Thursday, November 08, 2001

Nature camp at Tadoba Wildlife Sanctuary (May 25-31, 2001)

The nature camp at Tadoba wildlife Sanctuary was a memorable and thrilling one. Experiencing wildlife at such close quarters has its own enchantment, which words cannot describe. The Tadoba Sanctuary, although not as well known as the Kanha and the Ranathambore Sanctuaries, has many attractions, which other sanctuaries do not offer. We could walk in the forest on foot, which is not allowed in other places. In other wild life reserves, tourists are not allowed to step out of the jeep, which takes you in the jungle. Early in the morning at 5:30, we would leave for our strolls in the jungle to different areas: waghzari, katezari, ambathira, vasantbandhara and pandharpauni. The jungle mainly consists of dry deciduous and moist deciduous trees, so most of the trees were bare and the forest obtained a yellowish brown hue. The thick bamboo patches made it hard for the eye to penetrate the tree cover beyond a certain limit thus affording wonderful camouflage to the animals.

I was initially worried that the temperatures in that region being 45o and above would make life difficult during the trip. As expected it was very hot on the first day, especially in the afternoon and lying down in the rest house room was punishment. The noisy fan over our heads sent out hot air and the bed emitted enough heat for us to shun it and opt for the bare ground. With the asbestos roof, the rooms were no less than a hot oven. Thankfully the night brought a few light showers of rain and the rest of the days became tolerable with the temperatures dipping a bit.

Our usual schedule would be a forest stroll from 5:30 to 10:30 am, and breakfast on returning from the walk. 10:30 to 3:00 was rest time, since the blazing sun makes walking torturous. Moreover jeep rides are not permitted between 11:00 and 3:00. Nevertheless we soon learnt to convert this so-called rest time into fruitful activities by the lakeside. After tea at 4:00 we would leave for a jeep ride through the forest and return at 6:30 pm.

The Tadoba Sanctuary boasts of a beautiful lake, which lies at the heart of the Sanctuary and is a perennial source of water for the animals. We would spend our afternoons under the peaceful shade of the Jammun trees by the lakeside (Jammulaakhayan!! as we called it J). On one of these days we had the entertaining company of Langurs and watching their acrobats was fun. We even had the privilege of observing a pair in a courting mood J. Then came a crested serpent eagle hovering over our heads and I expected it to perch on a branch of a nearby tree, but to my surprise and delight it descended near the shore and decided to quench its thirst and we had a rare sight of an eagle drinking from the lake with us sitting not more than ten feet away. The lake is home to many crocodiles and hence however much the water seemed inviting we could not risk stepping into it. The opposite shore of the lake displayed many water birds (ibises, cranes, egrets and herons), eagles and chital who came to the waterfront to quench their thirst, graze and fish for food. We spend many hours in the afternoon watching them through the binoc’s.

The first of our tiger sightings was done sitting by the lakeside. We watched the tiger through our binoc’s on the opposite shore. He had come to the lake to cool himself down. He sat in the water for a while, got up and went away. All of us on this end of the lake were thrilled on having seen the animal for which we had traveled so far to Nagpur in the merciless summer heat. Although the initial excitement lasted a while, we were not satisfied, and wanted a closer look, for a longer time. And we looked forward to the coming days with hope. The lakeside excursions were definitely profitable. That night we could observe a crocodile that had come to check the eggs that it had laid on the shore. We got a good view in the torchlight. Though 2-3 torches were focused on her, she did not budge from that place. As it was too dark for a photo, we decided to come back to the place the next morning. The next morning found no crocodile, but by now we had developed the habit of surveying the opposite shore for any movement, and indeed we were blessed with a view of a sloth bear, trudging alongside the lake. It went all the way from one end to the other, stopped in the middle on its hind legs and continued on its way into the jungle.

On the third morning at Tadoba, our guide Sameer took us for our morning walk to Vasantbandhara via Chitalshed. We were greeted by fresh tiger pugmarks heading in the very direction we had taken! Fresh tiger droppings!! More pugmarks!! This was around the waterhole on our left indicating that the tiger had quenched his thirst from the very waterhole at which we presently stood. Here we could even make out the impressions of the hind paws and his tail by the waterside. These signs indicated that the tiger was prowling that area not long before we reached there (perhaps an hour and a half ago he was there) and may well be around right now!!!! The thought that the tiger could be hiding behind the bamboo shoots, well camouflaged, eyeing you, watching your every movement is enough to send shivers down your spine and your heart pounding. It almost seemed that he was THERE lurking round the corner and at any moment you may come face to face with the majestic animal. For a kilometer or two we had been tracking the tiger’s whereabouts when we came to a concrete patch of a road build over a small canal; the pugmarks ceased to be visible any more and we lost track of the much sought after animal L L. Nevertheless we continued to walk and reached the “bandhara”. It is a canal surrounded by thick forest. We waited there a while, just feeling the forest around us. One of the thick tree trunks had a lot of claw marks. The branches of this tree had honeycombs hanging from it. The bears in the process of reaching these beehives leave marks on the trunks and its branches. We saw a lot of such scratched trees.

