Friday, 31 December 2010

Slippy New Year Everybody!

Welcome to the Shimalayas

It's New Year's eve so I'm allowing myself a few precious minutes to pop up a few photos before I get down to yet more studying. However, since I have tomorrow off - I've got class again on Sunday to make up for it - I'm also going to allow myself to go to "The Ridge" in Shimla about 11pm just to see what's happening. There are a lot of tourists in town for the New Year, many of them delighting in something they've never seen before - snow!

Anyway, I'm starting the evening off with some Polish beer, which gives me a nice little connection with home! :)

It snowed overnight, it is usually quite thick with snow here by now but I think it might have decided to go for a holiday in Western Europe this year instead. So myself and Mike (a Floridian who's in the room next to mine) and our trainers decided to take a trip up to Jakhu Temple - a temple to Hanuman the monkey god (btw the story of Rama & Hanuman is a cracking one) - during lunchtime.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Shall I Go to Shali Peak? Glad I did!

These are a few photos from a trip we made during a 16km hike up to Shali peak and back - a trip that was bracketed with two terrifying bus journeys! I would dearly love to write some stuff about this but I'm sorry to bleat but seriously I just do not have the time.

In summary though, the Koenig trainers organised a day out, for themselves as much as anything. Originally I wasn't going to join them as I needed to study but I moved my exam from the Monday to Tuesday and gave myself this Sunday to join them.

As well as the trainers and ancilliary staff, there were three students; myself, Mike and Ranjeet as well as one of the Koenig guy's daughters.

All off together in a bus with a in-built PA system blaring out very, I said VERY LOUD, Hindi music. Anyway, over the day I took loads & loads of photos and quite a bit of video, but without any further words, here's a few of the photos as a taste for what the Himalayan foothills are like.

You see the highest pointy bit. We're supposed to be walking up to there. Not from here obviously, but nonetheless!

BTW, this was one of the most fantastic days I have ever lived through, although at times especially on the bus journey home, at night - when the driver could drive even faster 'cos he could see headlights to know if something was coming! - I wondered if it was a day I would live through.

After crossing roads you would seriously consider whether or not to take a Range Rover down we arrive at the tiny village at the base of Shali Peak. We can now see just where we have to go - it's still the highest bit of bump!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Tiger Trails

My first safari drive. Wahey. I’d expected it might be a bit chilly so I’d brought my thermal top. However, as we were driving along at something before 7am in an open top jeep I really started regretting not also having brought my gloves. My hands kept flitting between my armpits and my bags as I tried to stay warm and stop my gear from jumping out of the jeep as we bumped down the road on the way to the gate for the Bijrani zone of the park. We picked up a naturalist guide, it being too cold for naturist guides, and the three of us headed into the park.

Once past the approx. 1km buffer zone around the edge of the park – where authorised locals are allowed to enter and collect firewood and fodder (although a woman was apparently attacked and killed in this buffer zone two weeks previous according to some of the other park guests I later met over dinner whilst staying in the Forest Rest House) – we started coming across what for me were some of the most defining scenery in the entire park, as I saw. Monsoon river beds. No water in them as the water source is the monsoon rains rather than any ongoing water source, but the park is streaked with this scars. All of them utterly boulder strewn and simply awe-inspiring as you can only imagine the power of the water rushing down them when they’re at full tilt. (And many of them are indeed on a significant tilt as I would come across the next day on my way into the heart of the park to stay at the Dhikala Forest Rest House).

After a little more driving through a simply beautiful landscape of trees, river beds and termite mounds we came across a small compound and a Forest Rest House with a toilet stop and little snack shack. From there we were then onto the trails. Now I came here fully expecting that I wouldn’t see any tigers and not even hoping to see any as I was expecting that there would be more than enough to keep me happy. In that thought I was completely right and by the end of my stay I’d racked up around a thousand photos – obviously not all of them any good, though I did delete the completely hopeless as I went – and nearly five hours of video tape, again with a lot of throw away but I have something to work with. However, during my first and each subsequent drive out the primary focus for the driver, guide and most other park visitors (though there were many birders when I got to Dhikala) was “tiger tiger” and you simply can’t help getting caught up in it.

We hit the trails and this was fairly serious hard-core off-roading. Not the sort of thing the average Chelsea tractor could do. You need fully independent low-ratio four-wheel drive with no consequent thought to your paintwork or state of your underbody to do this! It was exhilarating, standing up on the rear seats, hanging onto the combined anti-roll/grip on for dear life bars as we drove through dust tracks which soon put paid to any thoughts of swapping lenses. Here’s a hint, if you ever go on safari, take as many camera bodies as lenses that you intend to use and DO NOT swap lenses!

We drove round and round a myriad of tracks up and down, cross streams, into forest, into grasslands all over. Stopping at key points and just waiting, silently. Then another jeep might show up and we’ll both wait. An alarm call from a Muntjac (or Barking Deer), Sambar (an almost elk-sized deer) or Langur would direct the driver(s) to a spot and we’d wait. I can confess that I did see a tiger. About 1/10 of a tiger, for less than half a second, twice. Both in the same area and within an hour of each other. The first time it had been standing in grass and by the time I’d spotted where my guide was pointing me to I saw it move off. The second time, I just saw its head as it jumped through some grass about 20m away. Both times there were between six and nine jeeps and an elephant watching out for it. We could see everywhere it would go, there were no thickets, simply grass and both times it just … went. An absolute master and a very good lesson in exactly why no-one, not even the guides, step a foot outside the jeeps!

Throughout the day on that first drive day I spotted and passed my cabin mates from the train, who were both very disappointed at not having seen a tiger. Just about every other jeep I saw had anywhere from 4 people (2 + driver + guide) to 10 people. At least I didn’t have anyone else to compete with over camera positions.

We stopped for lunch on a dry river bed crossing and by this time it was into the mid 30s C. I’d stripped my thermal vest at the first toilet stop. Seeing the roadway across the monsoon beds I began to appreciate the massive amount of work, mostly physical labour, that must go into preparing the park for each season. The roads were cleared of the massive boulders that post monsoon would be just as evenly distributed over the roadway as everywhere else. Nature tends to have little regard for our puny human endeavours. Following dinner more rodeo driving. I felt like Sully riding an Ikran – or a Cossack striding two horses if you’re not that familiar with Avatar – as we hurtled around. Real boy’s own stuff! Tell you what though the drivers and guides must have butt cheeks like bed springs to tolerate this day in day out!

At the end of a thrilling day when I walked into the hotel to collect my room key I was asked how the day went and would I like a coffee. “Yes please, I’ll just go and freshen up first though”. When I came out of my room, walking across the lawn I saw that there was tea and coffee being served on the lawn and being none the wiser duly obtained my cup and helped myself to some of the savoury nibbles and biscuits that were also on offer and sat down with other guests who’d arrived whilst I was out playing at the big white hunter. I got chatting to a couple of Indian fellows and it turned out they were a party of businessmen and families having a little Rotary style get-together and they invited me to join them for dancing and dinner later.

I went inside to ask for a beer (Kingfisher) and the Maitre’D who’d accompanied me on my walk the day earlier, proceeded to pour it and set it at a table where I could overlook the proceedings outside. “It’s OK, I’ll drink it outside” “But that’s a private party Sir, please you can sit here” “It’s OK, I’ll take it outside, I’ve already been invited” – to which he looked a little non-plussed as I strolled back out to join my new friends.

Long tale short. A fun but short night as I learned how to “Dad dance” in Hindi.