Sunday 22 February 2015

Dooars - From the forests to the mountains

It is good to spend the Christmas holidays with family and last year, it was actually possible. This post is about our holiday travel to some parts of North Bengal. Very unusual for us, it was not a well researched or well planned holiday, but something we came up with after speaking to the travel agents. All our booking were done by Wind Oz, a travel agency based in Siliguri who specialise in eco and adventure tourism -
We put our faith in them as we embarked on our trip. 

The Journey begins

It was a Sunday evening in December we found ourselves rocking on the sleeper berths of the overnight Darjeeling mail - destination New Jalpaiguri. It could be categorised as an unplanned trip. None of us had bothered to look up the places booked by our travel agent and the plan was based on availability - there wasn't much during the holiday season anyway, so we thought it was going to be a compromise. All we wanted to do was spend some quality time, away from it all, the location did not matter as long as it was quiet and peaceful. The forest or the mountains never disappointed anyway.

Our driver for the trip was going to be Alam whom we came to know on one of our previous trips to the Dooars 6 years ago, one of the most adventurous trips - but that deserves a post of its own. He was waiting for us outside the station. A huge grin crossed his face as he recognised my niece. She was a toddler when he had last seen her. We got our luggage on the rooftop, 6 people travelling through various degrees of temperature for 11 days - we had packed conservatively. Everything stowed away and tied up, we settled down and were off on our journey.

Day 1 - entering Dooars

Our first stop was at the famous Sevoke Kalibari, offering our prayers to the much venerable Goddess. After the Puja and a breakfast of Momos (dumplings) and very sweet tea, we were on our way to our first overnight stop - Paren.
Enroute, we made a stop at the Murti river lodge to have a glimpse of the river, running almost dry during the winter months.
Driving through non-existent roads for 30 kms through the Chapramari forest area, we made our late lunch stop at Jhalong river camp. About 10 kms from Paren, this is a forestry department camping ground where more permanent accommodation is provided in tents which have to be pre-booked. We had to call them up earlier in the day to order our lunch.
It was dusk when we reached the West Bengal Forest Department cottages in Paren. Four cottages all single roomed en-suites were laid around the well maintained ground along with the main building that housed the kitchen and restaurant and also served as the reception area. Behind the cottages rose the forests and the hills. Even though we were still on lower grounds of the Dooars, the temperature had started to drop. In the absence of any running hot water, the caretaker and soon after my father got busy getting us hot water from wood fire.
The caretaker shot off to the village to buy food and getting help for the cooking and soon the kitchen was bustling with activity. After an early dinner, we were glad to get under the blankets.

Day 2 - continuing on the foothills of the Himalayas

Paren is a good location for bird-watching and not without reason. We woke up to the chirping of the birds early dawn. Though I do not consider myself as a bird-watcher was drawn into the game by my sister in law and brother. We walked down to the village just as the sun appeared with its first golden rays melting into the mist. Dew drops sparkled everywhere.
We walked up the forest path behind the cottages. The forest was the livelihood of the locals providing them with fire wood and fodder for the cattle. A young boy from the village hopped and skipped up the path and gave us curious glances. We didn't look like a group of trekkers, still in our bed clothes, with a kid and a couple of septuagenarians. The undergrowth was dense at places, and as the path started to grow rockier and steeper, we decided to return.
Breakfast of aloo-paratha was waiting for us. We started off for Suntaleykhola after breakfast.
The first stop came quick after only 10 kms from Paren - Bindu dam on the river Jaldhaka. The river serves as the border between India and Bhutan. Locals from both countries walk across the border without resistance, but the military outposts keep a sharp eye on visitors and unfamiliar faces.
After a short stopover in which I also realised that the river water can numb the feet within seconds, we were on our way to Suntaleykhola.

Suntaleykhola, near Samsing is about 30 kms from Paren. We traced back our route from the day before, passing through Jhalong and crossing the Murti river farther up till we were driving through acres of lowland tea gardens.
We made another stop just before Suntaleykhola at a popular picnic spot called the Rocky Island. It was indeed very popular on the day with at least three different picnics in progress, each accompanied with their own music, blaring on loudspeakers, the smell of food and alcohol in the air, the trash already being dumped in and around the river bed. Somehow I managed to steal this photograph, it could indeed be a nice place. I was glad to escape.
On the bridge over the picnic spot my father purchased some oranges and they were the sweetest I have ever tasted. The region is famous for the Darjeeling oranges and the word Suntaleykhola literally translates to Orange Stream in Nepalese, the later for the water body that trickles through it.

