Diary – A trip into the Great Himalayan National Park

Day 0:

aut-dam-water-thirtan

The Tirthan river dammed up just before Aut, view from the HPTDC bus as we were winding down towards the drop point

Lal Singh loaded my bags in the trunk of the car, and we set off. I had got down right before the tunnel leading into the town of Aut. He was reeking of booze and in high spirits (it was 6 am!), though you couldn’t make out from his driving! I asked him where we could find some authentic pahadi chai, and he stopped at a tea shop in a small hamlet named Lajri. The guy there was making the largest paranthas I’ve ever seen.

“Chini normal, ya kum?” he asked, “Kum”, I ventured. The ‘chini kum’ chai gave me a solid sugar hit with the 1st sip. Wonder what he would have given me if I’d asked for “normal”!!

Onwards towards Goshaini, the road twisted and turned from one valley to another. Each valley was marked by what looked like red penants on tree trunks, fluttering in the breeze, with some odd metal pieces and stuff pegged on the trunks, I asked Lal Singh what they were, “Kul Devatas”, he replied. Each valley has its own, an invisible demarcation of spiritual territory for each “community” – village or small group of villages. And so we kept crossing over from the “watch” of one Devata to the other, blessed by all of them 🙂

By the time we reached Raju Bharti’s guest house in Goshaini, the crisp mountain air had perfumed away the stink of the city.

raju-bharti-entrance

This is how you get in into Raju Bharti’s guest house (the luggage goes 1st on the trolley, then you)

A beautiful wooden cottage set on a hillside, rooms with windows overlooking the beautiful Tirthan, and an airy open balcony with great views all round, exceeded my expectations from this highly rated and recommended guest house. At breakfast the home made fresh cherry jam (cherries were from the surrounding orchard), confirmed the credentials of this absolute gem of a place. Succulent mutton curry for lunch sealed it further.

r-bharti-balcony-view-1

The balcony & the view of the Tirthan and the valley

r-bharti-roomsr-bharti-rooms-1

The room is actually 2 rooms…one for the parents and one for the kids. Had the luck of getting the family room in the newer cottage higher up the hillside as it was free.

Skylight. Common area leading into the balcony..has the whole place to myself the 1st day & night…bliss!

A corner in this world where time loses its hold

Fateh delivered the goods in the evening. A full bottle of Old Monk materialized on a request for some liquor, and I finally sat in the balcony looking out at the Tirthan rumbling down, enchanted by it’s silvery flow and lulled into a trance by its incessant roar. A bolt of thunder cracked down from the clouds and thunderclaps shattered the calm. The storm broke.

 

23/5/16

Next morning I woke up at 6 am to an azure rain washed sky, the rumble of the Tirthan, hues of cool sky blue and white foam. The sunlight lit up a crisp mountain morning.

Breakfast and onwards! Reached the point from where Aabir, Suparna & I started trekking 2 years back. I remember how Aabir was so angry at being told they don’t have a walking stick for kids. The whole point of the trek to him was the anticipation of the walking stick 🙂 ah! the simple fixations of childhood! Kuchie had surrendered her’s to save the day 🙂

 

The beginning of the trek is a very pleasant walk along a path that gently climbs along switchbacks, flanked by forests on either side. A small bird…aha…a Whiskered yuhina!

Ahead, a brief ‘whistly’ call..a pair of scaly breasted woodpeckers.

the male is seen here

A melodious insistent call…the gorgeous ultramarine flycatcher. Gone before I could get a shot! Pushed on after taking a landscape portrait of the Tirthan gushing down the mountains, a snow range visible in the distance. That’s where we were headed.

Persistent calls of Great barbets echoed down this valley..

We made good time till the mobile point and flopped down to catch our breath. I was pulling through distinctly better than last time, all the work-outs paying off :).

Abruptly, bright sun and clear skies clouded with portents of rain, gusts of wind pummeling us all of a sudden. Such is the capriciousness of the weather here. Tek Singh spied a Ghoral fawn in the distance, browsing in a grassy knoll.

We packed off our bags in rain gear and hastened towards the park gates. The rain came down.

Making the best pace we could while watching our steps on the rain slicked slippery path, we came upon the Hippo point just before the park gates – I stopped and gawked, awe struck again like last time at the sheer fury and force of the waterfall beating down on the Hippo shaped rock.

