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The ethereal beauty of Singalila

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

“ You know, this is the first time that soon after a trip, you have not yet shared any wildlife pictures”, a friend observed.


It was true.


I have rarely returned from a trip, feeling as contented as after this trip. And it wasn’t as if I got images that were out of the world or which far exceeded my expectations. It was something totally different. I was still basking in my memories, in no hurry to accept the reality of my return through the practical task of processing my images.


Maybe it was just because I was back in the mountains that I so love.


Maybe, it was because of the feeling of escapism that comes from being fairly cut off from the rest of the world and all its dreary news.


Maybe, it was because, thanks to the strange situation that the entire world has been thrown into, I realised my good fortune to be able to be out, doing what I love, and wanted to squeeze every bit out of it.


Or maybe it was all of that combined.


Whatever be the reasons, I returned satisfied, contented and happy.


Singalila.

Just a little while back, I hadn’t even heard of the place.


Singalila is part of the Eastern Himalayas and situated at an altitude of more than 7000 ft above sea level. The Park makes the border line with Nepal to the west and with Sikkim to the North.

The topography and the mount to travel in

To give you a little bit of the history of the place, in 1882, the British Government bought the Singalila forests on lease from the Sikkimese king. Later on, after Independence, it became the part of Darjeeling District in West Bengal.


In 1986, the forests here were declared as a National Park and the Singalila National Park was born. It was also realized by the authorities, that they will not be able to have the required number of guards to protect the forests and wisely they decided to enrol the local villages into the endeavour and trained thousands of people from many villages that dotted the landscape.


While the forests had more than its share of the usual ( and some unusual ) denizens and many lovely birds, in recent years the Singalila National Park had become famous for the red panda.


We too planned our trip with the red panda in mind and were lucky to get a couple of memorable sightings but despite being the totally adorable creatures that the red panda are, there was so much more to fall in love with.

This must be the place with the highest concentration of Land Rovers in India !

We stayed at Tumling which is a small collection of homestays and lodges that grew to its current size mainly to cater to the tourists. Jeeps of all vintage could be seen here, ferrying both tourists and locals up and down the mountains. When I say, vintage, I mean really vintage. Land Rovers from the 1950s would still be proudly strutting around these hills most with some quirky comments on them.

Boy…these vehicles had character ! Though, I suspect, they might have been a tad uncomfortable 🙂

The place was dotted with a lot of similar cute, full of bravado quotes 🙂

Every morning, I would walk up the narrow, curving incline to the main road. There, right opposite, on a good, cloudless day, you could get lucky and get a glimpse of the range that is popularly called as the Sleeping Buddha.


The road curves in the usual serpentine manner that roads tend to do in the mountains, one side sloping down, usually well covered with trees, is part of the Singalila forests, which is India and the other side, either a little flat or sloping upwards was Nepal.


The rhododendrons, were a little late this year. By this time, normally the deep red of the rhododendrons would have furiously and unabashedly announced their conquest of the hillside. This year, they were still a little shy. There were, of course, some bold ones that audaciously announced their intentions and I could easily visualize how different this place will look, in just a couple of weeks.


As you walk down this undulating stretch of road, pause for a while, peer into the trees and the bushes, you will hear a few chirps, see a flutter here amongst the leaves and soon another one there. Wait a little longer and if it is your lucky day, some of them will come up and descend on a wonderful perch as if their sole intention is to pose for you. And, if by then, the sun has come up a little bit more, consider yourself doubly blessed. Or, otherwise, you chase the uncooperative ones in the hope of getting them still and quiet for a few seconds while you compose a half decent image.

This Rufous Vented Tit was especially cooperative. Stayed put for ages allowing me to move around getting different backgrounds

This Olive backed Pippit seems to be giving us quite an earful 🙂

The White browed Fulvetta was another regular and gave us some lovely poses

The Fire tailed Myzornis was having a total feast on one of the few rhododendrons around…check how its neck is showing evidence of its meal !

Feast !!! The Myzornis pauses in its gorging to look at us with a satisfied glint

You look back at where you came from and you can see the marvellous sight of the road laid down like a carelessly thrown ribbon. You inhale the lovely, clean mountain air and look around you. Dark green covers the softly undulating hillsides, their carpet-like pattern broken only by the brilliantly white spots that the magnolia trees throw up.

