Festival of flowers – hiking Sandakphu in Rhododendron season!

I don’t know (or believe) heaven exists but if it does, I’d like the road leading to its gate be littered with flowers. And I’d like those flowers be rhododendrons. They might not stand a chance against the daffodils and lotuses of the world but I have come to like rhododendrons because they remind me of the hills. The rugged, frosty and hard to tame Himalayan peaks. In crimson red, fearless pink and pearly white they seem to challenge the mundane green of the hills when they are in bloom.

It is a fantastic sight to see hundreds of these trees in bloom.
It is a fantastic sight to see hundreds of these trees in bloom.

Before I left on the Sandakphu trek, I stayed in a Nepali border village called Jowarbhari near Sukhiapokri that overlooks pretty mountains and witnesses spectacular sunrises.

The village of Jowarbhari on the Nepal border
The village of Jowarbhari on the Nepal border
A vegetable garden and the skeletal support for climbers and twiners.
A vegetable garden and the skeletal support for climbers and twiners.

Each year, starting late January until mid June more than a hundred species of rhododendrons bloom in the eastern Himalayan region that straddles between India and Nepal. The rhododendron blooms render a feisty tone to the otherwise green forest canopy. Also found in the bloom season in this region are the stately white magnolias and the poisonous cobra lilies that strikingly resemble a cobra’s hood. Called Gurash in the local language, rhododendrons are also distilled into a local brew called rhododendron wine – a strong tasting liquor with an aftertaste of the flower.

Cobra lilly
Cobra Lilly
The white rhododendron blossoms
The white rhododendron blossoms
The crimson Rhododendrons
The crimson Rhododendrons
The pathway littered with Rhododendron flowers
The pathway littered with Rhododendron flowers
Rhododendron Dalhousie
Rhododendron Dalhousie

I went on a trek to Sandakphu in April 2015 and saw rhododendrons in bloom all along the trail. Rhododendron is also the national flower of Nepal, a country whose borders are often crossed during the course of the trail. The 50km trek, done in 3 – 4 days, culminates in a view point from where the Kanchenjunga and even the Everest would be visible on a clear day – a feat I was fortunately able to achieve. The trek also traverses through tiny mountain villages – some of them comprise of only two families (like Tonglu) and provide accommodation and food for the trekkers in this route.

Views enroute Sandakphu
Views en route Sandakphu
A house at Tonglu village
A house at Tonglu village
A bhutia puppy
A bhutia puppy

Staying in mountain villages you get to experience the fluidity of international borders (India and Nepal in this instance). The silver pine trees and the alpine meadows notwithstanding I was also tantalised by the very possibility of spotting a red panda. Only that I didn’t. We hiked through the Singalila National Park where the promise of spotting a red panda in the thick bamboo forests loomed large.

Nepali men selling piglets.
Nepali men selling piglets.

After three days of trekking in the pissing rains and dense fog, I’ve almost lost hope of seeing anything as I reached Sandakphu. But unpredictably, as is customary in the mountains, the weather cleared up on the last day of the trek despite the dismal fog and wheezing rains the previous night. And I woke up to a glorious sunrise lighting up the entire range of Kangchenjunga, Kumbakarn, Simbhu, Pandim, Norsing and Sinni Alsu. Not to mention, I also got a peek of the Everest.

A misty trail en route Sandakphu
A misty trail en route Sandakphu where the promise of spotting a red panda looms large
Sun rises above Sandakphu
Sun rises above Sandakphu
View from Sandakphu at dawn. Kanchenjunga can be seen
View from Sandakphu at dawn. Kanchenjunga can be seen.

Have you been on the Sandakphu trek? Don’t be shy. Leave a comment and start a conversation with me. We could bond over travel, you know. Follow me on Instagram and like my Facebook page for more updates and to keep in touch more often. PS: I took this trip with http://www.tripwizard.co.in. Phone: + 91 9749630978.

Watching Water Birds and Water People in Maguri Beel, Assam

Whilst on a recent trip to Arunachal, watching us go bananas over the birds, our driver boasted about a water body near his town in Tinsukia, Assam that has “all sorts of birds.” “Uske saamne yeh to kuch bhi nahin hai,” he continued. This is nothing compared to what you see there. We took his words seriously and spent the last evening of our trip exploring the Maguri Beel, watching its water people and birds, enjoying a sunset on a boat with a guide.

