It had been raining in the Morni hills for over three weeks and I was impatient to be amidst the cloud covered hills. The Morni hills are their greenest and undoubtedly their most scenic during the monsoon season but they are also their trickiest. The rain softens the hard compacted red clay of the Shivaliks thereby weakening its grip on the boulders and rocks that form these fragile hills. The boulders eventually break free and hurtle down the slopes crashing noisily through the scrub followed by a wave of mud and debris, triggering panic in the locals and tourists alike!
The weekend trip had been planned in advance and I intended to pack in as much fun as possible. I intended to take the Jallah road to Mornee and halt at Bharal and trek up to the reservoir. A reservoir has been created by a masonry dam built at Bharal across a seasonal nallah that flows down the Mandana hills. The reservoir is relatively inaccessible when compared to those at Bunga and Aasrewali on the other side of the hills and it seemed to be a promising place to hunt for pugmarks of wild animals that might be frequenting the lake for water. I was excited at the prospect of putting my newly acquired knowledge of reading pugmarks (pieced together from wildlife brochures and training manuals) to actual test. I had even pieced together a rudimentary kit for preparing a plaster-of-paris cast of the pugmark that I hoped to find.
I had received a ‘2008 Lange Reserve, Willamette Valley, Pinot Noir’ from my only friend from school (he had lugged it all the way from Portland) and I was dying to savour the rich Oregon wine after a hard day of trekking and biking in the hills. King Uncle, my pal, was to join me for the trip and I had described the enological ‘treasure’ in great detail to him as bait for agreeing to the ‘short’ trek on the way to Morni. Much like the rest of his blue-blooded creed, my friend loves to pamper his refined visceral senses. He enjoys indulging on his carefully prepared food, washing it down with rich wine, tapping to the beat of music as he watches the smoke rings ride the evening breeze, melting into the distant horizon. But he loathes the idea of physical adventure of any kind especially if it involves sweat. And sweat he does by God. The walk up a hill in the humid July weather was going to f*** his happiness and he knew it. He had regarded my oblique references to the trek with great suspicion. He had, nevertheless, invested in ankle-length rubber soled Woodlands resigned to the inevitable stupidity that he was to be subjected to. He cheered himself up by planning his dinner at Morni. He had picked up a farm fresh chicken and planned his detailed instructions for the cook at Mornee, lest he do a less than perfect culinary job. He had ordered the king-sized jamuns that he loves to wash and salt lovingly to have as a health snack with wine. He was also happy at the opportunity to use his newly purchased CANON SLR and hopefully show-off his much disputed photography prowess.
I also planned to carry some fruit trees for planting in the forest area around the Tikkar cottage. My friend also went along with the old joke about mandatory tree planting by tourists in Morni and purchased an Amarpali mango and a peach tree sapling as his contribution to the green cause.
I had finished my preparations for the trip. We maintain a ‘Green Mornee Fund’ by setting aside all the coins found in the purse or the pocket at the end of each day and stashing them in a green coloured Mickey Mouse piggy bank! I intended to encash my ‘green fund’ for purchasing the plants. My wife was away on work and my daughters joined me after dinner in meticulously counting out the 500 odd coins we had managed to save, with denominations ranging from 25 paisa to 10 rupee. The amount totalled to just under Rs. 1300, sufficient for the purchase I had in mind. The cook grinned at the ‘chillar’ load (neatly divided into pouches of different denominations) that I handed over with the request for getting the same exchanged for currency notes from the local kiryana (grocery) store. The shopkeeper eventually refused to accept 25 paisa and 50 paisa coins. So much for Government claims of having reigned in inflation!
I was going to miss my rugged CANON POWERSHOT S5, my constant companion on all my adventures as it was with my wife. I had borrowed a NIKON COOLPIX with a measly 5X zoom and I hoped that my friend could handle his SLR with at least half the masterly skill he so often claimed to possess. I was also to carry wooden plank that I intended to hang as a swing in the verandah at Tikkar cottage.
On the journey day I was up early for a change. I had already packed my stuff the night before. I started around quarter past seven and drove at a steady pace to reach my friend’s home around 11 AM without any major adventure. Just before I turned for the lane to his house I was accosted by an excited youth on a motorbike who protested at a sharp turn that I had taken somewhere back there. I was completely unaware of my alleged misdemeanour and looked surprised at his agitation as I lowered my glass. The guy had come prepared for a heated exchange and was taken aback at my prompt and sincere apology and drove of disappointed at my meek capitulation. I was not going to ruin a perfect trip with a quarrel over a triviality and I do tend to get distracted with Lucky Ali’s lilting music.