After spending the afternoon under the Jammun trees by the lakeside, we reached the canteen for tea and snacks. We were waiting for tea, when suddenly it seemed that there was much activity. Our guide Sameer jumped on a bike, stick in hand, behind Rahul (who is a researcher, currently staying at Tadoba). They were off to no one knew where. The news was around that a python had been sighted. After taking our usual evening jeep round, we returned and then set out again with one of the guides to take a look at the huge reptile. The jeep parked among the bushes, we continued on foot on the mattress of dry, golden brown leaves spread on the ground. We soon reached a tree underneath which was a mound of dry leaves. The guide cleared this pile of leaves and uncovered the tail, body and lastly the head of the Rock python. While he was doing this, the python did not move an inch. Even as it lay at our feet, with all of us surrounding the reptile, it seemed less bothered. The reason was apparent. It had had its lunch and was resting. The middle portion of the long body was visibly expanded, and jutting out. It had had a young deer on its menu (so we came to know later from the researcher Rahul). It was clear that the python would be there for a while till it had fully digested its meal. Since it does not move during this time, it is vulnerable and needs to protect itself. So it had taken refuge under the dry leaves, the colour of its skin gelling very well with the surroundings. The camouflage was so exact that an unmindful passerby would well have stepped over it and come to grief. Unfortunately its hideout had been discovered by a group of nature enthusiasts from Chandrapur. The reptile must have been upset by the presence of so many eager and uninvited visitors that followed. But we were happy to get some excellent photos of this exquisite reptile J J!!!

On the second last day; i.e. the last night that we were at Tadoba, we stayed on a machan from 6:00 in the evening to 6:00 the next morning. This was an experience worth taking. From the outset I was excited about saying on the “machan” or the watchtower through the night and quite hopeful that we would have a feast of animal sightings. The machan is an elevated structure usually made of bamboo and wood, either constructed separately near a waterhole or rested on a tree between two wide branches which hold it in place. Most of the machans are located near waterholes which are frequented by thirsty animals and birds. Since you are at an elevated level near treetops, it gives a tremendous advantage of watching wildlife from close quarters without disturbing it. This machan at Katezari was a well-constructed one, with proper stairs and a landing space. The upper storey and landing together could accommodate all the 11 of us for the night.
We reached the machan in two batches. The jeep reached the four of us Alka (our organizer and group leader), Mangesh (her volunteer), Uttam and myself at 6:00 and the driver returned with the vehicle to fetch the rest. We were welcomed by a noisy chatter of numerous birds and our eyes eagerly searched for them. Golden oriels, green pigeons, peacocks, a crested serpent eagle and a brain fever bird, which we had been hearing, all these days but had not seen, were among many others making their presence felt. A Chausingha hesitantly approached the waterhole, looked about and walked away without drinking. A wild boar came out of the bushes; stared at us peering through the binoc’s with amazement and retreated into the bushes. Peacocks came and went at their will. The crested serpent eagle sat so long on the branch of a near by tree, that we watched its every feature with utmost fulfillment. There seemed to be so much activity on all four directions that we did not know where to look and what to focus on.

While we were enjoying thus, it was already past one hour, yet the others had not reached the machan. We wondered what had happened; whether the driver had lost his way while returning or perhaps better still they had sighted some wild life while coming this way. After a while the sound of the jeep’s motor could be heard and the crested serpent eagle announced its arrival. The eagle that had been sitting on the opposite tree all this while spread its long wide wings and took to the sky without a sound. The driver came upstairs excited; he had seen a sloth bear while returning to fetch the other group. The sloth bear had crossed the jeepable road and the driver had to brake to wait and watch. This was perhaps his first time to see a bear from so close a distance. He was so fascinated that he was at a loss of words to describe the scene. He also wanted to stay on the machan but since the jeep cannot be parked in the jungle during the night, he had to return (this kind of enthusiasm often rubs off on others and in this case our driver also learnt a few things from being with us for a few daysJ).

We quickly filled in the others [Rajaneesh, Rajiv, Ashwin, Vasanti, Beena, Sameer and Sanjay (guides)] with what we had already seen. Everyone quickly settled down, laying their bedding and taking their respective positions on the watchtower. The walls of this tower were lined with bamboo and peeping slits were made especially for observation so that when one sat down on the floor of the machan, the slits were located at your eye level making it convenient to observe without the animal noticing you. As a rule one has to sit still without moving since the animals and birds easily detect the slightest of movements and then would not approach you. So one needs to sit still without making any sound. But it usually so happens that when nothing worth mentioning is seen for a long time, everyone starts getting restless. At such times the slightest of movement gets accentuated and makes a loud noise in the silence, causing embarrassment to the person responsible for it and sending a ripple of laughter among the others. Just when one is not supposed to laugh, the smallest and the most irrelevant things will make you laugh irresistibly!!

So we sat for a while, all eyes and ears, wanting to detect any slight movement here, a small sound there. After a while most of us got tired of sitting down and peering through the slits and we stood up leaning against the walls. Two of us (Mangesh and Beena) literally resorted to lying on their bedding with an instruction to others to wake them up if there was anything eventful J. The others stood facing the direction in which the waterhole was situated.

