Chopta Birding in an Asthmatic Ertiga – Part One

Most calls travel by sound. Some rise in silence. 

And in the silence induced by COVID times, it returned like a pied crested cuckoo returning to dry shores, a harbinger of sweet rain.

It had been a full four years since I had visited Chopta – the same amount of time, you recognise, you may end up studying engineering, which can feel interminable. 

So when the idea arose to return, I grabbed it, fed it, nurtured it, until it became a tree and began to flower, with a fragrance that made me a captive of my own creation.

The prospect of introducing to my wife, Sourabha Rao, this marvellous, soaring realm of the supernaturals buzzing with life, added the requisite fuel-air mixture. Not having picked up the camera to go on a wildlife photography trip since June 2019 kept the revs high. The wheels simply had to turn at the end of March 2020.

Chopta is the base of Tungnath, the highest Shiva temple in the world, and Chandrashila, a peak that affords the most magnificent peek at some of the loftiest towers of Garhwal Himalaya, including the fearsome Chaukhamba. 

For the tourist, it’s the trite “hill station”, for the trekker a relatively easy climb with rewarding views; for the pious, a crucial finger of the Panch Kedar; for the musk deer, home; and for the backpacking hippie, just another attractive neck of the woods to score that which rhymes with ‘point’, if you catch the oversteer.

For a wildlife lover, the biggest draw of Chopta is its bird life. 

Set in the exquisite Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, it is a veritable haven for the nuts who know their chestnut-headed warbler from the mountain tailorbird, and are enthusiastic among other things about the chromatic variations of vents, breasts and rumps.

This alluring combination of avians, scintillating landscape wizardry, mystic spirituality and onerous adventure is one that I find incompatible with comparison. 

But those who’ve been in the higher Himalaya know that any visit there is never a pleasure trip, and always an adventure. It isn’t that there’s no pleasure, of course; it’s just that there’s as much gauntletting as hedonism. 

I know this by experience as last time, I was compelled to truncate my trip and return prematurely, after I slipped on hardened snow on the Tungnath trail while stalking a comely monal, and fell flat on my face – literally, mind you – cutting my cheek and breaking a brand-new lens – the price you pay for being cavalier enough to wear a pair of worn-out Woodland shoes with not enough grip for a Saturday-night pub visit. I was much better prepared this time, and desired a better ending.

A picture taken between Duggal Bittha and Chopta, from my 2017 trip

But perhaps because of too much of a heavy element called naïveté in my blood, I am magnetic to trouble, so I had the brilliant idea of doing the trip in a self-driven rental vehicle, it never occurring to me that there could be anything irrational about such an embarkation. 

I completely ignored, for instance, the possibility of my receiving a faulty car, or a car that was poor at handling, or that it could snow all night and it wouldn’t fire up in the morning. Or that a car would even turn up in the first place.

In photography, I had regularly preached learners that a classic newbie error was to take an untested piece of gear on an important trip. That is precisely what I now ventured to do with a matter far more consequential, like a motor car.

But, but, in my rose-tinted mind’s eyes, all I could see were snow-capped peaks, a steering wheel to snake through rhododendron-lined twisty bits, bird calls for a soundtrack; and almost a cloud making a heart for me in the sky, beckoning me to take a sip of nectar from the air; in short, everything just shy of peaches and unicorns, but that was okay, for I’m not particularly keen on peaches, and among the mythical mammals, I prefer the Himalayan goral

With this romantic and exhilarating idea I began the search, and since we were to land in Dehradun, I knew my options would be highly limited. So my delight was unbounded when I realised Mychoize had self-drive rentals from there! 

Before the coffee could run cold, I had booked ourselves a Baleno (both because it was the cheapest option as well as its driving dynamics), but the first piece of trouble occurred when our flight was cancelled, and the rebooked flight would reach Dehradun earlier, necessitating me to extend our booking in the beginning to prevent the loss of a day. Unfortunately, though, the Baleno was no longer available, which meant handing it to the next cheapest option, a Tata Nexon diesel, to which I duly upgraded.

While this change was taking place, the Mychoize team committed two errors: first, they took the return time mistakenly as 6:30 p.m. instead of 6:30 a.m., a small matter of billing me extra for 12 hours, and secondly, the drop location as Chukkuwala instead of my explicitly requested Jolly Grant Airport, a difference of over an hour. I was told that these ‘minor details’ would be set right at the time of the collection of the vehicle, which, I was assured, would go flawlessly.

