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When nature has the last laugh

I had wished for long to travel to Darma Valley in Uttarakhand, ever since one of our senior photographer friend Jaimitra Singh Bisht from Almora had written about it in my travel magazine Awara Musafir. (You can read the article here.) Planned it a few times earlier, but couldn’t materialise. Two years of COVID only complicated the travel plans. But this year, I finally managed to put together an itinerary. And yes, on my favourite way to travel- my Royal Enfield Thunderbird bike!

Majestic view of Darma valley with Panchachuli peaks in background. Photo: Jaimitra Singh Bisht

Total trip was going to be long, almost 12 to 13 days, almost same as my bike trip to Ladakh. Well, I am not writing about the different destinations or the route or the biking here, as I will be doing so in coming posts. This post is all about the fact that, when it comes to travelling deep into nature, you can’t just ensure everything going your way, despite all the efforts. You never know, how things change so quickly,

Broad itinerary was to reach my favourite place Shitalakhet first, stay for a couple of days, then go to Almora for next two days, cover the Almora Dussehara and then bike to Birthi Falls, Munsiyari, Dharchula and then finally reach Darma, and then turn back.

Read more about Darma Valley: बुला रही दारमा घाटी

Check list was done and weather forecast was thoroughly checked. All sounded well. Talking about weather, Uttarakhand, along with other parts of North India had an unusual late monsoon and rains in the later part were pretty heavier. Having said that, still things were expected to be normal during my travel days. Roads to Darma were closed but were expected to open by the time I was supposed to reach there. No rain was expected during my travel days in that region.

Raging Kali river at Dharchula.

There was also an alternate plan. If in any case, roads to Darma would not have opened then I could have gone to Beas valley further towards Gunji and Kalapani, newly opened roads for Adi Kailash and Om Parvat. But when I reached Shitalakhet, it was confirmed that road to Darma valley was opened. 

For those who don’t know, Darma valley is located in the base of Panchachuli Peaks. Since last few years, roads have reached further into the valley- from Sobla to Dar, Sela and now touching the villages of Duktu and Dantu, leaving just a couple of kilometres of trek for Panchachuli Base Camp. So while we can certainly argue the constructions of roads into this ecologically sensitive zone, road ahead of Tawaghat can still be considered as off-road at the best. It is not metalled but fit enough for some tough SUVs to traverse through. And for bikers, it was always a challenge but doable. Bikers have been reaching Duktu regularly for some years now. That is what had actually inspired me to take my bike there. Since the distance to Duktu from Tawaghat is roughly over 40 kms, it was less of a worry.

Indo-Nepal border bridge on Kali river as seen from Nepal side.

Well, that was the planning part. All went as planned during the first half of the itinerary. After leaving from Almora, I covered two days distance in one day to get myself one extra day for Darma. Initially, from Almora I had planned to halt to Bageshwar and then reach Birthi Falls the next day. Since these two distances weren’t long enough, and Bageshwar had no other reason to take a stopover, hence it made sense to go directly to Birthi falls. I managed it comfortably.

Things started to taking turn after I left from Birthi for Dharchula via Munsiyari. Initially, it looked like normal light clouds to me as it is usual for the region. But news from Delhi was that it had been raining there whole day. I wasn’t worried as there wasn’t even a drop on my way. It was dusk, when I reached Dharchula after a tiring day of biking. As if weather was waiting for me to reach safely to Dharchula. It started turning gloomy immediately after.

When a blue opening in the sky was a silver lining of hope.

I checked in at Dev Hotel on the Nepal road. It started drizzling in no time. Well, news started pouring in quickly too. I was raining heavily in many parts of north India. I was still not dreading the cancellation of plans as I hoped that it would get better, more so because in Dharchula, it wasn’t raining that heavily. And, I was thinking that there were still more than 14-15 hours before I was scheduled to leave next morning to Darma- enough for weather to get normal.

Then came the call in the late evening which changed the course of the plan. Jaimitra called from Almora. It was raining there too. He informed that there are orange and red alerts for next two days. He said it wasn’t advisable to go ahead with the plans next morning as there was much probability of getting struck on the way. Still, final decision was left for the morning. 

