Anaphalis Margaritacea. I will have found out what this wildflower that speckles the slopes of Kumaon like fireflies of the day is called only later. Their fluid, buoyant grasp sucks us in every now and then, and our city knees, fresh out of a lockdown, swoon readily before their practised charms. We wade through their midst and their ensuing sighs have turned these fields all auburn.
*Lying in the lap of the Kumaon hills, the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary stretches over 47 sq km of unsullied dense oak, rhododendron and pine forest at an average altitude of 8,000m. Its inhabitants include barking deer, goral, pine Martens, langurs, porcupines and leopards.
The walk down is often a trail that curves in the manner of a solid vortex, needing jerky leaps and rounds of scurrying that leave you looking like Chaplin’s Tramp. I am growing weary, expecting Sunaoli and Govind’s house at every turn. Spending two-thirds of the year in lockdown has left me envisioning our destination as a clump of tiny rural houses donning slate roof caps and genial bovines grazing. This is despite us having taken an early coffee break.
We arrived at the Nine Furlongs Estate the previous evening, bent double and on our second changes of facemasks. The drive from Delhi to the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary was a long one, the roads once we were past the entry gates circuitous, and the six kilometres to get to the pick-up point tantalising. The good folks at the estate fixed us supper, got a nice fire going and we slept away in our luxurious forest bungalow. Earlier this morning, as I flopped on the recliner beside the glass wall, witnessing the golden sun slowly sliding over the faraway mountain slopes, I said to myself, “Boy, all bad things do come to an end, don’t they?”
The Nine Furlongs Estate is spread over several peaks of a mountain, with bungalows for different purposes, all constructed in the 19th century as residence, guest house and office of Henry Ramsay, Kumaon’s fabled British Commissioner. Kakarkot is named after the barking deer found in these parts, while Saulkot, the two-storey writer’s bungalow, is a nod to the porcupine, and also where the Italian writer Tiziano Terziani lived for four years in terminal illness after being given only a few months. Terziani’s corner in the bungalow offers an equally bewitching view of the snow-capped Himalaya far away.
This morning, we are on a hike organised by the estate, which does quite a few of these on the gentle- for-the-most-part trails crisscrossing through the sanctuary. At the moment, my inspection of a really long traditional boundary wall is interrupted by a voice booming from behind. “How much longer?” This is another guest and our companion on the hike. “Bas dus minute,” a voice whose owner is now in a thousand Anaphalises’ arms, responds. This is Narendra Roy, the General Manager at the estate—a prophetic man who makes you want to pick up Sun Tzu every time you see him. “Maidaani dus minute ya pahadi dus minute?” the first voice booms again. I can discern Govind smiling bashfully under his mask. Fecund environs, jocund company, what more could one want? Well, except, of course, for Govind’s house to show up, which it does, rather fortuitously for the first-timers.
As we land into the courtyard, our eyes are left bedazzled by the happy sunshine ricocheting off the bright turquoise façade of Govind’s two-storey house. We settle on the parapet, which is a cordoning-off fence at the edge of the terrace, soak up more sun and thirstily chug on our buraans sherbet. Last evening, when Govind brought two warm decoction-style shots of it at the bungalow upon our arrival, they had felt restorative and even somnolence-inducing. Now, as a cooler, the same beverage feels uplifting enough to make us march around like marauding philistines. Thankfully, we are brought to our senses by the persistent admonitions of the family dog. There is another, whining plaintively, almost competing with the indifferent winter stupor of the kitten, who, I know, has its eyes set on the feast being brought before us.
Back at the estate we have relished the goodness of freshly pressed juices, fluffy poha, delicious sandwiches and muesli, not to forget the exquisite mutton raan. There will be an early Christmas dinner with some fine smoked ham and should you feel nauseous after the drive, there’ll be khichdi. At Govind’s house, the sun-drenched Kumaoni specialties on offer (mandua rotis, saag, paneer bhurji, kheer and sinful Almora chocolate, or bal mithai) will return you all your lost sleep in the long vigil of the lockdown.
In warmer weather, these lunches are done indoors on the floor, Narendra informs, adding that plans for adding accommodation for overnight stays for travellers looking to spend more time here, are afoot. The service at luxury estates such as Nine Furlongs in these parts is on another plane but it is at once clear that even the most exclusive experience can’t hold beyond a certain point if the local community is not encouraged to step up. With travel having come to standstill in times as uncertain as these, domain expertise is set to become a buzzword and these professionals, both well-versed in hospitality and rooted in the practicalities of their native places, seem to show the way forward.
Right from receiving you at the pick-up point and driving you up a thrilling, steep path (the eponymous nine furlongs) that’ll have you typing out your bequest (in a handsome, fixed-up Willys MB, no less), to materialising in your midst in less than a minute should you feel sick in the middle of the night and need a quick snack—these individuals show boundless skill and inspiring alacrity. It’s reassuring to see residents reclaiming this space, becoming vital cogs in establishments’ day-to- day operations.
