Exploring The Neora Valley
Trekking through the dense Himalayan Terai forest and climbing steep slopes on the way, could be quite tedious. Your eyes do not get the visual relief that you normally finds in a trekking expedition. Except the path in front of you, the sight can not wander. It’s a regimented, straightjacket kind of thing; there’s hardly any scope of visual relief. Your surroundings and even the sky are canopied by thick foliage and all you see are big moss laden tree trunks, so huge that a single man alone can not be encircled those. In such a trek, the trekker sometimes looses the sense of enjoyment and time. He just trudges ahead. And that’s exactly what I was doing on this path.
One can not even truly call this trail a “path”. It is only for the sake of calling something that I am addressing this trail, as a “path”. Bamboo trees formed most of this lower mountain dense foliage where a small clearing, about a foot wide, has been literally snatched from the forest by making that a path. It was created for the patrolling of the forest guards and now we were marching on it.
The trail goes beneath big Rhododendron trees, about 200/250 ft high. I have not seen such huge Rhododendron trees in my previous Himalayan sojourns. In this high and dense forest Rhododendron and bamboo trees rule; we are mere intruders.
Rain water while rushing down the mountain, leaves behind a trenched uneven path, curved out of the mountain wall; it looks like as if somebody had trudged many times on this path before. Breaking the eerie silence that reigns around we were marching on this “Rajpath” (kings’ way) which was made by flowing rain water.
Joseph, our guide, was lecturing us about the forest, where wild animals roam; apparitions appear and disappear, people were lost without any traces. Well, personally, I am very much interested to bump into an apparition but that can not be said about an encounter with the wild animals that roam around — leopard, boars, wild dogs, black bears and even tigers, to name a few. But Joseph assures me, “Saab daro mat, o log (animals) kuch nehi karta, srif kala bhalu chhorke.”(Sir, do not fear; those animals do not harm except Himalayan Black bear). Then he added as a soothing after-thought, “Is Jangalme kala bhalu bahut hai” (In this forest, there are lots of Himalayan Black bear). His soothing observation kept us really moving ahead!
Bijan and Asoke were trekking ahead; Pratik and Biswarup, rest of our small gang, are coming up behind with Joseph. I am in the middle. All of us, except Biswarup are above fifty years of age. We have some trekking experience though not in such god-forsaken terrain; but Asoke Chanda – a former first division football player of Kolkata football leagues was a first time trekker.
It was the second day of our five days’ trek and as the leader I was supposed to keep an eye on Asoke. But seeing his performance in the first day, I was confident that despite a hard and some time dangerous trek, Asoke would survive. So I let him go ahead a bit with Bijan who is an experienced trekker and mountaineer.
Being on his first trek Asoke has to prove that he can really move well on difficult terrain and I must admit, so far he was doing extremely well. Even then, I must be close to him. So I started to climb fast and turning a bent I could see them. Bijan has climbed on to a wall to take a top-view picture and Asoke is standing beneath him on the path.
As I came near, I saw Asoke transfixed and crying; tears streaming down his cheeks. I was worried sick. Something must have happened and moved fast. As I approached him, making all kinds of sound, Asoke turned to look at me and said simply,
“Even in my wildest dream, I have never imagined, some day I will be beholding such beauty. Thank you Chinmoy.”
It took some moments to comprehend; Asoke was crying out of sheer joy.
Following his gaze, I looked upon a flaming red mountain wall — dotted with pink and white. An entire wall of the mountain has been enveloped by blooming Rhododendron flowers and around such riot of colours are all imaginable shades of green and through this resplendent foliage I could see a grey sky overhead, torn in places where its’ blue colour peeps through.
The beginning: It all started 25 years ago inthe year 1982, when Himalayan Club along
with Zoological Survey of India, Departmentof Botany, Calcutta University, West Bengal
Forest Development Corporation and Indian army organized an expedition — first of its’ kind, to the then uncharted Neora Valley forest of the Terai Himalaya in West Bengal. That was an epic expedition, much of which has been forgotten.
A report by Capt. (later colonel) Ajit Dutta,a copy of which was presented byMr. Kisore Chaudhury — the project coordinator of the expedition, to theKolkata section of the Himalayan club,still exists. The report credited Mr. Kamal Guha as the expeditionleader and Capt. Ajit Dutta was the transport Officer. The team consisted of 17 members and 35 porters.
After a few days of trekking, the impossibility of an expedition in the Neora Valley forest was accepted by the then leadership and the expedition was declared abandoned. But according to the report, two members of the team Capt. Ajit Dutta and Mr. Kisore Chaudhury and later supported by K K Rastogi of Botany Department, Calcutta University, refused to abandon the expedition and with the permission of the leader embarked on a nearly impossible, suicidal attempt to complete the expedition. They were supported by Mr Bist — an army Jawan and two porters — Kazi Tamang and Shibu Thami.