I caught my friend with his proverbial pants down. He was not expecting me to reach on time. I never am. But today I had decided to surprise him. He had not been expecting me before noon and had been busy deep freezing the chicken and packing it in a water-proof packing with ice. I rushed him into finishing his packing as I gulped down the delicious homemade mango shake and munched on the sandwiches with astonishing lack of manners. His folks have luckily chosen to ignore my odd ways and we were off in minutes, forgetting to thank the hostess for the breakfast in the haste to be in the hills without wasting the day. The king-sized jamuns had not been delivered in time for our trip but we had our deep frosted chicken to look forward to!
We drove till Derabussi turning right for the link road to Ramgarh. We then turned left near the fort on NH 73 to reach my favourite nursery, owned by the Colonel Sahib. The fauji proprietor was not available and the mali led me to the rear for choosing the saplings through a slushy track ruining my shoes in the process. My friend chose to not follow to save his brand new Woodlands from meeting a similar fate. I chose saplings of mangoes trees of different varieties as well as jamuns and chikoos. While the mali took out the plants, I clicked a Sitaphal only to realize too late that a beautiful large glossy brown and black bird (a Greater Coucal) was sitting on a tree hardly ten feet from me. The bird flew off before I could react and I cursed my stupidity and blamed the unfamiliar camera for the missed opportunity. I also chose some poinsettias, the shrub with the flamboyant red leaves that stand out so brilliantly at the Chandrawal Kunj resort in Morni. The teak trees planted all around the nursery were doing well. The forest department has been equally successful in the roadside planting all along the Morni road and has created a virtual forest of teak at Berwala. I recognized a Sohanjna tree with the dried drumsticks in front of the nursery.
We loaded the plants carefully. The mali wanted me to write down the details of the plants we had purchased for his record.
I headed straight for the Shimla highway ignoring the turn for Morni near Nada sahib as I wanted to take the Jallah road. We turned right at Majri chowk to take the brand new toll-road to Pinjore-Shimla.
Both of us spotted the quaint Chandimandir railway station as we drove over an elevated stretch but it seemed risky to stop for a photograph on the busy highway and we crossed the toll to turn right for the Jallah road. We stopped briefly on the Kaushalya bridge for a few pictures and then drove on towards Jallah. We stopped to pay the PWD toll and the toll gate attendant enquired about our intended destination. ‘Morni,’ I told him. I was surprised at the query as it was obvious that any tourist heading east on that road should be heading for Morni, the only destination other than small villages like Jallah, Bharal and Thapli that lie on that route. We drove on towards Jallah and I shared my plan of stopping at Bharal and trekking up till the reservoir. My friend worried about the gradient, the humidity and the possibility of our meeting slush on the track that would ruin his brand new shoes. We had barely crossed Jallah when we encountered a minor rock-slip that blocked the road to Bharal and Thapli. I was still toying with the possibility of trying to negotiate the rock pile when a local on a tractor warned us of a similar road blockage at some distance from the spot. That decided the issue and I reversed to head back for the Shimla highway and take the conventional route via NH 73 to Morni. I wondered why the guy at the toll gate had not warned us about the road blockage and I prepared myself for giving him a piece of my mind when he stopped us for the toll on the return journey. To my surprise the man did not bother to emerge from the tin shed this time, as he saw us approach and cross the barrier. The crook had quite obviously known that the road was blocked near Jallah and was content at having duped us into paying the one-side toll by keeping mum about it and was smart enough not to push his luck further and demand toll on the return journey.
I was upset about the wasted time and the lost opportunity for hunting for pugmarks. We stopped on the elevated highway near Chandimandir Railway Station this time and clicked the British age building.
We stopped to click the majestic Nada Saheb Gurdwara and the triple towers of Shiv Dham on the Morni road.
I clicked the ‘phulai’ tree which was much like the kikkar but with wonderful artistic leaves.
