Between Two Hills
A hill home is a dream many mountain-loving people harbour, and I was no exception to the rule, but it never quite materialised. However, when our COVID-19 induced virtual lifestyle started stifling me and my near and dear ones, we hatched a plan to move home for a month. Airbnb came to the rescue popping up Surya Villa, Delhi-based, Amita Bhandari’s hill home in the Nainital district of Kumaon. The three-bedroom furnished villa came with a cook, a caretaker and most importantly, the promised good wi-fi connectivity. Life had zoomed in on us in a strange way, with most interactions being online in nature. As school, college and work all became virtual, I, along with my extended family of eight headed for the hills, armed with our unlimited mobile data plans and additional dongles.
After over nine hours on the highway (with halts for e-pass and covid report verification) we turned into the easily missable Bhorakoon turn, a short detour off the main Bhimtal road, leading to our destination at Suryagaon. As we turned the final steep stretch of the five-kilometre road, Surya Villa came into view. It enjoyed a pretty perch with a large garden sit out, a hammock-studded nook to the other side and two terrace gardens. Right below the hill, approximately a hundred-odd metres, glimmered the serenity of the interconnected lakes. Sattal comprises seven freshwater lakes. the largest of the lot Ram, Sita and Bharat take up the bottom of the bowl. The other lakes, hidden within the nooks and smaller hills, were all short walks left for local explorations in the coming days.
To The Forested Estate
The following morning on my walk up I bumped into my neighbour, Alka Budhraja, who invited me to Glenwood, her charming home. We sat at her lake-view sit out surrounded by her six dogs, one of whom she had rescued from a leopard trap cage.
Amita had mentioned that we were on a private hill, but I had not quite fathomed just how private and sequestered it was. Conversations with Alka revealed the labour that went behind what was today Naveen’s Glen, comprising not one but two private hilltops. Way back in 1991, Alka’s husband Naveen, a young mountain loving civil engineer, had chanced upon Suryagaon and saw potential in a place that was a parched wasteland, abandoned by the villagers due to lack of water. The villagers were more than eager to sell the dry land, and slowly, the Budhrajas acquired a fair bit of it on the two hills. With no water, electricity, or connectivity, the situation was quite dismal. It required tremendous foresight and vision for anyone to carve out the estate that it is today. What started as a one-room tenement with Alka cooking meals on a wood-fired stove on their short vacations here, developed into 35 beautiful cottages spaced well apart, occupying the two hilltops of Ararda and Tincheo, connected by the ridge at Panch Raasta. Trees were planted by the thousands to reforest the land. While Ararda had bespoke views of the lake and forest, Tinchau with its ridge-top location offered 360-degree views of the lakes, the Khaan Valley and the Gola River meandering through the flatlands of Haldwani.
One thing the Budhrajas were clear about was that they wanted a community of like-minded, nature-loving folks here. Friends and family bought into the idea, and Naveen, who was a great planner, went about designing and making idyllic hill cottages, all of them picturesquely nestled amid the forest. What was originally known as the ‘Wooded Glen Estates’ has now been fondly renamed ‘Naveen’s Glen’ after his untimely demise a few years back. The testimonials on their website by the various homeowners pay glowing tribute to the man who helped make their dream a reality.
Pro Tip: Be spoilt for choice at the Mall Road market in Bhimtal. PIck from an array of local items including handicrafts and paintings. Do not miss the fresh breads at Brownie Bakery.
Today, Alka and her children have taken the mantle forward. Upon deciding against building any more cottages, the focus shifted towards conservation and protection and the add ons that enhance the experience. Most of these projects were executed by planting more trees, prioritising cleanliness of the area, and organic farming to bring fresh produce for the denizens.
For a family that definitely loves food more than anything else in the world, a hearty meal is all that we could think of. Our meals were mostly home-cooked, doled out by Kailash, our man Friday, or one of us. ‘Babs’ Café In The Woods’ is the only eatery around run by Alka and her daughter Nitya. The succulent mutton patty burgers here are to die for. Top it up with the perfect crème brûlée and caramel chocolate mud pie for dessert.
