Trekking on the Trachycarpus Trail
Martin Gibbons searches for the Chusan Palm's
long lost brother.
Chamaerops No. 1, published online 23-11-2002
on this article:
Click here to read them or to add your own.
Trachycarpus country? Mount Thakil and Pinus longifolia.
The genus Trachycarpus needs much work to determine
the precise number of species it contains. Everyone knows T. fortunei
- the Chusan Palm - its popularity largely due to its legendary
cold hardiness. Less well known is T. wagnerianus, now regarded
as a variant of T. fortunei despite its distinctive appearance.
The beautiful T. martianus though extremely rare in cultivation
is at least grown in some botanic gardens in America and Europe
and is there for all to see. But what of T. nanus, the dwarf, stem-less
species from southwest China, of which no photograph has ever been
published? And Trachycarpus takil, a name often misused, but in
reality referring to a palm not seen in the wild for 100 years and
represented in cultivation by but a single plant, itself probably
only a hybrid, in the Beccari garden in Florence? Indeed, is a distinct
species at all, or just another variant of T. fortunei, as the experts
are inclined to believe?
With these questions in mind, Wilko Karmelk, of
Holland, and I had, independently, become interested in the Trachycarpus
genus over a number of years. Finding we had this strong interest
in common, we resolved to attempt to solve part of the puzzle, and
to go in search of T. takil, and try and shine some light into this
dark corner of the genus.
Late in 1990 I received through the post a number
of photocopies, made by Wilko in the Amsterdam library. They were
from a selection of old botanical publications: The Gardeners Chronicle
of 1886; Kew Bulletin 1912; Indian Trees by Brandis 1906; Flora
of British India by J. D. Hooker 1894 and others. They all mentioned
Trachycarpus palms calling them variously Chamaerops excelsa, C.
martianus, C. griffithii, C. fortunei, Trachycarpus martianus, T.
takil, etc. and they all alluded to an isolated population that
grew in Northern India.
In our subsequent researches we never did discover
who wrote the original description of the precise locality, but
all the old books we read tended to quote the same words, "grows
in great numbers, forming clumps and rows, on the Thakil Mountain
in Eastern Kumaon, in the fork between the Sarju and Kali rivers,
between 6,500 ft and 7,800 ft, where snow generally covers the ground
from November to March.... in damp shady glens... chiefly on the
On a trekking map we located the two rivers, in
Kumaon Province, Uttar Pradesh, about 300 miles north-east of New
Delhi, near a village called Pithoragarh. There, in the fork between
them was a mountain, not named, but with a height of 8166 feet above
sea level. As there were no others in the vicinity this had to be
Mount Thakil. It was around this time that we learned that "thakil"
is a Hindi word meaning "palm". The chance therefore of
seeing "Palm Mountain" presented a very exciting prospect
We left London, Heathrow, airport on October 14th
for the flight to India, stopping en route at Prague, Czechoslovakia,
and Kabul, Afghanistan. Due to fog and problems with the plane,
we were delayed at the former for some 24 hours, but at least we
had an opportunity to look round this recently emancipated city,
and very beautiful it was too.
Our original intention had been to spend a day sightseeing
in New Delhi, but because of the lost time we were eager to be on
our way. We arrived at 10pm at night, and at 6.30 the following
morning we were on a slow moving eastbound train.
Indian trains leave much to be desired and they
are certainly not for the squeamish. Even in first-class, the seats
are hard and uncomfortable, the compartments, which are open, get
grossly overcrowded, and people in rags sleep anywhere on the floor,
amongst the food refuse that the other passengers continually drop.
At each station, beggars and food vendors get on board doing what
beggars and food vendors do, leaving the train at the next station,
presumably getting the next train back.
The stops were frequent and interminable, the countryside
flat, brown and drab. Phoenix sylvestris was frequently seen from
the window, but even that lost its appeal after the first few hundred
had been sighted. After 8 hours we arrived at Bareilly and had had
enough. We left the train there and hoping we didn't look too much
like rich Americans abroad attempted to find a taxi to take us the
rest of the way. In this we succeeded and found a mini-bus whose
driver agreed to take us to Pithoragarh, some 9 hours drive away,
for a mere 1000 rupees (£25/$5O). In London this would just
about get you to Heathrow airport.
We left Bareilly at about 3pm. The landscape continued
flat and uninteresting until we reached a town called Tanakpur when
it changed dramatically, and we began to climb. We had left the
interminable Indian plains and were at last in the hills. As the
landscape changed, so did the vegetation. Endless fields gave way
to forests, farms to wooded hillsides. We began to see the Deodar
(Cedrus deodara) and the beautiful Pinus longifolia, and the air
smelt cooler and fresher after the stifling heat of the plains.
