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Sunday, August 14, 2016

my experience of trekking at the Great Himalayan National Park

Trek with Sunshine Himalayan Adventures : 
Here's what my experience of trekking at the Great Himalayan National Park was like
Go trekking at Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh. It's challenging but replete with delightful!

It was pouring in the afternoon and the entire hillside was engulfed in mist. Around me, the forest was damp. The sound of falling rain, the thunderstruck sky and the gurgling Thirthan river formed a perfect symphony. Yet, the soft petal-like raindrops felt like ammunition ready to knock me down. My feet were numb and I couldn't move. Trembling in anxiety, I held onto a narrow ledge, and took shade under a huge rock that shaped into a prefect natural cave. Huge ferns dotted the landscape. It was me, the forest and mountains. In spite of the ardent trek ahead, a smile formed on my lips. I would soon be walking inside the majestic Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP).
Drenched to the core, I had two options: Either continue to Rolla, our destination and the entry to GHNP, or head back to the warmth and safety of the town. But two options were what I'd had when I decided to pick walking in the Himalayas over a comfortable holiday in Manali. Trekking after a gap of 10 years, I knew I had bargained for more than a bed of roses. Surrounded by the towering Himalayan mountains, GHNP hosts some of the endemic population of Himalayan wildlife species. It was accorded the status of a national park in the 1990s. Dense with pine and oak trees, it cradles the beautiful Thirthan river and enjoys great diversity in altitude, enabling hillsides and meadows to support a wide range of plants and creatures, including endangered species such as the Western Tragopan and the snow leopard. The park has many trekking points but I chose the village of Gushaini, a small hamlet surrounding the park which is an eco-hotspot.

At the Gushaini base camp, I was joined by my guide Deb and his crew of two porters, who carried the tents, food, water and oil for our one-night stay in the jungle. I shook hands with them, knowing they were the most important people in my life for now. I was a city dweller, entirely unfit for the journey I had agreed to do. I had been warned that there would be no phone connectivity and for two days, I would be completely cut off from civilisation. Blissful is what this had seemed then.
We started our walk. After the initial few steps, I started panting. Breathless, I scanned my surrounding like a shikra looking to perch. I badly wanted to crash but Raju didn't let me sit. He insisted that I must walk. "Take baby steps," is what he said, "but please don't sit." I took a deep breath and refused to give ear to my bursting lungs. We crossed the village and the view opened up in front of me - terrace gardens and an open sky for miles. I got a red carpet welcome by the strewn rhododendron flowers. Bulbuls, Mynas and an occasional raptor gave me company. Deb indicated that we would soon be reaching the first village.
We came across a small hamlet tucked cosily into a corner of the mountain. Suddenly the eerie silence gave way to giggling children, shouting and chasing each other. I spotted smoke - the comforting sign of life in a village. I gulped down some much needed tea and glanced at my surroundings. It was a small village with four houses and the ladies ran tailoring shops attending to tourists. They trekked more than 10 km to get work from the nearby town. The men in the village worked as occasional porters for trekking companies.
After a 15 minute break, we resumed our trek. Deb cautioned that from here on the route would become a little treacherous and the path mostly uphill. The wide path that we had left behind became narrower and was rocky in most places. The ground below was damp with freshly fallen autumn leaves and dry twigs. The rocks jutted out in many places and dried branches thwacked under my feet as I walked. It was difficult focusing on the surroundings while keeping my eyes firmly planted on the ground.
As we climbed further, I caught a glimpse of the majestic Himalayan Griffons circling the sky. They disappeared behind the mountains, only to appear again. The sun had come out and one had to squint to follow them. Without warning, it started pouring. But we trudged along. As we walked, I realised that the wide path we had left behind had become quite narrow and soon we had to create a path as we walked.
I was tired but the cold rain, fresh flowers and the cloud wrapped mountains became my energy drink. The view opened up and the mountains too had taken a new shape. Resplendent and glorious, they appeared standing tall. The route now became a little treacherous. We came near a ledge and Deb said we could rest for ten minutes. I met Baiju, a local villager who had stopped to rest for a few minutes. Next to him were his groceries that he had brought from the town.
The sky suddenly cleared and a glorious afternoon welcomed us. As we got closer to our destination, the forest rest house of Rolla, the jungle became more thick. I could hear giggling sounds. I rubbed my eyes, worried that I was hallucinating and hearing sounds. While I was debating whether to share this with Deb, out of nowhere, I was joined by two girls walking confidently with school bags comfortably perched on their shoulders.
Both Radha and Sushmita, I found out, trek 20 km daily (to and fro) from their village that is located deep inside GHNP to their school in Gushaina. We reached the periphery of the park by evening, through a local temple. Shrill bird sounds filled the atmosphere and I called it a day