Slowly as darkness fell our visibility reduced. Now every object that we had earlier rejected as a wood stump, or a mound of mud began to seem like a living creature. As we stood there idly gazing around us, there came a wild dog and three others followed him!! We excitedly called the others and everyone ran to that end of the machan. We stood there besides each other as if looking over a balcony and watched the scene play in front of us. This was perhaps the same pack that we had seen a day earlier. One of the wild dogs proceeded to the waterhole while the others stood with their back to him facing three directions seemingly keeping a watch. The one who had reached the water drank his fill making quite a sound “lap, lap, lap “ as he lapped up the water. After he finished, the others had their turn. Even after quenching their thirst, they were in no hurry to leave. Two of them sat down and lay by the waterside, stretching a bit. The other two were still on their feet standing. After a while one of them noticed a mongoose and started chasing it and the others followed suit. We were all silent, absorbed in watching the wild dogs for almost about 15-20 minutes. It was the start of more exciting things to come J!!

Now it was darker than before and our guides who were sitting with some of us on the landing would throw a beam of torchlight around the place or in the direction of a sound to check whether there was any sighting. At 8:30 we decided to have dinner; we had packed our meal from the canteen. Within no time we had our fill of batatachi bhaji, pickle and chapattis, and resumed our task. Now that we could not see anything, it started getting monotonous. Nevertheless we could hear the brain fever bird and the relentless ‘chakuu’, chakuu’, chakuu’ of the nightjar. Our organizer, Alka suggested that we sleep from 10:00 pm to 3:00 am. Since it is unlikely to sight anything in the night; generally the most optimum time for sightings are the late evenings and early mornings. We willingly accepted her suggestion. Surprisingly it was quite warm even at night in the jungle, although I expected it to be pleasant, it was only after much tossing and turning that I went to sleep.

But not long before we had gone to sleep, a loud sound could be heard in the close vicinity. A lot of rustling and bustling going on accompanied by a cat like mewing. The sound was loud enough to make everyone jump to their feet. We peered into the darkness but could not make out anything. Later we came to know that they were two civet cats fighting with each other and in the process one had fallen off the tree. Not having seen much we went back to our beds to get up in the wee hours of the morning at 3:30- 4:00 a.m. Back to our observation points, we sat, hopeful that something more would happen. About 4:30- 5:00 came two sloth bears from our left. They scampered across the dirt road into the tree cover at the right. One of them probably a male was heavy and large while the other was smaller in size. This sight lasted for a second or two but all of us saw it. Thus concluded our stay on the machan with two major sightings – wild dogs and sloth bears.

Finally the last day, and time to leave Tadoba. We were quite satisfied with the large numbers and the variety of bird and animal life that we witnessed here in Tadoba. We had seen all that there was to see. All that we wished for as we jokingly said was to see the tiger from 15 feet!!! J Being that close would be a climax to what we had experienced until now. Perhaps God had decided to fulfill our wishes for we awaited the ultimate highpoint of the trip. After returning from the machan, all of us were busy packing up since we would be leaving after lunch. Every one was relaxed as we trudged in the canteen for breakfast. After our stomachs full, we had enough time before we started our journey back, so we decided to take a last jeep round. The guide, Sameer, said that a tiger had been sighted at the ‘tar road’ so we set out to check that area. I forgot to mention that the tiger density at Tadoba is amazing and everyday at least one group reports a tiger sighting. Until now we had missed this animal twice by seconds/minutes. Once on a jeep round we had passed by the lake and at that very place itself a group had spotted a tiger. We came to know this after we reached the rest house. On another occasion our jeep passed by and one of the boys from Chandrapur who was on foot saw the tiger seconds after our jeep took a turn round a bend. Such experiences can be frustrating but perhaps they are necessary for you need to have patience while observing wildlife. None of us had the tiger on our minds while we took this last of our jeep rounds in Tadoba; but nature shows its miracles at the most unexpected of moments!!

As we reached the middle of the tar road, we saw a jeep that had halted and its inhabitants peering out. Thinking that there was some sighting, we also waited. The other jeep soon left. There was a small waterhole on our left. We did not see anything even after staring hard at the yellow bamboo growth. So we continued to move ahead; no sooner had our jeep moved than Sameer, shouted “TIGER, TIGER”. Back went the jeep to the spot we had just left,
and all eyes were on the overgrowth on our left to sight the striped animal. And there we spotted it, yes, it was very much there!!! It stood not very far, just behind the bamboos by the roadside. It was eyeing us wanting to gauge our motives and predict our movements, waiting for us to pass by. It paced up and down a bit then walked the length of our vehicle and waited behind us on the side of the road. It was obvious that it wanted to go back in the jungle on the right. Click! Click! went the cameras to shoot the majestic animal. Eyes to the binoc’s and craning our necks, although awkwardly positioned, we did not want to miss any of its movements. Because the tiger wanted to cross, we decided to retreat a bit. As the jeep moved away, the tiger came out in the open, on the road, still gazing intently at us, its every movement full of grace and elegance.

