Friday 7th November 2014

To Bhutan, perhaps a future teaching location for me!

Since my last update, so much has happened and so many impressions need to be reported that it is hard to know where to begin. The best news we had in Delhi was the reappearance of Rosemary’s lost suitcase, which arrived at our hotel late on the eve of our departure for Calcutta (now Kolkata, but I’m sure my Indian friends will forgive me using the old spelling) by overnight train. We had treated ourselves to First Class A/C, and we even had a local agent accompany us all the way to our compartment and to help us with porters.

The train was perhaps not quite as luxurious as we might have hoped for, but it was nonetheless a pleasure to be gliding through the Indian night in the care of Indian Railways rather than enduring the incredibly tiring experience of long distance car travel in India, with the constant braking, swerving to avoid obstacles, blaring horns and dust. It was dark soon after our departure, and we settled down to a seemingly never ending succession of servings of tea, soup, dinner, and then more tea and finally breakfast.

Rosemary settling into a tray of Indian Railways goodies

Morning saw us drifting through the much lusher countryside of West Bengal, with its rice paddies and palm trees, until we finally glided into the great city, where it was a comforting feeling to see our hostess Jayanti waiting on the platform displaying a sign with our names upon it. She guided us expertly to our waiting vehicle, and we nosed our way through the morning rush hour traffic, which is notoriously heavy, to the Hyatt Regency Hotel, in Salt Lake City (!), where we were due to meet up with the Naturetrek group for the next leg of our Great Indian Adventure.

Once we had settled in, we found that a tour of the sights of Calcutta had been laid on, and despite the somewhat annoying tone of our guide, who was extremely pro-British and exceptionally anti-Muslim, complaining constantly that the Islamic inhabitants of the city would have twelve children for every two that the Hindus might bear, and that Calcutta was in danger of being overwhelmed by extremist refugees from Bangladesh, I nonetheless found the tour most interesting and indeed moving.
Our route took us through the old centre, which is remarkably clean and tidy (I hope my Delhi friends will forgive me for saying that I found Calcutta to be infinitely cleaner, more orderly and frankly much more interesting than the current capital, with its piles of rubble and trash along even streets in well-to-do areas and lack of pavements to walk along – apparently Bengalis in general are much tidier than their counterparts further west. I had prepared myself mentally for the stereotype of grinding poverty that is associated with Calcutta, but although there were people sleeping on the streets, the overall impression that the city exudes is one of energy, dynamism and positive attitudes.

Much of our tour involved locations associated with the founding and establishment of Calcutta as the capital of British India and with the East India Company, including St John’s Church, where the many plaques recording the lives of the founding fathers of British Calcutta provided a glimpse of the hardships many of those pioneers, and perhaps even more so their wives, endured so far from home and in a rigorous climate without any of the mitigating modern conveniences that we enjoy today. Some of these lives were particularly short. One that caught my attention read: Here lyeth the body of Mrs Eleanor Winwood, late wife to Major Ralph Winwood, who departed this life on the 22nd day of September 1766, aged 22 years. This unfortunate young lady was just one of many poignantly recorded here, who also include the 123 victims of the infamous Black Hole incident of the night of 20th June, 1756.

St John’s Church, Calcutta, where so many lives are commemorated

Perhaps the most splendid monument we visited was the magnificent Victoria Memorial, one of the masterpieces of Anglo-Indian architecture, and one that it is perhaps necessary to see soon, not because the building itself is in danger (it is one of Calcutta’s most cherished buildings), but because high-rise blocks are soon to sprout up behind it, drastically altering the skyline – I had to manoeuver myself in order to obscure one that is already standing to obtain a tower-block-free photograph.

The sublime Victoria Memorial, with the first of many towerblocks concealed behind it

The following morning saw us on the road to the airport at an ungodly hour, but it was well worth the discomfort as the 50-minute flight with Druk Air, with Kanchenjunga seemingly close on our left-hand side, and Everest beyond, and then the dramatic descent into the spectacularly positioned Paro International Airport, was an experience not to be missed.

Kanchenjunga to the right, and Everest away to the left

The dramatically situated Paro International Airport, Bhutan

Landing and taking off at Paro is no easy task

Arriving in Bhutan directly from teeming Calcutta provides an extraordinary contrast, and within only a few minutes, we had cleared the airport formalities, and were walking along a Himalayan torrent in search of a bird that had long eluded me, the improbable-looking Ibisbill. Although we did not in fact find one here, later in the afternoon, just as we had checked into our hotel, I spotted one of these amazing birds. Shaped and sized rather like a Curlew, these waders are patterned and coloured to blend into their rock-strewn riverbank habitat, and blend in they do. It was a special thrill to see this bird, having missed it on several occasions in both India and Nepal, and as I write this a few days later, I can report having enjoyed a picnic lunch today with three Ibisbills foraging among the boulders just across the river.

