One Friday, September 2011, saw six of us donning our travel garb to set out to Palampur in Himachal Pradesh. As our cars meandered their way out beneath an overcast sky, through the Okhla barrage onto the Mahamaya flyover little did we know that Delhi was to experience the worst deluge of the season that very day. By the time we picked up our last member and made our way to the Delhi Secretariat black clouds rolled menacingly – rain splattered on the windscreens – and the thunderstorm began in earnest. Sheets of rain engulfed us by the time we crossed over to the GT Karnal Road and the wipers were running double time to clear the view.
Three hours later we passed through Sonepat and Panipat and halted at a restaurant outside the Chakravarthy Lake in Karnal to breakfast on hot puri bhaji and tea. Past Kurukshetra and Ambala we turned into the Amritsar Highway. A little further we took a turn towards Banur, Kharar and Rupnagar, and beyond Una found a pleasant dhaba to order lunch. Crossing over the Beas and negotiating about 10 km of rough unmetalled road we proceeded towards Chintpurni. The rain let up at last. We could now see the lake formed by the Pong Dam over River Beas, the mighty Dhauladhars and a couple of rainbows. Night fell as we traversed alongside the gushing waters of the Ban-Ganga with the majestic Kangra fort hanging over the valley. Across the crowded Natti Bridge and small towns of Nagrota and Maranda we arrived at Palampur.
Coursing through the quiet market and the court we turned right in front of the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation Hotel T-Bud, passed in front of the Dayanand Anglo Vedic College for girls and skirting the maternity home reached Lohna Hills precincts. Parking in front of the ‘Holiday Home’ we went around the building to our lodging named Buckettmoon – alluding to the meadow and brook before it that turns into an illuminated receptacle on full moon nights.
A hot dinner awaited us, set at tables overlooking the picture book meadow-brook at the foot of the forested hills in the distance. We soon retired to our cosy beds in well arranged rooms with attached baths and ante rooms – the all pervading citronella reminding us of mosquitoes lurking beyond the pale of the fragrance.
Early morning on Saturday we marched off to the Neughal Khud, a 1000 ft wide chasm through which gushes the Bundla stream that turns into a roaring torrent carrying away huge boulders during the monsoons. The walk under the overcast sky took us past the Bandla Tea Estate and the Neughal Café. Rose ringed parakeets, Himalayan bulbuls, scarlet minivets, bushchats, tailor birds and spotted owls delighted us as we spent a couple of hours on the rocks – enjoying the icy water splashing over our feet. On our way back we also visited the Saurabh Van Vihar, established in memory of Capt Saurabh Kalia, a Kargil war hero and a student of the local Agricultural University. As we returned we were regaled by the soaring eagles and the beetles, spider webs and the bicchu bhooti (stinging nettle) flowers.
Post lunch, after a brief engagement with a delightful puppy that we rescued from the brook, we set out towards Bir. Passing the Taragarh Fort, originally built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh as a summer palace at Al Hilal, transferred by the British to Jammu and Kashmir State and currently run as a Hotel by Dr Karan Singh; the Baijnath Temple built by the Pandavas close to the gently flowing Binwakund which abounds in fish; and the toy train that plies from Pathankot to Jogindernagar, we arrived at Bir. A predominantly Buddhist town, Bir is famous for the Deer Park Monastery set up by Khyentse Rimpoche. Traversing the 22 km steep road to Billing was however peremptorily stalled by a breach created by a landslide. We reluctantly turned back and took a tour of the Monastery in Bir instead and returned by nightfall to celebrate the near full moon sky with a sumptuous dinner.
Sunday morning was lazy, spent in watching birds, playing with the newcomer puppy and a divine breakfast. With a picnic lunch from the Taj Restaurant stowed away in the back seat we drove off in the direction of Dharamshala and parked our cars on the cliff overlooking the forests located just before the bridge over Baner Khud. Cloudy skies, a buffeting breeze and the cold water of the river were refreshing, but by the time we started to eat the drizzle had begun. The high point of the day was the arrival of a family of spotted eagles. We drove off past Yol Camp, the open air zoo and tea estates before reaching Norling Café at the Norbulinka Monastery which serves tasty cakes with cappuccino. Back to the lodge via Chamunda Devi Temple, we were eager to hit the sack and plan for the next morning’s walk in the forest.
Monday morning saw us crossing the meadow, wading through the wet grass and climbing up to the army camp on the road. In a few days the meadow would be completely occupied by the Gaddi and their sheep on their annual winter migration to warmer pastures from the Himalayan heights. After crossing the marshes, we reached the clump of houses on the ridge. Then we went downhill on the other side, quickly losing sight of the meadow and moving into dense forest. As we navigated the brook and left behind the last sign of human habitation – an abandoned cabin, the dense vegetation turned the forests dark. Initially chir pines abounded, but as we climbed up the hill oak trees came into view and we guessed we would be about halfway up the hill. A mild debate ensued on whether we should return or resolve to reach the ridge on top of the hill and see what lay on the other side. Suddenly all debate came to a close – a yelp from one member of the group, a quick plunge from the other and blood all over. Leeches! Swollen maroon balls full of our blood popped out from the socks. Our resolve to climb further melted as we stood upon a boulder rapidly taking off our shoes and plucking out more leeches, one even from the neck. Desperate to get back, we found tracks of tractor tyres a little distance away and walked back via the village to our lodge.
Despite our harrowing experience, we were up and about the next day and drove to Andretta, visited Shobha Singh’s Art Gallery, picked up date pickle and Rhododendron chutney, visited the theatre actor Norah Richards’ mud house, and Gurcharan Singh’s Delhi Blue Pottery being run by his son Mini Singh. Early next morning we started from Buckettmoon and retraced the route to be in Delhi by 5 pm.