We then stopped at the popular viewpoint facing the Tipra hills short of Mandana. A group of youngsters from Delhi were busy clicking the landscape with their state-of-the-art SLRs. Photography is the ‘in thing’ these days and the Scribe attributes the phenomenon to the age of digital photography that requires very little talent or practice for good photography. ‘Any fool can click one masterpiece after a hundred bad shots!’ he grumbles. Regardless to say, he considers himself the original film photography expert and laments the invasion by the new SLR wielding creed of trigger-happy yuppies!!
My friend had joined the youngsters in clicking the Morni landscape and gave me some crap about aperture and exposure to let me know that I had a pro on my hands. We drove on. I stopped to click a Buddha’s Coconut Tree, an impressive glossy-leaved tall tree.
We then stopped at Green Park Mandana, the popular roadside dhaba that commands the track leading to the small temple on a nearby hill top. The hill top offers excellent views of Mandana village to the North and the Himachal hills beyond the Pinjore dun. The hill itself ends in a sharp cliff to the South with a sheer drop of several hundred feet and a commanding view of the thickly forested areas, fields and meandering nallahs till the distant Khetprali and beyond. As I parked the car, my friend clicked the donkeys grazing near the banyan that serves as the dhaba’s natural landmark and their white-haired, dhoti clad owner.
The King was lucky that the Scribe was not accompanying us as he takes a strong exception to our treating the locals as some kind of curiosities for photography and would have surely spoken his mind on the subject. He is a very sensitive man, my friend the Scribe. The area is rich in birds and we spotted a tree-pie and photographed an Indian Robin. We walked up the track and my friend busied himself with photographing the temple on the hill top and also the landscape all around. I clicked a big tree with an impressive canopy (later identified as Dhobin) and then took a picture of the small dugout for rain water harvesting on the deserted hill top.
This small watering hole is usually dry but it had water on account of the rains in the previous weeks. And I then spotted what I had been hoping to hunt for at the Bharal reservoir. Pugmarks. Four-toed, with the toes placed close to the large heel pad. The pugmarks formed a short trail on the soft soil leading upto the water. An animal had come to the hole for water. It had rained heavily the previous day so the marks could not be old. There were no nail marks accompanying the toes so the pugmarks did not belong to an animal of the dog family (wolf, jackal, dog etc). It was a cat. How big a cat?? My heart raced as I tried to estimate the size. It was definitely large for a normal cat. I cursed myself for having left the kit for preparing the POP cast in the car. I clicked the pugmarks and the trail. I then remembered King’s high resolution camera and requested him to click the pugmarks. I requested him to keep a coin against a pugmark for estimating the size accurately. He clicked the pictures but did not look too convinced of their significance. I did not want to say the word ‘leopard’ as it seemed too incredible a coincidence to have chanced upon leopard pugmarks on the very first occasion. ‘Could be a hyena’s,’ I wondered aloud. The toes and the heel pad were closely placed. I had forgotten that a hyena is a canid and the nail marks normally accompany the toe marks. The soil was soft and there was no way that the nails would not have made an impression.
We went to the edge of the cliff to photograph the forest below. The fall is impressive and the area felt fairly desolate.
‘He could be watching us right now,’ I told my friend in my characteristic grave tone reserved for references to the elusive cat. It’s my favourite line and the King grinned back. ‘Let’s get back man and catch hold of something to drink!’ he replied. He had started to sweat because of the high humidity and was bored with the animal talk. We walked back to the dhaba and I pondered over my find as we drank the lemon drink. King had missed the mango shake and the sandwiches on account of my fretting him about being late and looked most discontented with a mere lemon drink. And then it dawned upon him. ‘What the f***!! I have forgotten the chicken in the freezer man,’ he moaned. ‘I was to take it out at the last moment before leaving but forgot. All because of your tearing hurry,’ he blamed me. He would have been inconsolable had I not managed to convince him about the chances of our getting hold of a chicken to eat at Morni! He clicked the buffaloes in the pond near the dhaba as we made our way to the car.
We drove on to Morni stopping to click a Kakkarsingi with the bright red, new leaves.