We were so engrossed in watching this tiger that we did not notice when another one made its appearance and a third one followed. Our joy and surprise knew no bounds. This was certainly not what we had dreamt of. Our jeep went back and forth, reverse and forward to allow the tigers enough space to crossover and to afford us the closest view possible. As the tiger moved, so we moved in the jeep, each of us wanting to get the most of this wonderful experience. We craned our necks tossed and turned about oblivious of our uncomfortable positions in the process. As if we had not had enough, Beena noticed a fourth one who had silently and unnoticed come and sat down in the bushes beside us. She was a female, bearing a fierce look, the mother of the three tigers we had just admired. As she made her headway to the road she did not forget to give us a threatening look, opening her mouth and showing her canines. With due respect we let her go by. The tiger is not a social animal and prefers to live by itself in its marked territory. These three tigers were almost full grown about 2 years of age and the mother would leave them anytime to fend on their own. But until she did that she was very protective of her offspring.

Four tigers in half an hour’s time!!!! JJJJ What could one say; this was a shower of blessings, Chappar Phad Ke. No sooner did we head back than we let out a loud Hurrah! Yippee! Not one, not two, but four tigers in such a short span of time at the same place and a total of five tigers in four days, this was simply unheard of!! Unfortunately Alka had not got her camera along with her (which had a zoom lens) and she regretted this very much. So we thought we could go back to the rest house and return with the camera. Although we had decided to keep mum about our sighting till we got the intended snaps, such news does not take time to reach everyone’s ears and the next time that we went back to the place, there were three other jeeps. One of the groups literally had come for a video shooting and one of them was leaning out of a window to get a better view. Not only this they were making quite a din. In spite of this we did spot the tiger but it soon retreated further inside the jungle without allowing us the photos for which we had returned. Nevertheless all talk was about the tiger and the tiger thereafter. At lunchtime we discussed our experience with others there and everyone was of the opinion that we were certainly lucky to have witnessed three full grown cubs and their mother J.

Later in the day we left Tadoba with fond memories of the wonderful and varied wildlife that we got to experience. After reaching Nagpur we celebrated our tiger sighting by treating ourselves to ice creams and mithai.


Tuesday, November 06, 2001

Virtues of Walking
All truely great thoughts are conceived while walking.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Few people know how to take a walk.
The qualifications are endurance,plain clothes,
old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity,
good speech, good silence and nothing too much.

- Ralph W Emerson

It is impossible to walk rapidly and be unhappy.
- Mother Teresa

Above all do not loose your desire to walk.
Everyday I walk myselfinto a state of well being and
walk away from every illness.

I have walked myself into my best thoughts
and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.

But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill...

if one keeps on walking everything will be alright.

- Soren Kierkegaard


There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country. A finelandscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the righttempo. Even a bicycle goes too fast.

- Paul S Mowrer

I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.

- G M Trevelyan


From "Sacred Space" in ToI dt Oct 18 2005.


Saturday, November 03, 2001

Extracts from Bill Aitken's writings

Riding the ranges- Travels on my motorcycle.

The next best thing to sex.

