The realization of how utterly pathetic my middle-aged plodding has become zings me like a nine-volt on the tongue as I crawl into my tent at Mori village on the Tons river, the first night of our driving holiday. My family and I start our journey at the once charming Dehradun, capital of Uttarakhand, now a fast-spreading rash of concrete. We escape the jaded charms of Mussoorie, “Queen of the Hills”, sagging under her concrete crown, and take the road to Kempty Falls. Kempty probably comes from camp-tea as the British organized their tea parties there. Today, it is filthy, crowded and any vestiges of past grandeur lie buried beneath chai-stalls, restaurants, plastic wrappers and tacky souvenir shops.
We drive through the rocky and desultory Garhwal hills, clumps of cacti clinging tenaciously to rocky scree. Then, downhill over the Yamuna to Yamunotri; a gradual, 22km ascent to Jarmola takes us through one of the most beautiful pine forests I’ve seen, with spectacular views of the Purola Valley and the Kedarkanta Peak. We stop and gambol on a golden carpet of pine needles till our clothes are suffused with the heady fragrance of crushed pine. Downhill is the village of Mori, the gateway to Tons Valley.
That first day was a feast of fabulous driving through the Uttarakhand hills. The Scorpio SUV soaked up the imperfections of the single-track road with impunity. By the time I’m in my tent at the Great Indian Outdoors camp beside the Tons, I’m tingling with a renewed sense of wonder. The Himalayas are so intensely remote, so unfathomably empty in spite of the concrete, they can do no less than fascinate. No one returns from a trip north and says, “Yeah, it was just OK...” Driving vacations are a wonderful way to truly explore India. These do-it-yourself adventures often become the stuff of family legends.
Himachal’s network of spectacular back roads made plotting our route easy. We plan to reach Gushaini, a small village in the Tirthan Valley on the periphery of the Great Himalayan National Park, over the next two days. Poring over the excellent Nest and Wings road map, we decide on a night halt at Narkanda. We pass gracious Himachali villages, lush apple orchards and old temples whispering with ghosts from the past. Just before Narkanda, we see villagers converging at Hattu Peak to offer full moon prayers at the temple.
For the next day’s drive we have the Sutlej for company. Jalori Pass (10,500ft) is covered with riotous clumps of wild iris. Picturesque, slate-roof huts dot the mountains on our descent to Banjar, our turn-off into the Tirthan Valley. Gushaini lies 10km ahead and Raju’s Guesthouse 3km before the village across the river. We pull up at the parking area and honk as instructed. Moments later, a cheery wave from a distant figure across the river. It is Raju Bharti, our host for the next few days. He gets on to a metal basket hung on pulleys and proceeds to pull it over the Himalayan snowmelt raging a few feet below. We all cross over without incident, assured we are in for a memorable stay, a feeling fortified by an excellent lunch of fried trout, home-grown vegetables and several glasses of lager.
The rooms in this sprawling pine cottage are rustic with handmade rugs and wooden furniture. The bathrooms are modern with slate floors, pine skirtings and cabinets exuding a wonderful woody fragrance no aerosol can capture. The veranda overlooks a garden overgrown with wild flowers and attendant butterflies, while behind rises Raju’s 1,000-tree orchard. We are in the middle of the cherry picking season and soon the children’s tongues are stained red with the juice. Raju explains that the early frost has killed the apple blossoms, so he expects a poor crop this year. However, the apricots seem to be in fine fettle and will be ripe for picking in a month’s time. The three house dogs—Bhalu, Phoebe and Yati—accompany us to the river bank where we settle down for a nap on a huge sun-warmed boulder. It is one of those “never has a cigarette felt so good after sex” moments you can’t buy, steal or even induce with narcotics.
In the hour before dusk, I steal away to the ivy-canopied first-floor conservatory, cup of tea in hand, browsing through Nat Geo’s back issues, delightfully chancing upon a favourite piece on the honey gatherers of Nepal (Nov. 1998). Around the bonfire that crisply chilly evening, we meet the other guests, a family from Kolkata and a group of avid anglers from Manali and as far as Leh!
Early the next morning, we take advantage of the many walking trails around Gushaini (good for both casual hikers and serious trekkers), the dogs patrolling till we are high above the river. After breakfast, the anglers invite us to go fishing with them. The Tirthan river is regarded as a prime fishing destination because it is the only river in Himachal not reduced to a trickle by hydroelectric projects. Raju has been lobbying for years to keep it this way as a model of sustainable eco-tourism. Concerned by the lack of trout, Raju has banned fishing in the stretch below the house. The anglers cast their flies and the fish are biting! In an hour’s time, we have enough for lunch. Rainbow trout are few as last year’s flood devastated their habitat. However, the desi fish are flourishing, judging by the “catch and release” system of the anglers.
The next day, our last on the road, I start to feel the bite of reality. How great it is to escape on wheels. I believe one reason it’s so deeply relaxing is because we are removed from the parade of everyday tasks. The senses can be left to wander over the scenery, while the subconscious does a cleansing sweep of the attic. No phone calls, bills, treadmills... you get the idea. It’s time to get the wheels turning.
Where to stay
Mori: Great Indian Outdoors camp on the Tons river; Tel: (0124) 4081500; or book at email@example.com ; Rs500 per tent.
Narkanda:Hotel Hatu, Narkanda, Distt Shimla, Himachal Pradesh—171213. Tel: (01782) 242430, 242509; Website: hotelhatu.tripod.com; Rs2,000 per double room. This is the most comfortable HPTDC hotel at Narkanda. It is situated on a ridge with sweeping views of the mist creeping up the evergreen forest range.
Gushaini:Raju’s Guesthouse, Village PO Gushaini (via Banjar), Kullu Distt, Himachal Pradesh—175123. Tel: (01903) 225008; Rs750 per adult, including all meals and beverages. You can also make reservations with Raju Bharti by post. Make sure to include dates, phone number and email.
Any car in good running condition should be able to make the trip with ease. Once in these hills, the roads are in good condition, but are single track, so exercise caution.
Petrol is available in plenty throughout the route, but try and top up whenever you are below half tank.
Carry extra fuses, a fan belt and a tyre, and tyre changing tools.
Travel short distances so that you have enough time to browse to your heart’s content or park yourself beside the many rivers and streams of the region.
Pack lunch and make the most of the scenic landscape while wolfing down aloo parathas!
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