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

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