to its robust character and low mortality.
We crossed a deserted and somewhat spooky looking temple. The white-washed, single-domed structure looked more like a ‘Mazaar’ (mausoleum) and we were surprised to learn that it was a temple.
I took a peek inside an open termite hill. We were told that the Sloth bears loved raiding the termite colonies and the scat analysis of bears invariably revealed an abundance of the white exoskeletons of the termite. Imam picked up a not-so-recent pugmark of a leopard and this sent a thrill through the entire group.
We were back to crossing the Rewasan and I once again struggled to loosen the extra long laces of my jungle shoes, conscious of not wanting to be seen as a straggler. It was the same painful walk over that uncomfortable, rocky, river bed. I have hated walking bare foot all my life and the soft, inexperienced soles of my feet were completely unequal to this test of endurance.
We were now entering the indigenous Terai forests and we now saw the heavily lopped Chhal trees, the Sein with its tell-tale ‘crocodile bark’, the Baheda with its edible nuts, the Rohini which is a favourite with the elephants, the Haldu, the Papri, the Bael tree, the Sal and the many more that I lost track of.
Many of the tree species that I saw were the same as are found in the Morni hills and I was happy to be able to identify a few. The Coffee Weed with its delicate yellow flower competed with the hardy Lantana in a battle to dominate the undergrowth. I was the only one to spot the beautiful orange-yellow flowers of the Honey Suckle Mistletoe. Interestingly enough while our young Gujjar guides knew the botanical names of many of the trees and plants yet they were at a complete loss when asked about the common names. The days of traditional knowledge being passed on from the father to the son were clearly over and these boys owed most of their knowledge to the WII scientists and researchers whom they accompanied on the field trips.
There were colourful spiders all around, feasting on the plentiful prey and I managed some impressive ‘macro’ shots.
We walked past a bamboo plantation that was enclosed within an electric fence. The fence delivers a micro-second pulse of a high-voltage shock when touched and this is generally enough to dissuade an elephant from attempting a raid on the plantation.
A forest guard told me that the fence cannot, however, stave-off a determined attempt at a break-in by a pachyderm. The elephants are known to tear-off branches of trees and use them as wooden-clubs for demolishing the electric fence! I was reminded of the Kenneth Anderson story in which the author and his tribal trackers are chased by an enraged rogue elephant until they manage to seek refuge atop a high rock, outside the reach of the elephant’s trunk. The elephant then attempts to sweep them off their high perch with the help of a broken tree branch held in its trunk to increase its reach.
We passed a quaint looking Gujjar dera with huts having mud-plastered walls and thatched roofs. The walls had large openings for letting in light and air. Gujjars are believed to have come to the Shivalik region from Jammu in early 19th century as part of the dowry of a Nahan princess! This was the time when Nahan was itself overrun by the fiery Gurkha general, Amar Singh Thapa. The Gujjars were pastoralists and settled down with their cattle in deras near the water courses in the Shivalik foothills. They would migrate every year with their buffaloes to the Alpine meadows of Jammu in the dry summer months. Eventually, their original homeland closed its doors on them and they were now forced to graze their cattle in the Terai belt all through the year. This led to overgrazing of grasslands and heavy lopping of trees. Water sources got polluted with dung. This ruined the natural habitat of the herbivores leading to fall in availability of prey for the carnivores, with the tiger taking the biggest hit. The calls for conservation led to the first resettlement in the 1980s with Gujjar families being shifted to the Pathari forest block to the south of the Chilla range. A second relocation was done to shift Gujjar families from the Chilla range to the Gujjar colony at Ghaindikatha. The rehabilitation package was attractive, with 0.8 hectares of arable land being offered per male adult with additional land and allowance for building a new home.
We decided to take a peep inside their dera. There were no buffaloes and the cows looked emaciated. The houses were bare with virtually no furniture other than some charpoys. We were told that the Gujjars led a frugal, isolated life and most hoped to be rehabilitated to a more hospitable terrain by the Government. Their brethren settled in villages in the foothills of Morni are definitely better off financially though they continue to practice the summertime migration with their cattle during the dry months when water becomes scarce in the porous ‘bhabar’ belt. I picked up a stick for use as a walking aid and it was my treasured companion for the next four days.
We once again left the forest track to re-enter the Rewasan valley. I photographed a White-browed Wagtail as I settled down on a rock to remove my shoes for the nth time. I, however, missed the beautiful White-capped Redstarts.
The walk ‘along’ the river had turned out to be a walk ‘through’ the river and we had to cross the Rewasan six times as we followed the meandering course of the river.
The forest guards showed us numerous leopard pugmarks along the river. The Tiger-man had spotted a King Cobra basking in the sun on the river bank some days earlier but we had no such luck! We had been walking for three hours when we left the river valley and began climbing up the hills to the South.
The climb started with an easy gradient which became progressively difficult. I was consistently bringing up the rear and had the Talkative-one, the Gir-Lion and the Happy-Banker for company. One of Imam’s sons had been tasked with ensuring that none of us stragglers lost the way and it felt reassuring to have him for company. I was hastily photographing whatever wild flowers I could manage and I got the Philippine-violet, the Common Sida, the Pink Burr, Wild Orchid, some delicate mauve flowers, dullcreamy-white flowers and a white fern.
There was elephant dung on the narrow hill tracks and we were amazed to learn that elephants used these tracks with ease despite their bulk.
The Bird-man ordered the first halt and showed us a Painted Grasshopper. He picked up the hard leathery cocoon (ootheca) of the Praying mantis (a grasshopper like insect with forelimbs folded to give it a ‘prayer-like’ posture) that was cut open with great difficulty with my Swiss-knife (a gift from the Scribe!) to reveal a white, woolly interior. The Scribe playfully kept it in the outer pocket of my rucksack and was actually upset to later discover that I had unthinkingly thrown away his precious trophy!
There was no ‘wildlife’ to be seen so we compensated by focusing on the insects! I jostled with my mates to get a close-up of a caterpillar nest!
The march continued and we tasted the wild berries and aamlas for those extra calories! We had run out of the supplies of the light snacks that some of us had been carrying. Water supplies were also running low as the bright sun made us weary and thirsty. The Bird-man seemed fresh as ever and showed as the scat of a leopard. It was white because of the calcium in the bones it had chewed. The scat had tufts of hair that had been passed out undigested.
The scat was old but the pug mark in the wet soil that we crossed on our way was less than an hour old. This time the thrill was real and I noticed that the tail-enders fastened their pace perceptibly to get closer to the safety of the main pack. We next saw the elongated scats of the porcupine.
