Last December, I found myself under an unblemished cerulean sky in an eastern corner of the country. The air was as crisp as an apple. The breeze carried the exhilarating sound of drumbeats from somewhere in the distance. It could not have been more perfect.
Earlier in the afternoon, my guide Roko had picked me up from Dimapur airport. For the duration of my stay, this handsome Angami youth remained a beaming, watchful presence, unfurling an umbrella here, translating a sentence there. A student of, hold your breath, western classical music, he wasn’t a professional guide. His warmth was genuine and he brought a refreshing perspective to our chats. There are many little touches that make a stay with The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) special. Training and using local talent is just one of them.
After ringing applause for their Ladakh camps, TUTC has been pitching tent in Kohima for a few seasons now. Although they set up camp for only two weeks around the Hornbill Festival, they rent the campsite for the entire year to ensure it stays pristine (and to prevent it from turning into a potato field).
The campsite, in Kigwema village, enjoys a forest setting under the gentle gaze of Nagaland’s second-highest mountain, Japfu, far from the din of Kohima. The Hornbill Festival is held at the Naga Heritage Village in nearby Kisama.
I turned around and surveyed my kingdom. To say that my quarters were comfortable would be an understatement. Done up in muted safari tones, the spacious, high-ceilinged tent, imported from Kenya, could be knocked down completely and packed into a few trunks after the season. The furniture, made with the finest wood and leather, was fully foldable. This camp really did travel (in fact, it had completed the long journey from Ladakh just a few weeks ago). The bathroom was surprisingly spacious as well, and came with a large wash basin, WC and a running hot and cold shower. I had my own Man Friday, and a mobile phone to summon him with. There were langur motifs everywhere. I’m glad TUTC chose such a playful mascot, because camping, above all, is about loosening up a bit and having fun. It’s not for nothing that #artofglamping is their official hashtag.
If the blue sky by day was to die for, the night sky was another beast, billowing with stars and galaxies. The daytime nip in the air had turned into something deliciously cold. The staff had set a crackling fire going, around which an interesting cast of characters had congregated. There was the Leica-wielding photographer, Jon Nicholson. There were the vegan British couple for whom the drive from Dimapur to Kohima had been the high adventure of their lives. There was my friend, Shoba Mohan, of RARE. There was Rupert Winchester, the resident blogger (yes, a lovely job like that does exist). Writer Simon Winchester’s son, he’s a fine writer in his own right. Along with his wife, they played camp hosts, chatting up guests, offering local insights, recommending excursions and generally being lovely and reassuring. I think, like me, they found the change from their home in Cambodia quite salubrious.
An important way in which luxury camping sets itself apart from the dal-chawal variety is through food: elaborate four-course menus in the middle of nowhere are an impressive achievement. At Kohima Camp, you could choose between European, Indian and, occasionally, Naga cuisines at any meal. All, as I discovered, were excellent. A Ladakhi staffer told me about a guest who said everything was perfect, except if only there had been lobster for dinner... Next day, they flew one down from Delhi and served it at dinner time. At TUTC, no whim is too big to be indulged.
On my way back from the dining tent, I found the path lit with lanterns. There was a tiny metal box on the bed, inside which was the tastiest morsel of chocolate. And, ah, the joys of a memory foam mattress.
I settled into a pleasant rhythm. There were two outings daily, one to the Hornbill Festival and the other for some sightseeing or cultural immersion. In the evenings, there were rock concerts in town, but I never felt the need to stir out of the comfort of camp.
The Naga Heritage Village in Kisama was a hop, skip and a jump away. The setting of Nagaland’s most famous festival, its main arena sees folk dance and music performances all day, while the morungs, traditional tribal homes of the tribes, are where tribal customs, costumes and cuisines are showcased. The Naga wrestling championship is also held here. When not taking horse cart rides, trigger-happy tourists were busy clicking selfies with tribals in their finery. I washed down a bowl of fried grubs with some rice wine. I sampled some excellent local coffee (Nagaland is making fledgling forays into coffee growing). Then I hit the multi-meat Chakhesang buffet, the festival’s best. But if I told you what I ate there, I would have to kill you.