We drove past the Mountain Quail resort of Haryana tourism dashing King’s hopes of grabbing a bite to quell the rumblings of his troubled stomach. We reached the Tikkar cottage. The saplings were carefully taken out and kept safely under a pine. We had some tea, picked up our helmets and thundered off on the Bullet to head straight for Mountain Quail. We had ordered our evening snacks and dinner before leaving and the caretaker had promised to locate a chicken for the travel weary souls. The Lange Reserve and the Sula had gone into the fridge. The manager and the waiters recognize me at the motel due to my frequent visits and smiled at our cameras and the helmets. We asked for bread-omelettes with buttered slices and cutlets as we relaxed in the back garden that offers a beautiful view of the Bursinghdeo Range.
Scribe called up to know how the trip was progressing. I told him about the pugmarks. ‘Probably a dog’s,’ he said. ‘No. There were no nail marks,’ I pointed out. ‘The dog family has pugmarks with nail marks,’ I told him, flaunting my new found knowledge. ‘Could be a hyena’s though,’ I said by way of compromise. ‘That’s a contradiction,’ he pointed out, ‘the hyena belongs to the dog family.’ I wanted to kick myself for the elementary mistake. The Scribe can be painfully objective and truthful. And he was probably grumpy about having to work on a Saturday when he could have been loafing around with us. And he also had a new camera to test out!
We were back on the road within minutes and this time I took the rackety bike up the torturous climb till the Morni fort. It was getting late and I rushed my friend as he clicked the 17th Century fort. ‘Let’s try getting a shot of the entire fort from atop the hill facing the fort,’ I suggested. He had managed a decent wide angle of the fort and we drove to the moss covered cement pathway leading up the hill facing the fort.
It was a short climb and my friend grumbled at being made to sweat again. The hill top did not offer any special view of the fort. A small place had been cleared at the top and given a cement floor and a tin roof. It was the cremation ground of Balag village! The Morni people create a small pile of rocks and mark it with a tiny flag in the memory of the dear one cremated by them. There were many such small memorials to the departed soul and the place looked like an ancient cemetery. A tourist couple had followed us up the track out of curiosity and quickly retraced their steps on realizing that it was a cremation site. Most Indians are superstitious about such places. Luckily, neither of the two have any such issues. ‘Last stop for the journey to heaven,’ I remarked light heartedly as we made our way back careful not to cause any irreverence to those who lay in eternal rest.
My friend was all ready to head back home and settle for pakoras and wine when I persuaded him to agree for a short ride to Samlotha temple. We rode through the Morni town and had driven past the wind turbines at Chakli-Ramsar when I suddenly spotted a colourful black and brown mongoose like animal with a large black tail on a rock-masonry road edge marker at a distance. The Scribe had spotted a similar animal near Tikkar Cottage and we had debated whether it was a ratel, a badger or a civet. I switched-off the engine not daring to get off the bike or try to get closer for fear of scaring the animal. I cursed the Nikon Coolpix that was clearly not meant for wildlife photography. The camera could not achieve focus at the distance and I could capture only blurred images of the animal. It was frustrating to helplessly watch the perfect photo opportunity slip away. My friend had his SLR firing but the helmet’s visor got in the way of his looking into the viewfinder eye piece. He had to use the blessed eye piece for focus and not the more convenient LCD screen because it was the pro thing to do! Anyway he got a slightly better shot before the animal disappeared with a mate and I rued over the missed opportunity as we rode past the eerie ‘Tiger point’ rocks to halt briefly at Sherla tal. The animal was later identified to be a yellow-throated marten.
I turned right from the Morni-Badiyal road for the 6 KM ride to Samlotha. The road is in a poor condition and gets quite desolate in parts. The gear-shift of the Thunderbird gives constant trouble making one over rely on the clutch and I told my friend of the time when the bike left us stranded on top of the Sherla hill. ‘We were lucky then,’ I told him, ‘that the village was close.’ ‘If this breaks down here we’ll spend the night walking back home,’ I warned him. He did not react, knowing full well that I was baiting him for a comment but would exclaim softly, ‘Shit man!’ every time we hit a particularly bad patch. It was obvious that he had little faith in my ability to negotiate the bike on that risky track and get him and his precious camera back in one piece. We, however, reached the base of the Samlotha hill without incident. The sun was setting over the horizon as we started the climb to the hill top. We could see the tower of the forest department at the top and I figured that the temple would be somewhere close. I had never actually been to the temple but had seen a white speck atop the hill on Google earth! We had climbed up a few hundred yards when the King decided to call it a day and go no further. I tried to appeal to his ‘tough nut image’ but he would budge no further. I handed over my helmet and started climbing up the damaged cement track that climbed up the hill at an impossible gradient. There was cow dung all over the steps which meant that the path was in use by the locals but there was not a soul to be seen. I lost sight of my friend and my heart was beginning to pound with the exertion.
