By Bittu Sahgal
I woke early, after a fitful night's sleep in the cold draft of a dilapidated guard hut at Rolla, whose floorboards had probably been yanked out by shepherds to cook their meals. It had been an exhausting trek the previous day. Driving from Manali to Gushaini, we met the affable Sanjeeva Pandey, Director of the Great Himalayan National Park, who conducted us on foot through his paradise.
We followed the magical, grey-green, glacial Tirthan river all the way, to the accompaniment of birdsong and the roar of the river. We expected to reach before sunset, but a landslip had washed the goat trail away in places, leaving Bikram Grewal, Gillian Wright, Sir Mark Tully, and I scrambling tentatively on all fours across damp, cold mud slopes.
In the event, what should have been a comfortable three-hour trek took over five hours. And while we rested our aching legs, the young and very fit guards accompanying us collected guchchis (morel mushrooms), which we wolfed down with goat cheese, wild rice and shots of very welcome whiskey.
The next day, I woke at dawn and, fortified by scalding tea and a packet of Digestive biscuits, I ventured up toward Chalocha, to breathe the air that bharal (blue sheep), Himalayan tahr, brown bear and snow leopards breathed. Carefully tucking the wrappers into my backpack, I had barely started walking up when I heard the shrill whistle of a Cheer Pheasant, just three minutes from the guard hut! As the morning wore on, the hills truly did come alive with the sound of music! Whistling Thrushes, Crested Kingfishers, Little Forktails and the magical whistle of the Himalayan Monal transported me to the real world, far from the noise and clutter of city life.
I ran out of steam inside of 30 minutes and chose instead to sit it out, scouring the mountain slopes, watching Red-billed Choughs, Golden Eagles, Himalayan Griffons and warblers I could never identify if my life depended on it. The tahr and bear stayed their distance, but two distant bharal granted me an audience.
I was born in Shimla. This is where I belonged, I said to myself for the thousandth time on that April 1995 morning as every step took me closer to Bombay's smudgy air. On our uneventful return, I sat awhile next to the flowing river and drank its naturally mineralised waters. As we walked on, Bikram signalled me to stay to listen out for the strange bleating call of a distant, hidden Western Tragopan in its protected paradise.
Life was good.