It was a herculean effort and they lost their way on the 2nd day (predictable in such an uncharted terrain) and survived on boiled curcurbits and bichu leaves (a black leaf with thorn all over; touching it would feel like bitten by a scorpion). Rastogi, the botanist commented at this point, “If we can eat bichu leaves, then I am sure I can eat anything.”
The expedition from Lava, the road head, started on 23rd November 1982 and the three musketeers launched their three man suicidal expedition on 3rd December. They came out of the forest, exhausted, dehydrated and famished, on December 10thon completing the expedition.
As an outcome of this expedition and with sustained campaign later to save its pristine character, Neora valley was declared a national park in 1992.
We, the five members trekking team, of which four are Himalayan Club members of Kolkata section, are trying to cross the Neora Valley on the eve of the silver jubilee of that expedition. Of course, we will be trekking on a well defined path from Lava, the road-head and wish to come out at Samsing — a quaint hamlet at the foothill, on the other side of the valley in a four night-five days trek.
Since Neora Valley is a National Park, lots of official hurdles need to be crossed to get the permission for the trekking. My posting as a bureaucrat in the state helped and on reaching Lava, the main road head, on 15th April 2006, the range officer of Lava forest range helped us to procure all necessary permissions on deposition of requisite fees. He also arranged for the porters, the guide and the transportation to Chaudopheri — the road head and the starting point of our trek.
Initially we had planned to trek to Chaudopheri from Lava, a distance of 14 kms, on a lovely path through the forest. But our initial calculation proved to be utterly wrong. We have planned to take night-rest at Chaudopheri, Alubari, Rechela top or Jorpokhri, and Mauchaki. On the fifth day we planned to reach Samsing and planned to en-train for Kolkata on next evening. But Sannyasi Giri, the range officer, bluntly told us, in Neora valley we could not trek to Mouchaki from Rechela top, a distance of 45 kilometers, in a day.
We need to stop at Bhottekharag, 15 kms ahead of Mauchaki and we might also need to pitch a tent between Rechela top and Bhottekharag, in case it rains heavily. So not only we had to reschedule our night-rests but had to find a tent since we have not brought any tent. But Mr. Giri was a picture of assurance; he will provide us the tent. But it will be a huge tarpaulin tent and we need to hire one extra porter to carry the tent only. That means we had to pay for an additional porter and also had to purchase extra ration.
That also mean, we could not afford to spend the first night at chaudopheri and the leisurely trek from Lava to chaudopheri had to be dumped. We had to take a jeep from Lava for Chaudopheri, which I personally regret as the trail from Lava to Chaudopheri is one of the most beautiful forest-trail that I have seen for a long time.
Well, life is not always a smooth ride; it surprises and challenges with sharp turns and un-assessed bends and that’s why life is so beautiful.
Now we plan to take night-rests at Alubari, Rechela top, Bhottekharag and Mauchaki. But we could not adhere to this revised plan also as every day we had to face new challenges and plan our trek accordingly.
We had a team meeting and decided that nothing can be done; trekking expeditions are rare in Neora Valley and I, entrusted with the job of planning, could not find enough background material to correctly chalk out the plan in advance. Even today there are places in the Neora Valley where man has not yet set foot and no scientific studies have been conducted. It’s still very pristine. Our only hope is our guide — Joseph Lepcha, who is the best guide around and who modestly claimed that he has traversed this trail at least 50 times.
With our rucksacks, gunny bags, PVC drums and 13 members—including the guide & porters, we were quite a lot. To make room for the 13 people, all goods were loaded on the roof of the Jeep. But as the Jeep started to move, rucksacks and bags started to rain down from the Jeep-roof. Praticks’ was entrusted to supervise the packing. He just threw up his hands upward in disgust and perhaps in helpless resignation! Joseph had to take-up the job and did it with élan.
As we left the concrete jungle of Lava, we could hear birds call – lots of it but could not sight them. Here trees are blessed with dense foliage. Though I have never traversed this trail before but my guess was right. It was indeed a beautiful trail through the forest — shady, cool and full of birds call. The gradient was steep on some patches. In one such patch, we had to disembark so that our jeep can negotiate the steep ascent. I used that opportunity to take a few ‘birds’ view’ photographs of Lava.
