I have been travelling for viewing wildlife and photographing wildlife for a few decades now and over the years many people, places, books, documentaries, and lodges have inspired me in my search for wilderness and unique landscapes, wild animals, birds along with experiences. This is the first blog of this series where I would like to talk about some wonderful lodges that fueled my drive.
Since the Corbett landscape is one of my favourite wilderness escapes in the country, I thought it fit to begin there. Although today the park is surrounded by many hotels and lodges that have cropped up there are two which really stand out. In this blog I wish to showcase one of them.
Although this property has existed for many years, first as a fishing lodge and now as a birding lodge. Below mentioned are the key factors that I felt stirred some feeling / thoughts and which impacted me in a way that few others have:
Access: The lodge is set beyond Corbett Tiger Reserve boundaries on the northern side. It is set deep into the buffer forest of the larger Ramganga Valley. However, what intrigued me was how one gets to the lodge – You drive up to a large suspension bridge over the Ramganga river which is largely meant for pedestrians and cyclists from the village across the river. After crossing the bridge there is a hike for about 2km, followed by a river crossing using a make-shift raft that is pulled across the river. Another 500-600metres of hiking will get you to the lodge. By now you are completely cut off from road network and largely the rest of the world in a bliss amongst the forest.
Concept of this lodge: The lodge is small (just 9 cottage) and is managed completely by local boys. The lodge owner Sumantha Ghosh used to be the head naturalist for Tiger Tops. He came into this valley exploring remote sub-montane river systems for a fishing camp with waters deep enough for giant Mahseer to migrate up year-round. The ecosystem was in a bad way. The waters were uninhabited by the once legendary Golden Mahseer, due to locals who fished with explosives and chemicals, and the land a degraded and overgrazed patch between the protected forest and the river. But it showed enormous potential and was surrounded by great beauty, so much so that Sumantha decided to purchase the land for himself. His vision was simple:
Provides jungle experiences without disturbing wildlife
Practices sustainable life-style & community-based conservation
Promotes responsible tourism
Hosts wide varieties of flora and fauna
Facilitates a meaningful learning environment for children
Creates awareness about human and environmental health
Keeping this vision in mind 4 mud cottages were built with thatch roof, the rest were built with local stone. The team he hired & trained consists completely of boys from the local villages and they have been trained to become birders and excellent ones at that. There is no air conditioning in the lodge, but the cottages are built in such a way that it is not really required. There is no swimming pool, but you have a pristine Ramganga to take a dip in and the surrounding forests are explored on foot keeping your carbon footprint to a minimum.
The hikes and walks can be along the banks of the river or one could hike into the Himalayan foothills. Keeping the exploration flexible and it brings with it the sense of adventure. What I enjoy the most is that it gives me the sense of how our forests were explored by our fore-fathers. Picnic breakfast during the hike in scenic locations. The experience does a fantastic job of taking you back in time. Of course, the added exercise is always good for us city dwellers.
Local Boys: The boys working at the lodge come from the surrounding villages in the hills. They not only get a job, they also learn about hospitality, wildlife, nature, photography and much more. They bring with them the unique knowledge of having lived in these jungles. Some of the naturalists worth mentioning are Manoj and Anil who today are such amazing birders that they can identify close to 120-130 species of birds just by their calls. This includes warblers as well – not an easy task as lot of us budding birders know. Needless to say, that the experience is very different from any hotel or resort – there is no reception formality, guest details and check in formalities are done in the dining area itself. The boys are the bell boys, naturalists, receptionists as well as housekeeper and chefs. Thus, bring with them the bonding of a close family which seeps through during the experience.
Dining Area: This perhaps is my second favourite spot on the property, it is a small open hall with a wall on one side built in traditional Kumaoni style, the rest of the area is open where you can sit during the day – read a book or talk to the boys but I loved bird photography from this spot. This area is surrounded by amazing trees and shrubs such as Mulberry which attracts a lot of birds and you can photograph them at eye-level. There is no hide required as the dining area works like a hide. There is a bird bath as well which is visited by multiple species such as the red-billed Leiothrix, black bulbul, black-crested bulbul, blue-winged siva, blue-throated barbet, grey treepie and the grey-winged blackbird to name a few.
Sundowner spot: This perhaps is my favourite spot and it is largely because it is close to a waterhole outside the property which is visited in the evening by larger mammals such as sambar deer, chital deer, barking deer, elephants (in the summers) and even leopards and tigers. However, my favourite experience was one of the evenings in March 2018 when after a great day of birding me along with my friend was sitting with Manoj enjoying a drink discussing which species we have been searching for and haven’t had any luck finding them and I mentioned the porcupine. To this Manoj smiled and turned on his torch and swung it around us and not 30ft from us were 5-6 porcupines. It was so surreal, and the memory has stuck ever since. In 35+ years of exploration this is how I was to see these unique animals. They can have burrows at the edge of the property and are frequent nocturnal visitors in the winter months.
The River: The river – Ramganga is pristine and on exploring one can find crocodiles, gharials and even otters – a great sign of a healthy river system. The water is cold and refreshing. This is especially enjoyable after a long hard hike just to soak yourself in shallow cold waters watching mountain goats – Ghural jumping around on the cliff face on the opposite side. You will also often find Pallas & Lesser Fish Eagles do flypasts scanning the river. Brown & Tawny Fish Owls too have found their spots on the riverbanks along with numerous unique species of birdlife such as the Little & Spotted Forktails, the Wallcreeper, Plumbeous Water Redstart and the White-capped Redstart.
The above mentioned were some key points that transports me back in time whenever I visit Vanghat. It creates a sense of nostalgia and reminds me of simpler times as a child when I would go on picnics by a river or explore jungles which were not yet taken over by tourism. A feeling that I am quite sure touch each and everyone of you who will visit this wonderful place. I hope it does not change, I hope no roads take you right up to the lodge as there is pleasure in the adventure which will otherwise be lost to creature comforts that can be found all over and will take away the uniqueness of the lodge – which today in my mind is a destination in itself and although is part of the Corbett landscape is completely detached from it.
I wish them the best to survive through though situation that the world is going through currently.