(pics from my last trip, couldn’t shoot it this time as it was raining) the force and deafening roar of this waterfall stops you in your tracks

We entered the gates of the park. As soon as you enter something changes subtly, it feels wilder, untamed and I felt I was leaving the familiar behind

that’s the forest guard’s cabin

A shepherdess was tending to her herd on the mountainside, with a calm unhurried pace quite alien to us city slickers

The landscapes here are on a gigantic scale, e.g try spotting Tek Singh (my main guide) in the landscape below

and now, in the closer up portrait shot of the bridge seen in the scape above 🙂

The trek towards Rolla is a study in such landscapes, with the Tirthan winding and cutting down through the dense forested mountains

I saw the Speckled wood pigeons again like last time, near the old woman’s hut.

She still seems sprightly, full of life, her age hardly telling. She carries her 84 years lightly indeed, living alone with her livestock in this wilderness, she goes out of the park once or maybe twice a year to visit relatives in the neighboring villages outside it..

She warned Tek Singh to watch out for her cow – apparently quite aggressive. Tek Singh laughed off the warning, being wary only of bulls being a ‘man’! Sure enough as we approached, the cantankerous bovine lowered her horns and charged at us! We scattered, Tek Singh clearly startled, tried regaining his pride by brandishing and swinging a sack he was carrying, adding a yell for good measure 🙂 Am sure the cow’s aggression is due to the many wild animals inhabiting the surrounding forest…

We reached Rolla at 4 pm. This time we had the whole place to ourselves and I was able to truly appreciate its beauty, unlike last time when it was teeming with those ‘Happy Singh’ families.

Went down to the riverside and spent some time relaxing, watching it go by and lulled by the incessant rumble of the river

Fast flowing mountain rivers and fire have one thing in common – they both have the power to hypnotize the beholder. Yashpal lit a bonfire against the backdrop of the tumultous Tirthan, as I sat in the gathering dusk, surrounded by the towering cathedrals of pines, deodars & oaks, held captive by the flickering flames

 

24/5/16

Woke up in the middle of the night, the radium dials of the watch stood at 1:43 am – lay half awake for a while wondering what woke me, maybe it had got a bit too stuffy inside the tent. Took off the warm vest and lit out again.

5:00 am. A beautiful melodious song. A Blue whistling thrush was singing somewhere close, clear sonorous notes in a complex symphony. Just about pre-dawn, first light. Another one started up, this I could not place…. shorter, sweeter.

Finally got up at 7 am. Started raining again somewhere around 8:30ish. I amused myself in the tent for the next 2 hours, finishing off with experimenting on how to capture rain shots. The forest sighed mist.

We started off for Chalocha, our next destination, at 10 40 am and I realised how fidgety the rain was making me. The 1st 30 mns I walked through the same dense undergrowth and almost obscured track I had explored 2 years back. It is a very dense and thick forest here, with near vertical stretches over rain slicked slippery rock. All around were thick primary forest, resonating with bird calls. The heavy growth did not make for easy sightings and photography.

On the grueling path, that was getting strenuous and steeper by the minute. We eventually came upon 2 makeshift bridges, and a rickety ladder, spanning sheer drops. The bridges were just 3 logs across the divide. Tek Singh cautioned me against placing my foot on the thinnest left log! Half way through, I could feel the logs swaying, and the precariousness of my balance brought on rising waves of panic! Somehow blocked it out, relaxed a bit (the more tense you get, the worse your balance), and made it across inch by inch.

The 2nd bridge was a bit better, but the difference was like between the devil and the deep blue sea :). Then we came to this ladder, which I made the mistake of thinking to be comparatively easy. Half way up, the incline plus my vertigo got me. Got down on all fours!

20 minutes of steep climbing later, we reached the top of the mountain we were crossing.

Downhill from there, Yashpal thought he saw a pheasant sized bird. I was thoroughly winded by now, think the altitude must be making things harder too.

Chalocaha camp is a single RCC cabin across a wood bridge spanning the Tirthan. My tent was made on a rise above the forest cabin by the time I hit camp.

the tent amidst dense forest at Chalocha

A quick lunch of parathas with green chilli achar, some cucumbers and tomatoes, followed by a bar of chocolate. I roll up into my sleeping bag and fall asleep before my head touches down.

The sun shone strongly after a while and woke me up. I check the oxymeter reading – pulse 90+, SPO2 at 91-92. Felt winded.

These guys are just awesome, they get me some pakoras and tea around 3 15. A decision needs to be made – am I upto the very strenuous, near vertical 8 km / 7 hr, back breaking haul up to Nada Tatch tomorrow?

It rained again that evening for about an hour. The sun came out warming the forest and vapour started rising from the trees, making for an unique GHNP landscape..