We had reached the 600 metre high ‘peak’ by 1 PM and now began the precipitous descent. Fatigue had now set in and all of us walked silently to conserve energy. The Chatterbox and the Gir-Lion were beginning to fall back repeatedly and I noticed that 100-400 kept his eye on them often waiting to let them catch-up. Imam had now fallen back to take the stragglers under his tutelage. The Happy Banker narrowly missed a nasty fall. My right-knee did not like the stress of the unending descent. A couple of tight-spots had us slithering down on our backsides tamely rather than risk a fall. We finally reached a spring where we drank to our fill. My face was flushed an unhealthy pink and I doused my head under the soothing waters of the spring to cool my radiator!
The walk was now manageable and I picked up my pace to the great amusement of 100-400 who laughed at the performance of the vintage diesel engine that carried on chugging despite the occasional splutter! I heard a blunt ‘Woof’ call being repeated from somewhere close. The ranger said that it was a leopard, probably a juvenile.
We finally hit the level patch and entered a forest. We stopped at yet another Gujjar dera where we were most graciously offered tea. As we relaxed on the woven charpoys the Gujjar kids looked at us with open curiosity. The Hawk-eye could not resist clicking a cute little girl who posed for the snap with confidence as her toothless Grand pa looked on with mirth. The old man’s amusement was complete as I chased his brightly-coloured roosters for a photograph!
We had walked for 8 hours, a distance of 15 KM when we hit the Laldhang-Kotdwar road. For once I was happy to see our bus driver standing by his bus with his characteristic sardonic smile. We boarded the bus wearily, hungry and tired. It was a 5 KM bus ride back to the rest house. We finally managed to spot some wildlife- a female Sambar standing on the dry river bed that we crossed on our way back home.
We had finished the first day of trekking without any misadventure and some of us still had the energy to go for a bath-in-the-open in the cool waters of Rewasan after the late-lunch. I settled for a repeat of the under-the-teak-tree experience! It felt refreshing to wash off the sweat and grime and to enjoy the rice pulav with the feet plonked comfortably on a spare chair.
The Scribe and I later checked out the town market. Some of our friends were having sweetened lassi (buttermilk) at the local ‘halwai’ shop. There were a number of small and dusty grocery stores. We bought some chocolates and peanuts for the next day’s trek. I bought a shaving mirror (I had shaved with the help of the side-view mirror of our bus, earlier that day!). The Scribe picked up over-sized boxers in the most shocking colours (apparently the only size and colour available)! We bought some apples.
I sorely missed the Old Monk that night. It would surely have brought succor to my swollen right knee!
Day 2 at Laldhang started with a repeat of the early morning drill. Things moved with the usual clockwork precision of a WII operation! By 7AM the entire group was all geared up for the ‘Mother-of-all-Treks’, waiting for the Commander’s signal to move. Well it was not the entire group really as we had two drop-outs. The previous day’s walk up and down the craggy hillside had taken its toll after-all! Tiger-man was going to lead us on a long trek that traversed the entire breadth of the Chilla forest range from east to west. Wise after the previous day’s experience we quizzed him about the actual distance that we would be walking that day. He gave non-committal replies, choosing to charm us instead with his jokes and forest anecdotes. He had warned us against using any colognes or aftershaves as the ill-tempered pachyderms of Chilla were quick to pick up smells. Doctor Sahib feigned not to have understood that the advisory applied equally to the copious amounts of Keo-Karpin oil that he was so diligently applying to his already over-greased mop.
We crossed the Rewasan on jeeps to save ourselves the bother of having to remove our shoes. We stopped at the drop-down barrier of the forest department that marked the entry to the Chilla range.
An armed forest guard joined our troupe and we began the long walk through the Chilla forest to reach its western end. Tiger-man motioned Imam to walk ahead of the group as a scout along-with our armed escort and to keep a sharp look-out for elephants. The threat from a rogue elephant was far more real than the possibility of being challenged by any of the big cats as they rarely condescend to take any notice of us Homo sapiens. “Tigers can be quite unpredictable though,” the Commander informed us. “Only yesterday, a forest guard employed on daily wages got badly mauled at Corbett,” he told us in a most matter-of-fact way. ‘Well it’s a long overnight walk for that blood-thirsty tiger,’ I consoled myself. So even if the villain was planning a repeat show at Chilla, we should be out of the forest long before his arrival!
The unsaid bond between the Tiger-man and his Gujjar tracker reminded one of Robert Redford’s memorable performance as Denys Finch-Hatton, the stylish hunter-adventurer in the all time classic ‘Out of Africa’ whose Maasai tracker-companion accompanied him like a silent shadow, always at some distance, alert to any sign of approaching danger. Imam was quick to pick up leopard tracks as we walked through the teak plantations.
We saw the Nilgai scat. The bulls defecate in ‘latrines’ to mark territory. We saw bear scat and Tiger-man broke up the lumps to show us the exoskeletons of termite. The Bird-man picked up a tiny ball and announced that it was Hare scat. The Tiger-man was greatly amused when one of us novices mistook the Nilgai’s poop to be the possible job of a Chital. “Chital will need surgery to produce such big lumps!” he said with a chuckle. I did wonder as to how we were expected to possibly know the size of you-know-what of different species to be able to match it to the size of the scat. We eventually did see the Chital scat which was indeed smaller in size!
We now left the teak belt and entered tiger country. There were no more signs of the leopard for the tiger brooks no trespass by the lesser cats. We saw the rake marks of a tiger. The tiger marks its territory, we were told, by clawing the trees that have a soft bark. The Bishop wood (Bischofia javanica) tree is such a favourite with the tiger for the raking that it is popularly called the Tiger tree!
The tiger also sprays the trees for warning other males to lay-off his territory and his ‘chics’. The Tiger-man wanted us to ‘smell’ a spray sight for a firsthand experience and none of us had the heart to refuse! I hastily agreed to the suggestion that it did smell like Basmati rice and cleared off before he decided to introduce us to the taste!! There is no mistaking the man’s passion for his work. He is plumb crazy!!!
We entered the Sal forests and Imam picked up an old tiger pugmark in the sandy bed of a dry stream.
The tigers, we were told, preferred to follow the clear paths (the ‘dandi’) through the forests to avoid hurting their soft pads on thorns and sharp stones. We were advised against walking up the stream beds that intersected with the forest tracks as these were the favourite spots for tigers to take a break while patrolling their territory against unwanted intrusions. Tigers scratch the ground parallel to the path they follow to warn others from treading the same path. With all that raking, spraying and scratching business, the tiger did seem one jealous old creature.
We were shown a shallow burrow dug up by a bear with the tell-tale claw markings.