  • Motorbike riding, unlike many human activities is exactly, what it claims to be. It involves cocking one’s leg over the frame of a bicycle, but instead of gyrating the drive chain by the effort of calf muscles, your knees reassuringly cling to a petrol tank which fuels the operation.
  • Half way between a car and bicycle the motorbike continues to be something of a social hybrid. Perceived to be a poor man’s mode of locomotion, the image of the motorcyclist has always been slightly suspect in the eyes of the establishment and its undeniable potential to further individual waywardness has done little to mitigate society’s reservations about the machine.
  • The most common misconception about two wheelers is their supposedly dangerous status. This is a superstition of the kind that believes alcohol (an inert chemical) is evil. Obviously the evil arises when humans abuse the bottle. So, too does danger arise when the rider happens to be a dangerous driver. The motorbike is neutral and its performance depends entirely on the time and care invested in its maintenance by the owner.
  • Unlike a car where greater stability releases a mite of smugness at one’s progress, the two-wheel traveler is literally on his toes every second of the drive. At the end of a ride your arms ache and your buttocks feel like refrigerated meat. Don’t even think about your kidneys if you have forgotten to wrap a long cummerbund round to prevent your innards rattling. Sometimes your hands are like lumps of ice or, alternatively, your leg gets burned on the exhaust pipe. In the sun, the helmet saps your morale and in the rain your eyes feel like shrapnel is attacking them. Take the occasional toss when overtaking buses drive you into a ditch and, to dirt and grease of topsiding add mayhem and disgust.
  • But none of these gratuitous flips can outweigh the exhilaration and ecstasy of a well-tuned bike banking into a corner. With every fibre alive and pumping, you open up perfect chord, at one with the machine. The world moves and you are momentarily part of the cosmos, fully aware for eternity of that curve, of what life is all about and completely certain of its rightness. So the price you pay for exposure and discomfort on a motorbike is more than balanced by the poetry you discover and a sensation that sometimes feels like the next best thing to sex.
  • To stay alive demands full alertness and my motorbike rides around India have, above all, stimulated that rare faculty. The reason one wants to share the pleasure of those rides is to underline how easy it is for the ordinary Indian, in a country, which boasts the world’s highest population of two wheel vehicles, to get up and go discover his very own India, as marvelous as Pandit Nehru’s literary journey.
  • The first rule governing motorcycling ought to be obvious. Choose your bike to match your physique. In other words, be able to handle it so that the bile knows who’s master. Choosing a bike is a bit like getting married and I suspect more men stay with their bikes than with their wives these days. (Motoring by bike must be the only situation where bigamy arouses no censure).
  • I don’t treat my bike as anything but an equal partner on our expeditions. I depend entirely upon her and consider her feelings before taking on particularly rough terrain. I depend so much on my bike that I would not deny the charge of being fixated. The intense relationship you share with a bike after an excruciating challenge is a bonding experience. You sense the bike is sentient and appreciates your affection for her. After all, you couldn’t have done it without each other.
  • It is vital to note that while revelations come in the hush of a cave and scientific codes are cracked in a dream, penetrating thoughts are only admissible on long hauls on traffic free roads. For in-town riding, the quickest way to an accident would be to plunge into a reflective mood. It’s only when you are touring far from population centers that your autopilot switches on to let the mind range free. Your body remains alert and your eyes keep straying to the rear-view mirror but that laid-back entity, the mind, is undisturbed by your outer motions. It gazes like the Upanishadic bird on the overview of any problem, calm and presiding, an uncanny presence to have arisen from steady beat of a well-balanced ordinary-production bike.
  • Drinking and driving may not be an ideal combination, but certainly after a hard day’s drive, a nightcap of locally distilled spirits is of vital pick-me-up value. I remember returning from Kashmir after a day’s marathon run pulling up, stiff and shattered, outside a dhaba near Chandigarh. Painfully climbing off the bike I ordered tea and biscuits. But Sardarji, the proprietor, took one look at my condition and said scornfully, “ You don’t need chai-biskoot, you need rum-murgi”.
  • Intoxication, it should not be forgotten, is the object of life, to drink in the beauty of the land and its people. In spite of the obvious backwardness and grimly primitive living standards, India at heart, is perhaps the world’s richest country. If it seems a weird conclusion to reach, and defies all the accepted economic parameters, I can only contend that the world appears a much more joyous place when viewed from the saddle of a motorbike. Seeing the great ranges in profile I was immeasurably enriched. For a small investment I received manifold returns. If some risk was demanded, this was acceptable. After all, risk is God’s choicest gift to two wheelers.

  • 99% of mountaineering narratives lie when they make out their expeditions were performed in a haze of euphoric enjoyment. They know this is what the untried public wants to hear. After all, the topping out on Everest is supposed to be manly and noble. But most of the time life above 10,000 ft is sheer misery. The glory of being in the high Himalaya is an exalted myth.

  • Relaxation is one of life's choisest gifts but u can only experience its plentitude after an exciting stretch of tension

  • The most valuable lessons are to be extracted from the toughest situations. My quest was to sample the elements and, all too often, an easy outing strengthens the illusion that man's creative urge will enable him to subdue the apparently inert opposition of supposedly blind nature.

  • My findings went counter to the projection of the political school with their bright predictions of ultimate planetary harmony. How does one convince people in an age of Hindu revivalism that Indian civillization, for example, owes one percent to the philosophy of Shanakaracharya and 99 percent to the accident of the monsoon?

  • When soaring free in the hills the rider realizes how chained we are to the illusions of our lesser selves. To get astride a powered steed is to overcome mankind’s worst affliction, a sense of inadequacy that gives rise to popular need for netas, saviours and lotteries. Our miseries are self- induced, our free-ranging minds bartered for an urban conformity that encourages us to believe rather than think, and follow rather than discover for ourselves

  • We need to travel slowly, not because rushing is bad for the health but because contentment only comes from a mood of introspection. The excitement of fast riding is real because we are aware that death is a fraction away but it is the fullness of life that meaningful motion seeks. Sometimes while riding the great ranges of India I have had to clutch my heart at the blinding wonder and felt a ripple of bliss at the orgy of beauty suddenly revealed.

  • Life is a cyclical process and you can spot the youthfulness of Himalayan granite in the cragginess of the spires just as you can sense the hoariness of the peninsular shield in its compacted layers of granite, a mere 2000 million years older! The crest of Sahyadri once lay where the Laccadive corals stand, the truth of geology mocking both the cant of religion and the claptrap of politics. I rode to exult in the raw beauty of these inspiring indicators of the earth’s molten matrix.

  • Human beings need inspiration almost as desperately as respiration and simply to be on the mountain road on a bike is to trigger felicity. We lift our eyes to the great ranges because their help is immediate. They dispel the disillusionment that attaches to the bittersweet taste of worldly success, so soon to turn sour. The ranges beckon because they help answer the human longing to discover meaning in the fragmentation all around us. Their steadfastness is sufficient to echo a witnessing spirit that reminds us of primary loyalty to the underlying flame within.

