Off the beaten tracks in Latpanchar, North Bengal
A lot can happen in Latpanchar, reiterates Anindita Das, as she recounts her journey to the sleepy hamlet in remote northern West Bengal in search of avian splendour.
Thirteen kilometres from Siliguri in northern West Bengal, is Sukna, from where begins the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. Many a time while driving up the road to Sukna have my ears been greeted with melodious songs of the white-rumped Shyama. As if this verdant stretch was not enough for my eyes to feast on, even the magnificent Indian peacock hasn’t shied to sashay in all his glory.
The Sanctuary reaches its zenith at Latpanchar, about 41 kilometres from Siliguri. This is the home of the elusive and now ‘vulnerable’ rufous-necked hornbill. Driving down the Sevoke Road from Siliguri for about 35 km, one reaches Sevoke. A road, barely motorable, veers left from here. Serpentine, with hairpin bends, this road is strewn with potholes. When I had visited in 2013, I had my heart in my mouth every time a vehicle plied from the opposite direction. So narrow is its width and so high its elevation that it required clinical precision from the drivers to make room for traffic to move forward. As we climbed uphill, the road got narrower, the air chillier and the pine trees taller, until they kissed the azure sky.
Sleepy, tiny and exempt from the public haunt, Latpanchar is a hamlet painted in pastel shades. Gabled houses, friendly villagers and birds are the hallmarks of this village. We checked in at the only available homestay- Cinchonest. Primal with no frills attached, this homestay exudes warmth. It is suffused with the love and hospitality of Mrs and Mr Gurung, the owners.
After a lunch that my husband and I devoured ravenously, we set off for the sanctuary located at a trekking distance of 4.5 km from our homestay. Interestingly, our guide’s name was Manzil and sure enough, we relied on him to take us to our destination. The trek starts with climbing a few stairs down the hamlet that leads to a pebbled road. As one walks down this road, habitation grows sparse and vegetation swells. After trekking for roughly about 3kms we reached another hill. It is from here that we could see the tiny little hamlet of Latpanchar. It was then that we realised how far we had come along.
This is also the place from where the trek becomes picturesque. The road peters down to a pathway, so narrow that one gets the feeling of treading on thin air. Both sides of the path are flanked by the ubiquitous pine trees that swayed in the gentle November breeze. It was here that we could hear a whooshing sound coming from afar. Initially, I thought it to be the whirring sound of an aeroplane, we were quite pleasantly embraced by a rush of wind. It was the breeze, coming as it is from a distance, unhindered, that whistled its way down before hugging us. Nature always has its ways of surprising you. She was not done yet for the place offered an unobstructed view of Himalayas, gloriously standing erect in the crisp winter sun. Pictures were clicked. They still remain saved in a hard-drive, but the memories made are etched forever in the mind. So compelling is the beauty of Nature that it makes the mind freeze the image without any effort. No wonder Keats had written: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’
Upon reaching the sanctuary, we trekked for almost half a kilometre in search of the rufous-necked hornbill. We trod through the thick undergrowth for a few hundred metres inside the sanctuary without much luck. Manzil informed us that February is the best month to spot the bird, causing me to sulk. But how long can one sulk when in the lap of Nature? The amorous clamour of other birds gave us company. Yuhina, scaly thrush, ashy-backed shrike, Himalayan woodpecker, black bulbul and minivets were chirping and frolicking about us as if they were out on a picnic.
During our return trek we witnessed one of the oft-seen but rarely appreciated spectacles of Nature- the sunset. The western sky was streaked with bold hues of purple, orange and red. We walked back to the homestay to steaming cups of tea and biscuits. Nature is generous in her bounties. If the sunset was spectacular, the night was no less magnificent. The moon shone bright bathing the sleepy hamlet in silvery light and as the pine trees swayed in the breeze, the silhouette of the hills stood proudly admiring the beauty.
Latpanchar, being the highest point of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary offers a good vantage point for the plains below. Our balcony provided this perfect vantage point overlooking the lower reaches of the sanctuary cut across by the river Teesta. Needless to say, it offered one of the most breath-taking views. Tiny islands dotted the Teesta as projections of green in a bed of pristine blue.
The next morning, after grabbing tea and biscuits, we again headed off to the sanctuary. On the way, we spotted a magpie and a minivet (male). We trekked along the other side of the hills that houses the sanctuary. This side was mostly shaded and a bit damp, only to be punctuated by sunlight in spots. It was in one such sunny spot that we again spotted a host of minivets, both male and female, a yellow-tailed minla, a racket-tailed drongo and a couple of yuhinas. Circling up in the sky was a crested serpent eagle.
During the course of discussion with the locals that evening, we learnt that the local people not only took an avid interest in birding but also took steps to preserve the myriad avian life there. One of them collected saplings of trees from the sanctuary and replanted them in his neighbourhood. As the saplings grew, so did the birds arrive. The trees became the ideal rendezvous for the birds. Bird chirrup rends the dawn and dusk air in Latpanchar with their music. In today’s day and age of technology, these Nature loving villagers of a sleepy hamlet made us realise that instead of encroaching upon the wildlife habitat, it is better to live in complete unison with them. Therein lies the essence of co-existence.
By the time our sojourn was about to end, our initial disappointment at having failed to spot the rufous-necked hornbill was dissipated, done and dusted. We were glad at having learnt a thing or two about Nature from the humble villagers. We returned home, happy to be able to encounter and experience the true beauty and natural treasure of Latpanchar.
Cover Photo: An Indian peacock | Photo: Kuntal Nandi
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