SUBJECT :The quest for the fabled western tragopan is only one of many excuses to trek in the Great Himalayan National Park. 

Dhel, an alpine meadow in the Great Himalayan National Park, fringed by pink and white rhododendron. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)

Jujurana, May 5, 2019: As we trekked through flower-bedecked meadows and bridle trails skirting roaring mountain rivulets; the word clung like a burr. Goats bobbed their heads to it. Cowbells jangled to its rhythm. Jujurana — “the king of birds” — is a sobriquet for the exquisite western tragopan, the state bird of Himachal Pradesh.

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Our party of five arrived at the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park in springtime to explore one of its pristine and least-walked trails; hoping to spy this fetching Himalayan pheasant, whose bright orange neck collar and dark, white-stippled plumage have captured the imagination of artists for centuries. Wary of humans, this rare and elusive fowl inhabits dense undergrowth in misty forests above 2,000 m and is rarely seen, although its haunting khuwaah-khuwaah call is often heard at dawn and dusk.

From Aut on the Mandi-Kullu highway, we made for Neuli and stayed the night at a spartan forest lodge. From here, a dusty road, flanked by wild walnut trees, snaked towards a hydroelectric project that harnesses the Sainj and Tirthan rivers, the twin lifelines of the Great Himalayan National Park. The dams, raised apparently to obey the will of the people, threaten the park’s fragile ecosystem. The western tragopan and other pheasants are highly sensitive to disturbance, besides being at risk from poaching, a threat that comes with increasing human encroachment.

Community-based ecotourism has sustained the Great Himalayan National Park since it was notified in 1999. Our porters arrived next morning to carry our tents. We followed, distracted by everything with feathers, and stopped to brunch on omelettes at a streetside eatery. My leather hiking boots, handed down from well-heeled trekkers, began to act their age. At the last village, a cobbler reinforced them with rubber glue.

Our eight-day itinerary went thus: reach the trekkers’ camp at Shakti by dusk on Day 1, leave next morning for our first campsite in Homkhani after crossing the Sainj, then ascend to the alpine meadow of Dhel, where we would camp two nights. From here we would make the treacherous crossing into Ghuntrao in the Tirthan Valley and then to the tragopan’s habitat in the bamboo forests of Shilt. On the last day, we would descend to Gushaini.

From Neuli, the 22-km walk to Shakti, about 2,100 m above mean sea level, is demanding for a first day, but the gradual ascent is a fitness test. Painted on a rockface were a desperate trekker’s words: “When I said love me to death, I didn’t mean kill me.”

One of two beautiful rivers that rise in the park. (Photos: Bijoy Venugopal)

In the gloaming we tottered, weary and famished, into a corralled yard planted with scarlet poppies. We supped by a bonfire and were asleep by nightfall. After breakfast, we crossed the Sainj in cold, steady rain. Koklass pheasants called, and then the dark and fragrant deodar forest fell silent but for the patter of rain on foliage and the crunch of gravel underfoot. A 6-km hike brought us to Homkhani — a sunlit glade that gazed out on snow-draped peaks. A chestnut-headed tesia — a tiny, tailless songbird — played hide and seek. It was heartbreaking to leave in the morning but the trail was therapeutic, taking us through coniferous forests, past waterfalls dissolving in aquamarine plunge pools. All along, we felt we were being watched, and it wasn’t encouraging to discover a leopard’s spoor — a Monal pheasant kill and fresh scat beside a stream.

Above the treeline, forest yielded to grassland studded with violet gentian and white daisies. Industrious bees gathering pollen kept up a steady thrum. The sky darkened as we entered an undulating alpine meadow of sun-dried golden grass in the crook of an enormous ridge. At 3,737 m, Dhel was our campsite for the next two days. Marsh marigolds and purple primroses dotted the moist ground near our water source, a snowmelt stream dripping from a glacier. We observed a wealth of birds, including Himalayan bluetails and golden bush-Robins. A red fox confirmed its presence with a neat pile of droppings outside our tents. We were wary of Himalayan brown bears, but I was lucky to glimpse a musk deer high on the ridge.

The tragopan’s secretive grounds lay a day’s trek away. At dawn, we perked up as a mournful call sounded faintly from behind the ridge. Our hopes rested on the much-dreaded crossing into the adjoining Tirthan Valley. Our plan was to negotiate the slim ridge between the Sainj and Tirthan valleys but the porters broke disappointing news: the crossing to Ghuntrao was packed with melting snow, creating a slippery passage bounded by a sheer rock wall on one side and a 200 m drop on the other. We swallowed our dismay. From Dhel, our guide pointed to our next halt — a speck in the landscape some 1,500 m below. We made a toe-crushing descent to Lapah. My boots yawned open. Chancing on a salubrious forest stream, we washed off the sweat and stench of the last five days.

We spent the evening reacclimatising to civilisation, catching up on calls and checking email. In the morning, we took one last look at Dhel through our binoculars. I picked out the shrine to Durga, draped in red silk, and muttered my gratitude.

And Jujurana? The king of birds gives me reason to revisit the Great Himalayan National Park. With a new pair of trekking boots.

Bijoy Venugopal is a Bengaluru-based corporate communications professional and travel writer.


Source: indianexpress.com