Sunday, August 07, 2016


The Great Himalayan National Park

We spent 10 days in the pristine Tirthan Valley and camped for five days inside the Great Himalayan National Park. The whole experience was like a dream; an enchanted forest where Himalayan Monals and Koklass Pheasants were flying all around, mammals were roaming freely  and the early morning calls of the Western Tragopan kept casting a spell on us.
Travel Dates: 05 May 2016 – 16 May 2016
Location Covered:
Tirthan Valley:- Gushaini, Rolla, Shilt, Chhordwari, Shojha, Jalori Pass, Chaini Kothi, Nadar
Interstate Travel:
Delhi – Aut (Manali): By Road, HPTDC Bus
Aut (Manali) – Delhi: By Road, HPTDC Bus
Trishla Lodge: Right next to the Tirthan River, this lodge offers decent rooms with attached bath and running hot water. The only downside is that it is not a home stay, so the homely touch is missing.
Phone: +91 94 187 038 20, +91 94 181 49 155
Khem Bharti’s Guest House: A welcoming family and excellent food!!! Do ask for desi ghee and the homemade fruit Jam. The rooms are simple, clean and the attached bath is equipped with a 24hrs hot running water supply.
Sunshine Adventures: We planned our trip with support from the team at Sunshine Adventures.  Apart from the online research we carried out, Ankit pitched in with excellent local know how and added some key locations to the itinerary.
Once we reached Gushaini, Panki stepped in and flawlessly coordinated our day to day activities. For the trek, he handpicked an excellent support team for us:
1. Dhaniram: A local villager and an instinctive tracker of the Western Tragopan. Having countless years of experience leading teams from around the globe, he is indispensable in the search for the Western Tragopan.
2. Pratap: A young villager; will surely emerge as a great bird guide one day.
3. Dilip: A wonderful chef. We can never forget the sumptuous dishes that he prepared for us.
4. Puran and Inder: These two young boys were the backbone of the entire team. They did everything from setting up the campsite, helping Dilip with cooking and other miscellaneous camp work. Moreover, they kept us entertained with some hilarious jokes and their innocent interpretation of the city life.
Phone: +91 94 181 02 083, +91 94 18 204 666
05 May 2016: Day 1 (Noida – Delhi – Gushaini)
Driving to Gushaini was not an option for us as we did not want to tire ourselves out even before commencing the trek. Hence we decided to take an overnight bus. From reliability, safety and security perceptive, we opted for the government run HPTDC Bus service.
We reached Himachal Bhawan just in time to board the evening bus to Aut. The rest of the journey was uneventful and we mostly slept during the night.
06 May 2016: Day 2 (Gushaini)
Panki gave us a call at 0400 Hrs, explained us where to get down and shared the phone number of the taxi driver who would pick us up from Aut. The pick-up was smooth and we reached Gushaini at around 0700 Hrs. Panki welcomed us at the Trishla Lodge and showed us around.
The plan for the day was just to relax and do a bit of birding around the village. During breakfast, we discussed the itinerary and the trek route in detail with Panki.
The next few hours were spent relaxing on the lodge’s veranda observing the territorial war between the Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Redstart and the Grey Wagtail. A Crested Kingfisher was also very active in the area.
In the afternoon, we hiked to a nearby waterfall and spotted several birds like the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Grey Treepie, Large-billed Crow, Black Bulbul, Streaked Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Oriental White-eye, Blue Whistling Thrush, Little Forktail, Grey Bushchat, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Black-throated Tit, Grey-hooded Warbler, Verditer Flycatcher, Russet Sparrow and Rock Bunting.
07 May 2016: Day 3 (Trek: Gushaini (1500 m) – Rolla (2100 m))
Panki picked us up at around 0900 Hrs and we proceeded to his warehouse where we loaded all the trekking equipment and supplies. Dilip also joined us and we drove to the start point of the trek where we met the rest of the team members: Dhaniram, Pratap, Puran and Inder.
We commenced our trek at around 1000 Hrs and spotted several birds on the way to Rolla. As it was nesting time, almost all birds were spotted in pairs, around the nesting sites and it was fascinating to observe the way the birds distributed duties between them. Territorial behavior was at its height. Birds like the Green-backed Tit, Whiskered Yuhina, Great Barbet, Ultramarine Flycatcher etc were very common. A pair of Grey-winged Blackbird was observed furiously protecting their nest site. A lone Rufous-bellied Niltava and a Fire-breasted Flowerpecker was also spotted from close quarters.
A flock of Speckled Wood Pigeon was spotted soon after the Park Check post and after that, Brown Dipper’s became very common.
We reached our campsite at Rolla at around 1500 Hrs and spent the rest of the time sitting next to the Tirthan River observing Brown Dippers feeding the young ones. Dilip in the meantime prepared some desi tadka Macaroni for all of us. During the course of the evening, we also got some really close views of gorals.
For dinner, Dilip served a delicious meal complete with Soup, dal, roti, subji, chawal and seviyan kheer. We also relished on lingri ka achaar that Dilip had brought along with him for the trek.
Before calling it a day, we all spent some quality time around the camp fire sharing experiences.
08 May 2016: Day 4 (Trek: Rolla (2100 m) – Shilt (3100 m) – Chhordwari – Shilt)
