Trekking to Dzongri La

At the viewpoint with Kanchenjunga in the background.

Location: Kanchenjunga National Park, Sikkim
Date:May 4th to 8th 2015
To get there: [Click here for Google Map].
From Bangalore, flight to Bagdogra or train to Siliguri and then drive.
Trail type: Wide trail paved with stones and logs. Some places are steep but scrambling not really required. I trekked whole time except the last part with camera and binoculars in hand
 Facilities: We had a full support group with 4 horses, cook, 3 helpers and guide all through the trek. 3-4 campsites are well established along the way where we can pitch our tents, get water and use toilet facilities. Couple of those places even had a small shop, selling most of the stuff that we may require suddenly like snacks, drinks, batteries, toilet paper and even feviqwik! which I needed as the sole of my shoes came off. 
You need the guides and local help though. Independent planning and trekking will be very difficult.
Misc Links:
http://trekking-in-sikkim.com/trekkings/dzongri-trek-4215m/


After getting great views of the Himalayas during a family trip to Manali few years back and hearing about the wonderful Himalayan treks from a friend we had been keen to do one ourselves. The opportunity presented itself when we had to drop our kid in Delhi and as we were wondering if we could add on a vacation along with it, a friends family suggested a trek in Sikkim. Suddenly everything fell into place and we had booked our flights, guide etc for the popular Dzongri Trek in early May.

Early planning was quite exciting for all, adults and kids. Hidden Paradise Adventures, who were our local guide and support team, sent us a list of things to get and be prepared for. Fact that we had to be ready for hot sun as well as snow and rain meant that we were in for an adventure. Kids of course were more interested in what snacks were going to be packed for the trip!

We joined with the second family in Yuksom after a few days stay at Gangtok, a wonderful city to visit. An overnight stay at Yuksom is recommended to acclimatize to the altitude at close to 2000mtrs. We met our guide Bhutia or Yuti for short, who briefed us on what to pack for our backpacks and what to put in our travel bags which would come with the Horses (or cross-bred yaks for some groups) to be used only at campsites.

Day 1: We started late around 10am as it was to be a fairly flat 8km hike to reach Sachen. This also helped us to get used to the altitude a bit. Within a short time of leaving Yuksom the views were fantastic. The lush forest, call of the birds, sounds of the many mountain streams, the bridges had us going without really feeling much of the effort we were putting. Highlight was sighting of Himalayan bears having a swim in a stream far away. Reached Sachen around 2 for lunch and then we just explored around the area until dinner around 7 (it becomes dark here by 6pm) and retired early at the tents set up by our support group.

Campsite at Tsokha
Day 2: Early morning and I mean early...it is bright by 5am! I was up for some great bird watching. Laughingthrushes, blackbirds and finches were all around the campsite. We washed up a bit using water piped in from a mountain stream. Icy cold! Breakfast was egg, oat meal and bread. All through this trip we were fed lots of carbs(mostly potatoes) as they kept reminding us to eat well because we needed that extra bit of energy for the trek, especially at this altitude. Soups were spiced with garlic and popcorn was added on as I believe they are good for higher altitudes. Today was a fairly hard climb to Tsokha which is at 3000mtrs. There was a brief rest stop at Bakim with great views. Here my shoes soles which was peeling off was fixed with feviqwik. Thankfully it sustained for the rest of the trek. From Bakim to Tsokha, the forest changed a bit to more decidous and spread out. Rhododendrons started appearing too. We also got to try out some wild strawberries, smaller but just as juicy. Reached Tsokha in time for lunch at 2pm or so.

Food can never taste as good as it does after a strenuous hike at high altitude. I mean we were devouring noodle soup as if it was made by the worlds greatest chef at the fanciest french restaurant all while sitting on a wooden bench (or ground sometimes) in a ramshackle hut!

Rhododendrons
Typical trails
Day 3: This was to be our hardest trek, Tsokha to Dzongri-La. By the way, La means Hill and Kan means Mountain. Steep trails, slippery ground supported by wooden logs, trekking at 3000+ mtrs. There was an abundance of Rhododendrons on this trail to keep our spirits up. We had lunch on the way at Phedang where our support staff had a hot lunch ready with temperature now dropping to below 10 c. We had one more steep climb here to reach close to 4000mtrs, where we were surrounded by thick mist, ie we were literally in the middle of clouds! After this the trail was fairly flat but with ups and downs. To test us further, there was rain with hailstorms during this part. We reached exhausted around 3pm at our campsite in Dzongri. One kid got a taste of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness). She took a nap which helped her recover. It was cloudy and dark here and we received a fair bit of snow in the evening to the children's delight. A wet and tired group, groped in the dark with torchlight for our beddings and retired for the night with Yuti promising to wake us up at 4am next morning provided the weather was clear for the final hike up to the Kanchenjunga View point. The prospect of a successful final climb looked bleak at this point.