The tower was nowhere in sight and I considered turning back midway but dismissed the idea as my not so happy friend would love the opportunity to get back at me. I reached a small meadow that overlooked the plains of Raipur Rani. I wondered what would happen if I collapsed on the way. The King would wait until it was dark and would not know where to go, being new to the area. The lurking leopard was not that welcome an idea anymore. I hung on and to my relief finally spotted the tower. I had reached the top. And there was a small hamlet on top. Samlotha village. There were a couple of deserted Dharamshalas. The forest tower.
Some cattle inside a pen. The Samlasan Temple, with its impressive white tower.
A small cluster of houses. The temple was locked and I paid my obeisance from a distance. I could see only a couple of people but they showed no curiosity with my presence and chose to ignore me. The Samlasan temple is attributed to the Pandav era. It finds a mention in the sannad by which the Morni hills were given to Mir Jafar Ali by the British General Ochterlony after the Gurkha War in 1816. I clicked a few pictures and walked back with greater confidence. My knees have been giving me trouble for some time now and the sharp climb down the track promised to make me pay later that evening. I found my friend clicking the sun set.
We were off without wasting any more time. It was getting dark and I was worried about the bike breaking down. We crossed a teenager walking silently on that desolate road without a torch or staff and I marvelled at the guts of the locals. We finally hit the Morni-Badiyal road and headed back home. We encountered a number of some pigeon-sized birds squatting on the road near Sherla and they would fly off only at the last moment with noisy flaps when the bike was almost upon them ( a friendidentified the birds to be the red-eyed night jars). We crossed the Morni town and reached the turn for Rasoon. I was tired and turned the bike too sharply. The Thunderbird skidded dangerously, threatening to crush our legs and the King’s camera under its monstrous weight but luckily I regained balance and drove on pretending to not have noticed the skid. We finally reached the cottage and I turned off the Thunderbird and wearily hauled it up its central stand. We were home. My back hurt as did my left knee. We were thirsty, hungry and exhausted, with most of the evening that we had intended to spend chatting in the verandah with wine, already gone.
A bath and change of clothes lifted our spirits. We got the music going and opened the Lange Reserve with much fan fare. The wine did not disappoint. It relaxed the tired muscles and we enjoyed the light breeze in the verandah as we checked the photographs clicked by us during the day. We had the usual pakoras and peanuts. We finished our food and settled down to watch Jeremiah Johnson. We were midway through the movie, with Robert Redford leading a tense squadron of American dragoons through a burial ground of the savage Crow Indians, when I heard the loud snores of my friend. He was through with the day!
I was still lost in the world of Jeremiah Johnson, dreaming of the mountain man’s lonesome existence in the Rockies when I heard a gentle knock on the bedroom window. It was the Scribe. He would not have me so close yet not meet up. It was a Sunday and the sleepless one had reached Morni by eight after an hour-and-a-half’s drive through the hills. I was slightly fuzzy with the lack of sleep and the exhaustion of the previous day but was glad to see him. We sat in the verandah and had tea while I described the previous day’s adventures. The King was still busy snoring or so I thought. We ordered the breakfast and the King appeared fresh from a bath and fully recovered from the previous day’s adventure. I got ready and we decided to walk down to the watering hole on the track to Deorah and look for some more pugmarks. It was humid and both my friends were sweating as we trudged along. The King fired a couple of bawdy jokes to lighten the atmosphere but he was not in his element. Royals are certainly not made for drudgery!
I pointed to a dog’s pugmark to the Scribe with the tell tale nail marks.
The recent rain had brought down a newly constructed dangah in our neighbourhood. The power of water is unimaginable and one can experience its devastating potential in the hills.
We walked to the little pond but there were no pugmarks to be found.
The Scribe clicked a wonderful close up of a dragonfly (‘helicopter’ as we called it as kids) sitting on a bush.
