Ramble On: 5 Great Indian Treks for Families, Friends & Solo Travellers

Pick your adventures and get going.
Goecha La Sikkim
During summer, at least five different colours of rhododendrons ranging from white to red can be seen all along the Goecha La trek in Sikkim. Photo: Neelima Vallangi

Trek into Northeast India’s Magical Valley of Flowers

By Rachna Bisht Rawat | Photographs by Anup Kanodia

As we leave behind the little village of Viswema in Nagaland, mist seeps into the narrow gulley in fat swirls of dense grey, hungrily devouring the mountains in its path. It’s not a pleasant sight; particularly as we are 15 kilometres away from civilization, and it is stalking us through a dark, claustrophobic forest. The path gets narrower; soon, I am pushing away coarse leaves that lash my face and arms.

“I don’t think our guide knows where he is taking us,” I growl to my trekking partner. “Tell him if you dare,” he says, and moves on, sending another spray of shoots in my face. Ruprukhrul Kechu, our 25-year-old Naga guide—good-looking, stocky, and very Hollywood in his faded jeans and rugged jungle boots—has disappeared into the thicket. I hear the swish of his dah, a Naga sword, slashing at the undergrowth. Feeling no love for him at the moment, but tickled by my friend’s hat tip to the region’s headhunting tradition, I grin and keep quiet. Besides, I am determined to stick it out until I find a different kind of treasure—the famed Dzukou lily, a flower that blooms nowhere else.

Valley of Flowers Nagaland

In the Mao Naga dialect spoken by a local tribe, the word Dzukou means “dream-like,” perfectly describing the green, undulating hills. Photo: Anup Kanodia

Nestled between Nagaland and Manipur, Dzukou valley is believed to provide stiff competition to Uttarakhand’s Valley of Flowers, yet strangely it has remained unknown. Our journey began in Kohima, Nagaland’s hilly capital, from where we drove to Jakhama village and spent the night. The next morning, a 30-minute drive brought us to Viswema, from where the car crawled up eight kilometres of a muddy track that disappeared near the trailhead. We started climbing at 8 a.m. People often split the trek, which is 16 kilometres, over two days, but we’re trying to do it in one.

We struggle up rough stone steps cut into the steep incline. Humming a folk song, Kechu walks up the deadly, slippery staircase with practiced ease. We pull ourselves up by our hands, stopping to breathe and drink water. The steps finally end after an hour of climbing. I sit down to steady my knees, encouraged by a wooden board that says “To Dzukou.” Skirting the mountain, we listen to the faint rumble of the nullah below us and the call of cicadas from the trees above.

The mountain ranges are various shades of green, interspersed with soot-blackened tree stumps. After about two hours, we reach the rest camp, which has a Nagaland Government rest house—a good place for tea, hot Maggi noodles, or a shower and sleeping bags for those who wish to spend the night.

We continue downhill for 45 minutes until the valley suddenly opens out before us, like a lush, manicured golf course with a gurgling blue ribbon of a stream cutting through the shining grass. There, in the midst of all the green, we spot a translucent mauve flower. “Hello Dzukou lily,” I say, bending to take a closer look. Hundreds of these flowers nod in the breeze.

Trekkers Nagaland

Part of the trail to Dzukou Valley winds through forests, but there are no wild animals. Local tribals say they have eaten them all. Photo: Anup Kanodia

Satiated with so much beauty, we walk to a wooden bridge over the stream and sit on its wide wooden step while eating our lunch. Some other trekkers have set up camp under a huge rock nearby, and the smoke from their cooking curls into the air. A teenager comes to the stream to get water, tipping his bucket to avoid the stones some old romantics have dropped in, with their names carved on them.

The nearly four-hour hike back is no easier, but the next morning, as I watch the pouring rain from behind a glass window, the effort seems well worth the reward.

The Vitals

Orientation

Dzukou Valley is nestled between Nagaland and Manipur, at a height of 8,045 ft, behind Japfu peak. The closest major town is Kohima (22.4 km/50 min south; taxi ₹700 one-way). It can be reached via two routes. The first begins near Viswema, with an 8-km drive on a dirt road, followed by an 8-10 km hike. It is longer but less challenging. The second starts near Jakhama, with a 3-km drive on a dirt road, followed by a 6-8 km hike. This involves 3 hr of very steep uphill walking. Both go via the rest house (dormitory rooms ₹50 per person; small double rooms from ₹300; bring your own sleeping gear).

