Chopta Birding in an Asthmatic Ertiga – Part Two

Read part one here.

At times like this, you tend to become either resigned and dejected, or, spurned by fortune and with nothing to lose, benumbed to your travails and forge ahead in a sort of tranquil acceptance that does not have a lining of resentment to it. 

If you’re the very positive kind, you might even whistle and enjoy the setback, for what is life without adventure, and what is adventure without an unpleasant surprise? Nay, surprises are challenges, and to surmount a challenge is the essence of adventure, and does not the ice-cold water taste the sweetest after a sweaty workout?

With this spirit of adventure keeping any moroseness in check, we motored on at first in a gingerly fashion, and then settled into a fairly good rhythm. The handicapped motor was good enough for most normal situations, crippling me only when I had to execute overtakes, which I had to plan more in advance and pull off carefully, sometimes clutching the engine out of the power-pit. This meant overall that the car took more effort than normal to drive, but otherwise the dead turbo wasn’t bothering me much. 

In fact, encouraged by the lack of severe body roll for a UV, I even began driving it enthusiastically wherever I could safely do so, but around corners, it was very quick to remind me how far away from our never-say-slide Swift I was. Even a handful more speed carried into a bend immediately caused the Ertiga to move its nose nervously about, and I could feel the front wheels all over the place, right on the edge of where I thought I couldn’t catch it anymore, which was frightening along those precipices. 

After getting bitten thus a couple of times, I found a measure of how slow I had to be around corners, and backed off accordingly, braking well before the curve and guiding it, like a good samaritan hand-holding a visually impaired person across a signal crossing, through to the exit. 

Driving a very different car from our Swift after a long time gave me an excellent and updated perspective of our humble hatch’s ‘chuckability’ and grip around corners, which, especially since the tyre upgrade six years ago to 195/65/R15 Yokohamas from the stock 165/80/R14 JK Tyres, reached supraphysical levels, eliminating the annoying tyre squeal theatrics that were incumbent with the stock rubber. 

The Ertiga drive reminded me just how brutally demanding I am with the Swift in the corners, and yet, it never complains or spooks me with unpredictable behaviour. It just sticks and goes, no matter how much I push it, and just grips, and grips and grips, with the front tyres glued to the tarmac, so that at any given microsecond mid-corner, I know exactly where the tip of the tread of that front tyre is, and all I need do is point, and shoot. With the 195-section Yokos on, I’ve yet to find the Swift’s limit within the boundaries of safety, and that’s an unbelievable amount of fun from a car for which I paid the sum that can barely fetch you a set of tyres and wheels for a luxury sports car. 

As I was relating all this in prolix detail to Sourabha, who, despite not being a driving enthusiast is always phenomenally patient in listening intently to all my motoring raves and rants, she suggested, in honour of the unassailable grip our Swift offers, why not confer on it the moniker of Ibex, and I loved the idea. Thus our car was rechristened some 2500 kilometres away from it!

While I was thus ruminating over my regular steed in absentia, I was pulled back to the present by what flanked the road. We had traversed a few miles out of Chamba and were headed for Srinagar. It was by now about 2 p.m., and the sun was blazing overhead. 

Down in the valley to our left my eyes met a turquoise pool. Sourabha had slipped to an exhausted shuteye (I’m totally used to this, so it’s never a problem), and I didn’t wake her up just yet. But a few yards further, the turquoise got more intense, the watercourse longer at the bottom of the valley, and I realised what I was looking at was not a lake, but the Bhagirathi river, and this stunningly coloured reservoir was the backwater of the controversial Tehri, India’s highest dam!

First view of the Bhagirathi just ahead of the controversial Tehri Dam

An involuntary expletive escaped my voice in stunned exultation, which awoke Sourabha to the spectacle before us. From then on we drove slowly along, enjoying the course of the beautiful, even if in some ways troubling, sight, stopping intermittently at vantage points to snap up a few glimpses in pixels. Eventually we turned left and crossed the dam, before which we were duly instructed by security personnel to not make any pictures or videos – which was a shame, for the view from the dam was breathtaking. 

I honestly do not know what possessed me thereafter that evening, for I drove virtually non-stop, sans tea, let alone lunch, a limb-stretch, or fresh air, for the next six hours, stopping only at Chopta. 

I have to give credit where it’s due: the Ertiga is simply a very comfortable car to be in, and this was despite being exasperated by the crippled engine from time to time. There is simply no way I’d have managed to pull off this feat in Ibex, for as much as I love it dearly, it has got on in years, and like the debilitating insidiousness of alopecia, its clutch has become tight enough to give me knee ache after a couple of hours of driving in busy traffic, the steering very heavy at low speeds, and nearly everything about it, a little less comfortable, so that I no longer regard with relish the prospect of very long or challenging drives in it, and only enjoy using it as a city runabout beater. This has left me pining for a touring car for some time now, but that’s for another story altogether.