We learnt that the constant movement of tigers causes their prey, the ungulates to disperse. This in turn prevents overgrazing of anyone area. The Chitals and Sambars help disperse the seeds of many tree species. The Langurs and Chitals have an interesting symbiotic relationship. The langurs throw down semi-eaten fruits that are rejected by them that are eaten by the Chitals who would otherwise be unable to reach them. The langurs maintain a lookout from their high-perch and raise an alarm when a predator is spotted. The Chitals have the advantage of their acute sense of smell and will sometimes pick up the scent of the predator even though it is not visible. The alarm-calls of Langurs, Macaques, Chital, Sambar, Kakars and many of the bird species help warn each other against common foes.
We were introduced to a host of indigenous tree species. We saw the Limonia (crenulata?)tree with its black berries that are a favourite with the bears. The Bael tree. The Kadam tree. The Chilla (Casearia tomentosa). The Haldu, with its corky bark. The Sandpaper tree with its rough, abrasive leaves.
We were told that a true wildlife enthusiast must also take interest in the flora. The wildlife sightings are few and far between and one needs to appreciate the richness of the flora that forms the animal habitat to keep oneself from getting bored with walking long distances in the wilderness.
The Hawk eye-Bird man team were busy at work. They picked out a Sparrow Hawk, a Barbet, a Blue-bearded Bee eater and a Green Leaf Bird.
The pictures had to be taken against a strong back-light that ruined my photographs. The Scribe had managed to find a camera setting that negated the darkening of the subject by the back-light and did manage pictures that were a tad clearer. The Bird-man continued with his blatantly partisan policy of applauding only the pictures taken by the Scribe!
I photographed some more wildflowers including the periwinkle and the Chinese Foldwing. The Philippine Violet and the Negro Coffee flowers could be seen all over.
We crossed a rather forlorn looking dilapidated concrete structure and were told that it was the original Looni Forest Post. The Bird-man gave us its unhappy history. We were told that a forest guard stationed at this post had committed suicide at the place along-with his son. That their restless spirits had returned to haunt the place. This post was then abandoned and a new Post was built on a sunny and cheerful spot near the bank of the Looni nadi. But the spirits followed to haunt this new building as well. A researcher staying overnight at this Post had been spooked out by supernatural experiences and had vowed not to visit the place again! Tiger-man clearly did not approve of such jungle lore and chose to ignore the entire conversation. We were somewhat sobered down by this upsetting tale by the time we reached the new Looni Post, a simple two-storey structure. The entrance was barricaded with logs to prevent entry by elephants.
We had stopped for a short halt to stretch our legs. I checked out the all purpose Gujjar machete (Pathal) that is used for lopping and chopping and also serves as a handy weapon.
Tiger-man and Imam cheerfully narrated their not so pleasant brush with an elephant herd the previous year when they had come for the same trek with the participants of the last course. The story had the desired effect and it was with a sense of heightened expectation that we crossed the Looni nadi and continued on our westward march.
Let nobody be fooled that any of us were there for the advancement of knowledge alone. We were there for the raw thrill of treading in tiger country. The thrill of a possible encounter with a tusker in musth. Of seeing a python in the wild. Of chancing upon tigers brawling for territory. Or maybe a bear excavating a termite hill. It is that hint of lurking danger that gives wilderness its true romance. It’s that primeval fear of violent death, that involuntary shiver that an encounter in the wild evokes that transports us, ever so briefly, to the rugged age and time of our ancestors. An age, when every species had a fighting chance. When the competition for space was not yet loaded so much in favour of man.
We were now entering deeper into the forests of Chilla range. I photographed a female Praying mantis, trapped in a spider web. We had seen the insect’s leathery cocoon the day before. The large yellow-striped black spider was making its way towards the helplessly entangled prey. The female Praying mantis, however, does not deserve too much of our sympathy as it is known to bite off the head of the smaller-sized male when it dismounts after copulation!
I added to my growing collection of pictures of colourful spiders. I photographed a spider that had a curious X-shape in a dense white material woven into the centre of the web.
We were walking along the forest track in a single file when the Tiger-man stopped suddenly under the overhanging branch of a small tree. He studied the branch for a while and then climbed up the tree trunk without a word to reach the branch for retrieving whatever had caught his eye. He then dropped down to the ground theatrically with the treasure hidden in his clenched fist. He opened his hand triumphantly to display the Sambar hair that he had removed from the branch. He then explained the significance of his ‘find’. The Sambar stag raises itself on the hind legs to mark territory by scratching the high branches of trees with its antlers. Some of the hair from the occipital region, stick to the tree and reveal the height of the stag to the other rival males and also to the females that he may choose to court. How on earth the man had spotted the hair in the first place was an unexplained mystery!
We crossed a dry river bed and 100-400 picked up a rather clear pugmark of a large tiger.
As we continued along the track Imam picked up several more tiger pugmarks. There were repeated scratch marks along the path. A tree bore the rake marks. There was a large patch of disturbed grass where the tiger had probably brought down its prey. It reminded me of the rather unpleasant sight of a wildebeest being ruthlessly dragged by its neck by a lion at Maasai mara, with fresh red blood splattered all over the flattened grass. There was no mistaking the feeling that ‘he’ was there, somewhere real close.
Tiger-man and Imam discussed the possible significance of the rather unprecedented frequency of territory marking signs. It was decided that in all likelihood a new male was threatening the reign of the ruling lord who was double marking his territory to warn the challenger of the consequences of a trespass! Border disputes between male tigers are known to get nasty with the risk of ‘collateral damage’! Tiger-man now quickened his step suddenly and set up a punishing pace as we headed north along the left bank of the Mithawali sot. The path had opened up into a fairly wide track and we followed our Commander wearily who did not reduce his unrelenting pace for several kilometres until we reached the newly constructed Mithawali Forest Bungalow. The bungalow had its back to a well forested hill and overlooked a large grassy plain that was enclosed by a solid stone wall. The campus was located high on the left bank of the Mithawali sot.
A 19th century building had originally stood at the spot but the structure had disappeared with time and the site had got occupied by a Gujjar dera. The dera was removed under the rehabilitation scheme and the land restored to the forest department. We had been walking for five hours and the sudden burst of the last few kilometres had taken the wind out of us. The bungalow was locked and we removed our shoes and happily collapsed on the floor of the large verandah to get some rest.
It was going to be a ‘namkeen’ break! The Bird-man pulled out the extra-large polypacks of ‘namkeen’ from the backpacks being carried by Imam’s sons. Namkeen is a unique Indian snack comprising a varied mix of spicy dried ingredients including roasted peanuts, dried lentils, flakes and noodles made of ground rice, corn and chickpea flour etc. I wondered at the Commander’s curious choice of snack for the outdoor adventure. The chillies and the spices irritated our already parched throats and made us thirstier. We were all running low on water supplies and our canteens were all but empty. We, however, feasted on the chocolates that some of us were carrying.