It was lovely to walk along these roads. Beauty all around you.

Fog. Prayer Flags. Bliss.

If you are feeling too lazy to do that uphill walk in the cold, no worries. There are enough birds around the place we stayed in to keep the cameras busy !

A White browed Fulvetta catches the sunlight at just the right place

A Plain Mountain Finch…I do detest names that begin with Plain !

This blue capped rock thrush checked in on us every morning

Our usual plan would be to go to Kaiyakatta and park ourselves there while the trackers go in search for the red panda. As we wait for news to come back of a sighting there are multiple options of activities to choose from, all similar in its unhurriedness of any demands of you.


There are a few tiny, small hill tracks that are strewn around, inviting you to walk up and get a better view of the world. Or you can simply sit where you are, next to the road, waiting for the ubiquitous trekkers on their way to Sandakphu or occasionally the locals to walk up and engage in small talk. Or you could walk past the few houses that are there, clamber down a short, narrow path, down to a small clearing and wait for the birds to appear.


And, what lovely birds there were !!

The aptly names Hoary throated Barwing surveys the world from its mossy perch

A Red bellied Thrush warily takes a peep

I loved this cautious look that the Hoary throated Barwing gave before settling down

A Himalayan Thrush pops up from behind an incline to inspect us

These Yellow billed blue Magpies were amongst the largest birds we saw…look at that tail !!

This little bundle, the Eurasian Wren, put in a very short appearance

Every afternoon, a little after lunch almost like clockwork the mist comes in. Gentle, unassuming, almost apologetic but still firm, it sets in. An early assessment of its strength would lead us to pack up and leave to avoid any risky driving down the hills back to our base.


You will still have time though, to hurry up one of those narrow tracks which gives you a good view of the place Kaiyakatta is and get some dreamy images.

Every afternoon, when the fog rolls in…the place looks stunning

Its time we leave…driving through that fog, on these mountain roads can be demanding

We changed our routines occasionally. Once we took a different route to Kaiyakatta. A path that unfortunately also painfully demonstrated the impact of the thoughtless actions of man. Wide swathes of the hills lay denuded of its trees around us. Bare brown hills rolled all around us. Some years ago, the view would have had a different colour scheme.


We got out of our vehicles and as if to paper over our frustrations, a couple of Himalayan Griffons appeared, flying below our heights, lazily enjoying the fruits of thermals.

How often do you look down to see a vulture flying below you ?

There was another occasion when we decided to halt midway and spend the day at Gairibas. We had such a beautiful time there.


We headed into the forests, following a well used track that led to a village deep inside. We walked on narrow tracks, the grass, still drenched with morning dew, crunching softly under the soles of our shoes. Tall, impassive, moss covered oak trees stretched skywards. There was dense undergrowth all around us. It was eerily quiet with the usual forest sounds also absent. For a change the sun was out and announcing its presence but strangely, the birds were missing. It was just us and the silence.


However, as it is common in the mountains, the change in the weather when it comes, is both abrupt and complete. In a matter of minutes, the sky started darkening, and the fog started coming in.


Suddenly, from lying on the grass, enjoying the warm winter sun, free of any chirping subjects around us to keep us busy, we were thrown into a maelstrom of activity. The birds, as if worried, that the sunlight they were studiously ignoring till then, might vanish for the rest of the day, had come out in droves.

The Green shrike Babbler gave us far better poses which I sadly made a meal of 😦

A Rufous fronted Tit looks rather miffed at the fog suddenly coming in

This Rufous vented Yuhina is as perplexed as us about the change in the weather

Sigh…the ‘I missed the sun when it was out’ look !

The only one that was around when the sun was – this Fire tailed Sunbird completely ignored us and was singleminded in its focus on filling its stomach

When I paused for a moment from looking through my camera and looked around me, the place looked stunning. The fog continued to settle in, and just then the sun decided to show its might and sunlight, like hope, filtered through the gloom.


Ethereal.


And a fitting metaphor for the times.

The sun will come through.

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