The beautifully patterned Ibisbill, which had eluded me for so long

Ibisbill, a speciality of Central Asian mountain rivers

Bhutan is such a unique country and otherworldly experience that it definitely deserves a blog post of its own, so I shall describe it in a forthcoming report. Suffice to say that I might even consider it as a future teaching location.

Our first Dzong, right outside Paro airport


Sunday 2nd November 2014

Go Stella Go!

After our interesting meeting with butterfly man Peter Smetacek in Bhimtal, a further tortuous journey took us to the Jungle Lore Birding Lodge, in Pangot, where we settled in for the next few nights. This delightful place, perched on a steep, forested hillside and with individual cottages dotted up and down the slope, flower gardens and bird feeders, attracts bird enthusiasts from far and wide. The route from Nainital eventually comes to a dead end after perhaps 30 km of twisting single-track road that hugs the contour of the hills, affording dramatically spectacular views of the Himalayan snows, from Kamet in the west to the mountains of Nepal in the east.

A Mountain Hawk Eagle soars above the Himalayan panorama

Chief on the list of wants for me were two impressive gamebirds, the Cheer Pheasant and the Koklass Pheasant, sadly both of which were heavily shot in my grandparents’ time, but which at least here have managed to hold on. Neither species is easy to find, but ironically on one of our walks, our birding guide JP received a mobile phone call from our driver (who has the unlikely name of Puppy!) only shortly after we had left the vehicle, to say that a male Koklass had just crossed the road directly in front of him!

Although we dashed back, the bird had disappeared into the tall grass, and we eventually decided to move on to “Cheer Point”, a high vantage point overlooking precipitous slopes that is a known site for the Cheer Pheasant. A long wait produced nothing, but later a single call coming from above the road revealed the presence of at least one bird, and the combined efforts of JP and another birder’s guide, both of whom climbed up onto the bluff behind where the call had come from and then advanced through the grass. Almost immediately, a whirr of wings and a loud cry from me of “Here it comes!” accompanied a beautiful male Cheer Pheasant, trailing his long tail behind him, that shot over our heads and then glided twistingly way down into the valley below. No time to even raise the camera, but what a sight!

The precipitous slopes at Cheer Point

The Koklass Pheasant proved more difficult, but after two 04.30 AM rises and two mornings of hard searching, I had managed to gain glimpses of three females and two males, all rather fleeting views….in contrast to two photographers, both of whom obtained fabulous shots of Koklass, one of a splendid male strutting across the road, crest raised and posing for the camera. Irritating indeed!

Birds provided the focus for the mornings in Pangot, but the afternoons proved to be absolute highlights of nostalgia, first for Rosemary and then for me. The first day saw us driving along the extremely narrow and steep road past Snow View, high above the hill station town of Nainital, a place of long historical links for both Rosemary and myself. Our goal was Rosemary’s old school, where she had been as a girl during the War, attending what was then the Hallett War School, and is now the Vidya Burla Mandia boarding school for boys.

Rosemary about to tackle the steep slope up to her old school

The school is spread up and down the steep hillside, with covered walkways that allow pupils and staff to walk from level to level without getting soaked in the monsoon. Rosemary’s rather plaintive comment “How on earth did we manage all these steps when we were young?” was an illustration of the steepness of the paths!

Rosemary in front of her old school – apparently she is “older than the metal pillars”!

Although we were visiting during a school holiday and pupils were not to be seen, we did find a gentleman who had been working in the school office for more than 40 years, and a lady who was also involved in the administration. They very kindly showed us around, allowing us to see the dining hall in which Rosemary remembered having been made to stand on a bench as a punishment by her elder sister Sheila, who was Head Girl! We also heard the tales of how Rosemary had collected leeches in the surrounding woods, kept them overnight, and would then release them, putting up her hand in class and saying “There’s a leech on me!!! May I go to Matron?” Needless to say, once out of the boring lesson, she would not go to Matron, nor would she return to class!

Rosemary in the dining hall, next to one of the benches she was made to stand on!

It was clearly an emotional experience for Rosemary to revisit her “alma mater”, and it was touching too that the lady who showed us around, despite not speaking very much English, invited us to dinner in her home – an example of the extraordinary kindness that we have experienced from almost everyone we came encountered here in India.

