Wind beneath my wings

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The takeoff itself wasn’t particularly tough; it was the decision to board that took courage. This happened on a recent whistle-stop tour of Kumaon’s “lake district,” with Bhimtal as my base. Stopping on the hill roads one evening to stretch my legs, I was drawn to the bustle of people milling around a large parachute spread out on the flat surface of the cliff-top. And in front of my eyes, a young couple took wings, each tethered to an instructor who would help them stay in the air for the next few minutes of their paragliding adventure.

I knew that paragliding was popular in Himachal Pradesh, but I hadn’t expected to find it in this remote corner of the Uttarakhand hills. After a few minutes of watching, as I was ready to get back into the car, my cabbie fired the first salvo by inquiring if I had done this earlier. I mumbled sheepishly under my breath, hoping he would drop the subject, but that was not to be.

A moment of hesitation – rightly interpreted by them as a sign of weakness – was all it took for the paragliding team itself to take his suggestion forward. And they went at it non-stop, slyly suggesting that it was silly to be afraid, when even a five year old child could do this easily.

The clinching argument was made as a joke by the instructor who would fly with me – “Oh madam, remember, it is my life also.” So, before I knew it, I went from curious bystander to intrepid paraglider, all harnessed and ready to soar. One, two, three, four steps forward – and the wind force carried us up into the air.

Courage on the ground was all fine, but my first minute up in the air was one of sheer terror. I confronted that with a volley of questions to Vir Singh, who hailed from Himachal and had been doing this for seven years. Vir was remarkably patient as he explained – yet again – that he had all the controls in his hand, direction, altitude and speed included.

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I closed my eyes for a moment to take a deep breath; perhaps it was the feel of the wind on my cheeks or the sound of absolute silence, but when I opened them again, I had begun to actually enjoy the ride. There may have even been a brief moment when I let go of the straps and spread my hands in the air a la that classic scene from Titanic. I had been on a hot air balloon ride a few years ago but this exhilarating sense of flying, strapped on to a massive parachute and perched on a makeshift canvas seat was like nothing I had ever experienced earlier.

When it was finally time to land, Vir decided to test my nerves one final time with a few trick moves – and whoosh we went, swinging treacherously to a side, dipping low and high, and almost upside down. Forgive me for not describing it in great detail, for all I remember is holding on tight and pleading for my life to be spared. And unlike the ride itself, I didn’t have time to get used to this and begin enjoying it. But by the time we landed, I had managed to rustle up a halfway genuine smile for the camera that was capturing the flight all the way.

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That night, I had adrenalin fuelled dreams of sprouting wings and flying high. My last coherent thought before I fell asleep was that I couldn’t wait to try paragliding again.

TRAVEL INFO

Distance: 307 km from Delhi

Time: 7 hours

Route: Take NH 24 from Delhi towards Ghaziabad and Moradabad. Connect to NH 87 going up north towards Haldwani and Nainital. Or take the overnight Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam and hire a cab for an hour’s drive (Rs.1000) to Bhimtal

Stay: Fredy’s Bungalow; tariff for double room starting from Rs 6053, inclusive of breakfast and taxes.

Essential Details: My flight was with Eagle Eye Adventure (http://www.eagleeyeadventure.com/; Rs. 1500 for the flight from a height of 1500 feet). There are dozens of local operators, so ask around before signing up.

Published in the ‘Weekend Vacations’ section of Mint

Call of the wild

Sitting on the terrace of the homestay in Corbett, shivering slightly in the crisp Kumaoni air, we glanced through the photographs from our evening in the forest. I realised then that I had shot an entire series on the tiger cub, which was the highlight of that safari, perhaps the whole trip. One of the images caught our attention: the cub licking his lips, a pensive glint in his eye.

At that moment, I recalled a joke from a long time ago. Question: “What did the tiger cub say when it saw us on the jeep?” Answer: “Meals on wheels.”

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It was all very well to joke about it then, as I warmed my hands in the bonfire, far away from the dark depths of the forest. Cut to a few hours earlier in the evening. As the tiger cub kept advancing towards our jeep, it was all I could do to keep my hold on the camera. Don’t think for a minute that cub meant a small, helpless animal. This tiger kid, less than 18 months old, was almost as big as his mother.

Shaky fingers. Dry throat. A frisson of fear mixed with the excitement.

This tiger sighting came after a long, tiring ride in the forest, where we saw more jeeps than animals. At one point, our driver Jalees, with his experience of over twelve years in this forest, stopped on a path where he sensed tiger movement. Within minutes, a dozen other jeeps had pulled up next to ours – the jungle drum system of communication is very efficient – in a buzz of eager eyes, animated whispers and cameras with bazooka lenses.

As if to herald her presence in the area, the tigress roared, the sound reverberating in an air already thick with anticipation. A rustle in the dry bushes, a flash of tawny stripes and she was gone. This was the elusive Sharmilee, recent mother of two and queen of Corbett’s Bijrani Zone. True to her name, Sharmilee played hide and seek with us for a while, and finally bored of it all, vanished into the wilderness.

