Life is hectic. Time is preciously scarce with two young kids, a demanding job, high amour-propre, and with immense interest in never ending supplies of good books and movies.
We still dare to plan vacations on our own with pitfalls of certain ideas dying prematurely, or missing timely train reservation or booking of the preferred accommodation. It happens even though the decision about our next travel destination is always well in advance and we are quick in doing the initial survey. However, after survey we slack as if the job is done and we simply need to pack our bags and leave for the destination on the scheduled date. The reasons for the slack are always trivial like we could not spare few minutes to discuss and decide. After every such debacle, these incidents are labeled as lessons learnt. The cycle goes on and most of the time we are at the same spot when we decide to travel the next time. But such are the ways of life; you forget the lesson as soon as the exams are over.
It was the same with Chaukori. Jaishree had finalized the stay there well in advance. She felt that if we would miss the Himalayan peaks at Munsyari; probably it is the best place to catch them in its complete glory. We slept on this decision for days and finally we woke up only when we realized that the most talked about accommodation in Chaukori, KMVN Chaukori, has only one slot available of two cottages for two consecutive days. We had to readjust our plans to schedule our stay at Chaukori in that slot and I rushed to book the accommodation. Finally, when I could do so it was a big relief and appeared like an achievement.
Coming back to the journey, we started from Munsyari in the morning around 10:00 am with a halt at Birthi. The route till Berinag was the same that we took while driving onwards. This time near Nachni, we noticed a portion of road was under construction and there we heard about the horrendous damage caused by the furious nature on August 7, 2009. On that fateful day this region of Kumaon was shaken and around 38 people were killed in a landslide resulting from a cloudburst.
Cloudburst is not uncommon on hills. It is caused by rapid condensation of clouds that result in water descending on to a small area with a catastrophic force. The might of this gushing destruction is so strong that it sweeps away roads, kutcha-pukka houses, human beings, and livestock, almost everything that comes in its way. It is nothing less than the death being down poured from sky.
“The rain commenced to fall steadily and without cessation,
Through the dripping rain came the sound of cracking trees,
A boulder or two descended and a shout of
Run for your lives was heard ringing up from hotel.”
– An eye witness’ account of landslide in Nainital in 1889.
It was in Yuksom, Sikkim, that we first witnessed the fury of nature. Just a little while from Tashigang hotel, was laying boulders brought down by a massive landslide. At that time I wondered, how a landslide can move those big rocks. I would quote here another account of an eyewitness who survived landslide in Nainital, in 1889 to share a vivid account of how it starts.
“Initially it stuck in the form of rain gales, followed by inevitable landslide. The whole hill side was one mass of semi-fluid matter and required little to set in motion. A large portion of the hill behind the hotel disunited and descended with enormous velocity and violence. The trees shook and withered, the hill side burst and the whole mass fell in headlong avalanche.”
In the village around Nachni, almost a year after the disaster, the only structures that could be seen were of a few concrete buildings half broken and completely covered in debris.
While moving from Thal to Chaukori we were stuck in a traffic jam due to the ongoing maintenance of the road. Big machines were on the work. At one time, the driver of the roller moved ahead looking on his sides. He didn’t realize that our vehicle was right in front of the roller. In spite of our driver shouting full throttle, he realized his mistake only when it was at hair’s distance from our vehicle. Our vehicle appeared miniscule and fragile in front of that demon. It was a narrow escape. Soon we were given sides on that road and we zoomed ahead.
It was almost dark by the time we reached Chaukori, and it was raining heavily. The supportive KMVN staff helped us to settle down in our cottages. Even after the long-exhausting journey, mitti ki saundhi khushboo pulled us out to enjoy the romantic rains of the hills.
A few words about the KMVN, Chaukori: As I wrote earlier, booking this property appeared like an achievement. My first impression was good. Even in the rains, staff was prompt in helping us to settle down. Rooms were decent, nevertheless the cleanliness in the bathrooms disappointed. On request, housekeeping washed and cleaned bathroom again, but the problem was of general upkeep that cannot be improved by cleaning it several times. My brother-in-law was disappointed by the room allotted to them and got it changed.
