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!

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