Come the day of the trip, I was strangely calm, despite there being no justifiable grounds for such admirable composure, considering how Mychoize had just got two crucial details wrong. Perhaps I was just too sanguine about travelling after 15 long months, or just my chemical composition again, for nothing clouds the sight as do the misty curtains of naïveté. 

Colours before sunrise. Image by Sourabha on iPhone 11.

So Sourabha and I step out of Jolly Grant, that portentously named airport, for we are quite jolly and have taken things for granted, and are greeted, perhaps well-deservedly, by nobody.

That’s nobody holding a placard with the Mychoize logo with our misspelled names, or dressed in a white hat and gloves; and nobody even snoozing with their feet up in the driver’s seat of a parked Nexon somewhere in our peripheral vision, with a Honey Singh number blasting through the bassy speakers.

Play the desolate soundtrack of the swooshing wind in a desert, with a couple of ravens crowing in flight for effect, and you might just espy the sprig of my bemused visage sprouting from the soil of your fertile imagination. 

A call was made to Mychoize customer support pronto, which, mercifully, was up at the springy time of 8:00 a.m. I was given the number of the ‘operations person’ to call, which I duly did, and to my relief, didn’t find him operating in bed by the sound of it, but only asleep to my existence as his customer, for the blessed man was entirely oblivious to my booking. 

“You have a booking? Today?” he convulsed, as though he was just handed the news of his own wedding, an hour before the fact. 

I was obliged to say yes, despite hating to stress him out with my unreasonable need for service fulfilment. He complemented my breaking news with a little headline of his own: “I have no Nexons with me!” 

Standing outside Jolly Grant airport with a trolley full of bags, I struggled to rally my Hindi vocabulary to manifest such a reprimand as may stand up to the need of expressing my vexation, but before I could conjure the words he muttered something about someone being on leave as the cause of the communication lapse, and furnished an alternative. “I might have an Ecosport,” he said, and before I could process how I felt about that, the prospect had already expired. “An Ertiga, actually,” he rejoined. “I might be able to get you a diesel Ertiga.” 

A long UV for seating two-thirds of a dozen people for just us cosy couple seemed the dictionary illustration of overkill in the utility department, and the death of much joy in the sport quarter, but having no choice, I consented.

He said he needed close to an hour to drive it up from town, during which time he suggested we have breakfast. This we did in the way of a most delectable channa batura at the Jolly Grant circle. The owner of the restaurant was an energetic, friendly chap with excellent hospitality, and before we knew the hour was up, a brown 1.3L Ertiga pulled up at the door. 

After completing the paperwork and picking up all of the car’s documents, I stepped out to inspect the car and the only mint its condition resembled was a chewed-and-expectorated one, for virtually every panel of the car had a dent or big scratch of some variety, as though the car had been a punching bag for other cars, thus abused for stress relief. I felt really sorry for this Ertiga and hoped to treat it better. 

Fortunately, the tyres were in good condition and the windscreen was intact. It had a Punjab registration, for I was told Uttarakhand had ceased registering self-drive rental vehicles.

There was no remote locking, and worse, the key had to be inserted in a specific way for the door to open. Sajan, the ‘operations person’, was prompt to give me a tutorial. “Remember, sir,” he instructed, “While opening the door, make sure the Suzuki logo on the key is facing away from you, and while using it for ignition, keep it facing you.” This I found very surprising, as such diligence in orientation isn’t necessary even in my ancient Swift (I can insert the key either way), and at any rate, felt like reverting from USB-C to type B. 

Having thus opened the door by inserting the key the right way, it was time to behold the interiors, where the coup de grace awaited me. 

The seats had large irregular black stains, as though the poor car had been used to transport liquid asphalt by a callous civil works contractor. The mats, if they had looked moth-eaten, I’d have been happy that the car had been in the service of wildlife, but these items of upholstery appeared to have been the dietary staple of an urban rodent. There was an aftermarket head-unit screen in the middle, which was barely readable from any angle other than from directly before it.

Wanting, however, to not be a sourpuss akin to a haughty saheb surveying a hut in unmitigated condescension, I let go of these to focus on the positives, shrugging off the demerits to the background. 

There was, after all, an engine in the front, a transmission in the middle, and wheels underneath, nein? May not be teutonic in quality or condition, but what more does a roadtripper need? Only turns out, in my continued naïveté, I had assumed too much too soon, as we’ll see later.

