Read part five here.
Day five: Makku Math
We had deliberately timed the Tungnath-Chandrashila day as the penultimate – and not the last – day in Chopta, for the deleterious effects wrought by the precipitous ascent and descent would’ve wreaked havoc on the lower limbs if they were subjected to the abuse of driving for a full eight hours in the ‘twisties’ the next day to Rishikesh.
Thus we had a ‘cooling-off’ or ‘comfort’ day in the form of day five, on which day we decided to bird on the Makku route. This serpentine road climbs up towards Chopta, then takes a deviation a few kilometres before it to the right, and drives through a most delightful, very free road flanked by the most beautiful forest teeming with life. It then descends sharply and lands on the Ukhimath Road, a few miles short of Kaakda Ghat.
Our main aim on this day, in Makku, was to find the elusive scarlet finch, and to that end, we started nice and early, nearly ignoring the several kalij pheasants that crossed our paths.
But a nicely perched grey-winged blackbird was too much to ignore:
This piece of munificence was quickly followed up by the most invigorating session of birding a little further down the road, once we had taken the Makku deviation from the Ukhimath-Chopta road.
The calls of a Himalayan shrike-babbler brought us to a halt, and we parked the cars aside and looked down at the trees in the valley, and a veritable smorgasbord of offerings was spread out.
First, the shrike-babbler itself lent itself kindly to some pictures, however crummy. Then there appeared a maroon oriole, with its sonorous calls. Then a grey-headed woodpecker added itself to the mix.
Amid all this, a green-backed tit came and went but I couldn’t manage a picture of it.
We could’ve pursued more, but I was told that the scarlet finch is something of a spotlight-shy character, and to catch it, we must intercept its visit to the roadside trees before the flaxen rays of the sun became incident on their verdant leaves. In short, we had to get a move on.
Moments later, driving further down, a Himalayan goral stepped onto the road from nowhere, crossed it, and leapt off into the valley as though it was the backyard play-bunker, all in one fluid motion, and it was just impossible to match its speed and agility with stopping the car, taking the camera out and firing away a few pictures, so the sight remains only in my memory, disabled from being shared with the wider world.
Reaching Makku, we found a Tickell’s thrush posing beautifully on an open perch. At the next village, a small niltava arrested our progress in an adorable fashion.
From thereon, we drove continuously, consciously resisting the temptation to stop anywhere else. Soon we reached the stretch of road that is known to be haunted by the scarlet finch, and we duly parked the cars aside and started looking for them.
This was also the realm of the speckled wood-pigeons, and we saw quite a healthy number of them. Meanwhile, an ultramarine flycatcher had perched practically overhead, completely unnoticed for some time. There was also a long-tailed minivet.
We waited around for quite a bit, and Dinesh finally seemed to have found a pair of scarlet finch, but by the time we could run over to where he was, they were gone.
It was quite sunny by now, so we gave up the pursuit and moved on further down.
Just beyond the terraces of some houses in the outskirts of Makku Math, we saw some greenfinch and stopped for them. A little further we saw black-headed jays.
Further down a blue whistling thrush was perched beautifully, and although it is exceedingly common in these parts, we could never tire of admiring this songster’s splash of brilliant blue on the wings and subtle streaks and dots of white on its face, neck and breast, finished off with a yellow beak.
Then after navigating via a pair of kalij pheasant, a plumbeous water redstart and an Asian barred owlet, we reached a stream in the neck of a settlement, sadly, highly polluted. Everything from biscuit packs to old shoes had been dumped into it making it a sorry sight, but incredibly, that didn’t stop the birds from being all over the place.
Stopping over, we quietly slipped ourselves into the midst, and here were the birds that graced us with their views, in order of appearance:
Seeing these birds peck away at grub brought to the fore of our minds the time of day and the fact that our bellies hadn’t seen breakfast yet, so we repaired to a dhaba in proper Makku Math, albeit in the hope of having a more hygenic repast.