We reached the WBFDC tourist lodge just in time for another late lunch. WBFDC provides room and cottage accommodation as well as a river camp for a more close to nature experience, all within half a kilometre and almost equidistant from each other. We were booked in the rooms. A little further down is the river camp and then the independent cottages by the stream.
After another late lunch we walked down to the bridge on the stream. This too was a rocky river bed, dried out during the winter months, but the locals said it barely had any more water rest of the year. The best part of the walk was to jump on the suspension foot bridge making it sway and getting dizzy in the way.
We walked around and chatted with the locals. The caretaker at the river camp asked us in and brewed some Darjeeling green tea for us.

As dusk descended, so did the temperature. Dinner was prepared by the young wife of the caretaker's son. She had met her future husband in school, fell in love and got married. While helping at the lodge, the couple were also continuing with their studies. Dinner was followed by a session of star gazing - perfect conditions with clear moonless sky and no light pollution to distract.

Day 3 - starting for the mountains

Woke up to a racket - thrashing around in the trees and barking dogs. It turned out to be a troop of monkeys who were the cause of distress for the dogs.
I went out on a walk, first to the river camp, the sun was just breaking through the trees and bird watchers were already perched on the rocks.
My niece was arriving with her parents, armed with cameras as I started back for the lodge but decided to continue walking up to the village. The evening before, during tea at the river camp, the caretaker had told us about a sunrise viewing point from the roof of a local house. I went on to check the viewpoint and found my father and Alam already there, socialising with the locals.
Suntaleykhola has quite a few trekking routes through the Neora Valley National Park including a three day trek to Lava. However, we were making a short overnight stay and did not have much time to look around the place either. So after breakfast we started on the longest journey of our trip till now. We were to leave the Dooars and go up into the mountains. The next stop would be 90 kilometres away at Rikkisum. Located near Pedong between Lava and Kalimpong, Rikkisum is considered to be providing the widest uninterrupted view of the Kanchenjungha range.

The roads were steep as Alam drove us up the winding mountain roads.
We made a stop to rest our queasy stomachs as the Chel river tumbled through. But it was a stop with a view and some local delicacy. The journey was interrupted by a number of temporary road closures. The road was being widened and this required felling of trees and blasting away the mountains. Huge earth moving machinery had been moved up to these steep slopes. The roads were buzzing with workers, chopping off the branches of the felled trees while trying to control traffic on these busy roads. We made a short stop in Lava to buy some necessities.
Eventually reached Rikkisum in the late afternoon. We were booked in at the Sana home stay right on the edge of the road and facing a glorious open valley. A few steep stairs took us up to the cottages set up at three levels. The topmost also housing the kitchen and restaurant. We were booked in the middle set of cottages. There were a handful of other home stays around apart from which the place was empty. The village was way down in the valley. At 1800 metres above sea level and in the late afternoon sun on the open face of the mountain, it was time to pull out all our woolens.
A quick lunch was followed by a mad rush to get to the top of the hill for the sunset. An unpaved narrow road branching off about 50 metres from the home stay to reach the top of the hill. At the top are the remnants of a British age bungalow, which supposedly is haunted, but provides an interesting background to the spectacular view of the grand Kanchejungha. It is also possible to zig zag up from the home stay itself and get on to the unpaved road and then walk about the couple of kilometres to the top. The locals said that it is actually the top of the hill, the place of the old bungalow, that is called Rikkisum.

The view, though a bit hazy was still beautiful as we saw the white mountain range turn golden as the sun set behind the clouds. It was time to get back to some hot tea.
We had two rooms booked for us. But since one room had three good sized double beds, and the other one was dark and damp, we decided to snuggle in together - giving us the opportunity for some family time together but also a medley of snores at varied frequencies and pitch. We had an early start the next day for the sunrise.

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  1. It was nice to read your travel experience for Christmas holidays in Darjeeling, Dooars, Suntaleykhola and other locations. North Bengal is indeed a beautiful location to pay a visit for holidays. When you go places like that you feel peaceful at you mind and rejuvenate yourself.

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