January 19, 2010

Sattal Jungle Getaway Camp

 A two-day stay in the middle of nowhere

Sattal is a beautiful summer vacation spot in the foothills of the Himalayas. Situated about 20 kilometers from the more famous Nainital, Sattal refers to the group of seven interconnected freshwater lakes that make up the region. Sattal has a number of picnic areas for the out-of-town tourists, many of which offer boat rides and fishing expeditions into the lakes. However, what made this trip of ours different was the hidden gem among the lakes - the Getaway Jungle Camp.

We chose the Dussehra holidays of 2004 as the time for our trip to the camp - heading out from Delhi early on the 21st of October and returning late on the 23rd. Sattal is around 300 kilometers from Delhi, which clocks in at about 7 hours by car. We headed out from Delhi at around 5am on the 23rd to reach one of the picnic locations at Sattal around noon.

Sunrise on the way to Sattal
Our initial destination wasn't particularly different from every other holiday spot in the country - rows of cars, SUVs, and buses parked along the road, the cacophony of scampering children, stalls painted in the colors of multinational beverage manufacturers, and of course the unruly monkeys. Luckily for us, this was only a layover, as there are no motorable means to get to the camp itself. A boat ride followed by a trek is the only way. The remoteness of the camp not only makes it difficult for people to get there, but it also makes it difficult to get other things there - like, say, electricity. In fact, the only wire to run to the camp is a lone telephone wire that had been strung across the narrowest part of the lake to form the sole lifeline in case of emergencies.

It was around 1pm by the time collected all our backpacks, bid adieu to the curious gang of children that had gathered by our efforts to load the two boats and set across the lakes to a natural hidden cove on the other side. In addition to our luggage, what made our party strange to those watching us depart were the two large boxes we were taking with us. But more on that later.

The entrance to the Camp
Lunch at the camp was an extremely satisfying experience. The camp was about a kilometer from the cove we had landed in. You'd think that would have been an easy stroll, but then you realize that we had three days worth of gear in our backpacks, the trail was little more than a trampled-down hint of one and there was a steady uphill incline. Eventually, we reached the end of our walk, and the valley opened up in front of us to reveal the entire camp. To the left was a large open field, further ahead were rows of pitched tents and far up ahead was a large tent that served as the kitchen & command center of the place. It was this kitchen that presently had served us the fruits of our labor, so to speak, which was a hearty lunch of North Indian and Kumaon cuisines.

Tents at the Camp
One of the advantages of a place like the Getaway Jungle Camp is its darkness at night. As noted earlier, there is no electricity in the place, provided lanterns and brought torches are the only source of light. The camp itself is nestled in a clearing in a valley, surrounded on all four sides by uninhabited forested mountains. This results in a darkness that is of the proverbial, cannot see your own hand before your eyes variety. An absolute impenetrable kind of darkness, where you can see everything you can imagine while seeing nothing at all. Most city folks are not even remotely used to darkness like this, and its accompanying night sky. The brilliant night sky. I have never seen a night sky so vivid outside a planetarium. Even there you have the comforting glow of the projector and the red EXIT sign to keep you company. Down in the camp, there is no such thing; nothing at all between you and your astronomical contemplations.

The boxes alluded to earlier contained a 20" reflective telescope, that belonged to an amateur astronomer in the group. By around 6pm that first evening, we were helping him set it up and then take turns watching the heavens unfold before our eyes - the planets, nebulae, and our dear old moon. We couldn't resist trying to stick a point-and-shoot camera to the eye-piece for a photograph, but other than the moon the rest of the celestial beings were not bright enough for a good exposure. The moon however was most obliging.

The moon
The temperature continued to drop through the evening, and by around 9, it was cold enough to make everything damp and chilly. The telescope went back into the dry comfort of its box and we settled around a bonfire for some dinner and some storytelling. We were treated to the story of the setting up of the camp, by the folks who presumably were involved. The one part that still stayed with me after all these years was the story of a woman whom they encountered one sunset, who warned them fruitlessly about setting up the camp until they realized to their horror that this old woman had no face.

Lucky for us, that didn't deter the setting up of the camp. Though we were warned not to go to use the facilities at night by ourselves. Just in case the old woman showed up, we were told, and more importantly due to the ever-present risk of losing one's way without lights or guides of any kind in the absolute darkness. There was something about the place and the darkness - everyone followed the suggestion.

The next morning we woke up to misty dawn, which quickly turned to bright sunshine. After a hearty breakfast, we headed out on a trek along trails with a local guide. Of course what we call trek along trails is an everyday thoroughfare for the locals, who have to take it many times a day for getting supplies and attending to their business. It was funny to see us huffing and puffing along, while a woman with her child and a bundle of firewood on her head ambled past us with no sign of discomfort. Nevertheless, there is nothing to beat the cheery effect of the crisp cool morning air on winded campers. The sights made up for everything else. The lush green pines on the slopes with the sparkling water of the seven lakes below made all the huffing and puffing worth it.

Sattal during the morning trek
Returning from the trek mid-morning, it was time for the obstacle course built to one side of the camp. The course offers a number of obstacles, including crawl space, swing rope, river crossing, and rappelling. There were qualified instructors who guided us through the course. We spent time going through the various obstacles, spending a particular amount of time rappelling.

That evening, after lunch, we headed back down to the landing cove to hire a few boats for some boating and fishing. That morning, one person from our group had gone fishing instead of the trek and had succeeded in catching a decent-sized Mahseer fish. Suddenly all of us fancied ourselves anglers. Thus began two hours of flick and reel, flick and reel, with little success. That of course did not take much away from the time spent out on the lake as the sun sunk beyond the mountains and the cool water slapped against the sides of the boat.

Obstacle course
That evening we gathered around the campfire again, this time with some fish and fowl roasting on the open flame. It was a great way to spend time on a chilly night, with a warm fire, good food, and great company.

The third day dawned and it was time to head back. We spent the morning playing games in the large open field. Then we packed and after lunch, headed out of the camp at around 1:30 pm. This time the trek was downhill, and other than the odd stumble was unremarkable. Pretty soon we were taking the boat back to the bustle of the picnic spot on the other side of the lake to find our car and head back to Delhi. Starting off around 2, ensured that we were in the outskirts of Delhi for dinner and in the cozy warmth of our beds before too long.

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