Organizing the Trek

Even though it is possible to do the trek without a guide, it is advisable to take one along. There are many trails in these hills and the weather is unpredictable. Find a guide in Viswema village or contact India Trail, a local travel agency (81198 51777; www.indiatrail.org). Guides charge ₹2,100 per person for a group of 4 or more, and go up to ₹6,350 if you wish to go alone. Prices double if you want to spend the night in the valley.

Need to Know

•Travellers require an Inner Line Permit to visit Nagaland’s hill districts. Get it via a tour operator or at a Nagaland House in your city.
•It can be quite cold at the top, so layered clothing is a good idea.
•The sun sets very early, so aim to start the trek at 6 a.m. and return as soon as possible.


A Parade of Landscapes Unfurls En Route to Goecha La

Text and photographs by Neelima Vallangi

Goechala Sikkim

Khangchendzonga massif looms large over hikers on their way to Viewpoint 2. Photo: Neelima Vallangi

UNESCO recently inscribed Sikkim’s Khangchendzonga National Park as a mixed World Heritage Site of natural and cultural importance. Besides Khangchendzonga (previously called Kanchenjunga) at 28,169 ft, which is the park’s crowning glory, the area has an astounding variety of landscapes—from ancient forests to massive glacial valleys. There are within it 18 glaciers, 20 peaks towering over 19,000 feet, and 73 glacial lakes. A great way to experience this geographical diversity is to undertake the trek to Goecha La, one of Sikkim’s most popular trekking routes.

On our first day on this trek, my friends and I set off from the town of Yuksom, walking through a stuffy broadleaf forest as nasty insects fed on us. The second day, the landscape changed, and we were ensconced in dreamy, mist-filled pine groves festooned with the loveliest pink and red rhododendrons. As we gained altitude on day three, the tall trees disappeared, and yellow and white rhododendrons replaced their blushing counterparts. Brightly coloured sunbirds flitted about in the stunted bushes.

Imminent afternoon showers hastened our descent towards the campground at Dzongri (13,300 ft). It poured with a vengeance that evening, and the next morning dawned bone-chillingly cold. Chattering teeth notwithstanding, we were rewarded with phenomenal views when we got to the barren hilltop of Dzongri (12,900 ft), a distinct cairn ringed by prayer flags. The drama at sunrise was overwhelming, as the snow-capped peaks turned golden. Khangchendzonga took the lead, followed by the sublime ridge line of Mt. Kabru (24,318 ft) to its left. The remaining peaks changed colour in order of height, the tallest first, the shortest last. We rested for the remainder of the day at Dzongri.

On the fifth morning, after a walk through juniper-strewn meadows, we made our way through a mass of tangled rhododendron down to the Prek River to reach Thansing, a campsite in an open valley. We took it easy until midnight. Then my troop began to head towards Goecha La in the freezing cold.

The pristine white face of Mt. Pandim glowed in the faint moonlight. The twinkling flashlights and dark silhouettes of human figures, made for makeshift markers on the trail. By the time the sun came up, we were at Viewpoint 1. Khangchendzonga basked in an ethereal glow, and the scene below the giant massif was no less remarkable. Endless mounds of ice and debris in desaturated browns stretched as far as the eye could see, phenomenal moraine carved by centuries of super slow glacial action.

We hiked another two hours to reach Viewpoint 2, still an hour’s arduous hike short of Goecha La. Kilometres ahead of me, surrounded by that outlandish terrain of uncharacteristically soft sand, rocky fields, and a scree-covered slope, the stunning Goecha Lake shone like a blue jewel. A few kilometres behind, Samiti Lake, which we had passed unseen on the hike up in the dark, shimmered in the sunlight. The iridescent lakes more than compensated for the surrounding starkness.

Drained of every last ounce of energy, some of my friends and I turned back after Viewpoint 2, while a few others continued on. On the way back to Thansing, I sprawled on the soft sand of the vast desert valley. After a rest, and hoping my mind would be fooled into thinking my body was doing fine after 14 hours of hiking, I lumbered on. The meadows that I missed in the dark of the night appeared, overgrown in hardy orange flora. A herd of Himalayan tahr watched us from alongside the meandering Prek River.