We woke up at 0400 Hrs and were ready by 0500 Hrs. After a leisurely breakfast and packing up the camp site, we commenced our march for Shilt at 0800 Hrs. The climb was steep, and we managed to reach Shilt in 4 hrs only to find Dilip, Dhaniram, Puran and Inder already setting up the campsite and preparing lunch. These guys had beaten us on the climb by a good 1 hour carrying 30 kg rucksacks. We tried to console ourselves by explaining to the team that we were birding on the way and the crew accepted our excuse with a big laugh. Anyways, birding en-route was good and some of the birds spotted were the Himalayan Woodpecker, Coal Tit, Bar-tailed Treecreeper and a mixed flock of Swifts.
While Dilip was preparing lunch, we did a bit of birding around the campsite and were rewarded with a great sighting of the White-throated Tit along with other birds like the Ashy-throated Warbler, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Blyth’s Leaf Warbler, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, and Pink-browed Rosefinch among others.
After lunch, Dhaniram wanted to go out and scout for the Western Tragopan; as we did not want to miss any opportunity, we tagged along with him. Within 10 minutes of hiking, we heard the Western Tragopan call from an extremely close range, so close that we could literally feel it.
We could not believe our luck and quickly got ourselves into the crawl position and hoping to get closer, crawled for almost 10 meters, but then suddenly, everything fell silent and the bird just vanished into thin air. We did not even notice the movement of the bamboo, but the bird was gone; and we quickly realized how difficult it was going to be to spot this secretive bird.
In hindsight, this was the best opportunity we had of spotting this bird. It was 1500 hrs, the bird did not know that intruders were in its territory and had put down its guard. Still, the bird dodged us. Dhaniram explained that the Western Tragopan sensing danger freezes; gets low on the ground and kind of merges with the surrounding. It does not run/fly and that is why it is very difficult to pinpoint its location.
Anyways, we moved on and closer to Chhordwari, a Himalayan Black Bear was spotted. Other notable birds sighted were the Spotted Nutcracker and a Bar-throated Siva. Koklass Pheasant and Himalayan Monals were plenty and were flying around the whole place.
We returned to Shilt by sunset and had a wonderful dinner next to the campfire before calling it a day.
09 May 2016: Day 5 (Trek: Shilt and around)
The day started at 0400 Hrs and the moment we got out of our tent, we could not believe our eyes. There was this huge cloud of stars extending across the sky that we quickly realized was the Milky Way. We had carefully planned our trip so that we could get to see the best of the Milky Way. It was a moonless night, clear sky and the Milky Way was at its full glory. We wanted to capture the moment, but Dhaniram and Pratap were getting anxious on getting late. We knew that we could capture Milky Way at a later stage also; hence we quickly hiked to the location where the Tragopan could be spotted.
These early morning hikes were surely risky as we could not even switch on our torches lest we disturb the Tragopan. We hiked in pitch darkness without even the moon to guide us, on narrow forest paths with a deep valley on one side. Dhaniram and Pratap were great as guides and we fully trusted them with whatever they told us to do.
The basic idea was to reach to the probable roosting site of the Tragopan before sunrise and hope that the Tragopan does not sense us. We waited and waited for hours without even moving a muscle hoping to catch a glimpse of the bird, but it was not to happen.
On the way back to the campsite, we encountered a lazy Himalayan Pit Viper and birds like the Himalayan Monal and Koklass Pheasant.
During the course of the day we did a bit of birding around the campsite and spotted birds like the Bearded Vulture, Himalayan Vulture, Grey-crested Tit, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Rufous Sibia, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Olive-backed Pipit and a Collared Grosbeak.
It started to rain in the afternoon and we were confined to our tents, but Dilip served us some amazing pakoras and chai that kept our spirits high whereas Puran and Inder were always looking for ways to keep us comfortable.
During our morning forest excursion, Dhaniram had stumbled upon Gucchi (wild mushrooms) so for dinner, Dilip prepared Gucchi ki subji for all of us.
Dilip explained that Gucchi cannot be cultivated and grows randomly in the forest. Villagers spend days in the forest to find Gucchi as it can sell for as high as Rs. 1,500/100 grams. Then Pratap pitched in and informed us that we were having rakhal chai all these days that was prepared from the bark of the rakhal tree.
10 May 2016: Day 6 (Trek: Shilt and around)
Dhaniram wanted us to be in the Tragopan area by 0430 Hrs, back calculating, we woke up at 0300 Hrs and planned to capture the Milky Way. But it was not to happen; we woke up, came out of the tent and realized that the entire sky was overcast.  Anyways, we started our usual hike in the dark and waited patiently for two hours hoping to catch a glimpse of the Western Tragopan. Anjana finally lost her patience, stood up and started looking for other birds. Soon enough, she sighted a flock of Fire-capped Tits followed by a Kashmir Flycatcher.
Other birds sighted during the morning were the Yellow-browed Tit, Common Chiffchaff, Mountain Chiffchaff, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Whistler’s Warbler, White-browed Fulvetta, Hodgson’s Treecreeper, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, and Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher among others.