Presently it was time to be on the move again and on receiving the Commander’s signal we hoisted our rucksacks to our backs and trudged out wearily to resume our westward march. The jungle trail descended to the bed of the Mithawali sot that flowed gently on its southward journey to join the Looni nadi. The path then rose sharply as one had to negotiate a low ridge to descend into the Mundal valley to the west. There were numerous tiger tracks and also rather fresh elephant dung heaps. The Tiger-man cautioned us to remain alert and ready to react to any sudden exigency. The plan was simple. We were to get out of the way of any tusker that we might suddenly encounter on that narrow hill track. It was an EMERGENCY if the elephant made an aggressive movement towards us. It was every man for himself (the ladies had stayed behind that day!) and we were not to look for instructions. Slithering down the steep hillside to the south to escape the pachyderm’s swinging trunk was a good idea as some bad bruises or even a couple of broken bones were nothing compared to the punishment that a ‘musth’ tusker could inflict on us! One could hardly miss the excitement and the sparkle in the eye of the Nasik-Tiger as he marched ahead expectantly!!
My vintage ‘Peugeot 2.1 Litre, inline 4-Cylinder’ was beginning to misfire with the exertion from the climb and I was again lagging behind. I had the Gir-Lion for company who was braving the pain from the ankle he had twisted the previous day. Pilgrim’s knee was also giving him trouble but he was walking ahead doggedly. Imam’s younger son was walking last keeping his eye on the laggards. We went over the ridge and I wobbled down the slope and was glad to hit the golden Mundal valley. The Mundal sot drains this large undulating plain that slopes gently to the south. The relocation of the Gujjar deras from this area in the recent years has worked wonders for the revival of this once degraded grassland. The hardy, tall grass has bounced back to reclaim the entire valley. The grassland today sustains a rich ungulate population that is attracting the tigers from the west. The grass also supports the elephant herds that pass through this area on their eastwards migration every winter. The golden grasslands of Mundal valley rival the raw beauty and vastness of the African Serengeti.
We walked past the feathered remains of a Crested Serpent Eagle that seemed to have come to a violent end. Binging on a snake diet is tricky business!
It was a warm sunny afternoon of early winter and the heat made the toil even more difficult. We were desperate to reach the Mundal Post where lunch and fresh supplies of water awaited us.
The Bird-man distracted us with sightings of birds in the tall grass. The back-light issue continued to plague my photography. The Scribe managed a beautiful capture of a Lal Munia in the grass. And also a difficult picture of a distant eagle against the sun. As was expected the Bird-man went into an ecstatic fit on seeing the picture of Lal Munia. I managed a measly bush bird that nobody else bothered to click. And some curious green-coloured globular flower heads.
The golden grass with the fluffy pink flower heads looked mesmerizingly beautiful in the sun.
We finally spotted the Mundal Watchtower and quickened our pace to finish this unending penultimate lap.
I was the last one to walk in and was ready to drop down dead by the time I removed my jungle boots. It was pleasant to feel the soothing touch of soft grass under my bare feet as I made my way to the tap. I washed my face and doused my head under the running tap to get the heat out of my system. The food restored some of the flagging spirit and I lay down flat on the grass to rest my aching back. The Bird-man was giving some field lessons on the freshwater tortoise found in the area but I was too fatigued to pay any heed to the conversation.
The Mundal post is located on a high ground that overlooks the breathtaking landscape of the Mundal valley to the north. The valley with its sparkling waters, golden grasslands and distant rolling hills for a backdrop is picture perfect. A nature enthusiast awed by the natural beauty of the location had christened the rather spartan Mundal post as an ‘All Star Hotel’ that beat all the Oberois and Sheratons of the world in the richness of experience it offered. We were early for the westward migration of elephants and it felt strange to have walked through the entire expanse of Chilla range without encountering any elephants. The fresh dung heaps, however, showed that they were somewhere there, grazing quietly, hidden by the tall golden grass.
Before we knew it, it was time to move again. This was going to be the last stretch. Not a very long one if we were to believe the Tiger-man. Of course nobody believed him!! The ladies had taken a jeep ride direct to the Mundal post that afternoon and were now eager to walk the remaining distance. Six jeep ride slots were up for grabs for those who had had enough for the day and wanted to settle for a ride back home. 100-400 smiled at me with encouragement as I followed him wearily for the walk back home. I was not ready to throw in the towel just yet!
We had barely started walking when one of the ‘foot-soldiers’ had a change of heart and decided that he wanted the jeep ride after all. The jeep seemed within shouting distance but all efforts to catch the ear of its occupants failed and it gradually moved out of our range. The ‘deserter’ looked downcast at the prospect of having to walk back after all. Just then the Techie, who was out-fitted for a proper commando operation, pulled out the ‘Storm’- a survival whistle used by US Special Forces and is touted to be the world’s loudest whistle! One short blast from that little monster and the jeep was speeding back to us, probably alarmed by the high-decibel signal.
We now followed the meandering course of the Mundal sot as it flowed westwards to join the Ganga River south of the Chilla Powerhouse. Imam picked up the feint tracks of a hyena in the sand.
We were told about the camera-shy tigress that lived in the hills to the north. She had successfully evaded all attempts to photograph her with a camera-trap by numerous researchers of WII. We walked and walked and walked. The Bird-man was pointing to birds but I had no energy to raise my camera. We finally reached a point from where we were to leave the river bed to take a short-cut for the West Gate to Chilla Range. The short-cut required us to climb up yet another hill. We were too tired to protest and followed our Commander tamely. We reached the level land on the top that had a heavy cover of undergrowth. The Tiger-man had come to this spot some months back for setting up a Camera trap. When he had later visited the site to retrieve the photographs the camera revealed a picture of a tigress peering into the camera. The photograph had been taken minutes after he had left the spot after setting up the Camera trap. She had obviously been watching him from her hiding while he fixed the camera and had decided to investigate the ‘alien’ device the moment he left the spot! ‘So you see, even if you don’t see the tiger it does not necessarily mean that it is not around. One might be watching us right now!’ he added gleefully. We stuck real close to the Tiger-man and Imam for the rest of the walk through that sinister wooded patch and the overwhelming fatigue was the least of our concerns. We finally reached the tourist reception area at the West Gate where we had tea and biscuits before boarding our bus for the drive back to Laldhang. We later learnt by mapping the GPS trace provided by the Pilgrim, that we had walked an impossible distance of 28 KM that day! The Tiger-man insisted that it was only 19 and finally settled for 24 by night-fall!!