Some pretty rugged, landslide-prone roads just outside Rudraprayag.

Meanwhile, as we turned away left from the Badrinath road, the sun had begun its slow descent behind the lofty towers, turning everything aureately beatific. 

Sunset over the Mandakini

Some fascinatingly perched homes

Darkness finally descended sometime when I was just past Ukhimath, and an hour’s drive from there finally brought us to the destination for the night, a camp in Baniyakund, Dilangwar, a few miles south of Chopta. We were served hot water as a welcome drink as I idled the engine and killed it, and as I took the bags out of the car, little did I know that the day had hardly ended, and nor had its surprises.

As soon as we got off, we heard some loud music and the signs of raucous revelry. Now, this sort of thing is the worst nightmare for us, especially because Sourabha is a stickler for silence, and if we can’t get much of it in the city, we hope for it at least when out in nature, so when we sense that to be in jeopardy, we tend to get quite upset. Still, not having a hold of the situation yet, we proceeded with the check-in with peak skepticism.

As we were being led to our tent, we asked the ‘bellboy’ whether the source of the hideous cacophony was a nearby village, to which he said there was no village nearby, and wouldn’t say anything more. A few metres further we realised the reason for his abashed taciturnity on the matter, for the revellers were the camp’s own guests, and to our horror, drunk out of their wits, they were gambolling in ballistic voluptuosity, aided by a music player! 

After all the travails of the day, having woken up at 1 a.m. that night to fly from Bengaluru, having faced all the uncertainty about the car, then a delayed start, the forced detour, the engine trouble, and an eight-hour drive, we had reached our quarters for the night 19 hours later, only to realise that we didn’t have a chance in eternity to get a night’s shuteye.

It wasn’t Murphy’s Law; it was like Lord Murphy had written the whole constitution. 

To reach our tent we had to pass close to these ragamuffins, which caused them to temporarily lower the pitch of their laryngeal atrocities, but soon as we had reached our tent, they resumed their catcalls and off-tune musical performances as a perverse tribute to the gods of the hills. And the bellboy said contritely that they were “a little drunk” and should be done in a couple of hours. 

Because the first part of that assertion was definitely untrue, and the second part was highly unlikely to turn out true, we began packing our bags even before unpacking them. We had little idea where we’d go at that time of the night in the desolate hills, but we knew staying there would be soul-crushing, for the revellers were practically outside our tent, and auditorily, they very well might’ve been inside, too!

The camp owner was gravely injured by our decision, and while we had dinner, to which he exhorted us, initially made great efforts to silence the ruffians, but no sooner had we swallowed our meals that they were at it again. 

Realising that it was a lost cause, we loaded the bags back in the car. The owner was worried sick that we’d leave a nasty review on TripAdvisor, but we assured him we’d do no such thing, for we knew it wasn’t his fault, and nor did we want any refund; all we sought was a quiet place to rest for the night, and this wasn’t it, so we’d be back for breakfast and to take in the magnificent view we knew there was from the tent, which was the reason I had booked us up there for that night in the first place. 

Reluctantly the owner let us leave, and we commenced doing something we never thought we’d do – more driving for the day! I was headed for Nature Nest, a little lower, in Duggal Bittha, a small camp with only five or so tents, of which I had sweet memories from my previous trip. What it lacked in the way of a spectacular view, it made up for with its humble and intimate feel, and I dearly hoped now that they’d have a tent free for us. 

I wasn’t sure if Chopta had been like this the last time around. By all accounts I realised to my dismay over the rest of the trip as well that it had indeed turned more touristy. It didn’t help of course that we were there during the Holi weekend, but that was a matter I had no control over, for it was the only week during which my bird guide was free (to whose homestay we were to repair the next day for the following four nights).

Anyway, in the dead of the night, the obscure little camp soon came into view. I parked and talked to Pradeep, who runs the camp singlehandedly, and to our relief, there was a tent for the taking. As he was busy serving dinner to a guest couple, we left him in peace and checked in to the tent he indicated, and tucked ourselves in under several layers of its blankets. Although Chopta this time was significantly warmer than on my previous visit, the tents at Nature Nest tend to get freezing, so all the warm woollens were put to duty. 

With the danger of losing the night to a troupe of berserk simians having passed, we put our heads to our pillows in relief, and just as I was about to slip into slumber, I heard some noisy neighbours checking in, and I remember thinking, the next thing we’d have to do is bury ourselves underground. But mercifully, the voices died about half an hour later, leaving finally the feather of the night’s silence to knock us out of consciousness in a totality that only hard-earned sleep affords.

Read part three here.

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