Despite the fact that no views of snow clad peaks or reflections were visible in the beautiful emerald waters of the Tal, Devariyatal has been an uplifting experience. We tidy up the baggage in the boot of the car and start out towards Ukhimath in the rising heat of the day. We had had a flat yesterday at Kanchula Kharak and our priority at Ukhimath today is to get it fixed. The mountainous roads with their numerous bumpy landslide areas do not generate any confidence without at least a spare tyre in good condition.
Mission duly accomplished at the first auto repair guy we see, the bypass is taken to head out towards Kakdagaad without entering Ukhimath. Kakdagaad is a very small settlement just 4-5 kms south of Kund on the Rudraprayag road. A well known birding guide Mr Negi has a little place there called the ‘Mandakini Magpie Birding Camp’. It is right on the banks of the gushing Mandakini. This is where we are headed. At the end of our long driving trip, we intend to dedicate the last full day to birding☺.
The Camp is reached in quick time… we do not realise it is so very close to Kund. We have not warned them of our lunch requirement so when we enquire about the availability; we are offered Khichadi as the quickest option which we accept with alacrity.
This place seems to me to be just a collection of 5 – 6 little dhabas and this camp. A few yards down the road are two small houses. Some of these dhabas are run by the locals, some by Nepali migrants (or maybe they just come in the season time) and one even by a Bengali. There are a number of organised tour buses passing by here during the pilgrimage season and these joints cater to the specific needs of these various groups.
After lunch and a short nap, we are ready to explore the surroundings. Another (Bengali) family is put up in the room just a half level up. The lady is evidently setting out for some birdwatching with camera and guidebook in hand. We tag along quite happily.
A hundred metres away is a bridge across the stream which joins the Mandakini here. Right under the bridge is where we are headed. The path which leads us down to the water’s edge is very precarious. All rubble and loose mud which on the steep incline makes us slip and slide all the while hanging onto the (expensive) equipment we are carrying. There is birdsong all around.
Making our way over the small and large stones on the edge of the water, we come to a little space where the water has been channelled away from the main stream into a little pool which serves to attract the small birds for a dip. Taking up positions behind a large boulder, we start our vigil at the ‘swimming pool’ as Negi calls it.
We do not have long to wait. Whiskered Yuhinas, White eyes, Western crowned Warblers, Blue-fronted Flycatcher, Black chinned Babblers, Crimson sunbird, Black Bulbuls and a plethora of birds are vying for our attention. An Emerald dove comes along for a dip but shies away on spotting us. There are Black Bulbuls with their juveniles and a juvenile Brown Dipper bobbing away in the water.
Plumbeous Water Redstarts are zipping across the water; the Black lored Tits are plentiful; the Verditer is as common as the crows in the plains; the Great and Blue faced Barbets put in an appearance; the Asian Paradise Flycatcher adult male with his glorious streamers is flitting around. I am in HEAVEN! So many of these are first sightings for us and we are absolutely astounded with the variety and sheer density of birdlife here.
As darkness falls and taking pictures is no longer possible we head back. On the banks is a little stone shaped somewhat like a Shivling. The local folks have added some Trishuls and come down to worship at it. We see a brother-sister pair at the little shrine praying. Their sincerity is visible on their animated faces. We reach them just as they are finishing their evening prayers. They are happy to pose for us.
We download the huge amount of data from the cameras, charge batteries, dinner and then bed.
Bright and early in the morning, we are off on the guided tour with Negi. We walk towards the bridge where we went yesterday but instead of going down to the stream, we cross the bridge and walk a hundred or so yards up the road.
A little path goes down to a foot bridge across the Mandakini which we walk across and birding starts in earnest now. Small Niltava, Spotted forktail, Slaty headed Parakeets, Grey Treepie, Babblers, Prinias… we keep climbing uphill and birding as we go along. It is a slow process but the rewards are stunning!
Later we go down the road from the camp and see some more beauties. Wedge-tailed green Pigeons, Long tailed Minivets, we miss out on the White throated Laughingthrushes… The Chestnut bellied Nuthatch is very prompt when Negi plays the call from his cell. A very pretty bird this!
The afternoon is spent exploring the riverside. We see the Crested Kingfisher and the Black throated Sunbird. The Forktail decides to grant us close views and comes along to the water’s edge though on the other bank. The Dipper is happy to have us around. A very intensive day of birdwatching indeed!
We set out for Haridwar early as we want to spend time and hopefully have breakfast at the GMVN hotel at Chandrapuri. On the banks of the Mandakini, it is said to be one of the best located GMVNs in Garhwal. We are not disappointed. The mellow gurgle of the waters here is so soothing, one can just sit on the banks and feel all the stress melt away…
There is not much choice for breakfast. Bread/butter/jam or puri-aloo ki subzi. The puri-aloo ki subzi is delicious. Usually not one of my favourite foods, this one is mouth watering!
Past Rudraprayag, Devprayag and Rishikesh we reach Haridwar. We have some reserved rooms at an ashram at the Har ki Pauri. Parking in the huge car-parks outside, we walk into the congested lane leading us to the ashram. A quick check in, we deposit our overnight bags and step out the other side of the building onto the ghat. It is a revelation! The Ganga flows roughly 15 metres from the ashram. The ghat is well laid out. We turn right towards the temples and the bulk of the crowd.
Hardly a few yards ahead, I am totally horrified and nauseated by what I see… Place stinking to high heavens, people are relieving themselves not 5-6 metres from the water under a foot bridge! I am ashamed to admit these are… INDIANS!
Up ahead and putting some distance between us and this stink hole, we settle ourselves on a bridge at a vantage point and watch the Ganga Aarti at dusk. The lamps set out in the water glow, bobbing along before vanishing quite abruptly in the fast moving current of the Ganges. A lot of piety around us… a lot of it genuine, some feigned and some totally farcical.
It has been an experience not to be missed. For better or worse, it is one of the holiest places in India but our management of it is woefully inadequate (and I’m being very diplomatic!). Also, it’s time we as a people learn some basic civic sense and take pride in ourselves as well as our places of worship and our country as a whole. I live in hope…
Dinner is at a small Rajasthani Dhaba with really yummy food. One thing we have experienced throughout the trip is that the food has been consistently good in the small places and not once have we had any tummy upsets. It just reinforces my belief that one must have what the locals have in the places that they patronise… one really can’t go wrong then.
We leave very early in the morning to beat the traffic which we have come to dread. Even at 0430 hours, the roads are not empty. We reach Gwalior for the night without incident and then onwards to Bhopal. This road trip has been an amazing journey with much to see and much more to learn! Hope we will do something as enjoyable sooner than later. Till then, BYE…