  • A good trek is not measured just by the physical coordinates of the cool heights attained and scenic ridges traversed. Perhaps more crucial is the inner satisfaction that derives from walking with companions who stay agreeable under testing conditions and whose sympathies remain as a warm afterglow.

The Nanda Devi Affair - Bill Aitken

It is only when you top sixty and find your knees beginning to protest
against the gradient that you begin to appreciate the rewards that can come from the least challenging of mountain trails. Widely regarded as beginners country, the Kumaun treks to Pindari and Milam can be rediscovered as pleasurable outings for oldies provided you are more concerned with honouring the central place of Nanda Devi in the scheme of things than your own reputation as a seasoned hard-man.


Travelling slow and in comparative comfort has the great advantage over vertical expeditions strivings of not feeling bound by the hand of clock or resentful of middling weather. The very state of beatitude we seek in turning again to mountains can be compromised by the lure of impressive toppings out that may look better in the record book than they feel in our immortal seam of recollection.


Too much challenge can be just as dispiriting as too little. We need above all explore those areas dear to each individual and traditionally the expedition is expected to serve a common aim; which too often translates as shared misery.


By joining an expedition you are perhaps moving further from your aim of discovering your true being. A poor pilgrim wandering tried trails may get nearer that ineffable experience the trained mountaineer expects to find by virtue of going where no foot has trod before.


The week's trek to Milam proves ideal for old bones to overcome modest challenges. It provides a glimpse of the bliss that awaits any who join with the Gori Ganga to force a passage through the Himalaya.

The Mountaineer who helped discover (and best described) the ravishing realm of the Goddess
(Nandadevi) was Eric Shipton, perhaps the perfect choice since his romantic inclinations were miles away from the military manoeuvres school. Shipton's oneness with the Godness made him an odd man out and it was inevitable that his philosophy of an "overriding passion" as the motive force for mountaineering would be ruthlessly ignored by the English climbing establishment when they came to choose a winning leader for the 1953 Everest expedition. When peaks have to be conquered for prestige and funds poured in to guarantee the flutter of a flag from the summit it is only proper that corporals who aspire to be sergeants and
brigadiers smitten with the passion for full command should be recruited before poets and mountain mystics. It is coincidence that Nanda Devi has never hosted the conquerors of Everest- Hunt, Hilary and Tenzing - but in beckoning back Shipton and Ang Tharkey the Goddess proved that she could recognize her own.


Winter in the hills is a visibly quiet time. The days though cold are magnificiently sereneand viewing the snows now is to experience the distinct sensation of nature aslumber. A somnolent azure lies about the winter snow-line where the cold air traps the wood smoke of the village fires. The flattened cling of this heavenly shade lazily gives way to the deeper blue of the winter sky caused by the sun's southmost journeying. Unlike the plains where the cosmic junction at the turning back of the sun makes little impact, in the Himalayas one is aware of the solstitial reversal process. Southwestwards the sunset becomes more hauntingly beautiful than in the monsoon when the bruised texture of the clouds had caught scarlet inspiration. The January twilight horizon is the most moving of natural spectacles when the sky changes dramatically from the fury of red to the promise of gold then briefly yields to the poignancy of green that brings tears to the eternal witness in man.

October is the best trekking season when the golden days yield the full fragrance of harvested sap. The sky is a celestial blue and the air perfectly attuned to vigorous marches. Sun dappled trees and the roar of rushing water coursing off the mountainside stimulate the taste of salt on one’s lips while the sifting wind soothes any regret at the sweat. It is good to be alive in high Garhwal in October as the crickets fill the clear air with a deafening drone of plentitude. The intensity of the sky with few puffed clouds abroad by early afternoon contrasts with the map-like spread of fields below. Crops of ripening red buckwheat shock the eye as do the yellow stalks of scarlet coxcomb. The multihued greens of the jungles begin to enclose one’s progress and range from the deep chrome of oak and dark viridian of spruce to the fresh gloss of chestnut and maple.

Savage encounters (like Joe Tasker’s on Dunagiri) might be thought to have imprinted a conviction of immortality forever on the survivor’s forehead but no theory fits when the human vessel insists it is too small and any overflowing is mistaken as a leak that needs constant replenishment. Like greatness sainthood is thrust on the climber who desides his mountain is worth dying for, and who can judge that such singular (seemingly suicidal) devotion in surrendering the gift of individuality (and causing unbearable grief to companions) is not a valid way for some? ‘ Better die trying to wake than live in sleep’.

In my benign walks around the sanctuary meadows, viewing the peaks and considering some of the achievements of the, studying the religious feelings of local people and noting the glories in the rare beauty of the forests and the riotous sexuality of the flowers, I followed my inmost instinct to worship.