Day 3 started rather tamely for us. The Tiger-man had decided to take it easy and let us troopers lick our wounds! We started for the Jhilmil Jheel Conservation Reserve, the nearly 4000 hectare wetland that falls in the Haridwar Forest Division and is one of the last surviving habitats for the highly endangered Swamp Deer. The wetland occupies a saucer shaped area between the Haridwar-Najibabad Highway and the left bank of Ganga River. It was declared a Community Conservation Reserve in 2005 when Swamp deer were rediscovered in this area and a need was felt to protect their habitat from fragmentation due to expansion in agriculture and change in land use. Families residing inside the ‘conserved’ area were relocated and steps were taken to curb poaching of deer.
We were fairly close to the Watch Tower that offers an unbroken view of the breathtaking landscape of the Jheel when our bus came to an abrupt halt. There was a large grey tusker blocking our path. It was on its way for a raid on a sugarcane field and had decided to amuse himself as he took a breather. A cycle lay close to his feet and he seemed to be toying with the idea of stamping on it.
Earlier, he had scared the wits out of the poor cyclist by appearing like an apparition, completely unnoticed by the cyclist who received a ‘light’ nudge on his arm as he cycled past the Gentle Giant. He immediately realized his folly and fled for his life leaving his precious bicycle behind. His bowels had given way out of sheer terror and he emerged from his hideout where he had been squatting on seeing our bus. He now stood next to our bus for safety and pleaded with the Giant with folded hands to spare his bicycle. The prayer and pleading seemed to have the desired effect on this real life Ganesha! He did no damage to the poor man’s bike and ambled on silently on its enormous padded feet to disappear into the forest on the other side. The man ran to retrieve his cycle from the danger zone and pedalled off hysterically.
We resumed our journey and reached a small flat hill top that was almost level with the road and overlooked the vast wetland area of the Jhilmil Jheel. The Forest Department had built an Observation Tower atop this hill and I followed the Bird-man to the top to spot the Swamp deer. As luck would have it not a single one could be spotted that day. This was rather strange as the Forest Department had counted over 200 deer in a recent census carried out with the help of experts from WII. We peered at the beautiful landscape for some time.
I clicked a glossy black drongo and a red dragonfly.
The Scribe’s camera was out of action and he blamed me for not allowing him to charge his camera battery the previous night, there being only one plug point between us. The truth was that he was so dead beat after the gruelling walk through Chilla that he had crashed straight into his bed after dinner with no energy left to prepare for the next round of the Battle-of-the-Cameras! We were about to move when I spotted a flock of large black birds circling the sky to our south. They were the Black Storks that breed in eastern Europe (Poland and other countries around it) and visit India during winters. The Bird-man was ecstatic that we had spotted the storks in such large numbers (he estimated their number to be 300) on their winter migration route. The Black Stork is a large bird with a wing-span of 5 feet. It can grow up to 3-1/2 feet tall and has a long neck and long legs and a straight pointed beak. It is a glossy greenish-black except for the white lower-breast and belly. The white belly could be clearly made out even from that great distance. 100-400 was hammering the skies with his Ack-Ack Gun. I managed some modest pictures of the storks while the Scribe looked on, wringing his hands in despair!!
We were now driven to the Chilla Tourism Resort on the bank of the Chilla Power Channel and after crossing the canal we alighted from the bus and walked through the forest enclosed within the channel and Ganga River that is part of the East-West Corridor. We were planning to see the birds on the waters of Ganges and on its numerous islands. I spotted a Blue Rock Thrush.
We all tried our hand at the distant Pallas’s Fishing Eagle.
A couple of Brahminy ducks flew tantalizingly close but I missed the rather difficult, against the sun, in-flight picture. Hawk Eye managed a brilliant shot while I contented myself with a picture of the ducks paddling in the Ganga waters.
I photographed Red-Cotton Bugs and a Garden Lizard in the forest.
The Ganga was a beautiful blue, yet to be sullied by the urban sprawl at Haridwar, that lies further south.
The day had been something of an anti-climax after the high of the previous day and the Tiger-man sensed our disappointment. He was busy on his phone through the lunch and a loud cheer went through the group when he announced his plan of taking us for a jeep ride through Chilla in the evening. I was lucky to be in the vehicle driven by the Tiger-man himself and it was 4 PM when we rolled out of the camp. We were only 15 minutes into the drive when we spotted him, almost simultaneously. There he was, enjoying the evening sun standing lazily in the middle of that overgrown jeep track. I had of course spotted only a ‘something’ but the Tiger-man needed no binoculars for declaring that it was a beautiful, big leopard. The leopard was fairly close to the point where Imam had picked up leopard pugmarks the day before. It was at quite a distance from where we had halted but we could not risk getting any closer. I zoomed in for my best picture of the trip.
I had done it, finally. As the readers are well aware, the spotted one has eluded the Tramp all this while and I had begun to despair that I was perhaps not destined to see one in the wild. The Scribe missed out on a ‘face shot’ and blamed his cramped position in the rear of the jeep for the debacle.
We now drove on towards Khara Post where the rest of the group awaited us. A Neelgai watched us go past from its well camouflaged position.
The track was rough and at places parts of it had been washed away in the rains. We negotiated several river beds including that of the Looni nadi and I was impressed with the power and the phenomenal ground clearance of the Gypsy and its confident handling by the Tiger-man.
We spotted Cheetal herd near the Khara post.
Also some jungle-fowls, parakeets and peafowls. And a strangler fig.
We crossed the deserted post and drove on further west. Our comrades were coming excitedly from the opposite direction and the Scribe got a perfect picture of our wildlife enthusiasts.
They had spotted a Burmese Python in a nallah. We accompanied them to the spot and were happy to find that the python was still there. It was climbing up a vertical mud wall with the help of its prehensile tail.
The Burmese python is hunted for its lovely skin and is evaluated as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red list of threatened species. Our comrades rued the missed opportunity of photographing a leopard in the wild.
We now headed back for Laldhang. A minor-tiff over space between two of our jeep mates in the rear got the Tiger-man’s goat. He made a ‘suggestion’ to the one cribbing the loudest to switch vehicles. It was ‘an offer you could not refuse’. But it’s only the ‘Godfather’ fan who understands the peril involved in refusing such an offer. Our ‘delinquent’ pal obviously had never read the book and flatly refused the suggestion. You could see the dark cloud of sudden rage descend on the tiger’s face. The eyes were aflame as he switched into a high gear and stepped on the gas pedal to go hurtling through the narrow jeep track that was now visible only under the headlights. The track had deep ditches obscured by tall grass; there were boulders strewn all over and trees pushed down by the elephants that blocked the track. But nothing seemed to deter the tiger from his fantastic speed. He veered the vehicle sharply at the Y-junction with the track that led to Mithawali and turned left to head towards the bungalow at the same breakneck speed. There was complete silence in the rear as the passengers held on to the side-rails for their dear lives, their differences forgotten! Adrenalin was running high as we roared through the gates of the Mithawali Forest Bungalow and the tiger parked the jeep and got-off to cool his shocking temper!
