BPD: Hiking a leech-infested mountain!

(BPD: Hiking a leech-infested mountain!, 21 Apr ‘15)

While in the tribal village at Darap, I found out about the Rani Donga mountain, which was an overall trek of 10km to the top and has a good view of the Pelling area. This peak is also a prominent place of religious importance for the local Nepali Hindu tribe who worship Lord Ram in the big monolithic rock. The local folktale goes that the monolithic rock atop this mountain was converted into a place of worship by one of the ancient Sikkim Kings, as requested by his 2 Queens; hence the name, Rani Donga which literally translates into ‘Queen’s rock’.

Kid in a tribal homeSanthosh, a bright 10th standard student awaiting his results acted as my local guide, to venture into the forests, that is said to inhabit bears and wild boars apart from wild dogs! Armed with a traditional Nepali Gorkha knife, the ‘Kukri’ and demonstrating some basic moves with it, he guided me through the tribal village. With a largely agricultural sustenance, the tribals had large paddy fields, apart from small cardamom & green pea plantations and a variety of fruit trees like apples, pears and cherries. The forest also had a rich variety of medicinal plants that the tribals use for most basic remedies, like healing cuts, quickening blood clots, stopping bleeding nose etc. To an untrained eye, all these plants looked the same!

Ascending the mountain, we crossed the last few tribal huts amidst curious eyes, to get into the thick of forest. The forest was moist owing to the sporadic rains over the previous days. At one point in the hike, I noticed the signature presence of leeches, one attached to a stone, standing upright, slightly wiggling and patiently waiting for an object to latch on to! Having trekked amidst a thriving leech population in the Kumaraparvata mountains a year back, I could identify the signs. However, little did I know that this entire forest was infested with leeches. Soon, we encountered hundreds of leeches along the way and I quickly tucked in the trousers into the socks, and started keeping an eye on the shoes to remove leeches as they climbed on.

A Leech ready to latch on..Trees on the way

The overall hike was very scenic and midway we crossed the point where the clouds drifted across the mountain, just around a clearing in the pine forests. Throughout the way, we found wild strawberries which were blooming in the season and provided us with a steady supply of small, bright red and tasty berries to snack. After about 3 hours, we reached the Rani Donga mountain amidst fresh showers and feasted on our packed lunch of parathas, with a great view of flowering rhododendron plants around. By then, the showers had become intense and we quickly paid obeisance to the deities who were worshiped in the form of small pellets placed under the face of the monolithic rock. At one end of the rock, there is a small cave which leads someway inside and then ascends vertically upwards, opening up at the top of the rock. Local belief goes that any person caving through this enclosure and climbing up through the narrow crevice without difficulty possessed a clean, blessed soul and the locals routinely used this as a test on people, during times of need!

Wild strawberries found along the wayA Mid-point halt on the hike

Rain drops-laden fir treesSome clouds passing by…

During the way down, the leeches had become super-active thanks to the fresh showers, and we had to keep checking our shoes and clothes every hundred meters, to knock off the villainous creatures hitch-hiking onto the shoes, and then slowly descending into the inner side of the socks for a shot at some fresh blood! The hike down was rapid and in less than an hour, we reached the base and then frantically removed the socks and dresses to pull out the last set of leeches from within. A hike to this mountain is well worth the effort, just that to take care of the leeches problem during monsoons, one needs to plan proper clothing and remedies like salt-water solution, that acts as a leech deterrent.

Getting closer to the home-stay, we passed some football crazy kids practicing and stopped for a penalty kick! After I badly missed the goal post by quite some margin, the kids obliged for a photograph and chatted excitedly about their favorite European football clubs. This was a standard feature all over Darjeeling & Sikkim where football is clearly THE favorite sport, and Chelsea THE club of choice!

Peculiar looking, but edible plantsMonolithic rock temple, atop Rani Donga

Clouds-covered mountain-topPhot-op after my failed penalty kick!

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