I have never looked into a leopard’s eyes in my life. Who would after all? Once in the Hazaribag National Sanctuary, a wild boar made me run for my life. Since then I have lied low. I am not afraid of the jungle. In fact, I love the forests, the Himalayas. I have been to Ladakh in the winters, KwaZulu-Natal in the rains. In that sense, I am quite brave. With the forest cover thinning, forests today are not that fearful as they used to be. The wild beasts have mostly vanished. This August I reached Binsar, a place famous for its forests and a panoramic Himalayan view, with the hope of enjoying a comfortable jungle retreat with little scope of bird watching in the rains. But so wrong was I to be proven. On that particular weekend when I drove into Binsar forest, it was not raining. It didn’t make much difference to me. What did though was the fact that my contact point in Binsar, one Mr. Santosh was not present on the entire forest road to pick me up. It was almost 5 PM in the evening, and I was searching for him in frenzy all over the forest road map. I was leading a small group of 5 thirty odd year old boys eager to check into a luxurious yet ethnic cottage with a jungle view. Alas, we had just booked collectively for a shocking surprise.
Having parked our car near the Binsar Mahadev temple, I somehow managed to get hold of Santosh over the phone amidst network problems. And I was finally informed that our cottage was located in Dalar, a remote village of Binsar, which was not connected by a motorable road and that we had to trek for 2 kms from the forest road to get there. Now I have been to the forests before and I know that jungle treks are a bit scary. To do that with things getting darker didn’t look like a good idea to me. Also, we had to park the car under a forest shade on the road. That too didn’t seem safe. But my eager friends were not willing for a new destination. The prospect of a jungle trek perhaps excited them and so I had to pay heed.
I expected Santosh to be there at the shade to help us with our luggage but that too didn’t happen. Perhaps there is nothing luxurious in a forest. We found a trek road going deep into the jungle and guided over the phone, we began treading on it with our backpacks. We couldn’t see any village from this point but then the dense forests hide everything. After a few hundred meters, we found the road slippery and narrow. Of course it was uneven and tough. The slippery part scared me the most. I still hoped to meet Santosh somewhere on the way but there was not a trace.
As it got darker, we suddenly realized it was 6:30 PM and the village was nowhere to be seen. Doubts began to creep in. Are we trusting the right person? Are we on the right road? Because it only seemed that we were on one of those jungle roads that lead you deeper into the jungle. There was the risk of getting lost as well as danger from the animals. The danger of a rainfall also loomed large in our minds. We treaded quickly slipping and falling in the process but even after having covered 2 kms, there was no sign – no village, no Santosh. It is here when we decided to stop. There were two opinions in the team. One was a gut feeling, let’s go back. Another was that perhaps the cottage or Santosh were just round the corner.
There were a few hiccups on the way especially due to the slippery road. But there wasn’t much fear, at least of animals. After 3 arduous kms of trek, past 7 PM, in complete darkness there appeared a beam of flashlight. It was Santosh. I was angry at him all the way but after having almost given up hopes of getting to meet him, I was relieved to see him. He informed us that this was not the right time to walk in the jungle as we were moving through the territory of leopards. Now this was serious. We were still 500 m away. To make matters worse, leopards normally roam this trek road around this time (7 PM) which meant we had been lucky.
We started moving quickly now. A sudden spurt of energy came out from nowhere, perhaps fear. There was also the fear of snakes in the darkness. Luckily, the village homes came into sight around 8 PM and Santosh took us to our cottage. It was not luxurious but in the depth of a jungle inhabited and roamed by leopards, the simple cottage was worth it. I was a bit concerned about security from leopards to which he asked us to stay indoors for staying safe.
We were tired like dead and somehow managed to freshen up, have our dinner, and jump into our beds. Nothing except a deadly silence lived outside. We were indeed deep into the jungles of Binsar and it was fearful, unforgettable yet amazing in a way.
The morning was beautiful like anything. There are only 11 families residing in Dalar and a leopard’s visit cannot be a huge surprise here. But since humans are also intimidating in a great way, they stay away. So you are basically very safe in the village. We paid a visit to the Golu Devta Temple located inside the bell and some of us perhaps prayed for a safe and timely return trip. I prayed for umpteen such trips to Dalar in the coming years. We met the villagers and learnt about their culture and food. A little and extremely cute 8 year old girl served us breakfast. It was so soul touching. The local cuisine tasted a bit different but really good. Fully filled, we began trekking back from where he had started yesterday at around 11 AM. Now this was the right time. There was a still a little fear knowing it is leopard territory and so we treaded vigorously. The return trip was much easier as we were completely confident this time. This made me realize what experience, a filled stomach, and a positive state of mind can do to you.
We got back in just over an hour and met a lot of langurs and birds on the way back. Binsar is a birding destination. The car was very much safe under the shade and after paying a visit to the sunset point, we drove our way back to Delhi with unforgettable memories. I have already planned a group to visit Dalar this winter. And this time, we are moving with some stupendous arrangements. If you want to join our group, you can always write to me.