Great Himalayan National Park
As planned, we trekked and camped in the Great Himalayan National Park, following the river Tirthan upstream into the park for about 15kms and back, over 4 nights and 5 days. Our porters, camping equipment and food were all arranged for, which meant that all we had to do was tag along. And what an experience it was!
On the day we left the Guesthouse, our porters, Ram Lal and Tek Singh, from the neighboring village of Tinder, showed up at around 8am and packed our tent, sleeping bags & mats, utensils and food rations into two large jute bags. These were then tied down with thick ropes, the ends of which were strapped on to their shoulders. We were appalled at the size of the load and wondered how they were ever going to trek for 5 days with such monstrous bags on their backs! We need not have worried. Over the following days they proved to be strong as mules and as nimble-footed as monkeys, while we struggled along, barely managing to keep up. Later our only worry was that we don’t bore the two young lads to death with our slow pace !
In 5 days, experienced trekkers can cover a lot of ground within the park, but since Madhu and I don’t really fall anywhere close to that category, we decided to stick to a simpler, shorter route that wouldn’t kill us. On day 1, we walked from the guesthouse to Gushaini bazaar (about ½ km) and then took a dirt trail that starts just after the bridge in the village. It followed the Tirthan river upstream on a gradual gradient for about 4kms till we got to the tiny village of Ropa where the porters picked up an additional bag, which contained their personal stuff. Another 4kms from Ropa got us to the entrance of Great Himalayan National Park. Here, we showed our permit at a check post and entered our names, address & ages in a register book; the porters’ names were also entered. Our first night’s stop was at Rolla, which is less than 2kms from the check post. En route we crossed the river again over a lovely wooden bridge and passed the home of an elderly couple, who, we were told, were refusing to leave their land within the park, in spite of the govt’s offer of compensation. They waved and smiled as we passed. Throughout, the trail had been right by the edge of Tirthan River, covering 10kms and gradually gaining an altitude of almost 2000ft; easy but tiring.
The campsite at Rolla consists of 3 mud huts and 6 marked, leveled sites for tents. Our porters occupied one of the rooms in the huts and immediately went about setting up the kitchen to whip up some tea for us. Lata aunty had packed some parathas for lunch, which we munched on with the tea. The Tirthan river was just a few steps away and its rocky bed was the perfect place to sit idling and soaking in the fantastic surroundings. While we were sitting here, Madhu suddenly spotted a deer-like animal run precariously down a rocky slope in the mountains before us. It stood around for just a few moments before flitting back into the thick forests. Later, when we showed a picture of the animal to the porters, they informed us that what we saw was a Himalayan Goral! Later, after a refreshing nap in the tent, we were pleasantly surprised to find another couple joining us at the campsite. They were visiting from Bhopal and were avid bird-watchers, which was their main purpose for visiting Great Himalayan National Park. Apart from two porters, they had a birding guide as well. Over campfire that night they told us about their passion for birds and about the various species they had already spotted in the park; it was all quite fascinating! Then the porters-cum-cooks served all of us our dinner, which was surprisingly quite elaborate starting with a soup, salad, roti, sabzi, rice and daal, followed up by dessert!
That night was my first in a tent! Even though I had been quite apprehensive about this moment since the previous evening, I found the whole experience quite adventurous and fun; not at all scary as I had imagined it to be . I found the tent cozy and the sound of the river comforting, lulling me into a deep sleep! It was the same all 4 nights¦
The next morning, just as we were finishing up with breakfast, we were joined by another group that was on their way back to Gushaini. The group turned out to be the same 3 guys whom we had met at the guesthouse a couple of nights ago. We had really enjoyed their company then and were absolutely thrilled to bump into them again at Rolla. They had left the guesthouse place a day before we had, camping at Rolla that night and then trekking up to a place called Shilt the next day. Two of the three were experienced trekkers and since they found the climb to Shilt moderately difficult, we decided to avoid it at all costs . The birding couple was planning to stay an additional night at Rolla, doing a day trek to the nearby mountains. We then learnt that most casual trekkers into Great Himalayan National Park, venture only until Rolla before heading back. This made us nervous. So we consulted Ram Lal and he suggested that, instead of trekking up to Shilt, we follow the Tirthan river upstream to a place called Chalocha. He assured us that it wouldn’t be a strenuous trek with only a moderate increase in altitude. Beyond that the terrain would be difficult, but we could at least go until there; we agreed to this whole-heartedly!