In the afternoon, we again hiked towards the area of the Western Tragopan, however, Rishi heard a White-cheeked Nuthatch call from the opposite direction. As we had never seen this bird before, we let Dhaniram and Pratap go look for the roosting site of the Tragopan, while we hiked back in search of the Nuthatch. The call was faint and coming from far away. After hiking almost 500 m, the call grew stronger and we detected movement along the tree line. After patiently waiting for some time, the bird emerged from the tree line and perched on a branch in front of us, giving us some great views.
In the evening, we spent many hours next to the camp fire, in the backdrop of the snow covered mountains and immersing in the serenity around us. We had calmed down by now, were content with what we had seen in the previous days, the disappointment of having missed the Western Tragopan was behind us. There was no electricity, no comforts of the mad world, no phones, and still we were in peace with ourselves. It is then we realized how close we were to the five elements: Sky, Earth, Fire, Air and Water. We were living under the mighty sky, sleeping on the earth, keeping warm sitting next to the fire, herb & mineral infused water energizing us and the fresh air cleansing us from the inside.
We dreaded going back to the polluted city where there was no clean air for us to breathe, no clean water for us to drink and where in the name of development, the entire population is hell-bent destroying this very delicate balance of nature.
11 May 2016: Day 7 (Trek: Shilt – Gushaini)
We woke up at 0300 Hrs and realized that it was drizzling, but we still decided to give a last try at spotting the Tragopan. Dhaniram for the first time was not impressed and advised us not to venture in the forest during rains, but we persisted and Dhaniram finally gave in.
Dhaniram had found the roosting site the previous evening, but for that we had to climb a steep 30-45 degree hill. In pitch darkness and rain beating down on us, the climb was scary and we held on to whatever was in front of us (bamboo shrubs, tree branches, grass etc). After climbing around 30% of the hill, it started to rain heavily and we all were forced to take shelter under a tree. When finally dawn broke, we realized that we were not even under a tree, but in a small cave. This is how dark it was.
Anyways, once the rain subsided, we resumed our climb but the hill was so slippery that we were virtually on our fours. After an excruciating climb, we finally reached the top. By then, we had made so much of noise that it was impossible to locate the Tragopan.
After another failed attempt and all beaten down, we returned to our campsite, happy to be back in one piece. Had a heavy breakfast of aloo puri with rakhal chai before commencing our trek down to Gushaini. It was raining intermittently and the path was extremely slippery. Somehow, we managed to reach Gushaini by around 3 in the evening.
We went straight to Khem Bharti’s Guest House and the first thing we did was to take a bath, followed by an early dinner.
12 May 2016: Day 8 (Shojha and Jalori Pass)
We were still not done, woke up early, had a quick breakfast and drove to Shojha and Jalori Pass for more birding. The forests around Shojha have potential, but we could not venture deep as the villagers told us to be careful because of a leopard that was lurking around.
Jalori Pass was a complete disappointment, commercialized, polluted, dirty eateries and a degraded forest. There is an extremely easy hike to a sacred pond, we did it, but it’s best avoided.
Some of the birds spotted were the Western Crowned Warbler, Himalayan Bluetail, Black-and-yellow Grosbeak, vultures among others. We also saw a cute little Indian Pika on the way to the pond from Jalori Pass.
13 May 2016: Day 9 (Chaini Kothi)
Panki suggested that we visit Chaini Kothi which is a free-standing 45 m tall temple/outpost built in the 17 century. Birding was great around the agricultural fields and we spotted birds like the Black Francolin, Striated Prinia, Tickell’s Trush, Common Stonechat, and Dark-breasted Rosefinch among others.
14 May 2016: Day 10 (Nadar)
Today we decided to visit Nadar village in hope of spotting Cheer pheasants. We woke up early and drove to Pekhri village reaching by 0400 Hrs. Today the sky was clear and we could see the Milky Way and took a few pictures from Pekhri. While the Milky Way was not as mighty as what we saw at Shilt, it was still better than having nothing.
We hiked for another one hour to reach the Nadar area. Again, we could hear the Cheer Pheasants, but could not see them. Other birds spotted were the Common Kestral, Black-eared Kite, and Variegated Laughingthrush among others. A Yellow-throated Martin was also spotted at Nadar.
15 May 2016: Day 11 (Gushaini)
Today was a rest day for us and we did not do anything except relaxing around. Pratap paid us a visit in the evening with two bottles of wildflower honey that we had requested earlier. We also got our hands on some Plum Jam that Mrs. Bharti happily gave us.
16 May 2016: Day 12 (Gushaini – Noida)
We had a lazy day today, woke up late, had a filling breakfast, slept some more and then packed up our stuff.
Mr. Bharti dropped us in the evening at Aut from where we took the bus to get back to Delhi.
For a list of birds and mammals spotted during this trip, please check out our birdlist and mammal list.
Please feel free to ask us any question that you may have on the locations mentioned on this blog.
Travel safe..