Goechala Sikkim

Rain clouds descend over Khangchendzonga, Pandim, and Kabru as hikers walk into Prek Chu valley. Photo: Neelima Vallangi

On the endless retracing of our route over the next few days, it occurred to me that I had seen the most diverse range of ecosystems on this trail than I had on any other Himalayan trek. I went looking for India’s highest mountain, yet came back with so much more.

The Vitals

Orientation

Goecha La is a high mountain pass in western Sikkim, near Mt. Khangchendzonga. The challenging ten-day trek begins and ends in Yuksom (150 km/6 hr north of Siliguri) and goes up to a maximum altitude of 16,200 feet at Goecha La and Viewpoint 2. Prior Himalayan trekking experience is recommended.

Organizing the Trek

The writer hired a local guide from Yuksom (cost varies depending on number of porters, yaks, food, and equipment). Travellers can arrange a 10- or 7-day version of the trek through trekking outfits in Siliguri (GIO Adventures; www.gio.in/dzongri-goecha-la; 10 days, ₹21,000 per person; 7 days, ₹19,000 per person).

Need to Know

•Campsites have basic trekker’s huts that are given out on first-come, first-served basis. These are nothing more than a roof over the head and a wooden platform on which to spread out one’s sleeping bag.
•Goecha La: Viewpoint 1, above Samiti Lake, is popular for sunrises. Viewpoint 2 is roughly two hours further north along an arduous trail. Goecha La is an hour-long gruelling walk beyond Viewpoints 1 and 2.
•Permits are required to enter the park, and camp or trek inside. These are issued by the Sikkim Tourism & Civil Aviation Department’s Adventure Cell and are best arranged through your trekking company.


An Obsession with the Western Ghats Takes Flight in Kudremukh National Park

Text and photographs by Neelima Vallangi

Kudremukh Karnataka

The trademark glossy slopes of Kudremukh National Park are one of the best showcases of shola grasslands. Photo: Neelima Vallangi

I first hiked to Kudremukh National Park in western Karnataka five years ago. I remember feeling deep satisfaction as I munched soggy sandwiches atop the horse shaped Kudremukh peak, the state’s third-highest at 6,200 feet. It was here that my obsession with the Western Ghats took flight as I first witnessed its unending layers of hills and rolling grasslands.

I recently went back to that beloved landscape. The rain-fed beauty of the pristine hills, the sweeping views and billowing clouds, instantly whetted my appetite. I stayed in Mullodi village, a small cluster of houses and fields that’s about nine kilometres from the peak, and the start point of the trek.

A light drizzle alternated with pleasant sunshine, as we walked past bunches of purple flowers and cheery yellow blossoms locally called Mickey Mouse flowers. Occasionally, the trail wound through eerie patches of forest cloaked in veils of mist. We lingered so long in that magical landscape, that we didn’t have enough time to continue to the top and had to turn back. Hikers are usually obsessed with reaching the top, but no one seemed to mind. Everybody was just so taken in with the beauty of the surroundings that the lure of the summit took a backseat.

Eager to experience the terrain more, the next day we went on a short two-hour hike to Durga Betta. Perched on a rocky outcrop, the vantage point offered even better views than the ones we had seen en route to Kudremukh peak. An expansive carpet of green spread out beneath us, and I lingered to absorb the sight even as my friends began the hike back. In that moment of solitude, watching the clouds dance above that heavenly landscape, I had to remind myself that this was real, and that such beauty does still exist in our diminishing natural world.

Kudremukh Karanataka

The jungles of Kudremukh are littered with pristine streams where hikers can stop to refresh themselves. Photo: Neelima Vallangi

The Vitals

Orientation

Kudremukh National Park is in Karnataka’s Chikamagalur district (340 km/7 hr west of Bengaluru). Mullodi village is the base for many hikes in the region. The moderately difficult hike to Kudremukh peak is an 18-km round trip (7-8 hours).

Organizing the Trek

The hike is best organized via your place of stay. Bhagawathi Nature Camp is inside Kudremukh National Park (ecotrails.in; 080-40554095; dorms ₹1,213 per person; Swiss tents doubles ₹4,312; both include guide fees and transfers). There are also homestays run by locals (Raje Gowda, 9481179008, ₹800 per person, includes meals; Satish 9481074530; ₹700 per person, includes meals). They can help arrange guides (₹500 per day) and park permissions (₹475 per person) for the hike.

Need to Know

•The hike can be done from Sep-Feb, though the grass starts turning brown from Nov. Sometimes permission to hike is denied after Feb until the monsoon, due to possible wildfires.
•Camping overnight in the park is not allowed. Hikers must be accompanied by a forest or local guide.


