This is my first ride in Isuzu. The vehicle is almost a mini-truck but with all the luxury. I am seating in the front. Feels like sitting in a plush sofa in a big drawing room with full glass wall overlooking forest. Three colleagues are sitting behind. My other colleagues are in a ’14-Seater Tempo Traveller’, half a kilometre behind.
Second luxury is, the man driving the giant is my boss, Ritwick Dutta, well known and eminent environmental lawyer. Third luxury is, far from the blazing summer and 40°C plus of Delhi, we are in the Himalayas. Fourth luxury is, even in the Himalayas, we are in a well preserved, almost undisturbed, serene, very dense class I forest. We are driving through Nainadevi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve in Nainital Forest Division of Uttarakhand.
Good part is, there are no barriers and restriction as such. The area in not trampled by pilgrims or tourists. We do not come across any vehicle except for one ‘Maruti 800’, our smallest car, of a local family going further down.
It’s a single lane road – there is hill on one side and valley on the other side. The forest is so thick that it’s darker than it should be at the time of the day.
I have read earlier that the forest here is ‘Temperate Moist Deciduous Forest’ which includes a large number of broad leaf species. Main species is Oak locally called Banj (Quercus leucotrichophora) in association with rhododendron, gar papal and several other Oak species. Deodar (Cedrus deodara) is found in upper reaches.
We are probably driving in the range of 2200-2300 m and Deodar patches are around. Deodar trunks are massive and stand straight as if eyeing touching the sky. Rhododendron flower bunches are dry and hardly any fresh flower can be seen. Most of the trunks are covered in moss, an indication of richness of the forest. Even blocks of roadside bench like barriers are covered in moss and store titbits of biomass.
“Barking deer”, Ritwick calls. As a reflex action, I see in the direction he is seeing. And do get to see the deer – typical dark brown and bright coat, small built, low height – just turning around to disappear in the forest.
We soon reach the Goral watching point. Here, there is range of barren hills rising steeply for probably 200-250 m. Himalayan Goral (also called Ghural, a goat-like wild mammal) can be seen at times in these hills. They are generally one with the landscape. What gives them away is movement. We gaze and gaze for about 10 minutes but hard luck.
As we drive on, Ritwick suddenly applies brake and the vehicle comes to a screeching halt – a black ball crosses the road from the valley on the left like a bullet, inches ahead of us, and climbs a steep hill side on the right. OMG! It’s a medium size wild boar! Has Ritwick not applied the brake in time, the environmental lawyer would have been caught for offense under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 for no fault of his! Jokes apart, it is frightening. I see up the hill. There is whole lot of them. I can see about half a dozen small boars hurrying up the hill.
Our destination is the abode of the Goddess – Badhan Thali. This is about 11 km from Pangot. It’s a track of about 2.5 km. The vehicles are parked at the base by the road side. All rush up the hill to make it before it gets dark. At the base, a representative small temple has been created for those who do not have energy or time to do the track. They can pay respect here. I am the only one who uses the facility. I do not take chance of climbing because of knee pain. I hang around.
I know, the trekkers are going to take at least an hour. I stroll around. Nature is all enveloping, more so with no human being, no vehicle and habitation around. I can listen to forest and gaze deep. I notice a family of langurs busy down there in the valley – carefree and careless. They are far away and do not know I am watching. I can hear a barking deer going hoarse with continuous barking. Is some carnivore stalking it? Whistle of the Whistling Thrush is most common in these forests but it’s always pleasant.
The whole situation is ripe to see a leopard. I have been strolling on the road and think, ‘What a luck it would be, if a leopard passes by.’
The day light is going. It’s around 6.40.I select a place about 150 m from our vehicle from where I can see both sides of the road for some distance and a barren steep hill in front. I want to try for Goral as well. I keep an intense watch on the road and the hill alternatively. Suddenly, a shiver passes through my spine. A thought crosses my mind. ‘What happens if a leopard actually comes along the road? What happens if its stops to look at me? What happens if it takes some unpleasant decision?’ I look around for possible protection. There are massive trees. Climbing a tree is not possible for me. I can hide behind the trunk of a close-by one. The question that keeps pondering my mind is, ‘Can I fool a leopard?’ At one point I think, I should not take risk and lock myself in the safety of the car. But wildlifer in me prevails.
Soon, I am rewarded. I am not able to believe my own eyes when I notice a Goral clear as a day light on the hill top cliff. Major part of its body and movement can be easily seen. All questions in my mind are gone. I am dancing with joy. It is almost 7 pm, hardly, any light. I take chance and try to take photos with mobile. At the maximum zoom, I could take photos good enough for anybody to identify the animal without any difficulty. That’s the wonder these mobile cameras are. They are good for record keeping. I could see the animal very clearly for more than 15 minutes. Take half a dozen photos from different angles.
I am wondering at my luck. My day, rather night has been made. I have been sitting out there and even do not realise that it is almost pitch dark. I shift to the car.
Soon colleagues started trickling down from the track. Om Prakash asks me, “Sir, what have you been doing?” I reply, “I have been watching Goral.” I show the picture. He takes away my mobile and all see it closely. Soon, all know, I have not been idling and making best of it. Ritwick is very happy to see the Goral photo. His faith in richness of these hills is reinforced.
I always say, wildlife watching is an art – Be at the right place, at right time and in right manner.