Dodging monkeys, listening to birdsong, the drive from Nainital to KunjAkharak, through the Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve, is a planet lover’s delight
“Come here,” says Harinder Singh Bisht, my guide and guard with the Vinayak Forest Rest House. Precariously, he stands at the edge of the mountain, pointing out the villages in the valley below. But I keep my distance from the precipice, my head feels dizzy watching the clouds meeting the mountains, feeling the kiss of cool breeze on my cheeks. If I had wings I could have flown over this green infinite space, where humans have no say.
This is Kunjakharak, 2,292 m above sea level, where the man-made road ends. Part of the protected zone called Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve, this is home to a two-room rest house, a hut for the guards and the dense forest that rare birds call home.
The rest house is clean, with basic furniture and a dining hall. The bathroom is mod-ish but lacks a geyser, as water is heated on a wood stove. All amenities and provisions need to come with the guests, or before the guests arrive. A night here costs as little as Rs 750 but needs to be booked through the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), Nainital. Housekeeping charges are Rs 250 per day, I see on a chart.
I eye the small temple of the goddess behind this little building. Above, the clouds and the mist merge to cloak the valley. I am in a trance, unwilling to begin the drive back to my base in Nainital — WelcomHeritage Ashdale. But the clouds turn dark and Bisht too needs to go home to his village, somewhere near Vinayak, for the night.
Saving the forest
The Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve formally came into being in March 2015. It encompasses an area of 111.9 sq km. It is a treasure trove of rhododendrons, oaks, broad-leaved evergreen trees and some amazing species of birds such as Chukar Partridge, Kalij Pheasant, Black-Throated Tit, Green-Tailed Sunbird, Yellow-Breasted Greenfinch and more. Some say that they have seen the endangered Bearded Vulture and Himalayan Griffon also here.
Within this protected area are the small and beautiful hamlets of Barapathar, Kilbury, Vinayak. They are home to a trusting and smiling lot. I meet Bisht by chance at Vinayak where I am busy taking pictures of the saplings in the nursery — Tushar, Pangar, Deodars. When they reach a certain height, they are transplanted in different areas, informs Bisht. The ground is strewn with pink flowers from the Pangar trees. The air smells of sunshine.
Bisht promises to show me some deer on the drive to Kunjakharak. He kept his promise, for two scuttling deer did meet us on the road up, past the blooming rhododendron trees. Between shouts of delight and their hurried leaps, no photographs were possible.
The Forest Reserve house at Vinayak is a small cottage comprising two rooms. A small bush laden with flowers in the garden marks the presence of a human being, but I see no one. Only the wind is my companion. I am warned not to wander in the forest, for a leopard could be lurking. The birds evade my eyes and keep hopping between the leafy branches. A big fat monkey hunting for food makes me walk faster towards the car. Once again, I have the urge to ring the bells of the temple nearby, but the wind makes me speed up.
The drive to these pristine parts is suggested by Reena Kumari, who belongs to the royal family of Sahaspur Bilari, and has turned her ancestral property in Nainital into a 24-room boutique hotel. The flowery and old-world colonial décor of this property, dating to 1860, match the serene environs. She knows of my love for the unexplored and the uninhabited. The reserve area begins at Tanki tollgate and ends at Kunjakharak and the drive takes a good 4-5 hours with stops in between for pictures or simply enjoying the pristine surroundings.
I cross a jammed patch called Himalaya Darshan which is a popular tourist spot. Tourists are busy peering through telescopes to see the well-known China or Cheena peak, the tal and other interesting spots. But it’s a misty day and the mountains are hidden. There is horse riding too and tea and Maggie stalls. Watch five spots for R30, a vendor says. But my eyes catch the green signboard with the picture of a bird and Naina Devi Himlayan Bird Conservation Reserve and the quest to find this bird takes me to the edge of the mountain. I thank this signboard later and the many I see on this drive.
On my way up, I also spot a signboard which says Ramakrishna Sarada Mission retreat, Pangot, which I can’t resist visiting on the way down. Some steps go up the mountain wall. This looks like a place which few visit, I think. There is no sound here, only shrubs and creepers. After a five-minute climb, I am in front of a gate which says ‘Ring the bell —meeting time 10 am to 5 pm. I am assuming no one will come but a man does open the gate. Not many live here — two ladies clad in orange greet me happily. Sarada was Ramakrishna’s wife and the missions for women are dedicated to her name, I am told. Here, women from across the world come for intensive studies related to Indian philosophy and the scriptures.
The Mission also runs a programme for the women and children living in the neighbouring villages. There is a knitting group and the children have Sunday reading and coaching in studies. The idea is to make them aware of the world and be equipped to handle it, I smile at this thoughtful gesture. Beautiful gardens, colourful flowers, quaint mountain paths, and a library equipped with some amazing literature, even travel-related magazines and books, mark this small retreat.
Interestingly, on two different occasions, the leopards also discovered this retreat. But went away without any intensive study.
All too soon, the light is fading. Another day, and I would have walked in the forest, dipped my feet in the many riverine tributaries flowing through and perhaps heard many more songs and stories. I suspect a day, a week, a month isn’t enough in this pristine world.
Nainital is easily accessible by road from Delhi. Alternatively, one can take the train till Kathgodam or the flight to Pantnagar.
More to see: If keen on touristy places, try boating at Naini lake, walk around Bara Bazaar and buy the lovely handcrafted and arty candles, or go up to the Cave Gardens. There is a Tibetan market around the lake. The lake area also has the old Capitol Theatre, video games parlour, a gurudwara, masjid and Naina Devi temple.
Neighbouring attractions: Mukteshwar, Ranikhet, Sattal, Bhimtal.