Turns out, it is not an unexplored remote corner as I expected it to be. Maguri Beel is quite popular among birders not only in this part of the country but from all over. Jeevan Dutta, who is the resident guide at the Kohua Eco-camp resort that borders the beel told us that he is getting two groups of Bangaloreans just the next day. Maguri Beel is located just south of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and attracts migratory birds in thousands every year other than quite a number of residents.

Pigeon Tailed Jacana, Ruddy Shelduck, Yellow Wagtails, Purple Swamphens, Asian Open Bills, Northern Pintails, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Coot, Stonechats are the commonly found birds in the beel. We hired a boat and went on a sort of a sunset cruise watching fishermen getting back home with their daily catch. Fishing nets across the beel fluttered in the sunset and Ruddy Shelducks took flight watching our approaching boat framed by the sunset. Swamphens, Wagtails and Egrets were a constant presence too. It was quite an experience and a perfect way to end our trip to the North-East India.

Some pictures from the trip.

Fishermen rowing back after a day's work
Fishermen rowing back after a day’s work
A yellow wagtail
A yellow wagtail
Fishing nets in Maguri Beel
Fishing nets in Maguri Beel
Spreading the net
Spreading the net
Could this be a White-tailed Stonechat?
A Common Stonechat

How to reach: Nearest town, Tinsukia, is just 9km away. Dibrugarh is 50km away and taxis are easily available for a day trip. It would probably be better to stay in the Kohua resort that overlooks the Beel (call Jeevan for rates at +919954135613) to enjoy the ecosystem of the Beel.

A Purple Swamphen
A Purple Swamphen
An Asian Openbill in flight
An Asian Openbill in flight
A Ruddy Shelduck
A Ruddy Shelduck
A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel
A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel
The blue house, Magari Beel
The blue house, Magari Beel
An egret in flight
An egret in flight
Boats at Maguri Beel
Boats at Maguri Beel
Could this also be a White-tailed Stonechat?
A Common Stonechat
Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters
Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters
A fisherman in Maguri Beel
A fisherman in Maguri Beel

Have you been to Maguri Beel? Have you blogged about it? Leave a comment and let me know. I would love to read it.

Camping in the forests of Kudremukh

As the battered jeep heaved on the uneven, boulder-strewn, mud road towards the Pandaramukki peak inside the Kudremukh National park, a mild rain started to fall. Evenings have been drippy in the past week with pre-monsoon showers already in order. Just as the monsoon sets in the shores of Kerala, Kudremukh also receives considerable rainfall in the Western Ghats. The rain increased into a strong banter, lashing on the metal sheets of the jeep and when we reached the camp site it had literally started raining on our parade.

kudremukh landscape
kudremukh landscape

We were to pitch tents at the location identified as the temporary Anti Poaching Camp up by the forest officials, as part of the certified volunteer program conducted by the Karnataka Ecotourism Development Board. Overnight stay at the APC, inside the reserve park area, is mandated to provide the volunteers with real-time, hands-on experience and ground level realities of the park conservation. Kudremukh National Park is located in the central Western Ghats covering 600.57 km2. The park is also a UNESCO world heritage site and home to numerous endemic species of animals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.

dawn over the kudremukh range
dawn over the kudremukh range

The third batch of the Volunteer Training Program, conducted in the third week of May, saw participation from 29 individuals from all walks of life. As similar as their interests are, their professions are as varied – fitness instructor, software engineer in their yesteryears turned organic farming consultant, software engineers in their present lives, students. The weeklong program aimed to impart knowledge on the basics of wildlife and conservation with speeches and presentations by naturalists, herpetologists, amphibian specialists and forest officials. The trained volunteers would be used for activities like pilgrim management, animal census and other areas where the forest department is crunched for staff.

