Unlike most of the treks in the Himalayas this particular one is to be undertaken between November and March. The area abounds in birds and the climate this year allowed for an extension of the birding season into April. We were fortunate to have for company, our friend Vasuda Pandey, who hails from Nainital and has authored a tome on the history of the region. We set out one Sunday morning in April and negotiated the NH24 will little difficulty up to Hotel Rahi in Garmukteshwar. We downed the sandwiches in our lunch box and the hot pakoris served by the pleasant manager with cups of masala tea. All along Vasuda regaled interesting anecdotes detailing the life and times of Mughal and British occupation.
Back on to the road we were severely stalled by heavy traffic just before the bridge over Ganga, with flocks of devotees descending for a holy dip on amavasya (new moon). The five kilometre stretch pulsated with a sea of automobiles of numerous descriptions – cycle rickshaws, bullock carts, tempos, snazzy cars and more. Two and a half hours later, inching through, we drove onto the bridge. We then took the toll road towards Bareilly and detoured to Moradabad bye pass and further on to Bazpur and Tanda. The road had turned into an uneven, pot hole ridden dirt track littered with broken down huge trucks, but beyond the border check post into Uttarakhand, the road became smooth, and we steadily ascended through a sal and thesu forests. Entering the tiny village of Kaladhungi, home to the legendary Jim Corbett, we stopped at the chai stall opposite Corbett’s house and consequently toured the house. The photographs and the panels accentuated by the antique furniture brings the life and times of Corbett sahib alive. Soon we resumed ascent through this newly constructed road which follows the bridle path taken to Nainital by the horse riding British – we also learnt that Corbett’s mother was one of the early property dealers in Nainital! We drove through densely forested track populated by mango, neem, dhak, amaltas, chestnut and finally chir pine trees painting the hill sides in a variety of hues ranging from yellow to orange, red, auburn and green.
It was six in the evening by the time we took the road on the left driving along the ridge and witnessing the banana shaped Naini Lake unfold to our right. At the next fork we took a diversion to Kilbury trundling down the forested path by the hillside. We crossed the path leading up to the Kilbury Forest Rest House (FRH) and passed the Mountain Quail Resort – named after the now extinct bird that was last seen in this locale in 1868.
We proceeded further to Pangot where a young man assured us that we would reach Vinayak before sunset and that we need not waste time looking for accommodation in Pangot. The road started climbing uphill and we reached Guggukhan followed by Sigiri which boasts of a couple of resorts, one private and the other run by UP Tourism. We could now see the glistening ribbon of the Kosi far down in the valley and hurried along to make it to the FRH in Vinayak before sunset. As we manoeuvred the car up the slope leading to the FRH the golden sun lay to rest.
Situated at a distance of 22 km from Nainital at an altitude of 2216 m the FRH at Vinayak is set amidst deodar, fir and oak. The Bungalow has two suites and kitchenette, booking for which is done at the office of the DFO, Nainital. The original building which came up in 1925 was made of stone. The current structure came up in 2006-7. It is supplied with solar lanterns and the guard provides simple meals to visitors on prior order. Besides the FRH, Vinayak boasts of a few tenements for forest department trainees and staff as well as a small tea shop. This quiet abode in the forest gets dark and cold as soon as the sun goes down.
Early next morning we made a recce of the surrounding forest and spotted several birds. After breakfast we set out further down the road towards Kunjhakharak. Enroute we stopped to view the majestic snow clad named and unnamed peaks and the meandering Kosi. We also spotted the common buzzard and the Mountain Hawk Eagle circling overhead high up in the sky. About 2 km before the FRH we spied a large deer languidly basking in the sun. As it was close to lunch time we drove ahead to Sigiri where the sarpanch runs a small hotel. After an elaborate lunch, his grandchildren took us to his home. On our return he plied us with specially prepared Rhododendron petal pakoris – an exquisite treat.
The next morning, we left for Pangot. It is believed that the real trek is the distance between Kunjhakharak and Akashkanda. Walking through the dense forest on mossy paths is a treat we look forward to on a later date. Several resorts have opened shop in Pangot as they are popularising it as a birding destination. The lone street boasts of a small post office. We had instant noodles for breakfast at local tea shop and went along to Kilbury FRH. Surrounded by oak, rhododendron and pine it is a favourite spot for birders.
We drove to Nainital and took the road to Snow View, where the Hanuman Temple is situated, ropeway to the Mall starts and an amusement park for children has been constructed. We checked into the Snow View Hotel run by the UP Tourism and as an incentive bagged free round trip passes for the ropeway. The Hotel is in the premises of the British Governor’s residence and is a colonial building. Going down to the Mall the panoramic view of the Lake and the town emerged. The Naina Peak, Sukha Tal, Mall, Zoo, St Joseph’s College and the University were prominent landmarks pointed out to us by Vasuda. Walking round the Mall we passed St Francis Church, Boat Club, the Library. Munching delicious strawberries and mulberries picked up from the roadside vendor, we reached the Talli Bazaar for lunch. Vasuda pointed out the spot where Indian Freedom Fighters were hung from a tree, the building where she stayed as a child, lake aeration plant and the temples on the southern bank.
We hurried through the bazaar near the Maidan, not wanting to miss the last trip of the ropeway. I quickly picked up chocolate eclairs from Stacley’s as Vasuda pointed out the Hospital named after her grandfather. After the ropeway ride we took a walk along the ridge and spent time at Vasuda’s house overlooking the Lake and its illuminated surroundings. Back at the Hotel, we were treated to a completely traditional meal – aam panna, bhange ki sabzi, pahari dal, saag, missi roti, and ram daney ki kheer stood out among several other delicious items. The last day of our trip took us to Nowkuchiatal via Bhimtal and on to Kathgodam and then Haldwani, Ramgarh, Garmukteshwar to home. We could not have imagined that an unspoilt forest exists so close to the urbanised, tourist spot of Nainital.