Before returning to Pangot, we initiated what was to become another extraordinarily nostalgic experience, this time for me. We dropped by the Boat House Club building, home of the Naini Tal Yacht Club. Originally founded in the 1890s, this wonderful institution on the shores of the Naini lake, was much loved by my grandparents, and little has changed since then. When we visited in 2006, we were astonished to find ourselves enjoying a beer under a shield marked “F W Champion, Rear Commodore, 1946-47”, and next to wooden boards recording the cups and trophies that my grandparents had won, painted all those years ago. What I had found even more astonishing was that the twelve wooden yachts, then 102 and now 110 years old, were still going strong, all beautifully tied up to the jetty, their evocative names of Alouette, Merlin, Kestrel, Spray, etc, neatly painted on their sterns. Closest to my heart, though, was yacht number 7, Stella, my grandparents’ favourite, in whom they won many races, commemorated on numerous ashtrays and cups that we still possess back home in the UK.

The fleet at the jetty, complete with their colourful new sails

Our arrival could not have been better timed, as it turned out that this was the eve of the three-day Governor’s Gold Cup regatta, to be held over the weekend in the presence of the Governor of Uttarakhand. Much to our pleasure, Rosemary and I were extended formal invitations, meaning that the planned day of birding had to be cancelled, but we were to be treated to something very special instead!

The following morning we arrived at the Club at around 09.15, and were welcomed warmly by among others Mr Vir Srivastava, Commodore NTYC, Vice Admiral A R Tandon, Vice-Commodore, and Mr Mukund Prasad, Rear Commodore, as well as by several younger and very keen sailors with whom I have been Facebook friends for some time.

First on the day’s agenda was an inaugural ceremony and speech by dignitaries including His Excellency Dr Aziz Qureshi, Governor of Uttarakhand, after whose speech I was asked to come up and say a few words, as a “relic of the past”! It was inspiring to see a younger generation taking the helm, and as Dr Qureshi said, he hoped there would be sailing at the NTYC for ever more!

The three-day completion included races between the home NTYC team, teams from the Army and from the Navy, and one from the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association. The first race involved the home team competing against the Army team, and first over the line was Stella! By the end of the race, she had dropped to third place, but the NTYC team won nonetheless, and the atmosphere, with the Kumaun Regimental band playing old favourites such as “Que sera, sera”, was enchanting.

Self beneath my grandfather’s shield

The gentlemanly wishing of success to all teams was a delightful reflection of comradeship between the competing teams, and the beautiful sight of the triangular sails in the morning sunshine on the picturesque Naini lake was a sight to behold.
All too soon, this magical experience drew to a close…but although we were not able to attend the Saturday and the Sunday’s events, this will certainly not be my last visit. At home in Scotland we are in possession of the original Walker’s Challenge Cup, won by my grandparents in 1947, just before they left India for good. The Walker’s Challenge is still sailed, for which a new cup has been cast, but we now have a plan for me to return our original to the Club, for which a new race will be designed: The Champion Challenge. What a way to commemorate my grandparents’ names, and their love for the Naini Tal Yacht Club, for generations to come.

Go Stella Go!


Saturday 1st November 2014

A dandy, a bamboo raft and a motorcycle crash – all par for the course on our Great Indian Adventure

Leaving our wonderful hosts Richard and Elizabeth Wheeler and their beautiful Deodars Guest House in Almora was a wrench indeed, but after a long and tortuous drive through the mountains and eventually down into the low foothills, we eventually found ourselves on the banks of the fast-flowing Ramganga river, ready for the next stage of our momentous journey – and momentous it certainly was for the 84-year-old Rosemary, who is no longer able to walk long distances over uneven terrain. Our super fixer Sumantha Ghosh, with this in mind, had organized a form of transport that might well have been a more common sight in her parents’ day, but which has since faded into the mists of time: a dandy. In this case, a stout wooden seat had been attached to two (rather uneven) wooden poles, forming a sort of sedan chair, and a team of stalwart villagers had been persuaded to carry the somewhat bemused Rosemary the two kilometres or so of rough and uneven track to the scene of her next adventure: a crossing of the Ramganga on a bamboo raft mounted on four inflated inner tyre tubes.

Rosemary in her dandy

Once the two of us had been fully dressed up in life jackets and helmets, the delicate procedure of maneuvering Rosemary onto the distinctly unstable raft was successfully accomplished, and she was hauled across the torrent, followed on the next few runs by myself, our luggage and the team of dandy-bearers. The last section into the delightfully isolated Vanghat camp saw Rosemary triumphantly carried, again in her dandy, and we duly settled into what was to become our home from home for the next four nights.

The intrepid Rosemary prepares to cross the Ramganga river

Rosemary was not the only intrepid one

Vanghat is a place that will surely call me back in the future. Situated on the very edge of the Corbett National Park, and unreachable by vehicle, it is a haven of peace and tranquility. Wild elephants are frequent visitors, and even leopards and tigers are not unusual. We were not treated to any sightings of these this time, but a highly poisonous Krait, a tiny but deadly snake, was spotted by one of our fellow guests climbing up the wall of the toilet block…while he was in mid-flow. He emerged from the building somewhat rapidly.