Trek to Dzongri view point
Day 4: Yuti gave the early morning rooster call at 4am that the weather was indeed clear and we should set out asap. Miraculously, the exhaustion and depressive feeling of the previous night was gone from everyone! All of us set out in high spirits in pre-dawn light with the kids setting the pace up ahead. As the light started getting brighter, we were greeted with different spectacular views of the mountains. We could truly see and enjoy the majestic Himalayas up close. The trail was made even more beautiful with the fresh snow from previous day. The trail itself is very steep in the start and then flattens out to ridge trail to the view point. There were other groups already there to witness the dawn and sunrise from the view point. We made it in time for Sunrise and it was indeed all worth it. After rounds of group shots, selfies and enjoying the presence of Kanchenjunga, we scrambled down fairly quickly to be back at our campsite by 7am. A relaxed couple of hours allowed us to do some bird watching and take in a good picnic breakfast with pancakes. It was a much easier trek back to Tsokha where we camped at a different place for the last time on our trip. On the way we got some amazing sightings of the very beautiful and exotic Fire-tailed Sunbird.
Fire-tailed Sunbird

Day 5: Though it was going to be mostly downhill we were in for a strenuous hike as we had to do 16kms in a single day to reach Yuksom by 2pm. It was going to be 14kms from breakfast to lunch at 1am! So, start was early and progress was to be steady. But we still managed to stop by for a dip (of our legs!) in a mountain stream, eat some wild berries, get a sighting of the aptly named Scarlet Finch.

We were late by about an hour but enjoyed a relaxed lunch next to a mountain stream. Sore but happy, we washed up at Yuti's house, had some nice tea and set off on the long ride to Darjeeling our night stop, with our legs not required to do any work.

Final thoughts. Trekking in the Himalayas is wonderful. The mountain air and the views makes it spectacular. The altitude, weather and climb makes it challenging. So, its the whole package and definitely worthwhile if you can put up with some discomforts of living outdoors for a few nights. The flip side is it makes you appreciate what we have in our urban setting! :)

As always, when you are on the trail in these pristine environments, please take only photographs and leave only footprints. Avoid all littering and preserve the habitats.

More photos below. Do the slide show for my caption commentary!
https://picasaweb.google.com/108744378062761981880/DzongriTrekPeople
https://picasaweb.google.com/108744378062761981880/DzongriTrekNature

Videos:
Asian Black Bear sighting from far. (you can see it move in the last 10 seconds)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zucIOFxneBM

GPS capture of some parts of our trek. With google earth plug-in you can experience a fly-by.
1. Yuksom to Sachen

2. Sachen to Tsokha

3. Tsokha to Dzongri

4. Climb to Dzongri view point (check the elevation gain graph on this)

5. Tsokha to Yuksom




Wild antilope in 2 hours!



Location: Jayamangali or Maidenahalli Blackbuck Reserve
Date: Jan 26th 2015
To get there: [Click here for Google Map].
From Bangalore take the Tumkur Road
Distance: About 115 kms from Bangalore and 60 Kms from Tumkur
Trail type: Flat scrub jungle. Can be very hot in summer.
Facilities: Forest bungalow with skeletal staff. I believe overnight stay is possible with reservation done at Tumkur. Closet food places are at Madhugiri (20kms) so you need to pack a picnic and carry potable water. Many watch towers are spread out on the sanctuary. Couple near the Forest bungalow are large ones where once can do some relaxed nature watch. Many mud trails crisscross the reserve, most leading to a smaller watch tower.
Misc Links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayamangali_Blackbuck_Reserve


Few people are aware that we have a sanctuary within a couple of hours drive from Bangalore primarily for the conservation of near threatened Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) which is the sole surviving species of the genus Antilope. And then there are some like us who knew about it but never got around to visiting! Well, that changed last week. :)

Republic day happened to be that magical day when we were all free, kids did not have any "must finish" homework and our friend and "guide" in Tumkur was also not tied up. We were up around 6 am, packed our sandwich lunch and were on the road by 7 am. About an hour later than what we had hoped. Thankfully, traffic was not too bad and we were at Pavithra Idli place, about 5 kms before Tumkur to rendezvous with and pick up our friend. After indulging on their famous "Thatte Idli" we were on our way towards the reserve by 9.30am which is quite late for birding. But as our birding focus was on raptors, specifically harriers on this trip, which stay active at high noon, it was acceptable.
Short-toed Snake Eagle

The drive which should have taken us around 90 mins instead took about an hour longer because of road construction activity and our own indulgence on birding along the way. The highlight was a large raptor perched on a boulder about 50 mtrs away from the road sometime before Madhugiri. We stopped and enjoyed its presence for almost 30 mins as it sat regally surveying the land around it constantly. Later, we were able to identify it as most likely a Short-toed Snake Eagle.
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse

We reached Jayamangali around 12 and as soon as we turned onto the mud road leading to the sanctuary, a peacefully resting Blackbuck under a tree gave us a fantastic visual treat. As we pulled away from there, my friend investigating what he thought was an odd shaped rock at some distance realized that it was a Sandgrouse later identified as Chestnut-bellied. A wonderful sighting and a lifer for me. This elusive bird is hard to spot when at rest and we were indeed very lucky.
Southern Grey Shrike

Driving on, we saw many active shrikes including the rare Southern Grey Shrike found here which is a striking grey, black and white bird. Inside the Sanctuary we drove onto a nice area with couple of pavilions, one at a height made for resting as well as bird or Blackbuck spotting. A binoculars is required as the area is vast and patience to let the animals show themselves. We had good views of Blackbucks ambling along or chasing each other. Harrier activity was a bit less and our only luck was what we think was a Montagu's Harrier flying low on the ground quite far away to make any image.

Male ambling along
Male Blackbuck
We started back around 2.30pm and reached Tumkur abut 5pm with some stops along the way.

Female Blackbuck
The sanctuary itself is a scrub jungle and grassland. Some areas sadly have been destroyed in a ill-fated attempt at afforestation by planting trees destroying the habitat conducive to Blackbuck and Harriers. Many watch towers and muddy tracks exists for those who wish to exert themselves a bit and walk around and get up close encounters with the Blackbucks hopefully without disturbing them.

As always if you do visit, remember, Leave only Footprints, Kill only Time and Take only Photographs!



Male Surveying the visitors!