Our overnight train from New Delhi arrived at Kathgodam in total darkness. People surged all around, some getting off, some getting on. Porters appeared in our coach as we were sorting our bags. One grabbed our gear and quickly helped us find our taxi, then rushed off to try to get one more job in. The train pulled out and left us in the sudden quiet of early morning stillness. A deep breath. This was a whole new world, a far cry from the city we had left behind.
Chill breezes told us we were already far up into the highlands, but where we were going was higher yet, to the foothills of the Himalaya, the highest mountain range on earth. In the welcome warmth of the taxi, we climbed through the resort towns surrounding the Nainital and Bhimtal Lakes area as light was just beginning to break. Most of the trip passed in silence as we were tired and the driver spoke almost no English.
Two hours later, after tea at the home of the luggage porter, whose family generously shared their precious heat from a tiny brazier and insisted we have many sweet biscuits, it was time for the two kilometer trek up the mountain.
Going from about an altitude of about 5000 feet to 6500 feet for us, long time flatlanders, was no easy task. I must admit it wasn’t until the return trip down the mountain that we really were able to appreciate the views along the trail. We reached our destination, caught our breath and settled on the front porch with a hot cup of coffee. A home cooked breakfast soon followed. It was just 9am.
Chilling in the Hills of Jilling
Home for the next four days was a cottage perched on a hillside overlooking the fantastically steep valleys of the Himalayan foothills at Kumaon. From here we hiked much of the 120 acre Jilling Estate, looking for local wildlife and enjoying the bird’s-eye views from our private aerie. The estate has four cottages but we were the only guests in early February. We saw no more than 10 people during our stay, none on most of our walks.
We had a man to take care of our every need – building fires, cooking meals, boiling water for our ‘bucket showers’ and serving as birding and wildlife spotting guide. After breakfast he asked if we would like to take a long walk or a short walk. We decided on the short walk, which, it turns out, took us even higher. On a ridge at 7200 feet we looked down into the valley where we had started our journey just hours ago. Along the way we spied hawk eagles, laughing thrushes and other birds it took a few days to learn to identify.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s a quiet piece of forest, about as isolated as you get in India, with spectacular views of the Himalayas.
- Vehicle free wildlife viewing and excellent rare species birding at your own pace.
- Good for reasonably fit wildlife and birding enthusiasts looking for a break from the Indian crowds.
As we made our way back we noticed something not far from the cottage. Two headstones mark the graves of John and Hope Lall, parents of Steve Lall, our host at Jilling. At the bottom end of Hope’s grave was a second, small stone marking the resting place of Singi Doma, her favorite dog, forever faithful at her mistress’ feet. Returning to the cottage for lunch, sleep-deprived, jet-lagged and fighting the flu, we fell asleep next to a roaring fire almost before we finished eating.
The Wildlife of India’s Jilling Estate
Well rested, we set out the next morning shortly after sunrise to spend more time viewing the birds and other wildlife. There are no elephants this high up in the mountains and tigers and leopards remained elusive. Not so the sambur and barking deer, white-capped langur, rhesus macaque, wild hogs and even mountain goats, whose brown coat color confused me as I am used to the white North American version. These animals all put in appearances on our many walks.
At one point, peering intently into the woods, trying for a glimpse of the elusive hill partridge and Kalij pheasants rustling through the undergrowth, my husband quietly told me me to turn slowly and look at the tree behind me. A pine marten stared down at me for a couple of minutes before darting off into denser cover.
The Mountains Come Out of the Clouds
The third morning I was first out the door. Coffee in hand, I stopped. During the night the skies had cleared leaving Nanda Devi, the second highest mountain in India, on display right in front of me. And she was just the crowning glory, as the Himalayas spread out in every direction beyond the foothills that filled our view the day before.
We hiked up to the ridge for better views of the rest of the peaks, managing to see some birds and other wildlife despite stopping and staring at the mountains appearing in every gap in the forest.
Steve Lall describes his estate as lightly farmed. Vegetables, fruits and nuts are grown and some browse is cut for the handful of farm animals on site. No pesticides or fertilizers are used and the crops that feed us are willingly shared with the birds and other wildlife. Better yet, the fresh water from the springs is safe to drink, a rare treat in India.
There is no hunting on the estate so the wildlife tends to be less wary. A mountain hawk eagle spent much of one afternoon in the tree right by our cottage. The added advantage of having the nearest road so far away quickly became obvious. We saw no people except a couple of staff members during our stay. For anyone interested in local culture, however, the Lalls will arrange visits to nearby villages. In spring and fall, they also offer treks or short ‘car camping’ trips further up in the high altitude border area.
- Jilling Estate has only four cottages, which fill quickly in the warmer months. Simple but tasty local food is served right at your cottage but bring any treats, including alcohol, you might personally want.
- A porter will carry your gear up the mountain but pack lightly as there is an extra charge for more than one bag per person, plus life at Jilling is casual so there’s no need for fancy clothes.