The ride back to Laldhang was relatively sedate and uneventful. Our tech-savvy Commando now produced a high-power torch that flood-lit the forest on our sides. We had our eyes peeled for any sign of wildlife but we spotted nothing. It was a quick dinner on reaching back as we were to get into our beds early that night. The Tiger-man proposed to start an hour earlier than the normal departure time for the final day of adventure. But that was not to be. The Bird-man had organized an after dinner lecture on citizen participation in wildlife conservation programmes. How we could contribute as common citizens and make a difference. The success stories from all over the world. Undoubtedly, it was the most important lecture from the standpoint of the declared objective of our course and there was no way that the Bird-man would let us wriggle out of it! But as was to be expected it was an excellent presentation and we willingly sacrificed our precious sleep to sit through that post-dinner class. These guys could put even the military instructors to shame with their diligence and single-mindedness of purpose!
We were up at 4:30 AM and were ready to board the jeeps by 6 for the early morning drive through Chilla range. I scrambled to get into the jeep being driven by the Tiger. ‘Who knows?’ I thought expectantly, ‘with the man’s luck we might actually chance upon a tiger!’ I double-checked my camera to be sure that I did not miss that very special moment. We followed the usual track till the Looni nadi. The moon was still high in the sky and it felt eerie to be driving through the quiet Sal forest at that early hour. At Looni, we turned left to take the track that led to Khara.
We spotted a Chital herd that frolicked around in the sparkling river-bed unmindful of our jeeps and flashing cameras.
We did startle a rather grave looking Pond-heron that rose from the shallow waters to reveal its snow-white wings.
There was elephant dung all around but no tuskers in sight. Tiger-man was puzzled that there were no Sambar deer to be seen that morning. We drove through Chilla to emerge at its west gate. There were some wild boars just short of the exit.
The hour long drive through the beautiful landscape had been refreshing but did disappoint those who had hoped for some interesting sighting.
We boarded our bus for the drive to Dharkot. We crossed the Chilla Power Channel (Canal) near the tourist rest house and then drove along the scenic canal road until we reached the narrow bridge near ‘Kaudiya’ village. We now turned right and took the winding hill road to Dharkot. The tiger was piloting our bus in a jeep. I was sitting on the seat right behind our temperamental driver. The condition of the road deteriorated rapidly and before long we were driving along an impossibly steep, narrow and winding gravel path that I would not have dared to attempt even on a jeep. Our driver’s expression was grim as he steered that 42-seater through the unending series of hair-pin and S-bends. A stalling of the engine at any of the sharp bends would have surely sent us hurtling down the hill side. I was hoping that the driver would halt the bus at some level stretch and refuse to drive us further on that path to collective hara-kiri. But this one was not a quitter. He was too damn proud for that! “Sahib kahan lekar jayengeh aaj?” he muttered wryly as the road narrowed down further and the gradient increased. I enquired from the Bird-man whether he had ever done this journey on a bus. He was busy lecturing his pupils on the wonders of nature and could not care less for my mundane concerns! “Local bus jaati hai is road par,” he remarked casually and I felt reassured.
We passed a spot that offered breathtaking view of the Ganga River and the Haridwar town to the west but I had no stomach for landscape photography at that moment. Large sections of the road had been reduced to loose gravel and I marveled at the confidence with which our driver swung the bus from bend to bend without allowing any break in momentum. The damn vehicle did not have even a power-steering. Thus we went, with me waiting to meet my maker; my eyes pinned on that treacherous track until we reached the point beyond which the road was metaled. We were saved! We now crossed a series of small hamlets- the Talla and Malla Banas, Kimsar and Ramjiwallah as we drove for Dharkot. The name ‘Ramjiwallah’ rang a bell. This was the place where Sher Jung, the hunter-turned-conservationist, the freedom fighter from Nahan, had shot a cattle-lifting tiger. The village kids on way to school waved cheerfully at us as we drove by. On the way up, we had encountered the ‘local bus’ that did the rounds on this impossible hill road. It was a 26-seater barely half the size of our TATA 42-seater. Its driver was astonished to learn that we had actually driven up that road in a full-fledged bus!! We had driven for 25 KM after the turn at Kaudiya when we finally stopped at a roadside dhaba at Dharkot.
I got off with relief and vigorously shook the hand of our bus driver much to his embarrassment. He was without any doubt, the absolute best. A man with courage and character, who knew his job like nobody else and was justifiably proud of it. It is only to be expected that an artist such as him should not think much of the mediocrity that characterizes the endeavours of the likes of us.
We were greeted by a thickset man sporting a trendy trekking gear. The face was almost completely hidden under the broad rim of his flop hat and the dazzle of his goggles that seemed to be straight out of Thalaiva’s wardrobe! We were being received by the ‘Haakim’ of the Tiger Country that we were set out to explore that day. A cheerful man who quite apparently loved his job and certainly didn’t mind its trappings! He had decided to join us for the down-the-hill trek through the Gohri range all the way to Laldhang. It was a nice gesture on his part considering that it was the ‘Karva Chauth’ day when the wives fast for the longevity of their husbands and certainly expect them to be home for the evening prayers!
We were to have chicken for breakfast, which did not portend well for the trek that was to follow. For the Tiger-man is a great believer in the potency of a non-vegetarian diet. It is his confirmed belief that one must fortify oneself with high-on-energy food before embarking on any arduous enterprise. Thus we could be certain that he had an adventure planned for us that day. The Gir-lion and the Talkative-one decided to give the trek a skip. I marveled at their courage in risking a return journey by bus on that murderous road.
The trek started with the usual happy banter as we made our way down a cemented pathway that descended down the hill from Dharkot.
It was sunny and rather warm for late October. The trek was going to be hard on my swollen knees and I wished that I had not added those additional 10 KGs to my girth. Our Tech-savvy Ad-Guru was also having trouble with his knee. But we had not come all this way to quit on the very last day. The Scribe was walking along most cheerfully and showed no signs of fatigue. We were a large group today as we were accompanied by the Haakim’s impressive ‘Lashkar’ of forest rangers and guards who were keen to make a good impression on their boss. I got a nice picture of the striking red flowers of the Red Star Morning Glory, an invasive climber that is native of North America.