The cobbled road is so beautiful that I christened it “Urvasi Sarani” (Urvasi was the heavenly dancer and courtesan and Sarani means road). But that name applies only if one treks on this trail. But if one covers it in a jeep like us then the trail becomes Udaysankar Sarani (Udaysankar was the most famous classical dancer of India) – you toss and break into involuntarily dance while desperately latching on to some hold for dear life! It took one & half hour to cover this 14 kms distance.
On the way, we met two more porters, casual employees of the forest department who were told to bring two ponies from Chaudopheri to Lava to carry our luggage as we were supposed to trek to Chaudopheri. Since they have not had any food, Joseph told them to go to Lava, eat and then come back to Chaudopheri to load our gunny bags and drums and proceed to Alubari — today’s night rest.
At Chaudopheri (2372 mtr), the first forest check post, Our permits were checked and leaving the drums and gunny bags behind for the pony we started our trek. The gradient was benign, about 30o-40o but the first days trek is always difficult. Moreover, from the very beginning the dense foliage of the forest engulfed us. It was midday but there were hardly enough light. The dense bamboo jungle ensured that harsh light does not enter to disturb the eeriness of the jungle. It was fine with me except that I did not have enough clearing and lighting to take a decent photograph. However, I took some shot expecting nothing good. But later on printing the films, I found that the light & shed has been an enigmatic image builder.
It took us almost five hours to cover the distance of 16 kms from Chaudopheri to Alubari. About 13 kms of this trek was through dense forest and the rest 3 kms was through undulating valley. Near the camp, standing on the ridge with mountain walls as the backdrop, I can see rolling green hills sloping gently towards the middle of the valley where fierce Neora River flows down.
In the late eighties Alubari was a forest village where mainly Potatoes (Alu in Bengali language) were cultivated and the village was thus named Alubari (Home of Potatoes). When in 1992 Neora Valley was declared a National Park, the village was relocated outside the park area.
The forest camp here boasts of two rooms, one kitchen and surprise, surprise, not one but two WC — well that was luxury! Nowhere in this trail could we find another WC. We took one room where we were greeted by wooden cots. Pratik immediately flopped on it and within minutes was sound asleep. Bijan, our quarter master, had to supervise for the evening tea and dinner and off he went. That leaves three of us – Asoke, Biswarup and I, who just lazed around. But what happened to our gunny bags and drums that we left at Chaudopheri? Joseph very calmly informed us, “Saab chinta mat kijiye. O aa jayega.”(Sir, don’t worry, it will come). Well, Joseph is really a cool guy but I am not and till 8 PM when we called it a day and went into our sleeping bag, those things have not reached Alubari. On my anxious query Joseph very calmly said again, “O aa jayega.” Well, I would damn well want to know how! But I was too tired to argue. We will see. Tomorrow is always another day.
It was one of those beautiful mornings. As I stepped out of the room, I was greeted with an overcast sky. Cool breeze wafted from the east and bird-calls greeted me. Excepting the north, all around me, the green valley resplendent in sheds of green lay languidly – just like a beautiful maiden on a bed of green soft leaves.
In the east, I can see the steep trail to Jorphokhri or Rechela top (3170 mtr) – the highest point of this trek, the tri junction of Bhutan, Sikkim and West Bengal which is our destination today. It is indeed a steep trail but fortunately only 8 kms long.
As Joseph stepped out, I asked him about those gunny bags and drums that we left at Chaudopheri. What transpires was a heroic tale of duty. Gurung and Tashi, the two porters who were to bring the goods on ponies, could not tie the drums on the pony for want of strong cord and had to carry those drums and bags on their bare shoulders. Since they could not carry the entire goods at one go, they had to go back again to carry the rest. By that time it was dark and they had to trek from Chaudopheri to Alubari (16 kms) in pitch dark through a forest that teems with wild animals. That means they carried loads up to 30 kgs to a total distance of 64 kms through this dense forest and a part of it in pitch dark. Well, this is possibly the one of the higher example of dogged performance for duties that I have ever seen anywhere in the mountain. It should get an entry in the Ripley’s “Believe it or not.”
We started for Jorpokhri at about 8 AM. The dense bamboo forest was at a lower elevation and now the route goes through the Rhododendron forest. The incline was steep, about 400-500; somewhere it is steeper but as the trail went through forest; it was shady. Though this is primarily a Rhododendron forest, we have also seen Oak trees, ferns and orchids (Piptanthus napalenis and Pleione humilis). During my trekking in the Himalaya I have seen many Rhododendron trees but have never seen such huge Rhododendron trees. Here the Rhododendron trees are about 200/250 feet high.
It was April, the bloom-time of Rhododendron flowers and the trees were in full bloom. In this valley I have seen mainly Rhododendron arboruem and Rhododendron barbatum. On the lower elevation, I have also seen some Rhododendron dalhousie and Rhododendron lindley.
