26 Feb 2013, Lava
The next day our plan to to go Chaudaferi didn’t materialise. A bunch of people were trekking through the trail, and Joseph thought it might hamper our birding exercise. So I spent the day outside the Forest Department’s Guest House: a colonial structure whose garden attracted birds and offered breathtaking views of the mountains.
Jospeh suggested that we hike in the woods for a bit. So we left the bungalow and went into the woods. The woods were so thick at times, I had to crawl through it on all fours. The woods were abuzz with the steady hum of insects, bees, wasps, and what have you. Soon enough we stumbled upon a shepherd’s path. We decided to wait near a small clearing. That’s when I heard the Collared Owlet. Whatever hopes of sighting it were dashed when Joseph clucked and said “No way.”
The Green-tailed Sunbirds were all over the place but I couldn’t click a decent portrait. They flit about and never stay still for a moment and, they are almost always in the shade. Or maybe I wasn’t patient enough. However, the day’s reward was a flock of Red-billed Leotrix. I was a little surprised to discover they belonged to the Babbler family. Prettiest Babblers in the world!
We walked back to the Forest Bungalow. Joseph offered to go get lunch and I was more than happy to just sit around in the lawns. I was a little tired, for it was unusually hot that day. I waited without any hope of spotting birds when a Green-backed Tit braved my presence and started feeding on the Rhododendrons. You know what’s a shame? Not a single nice shot of the bird, despite it almost sitting on my lap. Which means only one thing: I should unlearn my technique and learn how to take pictures from scratch. I can’t seem to find a better explanation for all the crappy pictures I had shot. I am not a great photographer. To me it is just a bonus. I love getting out and getting lost in the wilderness as often as I possibly can, and photography is only eventual. No, I am not offering an excuse. I am only highlighting the flaw in my approach. Even if it is just ‘eventual’ I ought to do it right or not do it at all. So after a few hundred pictures and almost jumping off the cliff out of exasperation I decided to sit still and just be. And, I dozed off.
Joseph returned with lunch, which I wolfed down. We decided to call it a day at around three in the afternoon. The next day, we were planning to hit Chaudhaferi and it was going to be a long day.
Some Pictures from the FRH
27 Feb 2013, Chaudaferi
The Maruti Gypsy arrived at half past five in the morning. We set off towards Chaudaferi. The plan was to hike from Zero point, a few kilometers inside the Park. The Gypsy wheezed and coughed as it laboured up the mud road. A Long-tailed Nightjar flew past us. It was still dark. We stopped in a clearing. “Your best chance of spotting a Satyr Tragopan is here.” Joseph said. It was not to be. We heard its call but it never showed itself. There was consolation in the form of a Khaleej Pheasant. He was foraging in the undergrowth and bolted as soon as I pulled my camera out. I think birds have something against photographers. Take a walk in the woods without your camera, and the birds come out like you are hosting an Annadhaanam. Take your camera– even a point and shoot– Crows don’t turn up.
It was light when we reached the Chaudaferi Forest Check-post. I had to log my visit in a Register. The staff knew Jospeh. I discovered later that Joseph has been working with the forest department for years, on a contract basis. So the boys in the camp were only happy to cook breakfast (Maggi again) for us.
The park was pristine and undisturbed. Well almost. A trekking party was behind us. They had camped at the Check-post and were getting ready to resume their trek. They could be heard miles. Probably that’s how you trek, that’s what the manual says, but it was like stabbing the place in the heart and slicing it to pieces. And, why do some trekkers reserve their most colorful outfits for the treks? Is it a ploy to repel wildlife? Or is it out of hope, to score some ‘chicks’ ? I never understood!
We kept walking in a resigned silence. I knew that this was not going to be the day when your dream bird appears, perches on the world’s best perch, and begs you to take a picture. No, not that day, this. This was more like, ‘how-far-are-you-willing-to-go’ kind of a day. I didn’t go too far. The thing was I was a little exasperated and I think Joseph sensed it. He tried to reassure me but I said I was fine. I mean sighting animals in the wild is a question of luck. “Don’t worry, I will show you Red Panda and Tragopan before this trip ends.” Joseph announced. I rubbished the claim. I was right. At the end of the hike, after we returned to Zero point, Joseph promptly took me to the big notice board and pointed to the Red Panda and Tragopan pictures there. I was so glad I didn’t have any sharp objects with me then.
After five days of non-stop hiking, I wanted to just relax so I decided to spend a day in Kalimpong, before I went to Darjeeling.
The next morning I bade farewell to the Lepchas. There has not been a single day ever since, I didn’t think of Lava. I am already making plans to visit Lava.
Some Bird Pictures from Chaudhaferi
So that’s how my Lava trip had unfolded. If you’re visiting Lava, please hire Joesph Lepcha as your guide. He knows the forests like the back of his hand and is a keen birder himself. More than that, he is a wonderful human being: kind, considerate, and fun.
Before you land in Lava, do speak to him (Nine Nine Three Two Zero 95242 is his number. I also created a mail id for him, try your luck with josephlepcha49/yahoo dot com). He charges a very nominal fee for being your Guide. He will also help you with stay arrangements. Remember that Lava is a remote place so carry all essentials like first aid, cash (no ATMs there) etc. Also, carry warm clothing if you are visiting in winter or spring.
Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri (NJP)
Nearest airport: Bagdogra
From NJP or Bagdogra you get cabs. You need to negotiate. The price is usually around 2k for a vehicle like Sumo, but play it by the ear. If I were you I’d plan to reach NJP very early (before dawn), and do some birding in Mahananda WLS and then go to Lava. So convince the cab guy and work the cost out. It’s worth the trouble. Or you can contact Deb who lives in Siliguri. He is an eminent birder himself and he will help you with the details. You can write to him at sahadebapratim at gmail.