Before embarking on our trek to Chalocha, our porters cooked our lunch for the day – rotis with sabzi – and handed it to us. This routine was followed the rest of the days as well. It ensured that Madhu and I could eat whenever we were hungry without having to wait for camp to be setup. Armed with clean, cold water from the Tirthan and our packed lunch, we set out on Day 2’s trek.
The trek to Chalocha cannot really be termed as ‘easy’. Even though it was just about 5kms from Rolla, there was no proper trail to it. The first half an hour or so was on a forest trail that had a slight gradient; this was easy going. Then suddenly the trail disappeared and we found ourselves on the rocky bed of the Tirthan river. Here we scrambled over large boulders and makeshift bridges, which were sometimes just some stones spread over 2 supporting logs or even just a log! It was both scary and exciting ! I totally loved this stretch as it was quite scenic but it didn’t last for long. We were soon back on a forest trail that took us up and down 3 small hillocks, the uphill climb being a little tiring. This part of the trail wound through waist-high wild grass and shrubs and was quite heavily forested. In fact, when Madhu was walking ahead of me, I could barely make out the trail under his feet; it looked like he was wading through a sea of green! At some points the going was a little tough as we had to climb steep sections but the scariest was when the trail suddenly disappeared into a rocky chasm, continuing on the other side. Here we precariously, practically on hands and knees, lowered ourselves down and then carefully crossed over, clambering on to the other side with great difficulty! While we struggled with this, our porters watched us with much amusement; they had negotiated this bit quite nimbly in spite of the large loads on their backs. Darn it; how do they do it!??
On the way, when we took a break, Ram Lal confided that when he first heard that a couple of clients want to trek in Great Himalayan National Park for 4 nights and 5 days, he figured that we could do a loop within the southern part of the park by walking 15kms on the first day to Chalocha, then climbing 7hrs up a steep hill to halt at Nara Thach (Nara Plateau) on the second, climbing another 1000ft on the 3rd day to get to Gumtrao, returning and descending about 2000ft on the 4th day to Shilt and then finally walking 15kms back to Gushaini on the 5th – whew!! But once he saw us and our pace, he had a change of heart; we had quite a laugh about this .
The campsite at Chalocha is much smaller than the one at Rolla with just one hut and leveled ground for about 4 tents. But it was close to the river, with a lovely stream flowing into it from the right. It was much more picturesque than Rolla and a lot more forested and remote. In our 2 nights’ stay there, we didn’t come across any other trekkers except for 2 local, Himachali couples who had trekked up to pay their respects at a shrine, which was close to the campsite. Ram Lal informed us that locals come to these shrines to pray and present offerings for wishes that have been granted. He added that offerings could include sacrifices of goats. Luckily, these couples were not going to make any animal sacrifices. They planned on making an offering of Halwa-puri (yummm), stay the night and return to their village the next day. All evening, Ram Lal, Tek Singh, Madhu and I waited, hoping to get some of the left over Halwa-puri but, alas, none came our way. This was especially hurtful since our dinners had been reduced to just Rice, Dal and pickles; a little bit of dessert would have gone a long way in satiating us . Looking back, I’m still not sure why our first night’s dinner had been so elaborate; either our porters had helped themselves to the stuff brought by the birding couple’s party or the birding couple’s party had wiped out our supplies that night .
On the morning of Day 3, at around 9:30am, Ram Lal took us on a day-hike towards Nara Thach. The plateau is at a height of 10,800ft, which meant that it was a climb of more than 2000ft from Chalocha. Ram Lal said that, on an average, visitors take 7hrs to get to it. We decided that we would climb as far as we can and then return when we’ve had enough. It was our chance to find out what a ‘difficult’ climb would be like and how we measured up to it. The climb, as it turned out, was indeed quite steep and strenuous! Madhu and I could barely keep up with Ram Lal who seemed to be hopping and skipping along. We stopped every few meters to catch our breath and settle the hammering in our chests. To add to it, the steep climb strained our unused calves quite a bit. But at every turn, the views got better and better as we gained altitude. The sight of snow-clad mountains encouraged us to keep going. This time around, since there was no pressure of getting to a place by a particular time (and because we needed the break every so often), we stopped to admire the foliage along the way. There were plenty of rhododendron trees, which added color to the otherwise green landscape. However, after about 2 ½ hrs, we decided we had enough. Ram Lal smiled at us with an ‘I-told-you-so’ look and added insult to injury by saying that we were probably just 1/3rd way up to the plateau .
