Gulma: a Hidden Paradise
One of the reasons that make Siliguri is one of my favourite places is the quick proximity to rivers, jungles and wildlife. It must be the only city in India which is just 10 kilometres away from a wildlife sanctuary. And one that houses big cats as well as elephants. One of my favourite excursions from Siliguri is to Gumla. If you turn off from Champasari on the Highway to Sevoke Bridge, and proceed towards the north, the hills come to meet you. Soon the houses become fewer and very quickly you can see tea gardens in the distance and the forests of the Mahananda sanctuary seem very close indeed. Today, my daughter practices her driving skills.
Past the Milon Crossing, there is practically no more traffic, and you dive past a tiny forest village and there the road ends, at the Gulma Station. There is another better known near namesake, Gumla in Jharkhand, another tribal paradise, now infested with Naxalites, but this Gulma is on the Siliguri Alipurduar line, recently converted to broad guage from narrow guage, with disastrous results for the wildlife in these forests. This line takes you through some of India’s best forests and always in sight of the foothills of the Darjeeling, Slkkim and the Bhutan mountains. It deserves much better recognition than it has from the tourism industry.
You have to walk across the track, and often there is a train standing there, immobile and the only way to get past is to duck under it and pray that the train does not begin to move right when you are crawling past. The station itself is small and I do not really think that there is any commercial justification for its existence. There is a ticket counter, but nobody ever buys tickets here, or at least, I have never seen anybody doing so. And once you cross the tracks, you are in the Mahananda Sanctuary.
There is a grassy area first, in the monsoons it is more of a water body and a favourite hunting ground for the open billed stork. But in winter, it is barren and about a hundred yards on, the forest starts. The forest is the typical terai forest, a mixture of many types of trees, though Sal predominates. But this forest is alive with birds. We have on occasion spotted the Great Hornbill, several species of woodpeckers and many other commoner forest species. An hour spent here with a pair of binoculars is richly rewarding.
If you walk along the tracks a little ahead, the Mahanadi River bed comes into view. In the monsoons there is a wide river flowing fast between the banks, and bringing with it driftwood, rocks and gravel, but in this Spring morning the bed is totally dry . Often we have found a small stream rippling past, but today it is bone dry. The river, when it flows, joins the Mahananda further down .
Across the Mahanadi river is the forest proper. There is something forbidding about the aspect. The trees are close together and the sounds of the forests are very audible even in broad daylight. The Gulma area is a favourite haunt for elephants and it has often happened that the trains are held up by elephants as they cross the bridge over the river to enter the other side.
But today there is no such danger. The river being dry, is unlikely to attract the elephants and we can safely cross the river bed to the other side and enjoy the wildflowers which are blooming aplenty. There are many varieties of moths and butterflies as well, not to speak of colourful insects which, unfortunately we cannot identify. There is a track leading into the forest alongside the rail track, very inviting, but as we do not have permission to enter the forest we do not force our luck too much, but return, this time climbing onto a wooden footbridge that runs alongside the rail bridge.
This bridge is a beauty. There are a couple of places to sit here. Rough benches, where you can sit and gaze upon the mountains and the forest. We have seen many birds from here; once, memorably, a great hornbill which flew from one bank to the other. Today as we sit, a group from the forest village emerges, having collected some firewood. It is a picturesque sight, but sometimes it makes one uneasy to see the amount of collection from these not inexhaustible forests.
The bridge is blocked today by a locked gate. This is new; we do not remember seeing it before. However the gate is easily circumvented and we can return to the car parked near the station and return in less than 15 minutes to our home in the heart of Siliguri.