We could hear the jungle fowls at a distance and I wanted to walk a little distance further on the track. The King was not to be convinced today for any more adventure as he was already sweating profusely. He decided to start walking back while I continued with the Scribe further down the track. We spotted some pied woodpeckers and the Scribe tried to capture them with the incredible 42X Zoom of his new Nikon but the photograph was against the sun and an impossible shot at the distance.
Just then we spotted a pair of swallows and the Scribe spent some time getting some nice pictures of the pretty blue-orange, cross-tailed birds. ‘See the mud in the beak,’ he said, ‘they are carrying the clay for plastering their nest.’
Now, the Scribe never ceases to surprise you with his wide ranging knowledge. And nature is his favourite topic. He can identify most trees and birds without needing to hunt for books or resorting to google. He spent a number of years of his childhood in Army cantonments in Eastern India and can relate numerous interesting anecdotes of those days. Of sleeping under the fauji bashas in makeshift family quarters, where snakes emerged from the mud walls. Where elephants visited your house at night to pillage the banana trees in your backyard. Of an Assamese ‘batman’ (helper in Indian army) nonchalantly catching a venomous snake by its tail to release it in the wild. Of the Rhinos in Kaziranga. Of riding elephants that would swim through the river. Of tying the tail of a dragonfly with a thread and taking it to school as a pet, hovering over the head. Of rearing tadpoles in bottles. Of the parrot that would ride his mom’s slipper. Of the pet tom cat that would disappear for days only to reappear with bruises from street fights expecting to be fed and cared for like the prodigal son! Of the many different dogs they had had as pets, each with a personality very different from the others. A curious, observant, sensitive child who loved animals and nature. A Gerald Durrell who experienced life with equal richness but never bothered to write about it. My daughters used to be fascinated with his stories. I would kid them about him actually being Kipling’s Mowgli. How his dad found him riding a rhino in Assam. How his origin was kept a secret! It was in fact the Scribe who initially got me interested in nature and photography. And I am a good student!!
We walked back to the cottage with the Scribe clicking a couple of nice pictures for the website.
The King had taken a short nap in the meanwhile and was decidedly hungry. The Scribe wanted to eat at the Haryana tourism resort at Tikkar tal and we started for the lakes in his ‘people mover!’ It had started to rain and I was worried of getting stuck in Morni due to some landslide, as I had to attend office the following day. The Scribe was uncharacteristically buoyant and cheerful and drove on through the rain, ignoring my protests. The drive through the rain was pleasant but by the time we reached the lake the deluge was beginning to look threatening.
We decided against stopping at the lake-side motel and drove all the way back to the cottage only to find that the rain had stopped! We had a leisurely lunch and amused ourselves handling a musket belonging to a local hill man. The hill people have a fascination for the muzzle-loading percussion lock muskets of the early 19th century and prefer them to the modern breech-loading shotguns that are so popular amongst the village folk of the plains. The man explained how a percussion cap is changed, the gun powder is poured down the muzzle, the musket ball is inserted into the muzzle and a piece of cloth is used to plug the muzzle. The ramrod is then used to firmly push the plug, ball and gunpowder to the breech of the barrel. The musket is then raised and held parallel to the ground with the butt rested against the shoulder, the hammer at full-cock, the eye sighting the target and the finger tightening on the trigger. One can only marvel at the British Infantry troops of the 19th century who could fire an astonishing 5 rounds to-a-minute with their clock-work musket firing drill, demolishing the cavalry charge of the enemy by their sustained volley fire. These muskets are sold at a famous gunshop at Nahn that also sells the gunpowder and the lead musket balls. The musket balls are also cast at home by the hill people. Blanks are often fired to scare away the monkeys and other wild animals that threaten the crops. Our caretaker claimed to be a crackshot in firing that primitive weapon.
The lunch had made us sleepy and I had a long drive ahead of me so we decided to take a small nap. It was past four when we finally started back. The clouds covered the hills around the lakes and look ready to pour again. I drove ahead with the Scribe tailing my car till Panchkula, where we waved our goodbyes. I then drove back home dropping the King on the way.
On reaching home I estimated the size of the pugmark using the picture that the King had clicked by placing a 1″ coin next to the mark. The pugmark was certainly over 7.5 cm long and about 6.5 cm in width.
The pictures of the pugmarks were mailed to a friend at the Wildlife Institute at Dehradun. It is official now. The pugmarks we found belonged to a medium-sized leopard. The tryst with the elusive one was closer than ever before.