Well, by the morning nothing was left for choice as only one decision could be made. It rained whole night and continuously thereafter for two days. Next day, informations kept pouring in about cloudbursts, landslides, road-blockages. Roads were closed on both sides- towards Gunji as well as towards Pithoragarh-Almora.  

Huge loss to nature, property and lives were reported. Many trekkers were among them, as autumn is considered to be one of the best time for trekking. Since there was no prediction of this rainfall until two days before, therefore many trekkers were caught midway during their treks, which turned out to be catastrophic. Darma valley—where I was supposed to go—received heavy snowfall and it was covered under thick blanket of snow.

Next whole day, after I reached here, was spent indoors in the room of the hotel. Second day, I went down towards the Indo-Nepal bridge on Kali river. Flow of the river was savage and terrifying. Later that day, phone and internet lines went down across the region. Remained like this till next morning, while skies kept pouring whole day. Third day morning rain stopped and there was some blue sky to see. Phone connectivity was resumed some time later. But there was still no update on opening of roads. By evening however, local taxi drivers confirmed that road to Pithoragarh was now opened, although Pithoragarh-Almora stretch was not. However, I could go to Almora via Thal-Chaukori route.

At the hotel where I was staying, there was one big group of elderly travellers who had planned to go to Khunti and Kalapani for ‘darshan’ of Adi Kailash and Om Parvat. They were already there when I checked in and were still waiting for roads to Gunji to open when I left fourth morning for Almora. As for me, there was no use of waiting for road to open.

Hotel Dev at Nepal Road in Dharchula

Roads and connectivity were not the only concerns. Since, road connectivity between plains and hills was also badly affected supply of petrol and diesel was disturbed and there was huge shortage of fuel in the hills. When I left Dharchula, I though that I will get petrol filled on the way. I realised gravity of the situation only when I found out that there was no oil at any petrol pump on the way. I panicked when my bike’s fuel dipped into the reserve and I was still at some distance from Almora. I was worried as it was getting dark and I couldn’t have risked my bike going completely dry while on uphill to Almora. I desperately needed at least a litre of petrol to be safe. I could somehow manage only about half litre from a grocery shop (yes you heard it right!). With no other way of getting petrol working, I just prayed that my bike will take me safely to Almora without having to either drag it uphill or calling someone from Almora with some petrol. But bike remained as reliable as it has always been in all my journeys. I reached Almora safely.

Only when I reached Almora, I came to know that all petrol pumps in and around Almora were also dry. Still, I wasn’t worried as I felt at home in Almora (have visited here so many times in last 10 years). 

Had a relaxed dinner with Jaimitra that evening. He had the information that at least two pumps would be getting petrol by morning. We even planned to go to Kasar Devi in the morning to catch the sunrise on Nanda Devi. But it was quite cloudy and overcast again in the morning, so the plan was shelved. In the morning after breakfast, I went in search of petrol. I travelled at least six kilometres to the pump on outskirts of Almora, where petrol was available. It was huge mess and chaos for the fuel. I could get just five litres after a struggle and jostling of almost an hour. I though that would be sufficient enough to take me to the plains or Bhimtal at least.

The main highway to Bhowali via Khairna was still blocked, vehicle were plying through Ramgarh. I got an opportunity to visit the area in Talla Ramgarh, which was most affected by the cloudburst. After doing my journalistic duty for a few hours there, I reached Kathgodam in the evening as planned. On the way, got my tank filled at Bhimtal.

Next day was the long, boring ride from Kathgodam to Delhi. Thus ended the trip, but not entirely as it was supposed to be.

Biking to Darma is still an unrealised dream. The day I had reached Dharchula in evening, a biker had left for Darma in the afternoon. By next morning valley was cut off. By the time I left Dharchula on fourth day, there was no information about that biker. He was definitely struck there in the middle of snow in some village with no connectivity. In the hindsight, I perhaps escaped similar fate by just a few hours!

Have you ever been caught in such a situation, where nature forced you to change your travel plans midway? Share with us in the comments section below!

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    1. True Maggie, for me at that point of time it was as precious as gold, or I would have risked sitting roadside in dark on a mountain road, waiting for any help…

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