As a male writer I make no apology for viewing the mountain Goddess as a village woman for that in fact is the way hill theology pictures Nanda Devi. Mountaineers married to the craft have perhaps realized that it is more pleasurable to learn the many moods of feminine unpredictability from the stern lessons of the Alps and Himalayas rather than have the same gripe voiced daily down the years from a contracted rope-mate over breakfast table. To find the real woman of one’s choice is indeed a mountaineering task since achieving the impossible is what climbing is all about.


Extracts from Edward Hamilton Aitken's "The Common Birds of Bombay"

We have two kinds of Kites in Bombay the Common (Milvus govinda) and the Brahminy (Haliastur indus), so called because it seems to be a bird of higher caste. For the avoidance of family brawls nature seems to have assignedseparate portions to these two birds, giving the refuse of the land tothe one and the refuse of the water to the other. It is not that oneeats flesh and the other fish. Nothing that goes overboard from a shipcomes amiss to the Brahminy, and the Common Kite will snatch fish fromthe very basket on a woman's head. But the one likes to pick itsfood off the water and the other off the ground. So the one haunts theharbor, while the other tales charge of the bazaar.
For the Myna has a character. I once had a Myna and a canary in cages, which hung at my window. A ruffian crow came in one day and perched on the top of the canary's cage. Of course the silly bird fluttered allround the cage, dinging to the bars, and gave the crow the chance it wanted. It caught a leg in its powerful beak and tried to pull itthrough the bars. But the canary's body could not pass through, so the poor bird's leg was literally torn out by the roots, and it died in a few minutes. I suppose the crow swallowed the leg, and shortly afterwards it returned, thinking to have a leg of the Myna for its next course. I was in the room, but it did not see me; so, after glancing round the room with a proprietary air, it bounced on to the top of the Myna's cage. But the Myna, sitting on its perch, knew it was quite safe and felt no agitation; so it was free to take an interest in the crow, and its interest fixed instantly on an ugly black toe, which hung down through the bars over its head. It caught that toe in its sharp beak and made an example of it. I tell you, it was exhilarating to observe the suddenness with which that crow jumped to the conclusion that it had urgent business elsewhere. Here is the difference between a Myna and a canary. A canary cannot learn that it is safe inside a cage.

Lapwings : It belongs to the family which includes those long-shanked birds which bare their legs and walk about in shallow waters, or walk upon dry ground on stilts. They have no hind toe. (check). For those who never perch on tress or for that matter anywhere, of what use is a hind toe. They all lay their egg on the ground, and the young run as soon as they are hatched. The Red-wattled Lapwing also commonly found in our villages, has on its cheeks two bright red lappets, like the wattles of a cock. It is a greenish-brown bird with a good deal of black and white upon it. The head is black, with the throat, down to the upper part of the breast. Below this the under parts, with the lining of the wings, are pure white, as you see when it flies. Actually it needs no description and wants no introduction. It introduces itself to you: impresses itself on you; dins itself into you. And all the time it is reiterating, with piercing emphasis, that mysterious taunt, "Did you do it? Did you do it? Pity to do it." Suddenly its mate springs into visibility and joins it. That’s reason enough to suspect that somewhere on the ground, not far from your feet, there are four stone colored eggs, with black blotches on them, arranged in a cross with their points inwards. But it is no use looking for them. The Lapwing is such an accomplished liar that it will throw you off the scent one way or another. There is another kind of Lapwing, with yellow instead of red wattles on its cheeks. Otherwise it is very like the common one, but somewhat paler in color and with less black on it. There is a syllable less in its cry. It, however, likes a dry climate, and I have not often seen it on the coast.