Night. 10 pm. Angry skies tonight. Thunder, lightning, rain. Cold outside, must be around 8-9 deg Celcius, comfortable inside the tent.

 

25/5/16

1 40 am. Very cold. Put on a double layer of socks and a sweatshirt (on top of a warm vest and t shirt) and snuggled back into the sleeping bag.

Woke up at 7 am, freshened up and packed. I decide to take it easy and move slowly, taking in everything, not rushing, and change the flow. Decision taken.

Told Tek Singh that I wanted to go back to Rolla and spend time birding instead of going up to Nada Tatch. It did not make much sense climbing 8 kms of near vertical mountainside , over the whole day, only to sleep off the exhaustion and climb down the next day. Wish I had 1 more day which would have made the climb worthwhile. Next time, and a motivation for coming back for the jujurana (Western tragopan) :). Told Tek Singh I wanted to camp on the old woman’s meadow and not at the Rolla campsite this time.

At Chalocha, the trail to Nada passed by my tent and climbed in steep switchbacks, eventually becoming a near vertical ascent. The whole place was surrounded by thick moist deciduous (temperate evergreen?) forest, with tall deodars and oaks standing in densely packed columns, the mountainside floor packed with all sorts of bushes, shrubs, creepers and plants. A Blue whistling thrush flew into a branch above and soon its mate started singing a marvelously beautiful song, somewhere close, complex and melodic. Never realised before this trip what amazing songsters they are, right up there with the white rumped shama..

Blue whistling thrush in habitat

Two thrushes started up their own calling in a dense thicket opposite my tent. Tek Singh and I waded into the thick vegetation, parting the tall grass, egged on by brief glimpses of the 2 birds as they hopped and flitted about foraging on the forest floor. These were thrushes of a type I’d not seen before, and we pressed on keen to get a shot. The birds seemed to be skulkers, keeping themselves inside the dense thickets and bushes. We eventually gave up as they moved off down the shoulder of the river bank and out of sight.

Meanwhile Yashpal called our attention to another bird he had spotted beside a dead tree trunk on the river’s bank. It was another thrush, in the clear, a lifer for me. Got one clear shot, what a beauty of a bird. The Chestnut crowned laughingthrush.

Time for breakfast, packing and moving off. We broke camp at a leisurely pace and left Calocha at 10 30 am. It was a bright sunny morning with clear blue skies, drifting wisps and daubs of white cotton clouds, the air crisp and cold. No wonder, as were at an altitude of 8,350 ft.

Riverbed below the campsite at Chalocha. Tributary streams merging, in the monsoons this is all under raging waters 🙂

The trek back was initially uphill and I could feel my heart thump again after the 1st steep climb, as I took it at a rapid clip at this altitude. I wondered how I’d fare on the climb to Nada…which starts from 8,350 ft at Chalocha and ends at almost 11,000 ft.

After the first few steep switchbacks uphill, it was more or less downhill all the way, quite steep, the path almost obscured by tall grass and undergrowth. Yesterday on the way uphill, the wind had got knocked out from my sails on the same route! Spied the white tailed flycatcher, what a beauty, the male with its blue colour. On the same tree sighted both the male & the female ultramarine flycatchers

Ultramarine flycatcher male & female, superciliaris – W Himalayas

Further down while crossing a bridge Yashpal pointed to a bird skipping over the boulders amidst turbulent waters – the little forktail! Another lifer.

Further on we saw a thrush’s nest tucked below a large boulder, shaded from direct sunlight  and well above the water line. A large circular structure, it had a single white egg in it.

the Tirthan tumbling into a pool 

A plumbeous water redstart hopped onto a boulder nearby

a Brown dipper was busy diving into the fast flowing waters…this was a break between the dives, when it posed for me for an instant

We reached the old woman’s meadow and hut well past noon. I asked Tek Singh to pitch my tent on the edge of the meadow, so I could look out over the river.

passing clouds, shifting light & shadows

a gecko I have to id

I sat inside my tent admiring the tree clad mountains rising high in the distance, the raging Tirthan gushing down, foaming and swirling around boulders in its wake, while the leafy boughs of trees, broke up the sunlight.

Tek Singh came running – ‘Sir, ek bird hai, jaldi aaiye!’

I’d taken off my shoes while resting, so picked up my camera and ran out barefoot. It was a pair of green pigeons (wedge tailed), on a tree behind the old woman’s hut.