The Thrills of a Rainforest at Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh

By Rishad Saam Mehta | Photographs by Piran Elavia

Namdapha India

Trekkers walk through the Namdapha River with the Dapha Bum range in the backdrop. Photo: Piran Elavia

Unlike most Himalayan treks, which wind over mountain passes or past lakes, the trek through Namdapha National Park in eastern Arunachal Pradesh traverses a rainforest. Spread over approximately 2,000 square kilometres, the national park protects a primeval jungle with a mindboggling biodiversity of flora and fauna. Apart from the four elusive big cats—tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards—about 1,000 species of plants, 500 species of birds, and 300 different kinds of butterflies can be found in this park.

The terrain is just as varied. Most of the time you’re walking under a canopy of trees that seems to reach the sky. On one day you may walk underneath bamboo canopies or through a thick cane forest, only to emerge onto a wide grassland. On another, you may pass towering hollong trees, then descend down to a riverbank and soon be scrambling over boulders. Although the trail rarely takes you higher than an altitude of 4,000 feet, this mixed landscape, with its fair share of ascents and descents, makes it challenging. If it rains, the paths are wet and slippery, and leeches are abundant. And there are plenty of exciting river and stream crossings over crude bamboo bridges with views of the snow-capped Dapha Bum range of mountains.

The trek begins with crossing the Noa Dihing River over a flimsy bamboo bridge, ahead of Deban, the last motorable point in the park. The crossing is rather exciting but can be scary for those who have a fear of heights. About an hour later, the towering rainforest envelops you with its cool shade, the sounds of cicadas and other insects, and the creaking of bamboo.

Once in a while you may hear the cacophony made by hoolock gibbons. These tailless primates, India’s only ape species, are found only in the forests of Northeast India. Even though they are quite difficult to see in the forest canopy, you can hear their loud hooting throughout the trek.

The stars of the forest are undoubtedly the hornbills, especially the oriental pied hornbill, which is graceful and cumbersome all at once as it wings through the air. These birds sometimes glide ahead of hikers, staying just out of reach at chest height. Other birds that can be spotted include the fulvous-breasted woodpecker, maroon oriole, and the rusty-bellied shortwing. The butterflies of Namdapha are quite bold, often alighting on people. Their beautiful patterns make for fantastic photographs. In fact, the entire landscape is a photographer’s dream with its plethora of colour and variety.

Namdapha wildlife

Hoolock gibbons (left) are endemic to Northeast India; Colourful fungi grows on decaying tree trunks (top right) and a large number of reptile and amphibian species proliferate in this forest (bottom right). Photo: Piran Elavia

Besides all this natural beauty, you can also stop at one of the Lisu tribal villages in the park. The Lisu people migrated here from Myanmar, and still live close to nature, without electricity or phones. Alongside vegetables and rice, they grow lots of fruit in their neat villages. They are happy to share fascinating stories of life in the park, and their intimate knowledge of the forest with visitors.

The trekkers’ dwellings are welcoming too, and every campsite has its own particular charm. The first, Hornbill, was a roosting site for its namesake bird and is wonderfully nestled in the rainforest. The second and third campsites, Firmbase and Imbiong, are on the banks of the Namdapha River, with spectacular views of the Dapha Bum mountains. The last campsite, at Balookhat, is the most spectacular one. Located in a gorge between forested hills, it’s been nicknamed Jurassic World.

The Vitals

Orientation

Namdapha National Park, the largest protected area in the Eastern Himalayas, is located in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, near the Myanmar border. Miao is the nearest major town, where the forest department is located. The closest major city is Dibrugarh (160 km/6 hr west of Miao). Deban (25 km east of Miao) is the starting and end point of the trek. The trek can only be done from Nov-Feb.

Organizing the Trek

It takes five days to complete the 65-km, moderate-intensity trek, with 5-7 hr of hiking daily. During the trek, hikers stay overnight in tents and at eco lodges along the way. Trekking outfits like Kipepeo (www.kipepeo.in/trips/namdapha-trek), Greener Pastures (www.thegreenerpastures.com/Namdapha- National-Park-Trek), and Help Tourism (www.helptourism.com) organise trips to Namdapha with guides, porters, tents, and food (from ₹38,500 per person; 9-day trip, from Dibrugarh).