The descent to Chalocha took 1 ½ hours, which was a bit longer than I had anticipated. If climbing required good control over breathing and pure stamina, then descending required great control over the physical self, which seemed more inclined towards just tumbling down the slope. The dried leaves and twigs under our feet made things worse by making us skid and fall many times; it was both scary and terribly funny .
On Day 4, we packed up from Chalocha and trekked back towards Gushaini. The plan was to walk 7kms, going past Rolla and the park entrance, to camp near a waterfall that we had seen on our way to the park. From our trek to Chalocha, 2 days ago, I remembered the treacherous crossing of the rocky chasm and this kept me awake quite a bit the previous night. When we eventually got to it, the whole thing looked scarier than it had seemed before. Ram Lal descended the chasm first and then helped out by telling us where to place our feet and where to hold with our hands for support while descending. At one point where there didn’t seem to be any place to place a foot, he cupped his palm as a ledge against the rocks and supported our weight as we scrambled down beside him. Any slip on his side or a clumsy move on our part would have definitely caused us all to tumble down the cliff-side; it was one of the most frightening moments of our trip. Ram Lal later told us that there used to be a stone bridge across this chasm but it got washed away last year during heavy rains. Hopefully, the park officials will build a new one in its place soon!
The campsite near the waterfall, outside Great Himalayan National Park’s entrance gate and on the way to a village, is by far the prettiest. It is set on a large piece of level ground with mountain peaks all around and the gushing waters of Tirthan nearby. After a few minutes of having reached there and pitched our tent, some villagers passed our campsite with goats and sheep in tow . On seeing them, Ram Lal called out to them and they stopped to catch up on the village gossip. This gave us an opportunity to click pictures of the goats and pet and play with them; it was so much fun ! The villagers spent almost 2 hours with our porters and this proved to be a great pastime for all of us as Madhu and I had a whale of a time watching the animals alternatively cuddling for a quick nap and then foraging for things to nibble on, including our shoe laces and jackets !
In the evening, Tek Singh led us to Tirthan’s rocky bed from where we could get excellent pictures of the beautiful waterfall. We sat here quite a while enjoying the late afternoon sun and watching the pretty birds that flitted across the waters. We realized that Gushaini visitors who are not too keen on overnight camping in Great Himalayan National Park, could at least make a day-trip to this spot and picnic on the rocky, river bed – this picturesque location is totally worth the 8km hike! A bridge across the water connects the forest trail into Great Himalayan National Park with our campsite. Apparently, on the night we had camped at Rolla, a villager had spotted 2 leopards on this bridge! This was a scary thought and it worried me a bit, the only comforting fact being that leopards prefer preying on canines and goats over us humans.
In Rolla and Chalocha, our porters were able to sleep within the mud huts at the campsite. However, since the waterfall area falls outside the park boundaries, there was no such provision here; they didn’t have a tent for themselves either. So we got a little worried about how they would manage, especially if it got too cold at night or worse still, if it rained. But the lads assured us that they would be just fine. They foraged the nearby forest area for wood and brought back huge logs of them back to the campsite. They intended to use the wood to keep a fire burning throughout the night in case it got too cold. And if it rained, they planned to take cover under some overhanging rocks nearby. Luckily it didn’t rain and they were able to sleep, huddled close to the fire under the starry skies! But not before serving us our last dinner of the trip, which was a little special with a sabzi of aloo and soya nuggets; quite yummy !
Today morning, we started early at about 8:30am, bid adieu to Great Himalayan National Park and headed back to Gushaini, which was about 8kms away. En route, we stopped at Ropa where Tek Singh dropped off the bag at the same tea shop that he had picked it up from 4 days ago; he and/or Ram Lal appeared to be related to the owners of the shop. We stopped here for some refreshing chai, which Ram Lal sweetly treated us to. The final stretch to Gushaini was easy and quite uneventful. We got to the Guesthouse just before 11am, happy to be back in the comforts of civilized life .
Looking back, for me this trip has been an eye-opener of sorts. Until now, I have always been averse to the idea of being out camping amidst the creepy-crawlies of nature. But over the past 5 days I seem to have gotten over that fear; in fact, I actually enjoyed the forest and except for when a cricket crawled into our tent, totally enjoyed our tent accommodation ! Moreover, the forest was exceptionally beautiful, especially as it grew unhindered and lush green around the Tirthan River. My favorite section was the river crossings on Day 3 between Rolla and Chalocha. Ram Lal and Tek Singh turned out to be apt guides, companions, porters and cooks as well. When time permitted, they sat with us sharing stories about themselves and the villages, giving us an insight into life in Tirthan valley. Overall, a magical experience!