We are to trek only 8 kms today and the route is not that difficult, so I was going slowly devouring the beauty, the smell and the colour around me. Green has so many shades here — light green, deep green, blackish green and in the lap of this overwhelming green shades red, pink, blue and white were the apostrophes. It was a natural kaleidoscope.
The silence that reigned here was all pervading and I could hear the sound of a falling leaf and the rustle of leaves when gentle breeze passes through them, playing with them and teasing them to play along.
As the canopy overhead prevents sun rays to penetrate into the jungle, trunks of huge trees were full of moss. This light and shed along with the moss ridden trees have given an ancient appearance to this forest. One fears to tread on this path lest one disturbs the meditative forest.
The air was full of oxygen and so light that one has no difficulty in breathing and consequently in trekking. It felt so light. The smell of the forest also pervaded my senses; somewhere it was too strong and in other places it just wafted towards me, touched me so softly that I could hardly smell it.
Some one kilometer before Jorepokhri, a track goes down towards a Sikkimese village — Renok. From Renok one can trek to Jorepokhri and back in a day. We reached Jorpokhri around noon.
Jorpokhri or Rechela top (3170 mtr) is a mountain table-top surrounded by blooming Rhododendron trees with two very shallow ponds (Pokhri) in the middle. Rain water accumulates in such shallow ponds in the mountain and since water is a rare commodity here, all such ponds are revered — Jorepokhri being no exception; one can not bath in its water. Locals come here to worship
A 40 x 20 feet trekkers hut with tin roof stands on one side of the table-top in splendid isolation. There is an unusable WC. The walls of the hut were made filthy by charcoal scrawling; trekkers declaring undying loves to their lady love. But one can have the luxury of lying on a wooden cot. From one side of the hut to the other side wooden cots are just waiting to take exhausted trekkers like our Pratik who promptly slumped on it.
The lunch was on the way and meanwhile I had a one to one with Joseph.
Joseph Lepcha our 36 years guide works in the forest department as casual worker since 1992. Even after working for 14 years there is hardly any chance of a permanent job and he earns around only Rs 3000/month. He has two school going children and a family to look after. But I was more interested to hear his numerous sojourns in this wild country.
So I asked, “Kabhi Jantu dehke” (Have you ever seen animals?).
He replied, “Bhut bar.” (Many times.)
“Kabhi laphrame nehi pare?”(Ever encountered danger?).
He answered, “Ekbar. Raste me kala Bhalu mila tha. Mere hath me shrif ek chhatri tha. Mnyay chhatri khola usko daraneke liye. Lekin o kutta ka maphik bhoka aur attack kiya. Mnyay chhatri chhorke bhaga.” (Once. On the track I met a Himalayan black bear. I only had an umbrella in my hand. I opened it to threaten the bear but it barked like a dog and attacked me. Leaving the umbrella, I ran like hell).
Though forest department claims there are 15/20 tigers in Neora Valley National Park; but no body has so far sighted one and that’s includes Joseph and the forest guards I met during this trek. Some has seen tigers kill and found pug marks.
Neora Valley forest is truly a virgin forest; some of its tract is yet to be scientifically explored. Neora valley might become the definition of a virgin forest. Till 1706 Neora valley was under the Sikkim King and then the king of Bhutan conquered it from the Sikkimese King. In 1864 Neora valley came under the British rule and after more than 100 years, in 1986, the Government of West Bengal announced its intention of declaring the Neora Valley biosphere as National Park and the actual declaration was made six years later, in 1992.
This 8800 hectare National park has vast altitude difference, from 180 meters to 3200 meters and so is a vast repository of Himalayan flora and fauna, some of which are highly endangered.
31 species of mammals including such rare animals like Red Panda, Wild Dog, Flying Squirrel, Clouded Leopard, Himalayan Black bear, Himalayan Tahr; 79 species of birds including Monal, 276 species of insect and 38 species of other invertebrates are found here. 15 species of highly endangered mammals, which are in the ‘Red Book’ of IUCN, are found here.
Sitting on the grassy patch out side the trekkers’ hut, I was lost in thought but had to come back to senses when it started to rain. The evening has silently crept in. This was a bad omen. Though the sky was overcast through out the last two days trek, it did not rain. Trekking in Neora valley is itself a difficult job at best of times; trekking in rain would be really difficult. As the evening merges into night the rain became a hailstorm and there after it turned into a heavy shower. With the rain came coldness and dampness. After a hot dinner of Khichri (rice & cereals boiled together) and finger chips, we settled in our sleeping bags accompanied by the pitter-patter of the rain on the tin roof and soon lost ourselves to the dream world.
