It was a beautiful day for a walk in the forest.
Coming from the plains where in the summer nature turns yellow and brown, it was pleasantly surprising to see how here in the hills, in the middle of May everything was still a deep green.
We were in the Binsar, a protected wildlife sanctuary, a little over an hour away from Almora, making our way through a thick canopy of Oak, Pine and Rhododendron trees, the latter bearing the last of the season’s luscious red flowers.
“If you had come a month earlier, the scene would have been totally different”, smiled Hem, our naturalist from the Grand Oak Manor, “the whole forest would be flaming red with the Rhododendrons!”
Having made a mental note to come back in the spring, I peered through the gaps in the trees at rolling green hills stretching for miles, punctuated only by occasional villages as Hem pointed out Almora, Kasardevi and other towns we had traversed on our journey here. Beyond the hills lay the mighty peaks of Trishul and Nanda Devi, obscured by summer haze, as they often are at this time of the year. For the last few days, the peaks had been playing hide and seek, and today it seemed, was the day to hide.
Hem saw me straining my eyes, and looking at skies above said, “if it rains it will all clear up, but it doesn’t look like rain”. Seeing my disappointment, he quickly added, “but here in the mountains anything can happen!”
It’s a refrain we were to hear often, Bombay ka fashion, pahado ka mausum! Indicating that the weather here is as fickle as fashion trends in city, though that did little to make me feel better.
We had come to Binsar chasing, amongst other things, a picture postcard view of the Uttarakahand Himalayas, made famous by a wide panoramic photo of the mountains stretching from Nanda Ghunti in the west to the Panchchulli range in to the east, with all the other peaks along the way.
I had spent a lot of time staring at that photograph wondering how many of these stunning peaks we would see on our month long adventure in the hills and it was only after seeing the same photo, taken by an Almora based photographer, a few times that I noticed a small note, innocuously printed in the bottom right corner.
Taken from Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary.
It’s a view that had been stuck in my head ever since I’d seen it, and it was a view that drew me to Binsar.
But of course Binsar is so much more than mountain views and so rather than fret about those I decided instead to focus on what was turning out to be a lovely walk. It was coming up on evening as we strolled through a carpet of pine leaves and in the softening yellow light, the forest was slowly coming to life.
The crisp mountain air, the twittering of birds and the beautiful glow of the sun peaking through the trees created a rather special mood. Hem was pointing out Drongos, Jays and the brilliant blue Verditer Flycatcher, but I was particularly enchanted by the distinctive chirping of a bird I couldn’t see.
“That’s the Rufous Sibia. Pretty call isn’t it”, offered Hem. It was a pretty call, but hard as I tried I couldn’t spot the damn bird. Spread over 45 square kilometres this cozy little national park perched at 2500 Mts (at its highest point) above sea level is home to over 20 species of trees and over 200 species of birds, a real birders paradise.
Besides the usual langurs and monkeys, the Sanctuary also counts amongst its denizens, the Himalayan Goral, Chital the endangered Musk deer and of course Leopards. I asked Hem if he had ever seen a Leopard up close? “Many times” he replied, recounting incidents of his chance encounters with the cat on jungle walks and even down in his village. As I sniffed at pine combs and day dreamed about encountering a Leopard on our walk I felt that familiar feeling of being in the forest, one of calm and serenity mixed with a heightened awareness of everything around me.
Hem was an excellent guide and told us stories about himself and the forest that was his home, stories that are inextricably linked. A native of Dalar village which is one of the 5 odd villages that exist within the core zone of Binsar, Hem might have been like many young men in Uttarakhand destined for a job in the big city.
Work is hard to come by in the hills and agriculture is become increasingly difficult to sustain oneself on, a situation that has led to large scale migrations out of the villages of Uttarakhand.
Hem however did not want to leave his beloved forest for the noise and pollution of the city. “Dilli main bada mushkil hai”, he said with a grimace, “I can’t stay for more than a few days”. Luckily for Hem, he didn’t have to. The Forest Department in Binsar was conducting a training program for guides and Hem enrolled, learning about the jungle and its inhabitants and securing a livelihood for himself.
He now takes guests on birding walks and treks though the forest showing off his beautiful home! As he pointed our various trees and berries to us, he confides that he is worried that most of the younger generation are not concerned about learning about the forest. “We have everything here in the forest he says. Our forefathers knew all about the ‘jaribootis’ to cure so many different ailments, but people today don’t have the patience, everybody wants quick results. Soon all of this knowledge will be lost”, he adds with a sigh.
Our conversation was interrupted by a crack of thunder. Lost in the sights, sounds and smells of the jungle we’d missed the dark clouds slowly spreading across the horizon. Looks like rain after all! We hurried back to The Grand Oak Manor, huddling under the front porch just as the gentle pitter patter, turned into a torrential downpour.