While there, Sourabha made this lovely portrait:
We also learned that the dogs in Chopta are decidedly good-looking:
Across the road, a common house sparrow perched on a Pulsar, appearing to ride it. After a leisurely breakfast and tea, we continued on, and at first found a rusty-cheeked scimitar babbler. Then a grey bushchat couple perched rather artistically. A few miles down we encountered a few common rosefinches and this chestnut-bellied nuthatch.
This done, we descended the long and winding road to Kaakda, treating ourselves to views of some lovely-looking grey langurs along the way.
It was now pushing 12 noon, so the light was harsh and the temperatures were soaring, but we stayed by the river, watching the activity unfold.
A crested kingfisher caught a fish. A russet sparrow showed off his beautiful russet, and Sourabha took a little walk down to the Mandakini for some time with the pebbles on the beach.
I, meanwhile, descended the ghat and walked under the bridge, where I happened to espy a plumbeous water redstart. What was unusual was that he was exceptionally bold, and allowed quite an audacious approach. It appears that he was perhaps getting ready to mate for the season, which is usually when animals and birds of various specifications tend to lose their customary rationality and cautiousness, which isn’t very different from how we as apex apes behave.
After finding a comfortable position, I was able to line him up against the tiny waterfall behind him to get this habitat shot, with the turquoise water showing through. I employed a slow shutter to blur the water and achieve the silky effect, but this was woefully tricky because I hadn’t carried my tripod down from the road with me, and had to rely on a pair of stable hands and also hope the redstart doesn’t move much while the mirror was going up and down, causing a whole deal of vibrations. Tall chance, especially at a long focal length as 200mm, no matter what generation of image stabilisation the lens is equipped with, but amazingly, I managed to pull off a couple of frames sharp. Redstarts get their name from Middle English ‘stert’, meaning ‘tail’, in reference to their red tails. Their close genetic relation to flycatchers is evident in the closeup.
Having been blessed with a good time, I left him in peace and returned to the road where I was joined by Sourabha. It was by now sweltering and we dearly could’ve used a cold drink, but being completely averse to using plastic bottles, we desisted. Unfortunately none in these parts seems to stock tin cans, and it’s either plastic or nothing, while it’s precisely in such places that it’s of critical importance to shun plastic, even if it costs a little more. For now I can only hope this changes in the future.
We waited at the honeyguide tree for quite a while again. Ankit saw a male appear briefly, but slipped away before we could spot him, let alone photograph.
By and by we began a slow ascent back towards Ukhimath, and were treated to some views of a black bulbul, before returning to the homestay.
It was by now around 4, and we decided to take the evening off for some well-earned hedonism in a lovely café we had been seeing every time while driving up and down the Ukhimath-Chopta road, called The Bunker House. Driving up, we reached there just after 5 p.m. Straight away we loved the decor and the ambience inside. The seating was on the floor, on mattresses and low coffee-tables, which we found refreshingly different, delightfully ergonomic and entirely relaxing.
Soon we were attended by the founder himself, Sparsh, a young man all of 23! He told us the story of how he had fallen in love with Chopta when he first visited, and despite being an engineer, wanted to do something different and opened this café-and-homestay, and was heartily supported by his father in the enterprise, saying he was young enough to recover even if he failed – a refreshingly liberal approach.
We got talking about trekking, and he turned out to be something of an absolute goldmine of knowledge in that department! Being from Uttarakhand itself, it seems he was a boy of the mountains, and had already completed some 52 treks in Uttarakhand and Himachal, the details of which he could furnish off his fingertips with stunning clarity. We picked his brains quite a bit about scenic drives and treks in Himachal, and then helped ourselves to some delectable pasta and black coffee, finishing it off the main course an hour later.
It was deathly quiet outside when we finally left past 8:00 p.m.
Day six: Ukhimath to Rishikesh via Makku Math
And so our last morning at Chopta arrived after all, and having packed our bags early, we checked out at 5:45. The plan was to drive via Makku Math instead of straight down to Kaakda and thence Rudraprayag, so as to take another chance with the scarlet finch.
