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Neora Valley - A travelogue by Usha Shetty

Have you ever taken one of those holidays where you were content with spending your entire stay on the balcony? Stepping into this one, I was tempted to do just that, as I told my friend Geetanjali, a travel consultant. Every holiday should, in fact must provide, if not a balcony with a view, then at least a room with a view! Happily Neora Valley Jungle Camp does more than that! 

Perched at 6000 ft on the edge of the Neora Valley National Park in the Kalimpong sub-division of West Bengal’s Darjeeling District, it is close to the state’s borders with Sikkim and Nepal. Built in 2007 in an abandoned grazing pasture overlooking tiny Kolakham, the last village near the border, it gives you a feel of what the word remote means. Lava, the nearest town is 8 km away. While that is not at all very far for us arrogant plainspeople, we are humbled by the bumpy half-hour ride in the narrow jungle paths cutting through the dense hillside. Quite a ride by day, it is not something I would even like to attempt at night! 

The nights are meant for sitting in the balcony and soaking in the silence of the hills. A silence broken occasionally by the sounds of crickets or cicadas. The thick darkness is pierced by the twinkle of lights from the village down below, from other villages on the surrounding hills and in the far distance, the lights of Gangtok, 40 km away. The days are also meant for sitting in the balcony, this time, to soak in the beauty of the hills, rolling one after another into the distance. And to rest one’s gaze upon the majestic sight of Mount Kanchenjunga and the other snow peaks crowning the horizon. Vying closely with the world’s third highest peak for your attention are clouds of various hues, which, depending on their will, could be floating around at your level or parked on some lesser peak down below. All you need to do is gaze and laze. 

For the less lazily inclined, there are forays to be made into Kolakham village and loads of bird watching to be done, as the birding- pro Geetanjali would swear. She did that while I did the former, with both my descent and ascent on the hill being pleasant but clumsy, displaying neither the nimble-footed grace nor the stamina of the hill people or even of their cattle, as they make their way up and down all the time with perfect ease. 

The Neora Valley national Park is good for trekking in winter, with its highest point standing at 10,600 ft (when we were there, it rained often, so no such luck! We were told to come back in winter when it sometimes snows). This virgin forest, stretching across a seemingly small patch of 88 sq km, has one of the most exceptional eco-systems in the entire northeast, harbouring temperate, sub-temperate, tropical and sub-tropical species. Not many places can boast of junipers, rhododendrons, oaks, bamboo, orchids, ferns and banana plants all growing in the same patch of soil! And with large tracts of the park still inaccessible and unexplored! Home to the elusive and shy Red Panda, the forest also shelters musk deer, clouded leopard, porcupine (known locally as dumshi), marten (of the mongoose family), jungle hares, dholes and sometimes, black bears. 

It is in fact, the objective of preserving the endangered Red Panda’s natural habitat, the bamboo groves, by creating a community forest reserve, that has spurred the Kolkata-based Help Tourism to start Neora Valley Jungle Camp. Combining tourism with conservation and sustainable development, as they do in all their properties in the northeast, they ensure that all the staff at the camp are locally hired and trained to professional standards.

The professionalism certainly shows in the simple, tasteful ambience, the comfortably cozy accommodation, the hospitality, and most certainly, in the food. Over 4 days, we were treated to a variety of Indian, Nepali and Chinese food that all of us, kids and adults, delighted in. For example, the Tibetan bread ‘Fale’ – fermented dough fried and served with dum aloo. But the taste that lingers the most is that of the spicy green chutney I was served with a simple boiled potato and rice when I was recovering from my illness - it tasted simply heavenly! Illness? Yes, in those 4 days I even had time to suffer from a lousy tummy upset, rendering my holiday a truly ‘restful’ one! 

The sickness or the rest, however, did not impede a visit to Kalimpong, a place that still retains some of the charm of a colonial hill town. Kalimpong, 32 km away, is incidentally fed by the Neora River. Clusters of large, drooping, yellow, bell-shaped flowers, plump roses and plumper hens as well as pretty, well turned-out girls seemed to be everywhere. The last would explain the profusion of beauty parlours all around! The bustling market roads, excellent schools, the army base and golf course characterize the town further. Deolo Hill (a viewing point), the Buddhist Zang Dhok Palri Phodang Monastery on Durpin Hill and a cactus nursery, populated by species from North & South America, were all seen in quick succession, in deference to my state of ailment. 

The drive to Kalimpong involved a stopover at the Kagyu Thekchen Ling Monastery and Retreat Centre in Lava. Established in 1990 and picturesquely situated, it is also known as Ratnarishi Bihar Buddhist Gumpha. Wherever you go in Lava, it would be hard to miss the Gorkhaland signboards outside practically every shop and restaurant, a sign of the friction that underlies the serenity of the place. It is a reminder of the many conflicts over its possession that this land has witnessed over the last 200 years - between the Chogyal of Sikkim, the Lepcha tribes, the Bhutanese kingdom, the British, the Gorkhas of Nepal who gradually populated the place, and now the govt. of West Bengal. This discord is encountered here in signboard references to geographical location and, down below in Kolakham village, when the Nepali community (Rais, in this case) talks about being treated as outsiders by other locals (tribals & Bengalis) even after being settled here for generations. The Gorkhas being numerically strong, have gained political and economic dominance of the region and are a significant force to reckon with, whether through the Gorkha National Liberation Front or the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. But what of the Lepchas, the indigenous tribes of Sikkim and the Darjeeling region? These simple people believe that they did not migrate here from anywhere like the Gorkhas or the Limbus and Bhutias but belong here. There are references to a Lepcha king having sent forces to Chandragupta Maurya to aid his fight against Greek invaders. This primeval race call themselves `Mu-Tanchi-Rong Kup` or `the mother's loved ones’. Unfortunately, the upheavals of the last 2 centuries have made them a minority in their own land. They are now finding a voice, asking for formation of a Lepcha Development Council, for recognition of their language and for political representation. In Gorubathan, where the last Lepcha king, Gaeboo Aachyok fought the Bhutanese from Dalim Fort, there are plans to preserve the ruins of the fort and open a museum of Lepcha artefacts, besides promoting its ancient monasteries and bio-organic tea gardens. 

As I admire the thickly forested hills around Changey Falls, a Lepcha area and a short drive from the Jungle Camp, I fervently hope that, in the years to come, the Lepchas’ beautiful land is not lost to them and that they are not lost to the world either. 

It is in this mood that we part with this beautiful land and return to Kolkata for more exploration.... 

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