It was early morning; I came out of the tin shed. The rain had not stopped but has become a drizzle. After a cup of hot tea, I was off to Rechela Danda, the highest point of this trek, where borders of Sikkim, Bhutan and West Bengal merge. It is just about 200 feet up from the tin shed but the track has become muddy. I had to be careful lest I slip.
I stood facing the east on the Rechela Danda. As far as eyes can see, all around me rolling hills merge into the horizon. In front of me is Bhutan; Sikkim mountains block the north-west and on my back, on the south-east, is West Bengal.
As I turned to look behind, I was literary shocked to see a carpet of flaming red Rhododendron flowers covering the entire wall of the mountain. I can leap from my high point and the red carpet would catch me and would gently lower me on to the meadow below.
I shifted a little to the south and about 200 feet down, the twin ponds came to my sight. Their banks too are covered with blooming Rhododendron flowers. Nature has bedecked Jorpokhri with infinite care and perseverance.
After breakfast, at about 9 AM, we started to trek in the rain towards Bhottekharag camp on the bank of Bhote Khola (stream), about 30 kilometers away. We will have our lunch at Rechela camp, 8 kms ahead.
The trail goes through dense forest of Rhododendron and Oak. Gentle ascend and descend greeted us along with rain and mud. We reached a peak and started to go down. The trail became difficult with steep descent (600/700) and slippery steps and to top it all, the rain soon became torrential. Coming out of a bend, we were glad to reach Rechela camp (2782 mtr) on a small clearing in the middle of the dense forest.
We were soaked to the bone and had to change. Sitting next to the oven in the kitchen was the only respite from the shivering cold.
After lunch, Joseph came for a decision. Bhottekharag is still more than 20 kms away. It was raining hard and the route ahead was difficult. So we might not be able to reach Bhottekharag before the evening and might have to spend the night in the open under the tarpaulin tent. It would have been fun in normal circumstances but not under heavy downpour and with dangerous wild animals snipping around.
So we decided to wait a little in the hope that the rain may stop or might become a drizzle. But the downpour continued unabated and soon it became apparent that we had to stay in the Rechela camp today. That’s an extra day that we did not calculate. Nothing can be done now. We had virtually no prior information on this route. So our earlier plan went down the drain. Now in the changed circumstances, we had to reach Samsing from Bhottekharag in a day and would not be able to spend a night at Mauchaki camp. Joseph told us it is possible to reach Samsing from Bhottekharag in day. Samsing is only 20 kms from Bhotekharag and though the first part of the trail is difficult the later part is a mountain-road. So it was an unanimous decision that we stay here today.
After lunch and a little siesta, I was ready for an adda (chat) session with the forest guards — at the side of a raging camp fire under a plastic sheet; in front of the wooden camp
In Neora Valley National Park, all forest camps are built on the only path that crosses the park (NVNP). Since there are virtually no other trail except this one poaching rarely takes place in NVNP. But still the forest guards keep themselves alert. In fact during my entire trek neither I could see any sign of tree felling nor any sign of animal. As the forest coverage is very dense in NVNP the chances of sighting an animal is almost zero unless they cross your path.
Though we started first every day but soon our army of porters would overtake us. They are more interested to put down their load than pondering on the beauty of the forest and definitely not interested in encountering any wild life. So they went noisily and boisterously and after they had tramped on the path, all animals simply vanish.
We have seen lots of orchids, funguses and few birds (Black headed Oriole, Chestnut headed Bee eater etc). Even sighting of birds is difficult in NVNP since the foliage that form the canopy is so dense that birds can easily hide in it.
There are four forest guards in this camp; another two guard the Orchid camp (2278 mtr), few kilometers down the hilly slope. It’s a lonely life here. Their constant companion is an old radio. I could not recall when I have last heard radio. Those were the days in the sixties when I used to listen to radio Cylone (now Shri Lanka). The station used to play popular Hindi movie songs with Amin Sayani hosting the show.
On questioning, the guards in this camp also informed me that though they have seen lots of animal and the famous Red Panda often, they have not sighted any tiger. Well, I could find no plausible answer to this riddle.
They are from Samsing and once a week, by turn, they return to their home. They trek to Samsing in a single day trekking around 45 kms through the most difficult part of this god-forsaken forest.
The rain showed no sign of abatement. Unlike the Alubari camp, this camp has only one small room with high wooden cots. With the guards we were 17. So two tire of beds were rolled out; the first on the cots and the second under the cots.