The clouds ushered in more rains as we arrived at the campsite and we quickly set about pitching tents before the ground got too wet. As though on cue, as soon as the tent pitching was over, the rain stopped. With it, a red-wattled lapwing that had her nest somewhere close to the water body by which we had our tents, realized there is trouble in sight and started her ‘did you do it’ alarm call. She didn’t have to worry too much because lapwing nests are extremely difficult to spot – their dirt-colored eggs are camouflaged with their nesting ground.

lichens are native to rainforests
lichens are native to rainforests

With the rain out of sight and concern, the enterprising among us helped setting up the makeshift kitchen by collecting rocks, starting a fire and chopping vegetables for dinner. The others wandered off to the nearby peaks their arms extended with phones in search of cellphone network, like diffusers looking for landmines. After volunteering with Girish, the solar instrument entrepreneur from Hassan on preparing dinner, I took a short walk and was rewarded with sightings of Sambar and Gaur in packs, in distant hillocks heading home after a rewarding day of grassland grazing.

kudremukh landscape
kudremukh landscape

The Anti Poaching Camps are typically located deep inside the jungles where animals and the forest wealth (timber and other valuable plants) are vulnerable to the greater predator – the human being and other natural disasters like forest fire (also, sometimes started by careless humans). The forest guards usually set out on foot early everyday aided by a GPS device and record their observations and enter the same in the evening into the HULI software, developed by the forest department. This enables the department to monitor wildlife and habitat health.

Having decided on an early morning trek through the thickets of sholas and grasslands, we zipped ourselves up, retiring inside the tents quite early wishing each other an early night. The morning sun rose pink and purple above the peaks of Kudremukh as we commenced our trek the following day. The lapwing wasn’t letting up on her warning calls. We ambled along as the forest guards lead our way. The grass was awash with last night’s rain and snails, in yellow and white stripes, lugged themselves ahead languidly.

The thickets of shola forests are just a few yards away and everyone, except me and the forest guards of course, is armed with leech-proof socks that prevent these blood thirsty monsters from raiding your legs. Without much forethought, in an act brimming with pointless bravado, I refused to accept the leech proof socks when they were offered back at the base camp. I would soon pay for that ignorance. Thanks to their perennial water supply, shola forests are home to numerous endemic evergreen trees. Which also means the mulch inside the sholas is squirming with millions of leeches trying to hop onto a host to feed on blood.

malabar torrent dart damsel fly
malabar torrent dart damsel fly

Strewn with mossy boulders and haphazard tree growth, sholas are the antithesis of trekking routes. Walk precariously but if you are in a danger of slipping, holding onto your dear life and to the nearby tree covered with lichens, will be of little help. Lichens are organisms found in rain forests on trees with the perennial moisture supporting their growth. There began my dance with the leeches. Amid fear of unsettling nesting cobras and driving out grazing Sambars, I started stamping my feet to shake the leeches away but in vain. By midway, I realized I was hopelessly hosting at least 50 leeches, sucking blood from a single entry point they have made in my leg. A few enterprising ones have moved on to other unmentionable spots as well. Ineffectively, with the help of a twig, I got rid of the cluster of them and by the end of it I realized I had slowed down the trek party’s efforts as well.

sambar hoof mark
sambar hoof mark

The agile forest guards walked swiftly pointing to trees and plants to us and describing their medicinal values. A fig tree had borne the brunt of bear claw marks and another stood victim to a gaur’s horn marks that had stripped the tree of its bark considerably. Though poaching is not that rampant in Kudremukh the threats forest department faces include forest fires, some amount of local timber felling and eradication of invasive plants (predominant of them being the pteridium, a fern).

snails can detect earth's tectonic movement
snails can detect earth’s tectonic movement

Later, as we tracked our way back to the base camp and as the debriefing session was in progress, DFO Dr. Ramesh mentioned that staying inside the Kudremukh National Park was a rare experience. Kudremukh is one of the newest National Parks in the country and hence the virgin forests and grasslands are left untouched with little access to tourism infrastructure. Much of it is off public access and it is one of the few places where the shola forests and grasslands with their birds and animals are preserved in their natural glory – with bare minimum human intervention. On the other hand, the leeches would love to have some human company, I suppose.

An edited version of this appeared in Deccan Herald and can be accessed here.