When I planned a quick relieving biking trip to Almora, I had hoped it to be refreshing as it was spring once again. The year before Coronavirus shattered our lives, my last trip to Kumaon was on bike too and almost on the same dates during the spring time. I still had some good reflections of that. I was expecting nothing short of that this time as well and because of all those expectations, this time around, I had planned a slightly longer trip with a plan to go further towards Dharchula or Narayan Ashram.
But all went up in flames… literally!
Spring season this year came and was gone in a flash this year in hills. I was expecting, as earlier, hills turned red with rhododendrons in the Mukteshwar region. But to my dismay, most of the rhododendron flowers had already fallen. Who I asked the locals, they told me that this year flowering was bit early and was for shorter period of time due to unfavourable conditions.
This year winter was short, snowfall was less in this region. Adding to the agony was a completely dry season after that. Hills haven’t seen any rainfall in this post-winter season. So, I was feeling unusually warm in the month of March in Almora region.
Since I returned back from hills, things have only gone worse there. Forest fires have become uncontrolled in large part. Friends and media have been sharing some very frightening images of fires spreading like anything. And then, there have been videos of a state minister beating around the bush in attempt to douse the flames in forest, literally. It is most reflective of the way our system has been handling the crisis.
Forest fires are not new and they are not unusual. I have seen them in many of my visits to the state in recent times. There are definitely effect of global warming. Everyone in hills knows that few of them might be accidental but most others are deliberate. Forest fires have their economy with interests ranging from top to bottom. But, these deliberate fires also used to be in controlled manner. This time around, matter seems to have gone out of hand. Fire is raging fast and turning furious.
I had got an inkling of days to come right when I was climbing up the hills on my bike in March. And, actually the embers were spreading even before that.
As soon as I started uphill ride to Gaggar from Bhowali, just after a couple of kilometres, I saw fire raging just along the road. Pine trees right on the roadside were burning like hell. Fire was spreading rapidly, and there was no one to take care of. I quickly took some photographs and even tweeted them by tagging all concerned officials, but I was dead sure nothing was going to happen. And, i didn’t.
After moving ahead, I reached Gaggar top. Just 11 kms from Bhowali, Gaggar top is gateway to Ramgarh. It also has some excellent views of Trishul and Nanda Devi peaks, but nothing was to be seen this time. I asked locals and they said that it is because of the continuous haze that mountains are not visible this time around. For me, it was a shock, as I was expecting some good views of the mountains during this trip.
Next day, I took Ramgarh-Nathua Khan route to go towards Shitalakhet (Sitlakhet). This road moves through a lush green valley and is one of my favourite short riding routes. But this time around, I could feel he absence of the colours of spring in the middle of the green. As you reach Nathua Khan and turn left towards Satkhol Ashram (turn right and you go to Mukteshar), road moves on the cliff for a while. This was the place where last time on the left I had seen hundreds of Himalayan vultures hovering in the valley and towards the right, there was magnificent view of the Nanda Devi range. None could be seen this time.
In Shitalakhet, I stayed at a eco-resort inside the Syahi Devi Estate right in the jungle. As I normally do here every time, next day I went for a trek to Syahi Devi temple in the early morning. I though, whatever might be the daytime glare and haze, early morning should be clearer. Syahi Devi temple is also one of the best locations in the region to not just have a panoramic view of the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalayas together, but in fact for a rare 360 degree view around. But neither the sunrise nor the early morning trek to Syahi Devi could bring any luck. Trek is through dense jungle, but flowers were still missing. I asked a local collecting wood in the jungle, and he had the same answer- this time blooming was early due to less snowfall hence most of the flowers have already fallen.
I tried my luck at another place, which I visited for the first time- Aida Dev. Friends in Almora have been suggesting me to visit this place for many years now. This trip, I had some time in hand and I biked to that place. (Will do a separate blog post on it later.) It again has a top similar to Syahi Devi with a 360 degree view. Still, story didn’t change.
I was a bit frustrated by now. I cut short my trip and dropped the idea of going further towards Dharchula or Narayan Ashram. There was no guarantee that I would have got any better view even at the Khaliya top.
Since my return, things have taken turn for worse. But we in India have shorter memories. In the contradictory hyperbole of Mahakumbh on one side and rising COVID cases on another, forest fires will be conveniently swept under the carpet (until it burns the carpet itself). Our mountains will keep bearing the brunt of our callousness!
Do you have any different view or an experience on forest fires in Uttarakhand? Do share with us in the comments section below!
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