The late afternoon sun slants through the trees, dappling the hillside and lending a warm sheen to the pine needles being swept off the hilly path by a young lad. It is all in slow motion, the boy’s dreamy movements in harmony with the mellowness of the surroundings. A picture that captures perfectly the spirit of Sattal: If one has to work here, let it be in languorous motions. But best not to do anything here, best to let nature and the atmosphere take over.
At a height of around 4,000ft in Kumaon’s “lake district” in Uttarakhand, thickly forested and boasting of seven lakes or tals (hence the name, though some are interconnected and a couple now dried up), Sattal is known for adventure activities—rock climbing, rappelling, kayaking, among others. So it may seem strange to also bill it as the ultimate inactivity zone. But wait a minute, there are some “activities” I get into here. Such as wool-gathering. And lotus-eating, and letting the grass grow under my feet.
These activities can take place anywhere, of course, but for them to have the desired therapeutic effect, they have to occur in a place such as Sattal. Preferably over summer. For, it is a magical place at this time of the year: The trees are just beginning to bear apricots, pears and berries, attracting woodpeckers, thrushes, parakeets, and other birds in plenty. Along with the birds, there are also the bees—or, at least, plenty of bee boxes set up on a slope by an enterprising hill man, with a shack nearby selling mustard honey and litchi honey. And there are butterflies: big and small, colourful and mono- or duo-chromatic. Some so large, I keep mistaking them for small birds as I mosey along a gentle slope.
An aerial view of Sattal . (Photograph by Vineet Sabharwal)
There are slopes aplenty in accessing the cottage allotted to us, and our accommodation does not appear prepossessing at first sight: The floor and staircase look like they would give way any time; the loo is in bad shape. But it stands in a neat clearing, flanked by oak and pine and myrtle. In the morning, a couple of metres away from our rickety balcony, an old oak plays host to a rich assemblage of birds—noisy parakeets, an industrious flame-backed woodpecker, perky scarlet minivets. Laughing thrushes forage on the ground nearby. Delicate pink orchids wave out from many branches.
It is liberating not to have an agenda. In Sattal, there are only last-minute “decisions” to make: this patch of grass for our picnic breakfast or that one? And, after breakfast, should we attempt an actual walk or simply amble around? Before we know it, breakfast has extended into a pleasant sit-down for birdwatching, segueing into a blissful lie-down. There is some time to stretch our legs a bit before lunch, so we embark on a leisurely exploration of the surroundings, which leads us to nuthatches, varieties of bulbuls, magpies, a cactus in bloom, passion fruit creepers, and horse chestnut, and a chai shop where the tea is just right—not excessively milky or sweet.
Some more difficult decisions need to be made after lunch —should we take the left trail or the right one? Visit Garud Tal first and Saat Tal later, or vice-versa (the big lake is usually dubbed Saat Tal, though strictly it apparently comprises only three lakes, Ram, Sita and Lakshman)? The consensus is to finish with the mandatory boatride around Saat Tal, the only “touristy” place here. Despite the dhabas and chips-and-Coke shacks, the swan-shaped boats, a balloon-shooting range and a lakeside “studio” where you can get yourself photographed in “Kumaoni” attire, it has its charm, this miniature would-be Naini Lake. And, on a quiet day, with its ripples shimmering in the sun, it is downright beautiful.
We are lucky today: There are few people around, and we have the lake practically to ourselves. The lone male in our group mans the oars—and nearly takes a tumble into the water while trying to check out a large fish lying mysteriously just above the waterline on a densely forested bank. He is hell-bent on hauling it into the boat to cook and eat later, if fresh. Thank goodness it isn’t. The mystery of the dead fish remains unsolved, but that doesn’t take away from our enjoyment of the lakeside sights —pond herons, bronze-winged jacanas, a little blue kingfisher neatly snapping up a fish, a large-horned owl perched silent and immovable on a branch, and some more pink orchids.
Then a quick detour to say hello to Garud Tal, whose delights we will sample again the next day or the day after, as the mood takes us, and we are back at our cottage. Before long, a little fire is blazing away, small potatoes are roasted, and soon enough, our sit-down has become a lie-down all over again. The fire needs to be replenished though, and I rouse myself for a twig-collection foray by moonlight—I am rewarded with the sight of a nightjar silhouetted against the moonlit sky.
Boatrides on the Saat Tal.