Need to Know

•An Inner Line Permit is required to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Another permit from the forest department is required to trek in the forest. This is issued by the park director’s office in Miao.
•Besides other hiking essentials, do carry mosquito repellent and leech protection socks.


For Families and First-Timers, Himalayan Ecstasy Without Extreme Challenges

Text and photographs by Amitabha Gupta

Hampta

The uphill trek from Tilgan, over rock and snow, past trees adorned with colourful leaves in May, is both tiring and rewarding. Photo: Amitabha Gupta

The Hampta Circuit Trek is one of Himachal Pradesh’s lesser known routes, often confused with the popular Hampta Pass Trek that takes place in the same area. It’s a five-day trek that affords stunning views of the Pir Panjal, Dhauladhar, and Bara Banghal ranges, and is suitable for beginners and families.

The trail starts at Jagatsukh village, located on the quiet side of the Beas, the one across the river from Manali. The trek begins with an easy walk past apple orchards to Bhanara village, where there is a temple with exquisite woodwork on windows and door frames and a couple of gigantic pine trees. Along the way, there’s a great view overlooking the sprawl of Manali town. The trail then winds through forests that occasionally open to reveal views of snow-capped peaks to reach Buggi meadow, the first campsite.

The next day takes hikers to the Tilgan meadows, where some may choose to camp overnight to enjoy the panoramic view of the Pir Panjal Range showcasing its numerous peaks. Staying here, hikers often encounter gaddi shepherds with their flocks. You can also see the small stone shelters they build for rough weather. The great thing about the Hampta Circuit trek is that trekkers can easily customise it to their liking, choosing to stop at Tilgan or continuing on to the next campsite.

After Tilgan, there is an intense six-hour walk, initially uphill and demanding but easing off later, broken by a lunch break overlooking a view of the Bara Banghal range. During May, this uphill stretch is often covered in large patches of snow. After this, the trail descends through lovely oak forests to the Phahi Nullah stream. Depending on how cold it is, hikers will find themselves fording a cold stream or walking across a frozen nullah to continue to Jogi Dug, the next campsite.

For me, the most rewarding point of the trek was the Kharmandari campsite, the second-last night stop. If there’s still some snow covering the meadow, the campsite looks like it has large dunes. On a clear day it is possible to see the snowcovered Bara Banghal range. The final stretch of the trek from Kharmandari to Chikka winds through meadows laden with colourful flowers. Since Chikka is also the start point of the Hampta Pass trek, it has basic tents for hikers, as well as some shops. It’s popular as a day hike from Manali as well. From Chikka, trekkers walk up to Pandu Ropa village, where they are picked up by a car to take them back to Manali.

The campsite at Tilgan meadows is inviting with a panoramic view of the Dhauladhar range on the left and Pir Panjal on the right. Significant peaks of Pir Panjal range like Mukar Beh, Ladakhi Peak, Shitidhar, and Friendship Peak are visible on a clear day. Photo: Amitabha Gupta

The campsite at Tilgan meadows is inviting with a panoramic view of the Dhauladhar range on the left and Pir Panjal on the right. Significant peaks of Pir Panjal range like Mukar Beh, Ladakhi Peak, Shitidhar, and Friendship Peak are visible on a clear day. Photo: Amitabha Gupta

The Vitals

Orientation

Hampta stream and pass are in northern Himachal Pradesh. The nearest big town is Manali (540 km/11 hr north of Delhi). However, as the Hampta Circuit trek begins at Jagatsukh (7 km/20 min southeast of Manali), which is across the Beas from Manali, it is better to stay closer to there. There are a couple of small hotels in Jagatsukh, and some in the village of Shuru, about 2 km away.

Organizing the Trek

Hampta Circuit trek is often confused with its better known counterpart so do confirm that the trek organiser has understood which trek you want to do correctly. There are a number of outfits in Delhi and Manali that organise the trek. Most charge around ₹27,500 per head. The trek is best done in Apr-Sep, and usually takes about five days, but it’s nice to add an extra day to stay overnight at Chikka. A reliable outfit that can make arrangements is Indian Himalayan Excursions in Manali (near Hotel Mayflower, Club House Road; 98162 57777/88944 52508/9816887879).

Need to Know

•Carry layers of warm clothing, high ankle boots, and gaiters for the snow covered sections.
•Use insect repellent while hiking in the area around Phahi Nullah as it has many insects.
Appeared in the November 2016 issue as “Ramble On”.

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