This post is a continuation of a series documenting our travels to a lesser visited part of Himachal Pradesh, the Tirthan Valley. We were trekking inside the Great Himalayan National Park and had spent the previous night at Shilt from where we had a great view of the snow covered peaks. (Trekking the Great Himalayan National Park, Part 2 – The climb up to the Shilt hut after a rained out day at Rolla)
We had seen all types of weather the previous evening at Shilt – Sun, rain, fog, snow all in an hour or two! Luckily it had stopped snowing by the time we had retired to our cozy tent. We had fallen asleep hoping and praying for a clear sky the next day. We had not heard the dreaded pitter patter of rain on our tent roof all night. When I crawled out of the tent in the morning I got what I was badly hoping for & could finally uncross my fingers. Lo & behold we had a cloudless clear sky at Shilt!
So without losing any time I quickly crawled back inside the tent and got all my camera gear ready. The gear had gone into its water proof bag as soon as the weather had gone south the previous evening. I had seen how quickly the weather could change at these heights. So I wanted to take a few photos of the landscape just in case the rains and snow decided to return. As I was more interested in the birds, the landscape had been largely ignored the previous evening. So I put the ultrawide lens on the camera and decided to capture the natural beauty all around the hut before the birds woke up and took up all my attention ( that won’t change!).
I walked up the path behind the hut and up into the forest to get some panoramic views of the camping area and the snow covered peaks in view. The sun still hadn’t made its formal appearance. So all the snow that had fallen on the previous evening was still on the ground.
The sky had a beautiful colour to it and it perfectly complemented the greenery around and the snowy peaks beyond. The camera can capture only a fraction of the actual beauty of the dawn high up in the mountains, but I had to try.
I then returned to the tent to pick up our toiletries and freshened up just in time for the birds to start chirping. However beautiful the landscape around me may be, once I see or hear birds then I have to put on the 300mm and try to capture them in my camera. I have ignored Parisian gardens to photograph Starlings, the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich to photograph various types of geese so the Himalayas were no different.
The 300mm went on and I was up and about roaming the paths around Shilt. The birdlife up here is either huge birds like the pheasants (which I had no luck with) or tiny birds like warblers, tits and flycatchers ( Which test your patience to the fullest). The light wasn’t at its best yet but it was just good enough for decent photos. So the warblers and tits got their due attention.
There were also birds in the distance like a brown headed himalayan woodpecker going hammer and tongs at the trunk of a tree in the valley below or a pair of elegant looking spotted birds which I have yet to identify sitting high up on the trees sunbathing. Though it wasn’t ideal for photos the woodpecker and the unnamed birds got their due too.
Closer to the tent on the bushes with small berries there were finches and rock buntings enjoying a wholesome breakfast on a beautiful sunny day. It is a mesmerising sight to watch as these petite birds flit from branch to branch and nibble at berries. Its a totally different story trying to wait for them to sit still in one place to get a good photo.
As I was gawking at the feeding frenzy in the bushes my attention was drawn to a bird sitting regally on a tree top with a flurry of activity of other birds fleeing from the area. I trained the telephoto on it and it was a kestrel sitting patiently waiting for its next prey to get careless. It was very far away but I still had to get a record shot of the only raptor I saw at this altitude.
Soon the Kestrel flew away and decided to try its luck elsewhere as the sun went high in the sky and the birds started to retreat back into the shadows. I got my flycatcher & rose finch friends from the previous evening make an appearance. These petite little birds posed beautifully for me and gave me some good photos.
With the sun blazing bright in the sky I realised that I had spent 2 hours photographing birds and had my back to the mountains in view – time flies for me when there are birds around! The team was getting the breakfast ready in the hut and we sat in the fireplace area just sitting at watching the view on offer.
Soon a varied and freshly prepared breakfast was served by the team and we relished the delicious food with a view to die for. After finishing our hearty breakfast in the fireplace region we spent our last few minutes on top of Shilt just walking around the path behind the hut. The sun was right above the mountain range on the other side bang in the middle of the frame & I got a chance to get my favourite sun flares in the photo.
I also put on the 300mm and captured the Rakhundi top which was the point even higher up than Shilt on this path. We had neither the time nor the expertise to climb up to Rakhundi this time, maybe next time!
Soon our time at Shilt was at an end & it was time for us to start our descent down back to Rolla. It had been a great day spent at Shilt. Though it had not been in our original plans, it had satisfied our expectations from this trek inside the Great Himalayan National Park.
The steep descent back down to Rolla was something I had been dreading all the time as I was worried about my dodgy knee. With a prayer on my lip we started slowly but surely down the steep paths. I put the 300mm away after one last shot of the wildflowers along the path as I didn’t want to damage it in case I slipped and fell.
We descended down the same path we had come up from. But on the way up I had kept the camera in as it had been raining on and off the previous day making the paths muddy and slick. Now I had a chance to photograph the path and the views on the way down and I didn’t miss it.
Keshavji was leading us down and the better half was following him down, with me bringing up the rear. I knew that we would take a longer time to get down than we had taken to climb up because of my knee so we had taken that into consideration when timing the trek down. An hour or two of the sun had dried up the mud in the path exposed to the sunlight. But there were parts of the path which were always in the shade and hence muddy and treacherous. We gingerly walked down these wet parts lest we slip and roll into the valley below.
There were huge trees that had fallen naturally in storms and partly blocking the path. We encountered many such trees intermittently all the way down. It had been chopped down to a manageable height by the forest authorities where absolutely essential otherwise it was left for nature to do the needful, it was a national park after all! So we had to climb over the fallen tree where essential without tearing our trousers on the bark.
As we descended further down the peaks disappeared from view as we entered the dense forest of conifers. It was all shady and wet mud paths here so we continued our trudge downhill at a slow pace & were soon overtaken by the rest of the team who had started well after us from the top. The team who do this day in day out literally ran down the same paths where we were walking / crawling down slowly.
About 2/3 of the way down my fears came true as my knee started to act up and I knew it was time to keep the camera in and concentrate on simply not falling. I had a trekking pole that I had bought just for this trek and I started using it more for support .
As my knee got progressively worse our pace diminished even more so and we stopped for some time at a clearing just to rest my knee & for the rest to rehydrate themselves. The rest of the trek down was a fight between the rest of my body to stand up and my right knee to buckle and fall down. As my other good knee started to complain from the excessive workload I even started going down the extremely steep steps sitting down so as not to provoke it even more.
We still had the 7 km trek back from the gate to Gushaini and civilisation the next day and I didn’t want to be carried out. Thankfully we got down without me injuring myself badly and we reached our previous campsite at Rolla. Keshavji was as relieved as the both of us and handed us our packed lunch. We had our lunch there by the river where we had spent 2 days and had plenty of good memories from.
The rest of the trek that day to the gate was a relatively level 2 kilometre walk and I got through it somehow. We reached the campsite at the park gate and our team had already reached and started the preparation for setting up camp. They must have wondered where we had disappeared. It had been a descent to remember – for good reasons and bad! I don’t have any scars to show for it, but my knee still shudders and seizes up at the mere thought or mention of the descent from Shilt.
Even with all my troubles during the descent, the time spent high up in the Shilt hut region was a memorable one. Trekking up a steep mountainside, encountering snow on the top, the view on top & my winged friends had made it one of the places I will remember fondly.
We would trek out back to Gushaini the next day and stay with Stephan and Hema Marchal in their wonderful and aptly named eagles nest homestay. But that is a story for another post, some other time, some other day.
Till then from me and my shuddering right knee,