This guy’s diminutive. And when I say diminutive, I mean it with a capital D. He’s wearing khaki trousers and a camouflage jacket- a subdued medley of olive green, tan and brown. His name’s Raju, he’s a guide, and he’s come to take us on a morning walk through the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Doesn’t look much, but boy, can he climb (this is between 8,000 and 9,000 ft above sea level and he’s keeping up a running commentary while striding up a steep incline- all without running out of breath)! And does he know this place: each pugmark, each leaf, each inch of humus upturned by a boar’s tusk . . .
Raju comes knocking at our door seven o’clock in the morning, punctual to the minute. This is when there’s most likelihood, he says, of getting a rewarding view of both the mountains and the animals. What we unfortunate souls end up seeing is neither. But the hour-long walk, from the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) Tourist Resthouse where we’re staying up to Zero Point, the highest spot for miles around, is nevertheless one to cherish.
The British were the ones who gave this area its name, distorting the original name of the Bineshwar Temple to the more easily pronounceable Binsar. A few of them built quiet summer retreats here, among the tranquil hills -- summer retreats that are today modern resorts.
Binsar today is one of those unusual places which, though it’s just 20 km from the busy town of Almora, feels more or less cut off from the rest of the world. Unless you have a vehicle (or can take a lift in one), you have to walk some 10 km along a narrow mountain road through dense forest to get to the main highway. There is no electricity, and at the Tourist Resthouse, we can get hot water only by asking for it -- and then only one bucket per couple per day. Adventure? You bet!
But back to the walk: uphill all the way, first a gentle climb, and then gradually steeper, till the only one not panting is Raju himself. He’s telling us about Binsar. About how the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1988; about how it stretches over all of 46 sq km, a large section of it pure stands of pine. The section we’re walking through is however dense with rhododendron (locally known as buraansh -- dazzlingly beautiful in spring, when its bright crimson flowers are visible for miles around) and oak (locally, baanj). The monsoons are still not over, and the moisture has brought the forest to life. Each tree trunk and each bank of earth is covered with a carpet of bright green mosses and ferns, and every now and then we come across a rivulet making its way down the mountain. Best of all, the soft damp mud has captured signs of all the elusive animals we never actually get to see in Binsar. A leopard’s spoor, fresh and well-defined. The scrape of a mountain goat’s hurried route up a slippery earth bank into the sheltering undergrowth above. And all along the way, the furiously ripped-up earth, signs of wild boar burrowing for roots.
Raju points out a leopard’s cave -- "It had cubs last year; large specimen this one is, more than seven feet long" -- the sudden flash in the trees of a Eurasian jay, and the many herbs growing along the way. There’s wild turmeric, wild strawberries, vajradanti (a herb that’s renowned for its power to strengthen and heal gums and teeth); and bicchhoo booti (literally, `scorpion herb’, a stinging, nettle-like shrub which is, surprisingly enough, a remedy for swellings), among others.
He draws our attention to the harsh, bark-like alarm call of a munjtac or kakar, a barking deer, somewhere deep in the forest. And when we finally reach Zero Point, it is he who leads the way up the somewhat vertiginous watchtower at the place. We climb up four flights of metallic ladders and look out over the surrounding forest. Even though mist and cloud shroud the mountains, the forest around us is impressive in itself.
But Raju looks a little apologetic. "If only you’d come two months down the line", he says. "By November 15th, the view from here is awesome. On a clear day, you can actually see across 400 miles of Himalyan peaks- right from Nepal to Garhwal". Nandadevi, Nandakot, Nandaghunti, Panch Chuli, Trishul, Hathi Parbat -- mighty mountains, snowclad through the year, but (to our disappointment) veiled right now.
We catch glimpses -- tantalizingly brief -- of them, later from the terrace at the Tourist Resthouse. Through the shifting mists, we look out, over a dense wood of oak trees through which a noisy troop of langurs makes it way. We watch a civet leap nimbly onto the boundary wall of the complex and then vanish into the woods. We see butterflies and birds -- hoopoes, redstarts, a majestic eagle, yellow wagtails by the dozen -- and we see the mountains, far away in the distance.
And we agree with each other. Binsar may not top the charts for great wildlife photography, but when it comes to sheer beauty, this is one wildlife park that takes some beating.