Next day, there is again unanimous agreement about the wool-gathering venue for the day: It is amazing how much in sync people are on a trip such as this. Garud Tal it is. Sandwiches and boiled eggs are readied, swimsuits, books and Scrabble board are stuffed into a bag, and we set off for one of Sattal’s real secrets: a small lake that is green, serene and encircled by emerald hills. It is said to be haunted, which is good news for less superstitious folk such as us. Tucked away in a corner are a pulpit and cement “pews”—an al fresco church. Someone had the right idea: What better way to commune with the supreme power than in exquisite natural surroundings created by the almighty? The Sattal Mission Estate and Methodist Ashram, which looks after a large part of land in Sattal, holds services here on special occasions.
With Garud lake at our disposal for the day, we disperse, each of us finding our own thing to do. The more energetic ones dive in and splash around, the aspiring angler goes off to a quiet corner to try his luck with a borrowed fishing rod and some atta bait. I find a comfortable tree to rest against and dip into my book, dangling my legs in water. We gather every now and then for essentials such as lunch, snacks, a fiercely contested game of Scrabble, and pointing out special trees and birds to each other.
Then there is only one day left, and we decide on a longish stroll to say au revoir: Our walk takes us to a nearly dried-up lake, and beyond. Dainty barking deer sip from the muddy pool, a pair of pretty blue flycatchers dart about and elude the camera, and a shadow on the sun-speckled hillside reveals itself as a majestic eagle, swooping and gliding above us for a while.
Beware, these are enchanted woods and will cast a spell on you: You will keep coming back for more—and more.
How to get there:
Rail: The most convenient train from Delhi to Kathgodam is the overnight Ranikhet Express, which leaves from Sarai Rohilla at 9.55pm (or you can hop onto the Metro, which will bring you practically inside old Delhi station, where the train stops at 10.10pm for half an hour) and reaches Kathgodam at 5.45am. One-way ACII fares are around Rs525. The other option is the Uttar Sampark Kranti Express, leaving old Delhi at 4.05pm and arriving at 10.35pm in Kathgodam. The fare for AC chair car is around Rs300.
Hire a car or jump into a share jeep to get to Sattal, 35km away, which will cost Rs400-600 and around Rs50 per head, respectively.
Road: Sattal is 320km from Delhi—along the NH24 to Rampur via Hapur and Moradabad, then the NH87 to Kathgodam, touching Rudrapur and, finally, a district road to Sattal via Bhimtal. At the fork at Mehragaon—about 5km after Bhimtal—go left for an additional 7km; the right turn goes to Bhowali and Nainital.
A good stop for brunch or lunch is the Meriton at Gajraula (110km from Delhi)—it has clean loos.
Where to stay:
The Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, or KMVN, resthouse (‘www.kmvn.org’; 05942-247047) is well located by the big lake, and offers double rooms for Rs800 (all room rates are for one night) and log huts for Rs1,400. There is a deluxe option in the new Country Inn (‘email@example.com’; 05942-248355, 09358674121) close by, with double rooms at Rs4,000, and special packages. Check for discounts in the off-season. Good places to stay, especially if you are looking for a more active holiday (though other hotels offer activities too), are the well-run camps: Getaway Jungle Camp (011-26013897, 09810440150, 05942-247301) charges Rs1,250-3,250, depending on the number of people, while at Saat-Tal Camp (‘firstname.lastname@example.org’; 011-696 3342, 6850492), expect to pay around Rs1,400. Camp rates are inclusive of meals and activities.
Where to eat:
Not much of a choice apart from where you are staying. Dhabas by the lake offer simple fare: ‘karhi-chawal’ and ‘kheer’ seem to be the specialities here. If you like picnic meals, do carry provisions.
What to do:
Check out the small, pretty church opposite the Mission office, the butterfly museum at Jones Estate, the waterfall—a 15-minute walk from Saat Tal dam. En route to the waterfall, there is an interesting renewable tech application, a hydram pump that lifts water using its own force as the only source of energy. A similar pump, set up in the 1920s, is still in working condition at the Nal Damayanti lake. For those looking for an activity-packed holiday, there are many thrills on offer: rock climbing, rappelling, river crossing, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, and more. Tamer attractions include swimming, boating and fishing and birdwatching.
Sattal is well positioned for more touristy things, too: Crowded Nainital is 25km away. Then there are other lake towns nearby—Bhimtal (14km) and Naukuchiatal (20km). Ranikhet, Almora and Kausani are also not far away.
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