As I woke up at 4 AM it was still dark outside. The rain has not stopped but its ferocity had gone. It’s now gently falling from the leaves. We have to leave early today and without their morning “cuppa”, nobody will move an inch. But the big question was who will make the tea; none of the porters were willing to leave their bed. So I had no choice but to wake up Joseph who in turn set the ball rolling and we were up and ready to start by 6 AM.
I turned back from the fringes of the camp to have a last look at the small wooden structure that sheltered us from the ferocity of the elements. All the guards waved at us biding good bye; one of them, Rajendra, was leading us.
How can one thank these people enough who have shared their home & hearth with us without the slightest hesitation or resentment? We slept on their cot, they slept under the cot. We relaxed in their bed; they sat outside in the rain under a plastic canopy. Still they were courteous and cheerful towards us. As I turned on the bend, the forest gobbled me up and they were gone. The forest has also engulfed the camp.
Bijan, Asoke and Biswarup were leading today. I am following them and Joseph was bringing in Pratik at the rear. I was bit worried about Pratik. Today’s terrain is said to be the longest and toughest and Pratik was not doing well at all. He was just somehow tugging along.
I was all alone in the trail and it started again to rain hard. One by one all the porters have overtook me. Excepting Pratik and Joseph, all other team members were also ahead. Today, everybody just wanted to complete the stretch as soon as possible; nobody even the porters, were interested to dally a bit.
I was feeling hungry. So I sat down on a fallen tree trunk to eat a chocolate bar which I always carry in my pouch. I have neither any idea how far Bijan, Asoke and Biswarup have progressed nor how far behind were Joseph and Pratik.
The forest was eerily silent around this place. I could almost hear the sound of falling raindrops through the leaves. Sitting on the tree trunk, I began to listen to the song of silence. But I could not have the luxury to relax but had to move ahead and complete this difficult and miserable trek.
Utterly exhausted, totally drenched, I started to slog along and at this point I lost the track. As I went down steeply towards a Jhora (stream) I found the forward track was closed with the densest forest that I have ever seen. For a moment I was frozen with immense fear as I realized that I am lost in one of the most inhospitable terrain in the earth. I just scampered back to the fallen tree trunk where I was sitting a few moments ago to eat. The loneliness and the silence became so over bearing that I lost my cool completely and started shouting — “Bijan, Asoke, Biswarup,” again and again. There were no answers. Numb with fear, I began to sweat profusely. My only hope was to wait for Joseph who was coming behind.
Anytime a Himalayan black bear might appear and I was too tired to run; moreover I did not know in which direction to go. Every second became an hour. I waited for about 15 minutes but it seemed an eon. I just transfixed my sight on to the path through which Joseph was supposed to emerge from the dense foliage. The most beautiful sight of my life was; so far, Joseph coming down the slope.
With fumbling steps I started to trek again but the trail have become difficult as I had to negotiate a number of steep and slippery descents. My knees began to wobble under the strain and the old pain in my knees shot up. Few kilometers ahead, I had a bird’s view of Murti River meandering through the plain and then camp Maple – relief from this grueling trek.
Maple camp, a wooden structure of three rooms was established in 1996 at an elevation of 1950 mtr. It is the biggest of forest camps that we have seen so far
Pratik entered half an hour later, totally exhausted and at the brink of collapse. He simply dived on the bed with wet cloth and shoes on. Though dripping all over, Joseph entered as cool as ever; as if he has just finished his morning-walk. All our money inside our pockets has become wet. We dried it by putting those wet notes on our belly. It was Bijans’ idea and lo behold! The notes were dry in no time.
After a lunch of Dal-Bhat-Sabji (Rice-cereal-vegetables) and a nice “power-nap” we were back to action. Bijan sauntered to the grassy patch in front of the camp to take our snap but scampered back with leeches all over his feet.
It was 8 AM and we were ready to tackle the last patch of our grueling trek. This four nights and five days trek would come to an end today. We were happy since at the beginning we had doubt about our ability to complete this difficult trek. Porters were happy because this ‘damn’ trek is going to be over soon and they can go back to their families and civilization.
Today’s path is said to be full of leeches. Tobacco leaves soaked in water when applied abundantly on ones feet said to prevent leech attack. So every body became busy massaging wet tobacco leaves on their feet.
As we trekked a few feet from the camp, it became evident that today’s stretch is bereft of any track altogether. Till yesterday, however narrow it is, there was a track. In some stretches the trail was only six inches wide but still there were always some resemblances of a path. But the stretch on which we started to trek today has no resemblances of a path. The forest has simply swallowed the track and in this dense foliage millions and millions of leeches were just waiting to attack. No amount of wet tobacco leaves, in whatever way applied, is going to save us from the army of leeches.