Wedge tailed green pigeon

While moving closer to get a decent shot, they flew across to another tree higher up the mountainside. Yashpal kindly offered me his slippers and up I went with Tek & him, clambering up the mountain. Tek stopped and whispered urgently – ‘Marten’, tugging at my arm, pointing in the direction. Sure enough, there it was, a yellow throated marten leaped sinouosly over a fallen tree trunk in the distance, and disappeared from view. The action had begun!

We headed out for a birding walk, Tek Singh wanted to show me 2 yellow billed blue magpies who were nesting in a tree close to where we were. And Yash wanted to take me up the mountain where we could try our luck sighting the critically endangered and elusive Cheer pheasant. This time with shoes on 🙂

Sure enough the magpies were there, beautiful birds with bright canary yellow bills, blue bodies, creamy white breasts and long barred tails. Aggressive and powerful birds, they are ‘goondas’, quite capable of giving the large glossy jungle crows and ravens a thrashing.

the ‘goonda’ Yellow billed blue magpie. observe how its coloration and markings help ‘break’ up it’s large body against the foliage when seen from below

We started up the steep mountainside from the trail and soon found myself clambering over precarious rock footings and boulders, struggling to keep up with Tek Singh & Yashpal. We saw a lot of bird activity in a tree which had lots of small green pods that the birds were feeding on.

Brown capped pygmy woodpecker

a Great barbet feeding its juvenile

At a point after further vertiginous ascent, Tek Singh pointed to the sky. There high above where the mountain ridge cut across the sky, soared a pair of Himalayan griffons.

When I looked down again, a grandstand view of the whole valley greeted me, a tiny bridge in the distance spanning the rushing waters of the Tirthan river, cutting and looping through the valley and the mountains on either side. So steep was the mountainside on which I was perched, I started feeling giddy, my vertigo rushed back in full force! Shut my eyes tight to control it, resolved not to look down and started up again behind the two mountain goats of companions that I had!

The climb grew progressively steeper and difficult, but this is easy says Yashpal! Compared to what we’d have had to do to reach Nada Tatch! I realised it becomes easier if you let your legs do the ‘thinking’, rather than the mind in such climbs. Anyway, we reached a spot from where the rock face of the mountain rose in slabs ending in an arete – a knife edge ridge line, with a ghoral silhouetted against the sky.

A while ahead and higher up, we reached a place where the mountain walls rose sheer, covered with grass, a prime habitat for the Cheer pheasant. While Yashpal was busy scanning the rocky slopes above for any signs of Cheer, Tek Singh spotted another Himalayan ghoral standing on a rock ledge in the distance, looking down at us. I remembered that the whole mountainside that we had just climbed was dotted with Ghoral droppings.

We descended via an easier route on the way back – don’t think I’d have been able to get down by the way we came up!

dizzying heights…to give you a sense of the steepness, that’s my tent in the meadow, on the way down

A quick wash in the freezing waters of the Tirthan once back, down below by my tent. 3 days of dirt, grime, sweat and tiredness washed away down the river. Drinking a hot pahadi chai, sitting on a boulder back up on the meadow overlooking the Tirthan, my reverie was broken by a brown flying object that glided past silently in the twilight dusk, landing on a tree trunk opposite me and squirreled up in a flash – the Himalayan flying squirrel!!!

Dog tired, after a hearty dinner of dal, omlette and mixed veg with simple hot rotis, retired to my tent around 8 15 pm. Just before crashing out for the night, I stepped out for a pee. There above me, ringed by the outline of surrounding mountains, was the night sky studded with a million or more stars! I turned 360 degrees and could make out Mars, Venus burning brightly and many, many constellations. After a few moments, the number of stars seemed to increase, I realized that my eyes, coming from the light in my tent were taking time to adjust to the inky darkness of the night outside.

Looking up at the sky like that , I was reminded of my childhood days in Jaipur, when we had to sleep on the terrace many a days on hot summer nights. Sometimes when the night sky was clear, I used to lie up looking at the star studded sky. I never could finish the count as try as I might, always used to see more in places I had not seen any in, when I had begun the count! And then things used to get blurry….next recollection would be 1st light with birds flying across the morning sky.

That vast open space, studded and dusted with an uncountable multitude of stars will be with me forever.

 

 

26/5/16

Woke up around 1 40 am again, as if on clockwork. Took of the warm vest and went back to sleep bleary eyed.

5 am.

Again a blue whistling thrush singing its mind blowing song outside somewhere close by. And a few more birds pipe in, I haven’t heard their kinds before. 2 yellow billed blue magpies fly out of the forest into the meadow, their long blue and white barred tails fluttering behind them. They alight on a tree and kick out a mean looking jungle crow. (Later in the day saw one of the magpies dive bomb another crow flying past with some food in it’s beak. Absolute thugs!)

