Author: Nimesh Ved
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 10, October, 2015
One after another, six Himalayan Vultures came into view as we sat on the large balcony of a small hotel adjacent to the river. They kept close to the hill side, appearing exceptionally stunning against the blue sky. The vultures did not perch even once in the half an hour that we spent watching them, more than once adjusting our own positions to their movements. I felt as if I could lie on my back and watch them soar for all eternity. They seemed to share that sense of freedom; a longing for great expanses and mystery. Whoever said size and grace do not go together has surely never seen vultures soaring in the Himalaya. This was the setting on the first evening in Gushaini, our halt for the night before we began our trek.
The next morning we embarked on our walk from the Drakhlai gate of the Great Himalayan National Park, with innumerable birds for company. Yellow-billed Blue Magpies and Plumbeous Water Redstarts made their appearance while Parakeets and Wagtails surprised us with their numbers. The White-capped Water Redstart also made its presence known, flashing bright against the mountain springs, while a Dark-sided Flycatcher sat atop a bare stem from where it took off into the air to do what flycatchers do. The Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker and Bar-tailed Treecreeper shared a tree, and on just the other side of the road an Oriental White-eye shared one with a Green-backed Tit. We were to realise later that this landscape is perfect for savouring the tit family.
The author’s trekking route
A WALK IN THE WOODS
Walking along streams, listening to the gurgle of water rush over stones, can unleash the child in the most serious adult. It‘s even more fun to dunk your face into the icy waters to wash away the sweat and exhaustion! This is what we must live for, my inner voice whispered.
The first sight of the bare hills above the tree-line had us excited but confused about whether we were seeing snow or stones, much to the amusement of the local team. As we climbed higher, we heard pine and oak trees! Yes, the blowing wind created visions that did not exist. Soon we lapsed into silence, observing the changing nature of the vegetation and bird calls, and acknowledging how nature intended the world to be.
Though steep in stretches, the trek was lovely, and on reaching the campsite our fatigue seemed to vanish. How lovely to have a park of this size and beauty, free from motorable roads! Should we sit down and enjoy the vistas or walk alone in silence, or look up birds and discuss them? Oh! The quandaries one encounters on a trek! Sanju, our guide, allowed us to do a bit of each while ensuring we got to our campsite well before sunset.
We were surprised to come across weeds while walking, but were told that parts of the park had earlier served as grazing grounds! When grazing had stopped, weeds registered their presence. As conversation with the local-team accompanying us started to flow, we talked of hunting. Musk deer were hunted with traps, Himalayan black bears at times succumbed on account of conflict with cultivators, and Monal Pheasants were sought for their feathers to enhance headgear (worn by men during select festivals). But how much of it takes place today inside the park, if at all, is unclear.
Our trek was organised by Himalayan Eco-tourism – a social enterprise formed as a partnership between an ecotourism cooperative and a firm which helps it with marketing and management. We asked Sanjeeva Pandey, ex-Director GHNP and someone who has played a pivotal role in the park being what it is today, about the cooperative, “In July 2014, about 80 villagers mainly from the Tirthan valley formed the GHNP Community-Based Eco-tourism Cooperative Society Ltd. to deliver competitive ecotourism services. The members of the cooperative are organised in Self-help Groups led by their group leaders. The groups perform ecotourism activities in rotation so that all the cooperative members get a chance to earn. The ecotourism activities performed by the cooperative include multi-day treks in GHNP and its ecozone, mountaineering, rappelling, rock climbing and river crossing.”
UNDER THE STARS
Most of our camping sites were at huts built and maintained by the Forest Department near water sources. This was an arrangement friendly to both, the people and the landscape. One evening we camped adjacent to a cave and on another we chose to stay in our tent and did not stay with the shepherds. Breakfast early in the day, a packed lunch, hot coffee when we reached and then an early dinner was our schedule.
One night, unable to sleep, I moved out of the tent to experience the night in solitude. It was a soft pleasant darkness, not the harsh one I had expected. Was it the clouds? Or the tall cliffs meeting the stars hidden by clouds? Or the sound of the river? Or all of it put together? Silences here have deeper meaning.
At our highest camp site at Gumtrau I could not sleep at night and felt a strange sensation in my eyes. In the morning my eyes felt heavy, as if filled with water. Altitude, I was told. We were, after all, over 3,000 m. above sea level.
SNOW AND MEADOWS
On the next day as we paid our respects to the local deity at Rakhundi Top, it snowed. Initially I thought it was rain, till snowflakes the size of green peas, gently settled on the sleeves of my jersey. A while ago, I would not have thought that it was possible for these mountains to become more appealing to the eyes. But they did indeed get more stunning. An example of improving on perfection.
The morning after we slept near the cave, we saw a range of mushroom species – none of which our local friends said was edible. Their colours and sizes reminded us yet again of the magic of the forests. We climbed on wondering more than once if we were on the right track. In the distance we spotted a troupe of langurs – their black faces appearing small amidst their shaggy fur meant to counter the cold. A little higher and trees gave way to shrubs and bushes and these to the meadows. What a splendid view. We stopped at two points on the Dashmani meadows – each more stunning than the other. Here, we spotted the beautiful Red-billed Choughs. Later, we observed Himalayan and Bearded Vultures from close quarters. It was no small surprise to see crows mobbing the vultures, but then an unbelievable sight unfolded – the crows pecked the vultures’ wings! I asked Sanju if he had come across this before and he said that they also ride on them! I wonder if this is true, or exaggerated folklore.
We began moving down and crossed over into the Tirthan Wildlife Sanctuary which is part of the park. By the time we began our walk on the final morning, we were already hatching plans to trek a different route in a different season in the Great Himalayan National Park.