After dinner we all gathered in my Brother-in-Law’s new room and while we were chatting and playing cards, the bed caved in. It was a clear warning signal for my six feet Brother-in-law to keep his weight under control, but he misunderstood it as a sign of sub-standard furniture.
The manager immediately sent housekeeping to repair the bed and shifted them to much bigger and cleaner room. Nevertheless, their hard luck did not end there. Next day morning, there was no water in bathrooms. When the supply was restored, geysers did not work. After some arguments they were shifted to another room, which was yet to be cleaned.
Among all this hulla-bulla, I escaped to porch to enjoy the morning. Time for my hard luck, the wandering “Ant Army” immediately took notice of the unknown territory and rushed to explore it. I had to give up my immobility.
A nest of “House Swift” in the porch captured my attention. I continued closing in to have a better look and better photos. I sensed the increased activity of the inmates. Initially, I contributed it to the restless nature of the Swift. However, it was flying so close to my head that finally it dawned on me that it was an encroachment of their territory. To make it easy for both the parties I moved away.
Finally, after waiting for water, waiting for hot water, followed by shifting the room, when all of us reached cafeteria, breakfast disappointed everyone. Our taste buds revolted and refused to eat that. We all then decided to explore the nearby Ojaswi Resort.
Ojaswi Resort is newly built and is tastefully decorated. The size of the room, decorative lights, fascinatingly beautiful curtains, the king size bed, the high quality furniture and the bathroom (yes, they do have a palatial bathroom), threw up the obvious question, “Should we continue in KMVN or forfeit our advance and shift to Ojaswi?” For everyone else the decision was clear and so all the eyes were on me. Everyone was so keen that there was no way that I could say, “NO”. Everyone jumped on a small nod of my head. After all, it made the choice look unanimous.
In our trip of Kumaon, we could easily rate Ojaswi as the best place where we stayed. The cost of one night of stay was Rs 1600/-. I would say the excellent value for money (even if you forfeit your money at KMVN) . Kids liked it so much that they sang for a long time, “Ojaswi is the Best”.
Adjoining the property was a jungle/green belt and as soon as we settled we decided to make for the lost time and left the rooms for trekking. It was refreshing. However, even in the green belt we could see construction work ongoing. It left me puzzled, “Is Chaukori going the Almora way?”
Late afternoon, we planned to visit the Musk Deer breeding center. Someone has just returned from there and was highly disappointed. He could not even get a glimpse of the deer. For us (me and my wife), the musk deer farm was only a masquerade; the real idea was to trek. The center simply provided a destination to keep everyone else motivated.
The Breeding center is at 3 Km steep walk from Chaukori. The trek passes through a heavily wooded area. Our drivers informed that on the way we could also find some musk that the deer passes with its excreta; however it was more of a misconception. As always we started in group, but, slowly the gap between the fastest (the kids) and the slowest (my sister-in-law) started to widen. It is difficult to ask kids to trek at slower pace, so we matched their pace and left my brother-in-law to motivate and bring over my sister-in-law.
Out of two hundred and eighty seven species of Indian hill-birds described by Salim Ali, about two hundred and thirty are found in Kumaon. So during the trek we were keenly looking forward to spot some new birds, though it was afternoon and the time was not suitable for birding. Anyway there is always a hope against all hopes and we spotted the “Eurasian Jay”.
Our camera at that time was not the best for shooting birds; still it was good enough to help me make out which bird it was. I gathered a few interesting information about this bird. Eurasian Jay is an excellent mimicry artist. It poses a challenge for experienced bird watchers who claim that they could recognize the birds by their voice itself. It often imitates sound of so many different varieties of the bird that it is impossible to distinguish its true identity unless it is visually spotted.
Eurasian Jay is an inexhaustible planter of pines. This bird devours the green shoots of oak produced by the buried acorns. And so in winters it grasps up to three thousand acorns and hid them beneath leaf-litter and low-vegetation. The hiding place is usually half a mile of the place where it discovered the acorn; however, sometimes it could be as far as two miles away. The next summer, this bird with an excellent memory, is able to collect and retrieve the germinated acorns and feed itself. It allows the bird to survive in times of scarcity. Almost every year some of these acorns, which are not picked back by the Jay, grow into new pine trees.