Apart from a few sporadic alarm calls from the deer, Bijrani stayed silent for the rest of the evening. The big sighting came without any warning – no alarm calls of sambar deer, no pug marks – on our way out of the forest. We turned a bend and there he was, Sharmilee’s son, walking towards us. My mind could not process this at first: wow, is that a really large deer?

The cub stopped in front of our jeep with a thoughtful look (possibly the aforementioned joke running through his mind). And so we stood, facing each other for over ten minutes. Here is when I learned, there is no winning a staring contest with a tiger. In fact, there is just no meeting eyes with a tiger. Yellow, cold, menacing. But I am not complaining; this was my best tiger sighting in all my forays into Indian forests.

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Corbett is India’s first National Park, set up in 1936, and initially named after the local Governor Malcolm Hailey. It was renamed later in honour of Jim Corbett, fearless slayer of man-eaters and ardent conservationist (called “Carpet Sahib” by locals). Corbett’s other claim to fame is that it was the first tiger reserve to be brought under Project Tiger in 1973.

Although not considered the best place for tiger spotting (punters who equate wildlife with tigers are better off at Ranthambhore or Bandhavgarh), Corbett compensates with a large population of tuskers and hundreds of avian species. With the Ramganga river flowing through the National Park and the striking grasslands which often grow tall enough to hide the elephants, it is also one of the most beautiful forest landscapes in India.

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We were staying at The Ranger’s Lodge, a quiet homestay between the Bijrani and Jhirna zones, right along the periphery of the forest. Our host, Imran Khan, is a dedicated naturalist and a Corbett veteran, who accompanied us on every safari. I am forever grateful to Imran for introducing me to the joys of bird watching. It started right from my first morning at his home, where dozens of birds gathered for a summit meeting in his garden, each on his preferred perch.

By my second safari, the morning after the up close and personal encounter with the big cat, I had begun to keep my sights trained on the trees and not the ground. Of course, I was still privately calling them “small yellow bird” and “ugly fat thingy” but Imran was supremely patient and pointed out the details that would help me identify them (hopefully, some day): white eyebrows, red throat, curved beak and so on.

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The morning was bone-numbingly cold, the mist swirling above the tall grass and rendering the forest grey and languid. The only excitement came in the form of a large herd of elephants crossing the road right in front of us, the babies scrambling behind the adults in a purposeful (and slightly frightened) manner. After that, for a long time, the forest stayed still, all forms of life waiting for the chill to abate.

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Slowly, as the sun peeked out, all the usual suspects emerged – chital, sambar, langur, peacocks – and some of the not so usual too, including wild boar and jackals. And I loved the way bird names rolled off my tongue: brahminy starling, white-throated bushchat, great Indian hornbill, coppersmith barbet. Of course, I was repeating the names after Imran, but by then I was well hooked into this birding business.

If our Corbett safaris began with a rendezvous with a tiger, they ended with a confrontation with a tusker. It was my first (and not a happy one, I can assure you) incident of being almost assaulted by an elephant. “Mock charge,” Imran said smugly. “He is trying to scare us away.” Oh well, he succeeded. We waited in a patient “leave or let leave” policy but this rogue had decided to block our path and kept charging at an alarming pace each time we tried to move ahead. I don’t think Jalees, in all his years of driving inside Corbett National Park, had reversed at such speed.

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And so we spent a good half hour playing mind games with a wily elephant. Again, after getting out of it safe and sane, I could boast about it being a fascinating experience. Back at Imran’s home, my husband and I felt like heroes returning from a gruelling battle, relating tales of our wild conquests (with the camera) to an enthralled audience.

Kumaon journey 2

This is the second part of my memories from a holiday in Uttaranchal a couple of years ago. Read Kumaon journey 1 first.

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Moving on half-heartedly from Kausani, we then made our way to Binsar. We had been warned that travel to Binsar included a steep incline on a one track road for the last twenty kilometers or so, and we were looking forward to that.

From Kausani to Binsar, we drove through some of the most beautiful countryside; every turn of the road producing a new surprise. On the way, we cross quaint bridges, and stop at the banks of little streams that crisscross all over the valleys. We catch the distant snow-covered mountains play hide and seek with us and we play along. They travel with you all through the way, now you see them and now you don’t.

We passed through the Baijnath temples, situated on the banks of the river Gomti. Morning prayers were going on in one of the temples containing a large idol of Goddess Parvati. The remaining idols have been kept in the local museum; this is the only temple where the deity is worshipped everyday. These temples date back to the twelfth century and in the early morning quiet, it is almost possible to close your eyes and feel transported back in time. Stepping down to the river banks, it is a pleasure to watch the fish come out to feed. Breakfast time, folks!