After taking a video of the exterior to document its pre-drive condition, Sajan took leave and I got behind the wheel. What followed was an embarrassing illustration of how out of touch I was with the times, when I failed to fire up the engine despite twisting the key, until the friendly restaurant owner came to my rescue and enjoined me, if it pleased the master, to stomp the clutch pedal first. 

In my mind I could hear him say, “Kahan kahan se aajate hain, yeh namoone!” but he was too nice a chap for voicing out his true feelings.

It was nearing 10, and without further ado we set sail, and the Ertiga got off the line smoothly without stalling. Coming from the extremely heavy clutch in our petrol Swift (2009), this one seemed weighted perfectly, particularly for a diesel. Sauntering forward at slow speeds, in about three-and-a-half minutes, I felt quite at home, and not at all at sea, as I had expected to feel in a UV, and remember remarking to myself how car-like it felt.

The first stop was a petrol bunk off the Dehradun-Rishikesh road, just a few miles outside Jolly Grant, and rather optimistically, I filled only 30 litres. Even more optimistically, the instrument cluster of the Ertiga projected a range of 600 kilometres for it, oblivious to where it had been woken up to do duty in.

The road until Rishikesh being a gentle climb, I barely needed the power reserves of the car, and we reached in good time, admiring the views to the west. But barely had we passed Laxman Jhula, that we were stopped by the police at a checkpost, to be informed that the road beyond 30 kilometres from there was shut for repair, and that if we wanted to reach Chopta, we had to take an alternative route, via Chamba and Srinagar, a detour that would be more than 30 kilometres longer. 

30 kilometres may seem trivial on regular highways, but in the twisties of the Uttarakhand Himalaya, that is a straight implication of an additional hour’s drive; more if you encounter landslides.

Nor is it easy to find an alternative route, because for some reason Google Maps loses its competence seemingly with the depletion of oxygen, and the road signs are some of the most confusing I’ve ever seen. 

This meant that we circumnavigated a certain square at least thrice; one more time, and I’m sure we would’ve begun wondering if we were stuck in Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. Fortunately, an extremely polite and patient cop put us on the right track eventually.

Having finally found our way, we proceeded with gusto, regarding this hiccup as just another part of the adventure of touring, and self-driving in the Himalaya. 

The Ertiga looking good just outside a tunnel in the outskirts of Rishikesh, before coughing up a massive unpleasant surprise.

But a few miles further, the hiccup turned into a severe case of asthma.

Wanting to overtake a vehicle, I loaded the throttle, and this was the first time I was demanding power from the car, as the road had been flat enough earlier for overtakes in higher gears and well within the low rev range. But here I could do with a dollop of the famous diesel torque, and because I know there’s a turbo in the station, I wait for it. The rev counter touches 2000, then 2500 – no turbo, not even a sign of it. 

Having driven ‘Bob’, my friend’s diesel Swift DDiS, I know this can’t be it, so I keep the throttle pinned, and the revs breach 3000, and still no turbo! Instead, the engine flattens out spectacularly, like a tap run dry, emits nothing but air, falling into a strained wheeze as I hit the brick wall of power, and a terrific and perfectly abhorrent cloud of black smoke issues from the exhaust and the vehicle goes nowhere.

I am aghast! I give up the overtaking manoeuvre, pull over to the side and reflect on what just happened. And that’s when I notice it – horror of horrors, the engine light is on, glowing an unsightly orange! It had been in my face all the while, and I hadn’t noticed it. Talk about fatal newbie errors.

Any thought of calling the ‘operations person’ again quickly fizzled when I realised we had no network, and in any case, it was past the time I was given within which we had to raise any complaints. We were simply too far out and too late, and just too shortchanged. Chopta was still more than six hours away, eliminating any possibility of returning to Dehradun for an exchange, unless we wanted to lose a day. This meant only one thing – braving on with the crippled car hoping it wouldn’t stall on us completely.

So I say let’s see what we have here – an underpowered diesel car whose turbocharger has given up the ghost, which I’m proposing to take up a 3000m mountain where even a healthy car must do a Milind Soman to stay in the game, having departed nearly two hours late, with 30 more kilometres to do than expected, and no guarantee that the engine won’t go cold turkey.

If we wanted adventure, we just got a bonus load of it, but the rhododendron-lined twisty bits and nectar sips had never seemed farther away.

Read part two here.

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