We were, however, conscious of the time, for Mukesh had got news that the road at Rudraprayag would be shut from 11:00 a.m. for some repair work.
Ankit decided to accompany us for a change, and after saying our goodbyes to Dinesh and Mukesh, we drove up the familiar road, taking the deviation before Chopta for Makku. This time we were lucky to see a chestnut-bellied rock thrush in Makku to open the account. We reached the scarlet finch haunt quicker than the previous day, but had no luck with it whatsoever. A female pink-browed rosefinch, and a rather bold one at that, did visit us, though.
And as we approached the dirty nallah, at the previous bend, Ankit saw from the corner of his eye a streak of yellow, and shouted – honeyguide!
Getting off the car, we realised there was a whole flock of them, perhaps all females, but the light still being low and their being very fast, getting any sort of serviceable pictures wasn’t feasible, and I just enjoyed watching them.
A little further, a long-billed thrush proved to be the last new species we were to see in Chopta, and after that, it was a straight descent to the Ukhimath-Rudraprayag road just past Kaakda, where we dropped off Ankit to be picked up by the other vehicle, and drove away from Chopta a last time, not to return to its ave-filled valleys until next time.
We made it past Rudraprayag by 11, and feasted on a truly scrumptious breakfast, before again driving non-stop to Rishikesh, which we reached by about 5 p.m., checking in to our hotel, The Peepal Tree. Parking the car and freshening up, we wasted no time in scurrying up to the terrace of the hotel, to enjoy this view just before darkness prevailed:
Just as we climbed up to the terrace, we also saw a pair of Indian grey hornbills perched spectacularly out in the open, but alas I wasn’t carrying the telephoto lens, and by the time I could run down and fetch it, they were gone.
For dinner we went down to the lovely café downstairs, furnished very nicely and serving some excellent pizza and espresso. It was nice to have these urban luxuries after a week.
Sleep came easily that night despite the hustle and bustle of the main road of Rishikesh, as well as the din raised by the picnicky neighbours on our floor, even if only because the trip was over and we didn’t have a dream to keep us up.
Day seven: Ukhimath to Rishikesh via Makku Math
With the return flight at 4:00 p.m., we had plenty of time this morning, so we took it easy and had a leisurely breakfast. Then we set out to Laxman Jhula, a walk punctuated by a surplus of wall art, and shopping.
We reached Laxman Jhula but didn’t venture across it because it was too crowded, and social distancing would’ve been impossible, and just returned after taking this picture:
We stepped into a general store that had all sorts of imported goods, including tobacco and exotic confectionery, for a cold drink, and overheard some ahem-ahem going on between a couple of foreign nationals and the store owner, with innuendos to a certain special kind of cigarette stuffing, if you’re fluent between the lines.
Inwardly smiling at this prominence of smoking-up culture in what is the hotbed of yoga and spirituality, we walked back to the hotel and checked out.
We reached Dehradun in just half an hour, well before 1, and had to wait for a good 15 minutes for Sajan to arrive to collect the car outside Jolly Grant airport.
The first question I asked him was why he gave us a crippled car if he knew there was a problem with the engine, and to this he had no answer, not even an apology. In fact he felt free to inform us of the charges for a car wash, which would be deducted from the refundable deposit we had paid, which was ironic.
But these trivial things did not detract from the epic experience we had just enjoyed, thanks to having a car at our disposal. Our perception of events – whether successes or mishaps – are shaped by their outcomes, and as Shakespeare said in different words, so long as the end is in our favour, with the middle being robustly full of memory-making material, no matter how much of a digression a sequence of events has taken from the design of the beginning, given all are safe and content, all is indeed well. Distance from the past makes any travail seem trivial, even likeable, liable to be missed, and for us, the lofty mountains of Chopta, the snow-clad heights of Chaukhamba, and the streams and the rivers and the valleys teeming with life, already seemed like a treasure left behind, to be recalled into reality again, with another adventure if permitted in the framework of the future, for the place we inhabit as much as the present is the memory of it, and it is in the nature of memory to beget the making of more.