Journals from Khetiyo
the other side of Corbett
The little triangular patch of grassland that you see in the middle above is Khetiyo. A stack of stones about three feet high cordon it off from the buffer zone with a very in-your-face-no-guarantee fallibility. You feel it all the more after the near unprotected half an hour hike through the jungle that gets you here.
I’ve lived in and around Delhi for about six years and Corbett had crossed conversations a couple of times but the idea of commercial safaris, firangs with binoculars, bright cheap hotels and the visual imagery of a “tourist bonanza” kept me from even considering a trip. So when Sameer mentioned that he was heading there with a bunch of friends, i was honestly a little meh in the mind.
The trip took us about 8 hours via the Merrut-Kotdwara-Lansdowne side into Madivan. One enters via the checkpost on the Kalagarh side of the forest but vehicles aren’t generally allowed beyond this point without permissions. A three kilometer hike through the forest trail takes you to the edge of Mandal river where the road abruptly stops. The water is really cold and the river bed isn’t as friendly as it looks.
A little uphill hike to the other side and one reaches the plateaued grassland that Khetiyo. Covered by forests from three sides, and there’s an old hut in mud and slate with smoke spewing out of the chimney. There should be chai.
The patch of grass you’re in is followed by large steps of sequentially taller patches of wild bushes as they eventually merge to the forest heights at a distance. Forest heights — that’d make a fancy apartment complex name.
Evenings are events in forests
The night blankets quickly because of the tall forest around. Not known to you, the forest crew- like sarkari babus are slowly drifting to their evening shift in the background. If you pay attention you can clearly hear the crickets partaking in their initial roll call. You don’t who from who in the bird world but can tell the difference between the phesants and woodpeckers, dollarbirds and the robins. The parakeets nestle down on some trees on the right side, the cuckoo establishes her distance as she shrieks a blunt triangle that muffles in the forest. A bunch of langoors do their housekeeping in between.
Imagine a score of minion musicians trying their minion best to put up a mildly soothing cacophony. Crickets in the grass behind you, to your right, and in the trees in front of you. There are distinct radial steps to this orchestra that assembles formlessly around you. One can extract a fleeting notion of importance amidst this nightly ritual, considering that one is always at the center of the performance.
Though loosely organized, this sound stage of a setup has a rather elaborate richness that dwells deep into your aural language leaving a lovely platter of sound vocabulary in your mouth, and through this rather badly organized orchestra, the forest welcomes the night.
They’re generally elevated to a couple of meters above the ground with a 3 feet deep-and-wide snake pit around. Post dinner, we head to the one on the right in the dark. As we near it we hear rustling sounds and as we instinctively turn on trekking beams, the sight ahead is a spectacle and is out of the world — a hundred plus pairs of deer eyes floating in the dark, staring back into you like Nietzsche’s abyss, albeit wary of what lies in you. Cheetals of all sizes have taken shelter around the machan. They scoot off in groups as we approach.
The plan is to stay quiet for twenty minutes or so in the dark so that they come back. They don’t. Perhaps we weren’t still enough. On the walk back to the campfire, I am, for some reason thinking of this:
Sharing a Mountain Hut with a Cloud
A lonely hut on the mountain-peak towering above a thousand others;
One half is occupied by an old monk and the other by a cloud:
Last night it was stormy and the cloud was blown away;
After all a cloud could not equal the old man’s quiet way.
a monk who lived in a humble hut on Lu-shan (盧山 Rozan)
A large part of the evening was spent baking crusty sweet potatoes with black salt and lemon.
Around one in the night, a peacock shriek sharply pierced the darkness like a quick sickle and before it could die out a a cacophony animals and birds closely followed from about three to five hundred meters from us. I realized that the human ear can radially locate sound to a fair degree of accuracy in the open. Now Sameer had told me about hearing jungle calls in the area, but in my head they were a bunch of alarms that the forest people would blare if a Tiger was around in the area, on a particular evening. The jungle call from about three to five hundred meters away on the day zero took all the attention we had.
The seven of us extinguished all conversation and looked at the dark, instinctively posturing ourselves closer to the fire. The apparent pointlessness of the walls began to dissolve my but-the-core-area-is-the-real-thing thinking. Three of us who, until about five minutes back were considering sleeping on the machan under the rather poetic star studded sky were now found adding generous amount of wood to the campfire.
I was the last to wake up the next morning
As i grabbed my chai in the chilly morning, i was told we were going to have lunch at a local house in the village on the other side of the hill. Chalo.
Breakfast was Basil omelettes and we began our trek to the cham village. Step one was to cross the Mandal river without being detected by the motion detection cams on the bridge.
The hike to the village took us three to four hours through some lovely tall forests, which really were artificial plantations that the British did, back in 19XXs. The lack of the hierarchical undergrowth that carpet most forest floors at the zero, three and five feet level made this artificiality really apparent. A species of parasitic creepers had made their way into most of the forest. They’d creep around tree trunks and eventually force the host out of existence. There was this quiet violence in the everyday affairs of the forests that were too slow for us to register.
“Khetiyo village was right here on this plane of the hill”, Sameer tells us. “..before the forest authorities decided to move the villages further away to expand on the buffer zone”. It felt nice to hear about effectively executed conservation efforts. Especially in the age of Before The Flood when travel is undergoing a containerization of sorts where you have the same sterilized hotel room available to you everywhere in the world.
The afternoon was dry and we had fresh Elephant poop here and there reminding us to be careful. “The heat keeps them away”, Mahesh ji explained. “Who”, somebody asked. “Bears”, he spoke as he lit a beedi while we waited for others to catch up to our 65 year old trek lead. We hurried the fuck up from there.
We’ve reached and are about to have lunch in this house in Cham. There’s ragi rotis, dhaniya chicken, aalo palak and a bunch of things we’d love to finish. Ritu is helping with the rotis while the lot catch their breath. We also need to manage a cab after this because it doesn’t seem like people would want to trek back after a deeply satiating meal. There’s a cat, a calf and a pup that need some immediate attention and loving.
See you on the other side!