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Vertical limit – A trip to Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal featuring Sunshine Himalayan Adventures

Park in Himachal


Most of my friends and family have already dismissed me as an eccentric because I take off for the high mountain climbs every season the snow melts. Why can’t I join the mainstream rush to the driveable hill retreats, they ask me. All I tell them is what I am sharing with you now, that there’s no bigger joy than the nirvana at the mountain top after a hardy long trek, no celebration bigger than the one where you have tested and surpassed your mind and spirit, no party that gives you a Himalayan high and no temple that renews your faith.

It’s so metaphorical, the slipping, falling, clambering, even crying with pain on the slopes. And then finding yourself in a lily meadow, camping under a starry night, the breeze coursing through your pores and embalming your soul. It’s like breaking up and becoming whole again. For another day in the journey called life.

A 12-hour drive criss-crossing four states gets me away from the sweltering heat of Delhi and into a few layers of woollens. My destination is Sairopa, a quaint little village by a cascading mountain stream in the Tirthan valley where I meet up with my host Ankit Sood, a campaigner and conservationist for the western Himalayan environment. I am on the fringes of civilisation and the gateway to the wild. A compulsive trekker himself, Ankit has meticulously planned out my logistics for the next four days in the Great Himalayan National Park. The temperate and alpine ecosystems combine here in one geographical sweep which makes this a virtual animal planet. And it is the glaciers here that have birthed some of our great rivers, the Indus, Beas and Satlaj.

The Tirthan river gushes down as I leave the motorable road at Gushaini village. From here, it is an eight-kilometre walk to the park gate. With two porters for company, I slowly move out of my mobile network and into blissful wilderness, passing a couple of hamlets, where children wave out to me like cheerleaders. We gently rise above the Tirthan, its white water repeatedly crashing into boulders and creating small turquoise pools along its banks. The forest towers above me like a protective canopy, the pine, oak and deodar crowning together under a summer sun. The rhododendrons are spilling out of their pod, their bright flaming red robbing the shimmer off the silver oak. Our footfalls get muffled by the lichen that has clawed over fallen leaves and pine needles.

The overwhelming bigness and silence of the surrounds helps me spot an amazing array of birds without much effort : Bulbuls, Laughing thrushes, White eyes, Flycatchers, Warblers and more. Craning through my field glasses, and following the birds flit from tree to tree, I seem to have unwittingly padded on some shrubs and rocks and brought out the skinks and monitor lizards. Finding the unfamiliar, chocolatey smells of the Snickers that I am munching on, they get nosey and peep out of crevices. But I get drawn by clumps of iris scattered all over the place. So excited am I to see these purple flowers in bloom that I ask my porters to stop. They race towards me thinking I have brushed myself against a stinging nettle and one of them even grabs a cannabis leaf growing in the wild to heal my supposed wound. But as a trekker, I’ve learnt the delicate art of tip-toeing past this troublesome weed, hands held high, like a gesture of surrender. Only this is willful surrender to nature. Rows and tufts of the iris shrub roll down the lower hills, the sun and shade from the trees creating a magical web with specks of blue. We wade through a small stream with a water wheel, cross a wooden bridge and go around a quaint cottage with a patch of greens and shocking pink rose bushes, all making for picture-book countryside.