It reminds me of an interesting comment by Douglas Adams (a writer, dramatist and a musician), “Humans think they are smarter than dolphins because we build cars and buildings and start wars etc., and all that dolphins do is swim in the water, eat fish and play around. Dolphins believe they are smarter for exactly the same reasons.”
Eurasian Jay is also known for performing ‘anting’ (also done by several other birds). It is the process during which this bird remains passive, allowing ants to run over its body. The ants apparently kill the parasites in its feathers. After anting, the bird baths, shakes itself and then clean itself with its beaks.
We did not meet anyone on the trail so even though there were not many diversions, we were still not sure that we were going on the right trek. After a long time, a local person crossed us in hurry. We confirmed the path. He simply nodded, out-paced us and was soon out of the sight. Apparently, we were not far from the destination and soon reached at the center. The 3 Km distance is not much; still the steep trek completely exhausted us.
There we again met the un-concerned local and realized that he was the caretaker of the center. He still had that indifferent looks as if he was wondering what brings tourist to the centre.
We spotted a male and a female musk deer. They were in separate cages and far from the place the tourists could look at them. Their cages were further separate by another iron mesh. The deer were well-guarded and looking for musk on the trek was nothing but… shit.
Indian musk deer tend to be very secretive and are mostly active between dusk and dawn. At night they graze in open areas while at day time they remain in dense cover. Perhaps this is the reason why tourist we met at the resort could not see them, even though they were in the cages.
Musk deer do not have antlers and resembles a medium height dog in size. Its hind limbs are muscular and long while the forelimbs are short, thin and weak. The feet are adapted for climbing in rough terrain. Musk deer does not make seasonal migration, remaining in the same area, despite harsh weather. This shy animal depends on its sense of hearing to be responsive towards sources of danger. It makes drastic changes in direction during its flight and often every few jumps it will stop and listen.
When I questioned that why the pair is been kept in different cages, the caretaker, drew my attention towards the protruding, large and visible canines of the male deer. He stated that otherwise the male deer might attack the female and cut through its flesh with its sharp teeth. They are brought together only during the mating season.
The number of offspring of this animal is small and it seldom reaches two. This animal is found either living alone or in a group of not more than three members (mother and her young fawns). Young ones stay with their mother for up to two years. Female musk deer give birth to a single fawn after a gestation period of five to six months. The new born are very small and remain motionless for the first month of their lives, a feature that help them remain hidden from their predators like eagles and foxes.
I sniffed hard still I could not smell anything special in the air. So we inquired the caretaker about the musk. He explained that a male musk deer has a musk pouch in its abdomen. The scent from the pouch is only released during mating season to attract a mate. Operation is the only way to extract musk without killing the animal. When first extracted musk is red and has an unpleasant odour. It becomes black when dries and starts to give a pleasant odour.
There was nothing much to do at the top. The caretaker did not allow us to venture on the other side citing the fear of wild animals. So after spending some time we trekked down. Coming down, as expected, was quick.
After a cup of evening tea, Jaishree, I and all the kids were again ready to ramble. Ojaswi’s owner suggested us a trail and told that we could have beautiful views of Himalayan range from there. It was one of the most pleasant walks. There were valleys with beautiful views of the Himalayas. The only eye-sores were the hotels and cottages under construction. Some of them had the guests even when they were not fully finished. This is the ugly truth about the tourism. The increased pressure of tourism kills the beauty of these remote destinations by senseless constructions. My suggestion is to visit Chaukori before it becomes another Almora.
Luckily, as we walked a little, it was all very quiet. The pleasant evening breeze, mellifluous calls of the birds, enthusiastic kids eagerly participating in spotting the birds and the wooded pathway increased the pleasure manifolds.
Even the youngest among all, Tanmay, was also on foot without any fuss, throwing stones in the puddles on the way. If it was not for the setting Sun, perhaps we would have gone farther. For us the real pleasure is always in walking to explore.