India: Kumaon

Indian Elephant

Indian Elephants, Jim Corbett National Park

Nainital

As a traveller, the question that often gets asked of me is: Why? Why do I travel? Well, travel teaches you what is really important in life. It is not the number of zeros in your salary, or the number of rooms in your penthouse or the number of cars you own or the horse power in them. Travel teaches you that the only thing important in life is the number of Likes on your Facebook Page. And ours was in danger of dropping as we had run out of Uttarakhand pictures to post on it. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do – head North with wife in tow because, solo travel is for the wimps. The month was April, too late for the fog to bother us and too early for the monsoons to drench us. Flight dropped us in Delhi on time and we spent the afternoon checking out the one thing that wasn’t covered in our last tripAgrasen ki Baoli. The next day was spent on a leisurely drive to Nainital, the first town of note up the hill. And at an elevation of about 2 kilometers, it was a welcome relief from the stifling summer heat of the plains. Nainital city is home to four of the most picturesque lakes in the lower Himalayas – Nainital, Bhimtal, Sattal and Naukuchiatal. It was the favourite stomping ground for the homesick British as it was the closest they could get to the Lake District within India. The following day was spent checking out the quartet and riding a pair of unruly horses up a hill to get a bird’s eye view (of the flightless variety, as all we did was peep from a view point) of the entire region. Jageshwar

Life couldn’t have been more perfect. Then dark clouds started appearing on the great sunshine of life that we were enjoying. Literally, as an unseasonal rain settled on the region and followed us right through to the end of our vacation. After pretending to sleep through a thunderstorm, we drove through Almora, where the famed views of the Nanda Devi massif was shrouded by ugly grey clouds, to Jageshwar, where its prime attraction is, thankfully, too low to bother with the clouds. Jageshwar is home to one of the most wonderful group of temples in the entire nation. Containing temples dating from the 7th century AD, it is also one of the oldest. Only the Chalukya temples in Pattadakal/Aihole and the Pallava ones in Mahabalipuram are older. We got a chance to walk around the complex and check out the imposing Nagara style Shikharas, thanks to a break in the rain. We spent the next three hours watching the sun play Hide-and-seek with the clouds and the road play Snakes-and-Ladders with the mountains as we covered the 84 kilometers to Pithoragarh. The main reason to come to this far corner of India is to see the stride stopping views of the higher Himalayas. Thanks to the clouds, our strides were completely unshackled and we could roam around and check out its only other attraction – steep farming step terraces that look both dramatic and photogenic at the same time. Birthi Falls

The following day was spent driving the 120 odd kilometers between Pithoragarh and Munsiyari, one of the most scenic routes in the country. The route winds along gushing streams, past picturesque villages set amongst verdant paddy fields, makes dramatic twists and turns as it scales impossible heights clinging to the sides of vertical rock faces and is so devoid of traffic that we ran into scores of frolicking magpies and lazing vultures right on the middle of the road. The highlight, of course, was the 126 m tall Birthi Falls which, thanks to the recent rains, had the vitality that it only possess during the monsoons. A 10 min trail took us right to the bottom of the falls where getting drenched felt exhilarating for the first time on this trip. After a few more photo stops, we finally reached Munsiyari in the early afternoon. If the view of the Himalayas is stride-stopping in Pithoragarh, it is marauding-army-march-stopping in Munsyari. Literally, as Himalayas has so faithfully done so over the centuries. Located in the lap of the Himalayas, Munsiyari commands the most dramatic mountain scenery among all the hill stations in the country. Thankfully, the weather cleared by the late evening to give us a glimpse of the dramatic Panchachuli range glowing majestically under the rays of the setting sun. Panch-chuli (Hindi for five-chimneys) is said to be the five kitchen chimneys of Draupadi, the main heroine of the Mahabharata epic, ones that she used to cook for her five husbands. Scientists, however, think that these dramatic peaks were the result of the Indian Subcontinent Plate, moving on a conveyor belt, head-butting against the Eurasian Plate, an ongoing process that started about 15 million years ago. One of these stories is, obviously, too fantastic to be true. Panchachuli