After a little over two hours of trekking, we reach the gate of the park while the Tirthan roars by the side. We have to go further to Rolla, so we take a small break. As we sit and munch some more Snickers, my eyes catch a shepherd tending his sheep below a steep rock face on a small patch of green on the far side. Down below, it sure looks edgy but seems both man and animal here are sure-footed. By the river, the birds are swooping down for their happy hours of a meal and drink. I notice the usual White-capped and Plumbeous redstarts and lots of Brown dippers on the boulders. The dippers are nesting, so they constantly dive into the water, search for insects at the bottom of the torrent, then pop back to the surface and fly back to their babies sitting high and dry on the rocks. In the forest, a stunning Ultramarine flycatcher gives a chance sighting but eludes my camera. We cross a bridge to the other side of the Tirthan. The path becomes narrower and rockier but never leaves the sight of the river, which shimmers like our guiding light.

The mountain weather gets as fickle as ever; the brilliant cobalt suddenly turns grey as the sun hides behind the clouds. And just as we speed up, thinking we will be drenched, we turn a sharp bend to find the sun smiling at us again. In a short time, we reach our camp site at Rolla, a tiny patch of green by the river that has just about squeezed itself between two mountains. I dip my tired feet in the icy waters to take way the heat of the trek. With the sun on the wane, the temperature drops sharply and we get a campfire going well before darkness. Some of the clouds sink lower into this valley bowl, hovering over us, damp and cold. I huddle closer to the burning logs only to retire to my tent after a simple but delicious dinner cooked by the porters.

I am woken early by bird songs, an un-orchestrated choir. The Blue whistling thrush has a constant pitch and gets itself heard above the cacophony of laughing thrushes. The Yuhinias, Tits, Warblers and Rufous sibias keep the rhythm going, branch to branch, tree to tree. Their boundless energy inspires me to get ready for the steep climb in the course of the day. The trek to Shilt is more or less a vertical track of 1,000 m. And I have to be back at Rolla by sundown. But it is in this terrain that you find the enigmatic and beautiful Western Tragopan, the state bird of Himachal Pradesh, belonging to the pheasant family. And I don’t want to miss my date with it.

Fortified with enough glucose, energy bars and packed food, we proceed from Rolla, gaining height with every step, often hunkering down on all four to get a better grip and pull ourselves up. Soon, I get a bird’s eye view of our camp and the river. It’s tough negotiating the next few turns, sometimes belly-crawling, sometimes clinging to branches, sometimes spread-eagling myself against boulders perched precariously on sharp cliffs. But the giant oaks and deodars stretch out their friendly arms, waiting to cushion my every fall. I find myself reasons to take this challenge. And soon enough find answers, in the dots of survival below, where humans and cattle appear no different. In the drop-down blue valleys and the snow-covered peaks a hand and palm away. Am I on the stairway to heaven? If this is my final moment of ascension, I am ready. I shut my eyes.


And open them to find a ghoral or mountain goat, silhouetted by the sun up ahead. This certainly isn’t God’s messenger. Or maybe he is telling me that I would have to graze more earthly pastures, cut my teeth as it were. I take out my field glasses and find a whole herd of ghorals, their grey-brown hide merging seamlessly with the terrain. Only when they move can you make out their form, so well-camouflaged they are against predators. The silence of the forest is broken by the drumming of a Himalayan woodpecker, tapping its beak furiously at a pine trunk, determined to find its feed in the bark. Its red crown flickers when it catches a ray of light swinging back and forth. Other birds follow such as the Tree-creeper, Nutcracker and the Niltava.

After about two hours of following the sinuous ridge, the trail flattens out among spruce trees, which are even taller and bigger, soaring to well over 100 ft and about four to five feet in diameter. We hear the piercing calls of a flying pheasant but don’t see it. My porters pan the skies and trees above but I throw myself back to the ground amid the bobbing flowers. There are tiny violets, may apples, Solomon’s seal and trillium, may be a throwaway slice of the Garden of Eden. But my porters won’t let me be and wend their way down a ledge. Before I can ask why, they hush me up and make hand gestures to follow their steps, controlled and noiseless. As they hedge their way around, moon walking along a slippery ridge, I cannot help but crunch a few leaves and snap a few twigs. Suddenly, the porter in the lead stops and motions me to take cover. Looking down a steep drop to the left, I make myself scarce by clinging to an old stump as unobtrusively as possible. My porters ask me to lie low as we hear the pheasant calls again. I turn and another 100 feet below me on the right is a spectacular male Western Tragopan standing out in the open. He is on a small ridge between the slope that we are on and another area with a low understorey of ringal bamboo.