Stone curlew- Eurasian thick knee – It receives its name from the bulge at the knee in contrast to its reed thin legs. These ground nesting birds are masters of camouflage. Their nest consists of little more than a collection of pebbles and twigs put together in a mess. The bird makes up for this inadequacy by laying eggs that superbly gel with the surroundings. The patterns on the eggs break the contours and they become impossible to locate. This prevents them from being gobbled up by other creatures looking for a tasty meal. Moreover the female detests attracting attention. She will sit still like a statute while hatching. When she can no longer resist moving away she reduces attracting attention to herself and the nest by interspersing her movements with brief periods of immobility. The chicks when they hatch are equally difficult to locate. They merge in the mess of pebbles, sand and dry grass. To add to this they are very obedient kids. On an alarm call by the mother they will freeze and merge with the background without moving an inch, and remain so till the mom gives an “all clear” signal.
Vulture : The Long-billed Vulture breeds always on high cliffs," while its Bengal brother is content to build its nest on any tree big enough to bear the weight of such a ponderous. I have seen a single mango tree groaning under several nests. Each nest contains one egg, generally (if clean), but sometimes blotched with brown. The breeding season extends over the greater part of the year and eggs may be found from October to March at least. Most young birds are hungry and clamorous, crying give, give, from dawn till dusk. But the young vulture learns patience early. Its mother leaves it before sunrise and it sits hour after hour, motionless and noiseless, waiting for her return. It may be noon before it detects her, a mere speck in the sky, but growing bigger every moment as she slopes down towards the nest. At last, with heavy flapping, she lets herself down, and great is the cackling, for though she carries nothing in her beak, the youngster knows that she is loaded. What follows is not polite. In plain language she disgorges great lumps of meat and thrusts them into its mouth.
A vulture cannot feed her young any other way than this, for the carcass on which she dined may be ten miles away. And indeed a vulture never carries food, or anything else, except a stick for its nest, and that too in its beak. Vultures do not have strong talons for killing prey because they are scavengers that do not hunt down live prey. All other birds of prey carry with their feet, but this is impossible to the vulture because it is incapable of swooping and cannot even rise off the ground without taking a run. Once fairly in the air, no bird surpasses the majesty of its flight.
Vultures are extremely good at detecting a dead creature. Before the life has left the old body some distant “pater-roller” has seen it, and, with rigid wings slightly curved, is sloping down at a rate, which wipes out five miles in a few seconds. A second sees the first and, interpreting its action follows with all speed. A third pursues the second, and so on till, out of a sky in which you could not have described two birds half an hour ago, thirty or forty dark forms are converging on one spot . When they get right over it, they descend in decreasing spirals and settle at various distances and wait for the end like American reporters. When the end comes, if you are squeamish or fastidious, go away. All that will corrupt, everything in short but the bones, is to be removed from that carcass within twenty-four hours, and the vultures have taken the contract to do it. Such work cannot be made artistic and the vulture is not aesthetic. That baldhead and bare neck are not ornamental, but they mean business; they are the sleeves tucked up for earnest work. It allows them to thrust their heads deeper into a dead carcass without getting their feathers dirty. The gourmands jostle and bump into each other. And chase each other round the board with long, ungainly hops and open wings. One has no sooner thrust its head well into the carcass than another leaps upon its back with loud laughter. Two get hold of opposite ends of a long strip of offal and dance before each other with wings outstretched. And the cackling and grunting and roaring that go on all the while may be heard for half a mile. When darkness overtakes the revelers some of them have so shamefully over-eaten themselves that they cannot rise from the ground and are forced to spend the night where they are.
Woodpecker: The golden backed woodpecker industriously hammering into the bark. Peeling and chipping away at the loose bits. What is it up to? The Woodpecker's trade is a curious one. While other birds are hunting for all sorts of insects that fly in the air, or crawl on the ground, or hide among the leaves of trees, it lays siege to those which fancy they have defied their enemies by burrowing into the solid trunk. Like many of the insect eating birds, the wood pecker has a long sticky tongue. As it drills in the bark it thrusts its tongue in the holes, openings and cracks to pick/suck up juicy grubs, worms, and insects that live underneath the protective covering of the bark.
It does not perch along the branches of a tree, like the other birds, but runs up the trunk and boughs like a squirrel, clinging with its strong claws and propping itself up with its short, stiff tail. Its head, set crosswise on the thin, supple neck looks like the hammer of a gun, and it stops at intervals to hammer fiercely at the trunk of the tree. Its blows are delivered with extraordinary rapidity and energy; indeed, all its actions are impulsive and hasty. Its beak is a regular chisel, square at the point, with an edge kept always sharp, on what grind-stone, we don’t know. Its tongue, which can be thrust out for a distance of three or four inches, is armed at the point with strong and sharp hooks, and is sticky so that it forms at once a very searching and a fast holding instrument. Specialized functions and structures that allow a woodpecker to live off insects burrowed in trees include a strong beak, highly developed neck and tongue muscles, stiff feathers sized for stability, sturdy leg bones and skull, a curving spine, and a reversed toe.
Hoopoe: Its beak is more than two inches in length and very slender, and the Hoopoe probes the dry land and draws out "ant-lions" and other subterranean grubs. The legs of the Hoopoe are very short indeed, so that it is obliged to carry its body very level in order to keep its tail off the ground. This, together with its erect neck and prim gait, gives it the appearance of being a very precise sort of person, which no doubt it is. It is always exquisitely dressed, in a suit of reddish fawn with the skirts, of some black material, with broad white bars, which flash out with beautiful effect when it starts to fly. On its crown it wears a crest, which is usually, folded down and projects behind, giving its head and neck the appearance of a toy pickaxe; but at times, when it is startled, and always in the act of alighting, the feathers start up into a lovely corona of cinnamon red bordered with black.

Cattle egret: It lives principally on insects and follows cattle diligently when they are grazing, for the sake of the grasshoppers stirred by their feet, and also for the chance of usefulness in relieving the poor beasts of various small tormentors. The cattle appreciate the kindness and repay it by giving the birds the freedom of their backs. Sometimes yon will see a meek buffalo chewing the cud, while a Cattle Egret stands on its head and performs surgical operations on its ears. The name of this species in Jerdon is Buphus coromandus. During the monsoon its whole neck is clothed with plumes of a rich orange-buff color, and you may easily distinguish it. In the cold season it is all white, but even then you may always recognize it, if you get near enough, by its yellow bill. The bill of the Little Egret is black. It nests in company with Pond Herons and other Egrets, laying paler eggs. The common native name for all these birds is Bugla, but the Cattle Egret is sometimes distinguished as Gai-bugla