We crossed a cute little girl on her way up to her school. She was shocked to encounter such a large party of strangers walking down that generally quiet hill side. We were treated to a freshly harvested honeycomb that tasted like the magic-candy from Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest! We crossed a quaint hamlet and a number of terraced fields including one that was overgrown with the bhang weed (hemp).
The lantana made the going tough as we pushed our way along the narrow track through thick undergrowth. There was elephant dung all along the path and it was difficult to imagine how that immense size could negotiate such a narrow path. The track was now running parallel to and above the Moriya sot, a rivulet of considerable size that drains these hills as it flows south to join the Rewasan. Just then a warning was sounded by the scout. There was a tusker on the wooded hill across the sot. I could barely manage a glimpse before it disappeared. We were lucky that we had not had a face-to-face encounter as it would only take a couple of ‘gentle’ swipes of that enormous trunk to knock us all off that hill!
The path now began to drop sharply and we had to once again resort to slithering down the sharp slopes on our backsides to avoid breaking our necks. The difficult descent ended on the bed of the Moriya sot and the entire party settled down on the boulders amidst the sparkling waters of the rivulet. We had walked less than 5 KM but the torturous descent had been killing for those with knee-issues.
We munched on the biscuits and chips that were passed around as we waited for the next instruction. We were in a narrow valley that followed the southward course of the rivulet with steep sides to our east and west. The Haakim was debating the path to be followed with his men. It seemed that the trek group from the previous year’s course had also followed this track and had ended up getting lost in the forest after sunset and the trumpeting of the belligerent elephants had scared the wits out of them. I could see that the forest guards were openly derisive of the Imam’s suggestions on the subject who decided to clam up completely in protest. The local ‘Darogah’ finally convinced his boss to walk down the Moriya valley along the sot till we reached the point where it met the Rewasan River. The Ad-Guru was aghast to hear the plan as the bed was strewn with slippery rocks and boulders and one also had to negotiate the shallow pools formed by the flowing water all along the river course. The Tiger-man told us that the walk through this tricky stretch was going to be short as the valley was expected to open up further down south. It would be a leisurely stroll thereafter along the idyllic sandy banks of the sot!
The group started moving Southwards in a long extended file. One was required to jump from boulder to boulder to avoid getting the shoes in water and I winced with pain at every little leap.
The Ad-Guru was in serious trouble. His inflamed knee could be justifiably described as a ‘medical condition’ and he seemed to be in great pain. The face was ashen as he followed the group, clambering painfully over the rocks. There were many wild flowers growing along the banks including the ubiquitous Barleria. There were also the colourful dragonflies and damselflies enjoying the sun as they rested on the river rocks. I paused to photograph some of these natural beauties but soon realized that I could ill afford the luxury as I was lagging behind considerably.
The Ad-Guru fell back a long distance from the group and I was wondering how he would finish this arduous trek.
The journey was unending. The fall of the river became progressively steeper. The current was now fairly swift and the pools through which it flowed seemed deeper. The light-hearted banter had ceased completely and we were all walking silently, careful not to slip and fall.
The Tiger-man had a quiet talk with Imam who now slipped back to assist the Ad-Guru whose walk was reduced to a painful wobble. I was faring no better and was the first one to slip that day. I misjudged a leap and fell flat on my back in the flowing water. Thankfully I had my camera in my hand and I managed to keep it above the water. My trousers, shoes and shoulder bag were soaked in water. The Scribe helped me to salvage myself and I anxiously checked my precious i5 for damage. Thankfully it was safe!! My bones also seemed intact though the pride was badly shattered!!
The path was tough yet beautiful in its own rugged way. The water had eroded deep, cave-like recesses in the rocky hill sides.
The river was joined by numerous streams as we walked down its course and the Scribe, the eternal pessimist, predicted that the increased flow was only going to make our journey tougher. The Moriya valley was showing no signs of opening out. We came upon interesting multi-hued rocks. The Scribe attributed the yellow colour to the presence of sulphur. The water was crystal clear and sparkled in the sun. We reached a tricky crossing across a large slippery boulder and the Ad-Guru took a nasty fall. For once the Tiger looked worried. There was no way a guy could be evacuated over this terrain even if a stretcher could be managed.
Our comrade now had a strange, distant look in his eyes. He was quiet and did not respond to words of commiseration offered by his mates. His wet clothes clung to his body and his hand was tightly gripped on a wooden staff, perhaps to defy the waves of pain that ran through his leg. The greying beard and the light cloth turban made him look a man from another world. A man, on a pilgrimage, to some distant land – in search of redemption.
We had stopped for a brief halt. The Darogah who had recommended the route was sheepish and avoided the eye of his unhappy boss. Apparently, he had never really done the route before but had not mustered the guts to admit this to his boss as the area fell under his ‘beat’. ‘The poor bloke might have even submitted detailed reports of having patrolled this area!’ I thought with amusement. The Haakim seemed to be in an ugly mood and refused to smile at the half-hearted attempts at humour by his army of nervous minions.
The ‘kafila’ was on the move again. The Pilgrim had suddenly discovered a new determination. He followed the Imam without complaint as the duo settled down to a gentle, even pace that they maintained for the rest of the journey. I had also stepped up my pace as I had decided to quit tailing the group and to catch up with the Tiger-man and the Haakim’s army, who had been leading the pack thus far. The trackers picked up rather fresh looking tracks of a tigress with at least two cubs, on a sandy bank.
The tracks indicated that the tiger family was also making its way south so that we could expect feline company at any moment. The water flow had increased manifold and now covered the entire width of the riverbed. We gave up all attempts at keeping our feet dry and now waded through the ankle-deep water.
I immediately felt better as even though the feet felt raw with the soaking yet the knees were spared the painful jolts from the constant leaping.
We reached a large rocky clearing and found a half-eaten Sambar. It was a tiger kill and there were pugmarks of the tigress all around. The Scribe winced when I clicked the poor dead beast. He expected greater respect for the dead.
The rangers were looking genuinely fatigued and the boss was resting on a large rock, fanning himself with the flop hat. The walk was now beginning to take its toll. The Tiger-man had left the spot and was walking ahead, accompanied by 100-400 and a couple of tough youngsters.