It’s mating season and this one’s a male, with a spectacular black and white spotted coat, a bright orange crown and a blue neck. Sensing that a female is soaring around, he’s crept out of his hollow in the trees and is showing off his stuff, two blue horns on his head, like the Greek God Pan after whom he is named. He responds ardently, full-throated, his neck bulging into lappets that appear purple with pink margins. Wou-weee, he goes as he balloons himself up to catch her fleeting eye. I peep out a little more to appreciate the finesse of his coat and notice each white spot is encircled by a crimson band. But curiosity is my undoing. He flies off, sensing alien presence. And I haven’t even got him on camera. Maybe he is a mythical creature, more seen and talked about, but never within human reach.

We move uphill to reach Shilt beyond the tree line in three hours, which even the porters agree, is an achievement. Coming from the dark forests below, you feel like Maria Von Trapp in the opening sequence of The Sound of Music, light-hearted and giddy with passion, bounding across a meadow full of yellow flowers. It’s a wonder moment of a genie uncorked from a bottle and I gaze at the snow-capped peaks of Rakhundi and Chanani rising from the wild grass, beckoning me to run to them. This is clearly a pleasure for the chosen few. The Lammergeier or the bearded vulture soars below my feet as I live an enchanted moment on top of the world, with the jumble of hills bowing to me.

Returning to Rolla, I get company in a fascinating duo of a 65-year-old German grandmother trekking with her 17-year-old grandson. Bonding? No. Testing each other? No. Just pure fun, they say as we settle around a fire with a cup of tea and biscuits. We are joined by another group of young Mumbaikars ‘DJ Mukul, Binal, Shaan and Ami’ who are on their first Himalayan trek. It’s a full house and time flies around the bonfire with generous helpings of tea and snacks courtesy the fresh arrivals. We exchange notes about the climb since I am a returnee and are united in our purpose of running away from our chaotic city lives. Delhi, Mumbai, Berlin, it doesn’t matter which, a grind is a grind. Turns out it is Ami’s birthday. There’s no cake but celebrate we must. I bring out my Toblerones which Ankit had packed in good numbers and the German grandma manages a loud whistle, blowing a blade of grass held between two thumbs. In Germany, cowherds communicate with each other in the Alps by hooting this way. And then the Gods join the party. A full moon slides out of the black mountains and floods the tiny river gorge like a spotlight. We don’t need torch light or the fire. All of us look up and utter the same word, ‘Wow.’

A motley crowd of wanderers thinking alike for one brief moment. And as the silken river rustles over its rocky course, Ami says this is the most extraordinary birthday that she will ever have.
The following morning takes me further along the river into the forest. The Germans are headed to Shilt, the Mumbaikars want to trek along the river. Mine is a virgin trail, so I have to loop over boulders, pad softly through landslides, jump over fallen trees, go uphill and downhill, cower under the alder, circle the poplar, tunnel under the willow. That’s how I find exotic shrubs and herbs such as Daphne, Desmodium, Indigofera, Soraria and Viburnum. I flush out a Khaleej pheasant but it goes hither thither, tiring me out enough to give up the chase. Meanwhile, my porter friends are pricked to attention and never let me out of sight. They had seen a broken anthill, clearly an indication that the Himalayan black bear had walked these paths in search of food. It hides in dark spaces and my friends insist I abandon the idea of roaming the woods.

After traversing a number of bridges, old and new, I reach Chalocha. A forktail shows up briefly along the stream but I get no other activity. As my porters halt by the stream, I take a power nap under a rhododendron bush.
I catch up with my Mumbai friends on the way back, cavorting in the white water around the half way mark from Rolla. They have been trying to fish trout, most likely to be found in these icy waters. But it’s not an easy task because you can’t sit at one place, you have to trek the stretch of the bank looking for a suitable pool. Even if you do, the trouts are intelligent, camouflaging themselves in submerged rocks. Ami gets excited when she feels a tug in her line but is mighty disappointed to find a tadpole! They decide to give up and we walk back to Rolla where the Germans are back from Shilt. They have missed the Tragopan but have been rewarded by many sightings of the Monal pheasant.
It rains on the last day, confining us to our tents. But then the sky clears up a little short of noon, allowing us to climb down as planned. It’s rained on purpose, I reason. Or we would have never held hands while walking the wet and slippery forest, never seen the slate-headed parakeets whoosh down the gorge waving their long yellow tails at us, never walked with strangers in the mist and definitely never ever seen a rainbow dissolve in our souls. Some moments are better felt than seen, so be here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Great Himalayan National Park with BNHS

Date: 25th April–1st May, 2015
The Great Himalayan National Park is carved out of the splendid mountain terrain of Kullu district, and is the largest protected area in Himachal Pradesh. Great Himalayan National Park is also a World Heritage Site. The secluded Sainj valley harbour a variety of wildlife common to this area - wild mountain goats like the Bharal, Goral, and Serow, the Himalayan Brown Bear and predators like the Leopard and the very rare Snow Leopard. Birds like Himalayan Pied Kingfisher, Brown Dipper, Bearded Vulture, and Himalayan Parakeet can be seen during the trek.