Early morning and late afternoon bird walks are a great feature of this spot – a luxury that is not permitted in the Corbett Tiger Reserve proper, where tourists can only circulate by jeep or on elephant-back. Highlights for me included the almost indescribably dainty Little Forktail, a tiny bird that frequents shady streams and waterfalls, hopping from stone to stone, constantly opening and closing its black and white tail feathers, giving the impression of a light flashing in the shady streambed, and several unusually approachable Wallcreepers. With their long, down-curved beaks, pale grey plumage and quite extraordinary butterfly-like flight on bright red and black wings with round white spots, Wallcreepers are normally seen distantly as they forage on remote, sheer cliffs, but here I was surprised to find at least three probing around and under the large boulders that line the Ramganga river, allowing a close approach and affording outstanding views.

Wallcreepers have truly beautiful red, black and white wings

All too soon, after a remarkable stay that included the 90th anniversary of Rosemary’s mother’s arrival in India, when like many British wives-to-be, she was whisked immediately from the dockside in Bombay straight to the church in order to marry her fiancé, Rosemary’s dandy was ready for our departure from this magical place, and the return journey was made, bamboo raft and all. However, our transport experiences were far from over.

Shortly after we had started the car journey back towards Ramnagar, while rounding a rather sharp bend, our driver swerved slightly to avoid a pothole, and in doing so grazed a motorcyclist who was coming around the corner in the opposite direction. What followed seemed to transpire in horrifying slow motion. The motorcyclist struggled to keep his balance, but eventually lost his balance, and I watched as he toppled over, and both he and his bike slowly disappeared over the edge of the road, crashing down into a deep ravine.

As soon as we had pulled off the road, we ran back, and with some trepidation, I looked over the edge. There was the overturned motorbike lying with its wheels in the air, and beyond, the sprawled body of the man lying face down, his head invisible between the large rocks and under some vegetation. He was breathing erratically and twitching slightly, but I feared the worst. The immediate question was how to get down to him, but before we could tackle that, we called the remarkably efficient 108 ambulance emergency number, which was answered immediately, and directions to the scene of the accident were given.

Before we had even had time to figure out a way down to the victim, a bus arrived, and several agile young men leapt over the precipice to the rescue. However, as there was plenty of shouting and a highly charged atmosphere, it was felt that as a foreigner it might be wise for me to slip away, so our driver, who was in considerable shock and was extremely anxious to drive the motorcyclist to hospital himself, drove Rosemary and myself a short distance further along the road to a safer parking place, where he paced backwards and forwards, holding his head in his hands and biting his lips with worry.
It was not very long, however, before Sumantha appeared, reporting that the ambulance had arrived, the man had sat up and spoken, and that a friend of his had arrived, and what looked like a total catastrophe had turned out not to be quite so horrific as I had initially thought. Of course we do not know if he had sustained internal injuries, but the signs were relatively comforting.

Following this unexpected trauma, we (and much more so our driver) were in need of some calming refreshment, so we stopped off at Sumantha’s home for breakfast before heading on to one of my least favourite towns, Haldwani, a teeming cauldron of humanity where I had had an unpleasant experience of becoming entrapped in a potentially violent protest in 2006, and where this time we were caught up in student demonstrations and roadblocks.

Getting through Haldwani is never easy, it seems

Once we had extricated ourselves from what we re-named Helldwani, our route took us up into the Himalayan foothills again, to the lakeside settlement of Bhimtal, where we had a lunch appointment with Peter Smetacek, who has become well-known in these parts as the Butterfly Man (although he does not particularly like that title!). Over many decades, first his father, then his elder brother and now he, have amassed one of the largest private collections of butterflies and moths in India. As my grandfather had also created an impressive collection of the butterflies in his final year in India, and several of my grandparents’ friends had later bequeathed their collections of Indian butterflies to me, I am familiar with many of the butterflies here, and especially of the Kumaun hills, and it was a delight to re-acquaint myself with many of the beautifully colourful insects that I know so well.

With Peter Smetacek, the Bhimtal butterfly man

This meeting with Peter may well lead to interesting things. As he pointed out, these old collections of mine, dating from the 1890s till 1948, provide greatly valuable baseline information on population and habitat change over a long period, and he and I are now planning to publish the lists of the butterflies from each locality, and if possible compare them with more recent surveys, allowing comparisons to be made. In addition, there is a project to designate a “Butterfly Valley” in the area, an idea that we might well collaborate on in the future.

So, after a most interesting visit, we continued our journey through the hills to Pangot, our home for the next four days….more of our adventures there in the next instalment.

Rosemary in her unusual form of transport

Pagina 2 van 212