Saving the world while you wait

Great Himalayan National Park Trek – Day Zero – Warming up

Himalayan Bulbul

In the first of a many-part travelogue, Sandeep Somasekharan tells the tale of The Green Ogre trek to the Great Himalayan National Park in May 2012

Day minus one: Delhi

Boxed into a cab that rattles like a can of bolts in searing hot Delhi, I look at rookies Andy and Arun with the benevolent air of a veteran. And why shouldn’t I? I did survive a cloudburst and landfall-threatened Himalayan trek  a year and half before this, and thus earned the honour of being the one to give them the pep talk. I choose to quote two lines from my Himalaya gurus (Beej, who sits in the front seat of the cab with an all-knowing smile, and Sahastra, who waits for us at  the bus terminus), which have proven to be golden words of wisdom on my previous trek.

“One: You cannot bully, threaten or coax the Himalayas to give in and show you something you want to see. You will get to see something when Himalayas are convinced that you deserve it.”

“Two: The Himalayas can put the fear of the elements in your head. You can’t stand outside when it drizzles or rains. It may turn to hail, snow or a bloody landslide any time. So, every single time you see it rain, run for cover.”

Andy and Arun look more worried than reassured; so much for the pep talk. The cab ride seems to take forever, as the driver swears in Haryanvi at a car which cuts right in front. Time has slowed down. My wristwatch seems to be running backward. Can’t wait. Can’t wait to be there. Can’t wait to have my posterior whipped by the steep climbs and the merciless elements.

We are nearing the bus terminus to we board the bus to Kullu. It will take us on our way to the Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh. On paper, the meticulously laid-out trek plan by Sahastra looks like this:

Day 1 >>  Ropa to Neuli to Shakti. Acclimating trek.
Day 2 >> Shakti to Humkhani. Moderate 3-4 hour trek.
Day 3 >> Humkhani to Dhel Thatch. Moderate to tough 5-6 hour trek.
Day 5 >> Tough trek to Ghumtarao of about 6-7 hours. (This is supposedly a foot-wide path on a rocky cliff overlooking a two hundred meter drop. The thoughts of this stretch has been giving me the legendary heebi-da-jeebies since the day I read various trek reports on this route )
Day 6 >> Rest at Ghumtarao
Day 7 >> Trek to Shilt 16 km of moderate trek.
Day 8 >> Rest at Shilt
Day 9 >> Moderate 15 km Trek to Ghusaini and reach Kullu from Ghusaini by jeep.

The cab pulls up at the bus terminus and we spot a beaming Sahastra right next to the bus to Kullu. We hug and spread contagious yawns. We are to alight at Aut in the morning. It doesn’t take us long to push back the seats and indulge in a slumber disrupted only by loud honks and occasional sudden braking by the driver.

We are up at 6 as the bus snakes up the Himalayan roads. By the time we are at Aut, the sun has risen above the mountains. Atul, a friend of Sahastra’s who has good contacts in the area, had connected us with an inn (pun-besotted Andy mutters, ‘The inn at Aut‘) . The guys at the inn arrive with warm smiles and there are hot paranthas waiting for us when we emerge refreshed from our baths. The innkeepers refuse to take payment; we can’t take money from friends of Atul saab, they say. The taste of paranthas and the pickle linger on our taste buds as we sit huddled in a jeep that is to take us to the guest house at Ropa.

Day Zero: Ropa
Before noon, we are at Ropa, our base camp, and check in at the forest guest house, which is going to be formally opened only a couple of days later. The walls are decorated with frames of medicinal herbs and the endangered fauna of the Great Himalayan National Park. We spend the afternoon loitering outside. There is a river (which, we later learn, is named Sainj Nala) flowing just outside, and on its banks, there are fields of wheat and isolated houses.

The view from near the Ropa Guest house
The view from near the Ropa Guest house

The birdlife around the guest house is stunning, offering us an indication of what to expect along the course of the trek. We notice that the dazzlingly colourful Yellow-Billed Blue Magpies (Urocissa flavirostris) are almost as ubiquitous as crows back home. There are also Brown-Fronted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos auriceps), Blue Whistling Thrushes (Myophonus caeruleus) and Himalayan Bulbuls (Pycnonotus leucogenys) fluttering and foraging all around. With the exception of the magpies, everyone seems to be nesting. Each bird, carrying insects in its beak, disappears into a tree-hole here or beneath a roof somewhere else. We only catch fleeting glimpses of a Great Barbet (Megalaima virens), but we know it is always around, as we keep hearing loud crackling calls from the highest points in the canopy.

Yellow billed blue magpie
Yellow-billed Blue Magpie

We lose half a day negotiating with Thek Ram, who represents an informal cartel that caters to the needs of trekkers in that area. We are five and Thek Ram estimates that it would take seven porters to haul our stuff. We are flummoxed by the irony of it. Finally, we settle at six porters, by agreeing to reduce the load of supplies that the porters would need to carry. The deal is, we eat nutrition bars and dry fruits for breakfast, sattu (powdered roasted gram) for lunch and the porters would cook us just the dinner. Our guide’s name is Charan, and he leaves with Thek Ram, promising to meet us the next day morning. On their way out they point to a poster on the wall that screams, “Save Jujurana (King of Birds)”, wishing us luck to spot one. Jujurana or the Western Tragopan  (Tragopan melanocephalus) is the mascot of the park and is found only in these parts. The sun has set and we retire into the modest comforts of the guest house at Ropa.

Himalayan Bulbul
The curved crest of the Himalayan bulbul differentiates it from the similar White-eared Bulbul

We huddle together listening to stories, natural history, (stale) jokes and old Hindi songs by Yesudas, when suddenly the main door to the dormitory is flung open. At the threshold stands a hermit with a saffron smear on his forehead and round fiery eyes, glowering at us from the gap between the door panels. A moment later he withdraws, having realized that we were not the guys he was expecting to find. Shaken out of our wits, we look at each other and chuckle nervously. Before hitting the sack, we barricade the door (that is yet to be fitted with a latch) with a chair. None of us are in any mood to see that face once more, especially when getting up for a leak in the middle of the night.

Blue whistling thrush
Blue Whistling Thrush: Apparently, it had a nest behind the grocery shop. We saw it go there time and again with insects it had caught

We lie down for a shut-eye, but the embrace of sleep is delayed, thanks to our eager anticipation of the days ahead.

Next: Day 1: An oxymoron called acclimating

Read more Travelogues on The Green Ogre