Our short trip to Ranikhet was coming to an end. While we had explored the quaint little cantonment town on foot and had taken a detour to Majkhali, a small village around 12 kms from the town, we felt we needed to do something else before we headed back to Gurgaon and relish the daily grind!
We had seen a signage for Chaubatia during our aimless walks across the town and wondered whether the 6km drive / hike from the KMVN guest house was worth it. A friendly inquest yielded two things. Chaubatia is famous for its apple orchards and the garden store sells fresh juices, honey, pickles etc. On a clear day, it also guarantees spectacular views of the snow-capped Himalayas. We were also told that Chaubatia offers a forest walk which allows nature enthusiasts to go for a hike among the Pine, Rhododendron and Chestnut trees.Sufficiently motivated we set off on the trail.
The 6km road from the KMVN guest house to Chaubatia is one that you wish would never end. It is soothing, to say the least, on your somewhat disoriented urban senses. The only sound that you hear is the rustling of leaves and the occasional vehicle that passes you by. But the road comes to its own after you cross the Jhula Devi temple and enter the last stretch. It is an uphill drive from thereon and the forest starts to weave its magic. We asked our driver to make the vehicle crawl as we rolled down the windowpanes and soaked in the fresh mountain air. Suddenly, the vehicle came to a halt when our daughter spotted a couple of Jungle Fowls crossing the road in their truly remarkable nonchalant manner. After a few unsuccessful attempts to capture them on our camera screens we moved on and soon arrived at the parking lot.
To our dismay, we realized that ours was not the only car which would be parked there for the next couple of hours. I became a bit apprehensive that our hike would coincide with close encounters with revellers and picnickers!
We approached the Guides’ hut and considered our options:
- Visit the apple orchard – with a guide it came to 200 Rupees
- Forest walk for 300
- A walk up to the Bhalu dam for 700 (summarily rejected by our driver that there were no more Bhalus (Bears) who came to drink water and it would be too long for the kid)
The young adventurer made it easy for us! Let’s go for a forest walk as 7km is too long a road without proper shoes and an apple orchard is not worth visiting in the month of May. Time flies! The conviction in the young voice reminded us that the day is not far away when she would not look up to Mom and Dad every time before taking a call.
We followed the young adventurer and our guide with whom we connected from the first minute. He seemed to represent the Uttarakhand which you had read about in the Jim Corbett stories when you were growing up. He shared a few titbits on the forest and said he follows a trail through the forest every day to commute to work from his village home further down. He reminded us that we were at an altitude of 6500+ feet above sea level and our trail would require an hour or so to complete.
Our guide appeared motivated to help us appreciate the beauty of the forest and went on to describe the granular details of the nut that falls from the Chestnut tree, the medicinal use of Pines and Rhododendron and the touch me not plant that would give you a sting to remember. He showed us some enormous Oak trees that seemed to be there from time immemorial while discussing the phenomenal benefits of Oak in human existence.
However, he was frequently interrupted by a wildlife who had a bag full of questions for him. He seemed accommodative though and not before long, he opened his chest full of stories and shared with us his chance encounters with the leopard while commuting from and to the village. The way he described the apex predator of these forests, the leopard, was refreshing to say the least. You could not but notice the tone of affection in his voice for the animals. For him the leopard was simply a slightly bigger version of its domesticated feline cousin rather than an animal that gets lynched by the angry villagers for intruding in their territory. He was quick to point out that the forest belongs to the leopard and the other animals and he was the one who was the intruder, trying to take advantage of the shortcut that the forest trail offered and trying to make a living by helping urban souls appreciate nature at its pristine best.
His stories and anecdotes made our experience surreal. We realized that though we could not see the animals they were all around us watching the intruders. The mark on the Oak tree made from the horns of the Barasingha, the droppings of the deer and the leopard reiterated that we were in a pristine forest and not a neatly manicured park built to entertain human beings.
Our moment came when we reached a flat top from where you could see the sweeping valleys and the forests seemed to engulf us from all sides. At this point, time stood still and all three of us got lost in our own world. We were jolted back to reality when the guide reminded us that the place is not safe as many of the trees around could fall down any moment due to the strong wind. We looked around and realized that many of the trees had a charred look on their stems and branches. We were reminded of the forest fire that had decimated large tracts of Uttarakhand recently. With a heavy heart, we bid adieu and started our walk back.
As we sipped into our cans of Rhododendron juice at the garden store, located at the entrance of the forest, we looked at each other. We did not say it! But the verdict was unanimous: WE WOULD BE BACK!
Caveat: I was delighted to have been proven wrong as we did not encounter a single human being apart from ourselves during the hike. The apple orchards seemed to have played the role of the Pied Piper and every single tourist on that day seemed determined to understand the intricacies of growing apples.