My own personal head-butting against the substandard Indian ISPs for, what it seems like, more than 15 million years, has taught me to always rely on a back-up. I carry that learning to all walks of life. So I had budgeted an extra day in Munsiyari just in case the weather turned out to be far worse than what it already is. Although I have been bitching about the weather, it was no worse than an annoying drizzle, at least during the day time. Watching it for three days had given us the cockiness to assume we were climate expert and attempt the 7 km hike to the local maxima, Khaliya Top. This was our first trip to the Himalayas in spring, and the blooming Rhododendrons dazzled us with their brilliant display. Life couldn’t have been more perfect. The skies got angrier than the last time we said that dreaded sentence and sent down a hailstorm. We somehow managed to get back in one piece and spent the rest of the day drying our cloths and nursing our bruised neck from all the ice-pelting.

A day long drive brought us back to Almora where the skies were about as menacing as we had encountered the last time around. The only pit stop for the day was the mildly interesting Chand era temple of Bagnath in Bagheshwar. The incessant nightly thunderstorm had knocked off couple of transformers in the region and we had to spend the night like how Newton would have – in candle light, with no TV, contemplating how the cosmos worked. We left Almora at the first sight of natural light, the following morning, reaching what should have been the highlight of our trip: Jim Corbett National Park. Jim Corbett National Park The trip, which so far had more than its fair share of examples supporting the Murphy’s Law, unfortunately, had saved its best for the last. Everyone knows that the two things that you can never do in this universe are isolating a Quark and making a successful on-line booking of a Corbett safari. The best amongst us have successfully explained the former and while the latter is still a deep mystery. Trust the current ruling dispensation to come out with a naïve solution for a complex issue. The present government, in its infinite wisdom, has now decided that the dreaded OTP is needed to make a successful booking thereby making any illegal mass bookings impossible. But this OTP solution does not work for foreigners or most of India where the network connection is patchy. As this hodge-podge decision has directly affected the livelihood of many, there was massive protests leading to the cancellation of all safaris for the day. There is, however, a benefit of more than one thing going wrong at the same time. Remember that the weather was still quite fickle and was sulking in the corner. As soon as we learnt that the safaris of the day stood cancelled, it woke up from its slumber and there was a heavy downpour. We could at least console ourselves that a staying put in a shack outside the park gates was better than being drenched on an open safari jeep.

Thankfully, the protest was not lead by a Gandhi. That means they aren’t organized enough to man the gates round the clock. So the following morning, under the cover of darkness, we could slip past the enemy lines and get deep into the forest where the likes of elephants and tigers make any pursuit futile. We had booked four safaris which, by the way, is the bare minimum needed to sight a paw print. As two of those got cancelled and with recent rains, we did not stand an ice cube in an oven’s chance of spotting a house cat, let alone a tiger. Most Indian parks have very little to offer outside of a tiger sighting. Corbett isn’t one of them. The park itself is stunningly pretty and Corbett landscape pictures can fill every hotel lobby in the world. And Corbett has enough elephants to guarantee a long and enjoyable sighting – these pachyderms don’t scurry off into the bushes at the first sight of a camera lens. And Corbett allows guests to stay well within its boundary. The most prized accommodation, Dhikala, is 32 kms deep into the park making wildlife viewing as easy as peeking out of one’s balcony. Despite the weather, despite reduced time in the park, despite getting nowhere close to a feline, whatever we could salvage of the trip was indeed truly magical and erased all the disappointments. Somewhere between watching frolicking elephant calves, some as young as few days, listening to Indian Pitta’s haunting “Thank You” calls, gaping at the majestic sal trees forming some of the most eye-catching tree tunnels, we said to ourselves: weather be damned, life couldn't have been more perfect!

Click here for more photos from Kumaon.
Click here for more photos from Jim Corbett National Park.
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