Winter and the Forests of North Bengal
It is winter now in India and this is turning out to be cold one. The temperatures in Calcutta have reached unprecedentedly low levels and Siliguri is freezing, at levels that have not been seen for 5 years apparently. My wife tells me that the picnics parties are out in force in the Dooars and the forests are as pretty as ever.
This is something that I miss a lot in Malaysia. There is no winter!! In the heights of the Cameroon Mountains and Genting Highlands you do get a coolness that is soothing but it is not the same as winter in the plains. The advent of winter is something that I always used to look forward to in India. It was the time when you could go for long walks in the Dooars area, in the forest trails, the birds and the trees a marvellous backdrop to a satisfyingly tiring exercise. One of my favourite walks was the one from near the Khunia More Forest office near the Jaldhaka river on the Chalsa road and through the forests of the Chapramari division up to Murti. The walk is about 12 kilometers and the only drawback is that it is along a metalled road so that you are likely to meet cars and vans full of people going for a picnic, sometimes with loud music playing. Why a day out with nature must be accompanied by a loudspeaker and lots of alcohol is something I have never been able to figure out, but it has been the norm , at least in the Eastern part of the country for at least the last 40 years.
Anyway the walk is mostly solitary; the possibility of meeting a herd of elephants adds a frission of danger that adds to the enjoyment. There are so many birds that you can spend a week trying to spot and catalogue them and the trees are magnificent. There are two times of the year when the walk is specially good, One just after the rains when the forests are green and the undergrowth full of sounds of small animals that you never get to see. Another time is at the end of winter when spring is in the air and the Simul trees near Murti are in full blaze. I prefer to sit across the Murti Bridge and have my sandwiches sitting below a tree overlooking the river and the Simul blossoms. The next part of the walk is through a typical Bengali village, cultivated fields and then the Batabari tea estate to reach the Lataguri Chalsa road where a bus can take you back to Siliguri.
Another walk that we have taken all together as a family is the walk from Chalsa to Lataguri. This is also a wonderful tramp through the rich forests of Gorumara. Not at once, of course, we broke it up into three bits to cover the distance, using three Sundays for this purpose. On one occasion as we walked happily through a forested tract, some local villagers warned us that there was a herd of elephants ahead and we could hear them breaking branches in the forest. But try as we might we never got to see them! As both my wife and daughter were with me, discretion, I thought, was the better part of valour and we beat a retreat.
There are many other planned walks that I have not taken. What about walking from Khunia More upwards towards the hills? We had walked picnicked there once parking our car in one of the forest trails. The only problem in these areas is the ever present fear of elephants. This is something that should not be ignored. Elephants are extremely unpredictable creatures and are dangerous in a way that even tigers are not. In addition the increasing contact with hostile villagers and repeated confrontation with men have now made the North Bengal elephants a lot more dangerous than in the past. I never take risks with elephants.
The pleasures of forest walks are many and to my mind, the winter is the best time to enjoy these pleasures. While Malaysia has some of the most magnificent forests in the world, walking in these forests are not as pleasurable somehow. The constant sweating and dense undergrowth make it difficult to see animals and birds. Even so the trails in Taman Negara are wonderful and I have enjoyed our walks there. But winter? Winter never comes in the Malaysian peninsula!