One of my excursions was, of course, to Kohima. It is an unbelievable sprawl. Most tours sidestep the chaos and begin in the serene environs of the WWII Cemetery. That war put Kohima on the world map. In 1944, British and Japanese forces clashed in Kohima. The Japanese were eventually beaten back. A decisive offensive was the Battle of the Tennis Court, fought on the grounds of the Deputy Commissioner’s bungalow (it’s now the cemetery). Standing on that tennis court, it’s difficult to avoid the goosebumps. The terraced cemetery is an oasis of calm, and offers excellent views of Kohima. Some of the graves, tragically, belong to the very young. The youngest of them all was 16-year-old Ghulam Muhammad of the 2nd Punjab Regiment.
A highlight of my trip was the WWII Peace Rally, which saw vintage Willys jeeps swooping gracefully into Kisama to the invigorating sounds of a military band. There was even a beautifully restored Japanese jeep in the fray.
Another excursion found me on a lushly forested drive, heading deep into the hills to Khonoma. As I walked up the steep paths of this 700-year-old village, large swathes of terraced fields sprung into view. A local lady had rustled up the tastiest meal for me, and I relished it with copious quantities of wild apple wine. On the way back from Khonoma, we stopped for an eye-popping demonstration of traditional Angami martial arts and wrestling.
There was a lot going on at the camp itself. Sadly, I missed a fireside performance by the legendary Tetseo Sisters. Belonging to the Chakhesang tribe, they are famous for Li, their traditional songs, which they sing in Chokri. But I consoled myself with a CD from the camp’s small but intriguingly stocked boutique.
Why more travellers don’t head out to Nagaland has to be one of the enduring mysteries of our time. This mountainous Northeastern state with a border with Myanmar is home to 16 major tribes, which hold on to their colourful rituals and customs with pride and all the attendant flair. Nagaland is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty. The food is to die for. And they don’t go around collecting heads anymore.
But all good things come to an end. After a short flight, I was back among the savages.
P.S.: Over lunch at Jade, the superlative Chinese restaurant at the Claridges in Delhi, the always nattily dressed COO of TUTC, Rajnish Sabharwal, revealed that the travelling camp is planning to travel to some new destinations soon. I can’t give away too much but, hopefully, with something in the lower Himalaya and something in one of the most spectacular heritage destinations in South India (where, until recently, decent accommodation was legendarily not easy to come by), there should be a camp for every season.
There are several hopping flights from Delhi to Dimapur. The campsite in Kigwema is 85 km from the airport (3hr drive to Kohima, and then 30min to Kigwema). Kohima is also an 8hr drive from Guwahati. Indians need Inner-Line Permits to visit Nagaland and TUTC will organise these for you prior to arrival.
This year, TUTC will operate 13 luxury suite tents in Kohima from November 29 to December 12, 2017 at its six-acre forested camp under the Japfu Peak. Tariff for the upcoming season ranges from ₹2,72,000 per tent for 2Nto ₹6,50,000 for 5N (double occupancy rates, government taxes extra).
The itinerary varies based on the number of nights, but they’ll customise it for you. There is a vehicle at your disposal and, on your excursions, you’ll always be accompanied by an English speaking guide. Contact: +91-8010902222, tutc.com
What to See & Do
The TUTC itinerary includes visits to charming Naga villages like Khonoma and Jakhama as well as daily trips to the Hornbill Festival.
At the festival, apart from traditional dance and music performances, you’ll also be able to witness indigenous activities like “chilli-eating contests” and “greased bamboo pole dancing”. The venue is home to the WWII Museum. Difficult as it may seem, do skip a meal or two at the camp and sample cuisine from different tribes at their morungs instead. The Chakhesang stall is highly recommended. There’s loads of retail therapy as well at the festival. Look out for bamboo handicrafts, Naga shawls, machetes, assorted pickles (chilli, silkworm, etc) and fruit wines.
In Kohima, apart from the WWII Cemetery, Kohima Cathedral (also known as the Mary Help of Christians Cathedral), built with Japanese funds in 1991, is also worth a visit. Kohima’s Mao Market has assorted creepy crawlies, frogs and small, furry creatures on sale for culinary use. It’s a good place to stock up on the world’s hottest naturally occurring chilli, the formidable Naga mircha (aka bhut jolokia or Raja mircha), in both fresh and dried versions, as well as a host of local specialities like bamboo shoot and anishi (dried and ground yam leaves).
If you have time to spare, do plan an overnight visit to the nearby Dzukou Valley.