Date: 25th April–1st May, 2015 
Grade: Moderate
Camp Charges: Rs. 20,800/- for Members and Rs. 22,000/-for others. (ex-Delhi).
Accommodation: Dormitory, and during the treks will be twin/triple sharing Tents. Sleeping bags and mattress will be provided.

How to reach (Majnu Ka Tila): Majnu-ka-Tila is about 5 km from Delhi ISBT opposite the Tibetan Village on the main MG Marg. There is a petrol pump on the main road, most private buses operate from there. The best way is to come via the Airport Metro till New Delhi Metro Station and ask for a cab or an auto-rickshaw to drive you to Majnu ka Tila.
Cost includes: Cost is inclusive of local transport, Delhi-Kullu-Delhi by Volvo, food, accommodation in dormitories and tents (double sharing), permits to the GHNP, all camping equipment, local NGO fees, and BNHS expertise.

Cost Excludes:

  • Any personal expenses.
  • Porterage (Porters for carrying personal equipment can be provided at extra cost on per day basis on prior notice)
  • We can keep the extra luggage at Sairopa base camp and carry only what is needed for the trek.
Registration*: Kindly contact us at 22871202/22821811  or e-mail us at

Why explore Nature with BNHS ? 

BNHS, a membership-driven organization, has been promoting the cause of nature conservation for more than 130 years since 1883. The Society's guiding principle has always been that conservation must be based on scientific principles.  Today a number of BNHS scientists  are engaged in several  nature conservation projects  across  India.   
BNHS  nature walks and  camps are  all about the wildlife and here members share their appreciation for nature and wildlife.  Here is a perfect opportunity to develop hobbies like nature photography and bird-watching in the company of like-minded  people and share knowledge with experts. BNHS programmes are specially designed to let seniors as well as youngsters enjoy the pursuit of Nature appreciation.  And moreover, your participation in these activities help BNHS to generate the much-needed funds for the conservation of India’s biodiversity. 
--------------------------------------------------------------Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is an NGO working in the field of nature and wildlife conservation since 1883 and as a part of our educational activities and nature awareness campaign, we  conduct various nature camps and wildlife safari camps across India like Kanah National Park, Lakshdweep Island, Dudhwa and many more and also at foreign destinations like Tanzania,Kenya, Malaysia, Bhutan, Madagascar. By participating in the camp with the BNHS you are supporting the BNHS and its cause for nature and wildlife conservation

For details call : 022-22821811 email :

For more details on future camps and trails : 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Elusive Behavior of the Erre Silk Moth

In Search of the Elusive Behavior of the Erre Silk Moth in the Great Himalayan National Park
Nature keeps on demystifying itself with some unique images captured by intrepid explores like Panki Sood in the Great Himalayan National Park. The park located in the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh is one of the last remaining bastions of unique flora and fauna in the Western Himalayas & in the final stages of being declared as a World Heritage Site. The above picture was shot in the buffer zone of the national park in a untouched valley called Tirthan.
As Panki Sood who is known for his nocturnal escapades to click wildlife was on the move he noticed this unique phenomenon of a Erre Silk Moth guzzling water and shooting it out from the rear. The phenomena photographed with beautiful precision gave birth to a discussion within experts who had also bred this moth for commercial purposes as it has been never seen before. Since Saturniidae do not have functioning mouth parts (i.e. no or vestigial haustellum), so this individual can't be drinking water. That begs the question "what the ..... is it doing?"  One of the theories was that, it may have been  a freshly emerged moth which, after expanding its wings, was ejecting excess liquid. A suggestion was given to  breed them, (they are very easy to breed), and then conduct this experiment, with several specimens, it would be better, since the assumptions above, that it is actually drinking and venting liquid, if proved, will change the way we look at the lack or reduction of mouthparts in moths.
All butterflies and moths have body fluids when they emerge, which is used to pump into the hollow "veins" of the wings, thus allowing them to expand. During this process, the insect often vents fluid from the rear end of the abdomen, albeit not as a spray as captured in Panki’s photo, but a few drops...Hence another hidden facet of nature was revealed high up in the Himalayas.