* Kasar Devi, a rural hilltop hamlet 16kms away from Binsar, is popular with backpackers for its location on the Van Allen Belt—a gap in the radiation bands surrounding the earth. every year, travellers flock to the clutch of meditation and wellness retreats spread around the area, earlier known as crank’s ridge. illustrious visitors include controversial psychologist Timothy Leary, Swami Vivekananda and Bob Dylan
Deepak again takes us up the steep trail in the jeep, using deceleration and gear shifts deftly. Covering this 1.8 km on foot takes an hour, as we will discover the following day. For now, it’s just us, Kakarkot and the endless mountains, almost a ring, of snowy, pointy peaks, all brothers of the sublime grandeur of the Nanda Devi. We fashion a sauna session for ourselves in the cavernous, vintage-style sunken bath, washing our feet and making jokes about how much fat we are going to lose while here. Deepak, a really skillful man behind the steering wheel, again takes us up.
The Binsar forest is home to quite a few trails with varying gradients—even heritage bridle paths that exist since the British era and have seen their carriages pass. The following day, we are out a little earlier, breathing hard the pine-scented morning air on our way to Zero Point. The trek to the vantage point has a lot of steep ascents, but navigating the trail using walking sticks provides some good, old-fashioned, picnic-style fun. Zero Point materialises before us as a two-storey, stone-and-concrete machan. As we clamber up the structure, Govind brandishes the mugs again—it’s coffee, with sandwiches and some really good banana cake, and you can polish it all off looking at the 300-km-long chain of peaks, which as of now look as if they exist in another world. In the night, these peaks are visible only as a faint band of light under the eerie night-sky. Cowering at first, one looks transfixed at the vast darkness, and the stars, like children, come out to play— slowly poking their needle-point bodies a the thin blanket of the sky. Sunrise turns these mountains into distant salt lamps, and if you don’t wish to step out on the lawn to witness them aglow, do it from the living area or the bathroom.
In the luxuriant forest of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, sunlight casts a magical glow on trails canopied by flushing maples, the dappled forest floor gleams with lively moss all around and stray ferns that seem to be playing kikli. The riot of colours in the forest at this hour, from the colder tones of green on creepers clinging to the ringal trees to the luminescent yellow of leaves that look like white alder, is priceless. The fallen leaves of different colours that I salvaged from being crunched under us merry gents’ feet, are still safe in my jacket.
* Juicy and sweet-to-tangy, the Kafal is a local berry that is immensely popular among the young and the old. The popular folk song ‘bedu paako’ refers to the kafal ripening only in the march-April period (chaita). Also try spotting malta trees, which are found laden with the fruits in profusion during the winter.
Our second adventure for the day, customised by our hosts in place of the original Kangarchhina trek through a British-era trail, on our request, is a short walk to a rocky cliff known as Shikari Dal, a popular glassing spot of yore used to hunt down leopards. The walk to the point is considerably easy but then the trail drops, needing us to step sideways and hug a tree whenever we find one. Ultimately, a small clearing appears, and at its edge, the rock’s face beckons us. We swarm up without much struggle eventually, and take a moment to think about what just happened, savouring all this while a fine view of the bushy forest cloak of the sage- like Jhandi Dhar Hills.
A member from our group, who has been circumspect about walking down the slippery paths, finds the climb up easier than we do. We, however, labour up the steep trail with great force, scuttling up briskly and stopping, then grabbing the cold, prickly bark of a tree, wishing to go up the 80-odd metres as quickly as we can. We finally make it to the top and collapse on the moist forest floor in equal parts ecstasy and exhaustion. With the day getting dark and chillier, the rest gather their sticks to go; I merely shrug my shoulders.
How to Reach
Pantnagar (139kms) is the closest airport. Or take a chopper—Tatik helipad is a 30-minute drive. Or drive from Delhi and come via Nainital. Don’t forget your negative COVID-19 test results (not older than 72 hours)
Where to Atay
Binsar has several privately owned estates with colonial log cabin-style bungalows and cottages and community-run homestays. Nine Furlongs offers two self-sufficient, solar-powered heritage bungalows. KMVN’s Nanda Devi Tourist Rest House has clean and cosy cottages and is a nodal point for many forest walks. The Forest Rest House is at the heart of the sanctuary and offers good privacy.
Know Before you Go
What to do
Trek up to the Zero Point, a refurbished colonial-era vantage point and behold the majestic Nanda Devi, Trisul and Panchachuli cluster of peaks radiant—best time is early morning.
Looking to get some sanity back after coronavirus? Drive up to Kasar Devi and try meditating. Spot a rock jutting out of the mountainside and access the guided trail to reach it. But it’s best to keep the phone away and exercise the highest caution.
Leaf-collecting is a rewarding activity when out on walks in Binsar. These trails teem with rhododendrons, pines, chestnuts and maples. However, avoid plucking— stick to the ones strewn on the forest floor. Put Google Lens and LeafSnap to good use.
Hit up Kumaon Grameen Udyog’s Kilmora outlet in Kasar Devi and pick up hand-knitted scarves, mufflers and neck warmers and jams and chutneys.
What to Eat
In Almora, pick up bal mithai and singori from Khem Singh’s Sweet Shop. Nosh away at the hole-in-the-wall Baba Cake and Dolma’s in Kasar Devi.
While in the wildlife sanctuary, eating is where the staying is. Nine Furlongs dishes out appetising, homely meals (Indian and Continental) and freshly pressed juices at the estate and does no-fuss traditional Kumaoni village lunches, with local delights such as mandua ki roti, bhang ki chutney and lauki kheer.
Don’t forget to sample the local delights—juicy, tangy kafals and sweet rhododendron crush.