Humming With the Locals
The credit for the best pizza that I have ever sampled goes to Agnay, Alka’s son. He used to run a successful pizza outlet called ‘The Wood Fired Pizza Company’. But for this homemade delight, you will need an invitation from the host. Thankfully, I made the cut and was invited to one such lunch at Alka’s. With a mix of cheeses ranging from ricotta, feta, mozzarella and gouda, making their way onto the perfectly fluffy dough along with secret ingredients, it was an explosive blend of flavours. A candid chat with him revealed his plans to begin bee farming and hopefully create a model that villages in the district can emulate. Another evening stroll resulted in a chance encounter with Usha Upender, a passionate horticulturist and birder with the most exquisite garden. Usha and her husband Upender ran the Sattal Forest Resort, a set of four well-appointed beautiful cottages perched on the hill. On Tinchau, the adjoining hill, Nitya offered fully-equipped and furnished hill cottages and studios for guests.
Going Back to Nature
As I was the only one relatively free in my ‘hard-at-work’ family, I had pretty much covered most of the trails around Sattal. With a new walk every other day, I had explored the hillsides, walked through the forests, seen the lakes from all possible vantage points, encountered leeches and butterflies, snakes and saints, and above all kicked off my newfound birding hobby with much enthusiasm. With over 250 species of resident and migratory birds, Sattal—along with nearby Pangot—are Kumaon’s top birding destinations.
Pro Tip: The Sattal-Pangot region is packed with many vibrant birds that migrate to the lower Himalaya during the winters. head to the woodpecker point to catch a glimpse.
While seasoned bird watchers talk of the rare species that they are yet to spot, for me, every new bird in sight was a beautiful rarity. I, along with Ankit Das, a fellow naturalist, roamed the entirety of Sattal for over six hours. However, the showstopper was spotted not on the trail but rather, when we halted midway, near an old water spout. “They will come ma’am,” Ankit assured me. And boy did they stick to his word—the russet sparrow, rosefinch, oriental white eye, the powdery blue verditer flycatcher and many more frolicked in the stream, as I continued feasting my eyes, glued to the binoculars.
The walk to the Hadimba Temple in a forested groove above Suryagaon was lovely. I mistakenly forayed onto the jungle trail instead of the cemented path. Right opposite, at the far bottom near the main Sattal lake was the beautiful property of the Sattal Christian Ashram founded by Dr E. Stanley Jones in 1930. Occupying the entire forested hill, the ashram consisted of two churches and a few quaint British- era bungalows. The Garuda Tal, perhaps the most charming of all the lakes mostly because of its quiet location and size, beckoned a dip. Sukha Tal was a tiny lake, and Nal Damyanti was the seventh lake with a rather gory old tale to its credit.
As we embraced autumn, the wafting clouds of the receding monsoons turned to crisp, clear skies and cooler temperatures. The chirping of birds became more prominent over the din of cicadas, and the skies blanketed us with stars looking upon. Sadly, all good things come to an end. It was time for us to pack our bags and return. I was reluctant to leave the paradise. A month of living like a local had suited me quite well. To quote Ruskin Bond, “Once you have lived in the mountains, you belong to them. There is no escape.”
Nearest Airport: Delhi, 280 kms
By Rail: The early morning Kathgodam Express is a great way to reach Sattal. Suryagaon is a 45-minute drive from the station
Where to Stay:
Surya Villa: A quaint and quiet vacation home situated amid lush green landscape
Naveen’s Glen: A 3-bedroom Spanish villa, overlooking the Sattal lake. Head to Babs Café in the woods, the only eatery that serves the guests at their cottageand studio units
Sattal Forest Resort: A boutique resort, set amid thick pine and oak forests that offer bird-watching experiences and nature trails
Vanatara: A hidden retreat with cosy cottages and a large meditation room. Do not miss out on the authentic Kumaoni fare
Under the Wing:
A combined tour of Pangot-Sattal is recommended for an unparalleled birding experience
Visit the local Butterfly Museum where you can watch over 2,500 butterfly and moth specimens
Hire a guide for bird watching or take an experienced birder along to know more about resident and migratory birds that reside here
Out and About:
Trek through the rhododendron and oak forests or take a stroll along the pristine lake
Rock climbing, rappelling, river crossing and mountain biking are some of the action-packed activities offered by the adventure camps
Paddle in the waters of Sattal if jungle adventures are not your calling
Local authorities must be contacted for permission and for hiring equipments for fishing