We saw rushing rivers and deep, deep gorges and drove carefully
round one hairpin bend after another, on a good, modern road.
It had been our plan to drive non-stop until we
reached our destination, but at 10pm we came across a military nighttime
roadblock and as there was no possibility of a hotel, we had no
option but to sleep in the minibus with the driver and his mate,
as best we could. That night was not the most comfortable I have
ever spent. In the small hours I woke to the sound of scavenging
foxes and local stray dogs having a moonlit gang fight worthy of
West Side Story.
Finally it was 6am and ruefully missing our morning
shower and hot breakfast, we set off through the now open roadblock,
and arrived at Pithoragarh at about 9am. It is set in a wide, low
valley, surrounded by mountain ranges and is a very attractive village.
We located a small local hotel, which appeared to be staffed and
run by two 9-year-old boys. None the less efficient for that, and
soon we were ensconced in our rooms, simple but clean, with a glass
of the local "chai" (a kind of hot, sweet, milky tea -
delicious - and always served in a glass), and a bucket of hot water
apiece ready for us to take a welcome and much needed shower. A
glance through the thick and ancient hotel register revealed not
a single European name. The rate, incidentally, was £1.50/$3
We knew from our trekking map that the mountain
that we were looking for lay due south of the town, and from the
flat roof of the hotel we had a good view of the range of which
it formed a part, some 15 km distant. One peak, somewhat higher
than the others, was obviously our goal, and although the locals
knew it as "Thalkedar" rather than "Thakil"
there could be no doubt as to its identity. Or indeed its allure,
as we saw it there for the first time, dark and mysterious. The
map indicated that there was a temple at its summit, and looking
through binoculars, we could just make it out.
At this point of the trip we were lucky enough to
make the acquaintance of a young lady, Miss Poonam Chaudhary, without
whose help we would have had a much tougher time of things, and
who rendered us great assistance. She was in Pithoragarh to investigate
the possibilities of tourism in this remote and beautiful area,
and with her contacts we were able to hire transport, guides and
porters to aid us in our quest. It must be said however that Poonam,
along with everybody else that we spoke to, was quite negative about
our chances of finding palms on the mountain. Yes, everybody knew
palms, and Phoenix sylvestris was not uncommon close to the town.
But enquiries about fan palms, even when backed up with photographs
of Trachycarpus, were always met with a polite but definite, 'they
do not grow here.
We spent the rest of that day, and the next, in
and around the town. We were impatient to be on our way of course,
but there were arrangements to be made and formalities to be attended
to. We did make one excursion with some newly made friends out to
look at some Phoenix palms a few miles distant. One was a most attractive
glaucous blue colour, but mainly they were just regular green (by
now common-or-garden) P. sylvestris, mostly trunkless. But nice
to see all the same.
The next morning found us up and ready to leave
by 7.30, when the jeep we had arranged to borrow arrived at the
hotel, driven by Alook, Poonam's brother. We left the village behind
us and drove due south along quite a reasonable tarred road, across
the floor of the valley, towards our destination, which we now knew
as Mount Thalkedar, the name 'Thakil' not having been used in living
memory. After some miles, we began climbing. Up and up we went,
with the view improving by the minute. We soon saw the snow covered
peaks of the Himalayas, miles away on the far side of the town we
had left. The highest, called Nanda Devi was the first to appear,
and others came into view as we ascended.
The road deteriorated and tar became dirt. It became
ever narrower, with hairpin bends and a drop of perhaps 150 metres,
centimetres away from the wheels of the jeep. We stopped once or
twice for photos and to admire the now stunning view. The entire
visible horizon from east to west was snow-covered peaks.
At length, and with considerable relief, we reached
a small village called Burapi on the 'other side' of the mountain
range. Here we gratefully got out of the jeep and stretched our
legs. The inevitable cluster of locals gathered to see what was
going on and we showed round photos of Trachycarpus, to see if anyone
recognized them. Depressingly no one did. We were disappointed and
confused. All the old accounts we had read said these palms were
here, on this mountain, in great numbers, but nobody appeared to
have seen them. Were they extinct? Had there simply been a mistake
made and two accounts been transposed a hundred years ago? Had all
the trees perished in some severe winter beyond living memory?
To find out, don't miss next issue's exciting episode:
The Ascent of Palm Mountain.
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