It was all excitement, and some trepidation as I boarded the night train to New Jalpaiguri (NJP) on April 12, on my first ever trip to the Singalila National Park. As the train chugged into New Jalpaiguri station at 10 am next morning; out came our rucksacks, cameras and, tripods. We emerged into the station and sought the cars that would take us to Dhotrey, our first halt before we moved to Tonglu. The snow- covered oak, pine and birch, with glimpses of a few khalij pheasants amid the icy drizzle were a visual treat as we drove up the mountains.
It was about 4 pm when we reached Dhotrey, a village with some 70 odd huts located 8500 ft above sea level. The grumpy sky turned from gray to pitch dark as we tucked ourselves into warm blankets for a restful night in the wooden cottage.
Way to Tonglu
Notwithstanding the comfort of our warm beds, the excitement of viewing the Kanchenjunga and Singalila range at close quarters made me dash out just as the eastern sky was beginning to brighten. The icy cold breeze caressed my face as I stood awestruck admiring the magnificent Kanchenjunga bathed in gold. I hurriedly dressed in trekking attire and set out to conquer Tonglu (10074 ft). Strapping on our belongings we began our ascent to Tonglu, the gateway to Singalila National Park in Darjeeling district.
The Singalila National Park is a high altitude park with virgin Rhododendron forests—declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1986, it became a national park in 1992. Spanning 78.9 sq km at an altitude of 7900-12000 ft, its thick Rhododendron forests running north to south separates Himalayan West Bengal from ranges west of it.
Shortly after Manebhanjan (2134 m), the forest stretches through Tonglu, Tumling, Garibas and all the way up to the two highest peaks of West Bengal, Sandakphu (11909 ft) and Phalut (11811 ft) which are located on the ridge within the Park. Lying as it does in the Indo-Malaya ecozone, the Park presents the Eastern Himalayan subalpine temperate coniferous biome (ranging from 3000 m to 4500 m), the Himalayan subtropical coniferous pine forests (ranging from 1800 m to 3000 m) along with the Eastern Himalayan temperate broad leaf and mixed forests.
Being a first time trekker, I found it hard to keep pace with the experienced ones in our group. It was strenuous ascending the rough, stony trail. Past noon the gateway of the ‘Tonglu Medicinal Plant Conservation Area’ greeted us. We were housed at Raju bhaiya’s small but cozy cottage. After a hearty meal, we rested awhile watching translucent clouds floating about. Later in the afternoon we decided to climb the nearby cliff and get a better view of the resplendent setting sun and found ourselves chilled to the bone. Back at the trekkers’ hut, we warmed our numbed hands over a charcoal fire before dozing off after a delicious dinner of rice and chicken. The last memories of the day was a brilliantly star lit sky, framed by the little window in my room.
The next morning, the forest was engulfed in a thick mist. We loaded our equipment and headed towards Tumling (9600 ft), which was about 1.2 km from Tonglu. Tumling, placed at the gates of the Park, is a small hamlet that borders Sikkim in the north and Nepal on the west. The route through the Park provides breathtaking views of the Eastern Himalayas from Tonglu (3050 m), Tumling (2900 m), Meghma (2600 m), Garibas (2612 m), Joubari (2750 m), Kalopokhri (3186 m) and Rimbik (2286 m). On a clear day, one can see the snow clad Kanchenjunga stretching over 300 km from Nepal through Sikkim and Bhutan, and right up to Arunachal Pradesh.
Sipping hot cups of tea, we photographed many beautiful birds, and some vignettes of rural life in the mountains. Breakfast was at Shikhar Lodge, where we took time off to recharge our cameras and mobile phones. Neela Gurung who plays an active role in keeping the trekking routes along the Park garbage free, owns the Lodge. En route to Meghma, we spotted the white collared blackbird, stonechat, blue-fronted redstart, citrine wagtail, white-browed fulvetta and Himalayan griffon. By the time we reached the Buddhist monastery at Meghma, it was late afternoon. The road went down to the military barracks, our last stop on the route. Beyond this, we would ascend to Tonglu. But, thick grey clouds closed in, and in no time, heavy rains followed. We rushed back to our cottage and remained confined for the rest of the day.
On the last day at Singalila National Park, there was just time enough to soak in beauty of the pristine villages around, before we headed back to Tonglu. Kalipokhri is a small hamlet at an altitude of 3000 m en route to Sandakphu, and is deemed holy for Buddhists. Rimbik is a secluded village perched atop a hill overlooking river Rammam, which flows from Sikkim into West Bengal. Facing the majestic Himalayas, surrounded by green hills, tea gardens and conifers, and overrun with orchids, Rimbik is a rich tapestry of flora and fauna.
As one treks within the Park, between 2000 m and 3600 m, thickets of bamboo, oak, pine, hemlock, juniper, kawla, bhujpatra, silver fir, ferns and various flowering plants present itself. There are two flowering seasons, in spring (March-April) and the post-monsoon months (October-November). Rhododendron (Rhododendron ferrugineum) and Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) bloom in the springtime, while the lower forests are in full bloom in the post-monsoon period. The lower forests comprise primula (Primula vulgaris), geranium (Pelargonium hortorum), saxifraga (Saxifragacespitosa), bistort (Persicariabistorta), senecio (Senecio vulgaris), cotoneaster (Cotoneaster salicifolius) and over 600 varieties of orchids .
Soon, it was time to leave. A group photo proceeded the quick descend to Dhotrey. By noon we were enjoying platefuls of steamed momos. Home bound cars arrived and we bid the mountains a final adieu.
How to Reach
The nearest airport is Bagdogra (90 km from Darjeeling and 13 km from Siliguri).The nearest railway station is Ghoom, 31 km from Tonglu. National Highway 31A between Sevoke and Gangtok also passes through Darjeeling, and is one and a half hour journey by car from Manebhanjan, which is the entry point into Singalila National Park. There is another, though longer route via Mirik in Sikkim.