We literary started to run down the steep, slippery descent. At some stretches the descent was almost vertical. We were damn lucky not fall heavily.
I, Asoke and Bijan are marching together. As Asoke crossed me at some point, I noticed a big leech was sucking blood just behind his ear. It started to bleed profusely as I pulled it out. I had to apply antiseptic.
It has become a monotonous trek to us. Everywhere there were dense forests. You could not see a thing. Other than some avi-fauna, we could not sight any wild life either and the downpour on two subsequent days has turned our trek to a nightmare.
Though the sky was overcast, blessedly there was no rain. We heard lots of bird-calls but since without stopping we could not take our eyes off the track for a moment, we could not look for birds; if we had done so, we were sure to fall and had broken some bones and stopping in this track was a luxury we could hardly afford.
After trekking for around three hours, we came to a point where the whole track has gone down with a land slide. There was a gap of about twelve feet. The only way to negotiate this stretch was to climb a sheer wall and traverse. Bijan was a good rock climber in his youth. So I suggested that he took the initiative. But we had no rope or any anchor. So Bijan had to traverse the gap free hand — without any rope or any kind of anchor whatsoever. Had he slipped, he would fall on a rock about twenty feet down and surely would break some of his bones.
As we stood with bated breath, he found some pinch holds on the rock surface and very slowly like a slow motion picture, testing his foot holds, traversed the length. I went next. But in the middle of the traverse I lost my confidence and just hung there for dear life. Bijan from one side and Asoke from the other extended their hands but both fell short by two-three feet. It became crystal clear that I was all alone on the rock wall and self help was the only way out. So gathering all my strength I swung myself on to the other side. Asoke crossed the gap with surprising ease. Though it is his first trek at the age of fifty, he is proving to be a good trekker.
Pratik came up. He was moving faster today, probably since today was the last day of our trek and there was no rain. He was also most fearful of leech attack and that probably egged him on. He tried to traverse the gap but failed and scampered back. He tried again and failed again. Fearing that we might desert him in this leech infested jungle till Joseph came for his rescue, he started to plead, “Please, do not leave me.”
I had to assure him, “Do not worry; nobody is going to leave you”.
At this point, Joseph reached with Biswarup and took Pratik through a diversion, down below. We just looked on dumbly; some how we have missed the diversion. Instead of taking so much risk, we could have easily taken the diversion. The risk we took was totally unnecessary.
At last we reached a proper road, a jeep-able road – modern world entering the remote, virgin forest track — the “Juggernaut of modernization”.
The word Juggernaut has its root in an Indian word, “Jagannath”. Jagannath the Hindu deity is famous for his chariot. His chariot, if started to roll, never stops, whatever be the reason.
So during the famous chariot festival of Lord Jagannath at Puri – a sea side pilgrim town in Orissa, pilgrims used to dive under the spinning wheels of the chariot to sacrifice themselves to reach heaven. The Chariot just rolled on over those prostrating humans without stopping. This practice was stopped by the British but even today pilgrims try to use this shortcut for a direct entry to the heaven.
Thus the overwhelming force which can not be stopped is called “Juggernaut”.
In this remote, inaccessible jungle the Juggernaut of modernity marches on in the form of a Jeep-able road; you simply can not stop the Juggernaut of modernization.
Sitting on some scattered rocks on the wide road, we started to pull leeches out of our shoes and socks. Leeches were dancing merrily on our shoes and socks, sucking blood.
Mauchaki camp was just an hour ahead and Samsing our final destination, connected through a metallic asphalt road, was just four kilometers ahead of Mauchaki. A jeep was waiting at Mouchaki to take us to Samsing. Soon we were scampering for the bathroom on the second floor dormitory of the Forest rest house at Samsing.
Coming out of my room as the dawn was just breaking, I had a premonition; it will be one of those perfect dawns and it was. As I stood on the wide balcony facing East, I could see, far away, rolling hills of Bhutan merging on to the horizon. Last nights rain has deposited fresh snow on those peaks and the first light of the day reflecting the splendour. Somewhere a Doyel (Magpie Robin) started to sing. Its melodious singing wafted towards me riding on the cool, gentle, fragrant breeze. The Sun came out behind those far-off hills, making the ridges stand out in silhouette against the blue sky.
I was mesmerized.
Suddenly I heard a voice, so near, so soft but sounds like coming from far off,
“Chinmoy, please take me on to a trek on the glacier! I want to hear the sound of crunching ice under my feet! ”
I turned around. Asoke was standing next to me on the balcony, looking towards the resplendent Bhutan-hills. Lost in my own world, I failed to notice his coming.
I could see Asoke is transfixed, lost. His glazed eyes were not seeing anything. He is marching on his glacier; crunching hard ice under his feet — somewhere in the deep Himalaya.
