Munching away at an orchard-fresh apple, I have only just begun to sink into the quietude of the Great Indian Outdoors lodge at Auli when my reverie is broken by a pair of playful yellow-throated martens. They are here to sample some of the fruit for themselves. I peer at their antics between glances at the beautiful double rainbow that has made a glorious appearance on the skyline after a thundering spell of rain. The Haathi and Ghodi parbat massifs loom overhead in a dramatic backdrop to the scene and I sink further into my cane chair with the baggage of city-induced stress slowly and surely ebbing away from my being.
Enroute an extensive trek through the Valley of Flowers National Park, further ahead on the Badrinath route, I was getting to break journey at three of Great Indian Outdoors’ campsites and lodges that dot the route all the way to Ghangaria in the park. Beyond that, the GIO team was to take me on a beautiful trekking trail, headed by the great facilitator and guide Bacchan Rana. In line with their philosophy of minimum impact on the ecology of sensitive mountain regions, Great Indian Outdoors has come up with a vast network of Himalayan eco lodges and camps (HEL) all over Uttarakhand, with Auli and Ghangaria being the latest offering. These comfortable, clean and simple lodges and camps come with basic creature comforts, enjoy great locations and are reasonably priced. I can definitely vouch that for the three I visited.
Camp High 5 at Jayalgarh had been my first halt, a lovely tented camp nestling along the voluminous flow of the Alaknanda in full monsoon spate. From the Haridwar train station, it’s a comfortable three-hour drive to this riverside camp with twenty-two superior Swiss-style tents, with sit-outs facing the river and a large dining and recreational area perched along the bank. Nature- and health-friendly activity options implore you to explore the great outdoors via information booklets tailor-made for each locale. While Jayalgarh offers plenty of rafting trips, kayaking sessions, mountain biking, hiking and other excursions to nearby places, the Auli lodge — 175km ahead — targets skiers, pilgrims on their Charm Dham itinerary and trekking enthusiasts heading for the Kuari pass and Valley of Flowers.
Conversations with Bacchan and other staff threw up interesting insights into the company’s chain of command.
Everyone joins as a helper, with a clearly defined growth path in store for them. Some of the lodge managers have risen from positions of cooks and drivers. Bacchan, who is a well turned-out guide himself, rose from the ranks of dish-washing boys while many shepherd boys, porters and unemployed youth have been trained to become activity instructors. The staff, all local Garhwalis (almost 100% of their staff is from the mountains), laud the policy and work hard to strive for good standards. It is heartening to come upon a network such as theirs — the brainchild of three mountain-loving friends with a firm belief in nurturing the local environment and communities with a clearly thought-out strategy for minimum impact.
All HEL lodges are built around the three pillars of the guest, the environment and the local community. While guests’ comforts are amply catered for, you are requested to be prudent in the use of scarce resources and encouraged to drink RO-filtered water instead of bottled water. Waste disposal of plastic and other non-biodegradable items is still a huge concern in Uttarakhand, though the state has officially banned the use of plastic bags. Rainwater harvesting is in the pipeline and use of solar energy is already in place at some of the lodges. Their ‘blue sky learning’ education programme, which is yet to be implemented, targets local villages near their lodges with an aim to introduce modern educational concepts to the local hill children in a fun way.
GIO believes small lodges are more sustainable in the mountains, with simple structures using as much local material as possible being the norm for their constructions. The rooms or tents rarely exceed twenty at each location. The interiors are simple and clean, with en suite facilities in both tents and lodges. Beautiful mountain photographs mostly clicked by Nalin, one of the partners in GIO and himself a keen trekker, enliven each room. While I got to stay at the orchard bungalow at their Auli lodge, the main lodge is a set of ten fibre-glass rooms, all facing the high Kagbhushandi range.
Food is a crucial ingredient in any tourist facility and I was pleasantly surprised to find that emphasis is laid on home-style and not hotel-style cooking. My not-so-buttery dal makhani and the delectable fiddlehead fern and stinging nettle — all sourced locally and made in local style, accompanied by fluffy, thin rotis and chased with a delicious bowl of kheer — bear this out amply. From Auli, it’s an easy 20km to Govindghat, from where a 14km trail leads to GIO’s spanking new campsite perched on a grassy flat just below crowded Ghangaria proper. The Swiss-cottage tents with running water in the washrooms are in pleasant shades of green and blue, in perfect sync with the monsoon façade of the surrounding mountains. Each canvas tent is kitted with sleeping cots, electric lanterns are provided and meals are served buffet-style in the spacious dining tent.
While most other accommodation options along the route lie trapped in the noisy hubs along the mostly bustling Badrinath thoroughfare, GIO certainly scores well on its quiet locations. However, while the intent at GIO is laudable, it remains to be seen how soon and how well they can implement their well-meaning environment-friendly concepts, especially for garbage disposal, and rise to become role models for others to follow suit in the delicate ecology of the mountain regions of Uttarakhand and elsewhere.
Where: Pauri and Chamoli districts of Uttarakhand along National Highway 58; in Jayalgarh, 115km from Haridwar, Auli and Ghangaria.
Accommodation: Jayalgarh has 20 deluxe en suite tents; Auli 15 doubles in the main lodge and three double rooms in the orchard bungalow below the main lodge; Ghangaria 10 Swiss-style tents with attached toilets.
GIO offers good package deals inclusive of transportation, guide and meals for the Char Dham and Valley of Flowers travellers.
Contact: 9810366824, 94111110855, gio.in