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And we seem to have saved the best for the last. Binsar was in a word: spell-binding (or is that actually two words?). As you drive up the narrow, steep, single-lane tracks, the view gets better and better. A short two km trek along shaded paths with tall oak and rhododendron trees lining the way, takes you to the top. At 8000 feet above mean sea level is a rickety looking watch-tower. Steel your nerves, take a deep breath and climb on. For, the view from the tower is that of a 300 km stretch of the Himalayas, all the way up to Badrinath and Kedarnath on a clear day. Our guide even tried to point out his house on the China border but then you know what tourist guides are like.

The entire region is a protected bird sanctuary and home to a large number of animals including leopards and wild boar. As you trek up, you can almost hear the laughing deer and growling leopards above and below you. The guide tells you abut the wild animals that come out on to the roads you are walking on at night. You glance nervously around you and note that there are no other humans in sight and that you have been hearing strange noises for a while.

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Away from civilization as we know it, near the top is a KMVN (Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam) guest-house. Stay there for an out-of-this-world experience – the guesthouse has no electricity! We wanted to stop for the night there but opted out on the advice of our driver – Aap Bombay se hain? Aap ki toh kulfi jam jaayegi. Binsar, we were told, is cut off from the rest of the world for two to three months a year. The employees of the guesthouse stock up on their needs by end of November and stay prepared awaiting the bitter winter months.

Incidentally, throughout Kumaon, you can safely stay at the KVMN guesthouses everywhere. They are decent and well priced, and are built at the best locations.

Stop at the Khali estate either on your drive up or down from Binsar. Soak in the views and have the famed Gujarati thali if you are there in the right season. And reflect on the fact that the estate is called ‘khali’ not after some local deity but to signify ‘empty’… Imagine the place as it would have been fifty years ago, isolated and completely khaali… That is such a humbling experience in itself.

A word of caution here: if you are the types looking for touristy ‘sight-seeing’ things to do, you’d do well to stay away from Kausani and Binsar. The only sights here are those of the magnificent mountains, which one can never tire of…

Coming down the hills, we stopped at Naukutchiatal on our way back to Kathgodam for the train. You would do well to overlook the more crowded Nanital and Sattal and head straight for this peaceful spot. This lake with nine corners is the perfect place to just relax and savour those moments before heading back to city life. Amble along the walks on the banks, take a slow shikara ride and chat with the boat-man about the region, take a pony ride or just hire a boat and row out into the lake yourself.

Kumaon is a place where nature completely takes over… where else would you see a signboard saying ‘animals have right of way’. Through your journey in Kumaon, you will hear the tinkle of temple bells; these are offered to the local deities here in return for divine favours sought and bestowed. As for the smells, we caught only the waft of alu parathas in winter, but in peak season, the smell of apples and rhododendron flowers accompany you. And of course, through the year, the smell of fresh and clean mountain air stays with you… And leaves you longing for more.

Kumaon journey 1

The hills are alive with the sound of… silence? Although calling the magnificent Himalayas ‘hills’ is rather like calling Mickey Mouse a rat.

Uttaranchal offers something for everyone… mountains, rivers, lakes, glaciers, wildlife sanctuaries, temples. You can stand by and watch from a distance and be awed by the breath-taking splendor of it all – the way I did. Or you can jump right into the spirit of things and trek, ski or raft if the adventure bug has bitten you. Either way, Uttaranchal fills your senses…… and the feeling remains long after you leave the place.

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Uttaranchal is divided into two regions : Kumaon and Garhwal. We went to Kumaon in December last year. Looking for peace and quiet. A place to get away from it all. And no, we didn’t take it all with us… not even a good camera – which is why the bad quality pictures that do no justice to what I saw. Kumaon region itself offers many many holiday ideas, of which we managed only a few within a short holiday of five days. Starting from Ranikhet, the queen’s field.

As you alight at Kathgodam, the last railway station in this region, you feel the difference in the air. The air here is so fresh and pure that you can almost hear your city-smoke filled lungs crying out in pleasure.

True to its name, Ranikhet is a lovely place. The best thing to do in Ranikhet is simply walk around the town, soaking in the long-range views of the Nanda Devi and Trishul. It was early winter and the trees were a riot of the colours of autumn. If you want to get the true feel of the place, then stay away from the marked touristy spots and chart your own course in and around the town.

Autumn out, winter in

A day in Ranikhet and we were hungry to move on… the promise of better things to come. And we made our way to Kausani. Where Gandhiji had spent a few months meditating and writing on Anashakti Yoga. A memorial to Gandhi stands there, with rare pictures of the man and his life. Which is the only place to ‘visit’ in Kausani. Other than this, what Kausani offers is Himalayan views, splendid and uninterrupted. Nanda Devi, Nandakot, Trishul, Panchchuli. I cannot think of anything better to do on a holiday than to sit on the low walls of the Anashakti Ashram and sip chai, as you watch the sun go down on the distant mountain ranges.

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Ditto for the sunrise. Kausani is one of those rare holiday options where one feels inspired to brave the bitter cold and wake up early just to watch the sun rise over the distant mountain ranges. It is a wonder how nature can play around with so many colours at the same time on the same large canvas… the bright oranges and purples merging with the muted yellows and pinks, all against a pale blue background…

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