The ‘MM 540’ was not going to finish second this day and I cut short my rest to try catching-up with the scouts. The Scribe who had been jumping over rocks like a mountain goat for the better part of the day was now showing signs of fatigue and produced a chocolate that he had been saving up for the much needed energy boost. We were joined this time by Doctor Sahib and the Happy Banker. Our Banker pal had done very well for himself. He had taken the smart decision to wade through the water from the very start and had saved himself the pointless pain and fatigue from springing from rock to rock that had anyway proved futile. The Pilgrim appeared on the scene with Imam and the weary rangers kidded them about the fable of the ‘Hare and the Tortoise’. The duo ignored the guffaws and kept walking on at the same dogged pace. On seeing us leave the Haakim got up wearily and led his men quietly after us.
The tiger tracks were now joined by the tracks of a Black Bear. Things were beginning to get lively!
As we followed the meandering course of the Moriya sot I turned each bend with the anticipation of coming upon the tigress and her cubs. I imagined my famous last reaction to an angry charge by the protective mother! Fatigue acts like a drug on the mind and such idle reveries keep you going in a state of trance. It was an impossibly long haul, over rocks and boulders, through a flowing river but we finally managed to reach the point where the sot flowed into the Rewasan River.
We found the Tiger-man sitting on the bank across the river chatting cheerfully with his fellow scouts. We waded through the knee deep water to join the advance party and flopped to the ground out of exhaustion. We had barely rested for five minutes when the Pilgrim appeared on the horizon and crossed the river on that same unbroken step. We hailed him cheerfully. He had done it. The Tiger-man could call for a jeep to this spot and his suffering was over.
To my utmost astonishment I realized that the Pilgrim was not intending to settle for a bail-out at the fag-end of his pilgrimage. He walked past us all and disappeared into the forest with Imam in tow. They were going to walk all the way home to Laldhang.
I vacillated for a while and then decided to follow the brave-hearts. They had a head start of a few minutes and I was anxious of losing my way as I hurried to catch-up with them. I finally spotted the duo at some distance ahead of me and followed them wearily taking care not to lose sight of them. I heard my name called out from behind and found the Scribe accompanied by Doctor Sahib, rushing to join me. He was mad at me for having left him behind!
We now followed the track that went by the Gujjar dera that we had visited on day one. A dog came bounding out of the dera on spotting us and wagged its tail hysterically. It pranced around our feet with happy loud barks, not allowing us to make any progress. The Scribe loves dogs and was amused to see the antics of this affectionate dog. He had been bitten by one such friendly stray canine that he was trying to pet sometime back and I braced my stick to fend off any hostile approach. The Gujjars sensed my discomfort and called their dog in but only after we had lost track of Imam and the Pilgrim. We now walked fast to catch-up with the scouts. But there are limits to what one can achieve after 8 hours of clambering down the boulder path and try as we might there was no way we could bridge the gap. We crossed the Rewasan and now entered the teak forest with the lonely white temple. I was walking ahead of my two mates and could see the Imam at a distance. The Scribe was complaining about stones in his shoe and decided to halt. The Doctor Sahib also decided to take a breather while I walked on alone. In minutes I had lost sight of both the party ahead of me and the friends to my rear. It was not with a very happy feeling that I continued along that spooky track and was relieved to emerge out of the forest and hit the Rewasan River for the third time. Laldhang lay at the other end. Imam and Pilgrim had already waded halfway through the river. I tailed them tamely until we reached the gates of the Forest Rest House. The bus driver, the Champion of the day, greeted me cheerfully. We were friends for life! I headed straight for a chair and struggled to get the wet shoes off my swollen feet. The feet had turned a cadaverous white after walking through water for so long and I placed them on a chair to restore the circulation. The Pilgrim was looking triumphant. He had not given in and had won his unspoken battle with pain and adversity. His pilgrimage was complete. The proverbial ‘tortoise’ had proved once again that in the final analysis it’s only the will and grit that counts. The Scribe and the Doctor Sahib trudged in next. They had lost their way and had had to retrace their path for a short distance.
That was it. No one else walked in home that day. The rest of our gang drove in somewhat sheepishly in the jeep! The last mile is not considered the trickiest for nothing!!
We started early for the journey back to the Institute. The holiday was coming to an end. The last four days had been one of the most memorable experiences of our life.
This time we travelled by the Haridwar-Dehradun road. The Bird-man lectured us on the issues involved in creating an obstacle-free East-West Corridor. He pointed to the badly delayed project to build an elevated highway. The Army dump. The Railway line. He recounted the tragic death of the legendary, Tipu Sultan. The majestic 65-year old tusker, was easily Rajaji’s best loved elephant. A notorious crop raider, who never harmed a human. Luck ran out for this lovable Gentle Giant when he got badly mauled in a musth-fuelled battle with a much younger bull. He was still recuperating from his injuries, under the care of anxious wildlife experts, when he strayed onto the bridge across the Motichur rau on the Haridwar-Rishikesh railway track. The driver of an oncoming train spotted him in time but the terrified elephant jumped to his death from the bridge. He was buried at the spot he fell. The tale moved us tremendously. Maybe it was the sadness with which it was narrated.
We stopped for breakfast at a famous roadside Punjabi dhaba. The mouth-watering aloo-parathas with generous dollops of butter and lassi cheered us up for the farewell. The Tiger-man had reached WII ahead of us and had organized a Valedictory Session. The session was presided over by a senior faculty, a sceptic, who quizzed us on the utility of running such a course. Our emotional replies overwhelmed the man. There was no doubting the fact that we were ‘converts’ for life! We were presented with beautiful certificates placed inside arty, handmade jackets and a WII mug to remember them by! Most of us were feeling overwrought as we stepped out of the room and said our goodbyes. We were going to remember these 10 days of camaraderie, of tramping in the wild, of learning from the best, for a long long time.
The Scribe left early, overwhelmed with sudden sadness as we parted ways. A lovable, emotional man-my friend, the Scribe.
I boarded the evening train for the journey back home. ‘I will be back!’ I promised myself as the train chugged through the enchanted forests of Rajaji.
The Tiger-man photographed two male and two female tigers at the spot where we had encountered heavy territory marking by tigers on our way to Mithawali. The stage is being set for a ‘battle-royale’ between the ‘Ruling Lord’ and the ‘Challenger’ which may see the violent destruction of the unlucky loser. He also photographed a tigress with a male cub at the ‘Bohri’ sot (that I have erroneously referred to as ‘Mohri’), the place where we found the dead Sambhar. Incredibly enough he also managed an amazing picture of the tigress that had stalked him earlier while he installed a Camera-trap. This time she was carrying a Sambhar by its neck. The graceful lady did not condescend to drag her heavy ‘kill’ and instead carried it clean leaving no drag marks!
A closer reading of Sher Jung’s ‘Tryst With Tigers’ revealed that the Ramjiwallah he referred to in his book lies farther east (towards Corbett) to the one we crossed on way to Dharkot!!