Loud screams, frantic like ambulance sirens, came through the thick lining of my sleeping bag and jolted me awake. I scrambled out of the tent to find the sound coming from the ridge below, then from the slope beyond, then from the hill to the north. As soon as I realized it was the call of a male satyr tragopan, I ran off to record the time and other details. We camped in Alubari in the Neora Valley National Park. This would be my home and a source of great joy and excitement for the next few weeks as I mapped and explored the wildlife of the region.
The Neora National Park (200 m) is named after the river that flows in the park. The park has a number of torrents and hill streams spread out like a net, feeding the Neora River and maintaining a beautiful array of vegetation within the protected area. From small wild strawberries, wild white orchids (Kurseong white orchid) and primroses, to the towering yews and hollocks of the Himalayas, the park has an astonishing variety of flora which in turn supports an impressive population of birds and mammals. The area is home to more than 200 species of birds. The patient trekker has every chance of seeing the flashy male satyr tragopan, kalij pheasant, golden eagle, Jerdon’s baza, nutcracker, magpies and numerous finches and sunbirds.
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During spring and summer the entire area is filled with the songs of different species of cuckoos, from the Indian cuckoo and the great hawk cuckoo to the oriental cuckoo and the lesser cuckoo. Mammals in the park include the tiger and the leopard, among the big cats. Although pug marks and scratch marks of the Asian black bear are common, it can be difficult to spot the rare red panda. The goral and barking deer oblige by making regular appearances. The higher edges of the park are dressed in varying shades of red, pink and white blooming rhododendrons during spring and summer.
About 10 species of rhododendron have been recorded here, from the scarlet gurans to the milky white chimpanzee. The path at the top of Rechi La is covered in a real red carpet with flowers shed from the trees during this season. Visible from the top of the pass is the beautiful Kangchendzonga Range, a sight that more than makes up for the long walk to the top. In close competition is the breathtaking view of cloud cover, over the valley of Bhutan, on the eastern side of Rechi La.
ZERO POINT ALUBARI
DISTANCE 6 KM TIME 4 HOURS
On the Lava-Damdim Road, a bridle path running southeast hugs the slope just below the Nature Interpretation Center. An 8 km jeep-taxi ride through the oak-rhododendron-fir forest past the Pankhasari check post takes you to a place called the Zero point, where the road ends, and from where you start walking. Look for the path that heads left towards the pump house (today’s walk is all the way down). This is steep in places, so carry a bamboo staff to help stay stable. It is about a kilometer away The Neora River.
There is also a pipeline that supplies water to nearby settlements. Walk northwest along the pipeline and enter an oak forest for several miles until you arrive at a flat area called Jaree-Butee. The place is full of wild strawberries and hidden among them are medicinal plants, hence the name Jaree-Butee. Alubari is about 3 km from here. The trail continues along mountain streams and enters a moist, temperate forest with tall mossy growth hanging from large oak trees. The camp at Alubari is close to the river and the large rocks provide good shelter for setting up a makeshift kitchen. Spend a night here to see the valley’s kalij pheasant, white-bellied thrush and chestnut-bellied tesia. Ask the guide to show you an Asian black bear’s feeding ground at an oak tree, popularly known as bhalu-ka-gur or the bear’s nest.
DISTANCE 8 KM TIME 4-6 HOURS
Be prepared for a tough slog today. From Alubari Camp (3,152 m), walk north past an old wooden bungalow. Look out for the red-headed bullfinch, which is found here in good numbers and can be a photographer’s delight. From this point the trail heading northeast enters dense oak and rhododendron forests interspersed with bamboo groves, climbs up and continues for about 4 km. As you walk, look for remnants of camouflaged bunkers, once used by the Indian army to monitor Bhutan and Sikkim. The trail is full of fallen leaves and heads north through spruce forests and groves of pine and bamboo.
The last part of the climb is through rhododendron forest. During the spring and summer there is always a red carpet welcoming visitors. Before you reach Rechi La, turn east at the Rechi La Camp. This is a concrete construction, with a long hall and a kitchen that can accommodate up to 10 people. However, the toilet is in disrepair. Rechi La Top can be reached by walking back and following the path north. A short 10-15 minute climb takes you to the top (3,152m). Spend the evening at Rechi La Top to see the lights of Gangtok Valley and return early the next morning for the sunrise. This place is great for sighting sunbirds and flowerpeckers. Also present is the spotted nutcracker.
RECHI LA-LAKE (TODEY-TANGTA ROUTE)-RECHI LA
DISTANCE 8 KM TIME 6 HOURS
Take the path that goes past Rechi La Bungalow to the east side. It crosses three ridges in a series of switchbacks and descends to the villages of Todey Tangta for about 4 km. It takes no more than 2 hours to cross and descend the three ridges. On the right side of the trail is a large lake where you can spend some time checking for pugmarks of bear, leopard, goral, barking deer and lesser cats. The waters are clear and the reflection of the blooming rhododendron on the surface is an unforgettable sight. On the side of the path are improvised huts of shepherds, locally known as goth. Look out for small whitewashed ritual figures on crevices of rocks or slope along the path. Return to Rechi La and follow the same route for the night.
DISTANCE 10 KM TIME 6 HOURS
LEVEL EASY MEDIUM
Today is an easy day to go all the way to Alubari. Follow the same path from Rechi La Top to Alubari. Just before you reach Alubari, take the road that passes the camp and follows the main ham of the Pankhasari uphill in a south-westerly direction. A few kilometers from Alubari Camp is the area known as Pankhasari Top. You will find the ruins of a bungalow built by the army during the British Raj. The flat ground provides a good location for pitching tents, but it is advisable to locate the water source, which can sometimes be quite a distance from this ridge. This place is known for its white and cream colored rhododendron or chimawl. Spend the evening on the slopes of the ridge to hear the hill partridge and the satyr tragopan.
DISTANCE 10 KM TIME 8 HOURS
Trek downhill towards the south-west, following the Pankhasari ridge through oak forest and then pine plantations until just above the Pankhasari check post on the Lava zero point track. From Pankhasari to the check-post takes approximately 2 hours, with sightings of Himalayan greenfinches among the pine plantations. From the check-post, return to Zero Point for some birdwatching. An occasional red panda is also not unusual. This place is full of kalij pheasants, portholes and hill barbets. The walk is mostly downhill and there is only one bridleway downhill in a general south-westerly direction. The trek following the main trail to Lava is easier. The other option is to use the chorbato, or the steep shortcuts to Lava. At Lava you will spend the night or return to Kalimpong the same day with the same taxi.
Instead of returning to Lava of Rechi La, there are two other options that can be followed. With the help of a good guide, one could pass through Todey-Tangta to continue south Chalsa, the street in the Dooars about 20 km away. It is an easy walk on a motorized path through fields. It takes about an hour and a half by vehicle. So, if you don’t feel like walking, a taxi ride is an option. Experienced hikers can do it Rechi La-Mouchouki-Samsing route. This route requires some mountaineering experience. Cliff-scaling skills and ropes are useful. Samsing is an hour’s drive from the city of Chalsa.