Three days ago, my kitchen garden was graced by the visit of a tiger. May be it is a vegetarian, joked the hubby while studying the big cat’s pug marks.
The very same evening we heard that the tiger had been sighted at the golf course and had even killed a calf in a nearby village. We noticed that the street dogs had disappeared from the lanes in the past few days. Finally, we received the dreaded news. The tiger had turned man-eater. It had picked up a seven year old girl from the nearby village.
Our guests, who had just arrived from the plains, were noticeably excited. They wanted to see the tiger. Tall order, that! I wondered how I could possibly help them sight the man-eater. But I could certainly take them through the Champawat region that has figured in the stories of Jim Corbett.
There are several places to visit in this region and each has its own distinct charm. So even a two-day driving trip around spots in this region makes for a nice holiday in the hills.We started from Pithoragarh and drove through Lohaghat, Mayawati, Abbot Mount and Chandak before ending our trip at the Askot Sanctuary.We may have missed a close encounter with a man-eating tiger but the beautiful hills of Kumaon certainly made our day.
The Askot Sanctuary, stands at a height of 5,412 feet and is popular among wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers. Although it is supposed to house snow leopards and Himalayan black bears, we didn’t come across any.
The Askot Musk Deer Sanctuary is also close by. We did manage to catch glimpses of some deer, and a whole lot of exotic birds, of which, we could only identify a few pheasants.
Abbot Mount is a few kilometres uphill on the Marorakhan turn off the Lohaghat road. Clouds floated over and settled down on the road and we drove right through them. It was an exhilarating experience.
The engine groaned and protested as we drove up the steep incline through thick forests of deodar and oak. We were not prepared for the breathtaking view that awaited us as we drove right into the cricket ground, which is supposed to be the second highest cricket pitch on earth. It was deserted. The sprawling cottages that surrounded the ground were deserted too with not a human voice or movement.
Silently, we traipsed through the woods to reach a tiny church, no longer in use. The only living beings around were of the chirping, multi-hued winged kind. This certainly seemed to be their zone of silence.
We chose to stay the night at Mount Abbot and woke up to a melodious orchestra of bird song the next morning. We walked in the company of low slung clouds and it was almost noon by the time we could tear ourselves away from the place.
The hills of Kumaon are famous for big cats. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Jim Corbett came to this region to hunt man-eating tigers. In fact, the book Man Eaters of Kumaon begins with a story set in the forested hills of Champawat. For years, Corbett had roamed in the forests of Kumaon, savouring the beauty of the region, the hospitality of the simple hill folks and confronting the man-eaters.
Setting out before sunrise, the first stop of our journey was Lohaghat. We journeyed through the undulating roads flanked by deep bowls of greenery. As we wound our way down to Lohaghat, the quaint little town on the banks of river Lohawati, we marvelled at the unspoilt beauty of nature around us.
So enchanted was P. Barron, supposedly the first European to visit Lohaghat in 1841, that he wrote — ‘Why is the British government not developing it as its summer capital, I wonder.’ He thought that Lohaghat was more beautiful than Shimla.
Lohaghat is a dusty and nondescript place. But you have to traverse breathtaking landscapes and terraced fields, which cover the valley, to get to the town.It is also perfect for those with a yen for outdoor adventure as Lohaghat has a number of trekking trails too.
The journey to Pithoragarh was a silent one with everyone in a meditative mood. We drove straight to Chandak, on the outskirts of Pithoragarh.
The Himalayan range stretched unendingly, glorious in its snow clad avatar. The entire range extending from Trishul and Nandadevi, in the Panchchuli Group to the distant ones of Nepal unravelled themselves, resplendent in the winter garb of white snow. The mountain peaks seemed close enough to touch the snow on them. We were just a few hundred feet away from heaven.
Way back in 1841 a foreign pilgrim, while passing through Pithoragarh, wrote: “... The first view of Pithoragarh is striking, in one instant, when you reach the top of the pass (Chandak) which overlooks it, a wide valley bursts on the view, with the small neat military cantonment, fort and villages, and meandering streams, which distribute fertility to thousands of well cultivated fields.”
Just 9 km short of Lohaghat is Mayawati, on a road winding through thick pine and deodar forests with oak trees for distraction. You can spot the lofty Himalayan range in the distance, resplendent in its pristine winter glory.
As I stepped out of the car into the sacred space of Mayawati, I let out a sigh of contentment. There could be no better setting for an Adwaita ashram. The place oozed serene spirituality. The ashram was set up by a branch of the Ramakrishna Math, honouring Swami Vivekananda’s wish to set up an ashram in the Himalayas.
The ashram is a major publishing centre for the Ramakrishna Math’s publications in Hindi and English. It stands in what was once a tea estate, surrounded by oaks and deodars, and offers a great view of the snow capped mountains.
All around us, rhododendron trees were ablaze with bright red flowers. From Badrinath in the west to Panchchuli in the east, and Nanda Devi and Trisul in the centre, the Himalayas fanned out before our wondering eyes, shimmering through the morning mist.