Long treks, wildlife safaris, scenic viewpoints and serenity... Kumaon offers all these and more.
The Himalayan foothills, the “Kumaon” — now in Uttarakhand — is an area synonymous with forests of pine, conifer, deodar and oak; the tiger and the leopard; and Jim Corbett, that adventurous Englishman whose concern for the environment and legendary huntsmanship endeared him to millions. From New Delhi we drive through the dusty wastelands of North India, passing tributaries of the Yamuna and the Kosi already, in April, shadows of their hoary past, thanks perhaps to indiscriminate human development. We skirt the towns of Moradabad and Rampur and are soon at the edges of the Corbett National Park.
The temperature falls as we enter its hallowed precincts, now a hub of tourist focused activity. Everything is eponymous to Corbett here; the resorts, cafes, and curiosity shops. We check into one among the many resorts that border the forest reserve and learn that both jeep and elephant safaris are on offer; bookings having to be made 24 hours in advance. We also learn that safari routes are now restricted to the fringes of the forest, deeper areas having been declared out of bounds, due to poaching. Clearly a case of deprivation for many nature lovers, thanks to few unscrupulous individuals.
In search of the big cat
A misty morning beckons as we bundle ourselves into a jeep, expecting eagerly to hit the jungle trail. Alas, we have to first submit to the whims of the Indian bureaucrat; no doubt well intentioned with wildlife protection in mind but, also, poorly organised, engendering corruption and exploitation. We soon find ourselves amid clamouring local guides and bewildered tourists at a Government office, the queue having long disappeared.
A half hour of energetic jostling by our guide, having produced proof of identity, we are awarded a permit. Brandishing this triumphantly, we set off on an eight-kilometre drive to the forest gate. It remains unclear why the permit office cannot be better organised and located conveniently at the forest gate. Sadly, precious early morning time, when animal sightings are common, has been lost in this scrum for a permit.
As we drive through the forest we encounter many beautiful species of deer and other smaller animals in the wild; and a range of birds. We skirt the northern edges of the park, bordered by the Ram Ganga, and spot tiger pug marks and territorial markings. However, the big cat remains elusive, during our three hour odyssey. Repeated early morning and late evening journeys into the park are our guide's prescription for those bent on spotting the tiger or leopard.
A lake at over 6000 feet
From the Corbett National Park in the Kumaon plains, we take a two hour drive up the hills, towards Naini Tal, for decades the capital of this region, where Jim Corbett spent his formative years and grew to become a city elder. Legend has it that an Englishman put his gun to the head of a local and demanded to be taken to the large lake in the forest that he had heard about, where locals reportedly worshipped at a forest temple. Thus was Naini Tal, a lake shaped like an eye, discovered and settled by the British, soon becoming a regional summer capital.
Located at a height of over 6000 feet, the lake encircled by mountains is truly picturesque and breathtaking. The Mall in Naini Tal, its main thoroughfare, houses many a relic from the town's colonial past. The traffic, however, is daunting, generating a cacophony unbecoming of such a beautiful locale. As always, one wonders why, we, in India, fail to preserve the magic and serenity of these divine spaces. Naini Tal's recent enhancement in status, with the obligatorily ostentatious Government buildings, will undoubtedly threaten its serenity.
Presently, it remains perfect for the hill station tourist: with walks around the lake, boating, horse riding and shopping at The Mall all being on offer. Jim Corbett's winter home in Kaladhungi, the lower reaches of the Kumaon, maintained as a museum, is among the many attractions. Lesser known Tals (lakes) now compete with Naini Tal on the tourist agenda: Sat Tal, Bhim Tal and Naukuchia Tal; all meriting a visit. What is common is the experience of a lake at a high altitude, encircled by mountains.
No trip to the Kumaon is complete without a glimpse of the haloed Himalayan range. For this we travel in a north-easterly direction from Naini Tal, the towns of Mukteshwar and Almora offering wonderful vantage points for such viewing. Our destination is a home stay haven located at 7000 feet, in the village of Bhallard near Nathuakan, offering commanding views of the Uttarakhand Himalayas. After a two-hour drive from Nainital, we stop in front of a narrow hill path, the car not being able to go further. It is sunny with a cool breeze, the temperature a perfect 20°. A large and steep C-shaped valley, a deodar reserve forest, is on our left; and a short climb to our right, a row of pretty cottages overlooking the valley. At their centre, built in the pahadi style with stone, red tin roofs and the colonial feel of a bygone era, is the euphemistically named “Aah! Himalaya”. Even as we approach a “paradise flycatcher” swoops overhead in welcome.
From the famous first floor deck of this house, we see rows of green hilltops and, beyond them, through the summer haze, the outline of the Himalayan mountain range. From here, we are assured, are clearly visible, at appropriate times, the snow capped Himalayan range; Trishul being most prominent. A beautiful photograph is displayed as testimony to this view.
We hike along the hill path to Nathuakhan, through the deodar forests. Leopards, we understand, still populate these parts; one having delivered three cubs some weeks earlier, to the delight of the local community. We pass modest stone dwellings complete with interlocking slate stone rooftops, listen to the rumbling of livestock, and hear the sounds of silence; twittering birds, chattering forest insects; rustling of undergrowth by small animals heading for cover; fluttering in the wind of beautiful wild flowers that cover entire rock faces. We pass trees laden with raw fruit: plums, pears, peaches and apples that will soon ripen for plucking, transforming this forest into a veritable orchard. Indeed, in this rural corner of India, at a height of over 7000 feet, each of the seasons is described as magical. The abundance of fruits in summer is followed by the monsoon, with a sea of rain clouds covering the valley, some travelling into house, literally!
The landscape in winter, enveloped in pristine whiteness, enhancing the view of the snow capped Himalayan range; spring, with its explosion of colour, as the flowers bloom and birds abound. This then, probably, is the true magic of the Kumaon as Jim Corbett knew it; a communion with nature and its creator, in the shadow of the Himalayan range; with bountiful flora and fauna; sans urbanisation; sans tourists. Clearly, one now has to travel to remote corners of the Kumaon, to experience this magic. However, having witnessed the pathos of urbanisation even in these higher reaches; rampant construction and plastic trash carelessly strewn about; one cannot help but wonder whether this magical Kumaon of Corbett will endure, for future generations to experience and enjoy.
The author is Director and T.S. Srinivasan Chair at The Institute of Neurological Sciences, VHS Hospital, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org