As the thunderstorm raged outside we settled in the plush old armchairs of the aptly named sunset lounge to watch the colours of the setting sun. As promised the sudden downpour cleared the haze and as if like magic the Himalayan peaks emerged out of an otherworldly swirl of mist. Though the rain kissed sunset and the mighty Himalayan peaks all dressed in white vied for our attention, it was the sunset that stole the show.
Earlier in the day, sitting on the long verandah outside the sunset lounge we had chatted with Shikha Tripathi, a travel writer who along with her husband, Sindhu run the Grand Oak Manor, about life in the high Himalayas. A pahadi from the lake district of Nainital, Shikha had lived and worked in cities like Bombay before leaving it all to come back to her mountains where her heart lay. As we sipped Chamomile tea Shikha told us the story of the Grand Oak Manor.
This was once the home of General Henry Ramsay, the former British commissioner of Kumaon and the man most widely associated with bringing Binsar into the public imagination. Ramsay’s story is interesting in itself. A Scotsman who worked in Kumaon for 47 years, Ramsay fell in love with these hills that reminded him of home in the Scottish highlands. He forged a bond with the people of Kumaon, and it is said that he knew every village in these hills, often eating with the locals in villages he travelled to. He even spoke the Kumaoni dialect. Ramsay wanted to spend his days in the Kumaoni hills and searched high and low for the perfect spot on build his estate before coming upon this piece of land and eventually making it his home. From here Ramsay had an unencumbered view of the region under his control and it was here that he planned to live out his days amidst the people and the hills that he had come to love.
The beauty of the Grand Oak Manor is that it’s actually located inside the wildlife sanctuary. All 60 odd acres of it! It is one of 6 such properties in Binsar, harking back to the British days when the region comprised of 6 sprawling estates, spread across the hills of Binsar. Imagine that, a home inside a protected wildlife sanctuary with nothing but endless forested hills on one side and the high peaks of the Nanda Devi and Trishul on the other! Now that’s a place to have a country home!
If the location of the Manor is unparalleled, the home itself is full of charm. Sindhu Gangola, whose great grandfather purchased the home over a hundred years ago has vivid memories of vacations spent in the Manor as a child, and also its subsequent slow decline into neglect. So when he decided quit his hospitality job to restore the Manor and throw it open to guests it was a labour of love, and we are very glad he did.
Walking past the corridors of the manor I couldn’t help but notice the elegant splendor of the past enhancing the high ceilings and hardwood floors and the grace of old fireplaces in the cozy rooms, each one named after the British servicemen who once walked these halls. Our favourite spot however was the beautiful wood paneled ballroom with old letters and photographs on the walls holding stories of forgotten times and the broad verandah, from where we could see the colours of the setting sun play out over the hills.
As as blue evening turned to twinkling twilight, the storm still raging in the distance, lightening occasioning illuminating the outline of the never ending hills, we couldn’t help but think back to Ramsay, who never did get to retire in these hills. In 1888, 28 years after he was appointed Commissioner, ‘The Raja of Kumaon’ as he was referred to, was recalled to England, his colonial overlords perhaps growing wary of his uncomfortably close relationship with the natives of the region. Nevertheless, he would have been pleased to see the verdant forest he loved flourishing, and the elegant home he built in good hands, standing proud and watching over the Uttarakhand hills.
Some Useful Information:
Where to Stay:
There are a number of resorts in and around Binsar, and we suggest staying at one of the places within the boundaries of the national park. We stayed at the beautiful Grand Oak Manor, an 150+ year old heritage mansion run by Shikha and Sindhu Gangola. You also have the option of staying at the budget KMVN, which like The Grand Oak Manor also offers stunning Himalayan views. Villages within the boundaries of the national park like Dalar also offer homestay options.
What to do:
Make the hike to Zero point, the highest point in Binsar, from where, if the views are clear you will have that stunning picture postcard view of a huge section of the Himalayan range or just strap on shoes and walk in any direction. Perhaps the best part of Binsar is there is really nothing to do except relax, read, walk and immerse yourself in nature. If you fancy a change of scene you can go down to Kasardevi, a 45 minute drive away and have a meal at Mohan Binsar or some excellent momos at Dolmas topped off with yummy apple crumble at Baba Cake and visit the Kilmora shop for beautiful woollen handicrafts and clothes, woven by local Kumaoni men and women.
Best time to go:
Summers are best for walking and the weather is just right, monsoon will be an explosion of of green and the forest will come to life, but winters are the best for mountain views and the chance to see snow! So take your pick! 🙂