15 species of highly endangered mammals in the ‘Red Book’ of IUCN that are found in the Neora Valley National Park.
Name Scientific Name
1. Red Panda Ailurus fulgens
2. Himalayan Thar Himitragus Jemlahicus
3. Himalayan black bear Selenarctos Thibetanus
4. Serow Capricornis Sumatraensis
5. Goral Nemorhaedus goral
6. Gaur Bos Gaurus
7. Tiger Panthera tigris
8. Clouded leopard Neofelis nebulosa
9. Leopard cat Felis benglensis
10. Leopard Panthera pardus
11. Fishing cat Felis viverrina
12. Marbled cat Felis marmorata
13. Pangolin Mains crassicandata
14. Indian Rock python Python molurus
15. Satyr Tragopan Tragopan satyra
FOREST TYPE: according to Champion and Seth;
1) Lower Hill Forest: Stretches the plain to 762 mtr elevation
a) dry mixed forest: Principal species:
1. Dubanga sonneratioides, 2.Steriospermum Parsonatum, 3. Adina cordifolia, 4. Pterospermum acerifolium, 5. Terminalia tomemtosa, 6. Chukrasia tobularis, 7. Terminalia belerica 8. Dillennia pentagyna
b) Wet mixed forest: Principal species:
1.Schima Bauhinia hylium, 2. Schima wallichi 3. Bauhinia purpuria,
4. Cedrela toona, 5. MIchelia Champaca, 6. Dubanga sonnertiodes,
7. Acrocarpus fraxinifolius,8. amoora wallichi
In the slopes of east and west Nar blocks, Eugenia mixed with 1. Terminalia myrocarpa, 2. Turpinea Pomifera , 3.Phoebe hainesiana, 4. Khumani stipulate, 5. Milosma simpliofolia, 6. Dysoxylum sp (Eugenia-phoebe hylium)
12) Geranium nepalense.
High level oak forest: 2438 mtr to 2743 mtr.
1. Quarks Pachyphylla(50%) 2. Quercus lamellose, 3. Acar compbellii, 4.Magnolia campbellii,5. Rhododendron sp., 6) Symplocos sp., 7) Maling bamboo, 8) Ferns: Polypodium, Polystichum, Dryopteris, Cheiklanthes, pteris, Botrychium, Asplanumum, Peraneum, Drynaria.
1) Tsuga brunnoniana, 2)Taxus baccata, 3)Abis densa
4) Rhododendron (Eastern Himalayan sub alpine-14/c-2) forest:
1) Arundenaria pantlingii, 2) Rhododendron arboruem, 3) R. barbatum, 4) R. falconeri,5) R. dalhousiae
1) Swerita chirata, 2 Swerita bimaculata, 3) Swerita nervosa, 4) Swerita dilatata, 5) Cardamine hersuta, 6) Geranum nepalense, 7) Capsella bursa-pastores, 8) Drymaria villosa, 9) Polygala arillata, 10) Viburnum nervosum, 11) Thalictrum jaranicum, 12) Polygonum molle, 13) Polygonum chinense.
5) Himalayan moist temperate forest:
1)Arundinaeria panlingii, 2) A. griffithiana, 3) A. aristata, 4)A. maling
5) A. falconeri, 6) A. racemosa, 7) poa sp., 8) Oplismenos sp. 9) Potentila sp. 10) Cyperus sp.
Neora valley national Park has 276 species of insect. 38 species of other vertebrates have also been identified.
Insects: The National Park is rich in Lepidoptera( moths & butterflies) diptera, bugs and aphids. One very small blood sucking dipteran fly attack man & animals in the late afternoon and cause irritation.
1)Dinobdella forox: a cattle leech
2)Hirudinaria manillensis: a very large leech
3) Haemadipsa zeylanica: the commonest leech
4) Haemadipsa Montana: found from 1500-2700m
5) Haemadipsa sylvestris
6) Haemadipsa ornata: the stringing leech and a black & yellow stripped sp.
Other invertebrates includes: snails, limpets, Centipedes, Mellipedes, Spiders, Mites and Ticks.
Species of conservation interest: About 20% of the total species in this NP are extremely rare and many of those face the threat of extinction.
1) Balanophora neorensis
2) Balnophora polyandra
3) Betula utilis
4) Swerita chirata
5) Swerita nervosa
6) Swerita dilatata
7) Ranaculus tricuspes
8) Ranaculus ficarifolius
9) Thalictrum foliolosum
16) Viburnum stellatum
22)Cardamine macrophylla(sub sp. Polyphylla)
36)All species of orchids