Out early morning with my camera and binocs to catch the birding activity all around.

I walk to where the forest begins and start back leisurely, scanning the slopes of the steep mountainside above me. I sense movement somewhere up above and train my 200-500 mm lens towards the area. There, in the early dark of pre-dawn, I see 3 yellow throated martens coming down the slopes, oblivious to my presence!

2 are seen here clearly, the raised tail of the 3rd is in front of the closer marten’s face

One of the them, a sinuous large one, got up on a dead tree trunk as a look out and spots me. I freeze, they freeze. They quickly duck and disappear.

After a few moments and no further sign of them, I move ahead a bit to get beyond a large boulder obstructing part of the view up the mountain, scanning the slopes. Something moves right at the periphery of my vision, I turn and a little yellow throated marten ( a juvenile) jumps down from a ledge onto the track I am on, about 20ft from me. Its mother follows (a large badass looking type), and then both spot me and freeze.

The mother bares its teeth as the juvenile looks away as what I perceive to be wide eyed wonder 🙂 (yellow throated martens are powerful animals, with a deadly set of teeth and claws. They have no natural predators and are courageous and bold animals). She turned and high tailed it, the juvenile followed but could not resist a last peek.

This family of 3 martens must have been living in one of the many rock ledge caves underneath massive boulders, strewn across up in the slopes above.

The rest of the morning’s birding yielded another lifer – the Striated laughing thrush, a particularly comical looking bird in appearance and behavior.

Time to leave. Trekking back towards the park gates we see 2 Himalayan griffons soaring against the blue of the sky. One of them landed on a rock ledge high above close to the ridge top. Looked like they had a nest up there.

Closer to the park entrance we again sighted a flock of 4 wood pigeons – Speckled wood pigeons. These are found only in the Himalayan area.

It felt really good hiking along these trails now after 3 days of rigorous trekking across moderately tough mountain terrain.

On the way back beyond the gates of the park, sighted and shot what looked like the female Fire breasted flowerpecker, one of India’s smallest birds. What a beauty!

Lunch – Parathas and out comes the shopkeeper’s ‘Lingdi’ achaar, which I help myself to rather generously. Their neighbour was celebrating the auspicious event of starting construction of another floor, and we got treated to some very tasty sooji halwa 🙂

Back on the track, so lost was I in the warm afterglow of that simple lunch, I did not hear Tek Singh & Yashpal frantically whispering ‘Barbet’ behind me. Finally a tug at my t shirt & their pointing fingers directed my attention towards the bird. By the time I raised my camera, it gave a tentative hop to a branch above, followed by a firmer, more decisive skip into higher regions of the tree and flew away!

To compensate for this loss, I decide to send back Tek Singh to buy some of that excellent ‘Lingdi’ achaar and he comes back with 1 kg of the stuff, neatly packed in a plastic container. Good man. This ‘Lingdi’ is a species of fern that grows on the higher reaches of the surrounding mountains, that the villagers collect and pickle, rich in iron like spinach.

The gravitational pull of Raju Bharti’s guest house saw me walk in with Tek Singh and Yashpal around 3 pm. Genuine, decent, honest people, Tek Singh was diffident about telling me the total charge, quoting the normal cost rate of Rs 600 for the guide & cook & Rs 400 per porter, per day. ‘Chaliye saab, aap 500 de dijiye, har ek ke liye, kya bolte ho Yashpal?’ He was quite sensitive to Yashpal’s senitivities, I observed, maybe the lad had money problems back home..

Paid them 9k (1 k extra), we shook hands and they left for Goshaini from where they would walk back to their native village – Dingcha, about 8 kms away and higher than 8500 ft, in 2 & half hours (it had taken me 5 hrs to reach Rolla- ~10 kms away and at 5000 ft).

In the happy anticipation of a bottle of Old Monk, I had the 1st real bath in 3 days…ah! the simple pleasures of life!

And so ended my 1st solo trekking trip to the Himalayas. Now left thirsting for more, got to go back to Nada & Shilt for the Jujurana!

 

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4 responses to “Diary – A trip into the Great Himalayan National Park

  1. Excellent Kaustuv!
    Took us along with you on an adventurous trek to GNHP.
    You really must post more often…
    Cheers,
    Sahdev Singh

    • Thanks Sahdev! Yes, I need to write more often, there are 3 trips I did post GHNP, and even the pics are pending! Work gets in the way, need to get it out of the way…. someday 😊

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